Learn By Example

A friend of mine once told me that his favorite Bible verse was from Chapter 6 of the Book of Job:

“Oh that my grief were throughly weighed, and my calamity laid in the balances together!
For now it would be heavier than the sand of the sea: therefore my words are swallowed up. For the arrows of the Almighty are within me, the poison whereof drinketh up my spirit: the terrors of God do set themselves in array against me.”

What he liked about this verse is that it helped put his own troubles into perspective. The calamities that befell Job were so great that it makes our own pale in comparison.

A similar philosophy was espoused by Lucretius in On the Nature of Things when he stated that it is pleasant to watch a shipwreck from the safety of the shore. There is no misanthropic impulse behind that statement, just the recognition that people are subject to all sorts of misfortune and that we are fortunate when we are not getting the worst of it.

Polybius went even further. According to him, “the only method of learning how to bear bravely the vicissitudes of fortune, is to recall the calamities of others.” Is it really the only method? This seems like a step to far. Religion and stoicism spring to mind as two possible ways to learn how to cope with disaster that may not require looking to examples of unfortunate others. To be sure, both of them rely on examples to some extent (e.g. Job, the saints, Socrates, etc.) But I am not sure that they need them to be effective.

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Beer of the week: Blue Moon Rounder – My past experience with Blue Moon didn’t prevent me from trying this beer. Perhaps it should have. This Belgian-style pale ale is not much to write home about. The photo shows how clear this beer is. This is a bit surprising since there actually is some wheat in the recipe. The smell is fairly bland and grainy. It tastes primarily of malt, but there is just a hint of spice in the finish. The name comes from the idea that one could drink several rounds of this beer. I suppose that this would be a fine beer to drink a half-dozen of in a sitting. There is something to be said for that.

Reading of the week: The Histories by Polybius – At the very beginning of his greatest work, Polybius announces that he does not need to commend the study of history because “all historians, one may say without exception, and in no half-hearted manner… have impressed on us that the soundest education and training for a life of active politics is the study of History.”

Question of the week: Is there any other method for learning to face disaster than to look to the examples of others?

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He who has given takes away

The only time I was ever in an ambulance was when I suffered a broken nose and several fractures to my upper maxilla. As a consequence of those injuries, I had my jaw wired shut for quite a while. To add insult to injury, I found that when the wires were finally removed my jaw muscles had become so tight that I still could not open my mouth. I was so looking forward to solid food, but would have to wait another week.

My disappointment at that time stands in stark contrast to my state of mind while sitting in the ambulance. I had just been reading Epictetus shortly before the injuries occurred, so I had an idea fresh in my head: “If, for example, you are fond of a specific ceramic cup, remind yourself that it is only ceramic cups in general of which you are fond. Then, if it breaks, you will not be disturbed.” So I thought to myself (no fooling, I actually thought this,) “if your face gets broken, you shouldn’t be disturbed. Faces occasionally break, but that is beyond your control.”

I now suspect that I was simply in shock. Once I was at the emergency room, I was miserable. Not very stoic at all. I am not sure that Epictetus would have been more possessed than I was, but he certainly talks a big game. After saying that you shouldn’t be upset if your cup breaks, he says that the same is true of your wife and children. “If you kiss your child, or your wife, say that you only kiss things which are human, and thus you will not be disturbed if either of them dies.” Brutal.

Since Epictetus was a crippled ex-slave who never married, it is impossible to say how he would actually react to losing a wife or child. Job, however, presents an interesting look at the way a Stoic responds to such a loss. To be sure, Job is a very difficult book to understand and it is arguable that Job’s reliance on faith is somehow opposed to the stoic’s reliance on reason. However, Job certainly starts out sounding like Epictetus.

Epictetus: He who has given takes away… [You say,] “I would have my little children with me and my wife.” What, are they yours? do they not belong to the Giver, and to Him who made you? then will you not give up what belongs to others?

Job (upon learning of the death of his children): The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.

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Beer of the week: Blue Moon Belgian White – Incidentally, the same year that I took that ambulance ride, I also stole a few Blue Moons from some friends while playing a prank on them. I sincerely doubt that there was any karmic relationship between the two events. Blue Moon is meant to be a Belgian-style wheat ale. The aroma is sweet and yeasty, with just a hint of fruit. Typical of the style, this unfiltered beer is pale and very hazy. Overall, Blue Moon is rather bland. There is a distinct wheat flavor, but it is similar to that of a water cracker. There is a tiny bit of spice on the back end, but not enough to salvage this beer.

