Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Between Certainty and Skepticism

“At the most obvious level it [the method of Descartes] has created a prejudice in favor of doubt over faith. The phrases “blind faith” and “honest doubt” have become the most common of currency. Both faith and doubt can be honest or blind, but one does not hear of “blind doubt” or of “honest faith.” Yet the fashion of thought which gives priority to doubt over faith in the whole adventure of knowing is absurd. Both faith and doubt are necessary elements of this adventure. One does not learn anything except by believing something, and – conversely – if one doubts everything one learns nothing. On the other hand, believing everything uncritically is the road to disaster. The faculty of doubt is essential. But as i have argued, rational doubt always rests on faith an not visa-versa.”

Leslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence, p. 24

As I was driving my two daughters to school this morning, I was asking them about our theme for Tuesdays at the chapel:  an event or a book that has changed your life.

I was most interested in which they would choose.  When my 16 year old looked at my 11 year old and said, “You really haven’t had much of a chance to have your life changed at age 11!”

Which, of course, is a statement about her particular life, rather than the age.  Because we all know many young people who have had their lives radically changed by the age of 11…for good and ill.

But, choosing one event of book that has changed your life is like being told that you must select one of your children (we have four:  2 boys and 2 girls) to be your favorite!

But, I will attempt to clear a bit of space for one event that had impact beyond what I might have expected.


As I sat in my Senior Seminar for History finishing assignments with a sense of obligation and routine to fulfill a graduation requirement the professor revealed the final paper for assessment.  We were to read Maus I and Maus II by Art Spiegelman and answer this question:  “Is this good history?”

This work was neither a primary source, nor a detached attempt at recounting historical events from an objective distance.  It was not so much written as it was illustrated by the son, a cartoonist, of a Holocaust survivor.  How do you determine the historicity of a first-hand account?  How do you dismiss one person’s experience of tragedy and suffering? 

I had been taught that good history was distant, objective, primary-source driven, with language analysis and synthesis.  Recounting the events, the action, the moves, places, times and motives to as close to 0 degree of variances as possible was what good history was about.


After an idea takes some currency in popular language, it can have a diminishing return on effective use.  Currently, I would say that the question opened to the door to post-modern thinking, or questioning might be more accurate.  I do not use the term “post-modern” as an all-encompassing term that may have lost some weight, but as a specific move from the pursuit of certainty to doubting it’s attainability.

I found myself pushed toward two polarities of thinking:

1.     Certainty – Historicity was about removing the unknown.
2.     Skepticism – Historicity was about questioning who gets to write history

This tension forced faith into action.


I had practiced faith most of my life without every calling it “faith”, or at least not in a religious sense.

I imagined all of life lived in polarity between certainty and skepticism, but it was human relationships that seemed to thrive, breath and have the most life when lived in faith.

I could not imagine living all of life seeking certainty with people.  Nor, could I imagine the experience of happiness or joy living with chronic skepticism of all people.

Faith was already something very real in my mode of operation on a daily basis.

Faith became a way of life that I named and embraced.

Faith is alive at a place like MIT as well.  We do not get far in our learning without some faith…moving forward without certainty, not paralyzed by chronic skepticism.  We do not go far in our community or our care to solve problems without living in some sense of faith with people.  I do not know anyone who lives with full embrace of certainty or in the way of complete skepticism.  We cannot live there together.

Even MIT is a place of faith.

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

Reading: The Gospel of Matthew 6:19-34
 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
 “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!
“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

Timothy Hawkins, Sojourn Collegiate Ministry

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Everything I Needed to Know I Learned from the L.A. Times

The Power of the Press

He was a cripple. Those who covered him never wrote about it because Steve Early (press secretary) asked them; not to, and the White House photographers never took his photo in a wheelchair or on crutches because Early asked them not to; those were different days and reporters respected certain rights of the President. (Felix Belair, working for Time a few years later, was with Roosevelt at Hyde Park when he had voted in the 1940 election. He had gone inside the voting booth and a lever had jammed. “This goddamned thing doesn’t work, “ came that rich familiar voice from the voting booth, and Belair had filed it and Time had printed the quote; Roosevelt was enraged—no one believed in those days purer of soul that the President of the United States would lapse into profanity. Reporters always shielded the public from presidential profanity and Roosevelt denied that he had been blasphemous.)

Nor did the journalists covering him think of Roosevelt as a cripple, he seemed to radiate such immense power and force, a kind of magnetic vitality… Roosevelt’s hold on his press corps was very powerful, In part he was brilliant at the mechanics of their craft, and they, like everyone else were members of the society, he held their hopes in his hand just as he did those of their readers. The years of the Depression had been so bleak; reporters like everyone else, had wanted a savior, wanted him to succeed, wanted the New Deal to work.

David Halberstam, The Powers That Be, pp. 10-11.

Tuesdays in the Chapel

September10, 2013

Our focus this year is on books or events that shaped our lives. I have been shaped by reading newspapers.  I love reading the newspaper and lament the troubles that surround the news business. Whenever I have relocated the two things I do first have been to find a barber and to get the paper delivered.  Over the years both have become less important with the advent of the web and the absence of hair.

