The Why

I was talking with an avid conspiracy theorist the other day, and we were getting into all the misinformation floating around about the pandemic.

The question they asked me that honestly stumped me a bit was “why”? Why are all these people, as I claimed, so determined to spread lies around?

Now, whatever answer I would have given to that question would have been immediately turned around to explain why they thought the truth as supported by data, science, etc, was real lie (as they always do; it’s conspiracy theorist script 101 stuff). If I say power, they say ah but isn’t that also the case for your team? If I say money, same thing.

What I wish I’d said, but didn’t, was that it doesn’t really matter. The fact is that they do. Looking for a motivation when evil people do evil thing is natural. Why do conspiracy theorists come up with outlandish explanations for stuff? I’m sure there’s some great psychology out there that seeks to answer that question.

But functionally, it doesn’t matter. I don’t need to know the ins and outs of their mental state to know their motivations when I can see their actions. This constant search for but what’s the reason behind it all?, especially when it comes to events beyond your immediate control, is natural and human.

Stuff happens. The world is too complicated to understand. Randomness exists. If you have to have a “why”, especially when the “why” is opaque or unknowable, you can find yourself making up reasons or buying into neat and tidy explanations that depart (often quite sharply) from reality.

Usually you’re shielded from the results of believing this crap because we live in a society that has stupidity safety nets, and usually this comes at the cost of everyone else doing the right thing, leaving you, the crank, as a freeloader.

In a pandemic, though, it’s a different story. Antivaxx folks have to be conspiracy theorists not to accept plain facts. And they let their insane beliefs put themselves and their families in harm’s way, prolonging the pandemic to boot.

At this point, it’s a number’s game. If you look at the death rates and ICU rates and think I don’t trust those numbers, I don’t know what to tell you. I’m just playing the odds here. I want to make the odds of me, my friends, my family, and my community surviving this thing without dying, without getting severely sick, without experiencing ongoing symptoms, as high as possible.

You have all the information at your disposal to make the right call. To mitigate, as far as you’re able, the effects of the pandemic in your life and others lives.

If you can’t see that, again, I don’t know what to say to you. It’s right there in front of your face, plain as day.

Maps of Meaning

Bunting Clover Leaf Map

The Bunting Clover Leaf Map is one of my favourite maps, for obvious reasons.

It’s frequently brought up to illustrate how terrible folks were at map-making back in the day; a child could draw a better map from memory, right?

Yet the fact that it’s so obviously out-of-sync with the actual shape of the world is a clue to what this map is meant to do. The fact that it’s plainly and obviously not representative of physical reality should be the first signal that it’s not meant to be representative of physical reality.

We’re used to maps that “map” (thus the name) onto the geometry of reality. These maps are functional. They are tools. They are more or less accurate depending on the type of map, whether a flat projection or a round globe.

In that sense they’re still only representative of physical reality to a point. At some magnification or for some purpose they become useless. Outside of the scope of their instrumentalization, all maps collapse into the category of a bad map, because they can no longer be used in the way that you wish to use them.

So look at the map above. As an instrument, what does it do? Well, it’s plainly not useful in any navigational sense. So its instrumentalization must not be in the category of navigation, at least not physical navigation.

Instead, it’s a map that seeks to represent the meaning of the world as the illustrator understands it. It doesn’t represent physical reality, but instead conceptual reality. This is a metaphysical representation. It shapes the world into something that can be understood as having a focal point.

But there are also glimmers that this map is unable to do what its author intends. Notice America off to the left. What is this place? How does it fit into the author’s conceptual framework? Clearly, it doesn’t, and the author has made no attempt to try to integrate this new continent into their map of meaning.

Here we see a conceptual paradigm ripe for change. The world has gotten bigger and they’re not sure how to deal with it.

This map is a fantastic analogy for our own conceptual categories, whatever those might be. We are gifted a certain worldview or conceptual framework by the cultures we’re born into. Yet we live in a fast-paced, ever-evolving world where new discoveries, new science, new thought, new metaphysics, new cultural experiences and so forth are always popping up on the edges of our maps of meaning, and it’s not always obvious whether our existing maps are capable of integrating them.