Reading of the week: The Book of Job, Chapter 6 – Job may come across as a stoic at first, but I could hardly imagine Epictetus saying “Oh that my grief were throughly weighed, and my calamity laid in the balances together! For now it would be heavier than the sand of the sea!” On a bad day, this chapter is great for putting life into perspective.

Question of the week: Is it really possible to suffer a significant loss and not be disturbed? If somebody important to you died, could you simply shrug it off as Epictetus suggests, or would you curse your lot as Job did?


Miracles, Schmiracles!

I went to Catholic primary and secondary school. Being a non-Catholic and something of a free-thinker, I occasionally caused my Religion teachers grief.

One such occasion was the result of a multiple choice test question:

Jesus came especially for ____________.
A. the poor
B. the rich
C. the Jews
D. none of the above

I answered D. none of the above. I’d always heard that Jesus came to save everybody.*  The answer that my teacher wanted was A. the poor. The Catholics have a doctrine called “the option for the poor”. My teacher knew the phrase, if not its origin or meaning. As a result, I was unable to get partial credit for my answer, even though I could explain why my answer was the right one. I could even explain how answer C was also correct. In the Book of Matthew, Jesus says specifically that he came for the Jews and refers to gentiles as dogs:

He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.

Another religion class run-in occurred when one of my teachers learned that there is a bush that produces volatile oils. In the summer, in hot climes, the oils sometimes ignite and burn away without damaging the bush. My teacher proudly proclaimed that this was surely the type of thing that happened in the story of Moses and the burning bush. This was proof that the Moses story is real!

I pointed out, however, that if the burning bush is explained rationally, it loses all of its meaning. In the Bible, the burning bush is a miracle, not a horticultural oddity. If the story is about a guy witnessing an interesting plant doing what interesting plants occasionally do, who cares? For the Moses story to have an impact, the burning bush has to be a miraculous.

I’ve seen this same thing done with the crossing of the Red Sea and the Seven Plagues. Some people take these explanations as proof that the Biblical accounts are real. But explaining the miracles does not make the story more believable, it only makes the story less meaningful.

 

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Beer of the Week: Long Trail Belgian White – Although there is technically a few weeks of summer left, this sure feels like the end. There are still summer beers to be had though. Light, refreshing wheat beers are a popular summer choice. This unfiltered wheat beer is much like most other wheat beers I’ve reviewed: cloudy, sweet, citrusy. But there is something about the flavor that I can’t quite put my finger on. I think that the coriander that Long Trail uses imparts an earthy finish that I does not work for me.  Overall, I don’t think I like this beer very much.

Reading of the week: Thomas Jefferson to Dr. Joseph Priestley – This letter, from the author of the Declaration of Independence to the man who discovered oxygen is, predictably, very interesting. The topic, however, is not politics or science; it is religion. In the letter, Jefferson outlines a project to compare the moral teachings of Jesus to those of ancient philosophers. In so doing, he would leave out any miracles or divinity and view Jesus as a philosopher rather than a messiah.

Question of the week: Questions of divinity and miracles aside, how do the teachings of Jesus hold up when compared with the teachings of ancient philosophers?

*One Lutheran pastor I knew held a particularly interesting (and thoroughly heterodox) belief: Jesus died for the forgiveness of all sins, even those not confessed or repented. The logical conclusion is that all people are saved. And, what’s more, salvation cannot be lost or avoided. There is nobody in hell because God has forgiven all sin, even the most vile or obstinate.


Affluent Need Not Apply

And again I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” When his disciples heard, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, “With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.

There are two interpretations of this passage from Matthew 19 that I have heard many times. Both of which I find incompatible with the actual text.

One interpretation is to assume that the meaning of “eye of a needle” is not obvious. Some people claim that “the eye of the needle” was actually the name of a small outer gate. Camels, being large and difficult to handle, could only be made to pass through this small gate with great effort. This interpretation is popular with those who wish to be rich themselves, since it means that rich men are not literally incapable of achieving salvation; it is only more difficult.