I have read some interesting papers. There was the Memphis Commercial Appeal, The Abilene Reporter News, The Times Record News in Wichita Falls, TX, The Dailey Record in Vernon and the Terrell Tribune.

In a time when I cannot remember most of what I did yesterday, to let those names fall off the tongue is satisfying. The most important papers are the easiest to remember. When I discovered The New York Times my world changed. I learned that everything beyond the Hudson River was in the West. At least that is how the football scores divided up the world.  To learn that Ohio was in the West taught me that parochialism was not limited to the people I knew. The deal was sealed when people in Massachusetts asked me “How do you like your President?” thinking that somehow I was connected to Lyndon Johnson by virtue of time spent in Texas. What they lacked was what newspapers had given me: lenses to view a wider world than the one I lived in.

It had begun with the Los Angeles Times. I learned that if I woke up early and went out the back door I could get the paper first and have read it all by the time others in the family stirred. That may well have locked in my penchant for early rising since there were no chickens to feed that I could blame the trait on.

Being honest I should add that the newspaper gave me access to the sports news that dominated my world. What had happened to the Los Angeles Angels, the Hollywood Stars, the L.A. Rams or the L.A Dons or the Los Angeles Monarchs was important.  Note again how the names fall off the tongue and you learn how some young men learned to sort and classify the world. And even more importantly in California, how you learned to recognize the seasons in the perpetual summer that was Southern California. The Rams marked fall, the Monarchs winter and the Stars and Angels meant it was spring and summer no matter what the weather said.

More importantly, the newspaper taught me the important lessons of life. I learned about mortality from them. I  once asked my favorite aunt what the newspaper meant when it said a boy my age had fought a heroic but doomed battle against the burns he had suffered when flammable liquid set his body on fire.  Heroism was important, but how could you be heroic when you had managed to set yourself on fire? I have noted since that often those who die due to accidental events or illnesses that cannot be cured are defined as heroic or courageous. It seemed to me they had suffered a bout of really bad luck, but  the nuanced insight into the complexities of living was an important learning. A young boy could be heroic and still die.

I learned from the  L. A. Times that the world was a dangerous place as the headlines told me in June of 1950 when the North Koreans  invaded South Korea.  The Times had  maps to prove it with arrows that showed how dangerous the situation was. North Koreans were not the bumbling ogres we hear about today. They were evil incarnate and as the Korean War played out in the L.A. Times you would have thought they were just off shore.

The complexities of the world were reinforced when the headlines of the Los Angeles Examiner told me that my favorite teacher in 
the 7th grade had once been a member of a union influenced by the Communists.  So had a relative of Lucille Ball, but in those red baiting years it was my teacher who was not at school the next day who meant more to me.

You see what I mean about lenses through which to see the world?  Sports, life and death, and a world filled with those who would do us harm some of whom lived right next door.  And I have not even gotten to sex, drugs and rock and roll.  I have not mentioned Lana Turner and Johnny Stampanato or Johnny Stomp as he was known by the friends of Mickey Cohen a Los Angeles gangster who was at one time his boss.

I can make the case that the newspapers gave me my education long before the doors opened at school. Certainly they could be lurid and manipulative. But sometimes you could fight back and that was how I learned that you did not talk about politics unless you knew your audience. 

In the run up to the 1952 election,  I put "Vote Stevenson" bumper stickers in all of my Los Angeles Examiner newspapers. The Examiner was a Hearst newspaper and Hearst was not a fan of Adlai Stevenson, but what did I know of those nuances?  Having delivered the afternoon papers, I returned home to find my parents waiting for me with the look of those whose son has become a serial killer. “What have you done?”, they wanted to know? The phone was ringing off the wall.  How comforted they were when they found out. Dad was a yellow dog Democrat and he had taught me how it would be possible for Stevenson to win despite the polls. Now he had to teach me how to apologize for my gaffe. He did and I was even able to convince my boss, known as “Frank Birch, the son of a bitch.” to the paperboys, that I was not terminally stupid.  See how the words flow… I owe a lot to newspapers.

2nd reading

…a crew of CBS television reporters was in Johnson City, Texas interviewing Lyndon Johnson for his televised memoirs. There was a curious ambiguity to the project: Johnson, the first of two Presidents to feel himself driven from office by the press, was still angry at the media for his demise, CBS not excepted, and yet Johnson, the politician-memoirist-businessman, was not only telling his side of the story but making hundreds of thousands of dollars for the combined book-documentary project. His mood and his temper thus sharply fluctuated. On one particular day the former President was in an unusually relaxed mood, and a senior CBS producer named John Sharnik asked him what had changed in politics between his early days in Congress some thirty years before and the final days of his presidency. Sharnik asked him question quite casually and was stunned by the vehemence of Johnson’s answer. “You guys,” he had said, without even reflecting. “All you guys in the media. All of politics has changed because of you. You’ve broken all the machines and the ties between us in Congress and the city machines. You’ve given us a new kind of people.” A certain disdain passed over his face…”They’re your creations, your puppets. No machine could ever create a Teddy Kennedy. Only you guys. They’re all yours. Your product.”

Halberstam, p. 6.