Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Picking and Choosing in Religion

In a post late in 2007 I wrote:

...So, we Baha'is do pick and choose which rules or teachings we accept literally and which we take metaphorically, and without any authorized interpreter left on this mortal plane, we really don't have any persons with authority to tell us when we are correct or incorrect in our interpretations and understandings of the many metaphorical teachings. So often the scriptures are abstract, and rarely are they concrete or specific. So, we're left to be mature and thoughtful and rational, and take things as best we may. So, this is a religion where we do some picking and choosing. ...

A very thoughtful reader, Mavaddat Javid thought about this and decided he didn’t agree. On February 18th of 2008 he posted on his livejournal a careful explanation of why he didn’t agree, titled “Vanquishing Dissonance and Baha’i Cherry Pickers.” He returned to the subject on February 20th of 2008 with a post on freethinking and the Baha'i Faith. I think I owe him a response here on my blog, and he’s given me some good solid points for consideration.

First of all, I’m not sure I was saying that Baha’is are supposed to cherry pick (as opposed to “picking and choosing”). For me, the term “cherry picking” has connotations of willfully ignoring some evidence and only selectively taking evidence that supports one’s view. But "cherry picking" can also simply mean "choosing the best," and in that case, by definition, I was advocating that, as Baha'is should pick the best evidence and authoritative sources as reference materials with which to inform their ethical decision-making. As to selectively taking evidence to support what one believes, it may be human nature to approach almost all questions this way, with a bias that favors evidence that confirms what one already values or believes. We do seem to easily ignore ignore evidence that would create dissonance in our belief systems. Yet, I think I was merely saying that if one looks at the entirety of Baha’i scriptures, the reported words of the Central Figures (the Bab, Baha’u’llah, and ‘Abdu’l-Baha, and Shoghi Effendi would not have wanted himself included as a fourth figure, so neither do I), and various other historical acts of these Central Figures, one finds it possible to conclude that some laws are subordinate to other laws, and some principles are of greater significance than others. Likewise, sometimes the laws are written in language that, it appears to me, is hyperbolical, exaggerated, metaphorical, or limited to contexts and situations that don’t universally apply. Given these two perceptions, many Baha’is (including myself), will need to use discretion and wisdom in considering how to behave and how to best follow the Baha’i teachings regarding ideal human behavior. We will need to make decisions about applying Baha’i religious teachings or law in our lives where we must pick and choose which laws to emphasize, which principles or teachings to prioritize, and how to apply general teachings in specific cases. Yes, in doing this, some of us will engage in intellectually dishonest cherry-picking. I think that’s unavoidable, given human nature. But, I think the Baha’i Faith, taken as a whole, seems to encourage flexible and independent thought when it comes to application of religious law and religious teachings.

I think this idea that in ethics and religious law there are no absolutes is fairly mainstream, or has been since Aristotle wrote the Nichomachean Ethics with its emphasis on goal-directed ethics. It seems to me that a thoughtful follower of the Baha’i religion can embrace this mainstream stance. Codes of behavior are not like laws of physics or axioms of mathematics that apply absolutely in the same way in all situations (if that’s even true of laws of physics and mathematical axioms). Saying so and living according to this insight isn’t intellectually dishonest.

This seems obvious to me, yet when I hear people say, “you can’t pick and choose” and imply that you must take everything in a religion, I usually interpret them to be saying, “in this situation your choice of emphasis and the passages from our holy texts you are considering are leading you toward faulty conclusions. If you consider other passages from our holy texts you will reach a better conclusion, one that I agree with.” I don’t think people really mean “you can’t selectively consider the laws and teachings of the religion, because they all apply in every situation, and they always apply literally, and they are all of equal weight and equal significance in whatever particular situation you are facing.” People might mean that, but if they do, I don’t think they are thinking very carefully about what they are saying.

I’ll offer some real examples I’ve known about in my life to help illustrate. In a large city in Taiwan a Baha’i died. He was a member of the local spiritual assembly (a sort of elected council of deacons who have some administrative and spiritual responsibilities in a local community), and he was a very devout and dedicated believer. His family, including his wife, his children, and his extended family did not identify as Baha’is. They mostly followed the Buddhist and Taoist teachings that are popular in Taiwan. It was the family’s wish that this person’s body be cremated. The Baha’i Faith’s teachings on how to treat the bodies of the deceased are:
The Lord hath decreed that the dead should be interred in coffins made of crystal, of hard, resistant stone, or of wood that is both fine and durable, and that graven rings should be placed upon their fingers…. …The Lord hath decreed, moreover, that the deceased should be enfolded in five sheets of silk or cotton. For those whose means are limited a single sheet of either fabric will suffice…. It is forbidden you to transport the body of the deceased a greater distance than one hour’s journey from the city; rather should it be interred, with radiance and serenity, in a nearby place….
And so, with this sort of law, Baha’is generally do not have corpses cremated. Rather, we typically bury our dead. The remaining members of the local spiritual wanted their dead co-religionist to be buried according to Baha’i religious law. This was, to them, important. It was so important that they opposed the dead man’s family, who wanted him to be cremated. In fact, they very actively tried to prevent the family from cremating their dead co-religionist. Their well-meaning (but misguided) desire to adhere to an approach to religious law in which each law must be taken literally and applied in all situations brought them into a situation where they deeply distressed the man’s family and totally alienated his family from the Baha’i religion, which had been so important to him.

A Hand-of-the-Cause (a sort of appointed “saint” in Baha’i society—there are none left alive today) visited Taiwan and heard of this incident. She was disgusted, and said something to the effect that this was a stupid application of Baha’i teachings. She said something to the effect of, “They have inflicted damage on the faith and transgressed our core teachings about love, kindness, and teaching-by-example in order to follow a trivial law about burial.” Faced with a non-Baha’i family that wanted to cremate their dead Baha’i husband-and-father, the Baha’is of this city had to pick and choose whether to stand firm on the importance of following Baha’i burial law or let that law be violated in order to follow teachings and principles about respecting families, showing kindness, and using wisdom. The Baha’is of this city did pick a literal application of the legal letter-of-the law, and fought the family, but in doing this they had decided not to choose other principles that would have told them not to make a big issue about it, and instead let the family have their way. The Hand-of-the-Cause thought they should have picked and chosen differently.

I’ll give other examples, these about the consumption of substances that damage the intellect. When intoxicated by alcohol our intellects are impaired, and therefore Baha’is do not drink much alcohol (some of us do drink small amounts of alcohol, because physicians have recommend medications that contain some alcohol or have recommended one serving per day based on scientific evidence that this is helpful to persons who are not susceptible to alcoholism).

The relevant laws and teachings concerning alcohol consumption include, from the Kitab-i-Aqdas (a book that is something like a Baha’i foundation for religious law):
It is inadmissible that man, who hath been endowed with reason, should consume that which stealeth it away...
Also, from a passage revealed by Baha’u’llah, we have: “Beware lest ye exchange the Wine of God for your own wine, for it will stupefy your minds, and turn your faces away from the Countenance of God, the All-Glorious, the Peerless, the Inaccessible. Approach it not, for it hath been forbidden unto you by the behest of God, the Exalted, the Almighty.
Now, that second passage comes from “a tablet revealed by Baha’u’llah” but I don’t know to whom the tablet was addressed. Some early Babis and Baha’is had problems with alcohol dependence or abuse. If the tablet was revealed in a personal letter to one of these earlier believers, or to a community where a few of the believers were notoriously suffering from alcoholism, that might put the meaning in a different context than if the source tablet was one generally revealed to humanity, or used by Baha’u’llah in works He ordered to have widely disseminated.

