Saturday, October 27, 2012

The allure of conspiracy theories

A few years back - five years, to be precise - my son who was then 17 or 18 years old - asked me if I'd seen Zeitgeist, the Movie. I hadn't, I said, and he insisted that I watch it. So, always on the alert for a good movie, and curious about his uncharacteristically enthusiastic recommendation, I did. It turns out that this movie - a 2007 documentary by Peter Joseph - is a 3-part conspiracy theory expose.

In the first part, titled The Greatest Story Ever Told, Joseph challenges the historical claims for the existence of Jesus and then illustrates how many of the Christian stories - from Old Testament accounts of things like the flood to New Testament stories of the virgin birth, the performance of miracles, Jesus' death on a cross, the resurrection, etc. - are not unique to Christianity at all but are variations of the stories told in other ancient religious and pagan systems. Part Two - All the World's a Stage - argues that the US government was actually the mastermind behind the 9/11 Terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, and Part Three - Don't Mind the Men Behind the Curtain - argues that there is a global economic agenda (driven by "international bankers") that promotes and profits from war and war mongering. If you want to watch the movie for yourself, it's available on youtube and vimeo on the web.

I'm only going to refer to the first part of the movie - the part that argues that Jesus never existed and that Christianity is based on a lot of recycled myths (and if you decide to watch it, let me warn you that Part I doesn't actually get started until about 11 minutes in). And I only bring it up at all because back in 2007 when this movie was spreading like wildfire through the internet, something like a million people - most of them young, I presume - watched it in the span of a month or two. I can only imagine that many of them - glued to their computer screens - must have had the sinking feeling that the church, their parents, their youth leaders, even their teachers, were either ignorant or worse, liars.

If they, like my son, had grown up going to Sunday School, chances are they had either assumed or been taught explicitly, that the Christian faith - and specifically the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus - were uniquely ordered events that were the fulfilment of prophecies made in the Old Testament period. Imagine their surprise to find that so many of the precious elements of the Christian story were NOT unique but had appeared in other primitive and pagan belief systems through the ages! That was 2007. I didn't hear many pastors talk about Zeitgeist: The Movie from the pulpit, but you can find lots of response and rebuttal online - just google Christian critique of Zeitgeist the Movie and you'll have lots of material to sort through.

For the purpose of this post I don't want to get drawn into a point by point defence of Christianity. What I do want to draw attention to is the allure in our culture today - especially amongst youth and young adults - of conspiracy theories. The thing about conspiracy theories is that they are almost always a fabrication based on fragments of truth, knit together in plausible ways that inevitably challenge conventional wisdom and see intentionality and exploitation behind every bush. There is always an agenda and there are no bonafide coincidences.

I understand the appeal. In fact, I would argue that Christianity - though not a conspiracy theory exactly - has some of the same elements. The forces of evil - Satan and his demonic army - are loose in the world and will do whatever it takes to undermine the forces of good - the trinitarian godhead (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) and their army of angels. A supernatural battle rages but not in real time and space. Things are not as they seem. The kingdom of God is present but not yet fully established. See what I mean? It should have the same kind of appeal as a good conspiracy theory!

So how do we know what's really true and what's a twisted fabrication?

I think the first step is to acknowledge that we will never - ever - be able to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt any kind of faith claim (or, for that matter, any other kind of claim!). Scientific observation and journalistic inquiry can only take us so far. That's where the faith part comes in. By definition, faith is having confidence in something that we can't prove. That doesn't mean that it's blind or naive or irrational. Many many people (past and present) have been been tortured and martyred for their faith - that would seem to indicate that they had some pretty strong reason to believe that the object of their faith is real and worth suffering for. That kind of commitment should not be dismissed lightly. So, whatever we believe - from Christianity to other faith systems to secular humanism - let's acknowledge that our alignment to that set of beliefs requires a degree of "faith".

After that, I think that we need to be willing to do some homework - I'm all for examining our beliefs with a critical eye and adjusting them when we encounter irrefutable evidence that something doesn't line up. That doesn't mean abandoning a belief system the first time we come across an apparent contradiction. But it may mean digging deeper and it may mean holding some of our specific beliefs loosely. Anne Lamott says, "the opposite of faith is not doubt, it's certainty." I agree! And I think maybe we've done our kids a disservice by not helping them see that we don't have it all figured out. Our Christian faith is not a neatly packaged meta-narrative with all the i's dotted and t's crossed. We see through a glass darkly. Truth is not black and white but wonderfully nuanced, complex and even mysterious.