As far as I know, there is no historical evidence to support the term “eye of the needle” meaning a small gate. (So sayeth Wikipedia.) More importantly, this interpretation makes no sense in context. Why would the disciples be “exceedingly amazed” if Jesus described something that was only a minor inconvenience? And then why would Jesus go on to state that “with men this is impossible”?  I have heard in defense of this interpretation that the gate was actually too small for camels, so it was impossible for a camel to pass through. In that case, why bother looking for a different meaning for the term “eye of the needle”? Impossible is impossible and it makes no real difference whether it is the eye of a needle, a one inch hole or a door that is slightly too small.

And if the final conclusion is that rich men actually are incapable of salvation, that brings us to the next interpretation: that it is simply impossible for the rich to enter heaven. The syllogism is simple:

It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God;
A camel absolutely cannot pass through the eye of a needle; Therefore,
A rich man cannot enter into the kingdom of God.

Of course, this ignores the next line: “With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.” Applying this line to the result of our earlier syllogism:

A rich man cannot enter into the kingdom of God;
With God all things are possible; Therefore,
With God a rich man may enter into the kingdom of God.

So there you have it. The salvation of the rich is possible, but requires a miracle from God.

Tsingtao Draft

Beer of the Week: Tsingtao Pure Draft – This Chinese beer is very pale, very clear, and very boring. It is promising to see Asian brewers starting to make rice-free beer, but this one is a dud. There is some malty sweetness but very little hops. It almost comes off as an attempt at a beer flavored soft drink.

Reading of the Week: Epictetus and Seneca by Walter Savage Landor – Emerson wrote of Landor, “He has a wonderful brain, despotic, violent, and inexhaustible, meant for a soldier, by what chance converted to letters, in which there is not a style nor a tint not known to him, yet with an English appetite for action and heroes.” His appetite for action and heroes and his command of style are evident in his Imaginary Conversations of Greeks and Romans. In this dialogue between the great stoic philosophers Epictetus and Seneca, Epictetus really gives Seneca the business for thinking that he can be both rich and a philosopher. “Fortune cares little about philosophers; but she remembers where she hath set a rich man, and she laughs to see the Destinies at his door.”

Question of the Week: How far can the parallels between Mark 19 and Epictetus and Seneca be drawn? In what way is Christian salvation like philosophy? Are the rich barred from both for the same reasons?


The First Shall Be Last

I recently read an article about a Quaker church picketing Wendy’s because of the company’s failure to sign an agreement with a farm worker’s union to pay more money for tomatoes. Why, you might ask, should a company voluntarily pay more than market price for produce? The answer is simple, to keep from getting protested. The concept is sold as “stopping the exploitation of migrant workers,” but there can be little doubt that when the pen meets the paper, the agreement is strictly about public relations and extortion. That is, extortion in the form of: “if you don’t pay us, we will picket your restaurant.”

I would like to pause here to address the bile I’ve surely raised in some of my readers. First, I am simultaneously grateful that I have never had to pick tomatoes in the Florida sun and very appreciative of the men and women who do that job every day. Second, I definitely support unions as a free association of people with a common interest. I also support the concept of peacefully protesting. The First Amendment covers both of these and it is good to see people exercise their Constitutional rights while they still exist. (The fact that union king pins often end up exploiting workers just as much as anybody else and the dangers of protests giving way to mob mentality and vandalism are simply unfortunate realities that must be contended with.)

But all that isn’t what I want to write about. What really interests me about the news article is the focus on Quakers. Quakers, as it happens, are among my favorite Christians. They were also a favorite of Leo Tolstoy’s. Quakers are peaceful and educated, and they also founded my home state. However, they seem to have forgotten their parables. The article claims that the Quakers were protesting “unequal pay in the fields.” In the Gospel according to St. Matthew, Jesus tells a story about a man who hired a number of workers to pick fruit in his vineyard. (“Why does that sound familiar?” you wonder.) Well these workers labored for varying amounts of time, but when it came time to pay them, everybody got the same amount. Those who worked all day were understandably miffed. But the landowner laid down some heavy logic on them:  they don’t have a legitimate gripe with the landowner since they had freely agreed to work for that pay. They have no right to be upset at the landowner for not paying them more because they hadn’t been tricked or coerced in any way. They got exactly what they had bargained for.