[Right here I'm showing my disagreement with literalist interpretations. Some who ridicule scientifically-minded and free-thinking Baha'is tell us that the Baha'i Faith has all sorts of hidden anti-intellectual and nasty stuff that must be given equal weight to all the liberal stuff, and one only finds it after one has studied carefully everything in Baha'i source documents. Those of us who aren't burdened with the idea that we must ignore context and instead use literalist interpretations of everything we encounter shrug our shoulders in amazement. For us it seems obvious that some material should be given greater weight than other material. For example, a central thesis of a major work revealed by Baha'u'llah, and indeed almost anything revealed by Baha'u'llah and then used by Him in the materials He ordered to be widely copied or published, should have more significant weight than letters written to individuals by Shoghi Effendi's secretary, or more obscure personal tablets written by Baha'u'llah to individuals, and then never referred to again or used by Him, but later discovered by reseearchers combing through all the letters He ever wrote or revealed. That is, if you assume that there is some sort of hierarchy of importance and significance, you don't let relatively trivial sources overrule the fundamental sources.]

Here are two examples of picking and choosing related to this law against alcohol consumption. In one case, I joined a small group of Baha’is from Nairobi, including one who was an administrator at a high level (A continental counselor for Africa) and another who served as an elected member of the national spiritual assembly. We went to some villages to visit newly elected local spiritual assemblies. At one small town the local spiritual assembly was inebriated. It was the habit in that region to make a mildly alcoholic home-brewed beer and drink copious amounts of it, and most of the local believers celebrated our visit by getting drunk. Our group did not sternly rebuke the local spiritual assembly members or point out that they were breaking Baha’i law. Rather, we joined them in some joyful singing of songs of praise, and visited some of their homes with them to discuss some of the Baha’i teachings. One of the Nairobi group gently discussed the laws about alcohol with one of the sober local spiritual assembly members, saying something to the effect that as the community grew and learned more about the faith they would drink less, and eventually as Baha’is they would stop drinking, as it was forbidden in the religion, but it was important not to embarrass or blame anyone for the situation that day, as the community was full of newly declared Baha’is who were unfamiliar with all the laws and teachings.

This advice was a matter of picking and choosing. The continental counselor or national spiritual assembly member could have addressed the problem of alcohol consumption and drunkenness, and could have urged the local community to immediately give up the practice and start following the Baha’i laws about refraining from beer. But no, the importance of tact and wisdom (also Baha’i principles) seemed more important in this context, and so there was no “enforcement” or emphasis on the laws about alcohol, only a gentle reminder. The emphasis was instead on principles about love and unity. That seemed like a wise application of “picking and choosing” to me.

In another example, in California there was an appointed administrator who cared very much about the law against alcohol consumption (I think this person was an assistant to an auxiliary board member, a person who is supposed to advise local communities and encourage local communities to follow guidance from the Baha’i World Center in Haifa, and generally help protect and propagate the faith). This woman was concerned that an individual believer in one Bay Area town in California might be drinking beer or wine. So, she came to visit him, pretending to be there on a social call. When this Baha’i had allowed this administrative zealot into his home she went to his refrigerator to inspect it for wine or beer. In fact, there was some beer in the refrigerator, but it belonged to this person's housemates, who rented bedrooms in his house, and not him. The administrator had duties to help Baha’is live according to the Baha’i teachings. So, from her point of view, she was helping this Baha’i obey laws about alcohol consumption. She had decided that her duties to help Baha’is conform to Baha’i law and the specific Baha’i law about alcohol consumption were extremely important. She had, in doing this, devalued principles and laws about honesty (she had come into the Baha’i home on false pretenses, pretending to intend a friendly visit when in fact she was conducting an inspection). She had also chosen to subordinate Baha’i teachings about kindness, tact, mutual respect, and the importance of the privacy of one’s home to the teachings about duties of Baha’i administrators and the law about alcohol consumption. I think her choice was bad. It would have been better if, in her picking and choosing which laws and responsibilities to emphasize, she had given greater weight to honesty, kindness, and civility, and de-emphasized the law against alcohol consumption.

So, I’ve now illustrated my proposition that Baha’is must pick and choose with a few specific real examples of Baha’is picking and choosing. I think that we do this picking and choosing all the time. In every decision we make about how to spend our time we are deciding whether to follow Baha’i teachings that emphasize family, or emphasize service to humanity, or emphasize the importance of prayer, or emphasize the importance of self-cultivation and self-improvement. In essence, we are stewards of our lives, and our lives belong to God. When we decide to allocate our time among various activities there are many pursuits that our religion advocates. Can we do something that will build family unity? Should we do some service to people in our community, our neighbors, persons who are suffering in grief or poverty? Should we participate with our Baha’i community in events that will improve our community life? Should we read a book to become better informed about events of the world? Should we study some Baha’i scriptures or histories, or should we perhaps pray? Every hour we have choices about what we do with our time, and in essence these are ethical decisions, related to the various Baha’i principles that tell us what we ought to be emphasizing in our lives. If we took all the Baha’i principles literally we would always be neglecting some duty that the Baha’i religion enjoins us to satisfy.

I think we’re safe in refusing to take all Baha'i principles literally. Even ‘Abdu’l-Baha, our perfect example, sometimes enjoyed visiting a garden to enjoy the beauty of the flowers and trees and fountains, when he could instead have been out teaching the faith, praying, helping the poor, or attending to the psychological needs of his wife and daughters. It's not literally true that we must spend every waking moment "in service to the Cause of God" (whatever that means).

I’ll get on with my response to Mavaddat Javid now by quoting some of his propositions and explaining why I disagree with him.

Mavaddat wrote:
...if cherry picking is acceptable in the Bahá'í Faith (or any religion, really), then there's fundamentally no way to hold the religion accountable for its teachings: The believer can always shift the debate by feigning the excuse that they personally don't adhere to the more reprehensible parts of the religion, as if that was relevant....
The idea here is that a belief system that demands faith and obedience (such as a religion) should be held accountable for its teachings. What does it mean to be held accountable for its teachings? I suppose it means that when a religion makes claims we should be able to test those claims, and the results of such tests give us a way to determine the validity of a religion. Likewise, when a religion demands certain behaviors, or advocates certain behaviors, we should be be able to evaluate the morality of those behaviors and use our evaluations as a way of determining whether the religion is worthy of our belief. For example, if a religion asks us to wage religious war against the infidel, and if we personally think that waging religious war is repugnant, then we can know that those religions that advocate religious war have among their teachings at least one teaching that we find incompatible with our sense of what a true religion or good religion should teach. This will presumably make it possible for us to decide to avoid belonging to a religion that has such teachings. (Incidentally, the first law Baha'u'llah revealed when He declared His station was the abrogation of religious war).