I have hope that this generation - with all of their skepticism and fascination with conspiracy theories - may give Christianity a second look, not out of a sense of duty or to comply with tradition, but because they are genuinely seeking truth. And doesn't God promise (Deuteronomy 4:29, Jeremiah 29:13) that when we seek Him - who is truth - with all our heart, we will find him?

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Illusion of Prosperity - Who are we kidding?

Statistics Canada released some scary figures on Monday, Oct. 15. These figures indicate - in fact, they make it abundantly CLEAR - that Canadians are in a deeper debt hole than economists had anticipated. And believe me, what they had anticipated was bad enough! The fact is, the ratio of credit market household debt to disposable income has now hit a record high of 163.4%. That means that for every dollar of disposable income we earn - collectively as Canadian households - we are spending $1.63. And just as an aside, since not everyone is in debt - other figures indicate that increasing numbers of Canadians are living debt-free - the reality is that some Canadians have over-spending habits that are way beyond the 163% threshold.

The annual RBC poll for 2012 indicates that 26% of Canadians are now living debt free, not counting mortgage debt. But while that's encouraging, mortgage debt may be a wild card in the light of early indicators that Canada's housing market is softening. On average, Canadians are carrying $13,141 in non-mortgage debt. While the figures can be spun in different ways, surely no one can be completely comfortable with the degree to which we Canadians are living beyond our means... Just last week we heard reports that the International Monetary Fund is sounding an alarm about the twin towers of the softening housing market and debt levels in Canada.

And yet, we somehow believe that we are a prosperous country! Who are we kidding?

I've been reading a report just put out by the Broadbent Institute entitled Towards a More Equal Canada: A Report on Canada's Economic and Social Inequality. As one might expect (given that the Broadbent Institute is really the Ed Broadbent Institute) the paper is a clear and well formulated apologetic for NDP principles. It demonstrates clearly that any benefits of national economic growth over the past 20 years have gone disproportionately to the richest 1% - in fact, it states that:
"Almost all of the income gains during that period went to the wealthiest 20% of Canadian families, with much of that going to the top 1%. In fact, the share of all taxable income going to the top 1% of families rose from 7.4% to 11.2%, and the average income of those in the top 1% of families soared from $380,000 to $684,000."

No wonder the 99% are feeling deprived and angry! But I think there's a deeper problem than this growing gap between the super rich and the rest of us.

The deeper problem is that our economy - and the social order that it finances - is based on a model that presumes growth - perpetual, steady, hope-inspiring growth. And THAT'S a problem. It's not just a matter of dividing the pie up more equitably, with the assumption that the pie can continue to get bigger and bigger. If we're not convinced that there really are ecological limitations - only so many raw materials and natural, non-renewable resources to draw from - then the ill effects of a consumer culture driven by greed and financed by debt should be a hint that what we're doing is unsustainable and blatantly unhealthy, not only for us but for future generations. And I would say that it's really those future generations that are most at risk because they're the ones who will one day have to deal with the most inconvenient truth that our prosperity is actually an illusion.

I think I've mentioned this book before, but it bears repeating - the book is Affluenza by Oliver James. In this book James argues that there is a negative correlation between mental health and affluence - that is, the more affluent a society becomes, the greater is the incidence of mental illness and other social ills. That's the basic idea, but it's well worth the read to get the full impact of his study...

Yes, there is a problem when 30 cents of every dollar goes to the top 1% of the population, but stronger unions - part of the answer proposed by the Broadbent Institute - is not likely to result in a decision to shrink the pie.

To be fair, the vision proposed by the Broadbent Institute is quite appealing:

"There is no single magic bullet. Rather, we need to develop a comprehensive policy agenda integrating our economic, environmental, labour market, social, human rights, and taxation policies. The goal must be sustainable, shared prosperity, measured by a much broader range of indicators than GDP, which values only economic growth and not equity in its distribution."

Sounds good, but can we get there in such a way that a smaller pie to distribute is a vision that can be embraced by rich and poor alike?

I realize that this all sounds pretty gloom and doom. But there is a silver lining. The truth is, we are living in all kinds of ways that are out of compliance with our design and our destiny. Correction is necessary and though it may not be pleasant, I believe it will ultimately be for our good and our delight - and more importantly, it will be good for our neighbour, both rich and poor.

Jesus warns us about putting too much stock in material riches when he says:

"Don’t hoard treasure down here where it gets eaten by moths and corroded by rust or—worse!—stolen by burglars. Stockpile treasure in heaven, where it’s safe from moth and rust and burglars. It’s obvious, isn’t it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being (The Message, Matthew 6:19-20)."

