Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Are you my mother?
A true story

Have you ever read the P.D. Eastman story, Are You My Mother? It's the classic tale of a baby bird that falls out of its nest, and wanders off in search of its mother.

Every time it encounters an animal, it thinks, "Maybe this is my mother!" Might be a dog, might be a cow, might even be a Snort:  the baby bird isn't choosy, it just wants a Mama.

Here's the true story of a baby hippo that did something similar. (The story has been verified by Snopes.com.)

The story concerns a baby hippo. It was washed into the Indian Ocean in 2004, when the tsunami hit the coast of Kenya. Although the hippo survived the ordeal, it became separated from its mother.

Like the baby bird in the P.D. Eastman tale, the hippo went off in search of a surrogate mother. And it was lucky enough to find a willing (if unlikely) candidate:

That's one big tortoise! More photos and a fuller account of the story can be found at AmbivaBlog.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Yosemite Sparky

One of the residents of our home is Sparky, a long-haired guinea pig. He bears a striking resemblance to a certain Looney Tunes character.

Separated at birth? You be the judge!

copyright © 2006, Stephen Peltz

Sunday, January 29, 2006

The one thing it is impossible for God to do

Over at Ragged Glory, I have posted three theological riddles:

1. What is the one thing it is impossible for God to do?
2. What is the one thing God forgets?
3. What is the one man-made thing in heaven?

I kid you not, all three riddles have a biblical answer.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Cure of the soul, part 2

Part 1 was posted long ago! — I'm definitely tardy in following up.

A recap is certainly in order. I introduced the topic, the cure of the soul, by quoting an Orthodox priest:
According to Orthodox tradition, after Adam's fall man became ill; his nous [mind/heart] was darkened and lost communion with God. Death entered into the person's being and caused many anthropological, social, even ecological problems.
Orthodox tradition claims that humanity suffers greatly from a sickness of the soul. If so, we need to obtain a healing for that malaise:  i.e., a cure of the soul.

I posed three questions for your consideration:
  1. Do human beings suffer from a spiritual or psychical malaise?
  2. If so, what precisely is wrong? (What is your diagnosis of the malaise?)
  3. How can the malaise be remedied? (What treatment would you prescribe?)
In my opinion, the answer to question #1 is Yes, human beings suffer from a spiritual malaise. I provided evidence to support my position in the original post. Here I want to press on to answer questions 2 and 3.


It may seem simplistic to reduce "what ails all human beings everywhere" to a single problem, and yet I believe it can be done. In fact, I believe it can be reduced to a single word:  what ails us is that we are self-centered.

"Self-centered" does not necessarily imply "conceited". People can have a very low opinion of themselves but, if they are constantly thinking about what worms they are, they are still pathologically self-centered.

I believe our self-centeredness is responsible for many of the problems mentioned in my earlier post:  an inequitable distribution of wealth (selfish acquisitiveness); racism, hate speech, and attempted genocide (failure to understand and accept others not like ourselves); environmental degradation (failure to live in a way that is sustainable for the sake of succeeding generations).

Moreover, to be self-centered is to be estranged from God and from fellow human beings. This estrangement or isolation is the source of much of our chronic discontent. As I pointed out in the previous post, depression is widespread in modern, Western societies. It persists even in the midst of material affluence and good health relative to previous generations.

At this point I want to discuss a mythological account of human origins. The account is found in the Hebrew scriptures, in Genesis 3, where the serpent tempts Eve. The author of that text offers his or her account of the sickness of the human soul.

Until the first sin, Adam and Eve led an other-centered life:  God was the focal point of their existence. In Genesis 3:5, the serpent says to Eve, "when you eat of [the fruit] … you will be like God". Thus the first sin may be described as Eve's attempt to exalt self in the place of God.

At that point, human beings ceased to be other-centered:  self became the focal point of human existence.

It doesn't matter to me how you regard the text. You may believe that Genesis is the word of God and records historical events. Or you may believe that Genesis came from a human author, who used myth to communicate his or her opinion. Either way, the text lays out a theory about the human condition:  an account of the sickness of the soul (self elevated to the place of God) that afflicts all human beings everywhere.


Now we move to question #3:  How can the malaise be remedied? (What treatment would you prescribe?)

Regular readers are aware that I am a Christian, but I don't want to get evangelistic on you. Instead of presenting Christian doctrine in isolation, I want to compare it to two other worldviews.

a) Buddhist worldview

First, a Buddhist worldview. Over the years I have engaged in a little study of Buddhism. By no means am I an expert on it, but I find Buddhism particularly instructive because it differs so profoundly from the Judeo-Christian worldview.

The diagnosis outlined above offers a point of contact between Buddhism and Christianity. Consider this statement by Dr. Walpola Rahula:
According to the teaching of the Buddha, the idea of self is an imaginary, false belief which has no corresponding reality, and it produces harmful thoughts of "me" and "mine", selfish desire, craving, attachment, hatred, ill-will, conceit, pride, egoism, and other defilements, impurities and problems. It is the source of all the troubles in the world from personal conflicts to wars between nations. In short, to this false view can be traced all the evil in the world.1
Dr. Rahula here echoes the argument I made above. He claims that self-centeredness is the root cause of "all the evil in the world".