I am suggesting that literal interpretations of every passage and fragment of revealed writings or authoritative communication from Baha’i Central Figures are inadequate methods for understanding Baha’i religious law. I claim that my opinion is based on fundamental core teachings of our Baha’i religion (as found in the Kitab-i-Iqan, the Book of Certitude). That is, our religion teaches us to not use blind imitation. Our religion teaches us to expect metaphorical meaning or figurative meaning in some types of religious texts. Our religion teaches us to be pragmatic, and to some degree goal-oriented in our ethics. Our religion also emphasizes taking the whole religion as a system rather than taking little passages from specific tablets out of context and trying to use them to build systems of belief or religious law that contradict the core teachings of the religion. The Baha’i religion also depends on people using their intellects, their rational faculties, and their common sense. We haven’t any clergy to tell us what to do, so we are told to study the religion for ourselves and use the independent search for truth, the discipline of Baha’i consultation, and so forth. Thus, I see Baha’i Law as being similar to nearly all other systems of law, where the written text of constitutions or legal codes is only the visible manifestation of a wider invisible system of assumptions, propositions, values, and contexts. (We have the Universal House of Justice to legislate, but it seems so far they hardly legislate much at all, and instead focus mainly on their administrative duties.)  I suggest that a religion must be held accountable to the whole system of what is there in the literal text and the wider context of that text. Both the words in the Kitab-i-Aqdas (the Baha’i book of laws) and the religion that surrounds that book must be considered. It seems to me that if we take the Kitab-i-Aqdas literally and apply it without thinking about its context we may very well be “turning away from the precepts laid down by God” in other sources, including the invisible and latent meanings and assumptions embedded within the literal text of the Kitab-i-Aqdas.

With this point of view, I don’t take the Kitab-i-Aqdas as a list of things we must do and things we must not do. It’s not that simple, and it’s not that straight-forward. Also, it’s more than that. A simple list of laws is not on the sublime level of spirituality one expects from the Kitab-i-Aqdas: “Think not that We have revealed unto you a mere code of laws. Nay, rather, We have unsealed the choice Wine with the fingers of might and power…” (fifth paragraph of the Kitab-i-Aqdas).

So, this is a disagreement I have with Mavaddat. I think you can hold a religion accountable without taking every passage and law or precept as it is literally written in a holy text. The religious teachings must be taken in the context of the whole religion, and not torn apart in a reductionist exercise of taking the parts in isolation from the whole. Also, religion includes various forms of human language and communication beyond the sort of writing that one finds in instruction manuals and cookbooks. Religion includes forms of literature and expression related to poetry, folk tales, dreams, music, visual arts, and body language. It’s futile to try to reduce all this non-literal meaning and aesthetic beauty to a religion that works like blueprints for the construction of a building. If you take religious texts and study them as if they were mere blueprints (and sure, many Baha’is do this with our holy texts), I think you lose something profound and significant, and any evaluations you make of the religion based on such a nuts-and-bolts approach is going to lack validity.

Mavaddat also wrote that, “I felt it intellectually irresponsible to pick and choose.” I don’t see things the way he does. I think religions demand that we pick and choose, and so if we have intellectually integrity we must face this responsibility and do our picking and choosing carefully, and stop denying that picking and choosing will be part of our religious life.
Mavaddat quotes “Shoghi Effendi” (actually, he is mistaken, as he is quoting Shoghi Effendi’s secretary), who wrote:
"To follow Bahá’u'lláh does not mean accepting some of His teachings and rejecting the rest. Allegiance to His Cause must be uncompromising and whole-hearted."

Mavaddat doesn’t give the context of the passage, but I think the context is important. This was a letter written by Shoghi Effendi’s secretary to a local spiritual assembly on the topic of whether Baha’is should remain full members of other churches. And, if we continue where Mavaddat left off, we find that the rest of the paragraph written by Shoghi Effendi’s secretary confirms my point that Baha’is pick and choose. Here is the rest of the paragraph:

...During the days of the Master the Cause was still in a stage that made such an open and sharp disassociation between it and other religious organizations, and particularly the Muslim Faith not only inadvisable but practically impossible to establish. But since His passing, events throughout the Bahá’í World and particularly in Egypt where the Muslim religious courts have formally testified to the independent character of the Faith, have developed to a point that have made such an assertion of the independence of the Cause not only highly desirable but absolutely essential....

So, when you see the whole paragraph and understand the context, you see that the “law” of uncompromising and whole-hearted allegiance was itself a rule that only became “highly desirable” and “absolutely essential” when times and the context were ready for it to be applied. Further, it’s clear that this passage has something to do with with self-identifying as a Baha’i. I doubt it could literally mean that all Baha’is had to hold orthodox beliefs in Baha’i theology as Shoghi Effendi understood it, because around the time Shoghi Effendi’s secretary wrote this passage there was in fact a Hand-of-the-Cause who clearly believed in reincarnation, and didn’t apologize for believing in it. We also have the very famous case of the psychiatrist Auguste Forel, who wrote to ‘Abdu’l-Baha asking if he could, in good conscious, call himself a Baha’i when he didn’t believe in the personal immortality of the soul. ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s letter in reply to Dr. Forel’s question (which is more important as a source of Baha’i law, since it was composed by a Central Figure in our faith, and not written by a secretary to the Guardian), did not tell Dr. Forel that he should stop calling himself a Baha’i because he didn’t believe in each and every teaching in the Baha’i Faith.

In fact, ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s letter to Auguste Forel is an important source here. Dr. Forel was asking exactly this question about whether it was intellectually honest to call oneself a Baha’i when one didn’t actually accept every teaching of the Baha’i Faith, so ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s response is a direct response by a Central Figure to the question of whether it’s okay to pick and choose what we believe and still call ourselves Baha’is.

Mavaddat offers a few other quotations to support his idea that Baha’is must be dogmatic because our faith is dogmatic. He refers to a passage from a letter Shoghi Effendi wrote in 1924 to the American Baha’is, in which he wrote:
Are we to doubt that the ways of God are not necessarily the ways of man? Is not faith but another word for implicit obedience, whole-hearted allegiance, uncompromising adherence to that which we believe is the revealed and express will of God, however perplexing it might first appear, however at variance with the shadowy views, the impotent doctrines, the crude theories, the idle imaginings, the fashionable conceptions of a transient and troublous age? If we are to falter or hesitate, if our love for Him should fail to direct us and keep us within His path, if we desert Divine and emphatic principles, what hope can we any more cherish for healing the ills and sicknesses of this world?
First of all, I think this has to be taken in context. Religions must urge their followers to resist secular teachings that lower ethical standards, and it seems to me this is a passage reminding American Baha’is to keep their minds and hearts focused on religious teachings rather than secular substitutions for religious faith. Further, this was written early in Shoghi Effendi’s guardianship, and this was a time when obedience was very important, because ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s half-brother Mirza Muhammad Ali was challenging the institution of the Guardianship and Shoghi Effendi in particular. Given those contexts, this passage seems to me like a straight-forward reminder to remain loyal and obedient to our religion’s teachings, and not to abandon these for inferior substitutes (non-religious belief systems or anti-Baha’i religions). If it’s clear (as it is to me) from the whole body of Baha’i scripture that “the revealed and express will of God” includes the proposition that we should not use blind imitation, and that we should instead use independent search for truth and wisdom and common sense in discerning what aspects of a religion are metaphorical/figurative and which aspects should be taken literally, then this passage affirms my understanding rather than contradicting it.