God is not unconcerned about economic matters. The kingdom of God will not avoid economics. Rather, in the kingdom of God - trite though this may sound! - economics will be redeemed. In his book, God's Economy: Redefining the Health and Wealth Gospel, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove describes the abundant life that Jesus promises and lays out five tactics that will help us to discover it. The tactics are: subversive service (Mark 9:35); eternal investments (Matthew 6:20); economic friendships (Luke 16:9); relational generosity (Matthew 5:42); and gracious politics (Mark 12:17). This is another book that is well worth the read!

There IS a way forward and I dare say that it is a path that may appear to be overgrown and not particularly inviting, but I think we'll find that more and more pilgrims are re-discovering the beauty of this path less traveled.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Whatever happened to Judeo-Christian values?

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) famously asked "how is social order possible?", the question which laid the foundation for the development of sociology as a distinct field of social scientific inquiry. He speculated that in a state of nature people would always act to further their own interests and this would produce a society characterized by a "war of all against all". To avoid such a state, humans negotiate social contracts and impose on the natural state constraints that produce a "civil society", regulated by governments of one kind or another.

Thus, citizens of a particular society learn to orient their actions according to a moral code. In previous posts I've talked about the difference between shame-based and guilt-based cultures. Canada is an example of a guilt-based culture; China is an example of a shame-based culture. In both cases the point is to constrain the behaviour of individuals so as to ensure that social order is maintained. And both systems presume the socialization of individuals according to the moral standards necessary for the smooth functioning of the society. In guilt-based societies there are clear penalties for breaking the rules. We have sophisticated criminal justice systems to determine the guilt or innocence of anyone accused of breaking the law, and we have other less formal ways of enforcing our moral standards.

And what are the moral standards you ask? Well, simply put, they are a modern articulation of the ten Commandments. We all know that we ought not kill, steal, lie or cheat. We should treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. We should keep our word and we should tell the truth. We should take responsibility for our actions and we should be fair and just, even in the face of injustice. Such are the things that we teach our children. And when we are successful, our society hums along smoothly.

In shame-based cultures, there is a similar moral code which prescribes "right" behaviour, but the emphasis is on how things appear. What is actually the case is less important than what appears to be the case. Where we - from a guilt-based culture - might argue that it matters less what people "think" than what actually is the case, in a shame-based culture, what people "think" - the appearance - is actually more important. This may seem to be a minor difference but it has significant implications in the nitty gritty of everyday life, especially when people from different cultural orientations are working together.

But what I want to get to is this: what happens when the individual is elevated to a position of being above the moral code? If the purpose of the moral code is to make social order possible, and the power of the moral code to constrain individual behaviour is compromised, what will happen to social order?

A few days ago news broke of evidence that cycling superhero, Lance Armstrong, was not only guilty of using illegal substances to bolster his own performance, but was also the key figure in a sophisticated doping ring that impacted many other riders, including eleven teammates who have now testified against him. Lance Armstrong's accomplishments are legendary: while his most notable claim to fame is winning the Tour de France seven times, he did so while also battling testicular cancer and he has established a foundation which has raised 500 million dollars to fight cancer. Even in the midst of the most recent testimony against him, proponents argue that Armstrong has done a lot of good and should therefore not be vilified because of his alleged doping infractions. In other words, even though it appears that Armstrong has broken the moral code of our society by lying, cheating, and stealing (at least insofar as his cheating has robbed other athletes of success), what happens when a society decides to overlook those violations of our moral code?

Some might argue that we have always done this - that is, make exceptions for people whose net contribution to our society is such that we are willing to overlook their shortcomings. But at what point do we make so many exceptions that the rule no longer holds? I'm concerned that our moral compass has literally lost its bearings. The basics - telling the truth, being who we appear to be, being accountable for our behaviour, etc. etc. - simply do not seem to be "written in stone" any more. Reality tv is full of shows that are re-wiring our moral compass. Coming out on top is what counts. Lying is perfectly acceptable - even admirable - if it helps you win the prize. We have adopted - it seems - a "survivor" mentality. And that's the very mentality that Thomas Hobbes argued would produce a "war of all against all" and social chaos. Hm. Let's check our own bearings and be careful of those influences that might lure us away from them...

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Count your blessings, name them one by one...