But the sharp-eyed reader will notice there is also a conflict between Buddhism and Christianity on this topic. Christians believe that the self is real, but the Buddha denied it. Our subjective experience is that we have a self; but Buddhists claim this is "an imaginary, false belief which has no corresponding reality."2

Treatment, from the Buddhist perspective, is a matter of enlightenment. We must arrive at a deep realization that our subjective experience of self is merely a false consciousness. Again, I want to stress that I am no expert on Buddhism. But my understanding is that enlightenment is achieved partly through education (taking hold of the Buddha's teaching) and partly through meditation (breaking through to a different sort of consciousness).

For the Christian, treatment is necessarily different, because Christians accept that the self is real. Again, I want to avoid preaching an evangelistic message here. But I will observe that Christianity tells us we need to be resurrected or reborn or regenerated. These are different metaphors for a single idea:  that the individual needs God to intervene to effect a fundamental change inside of him or her.

(I believe this perspective is shared, at least to some extent, by Judaism. Certainly the perspective is rooted in the Hebrew scriptures:  e.g. Ezekiel 36:26. Admittedly, however, Judaism places more emphasis on human obedience to God's law.)

Here, too, Buddhism stakes out a starkly different position. The Buddha taught that each person must
develop himself and work out his own emancipation, for man has the power to liberate himself from all bondage through his own personal effort and intelligence. … If the Buddha is to be called "a savior" at all, it is only in the sense that he discovered and showed the Path to Liberation, Nirvana. But we must tread the Path ourselves.
Perhaps I may be permitted to register an objection to this Buddhist teaching. Dr. Rahula tells us that the self is illusory; but then he tells us that "we must tread the Path ourselves". Thus the individual is thrown back on self as the vehicle of liberation. If the objective is to escape self, it is paradoxical to rely on self as the means of escape.3

b) Secular worldview

Finally, I must briefly address the secular worldview. I assume that secular readers will be drawn to the Christian assertion that the self is real. On the other hand, they will be drawn to the Buddhist doctrine that "man has the power to liberate himself from all bondage through his own personal effort and intelligence."

Thus a secular worldview cannot adopt the Christian way of escape (regeneration via God's intervention), nor can it adopt the Buddhist way of escape (a shift of consciousness which recognizes that self is an illusion).

More than this:  it seems to me that the secular worldview is inescapably self-centered. Modern Westerners deny God's existence, so God cannot serve as the focal point for an other-centered orientation. Moreover, there is no such thing as objective, absolute truth, which might provide common ground to lift us beyond our narrow individualism.

Arguably the noblest achievement of modern Westerners is our human rights codes. But note that such codes enshrine individual rights and freedoms. There is no corresponding legal doctrine of social responsibilities or obligations. Again, I am led to suspect that a secular worldview offers no way to cure the sickness of the human soul, the root of all our problems:  our intractable self-centeredness.

Of course, I am biased because I am deeply committed to a Christian worldview. I invite my readers to set the record straight if I have misrepresented the secular position.

What are your answers to questions 2 and 3?

copyright © 2006, Stephen Peltz

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

1Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, 2nd ed., 1974.

2I am aware that this is a somewhat simplistic account of what Buddhists actually teach. In a sense, there is such a thing as "self". But it does not correspond to what Christians mean by the term, since self is neither the pure essence of the individual, nor constant. Instead, the self is understood as an aggregate which changes from one moment to the next:

According to the Buddha's teaching, it is as wrong to hold the opinion "I have no self" as to hold the opinion "I have self", because both are fetters, both arising out of the false idea, "I AM". … What we call "I", or "being", is only a combination of physical and mental aggregates, which are working together interdependently in a flux of momentary change within the law of cause and effect. … There is nothing permanent, everlasting, unchanging and eternal in the whole of existence.

3It may appear that Buddhist thought is hopelessly contradictory at this point, but the fault perhaps lies with my simplistic presentation of the subject. I will clarify the Buddhist teaching by again quoting Dr. Rahula:

There are two kinds of truths:  conventional truth and ultimate truth. When we use such expressions in our daily life as "I", "you", "being", "individual", etc., we do not lie because there is no self or being as such, but we speak a truth conforming to the convention of the world. But the ultimate truth is that there is no "I" or "being" in reality.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Paul Martin's greatest achievement
as Canada's Prime Minister

For those of you who are interested in Canadian politics — Hello, is anybody still reading? — I should note that we had a federal election here two days ago. Canadians voted to replace the Liberal minority government with a Conservative minority government.

(Minority governments happen in Canada because we have more than two political parties. If you have only two parties, one or the other is bound to have the upper hand when the ballots are counted. In Canada, where we have more than two parties, a party can win the most "seats" in Parliament but still have fewer seats than the combined strength of all the opposition parties.

Actual results in this election:  Conservatives, 124 seats; all other parties combined, 184 seats. The Conservatives got more seats than any other party (the Liberals were second with 103 seats), so they get to form a Government. But, if the opposition Members vote in concert, they can vote down the Government's initiatives.)