At some point it becomes untenable to continue using our inherited maps. At some point we have to recognize that there’s some territory off the right. The world can no longer be represented neatly with Jerusalem as the focal point. This is a difficult position to be in. Inherited conceptual frameworks are comforting. Things that poke at them can feel like attacks.

The thing to know is that friction doesn’t go away. Once you’re aware of America hanging out over there on the edge of the map, you have to do something.

On Cherished Categories and Critique

One recurring pattern I see in contemporary political and social rhetoric is this (quite intentional, I think) collapse of the disease into the patient.

When you diagnose a disease, you presumably want to kill the disease so that the patient might live. It’s true that sometimes the patient is so diseased that a cure is impossible, absolutely.

Importantly, the patient is not their disease.

Yet when you seek to diagnose some cherished conceptual category (masculinity and femininity, inerrancy, capitalism, the nuclear family, etc) the very first thing the gatekeepers of that category do is exactly that: confuse the patient and the disease.

If you say “toxic masculinity”, the gatekeepers of this cherished category without fail misinterpret this (again, I think, quite intentionally) as “all masculinity is toxic”. Yet somehow they can still understand that “rotten apples” doesn’t mean “all apples are rotten”.

Why? Because these cherished categories are, for them, beyond critique. Any critique is an attack. And because their category is cherished and essential, any attack on the category is an attack on them, their community, their way of life, and so forth.

This seems to me a religious response. If your cherished category must not be critiqued, if you view it as essential, foundational, and axiomatic, we’re dealing with doctrine.

For a Christian, this is idolatry, pure and simple. Not only that, you have only to look at the history of Christianity, Second Temple Judaism, through to ancient Israel, to disprove this kind of blind essentialism. If this category exists at all (capitalism obviously doesn’t, for instance), our modern understanding and practice of it would be absolutely unrecognizable. History is, as always, pluralizing.

The problem is that collapsing the patient into its disease prevents diagnosis. Preventing diagnosis prevent curative action. And preventing that action often means the patient simply dies.

That’s the way in which the gatekeepers of a cherished category actually hasten its demise.

On Crisis

Times of crisis reveal true colours.

You may be shocked to learn that all the stuff you were taught about submission to authority, telling the truth, etc, etc, wasn’t about some abstract moral principles at all.

You may find this submission is scoped very narrowly. This unspoken scope is of course “you must submit to me; you must not lie to me; you must not steal from me“.

You may find that the authorities you grew up under (your church, your parents, your work, whatever) have absolutely no intention of practising what they preach. You may find that they will freely disobey the authorities over them when it suits their felt needs.

You may end up rethinking your relationship with authority. You were taught that it was about morality, but it may seem like it’s actually about power.

After all, if rules aren’t for everyone, what’s the point? If morality is relative, how is it morality? Whatever happened to the hysteria about moral relativity we grew up with? Was that also just for other people?

If we had seen a moral, principled, consistent, non-hypocritical response to the pandemic from (e.g.) the evangelical church, it would have been an incredibly witness to the church’s care for both its members and for the world at large.

This ordeal could have been an example of integrity, seriousness, and sound speech. Instead, the opponent is emboldened, as there is much evil to say about us.

On Definitions

I’m not a huge fan of using logical fallacies as a “I win the argument” button, especially informal ones that aren’t always super critical. But one fallacy I see a lot, and am myself prone to, is the No True Scotsman fallacy.

In writing yesterday’s post it occurs to me that when I talk about Christian empires, both Catholic and Protestant, there’s going to be an impulse to say “Ah, well, those were Christian in name only”, or “Catholics aren’t Christians”, or what have you.

I get that. Growing up Reformed it took me a really long time to even admit that Catholics were Christians (which seems odd to say now).

That’s not to say that we have to throw out the definition of Christian entirely. Of course not. Otherwise it’s not super useful to have the definition at all.

But that’s exactly what I’m thinking about right now: The usefulness of definitions.

Definitions are conceptual categories, and as such they’re constructed inside human minds. There’s nothing about, say, a tree that you can examine with a microscope to discover its treeness. That category exists in your head, and only in your head.