There is also this reference to a passage from a ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s Last Will and Testament:
To none is given the right to put forth his own opinion or express his particular conviction. All must seek guidance and turn unto the Center of the Cause and the House of Justice. And he that turneth unto whatsoever else is indeed in grievous error....
But again, this isn’t given in context. If you read the entire Will and Testament of ‘Abdu’l-Baha and this particular passage in its context you can reach several fairly obvious conclusions. First, this is hyperbole. ‘Abdu’l-Baha is exaggerating to make a point. Second, this is a specific rule for the time immediately following ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s death, when Shoghi Effendi was young and the Guardianship was a new institution without precedent in Baha’i scripture or history. Baha’u’llah’s Will had said that ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s half-brother Muhammad Ali should become the leader of the Baha’is after ‘Abdu’l-Baha died, and ‘Abdu’l-Baha was claiming that things had changed and Muhammad Ali was no longer fit to be the leader of the Baha’is. ‘Abdu’l-Baha correctly anticipated that young Shoghi Effendi would encounter significant and serious opposition from Muhammad Ali and some other senior Baha’is, and this sort of exaggeration was useful and helpful in this situation, to get people who might doubt whether they should follow the guidance from ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s Will and Testament or Baha’u’llah’s to decide in favor of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s. Also, if you look in part two of the Last Will and Testament, you find this passage:
O dearly beloved friends! I am now in very great danger and the hope of even an hour’s life is lost to me. I am thus constrained to write these lines for the protection of the Cause of God, the preservation of His Law, the safeguarding of His Word and the safety of His Teachings.
Again, I think this implies that the Will and Testament needs to be considered in the context of its times and the situation in which is was written. I don’t think the hyperbole within it ought to be taken as a new law that supersedes core Baha’i teachings about consultation, the independent search for truth, or freedom of conscience. Rather, those fundamental and core teachings must be understood in a perspective that also values the authority of the Guardian and the House of Justice in their spheres of authority.

Mavaddat refers to a passage from a Baha’u’llah’s Kitab-i-Aqdas:
The first duty prescribed by God for His servants is the recognition of Him Who is the Dayspring of His Revelation and the Fountain of His laws, Who representeth the Godhead in both the Kingdom of His Cause and the world of creation. Whoso achieveth this duty hath attained unto all good; and whoso is deprived thereof hath gone astray, though he be the author of every righteous deed. It behoveth every one who reacheth this most sublime station, this summit of transcendent glory, to observe every ordinance of Him Who is the Desire of the world. These twin duties are inseparable. Neither is acceptable without the other.

Mavaddat suggests that the part about “it behoveth every one... to observe every ordinance of Him...” is to be taken literally. If it is to be taken literally, and without any context, then he’s right, and Baha’is can’t pick and choose. But such a literalistic interpretation of this passage seems ridiculous to me. I don’t understand it literally. I take it to mean that the two duties of humans are: 1) to recognize manifestations of God and have faith in religion, and 2) to behave ethically, following the laws of God. In behaving ethically and following the laws and precepts of religion, we must pick and choose. We cannot follow literally every law and precept in all occasions in exactly the same way. That is why I say we must pick and choose. In fact, I think our religion recognizes this.

Mavaddat wrote that:
In a sense, of course, you can pick-and-choose what laws to follow and which to ignore while calling yourself a Bahá’í. You “can” do whatever you like. But I think that beyond being profoundly dishonest intellectually, it also contradicts the expectation of being a Bahá’í as found in the writings of the Central Figures, UHJ, and Shoghi Effendi.

I disagree with him that picking and choosing is profoundly intellectually dishonest. Rather, I think admitting that we must pick and choose is intellectually honest. I think the source of the disagreement between us is Mavaddat’s understanding that every passage about obedience and Baha’i law must be taken literally, and may be taken out of context of the whole Baha’i Faith. I don’t see things that way, so I see things differently than he does.

In my earlier post I said that it was "bad logic" to say that if you are a Baha'i you must accept everything. I meant that this was a false dilemma, or "black and white thinking" where the two propositions were: "Baha'is must believe in everything in the entire body of Baha'i scripture as being literally true" or "Baha'is can choose to accept just whatever they like or want to accept from their religion." Neither of these propositions is true. Baha'is do not need to take everything in their religion as literally true, and they do not need to make superficial and ill-informed personal interpretations of every little fragment they encounter in their religion's holy texts, particularly when they are encouraged to take literalist understandings of fragments of texts given without the whole context. And, Baha'is aren't free to pick and choose according to personal preferences and tastes. Rather, they must use sincere judgement and an honest search for truth as they decide for themselves what things in the holy writings should be taken literally and what things are given to us in exaggerated poetic language or metaphor.

Mavaddat wrote that the Baha'i faith demands believers take a literalist approach to Baha'i law where everything must be accepted in its entirety, and there is no room to pick and choose. He says there is no false dilemma in this proposition, as it's simply a fact of Baha'i doctrine enshrined in authoritative Baha'i texts. I've explained why I don't accept this is as a matter of Baha'i doctrine, explained how I understand the texts that Mavaddat cites, and explained the propositions I think are there in the false dilemma (bad logic) in the statement that Baha'is must accept everything or else they aren't really Baha'is. Study 'Abdu'l-Baha's letter to Auguste Forel and the letter Dr. Forel wrote to 'Abdu'l-Baha and see what you think.

- Eric

Monday, December 22, 2008

Cold Weather

I was thinking that the weekend this past January I spent outdoors (and one night camping) with Boy Scout Troop 3 would be the coldest day of the year (it went down to -19 Celsius that night).  Well, I noticed it was quite cool last night, and saw that the temperature reached -20 Celsius.  Aw, that means I was camping out on the second coldest night of the year. The high temperature today is supposed to be up to -10 or -11 Celsius (a few degrees warmer than that day in January when I spent all day outdoors), so maybe I can still say I was out on the coldest day of the year.

Temperatures below -10 Celsius are a nuisance because your face and ears tend to get cold.  You can dress appropriately and be comfortable all day and night in such temperatures, but to keep your face and ears warm you must cover them, and then the water vapor in your breath tends to freeze on whatever scarf you're using, and generally it's a mess.  When it gets down below -20 Celsius I prefer to stay indoors.  At those temperatures it's hard to stay comfortable in your toes, fingers, and face, and if you're not moving around (like when you're sleeping at night) you need excessive amounts of warm layers.  I often wonder what early Americans did before the Europeans arrived. I suppose they had plenty of furs.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Human Nature

Well, I'm done with three of my four courses from the Fall semester, and by tomorrow I'll be done with the fourth one. I've had very little time for anything else these past ten days.  

In my human nature course I made a page to share my students’ work. If you want to read their papers or see their work, check out this human nature web page

Monday, December 08, 2008

More videos

Since I have been posting about music, I ought to mention some songs and videos by friends of mine.

Check out Paul Brill's awesome song Don't Tell Them. I sorta like his Paris Is On song as well. Paul and I studied in Africa together in 1988.

Ted Hoagland went to high school with me (1982-1986), and his band is called The Hoagland Conspiracy. You can hear four of his songs from his band's Myspace music page. The song "Home Alive" is one of my favorites by him.

Oh here, I'll try embedding a video and see if this works:

Friday, December 05, 2008

Gronland Records

I was looking for a way to buy an old album by Conrad Lambert, who now goes by his professional name Merz as a singer-songwriter, and I came across a record label out of the UK that carries some interesting music and produces some fun videos. This is Groenland Records, (Grönland Records), which in addition to distributing some music by Merz, has an association with Anton Corbijn (who made that movie Control about Ian Curtis of Joy Division).

Anyway, they have some fun videos on their channel at YouTube. I recomend checking out...

Don't Weigh Me Down.
Fujiya & Miyagi Collarbone. (I've always wanted to make a movie like this with my children's art)
And the sort of thing I was actually looking for, videos by Merz, like Presume Too Much and Postcard from a Dark Star (which seems to have some distortion in the sound).

While I'm on the subject of fun videos and music, check out Rory McLeod's Farewell Welfare or his interesting video montage for his song The Singing Copper (a song for friends in law enforcement or criminal justice).

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Quotations about Human Nature

I've been giving my students in my human nature courses an assignment to find good aphorisms and quotations that offer deep insight into human nature. If you're curious about what these persons have found and shared, I've uploaded their collections to some web pages I'm willing to share.

Here are some quotations gathered by students in this semester's course.

Here are some older collections of quotations from the summer of 2007, and here are even older ones from the spring of 2007.