Beer of the Week: Apostel Bräu – The text of the Gospels doesn’t make it clear that Jesus told his parables to the Apostles over a tall glass of beer, but I think it is heavily implied. Apostel Bräu is clearly not the same as the beer the Apostles would have had since it only dates back to 1713. Like almost all German beers (regardless of the truth of the matter,) the makers of Apostel Bräu claim to brew in accordance with the traditional German Purity Law or Reinheitsgebot. With these appeals to tradition, the beer’s name, and the “stained glass” design, the can evokes thoughts of the old brewery/monasteries. Unfortunately, this beer is no match for a true abbey beer. The beer itself seems quite modern in the sense that it is bland and inoffensive. It is not bad, just absolutely unremarkable.

Reading for the Week: The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-15) – Of course the parable isn’t really about economics. The point of the parable is that heaven is not earned through righteousness in this life. The righteous therefore should not begrudge the wicked their salvation; the salvation of the wicked is a greater mercy and more fitting  for a benevolent God. But I prefer the economic lesson: there is nothing unjust about a voluntary transaction between informed, free parties.

Question for the week: I think that the interpretation of the parable in the paragraph above (that heaven is not earned) is thoroughly in keeping with the teachings of Luther. But seems likely to rub some sects the wrong way. What other meaning could that parable have?


Work as Virtue

When Adam disobeyed the Lord in the garden, what was his punishment? He had to get a job. (To say nothing of the punishment of having to wear pants.) Until that first sin, there was no such thing in the world as labor. Actually having to work is the punishment that men endure because of original sin. No longer do all good things simply spring up from the ground, but bread must be earned “by the sweat of one’s brow.”

As an American, however, I was raised in the shadow of the “Puritan work ethic.” Labor has been transformed from a punishment to a solemn duty. According to Albert Jay Nock in his scathing Our Enemy the State, “this erection of labour into a Christian virtue per se, this investment of work with a special religious sanction, was an invention of Puritanism.” As England changed from Catholic feudalism to a Puritan merchant state, what is more natural than the emerging merchant class teaching the working class that God wants them to embrace labor? What better way to ensure a productive workforce than to tell them that hard work is a religious mandate?

As compelling as Nock is, I am unable to give up on hard work as a virtue. It seems to build character and, if viewed properly, teaches valuable lessons about patience, the value of time, and myriad other things. The sticking point for me is the idea that it is a religious virtue. I agree with Nock that “there is no hint that God would take it amiss if one preferred to do little work and put up with a poor living, for the sake of doing something else with one’s time.”

So work hard and enjoy the proceeds (both tangible or otherwise) of your labor. Or don’t work hard and enjoy that.

Beer of the Week: Dos Equis Amber Lager – Dos Equis Amber Lager has a dark cream head, almost tan, that hangs around for much longer than expected. The beer itself is surprisingly clear for how dark it is. The smell is dominated by bready malts. The taste is very much the same. There is not much hops to speak of, but a full, rich malt profile makes this beer a winner. There is a lingering sweetness that might be just a bit too much, but otherwise, this is a darn good beer. I am glad somebody worked hard to make it.

Reading of the week: Our Enemy The State by Albert Jay Nock – Nock has a very firm and critical grasp of history and his willingness to take on deeply seated beliefs and ideas is very impressive. This reading shows of both of these qualities. Nock writes that “the best witness to the essential character of the Puritan movement in England and America is the thoroughness with which its doctrine of work has pervaded both literatures, all the way from Cromwell’s letters to Carlyle’s panegyric and Longfellow’s verse.”

Since the beer is “Two X’s” and Nock specifically mentions Longfellow, I include:

Bonus reading: The Village Blacksmith by H. W. Longfellow – This poem is a perfect illustration of what Nock wrote about Longfellow and the Puritan work doctrine. The smith loves his family and is a godly man, but his paramount virtue is his labor. He is a hero because he works hard “Week in, week out, from morn till night” and like Adam, the smithy’s “brow is wet with honest sweat.”

Question of the week: I feel a strong resistance to Nock, but I cannot put it into words. Is that because there actually is something wrong with Nock’s characterization of work ethic, or is it because I have been thoroughly indoctrinated?