But of course you have the concept of tree, and presumably you have that concept because it’s in some way useful to you, or at the very least you’ve inherited it as part of a cultural legacy (and you can imagine for yourself how treeness might seem different to a carpenter versus a biologist).

One of the uses of definitions is to structure power. One of the ways the Nazi state structured power was to exclude types of people from its definition of human. Once of the ways that American state structured power before its civil war was to categorize Black people as property. One of the ways that Christian empires structured power was to categorize non-European indigenous people as savages.

Now, the ways that we structure power don’t necessarily lead to genocide and exploitation. But it sure would be nice if we could be aware that it can.

When you seek to exclude, say, Christian empires from your definition of what it means to be Christian, you structure power in your own favour. That is to say, you benefit from that, in this case quite immediately, since you no longer have to explain how your religious beliefs can either lead to or be coopted by Empire.

A few examples (unfortunately mostly about culture war stuff, forgive me):

There’s a persistent meme amongst Young Earth Creationists that evolution is just a theory. Now, in some senses, this is trivial confusion about what the word theory means in a scientific context versus what it means in casual, everyday speech. But this meme was started, I think quite intentionally, by people who absolutely should know better, who are aware of this discrepancy in language, and are exploiting it to give folks the appearance of epistemological cover. After all, if we exclude from the definition of theory all the stuff about testing and evidence and observation and falsifiability, it suddenly becomes easy to equate a scientific theory with a naive reading of a religious text.

Or take gender. Right now we have skirmishes over what does it mean to be a man and what does it mean to be a woman and can you be neither of these. What is this but a debate over definitions? Traditionalists try to smush sex and gender together into a binary; progressives try the opposite.

How about abortion? The entire debate hinges on a definition: When does life start? Pro-life folks try to push the definition of life as far back as possible (sometimes as far as conception, which I find both logically and scripturally unsupportable, but you understand the impulse to do so, right?), and pro-choice folks do the opposite. Nominally, pro-life folks are doing this to prevent a child’s death, and pro-choice folks are doing this to protect a mother’s bodily autonomy, though considering that both these positions are leveraged by political parties as wedge issues, I’d say that’s very much what the debate means, but not what the debate does.

I could go on.

The point, anyways, is that definitions are powerful. Conceptual categories are important. They have real effects in the world, and we ignore them at our peril.

That’s not to say any of these things are real, per se. All definitions, all conceptual categories, are constructed in some way. They can be structured in different ways, with different effects. The real question is who benefits.

On Fear II

Yesterday I gave what I thought was the most charitable interpretation of this fear for the end of the church in the west. Today, a less charitable interpretation. And, I think, a more realistic one.

The church in the west has inherited a legacy of incredible influence. Or to put it another way, power. From the Roman Catholic church’s political and military height, where it held an almost unimaginable amount of influence over European polities, to the empires, both Catholic and Protestant, that spanned the globe.

If you choose, you can get granular and break this down into the individual structures use to propagate and perpetuate this power (empire, state churches, colonization, whiteness, heteronormativity, patriarchy).

Or you can just acknowledge that there is a certain type of person who has inherited this legacy (white, male, Christian).

Now, the church as an institution has been forced to move from nakedly structuring power using force, at least for the most part. Since the rise of the enlightenment in the west, the church has gradually been forced to structure power more subtly by leaning on ideology.

In this case, I mean ideology as in the anointing of particular definitions as Biblical or Christian or what have you. When you adopt Biblical Womanhood or a Christian Worldview (for example) as defined by the institutional church, you are participating in that structuring. Whether that womanhood is actually biblical, or that worldview is actually Christian is largely beside the point.

The end result is the same. Militarily or ideologically, we see the same sorts of people ascendant at the top of this pyramid.

And the people who are invested in a doom-and-gloom outlook on the church in the west, at least in my experience, are exactly these people.

So I have to ask: Are you concerned with the wellbeing of the church of Jesus Christ? Or are you concerned with your cherished categories being disrupted at the cost of your own social standing and influence? Are you concerned about people? Or just people that look and act like you?

I think a lot of the paranoia and neurosis about persecution and tyranny in the church springs from exactly that (not to mention the extremely way Christians often demand to be taken seriously by the “educated elite”). It’s not a loss of life. It’s a loss of social standing.