If you look over these you can see how some students find quotations from the readings I've suggested or forced them to read in my course, while others mainly find quotations by going to websites that specialize in providing quotations on whatever topic you suggest. Some students diligently give good citations and a personal interpretation for each quotations, while others just throw out quotations with barely any citation and no personal commentary. If you look past that to the quotations they have selected, there are some really beautiful and thought-provoking gems of insight among the aphorisms and quotations collected here.

Three Christmas Songs

A few years ago I digitized an old LP recorded by the Zionsville Community Choir and the Eastbrook Elementary Fifth Grade Choir (Eastbrook Elementary of Pike Township, in Indianapolis). This was recorded in late 1978. The three songs I'm posting here are in m4a (AAC) format, so you need a player that can use AAC files such as iTunes to hear these.

The children's choir included myself, as well as several friends with whom I'm still in contact, including Dione Whitehead (Gordon), Andrea Wiley (Oliver), Annette Foti (Childress), Angela McCormick (Brown), Julie Ridenour (Dehner), Andy Hamaker, and others. Our director was James L. Fronczek, and the pianist is Sarah Fronczek. We were extremely fortunate to have Mr. Fronczek as our music teacher. I can remember being a new student in kindergarten, recently arrived in Indiana from my native Southern California, and being happy to have this nice music teacher (that was back in December of 1973(!)

Anyway, here are the songs:

Slumber O Holy Jesu (m4a AAC 2.1 MB), which lasts about 2 minutes.
In the Stable (m4a AAC 2.4 MB), which runs about 2 minutes and 20 seconds.
Away in a Manger (m4a AAC 3.4 MB), which runs about 3 minutes and 25 seconds.

I've got a large collection of Christmas music, and in my opinion, these are a few of the finest children's choir songs in my collection, and I'd say that even if I wasn't one of the kids in the choir.

I hope you enjoy the songs.

Monday, November 24, 2008


I spent my spare time this past weekend putting together some web pages with photographs I think make good desktops for computers. The pages are all linked together. It is easy to download images you like and use them as desktops.

There is an original page of desktops that has been up for years.
A new desktops page with pictures from Spain.
A new page of desktops with some images of capitol building interiors.
A new page of desktops with some autumn colors and leaves.
A fifth new page of desktops with a theme of water and clouds.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Putin and Arnolfini, Separated at Birth?

It it just my imagination, or does Vladimir Putin bear a strong resemblance to Giovanni Arnolfini? Putin doesn't have the cleft chin, and his eyes aren't so hooded, but look at these images and see what you think.

Monday, November 17, 2008

State Capitals

Arthur was studying his states and state capitals last week, and he's still studying those this week.  Sunday afternoon I put together a slide show for him with some photographs we've taken when we visited various state capitol buildings.  I've put these up so anyone can download them. 

  Here is the State Capitols slideshow in m4v format [21.3 MB] (good for iTunes and iPod).

These are huge video files, so even with a fast connection you'll have to wait a few minutes to download them.  Almost all the photographs were taken by me or someone in my family, but there are a few I took from the Wikipedia Commons and a few I took from government websites where the images were in the public domain.  

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Biking to Work Playlist

Well, it's getting cold for bike commuting to work, and I hate riding my bike on icy nights in the dark. So, I might start using my car a bit more in the last few weeks of the semester. I had a cold this past week (I'm still not over it), so I only biked in on Wednesday and home on Thursday.

I thought I would share the bike-to-work playlist I use on my iPod. Sometimes I listen to lectures or podcasts going back and forth (it takes 35-50 minutes each way, depending upon the wind direction and speed, and that gives me time to listen to a full 30 minute lecture). But when I need to hurry I listen to this mix of fast-tempo songs I enjoy. Here is the list of those songs. I've provided samples from the songs, plus links to videos with other versions of the songs for some of the songs. I just thought I'd share some music with everyone.

Balls 4:28 by Sparks from Balls
Neighborhood #3 (Power Out) 5:17 by The Arcade Fire from Funeral
Fast Cars 2:27 by The Buzzcocks from Love Bites
Do The Bee 1:52 by Hüsker Dü from Land Speed Record
Go Speed Go 5:34 by Alpha Team from Speed
AirBurst (You Fly) 4:45 by Adam Fothergill - Jaffa Mountain from AirBurst Remixes
Birthday (Tommy D Mix) 6:41 by Sugarcubes from It's-it
Don't Crash 4:50 by Front 242 from Kommando (remix) 12"
Jungle Music 3:57 by Rico w/The Special A.K.A. from The 2 Tone Collection: A Checkered Past
Like An Animal (club? what club) 6:35 by The Glove from Blue Sunshine
Mondo '77 4:57 by Looper from The Geometrid
Monkey Man 3:39 by Toots & The Maytals from True Love
The News 6:12 by Carbon/Silicon from The News - Single
Ranking Full Stop 2:49 by The English Beat from The 2 Tone Collection: A Checkered Past
San Remo 1:48 by Perez Prado And His Orchestra from Mondo Mambo! The Best Of Perez Prado And His Orchestra
Sympathy For The Devil (Soul To Waste) 4:53 by 300 000 V.K. Laibach from Sympathy For The Devil
Visions Of You (Radio Edit) 4:23 by Jah Wobble from Visions Of You
Buckethead 8:45 by Carbon/Silicon from Mind Control
Mighty War Whoop 4:15 by Ken Drakeford from Box Room Sessions
All Join In 3:27 by Ken Drakeford from Box Room Sessions

There are stories behind each song. I remember Beth Buller made a tape for me when I was a freshman in college that had that "Like an Animal" song and some more from The Glove. I should thank Martin Martsch (and indirectly, his brother Doug) for turning me on to Sparks and The Arcade Fire. I learned about Perez Prado listening to NPR years ago. I found Ken Drakeford's music browsing around on iTunes a couple years ago. I should thank Pontus Aratoun for introducing me to Front 242 and Laibach.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Birthday of Baha'u'llah

Today is the Birthday of Baha'u'llah.

To mark the occasion, I've updated my personal Baha'i Webpage. I've also put up some religious materials from several years ago so anyone can have access to my work. Here is a list of what I've put up. Most of these are in html format.

Happy Birthday of Baha'u'llah!

Friday, November 07, 2008

Submit your ideas to the Obama Administration

You can go to the new website and submit suggestions. Presumably, volunteers and campaign staff catalog and index the suggestions, and pass on some sort of summary with representative sample posts to Obama himself.

I've submitted a few of my own suggestions. I might as well share them here.

Suggestion Submission #1. Foreign Aid and Cultural Exchange.

You know Kenya. I've lived there one semester myself, and lived in Kibera, where I understand you have stayed--I had some Luo friends, too. You, better than any president we've ever had, understand the material poverty of the money-poor nations.

The key thing to do is to meet our promise from the Monterrey Consensus to devote about 0.7% of our GNP to international aid to the poorest nations. That aid should be mainly devoted to developing infrastructure, education, and health care provision in the materially poor world. It should be targeted to nations that have the greatest political transparency and show signs of moving toward democracy and independent institutions of civic society.

Foreign aid of this nature should rightfully be considered a matter of national defense, and so we ought to take the increase in international aid from our bloated and wasteful defense budget.
If as part of this policy we establish more American-supported public universities in poorer regions of the world I would volunteer to serve.

As a supplement to this dramatic increase in development aid we should make a massive effort to increase direct public exchange between America and poorer nations. We should be sending 100,000 American high school students and college students abroad each year, and bringing in a similar number of foreign students for cultural and educational exchanges. Thousands more Americans fluent in Mandarin, Arabic, Spanish, Pashtun, and Swahili, (with friends in the lands where those languages are the native or second language) will be worth more to us in helping America maintain peace and security than tens of thousands of more monolingual soldiers.