In the pleasant after-glow of a long weekend focussed on family, feasting and fall colours, my thoughts have been drawn to a philosophy of thankfulness. When I dropped my 4 year old grandson off at preschool this morning, he kicked an old penny that was lying on the ground. I don't think he even recognized it as a penny - it was just something underfoot that had no more value than a pebble. Ever on the watch for teachable moments, I, however, stooped down and picked up the tarnished penny and declared it "a lucky penny". Suddenly his eyes lit up and he was most interested in it. It wasn't worthless, after all but a treasure!

That got me thinking about the penny and the way we attach value. In Canada, we stopped producing the penny on May 4th, 2012 and circulation of the penny as a unit of regular currency will cease on February 4th, 2013. Ironically, this will likely mean that the value of the penny will actually increase (over time) as it eventually becomes a relic of a bygone era. And I've noticed that lots of people are gathering up the soon-to-be "worthless" coins so that they can cash in before the toll rings on February 4th. Surely lots of coins will be left behind - stashed away in drawers, lost in the creases of couches, rolled up and ready to take to the bank but forgotten in the rush of more pressing matters. Over time they will somehow be dispersed, ending up in landfills or buried in the rubble of a restless age.

It's tempting to do a bit of research on the history of the penny, but that's not really where I want to go just now. Suffice to say that the penny will fade into the recesses of our collective imagination as well as becoming an artifact for archaeologists of some future age to un-earth. Sayings like, "a penny saved is a penny earned", or "a stitch in time saves nine" will perplex our great great grandchildren. How will we describe someone who values frugality when the term "penny pincher" is rendered obsolete? How will we describe something that is expensive when we can no longer say that it "cost a pretty penny"? Thoughts will clearly be worth more than a penny, but to say "a nickel for your thoughts" doesn't seem quite right. Ok - I'm chasing another rabbit trail...!

What I really want to talk about is the fact that we attribute value to all kinds of things - in fact, it may be fair to say that we attribute value to virtually every kind of thing: from coins to art to "stuff" to people. I suppose we could say that every thing that we can attribute value to, already has some value of its own - some intrinsic value. After all, if it's something that we can name - whether an object, a person, a thought, an experience, a relationship - it has identity and therefore value. But it is the value that we add that really counts.

After dropping my grandson off this morning, I had a half hour drive. Much of that drive was on a brand new highway and I marvelled at the engineering ingenuity that has gone into carving this new highway through forest, field and rock. On another level I marvelled also at the amount of money that has been invested in this project, but that's another rabbit trail and I shan't run down it today.

Even though it's a damp day, I also was completely awe struck by the beauty of the fall leaves - a canopy of yellows, reds, oranges. But then my mind went to friends, colleagues, and the countless people that I don't even know, who are today so burdened down with worries and concerns of all kinds that they can't even take note of the beauty around them. My heart and mind are filled with thankfulness and as I think about it, I realize that I am (and most certainly should be!) thankful for that. That is, I'm thankful that my life right now allows me space and time to think such thoughts.

One of the headlines on the news this morning is the story of the 14 year old Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban for her thoughts and actions that promote education. That's a jolt! A startling and unwelcome intrusion into my reverie of thanksgiving for highways and fall vistas...

The fact is, life is all about shifting perspectives and cultural landscapes. We are thankful - or resentful or angry or self-absorbed or outraged - in a particular context. I'm sitting at my desk watching leaves fall from an especially beautiful maple tree. And I'm thankful that I have the luxury of even noticing such a thing. I realize that most people in the world have other things - more pressing and more practical things - on their minds today. For a great many of them the first priority will be to find the means to get enough food together to feed themselves and their families. For some, the priority is nurturing their failing health so that they will see another day. For some - like Malala Yousufzai in Pakistan, or so many other young and old activists - it may be how to advance a particular cause. I'm reminded that we see through a glass darkly (1 Cor. 13:12). And I'm thankful that in the blur that is life, I'm granted brief glimpses of a beauty and a value that transcends space and time.

Here's a quote that sums it up:

If you have food in your fridge, clothes on your back, a roof over your head and a place to sleep, you are richer than 75% of the world. If you have money in your bank, your wallet, and some spare change, you are among 8% of the world’s wealthy. If you woke up this morning with more health than illness, you are more blessed than the million people who will not survive this week. If you have never experienced the danger of battle, the agony of imprisonment or torture or the horrible pangs of starvation, you are luckier than 500 million people alive and suffering. If you can read this message, you are more fortunate than 3 billion people in the world who cannot read at all.

Count your blessings, name them one by one... and be thankful! And then, share what you have with those who have less...