I’d recommend reading Richard Beck’s The Slavery Of Death if you want to understand more why this sort of existential dread produces a death anxiety that inevitably leads to sin.

On Fear

No matter how often it happens (often!) I never cease to be amazed by how we’re all driven to our moral/ethical stances by circumstance and practice and community. This goes, by the way, for me, you, elected officials, pastors, educators, etc. No one is immune, not even (and perhaps especially) moral philosophers.

The problem is this dog-wagging is easy to spot in others and incredibly difficult to see in ourselves. After all, our cognitive bias is to assume that we’re correct, but even further, that we’re good people with good opinions.

I recently read a blog post by a pastor bemoaning the utter destruction of the church due to COVID restrictions, going on and on about how the church is being laid low by this overblown response.

Lots of problems with this. Not the least of which is trying to protect the church as an institution over and above the parishioner and clergy that make up that church, without whom there is no church.

To my eyes, this lack of wisdom on the part of this minister is astonishing. But you can see how you’d get there, right? Your livelihood depends on the church. It pays your bills. It pays the bills of others like you. How can you help but feel immediately and existentially threatened when people stop showing up?

This is the most charitable way I can read these sorts of things. I see a person who is fundamentally scared and pessimistic about the future of the church in general, and their church in particular. And that orientation drives belief.

Imagine looking at the facts, at the statistics, at the death toll for this disease, and still saying “Yes, some of you may die, but that’s a chance I am willing to take”.

Well that’s horrible. You obviously can’t do that. So instead you choose the third path: Downplay the facts, buy into the conspiracy theories, start to believe that it’s all an overblown hoax.

You believe what you have to believe.

There’s a fourth path, of course. But it’s difficult, and if you have a gloom-and-doom disposition (as clergy often and oddly seem to), it’s going to be a bit of an emotional workout. Especially if your eschatology leans toward the dispensational.

The path is faith. If you believe, as I assume you do, that Christ is the head of his church, and that your God is all-powerful and at work in the world, and that the gates of hell cannot prevail against the church, why are you so worried?

Do you honestly think this is the end of the church in the west? Do you really have that little confidence in this thing that you’ve given your life to?

I find it ironic when Christian folks talk about COVID in terms of a “spirit of fear”, because I think more than anything, their rejection of the mitigation efforts (lockdowns, masks, vaccines, whatever) is rooted in exactly that. It seems to me, rather plainly, to be a fear of tyranny, fear of the end of the church, fear of persecution, fear of government, fear of the future and on and on.

I’m choosing to take this fourth path. I think whatever emerges on the other side of the pandemonium will be the better for it. Maybe this will help us shed some of the toxicity that’s made the church, especially the western evangelical church, so hard to root for.

Maybe I only believe that because I have to. But I’d rather be optimistic and be wrong than be made a fool by fear.

Justifying baptism

I wrote this blog post on baptism nearly fifteen years ago.

That’s a long time. Reading the post is sort of weird. I don’t really recognize my own voice or fingerprints in that post, at least for the most part. There’s bits in there that still sound like me, but it might as well have been written by anyone.

But let’s not dwell on that more than we have to. I have enough grey in my beard already.

Let’s talk about what I was doing in that post, instead. I’m pretty clearly trying to apologize (in the sense of offer up an argument for) infant baptism, using covenants and continuity as my justifications.

But why am I doing that?

Well, I think there are at least a few things going on here. First, infant baptism is hard to support directly from scripture. The Anabaptist claim is simpler, more direct, and requires less framework-style theology. That’s not to say it’s not as laden with assumptions as infant baptism, but that the theology is simpler.

I think this is one of the reasons (though not the only one) why evangelicals in the Americas are overwhelmingly adult baptists. You don’t come to evangelicalism, let’s be honest here, for its deep doctrinal traditions. It’s the “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” strain of Christianity. Simple is better.

Second, I was raised an infant baptist, and continue to prefer that tradition (though I belong to a church that is, at least nominally, Baptist).

Third, and most importantly, in that post I have ideological commitments that make it necessary for me to justify that preference or belief or doctrine or whatever you like to call it. My rhetorical goal in that post is to offer up a scriptural defence of infant baptism, but that rhetorical goal is driven by prior ideological commitments.