Make the foreign exchanges part of the foreign aid increase policy. Send American kids from the poor and violent environments to do a year of education and service in an entirely different environment (orphanages in Zambia, for example), and you can imagine the kind of changes we would witness.

Suggestion Submission #2. Higher Education Affordability.

Make higher education affordable. Establish some sort of target costs of providing higher education and some federal guidelines of fair cost-sharing between the public (we all benefit from having better quality higher education that is affordable in our society) and the college students (who reap more direct benefits than the taxpayers who never go to college or finish their college degrees). For example, it seems to me that costs of college education ought to be split with students paying about a third of the cost of their education and the public paying nearly 2/3rds (with alumni donations and private grants used to fund non-educational expenses). Further, costs of education ought to be indexed to median-full-time-year-round wages of the previous year and tuition at public institutions ought to be set on a sliding-scale.
Public universities and the states that control them work out the details of spending and tuition rates, but the federal government can dictate certain broad principles of how public education ought to be funded and priced. The National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy, the Department of Education, and other federal government organs ought to have policies of only giving grants to researchers at universities that follow federal suggested guidelines for pricing education. Only states that follow guidelines in keeping college costs under control ought to receive federal financial aid for higher education.

Costs of college have nearly doubled in real inflation-adjusted terms since I attended college in the 1980s, but median and mean faculty salaries have declined by approximately 11% over the same 20-30 year period. The problem has reached a point where I could earn more money by leaving my job at the University of Illinois and taking a job in the local public school system as a high school teacher! I'm working 50-60 hours each week trying to help my undergraduate and graduate students get a good education, but even though I've been saving 5% of my income for my two sons for their college fund since they were born, I will be unable to afford to pay for more than two years of their college education, even if they attend the university where I myself teach! My salary and our household income match almost exactly the state median year-round-full-time wage and median household income, so I know that most people in Illinois are in a situation like mine in terms of being unable to afford to send their children to college.

State governments are unwilling to make affordable higher education a priority. Please use the federal government to force the state governments into taking action on this issue.

Suggestion Submission #3. Change the Economic Debate.

People in America need to understand some basics about economics and tax policies and government spending. Someone (the president) needs to clearly explain that we as a society want a public sector that protects and empowers us. We are empowered by education, by infrastructure, and by policies that give us freedom from financial ruin (e.g., Social Security, Medicare, national health insurance policies, etc.). We are protected by national defense, by police and fire departments, by environmental standards and various workplace and financial regulations. Just lay it all out; if the American people want a certain level of protection and empowerment they'll need to contribute an average of some percentage of their incomes to public spending, through some mix of property/wealth taxes, income-and-gains taxes, and sales-consumption taxes. When you combine the costs of public services from local, state, and federal governments and look at the total income and wealth of America it seems like about 40% (give or take 10 percentage points) of the national economy needs to be cycled through the public sector of taxing and spending.

Most of the arguments about fiscal policies and taxing and spending are between conservative Republicans who want fewer public services and less protection and empowerment, and are therefore willing to live in a society where about 35% of the national economy gets cycled through the public taxing-spending cycle, and those who want more protection and empowerment, and therefore want 45% to 50% of the economy cycled through the public sphere.

Make it clear that we have a consensus where everyone in the mainstream, from the most liberal Democrat to the most conservative Republican agrees that we like economic growth and we want a strong private for-profit sector of the economy to serve as the engine of growth. No one disputes that, but we just disagree about whether that sector of the economy ought to be 30% or 40% or 50% of the national economy. Our differences come mainly from how much empowerment and protection we want from the public sector, and how far we trust ourselves and our private for-profit and non-profit sectors to provide security and empowerment when the government's public sphere isn't doing it.

We need to return to a New Deal style consensus about public spending and taxation in this nation, and so we need to destroy these pernicious myths that there is something wrong with a little bit of income transfer and redistribution of freedom-wealth-income-security from the most fortunate to the rest of us. We need to make it clear that the government is in the business of empowering and protecting, and distributing freedom and opportunity. Yes, there are some inefficiencies in the public sphere, but we can make government efficient and responsive. Taxation can be a good thing. There are fair degrees of taxation. Public spending is a good thing. There are desirable and sustainable levels of public spending. Taxing and spending aren't the problem. The problem comes when taxing is too high, relative to the benefits that are received. Taxation is a problem when the government is very inefficient in delivering empowerment and protection at levels expected from such taxation. Taxing is a problem when so much of the economy is swallowed in the public sector that the private sector shrinks and growth slows down too far. So long as the government is efficient and taxing hasn't ruined the private sector it's okay to tax and spend.

We need to make this clear and understood. It's really basic civics and economics, but the way the Republicans were using the Joe-the-Plumber story and framing the issue as socialism shows that a certain segment of this nation is entirely ignorant of basic concepts underlying our democracy and modern economies. This worries me, as such ignorance leads to ideological fanaticism stripped of knowledge and understanding, and I associate such political attitudes with failures of civil society.

Please, President-Elect Obama, use your position to educate Americans about taxation and some basics of macroeconomics. Help us re-frame the debate about taxing and spending. Help change the poisonous climate of empty hate-filled rhetoric to a situation where people have reasonable disagreements about spending priorities and program efficiencies.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Thoughts on election results

First off, I'm happy. I haven't felt this good about a presidential candidate since John Anderson ran for president in 1980, and Obama is probably just as good as John Anderson was. Funny, but four of the best presidential candidates in history were all from Illinois: Abraham Lincoln (1860 & 1864), Adlai Stevenson II (1952 & 1956), John Anderson (1980), and Barack Obama (2008). That's another reason to enjoy living here in Springfield.

There are things I found disappointing. The total voter turnout was much lower than I had hoped. I hear we only had a little over 130 million voters casting ballots, and I was hoping for 150 million. The Senate races were not as impressive as I had hoped. Merky should have crushed Smith in Oregon, but the race was close. Alaska and Minnesota should have gone with the Dems, but a couple days after the elections those races are still close, and the Republicans may win both. I was hoping for Jim Martin to pull off an upset in Georgia, and that didn't happen. I was hoping for the Green Party candidates to make some significant gains in local elections, but I haven't heard anything about this happening. Here in Illinois I was hoping for Democratic Party gains in the 6th and 10th and 13th U.S. House Districts, but Morgenthaler, Seals, and Harper were all defeated. My own very conservative U.S. Representative Shimkus in the 19th District won with 64.5% of the vote, and the Green Party candidate only received 2.1% of the vote. Ah well, at least Shimkus is a nice guy and does well with constituent services. I'm not an ideologue who hates people because of their politics, so I can tolerate politicians I disagree with, so long as they are decent human beings and not corrupt.

McCain's concession speech was touching, and I wish the McCain I saw there (and also saw in his speech at the Republican Convention) had been evident in the campaign. Obama's acceptance speech was moving and exciting. I was hoping to hear him mention Durbin and Durbin's recent loss (his daughter died earlier this week), but Obama didn't work that into the speech. Dick Durbin got Barack in front of everyone at the 2004 Democratic Party Convention, and that was probably the most significant step toward this victory. I suppose Obama probably got in touch with Durbin privately. It's probably better to keep such things as private communication between friends, anyway. Thinking about those two, I enjoyed having two of the best senators both coming from my state, and now I'm somewhat worried about who our governor will choose to replace Obama. Our retiring head of our State Senate, Emil Jones was the most likely candidate, or so I thought, but my contacts in the State House tell me this is not as likely as it seemed. Evidently Jones isn't interesting in buying the seat, and the Governor is looking for someone who can give him something in return for the appointment.

