Sunday, August 21, 2005


Originally uploaded by jon fobes.
Excuse me while I kiss the sky.

Sunday, January 30, 2005


Originally uploaded by jonfobes.
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Tuesday, December 14, 2004

The Yoke of Slavery

Dear -----,

I just had the chance to read the highlighted scriptures you copied for me and saw your note: “This is a rather Emersonian argument that exalts freedom and says the rules were a temporary expedient until maturity is reached.” I would agree that's very Emersonian.

The passage indicated was Galations 4, 5: “Our mother is the free woman. It is for freedom that Christ set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and refuse to submit again to the yoke of slavery.”

This reminds me of the question in regards troublesome or secular thoughts, which I don’t believe we ever resolved. The question was: “What thoughts are dangerous and should be banned from the adult mind or resolved ‘properly’ through science, philosophy or scripture?” I am not talking about actions, but thoughts. And the adult mind I am thinking of is not the mind of a madman or criminal.

I am reminded of a passage I read recently by Marilynne Robinson:

“Evidence is always construed, and it is always liable to being misconstrued no matter how much care is exercised in collecting and evaluating it. At best, our understanding of any historical moment is significantly wrong, and this should come as no surprise, since we have little grasp of any present moment. The present is elusive for the same reason as the past. There are no true boundaries around it, no limit to the number of factors at work in it.”

So, I am left to wonder: How can we praise the idea that we’ve been set free and then set up absolute ideas to which we must adhere? Or does the passage suggest that it’s wrong when “the yoke of slavery” is placed on us by others but OK when placed on us by ourselves?


PS. I like this passage, too, because it gets at what I was saying when I said, “The adult mind I am thinking of is not the mind of a madman or criminal.”

Galatians 4, 13 reads: “You, my friends, were called to be free; only beware of turning your freedom into license for your unspiritual nature.” This indicates you’re doing OK if you’re using your freedom in service of your spiritual nature … and this opens up myriad areas that don’t depend on accepting Jesus as the son of God.


I must include this delightful passage, which I just came across in Joseph Campbell’s book, “Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation.” He’s talking about Jung’s view of social roles and writes:

“The whole personal complex includes your moral principles. Ethics and social mores are internalized as part of the persona order, and Jung tells us that you must take that lightly. Just remember, Adam and Eve fell when they learned the difference between good and evil. So the way to get back is not to know the difference. That’s an obvious lesson, but it’s not one that’s very clearly preached from pulpits. Yet Christ told his disciples, ‘Judge not, that ye may not be judged.’ You judge according to your persona context, and you will be judged in terms of it. Unless you can learn to look beyond the local dictates of what is right and what is wrong, you’re not a complete human being. You’re just a part of that particular social order.”

Friday, December 10, 2004

When More is More

“I want to overhear passionate arguments about what we are and what we are doing and what we ought to do. I want to feel that art is an utterance made in good faith by one human being to another. I want to believe there are geniuses scheming to astonish the rest of us, just for the pleasure of it. I miss civilization, and I want it back.” — Marilynne Robinson, “The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought”

Dear ------,

I dug out my one and only Marcus Borg book today, which I got off the PD book cart for $2. It's called "The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith — How We can be Passionate Believers Today." I had heard of Borg and wondered what he had to say for himself. So I bought a "title" I wouldn't normally touch.

Before I get to my main point, let me share the passage I mentioned the other night about the variety of Christian belief:

"We can perceive Christian diversity in the various cultural forms that Christianity has taken. To illustrate without seeking to be comprehensive: there is a second-century Syrian way of being Christian, an eighth-century Irish way, a twelfth-century Eastern Orthodox way, a fifteenth-century Chinese way, and a nineteenth-century Scandinavian Lutheran peasant way.

"There is theological diversity as well. Without explaining the differences, there were, from the early days of Christianity, Arian and Athanasian Christians, Monophysite and non-Monophysite Christians, predestination and non-predestination Christians, infant-baptisim and adult-baptisim Christians. Being Christian therefore canít be about getting our beliefs ëright,í even though we have often acted that way.

"The point is, there is no single right way of understanding Christianity and no single right way of being a Christian."

So that's interesting. It reveals an open-mindedness I did not expect to find. So the title is a bit misleading — I'd like to think he was trying to suck in pious people and enlighten them with his slightly more open-minded views. So again we're back to someone's enlightenment project.