One of those commitments is, roughly, if the church does something it must be justified against the pages of scripture. This is the milieu I was raised in, a usually unspoken tenet. A sort of jacked-up sola scriptura. There were looser and stricter adherence to the tenet (FRC, if I recall correctly, would only sing Psalms, but URC would sing psalms and hymns), but the tenet itself was inviolable. The structure of the service had to be justified from scripture, etc, etc, etc.

It was exhausting.

It was also bullshit.

The problem was the test failed its own test. After all, if the church does something it must be justified is itself something that the church does, and cannot be justified. It’s just tradition rolled up in a carpet and snuck in the side door.

It provides intellectual cover, if you don’t look too hard, for the thus far but no further crowd, who view everything from the past as sacred and everything from the present and the future as an abomination.

Which, I mean, fine. You can keep the same church service from the 1940s or whatever. No one’s trying to make you change it, except maybe your kids. Just be honest about it and stop investing your sense of personal holiness in the way your parents and grandparents did church.

Because at the end of the day, this scriptural justification… you can’t do it. You can’t do it. You just can’t do it.

Infant baptists, adult baptists, whatever baptists can’t do it. There’s, at best, very little Biblical data to support your position. Your position comes from somewhere else. From your upbringing, your preferences, your intellectual orientation, your culture, your tradition, whatever.

Catholics and Anglicans and Orthodox all get this. They lean as much on tradition as they do on the Bible. This is, I think, the more honest approach. The corpus of stuff the church does is as much, and probably more, decided on by the church itself through time as it is directly plucked from the pages of scripture.

My current thinking is this: The church has, historically, decided on infant baptism for various reasons. Those reasons are not all great, because the historical church didn’t have access to the breadth and depth of scholarship we have now. But baptizing infants is a way of connecting with the traditions and practices of the church through time, at least for me. I think adopting the Anabaptist tradition does violence to those traditions, especially when it tacitly assumes that a) we have to justify our practices from the Bible and the Bible only, which, again, fails its own test, and b) that the best reading of the Bible is the most naive one.

The best we can say is you have to do it. The how and where and when? You and your community decide.

Arguments that frustrate

If you’re making an argument, you should want your argument to be taken in good faith.

But in order to do that you need to make good faith arguments.

A lot of what I see happening online (and this isn’t recent, by the way, it’s happened since at least since I was on the internet, which is pretty much since the beginning of the world wide web) is folks making arguments not because they believe them, but because they believe their opponents will be unable to refute them.

A common antivax argument goes, “Woah woah woah, what about bodily autonomy? What about my body, my choice? Why should I have to get a vaccine?”

To be clear, antivaxxers do not believe this argument. They do not believe in bodily autonomy in the same way they imagine their opponents do (whether or not that’s true). They’re not speaking out of some deep respect for anyone’s bodily autonomy, if they even understand what that means.

They make this argument not to convince, but to frustrate. That’s the definition of a bad faith argument. There’s no way you can take this kind of logic seriously because no one in the discussion actually believes it.

Personally, I think there’s some ideological underpinnings here (leaning on Eco’s Ur-Fascism and Sartre’s view of anti-Semitic speech), in that some ideologies simply don’t take their own words seriously. Or, to put it another way, they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert.

A note on viruses

I’ve heard a few folks say “oh well I’m not worried about COVID variants, you see, as viruses mutate, they get less deadly.”

But this doesn’t make sense. If that were the case, we’d have no deadly viruses at all. Think about where the first COVID pathogen came from. Did it spring up, fully formed, ex nihilo? No, it mutated from something else. Maybe a virus in bats, maybe not. It doesn’t really matter.

Allele frequency, which is what these mutations are, changes in allele frequency, isn’t sentient. It doesn’t have a plan. It’s not trying to get somewhere. As mutations happen, they either make the virus better at reproducing, or they don’t. Deadliness is really a sort of knock-on effect.

If it were the case that mutations decrease deadlines, again, we’d have no deadly viruses, because all viruses are related to eachother and have been piling up these mutations for many, many years. If that were indeed the case, we’d see no new viral diseases develop at all.