I was trying to put the election into a grand historical context. I was thinking of the intellectuals and activists and leaders who have shaped American culture and politics for good, and there could be a long list of people to whom we owe much of what is best about our nation and our political culture. I made a list: Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, Thomas Morton, Jonathan Edwards, William Penn, Bartolomé de las Casas, John Locke, Mary Wollstonecraft, Thomas Paine, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Oglethorpe, John and Charles Wesley, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Charles Darwin, Claude Henri de Rouvroy (Saint-Simon), Adam Smith, Charles de Saint-Pierre, Robert Owen, Benjamin Franklin, William Lloyd Garrison, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and so forth. These people contributed their parts into giving us a certain idealism and a good foundation. Then we had people who took in the culture and ideas these people left us, and Abraham Lincoln is foremost among these 19th century Americans who took the good raw material and helped make something glorious out of it. I'd include people like Frederick Douglas, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Eugene Debs, William James, and W. E. B. DuBois here in this category along with Lincoln. Perhaps Grant belongs in this group as well.
Then, later in the 19th century and into the 20th century another group of great souls and brilliant minds took our nation and its culture even higher. I include among this group influential thinkers from abroad such as Krishnamurti, Gandhi, Alfred Russel Wallace, and then the great Americans such as Jane Addams, Jeannette Rankin, Henry Agard Wallace, Cordell Hull, Eleanore Roosevelt, and of course Martin Luther King, Jr. In more recent years we have have people like John Steinbeck, Linus Pauling, Ken Wilbur, Matthew Fox, Saul Alinksy, John Kenneth Galbraith, and so forth. I am sure Barack Obama belongs with this group. He seems to be one of the bright shining lights of our culture and our national history. He is carrying forward a process of growth and development in our culture and our politics, or so it seems at this point.

Yes, I realize the people on my list were flawed. Some of them were deeply flawed. But each contributed something valuable, or at least they represent something great to me by some aspect of their life or thought. It seems to me we have now elected one of these great souls.

I am also certain that all these people who have embodied or inspired what is best in American politics and culture are drawing from some transcendent process of Providence. Yes, I believe in a sort of supernatural destiny for my country and the planet as a whole. The good that was in these people I've listed is all drawn out of the same source, I feel sure. This country has a role to play, drawing from this same spirit of the age, and we've elected someone who seems to be in tune with this aspect of our national life. So, I'm very glad indeed.

O Rulers of America and the Presidents of the Republics therein … Give ear unto that which hath been raised from the Dayspring of Grandeur: Verily, there is none other God but Me, the Lord of Utterance, the All-Knowing. Bind ye the broken with the hands of justice, and crush the oppressor who flourisheth with the rod of the commandments of your Lord, the Ordainer, the All-Wise.... - from a letter composed by Baha'u'llah and addressed to "Rulers of America and the Presidents of the Republics therein," revealed sometime soon after Baha'u'llah's arrival in Akka (in the early 1870s), and incorporated into the Kitab-i-Aqdas (1873).

America is a noble nation, a standard-bearer of peace throughout the world, shedding her light to all regions. Other nations are not untrammeled and free of intrigues like the United States, and are unable to bring about Universal Peace. But America, thank God, is at peace with all the world, and is worthy of raising the flag of brotherhood and International Peace. When the summons to International Peace is raised by America, all the rest of the world will cry: “Yes, we accept.” - Words supposedly spoken by 'Abdu'l-Baha in Cincinnati, Ohio on November 5, 1912. (I have no idea if the lecture notes taken in English and used to reconstruct what 'Abdu'l-Baha actually said were ever cross-checked with Persian notes, or if 'Abdu'l-Baha ever reviewed a Persian translation of the English version of his Cincinnati speech to approve it as essentially what he meant.)

Of course, this is just a personal reflection on what is going on. I'm sure religious figures should keep aloof from partisan struggles and the mundane issues of statecraft. That bit from Baha'u'llah about crushing oppressors with the rod of justice might apply to George W. Bush and his desire to get rid of Saddam Husain. I can't know for certain. It might also apply to policies to tax the very wealthy (and over-paid) elites in this nation and use the tax revenue to provide freedom to poorer Americans (freedom in the sense of education, medical care, financial security, etc., as I'm using Amartya Sen's ideas about freedom here.)

One thing I liked about Obama's acceptance speech was that he spoke of the good history of the Republican Party. From its founding until sometime in the late 1880s or early 1890s the Republican Party was clearly the party of justice and peace in American politics, and the Democratic Party was the party of racism. But then late in the 19th century the Republicans abandoned African-Americans and embraced ideas of imperialism, and the two parties became about equally mixed bad and good. The great 20th century Republicans like LaGuardia, La Follette, Hoover, Teddy Roosevelt, and Eisenhower had significant flaws, as did the great Democrats like Woodrow Wilson (a totalitarian and a racist, but a man with a vision of world peace), F.D.R. (who didn't open our borders to European Jews fleeing the Nazis), and L.B.J. (who gave us civil rights and a war on poverty, but kept us in a war in Vietnam he knew we couldn't win because of personal pride). So far, I don't see that Obama has any of these tragic flaws that have stained the presidents who were otherwise admirable.

And so, I see Obama carrying our nation along toward a worthy destiny. I think he belongs in the categories with all these great persons I've mentioned. I'm very glad about this. I think that part of his victory speech where he outlined some of the better moments in our recent national history (as witnessed by Ann Nixon Cooper), and the moments when he gave credit to the grassroots movement that supported him, demonstrate where his mind is (and you can read his two books and see this as well). I am optimistic about what we will see and what we will be able to do with our Obama presidency.

Surgical Education

One of my students has been thinking about surgical education, and so I've been thinking about how to trace the influence of good medical education through to the improved outcomes for patients. I drew this diagram for my student, and thought I'd share it here in my blog in case anyone wanted to comment on it. I have enough friends and family with MDs that perhaps someone will want to discuss this.

My main point, I think, is that patient outcomes are influenced by many things, and the skill of a surgeon, while probably the single most significant influence on outcomes over which we have much control, is probably relatively small in comparison to about a dozen other things over which we have some control. And so, if we want to find the connection between surgical skill and patient outcomes we will need to design exceedingly detailed studies that control for all these other variables.

Friday, October 31, 2008

October Holidays

I've created a quick photograph web page with iPhoto to show scenes of Halloween in our neighborhood, and some other pictures from earlier holidays in October. The page is at: I'm afraid some of the images are quite large.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Quirky Religious Web Pages

About a month ago I was looking for some information on St. Cyricus and St. Julitta, because I was curious about the story behind a painting I saw in the National Catalan Art Museum in Barcelona. I came across an interesting reactionary web site called Tradition in Action. It's an interesting website to explore. I especially liked the movie reviews.

This reminds me of a few religious websites that aren't actually reactionary, but are sorta interesting.  The Tradition in Action website describes martyrdom in a way that I can relate to, as when I was a young and impressionable youth several of my co-religionists went to their deaths for their beliefs, and this has always been a deeply meaningful and powerful fact for me.  I'm thinking now of an interesting website that memorializes the ten women martyrs of Shiraz. The little snapshot biographies you get by clicking on photographs of the women at the bottom of the page are worth reading. Let's see, what else from the Baha'i world?  A person I very much admire, Ahang Rabbani also has a good website for keeping an eye on what's going on in Shiraz these days. Incidently, one of my favorite Baha'i websites is Baha'is online.