Now let me introduce Borg's idea of "more." In a section on worldviews, Borg says that while there are as many worldviews as there are cultures and subcultures, there are two primary ones: religious worldviews and nonreligious worldviews.

He said the religious worldview hinges on the belief that, metaphysically speaking, there's something more than this life alone, while the nonreligious view sees this world as all there is. But this fails to recognize a third alternative: that there's already a "more" that does not depend on metaphysics or theology for its existence; indeed, it's this "more" that gives theology its existence, purpose and meaning in the first place!

Let me elaborate by turning to a book called, "The Van Gogh Blues: The Creative Person's Path Through Depression," by Eric Maisel. This shorthand description speaks volumes about the "more." Maisel says: "We don't know the secret of our own genetics, how easy or hard it is for us to change our basic nature, or how our beliefs are woven together. This X factor produces, if not utter mystery, enough mystery that our understanding of who we are is obscured and limited." And the X factor doesn't simply obscure our knowledge of ourselves, it reaches out in many directions.

This leads to an observation from Emerson: "The true path to spiritual reality lay in and through the structure of the human mind. The character of each man shall form his Imagination. The Beings of the Imagination shall become objects of unshaken faith, that is, to his mind, Realities."

If we could make Emerson and Maisel speak in one voice for a moment: "Recognizing the X factor means recognizing the limits of our understanding; to deny the X factor is to overestimate our ability to know; it means forgetting forget about the relationship between imagination and faith — that ideas and stories become realities in our minds for reasons beyond our control."

The True Believer is truly in the grip of his own psychology.

In short, there's always much more to life and to ourselves than we can grasp; so secular life becomes religious for those who recognize their limitations.


Which is to say: The unfathomable nature of all this complexity creates a "more" that does not require a deity for its existence. The "more" forms over time from myriad evolving situations, coincidences, accidents, mishaps and mistakes — or by the conscious efforts of certain individuals or groups — and it can be left in place, studied and appreciated; it can inspire, enthuse and sustain. Indeed, to explain it away by invoking a deity would — ironically! — diminish its religious quality by making the "more" less.

In "On James," Robert Talisse and D. Micah Hester explain that William James shied away from embracing either religious or empirical worldviews because they result in what he called a "Block Universe."

James contends that such views, "commit the same error insofar as they turn away from the vagaries of lived experience for the sake of theorizing a world that is finished, complete and tame. Yet experience teaches that our world is not a finished, rational whole and not reducible to the scientists' atoms and laws; we live, instead in a 'half-wild, half-saved universe' in which 'possibilities, not finished facts, are the realities with he have actively to deal.'" So again, the X factor looms large.


So I would say Borg has it backwards: The "more" gives rise to confusion, complexity and ambiguity — it keeps giving rise to more, more, more — while it's the business of theology to make the "more" less through absolute-truth claims.

By putting a fixed meaning on the X factor, theology makes the world seem like an understandable and comprehensible place — but less awesome and inspirational. So the stunningly secular life — if free of absolute beliefs — can be the most religious life of all by allowing the "more" to remain truly more. What would Borg say about that?


I am once again urging that complexity remain central to human life. Or perhaps I am saying that humility should remain central to human life — and it will if we realize we can't separate our worldview from our interests and values.

This doesn't mean we're incapable of learning complex things, making hard decisions, solving great mysteries or even discovering the truth. It just means that even if we should stumble on the truth, we can't know that we know it. To think that we know when we don't or to think that we know when we really just believe — these are indulgences we must abandon if we want to truly recognize and benefit from the "more." When we diminish the "more" we diminish ourselves.

In other words, belief is always wishful in nature; we project our hopes on the world and pull back "facts" and doctrines. Perhaps this is unavoidable. But it's not the hallmark of wisdom: It has little to do with diversity and nothing to do with enlightenment.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004


Originally uploaded by jonfobes51.
Just to show that I don't take myself too seriously, here's toga-party proof.

I include this under pressure from a variety of people who are more interested in wild parties and goofy pictures than views on belief, and who can blame them — I am, too!

Here fellow Poynter student Peggy Shaw feeds me grapes at Roy Peter Clark's 1979 toga party. I wouldn't be surprised if Roy took the picture.