Now, back to interesting little religious websites.  I recommend we all become familiar with the Mandaeans (one of the groups of Sabians).  Also, it's worth remembering that the Samaritans aren't just an obscure group out of the Bible, they are still active.  Also, although they haven't been in the news much since the wars in Lebanon in the early-to-mid eighties, the Druze are still around. The Zoroastrians (including the Parsis) remain a force for good in this world, powerful beyond their numbers.  And of course, everyone (who knows about them) loves the peaceful Jains. The Mevlevi Sufi school within Islam is also gaining popularity. 

One thing that really annoys me about some of the textbooks or children's books offering introductions to religion is that they will devote significant space to small (but also worthy of attention) groups like the Rastafarians, but entirely ignore Baha'is, Mandaeans, Samaritans, Druze, Zoroastrians, and Jains (well, the Jain's usually get a mention in the sections on Hinduism, along with the Sikhs). We're all part of this great process of worship and awe and morality and self-discovery that is religion, and the more variety the better.  

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Power of Love

In my human nature course my students collect quotations and aphorisms.  I was extremely impressed with their work, and many of them found especially inspiring quotes.  I want to share one here.  It's one I think I'd seen before years ago when I myself was an undergraduate student taking a course on Gandhi:

Scientists tell us that without the presence of the cohesive force amongst the atoms that comprise this globe of ours, it would crumble to pieces and we cease to exist; and even as there is cohesive force in blind matter, so must there be in all things animate and the name for that cohesive force among animate beings is Love. We notice it between father and son, between brother and sister, friend and friend. But we have to learn to use that force among all that lives, and in the use of it consists our knowledge of God. Where there is love there is life; hatred leads to destruction.
(this is either from Young India of May 5, 1920, page 7, or else from Young India of October 6, 1921, sources differ and I haven't tracked down the original).

The student actually only shared, "where there is love there is life," but I remembered there was more to it than that, so I found the context of the original. 
The quotation certainly reminded me of this one from 'Abdu'l-Baha:

…Love is the mystery of divine revelations! Love is the effulgent manifestation! Love is the spiritual fulfillment! Love is the breath of the Holy Spirit inspired into the human spirit! Love is the cause of the manifestation of the Truth (God) in the phenomenal world! Love is the necessary tie proceeding from the realities of things through divine creation! Love is the means of the most great happiness in both the material and spiritual worlds! Love is a light of guidance in the dark night! Love is the bond between the Creator and the creature in the inner world! Love is the cause of development to every enlightened man! Love is the greatest law in this vast universe of God! Love is the one law which causeth and controleth order among the existing atoms! Love is the universal magnetic power between the planets and stars shining in the lofty firmament!...
 That's taken out of a letter from ‘Abdu’l-Baha to an unidentified American woman in the Bahá'í Community, and first published in 1915 in Tablets of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá Abbas, Volume III, page 525. Available online at

Photos from October

I have been meaning to post a few more photographs from the fall.
There are several here from our visit to my old high school (John Burroughs School) during the homecoming weekend. You can see my friends Jenny Gosnell and Jessica Hahn Goldman. Sebastian and Arthur saw some of my old classrooms. You can see them in the dining hall and the art studio. I like the photograph Sebastian took of Jeri and me standing in a stairway. Mom came to visit a couple times, and there is a good picture of her. Also, we celebrated the birth of the Báb on October 20, and you can see our little rabbit (Snowball) standing in front of the bookshelf with the presents on it.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Weekend visit to western Indiana

Jeri and Sebastian and I went to Vermillion County, Indiana to visit the Wharton family this past weekend (we saw Kris, Amy, Ryan, Josie, Julian, and Korinne Lee). We had a good time. Jeri and I went with Amy and Josie to the Halloween Haunted Happenings trail walk in Danville, Illinois on Saturday night. Amy was doing some makeup for one of the groups, and I took some photographs of the evening.

I've used iPhoto to make a simple webpage about our visit. You can see the photographs here.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Where does the money go?

The recent discussion of the tax policies of the presidential candidates running for office and my recent discovery that I’m being paid half of what I expected for teaching an overload this semester has drawn my attention to our family budget. Jeri was concerned that we were spending too much on our sons’ allowances and not saving enough. I have therefore reviewed our spending and income over the past year, and created a pie chart to show where our money goes. I’m sharing it here.

A few comments about our family finances.
We’re spending much less on health than we have been. We recently finished paying for Sebastian’s braces. While we were paying for his braces our monthly spending on “health” was close to 11% (it took about two years to pay for his braces). In general, I think our family pays a little over 5% for health care and health insurance, but my employer (the State of Illinois through the University of Illinois) pays the equivalent of about 4% of our family income on our health and life insurance as well. Our health care expenses are low because we’re healthy and young.
The big travel segment (nearly 11%) includes recreation and fun. In our family, that mainly means books. We probably spend about 2% of our income on books and magazines. Also, we try to get to Taiwan every couple years to see our family over there, and we must save up for those trips, so about 6% to 7% of our income is saved and spent on trips to Taiwan. If we didn’t have family living abroad this money would let us have better cars, we would eat out in restaurants sometimes, we would give more to charity, and we would save more for retirement or college. But, I think it’s better to allocate money as we do, and visit the relatives in Taiwan every few summers.
Our phone budget is small. We don’t use mobile phones.
Our saving for retirement isn’t much. I am a state worker, and I have not contributed into Social Security enough to earn a Social Security pension when I retire. Also, I am in the self-managed program for State of Illinois employees, which means I won’t get any pension from the State of Illinois. All I have for retirement is the 9%-12% of my income I’ve been saving over the years I’ve worked plus any interest or capital gains realized on those savings (this year there is significant loss, but I still will be working for 20 years or more, so there is time for this to come back).
The tax figure is fairly precise, but I’ve had to estimate sales taxes based on a sample of receipts and a consideration of the tax tables the IRS uses. The property, income, and Medicare taxes are precise, and are adjusted for the refunds we get after turning in our taxes. I think a 12.4% tax rate is too low. I ought to be paying 15% to 17% (I make within a few percentage points of the Illinois state median income for a full-time year-around male worker, and our household is within a percentage-point of the national median household income). It seems to me reasonable that households such as ours, right at the middle of the middle class, at the median, ought to pay about 15% to 17%, and households making significantly more (say, $100,000, which is almost double the median household income) ought to pay more, perhaps 25%, and the top 4% to 5% (those making over $200,000) ought to be paying something like 45% to 50% of their income in various sorts of taxes.
We keep our grocery and food budget pretty low by eating out in restaurants only once or twice a month, and then eating in cheap restaurants. We barter with one local Chinese restaurant, providing help with translation and child-care, and getting free meals in return. We also garden. I think most middle-class families probably spend much more on food and groceries than we do, and 12% is probably more common than the 9% we pay.
Our transportation budget of 6.3% is probably significantly lower than most Americans. I live about 7 miles from my university, so I usually ride my bike or take a bus there, driving there perhaps once a week. My wife only works three days per week, and the schools where she works are closer to our home than my university. We have no car payments, as I drive a 21-year-old car that is in such bad shape I am waiting for it to die and not spending significant money on maintaining it. Jeri drives my grandfather’s car, which we inherited eight years ago. If we had more money we would be saving to buy a new car, either a Prius or a plug-in car (they are supposed to be on the market in a couple years, and it would take us three or four years to save up to buy one). So long as I can ride my bike or take the bus, I really think we could just do with one car, however.
Well, there you have it, an example of how a middle-class American family was allocating its income in 2008.