Saturday, October 23, 2004


Originally uploaded by jonfobes.
NOTE: E-mail to Plain Dealer editor Doug Clifton about a column he wrote for The Plain Dealer forum page to go with a project we’d been working on, pairing quotes from readers who bashed us — or stopped the paper — for being too liberal and pro-Kerry with quotes from other readers who bashed us as being too conservative and pro-Bush.

Read the column: To some folks 'be fair' means 'agree with me'

You wrote a very interesting column to go with all those reader quotes. I hope it made some people realize that bias is more in the eye of the beholder than on the pages of their newspaper.

I have long had a passionate interest in why people believe what they do. It flared in college during the reading of countless works of literature (you can’t get a master’s in English without reading a few mind-blowing novels) and erupted into a volcano of enthusiasm for philosophy and psychology after the dissolution of a 10-year marriage to a person who, though a journalist herself, never grasped the distinction between fact and opinion, at least not in regards her own concrete ideas. In short, like many of our readers, she was convinced of her completely correct views on a wide variety of topics. “Case closed, end of story,” was her mantra.

I can testify: Living with that for 10 years will get you thinking about the psychology of belief! And in the 10 years since I fled that miscarriage of a marriage, I have done lots of reading and writing on the topic, and I believe I’ve learned something, which you touched on in your column.


I think those “filter-equipped eyeglasses” you wrote about are quite common and powerful and come with a variety of lenses. Moreover, and ironically, the people with the thickest lenses are the ones who forget they’re wearing glasses. Which is to say: The more powerful the conviction, the greater the claims of objectivity — the more a person gets lost in his opinion, the more he thinks he’s “just facing facts” and “telling it like it is.”

In other words, to go back to your column, I am not saying we should not have “personal views” and beliefs, but I am saying that as journalists — and as mature adults and careful thinkers — we should, “be aware of them and guard against letting those views influence our judgment …” not just in the news pages but in day-to-day life, too. I think we need to work harder to recognize our opinions as opinions, our beliefs as beliefs and our judgments as our fallible judgments — not as “obvious” facts about the world, which we grasp through the grace of some magical or supernatural power or as Aristotle believed, through some “infallible intellectual intuition” that’s our birthright as human beings. In other words, we all have lenses that influence our judgment ... but they don't have to be a foot thick and dictate our judgment.


One of my favorite philosophers — a person I started to focus on just this year — is Karl Popper. He lived and wrote during most of the 20th Century and died in the late 1990s. He became famous writing about the philosophy of science and then grew in fame as a defender of freedom and critic of authoritarianism when he wrote the two-volume “The Open Society and It’s Enemies,” during WW II, a book amazingly relevant to our times today.

In short Popper believes that civilization is still in its infancy, as is shown by how we're torn between the open and closed societies. Popper said the closed society believes in eternal truths and magical powers; on the other hand, he believes the open society was founded on the ability of human beings to learn, think and do things better. He understood that it takes a toll on human beings to be responsible for their thoughts and actions, and that’s why much of the human race gravitates back toward the closed society, where core “truths” don’t have to be discussed, just accepted and followed without question. In other words, the open society and its members value thought, discussion and flexibility while the closed society and its members value belief, conviction and certainty.


Our country is probably the most open society in the world, yet it is populated by lens-encumbered people who seem intent on closing it down as much as they can. Indeed, I was struck by how the first presidential debate echoed Popper’s ideas:

“If America shows uncertainty or weakness in this decade, the world will drift toward tragedy. … I just know how this world works, and that in the councils of government there must be certainty from the U.S. President.” — George W. Bush

“It's one thing to be certain, but you can be certain and be wrong. ... and certainty sometimes can get you in trouble. (But you can) learn new facts and take those new facts and put them to use in order to change and get your policy right.” — John Kerry

Well, I fear I have droned on long enough. If you’re curious, here’s a link to the Popper Page on my Web site.

Finally, I thought Gloria and Mary Lou did a wonderful job with the page, and I sent your thanks to Racquel and Denise, who were so good about forwarding the quotes.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Popper the rationalist

Excerpts from his essay entitled, “On Freedom.” See the Karl Popper Page. Emphasis is Popper's.

It is especially important to me that what I am about to say is not taken on trust. Indeed, I should prefer it to be treated with the utmost skepticism. Unlike so many of my philosophical colleagues, I am not a leader in traveling new paths, heralding new directions in philosophy. I am a thoroughly old-fashioned philosopher who believes in a completely outmoded philosophy: that is, the philosophy of an age long past, the age of rationalism and the Enlightenment. As one of the last stragglers of rationalism and the Enlightenment, I believe in human self-emancipation through knowledge — just as Kant, the greatest philosopher of the Enlightenment once did. … I should like to say quite clearly that I represent views that were already seen as outdated and totally mistaken some 150 years ago.

When I speak of rationalism, I am not speaking of a philosophical theory (such as Decartes’) and not at all of the highly unreasonable belief that man is a purely rational creature. When I speak of reason or rationalism, all I mean is the conviction that we can learn through criticism of our mistakes and errors, especially through criticism by others, and eventually also through self-criticism. A rationalist is simply someone for whom it is more important to learn than to be proved right; someone who is willing to learn from others — not by simply taking over another’s opinions, but by gladly criticizing or, to be more precise, critical discussion. The genuine rationalist does not think that he or anyone else is in possession of the truth; nor does he think that mere criticism as such helps us to achieve new ideas. But he does think that in the sphere of ideas, only critical discussion can help us sort the wheat from the chaff. He is well aware that acceptance or rejection of an idea is never a purely rational matter; but he thinks that critical discussion can give us the necessary maturity to see an idea from more and more sides and to make a correct judgment of it.

This assessment of critical discussion also has its human side. For the rationalist knows perfectly well that critical discussion is not the only relationship between people: that, on the contrary, rational critical discussion is a rare phenomenon in our lives.


The rationalist approach might be described as follows. Perhaps I am wrong and you are right; anyway, we can both hope that after our discussion we will both see things more clearly than before, just so long as we remember that our drawing closer to the truth is more important than the question of who is right. Only with this goal in mind do we defend ourselves as well as we can in discussion.


This, in short, is what I mean when I speak or rationalism. But when I speak of Enlightenment, I mean something else as well. I think above all of the idea of self-emancipation through knowledge, the idea that Kant and Pestalozzi inspired. And I think of the duty of every intellectual to help others to free their minds and to understand the critical approach — a duty which most intellectuals have forgotten since the time of Fichte, Schelling and Hegel. For, unfortunately, it is all too common among intellectuals to want to impress others and, as Schopenhauer put it, not to teach but to captivate. They appear as leaders or prophets — partly because it is expected of them to appear as prophets, as proclaimers of the dark secrets of life and the world, of man, history, and existence. Here, as so often, ceaseless demand produces a supply. Leaders and prophets are looked for, so it is hardly surprising that leaders and prophets are found. But “grown men do not need leaders,” as H.G. Wells once said. And grown men ought to know they do not need leaders. As for prophets, I believe in the duty of every intellectual to keep them at arm’s length.


The Enlightenment thinker speaks as simply as possible. He wants to be understood … because the true Enlightenment thinker, the true rationalist, never wants to talk anyone into anything. No, he does not even want to convince: All the time he is aware that he may be wrong. Above all, he values the intellectual independence of others too highly to want to convince them in important matters. He would much rather invite contradiction, preferably in the form of rational and disciplined criticism. He speaks not to convince but to arouse — to challenge others to form free opinions. Free opinion formation is precious to him: Not only because this brings us all closer to the truth, but also because he respects free opinion formation as such.


One of the reasons why the Enlightenment thinker does not want to talk people into anything, or even to convince them, is the following: He knows that, outside the narrow field of logic and perhaps mathematics, nothing can ever be proved. Once can certainly put forward arguments, and one can critically examine points of view. But outside elementary mathematics, our arguments are never conclusive and free of gaps. … In the end, then, opinion formation contains an element of free decision. And it is the free decision that makes an opinion humanly precious. … Kant meant that every human being and his convictions should be respected.

Perhaps it is true that freedom of thought can never be completely suppressed, but it can be suppressed to quite a considerable degree. For without a free exchange of ideas there can be no true freedom of thought. To find out whether our ideas are sound, we need other people to try them out on. Critical discussion is the basis of free thought for each individual. This means, however, that freedom of thought is impossible without political freedom.


Because I am a rationalist, I do not want to convert anybody. Nor do I want to abuse the name of freedom to turn anyone else into a rationalist. But I should like to challenge others to contradict me; I should like, if possible, to prompt others to see things in a new light, so that each may take his own decision in the freest possible formation of opinion. Every rationalist must say with Kant: One cannot teach philosophy — at most only philosophizing, which means a critical attitude.