Over on Bill's blog, Art of the Rant, I have published my post-election analysis. One or two of you may be interested — who knows?

Monday, January 23, 2006

God's existence, and ours

From time to time, I am drawn into a discussion on whether God exists. Most recently, Snaars commented:
Q, you say that you believe God to be eternal and you do not believe that God caused himself. Most theistic philosophers would agree with you. They do not believe that God "caused" himself - rather, they believe that God possesses certain qualities that necessitate his existence in every possible universe. In other words, they believe that God exists because he can't not exist.
I should point out that this is a very generous comment on Snaars' part, since he himself is an atheist.

I responded:
I like that way of putting it. I suppose I would add that, if God ceased to exist (were such a thing possible) everything else would likewise cease to exist. Because God is the "ground of our being", whatever precisely that phrase means.
Coincidentally, I came across a discussion of the same topic in an essay by Thomas Merton. We're in rather philosophical territory here, but you may find it instructive.

Merton begins with self as the first thing known to us. This is how our minds work:  we begin from our own existence and work outwards from there. But Merton insists that is the wrong starting point. God's existence, not ours, is primary:
In our evaluation of the modern consciousness, we have to take into account the still overwhelming importance of the Cartesian cogito. (Cogito means "I think"; Merton is referring to Descarte's famous aphorism, "I think, therefore I am.")

Modern man is a subject for whom his own self-awareness as a thinking, observing, measuring and estimating "self" is absolutely primary. It is for him the one indubitable "reality," and all truth starts here. …

It is this kind of consciousness, exacerbated to an extreme, which has made inevitable the so called "death of God." Cartesian thought began with an attempt to reach God as object by starting from the thinking self. But when God becomes object, he sooner or later "dies," because God as object is ultimately unthinkable. …

The mystical consciousness of St. Theresa implies [an alternative] attitude toward the self. The thinking and feeling and willing self is not the starting point of all verifiable reality and of all experience. The primal truth, the ground of all being and truth, is in God the Creator of all that is. …

The "existence of God" is not something seen as deducible from our conscious awareness of our own existence. On the contrary, the experience of the classic Christian mystics is rooted in a metaphysic of being, in which God is intuited as "He Who Is," as the supreme reality, pure Being. …

Once there has been an inner illumination of pure reality, as awareness of the Divine, the empirical self is seen by comparison to be "nothing," that is to say contingent, evanescent, relatively unreal, real only in relation to its source and end in God.1
Merton's way of approaching the issue may be unpalatable to all of my readers, Christians and atheists alike. (Though I have one Buddhist reader who may find it amenable.)

I'd make a poor mystic, myself. But I completely agree with Merton's description of God as the supreme reality, pure Being; and of our existence as contingent on God's existence and therefore relatively unreal, real only in relation to its source and end in God.

That is precisely my conviction. Indeed, I suspect this is the first characteristic we should identify in defining what we mean by the word "God".

Anything else we might say about God — that God is a personal being, that God is love, that God is omnipotent — anything else we might affirm about God is secondary to this one fact, that God exists.

copyright © 2006, Stephen Peltz

1Thomas Merton, "The New Consciousness" in Zen and the Birds of Appetite.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Great Canadian preoccupation

The great Canadian preoccupation is, of course, the weather. Overnight Friday / Saturday, we got dumped on:  about seven inches of snow, by the looks of it. This is the third or fourth major storm here so far this winter.

Photos can't really capture the effect of a landscape, of course. But if you click on this one twice, to blow it up to its full size, you can get just an inkling of the scene's visual impact.

I know there's a lot to be said for year-round sun and warmth. But you have to admit, snow-laden trees make for gorgeous landscapes.

This isn't a good photo, but it shows something interesting. The snow was wet and "packy". As a result, this tree is supporting a startling amount of snow — the snow is much wider than the branches.

This last one's for Jack. Jack, I challenge you to a one-on-one game of basketball — under Canadian conditions.

copyright © 2006, Stephen Peltz

Friday, January 20, 2006

Knock if you dare

Two new posts over at Ragged Glory:  "Knock if you dare" and "Who says scholars don't have a sense of humour?" (Both posts are humorous.)

And note there's a new post below this one, too.

A day job ... and talent!

At the end of the last post, I commented that some bloggers can really write. And it reminded me that I've been meaning to publish a post on my colleague, Tom Lips.

A few months ago, Tom invited me to attend a benefit concert in which he was the headliner. I was curious, and it was for a good cause, so Mary P. and I attended together. But my expectations were not very high.

After all, Tom has a "day job". He can't have any real talent or he'd make his living as a musician, right?

Wrong! I should have known better. Talent by itself doesn't guarantee that you'll make it to the top of the charts, or even that you'll be able to earn your living as a musician. (Or painter, or writer — whatever your talent may be.)

Think of the Beatles, for example. If anyone ever deserved to make it to the top based on sheer talent, it was Lennon and McCartney. But they still needed a heaping helping of luck.

If it hadn't been for Brian Epstein, the Beatles might never have made it out of northern England. But surely Brian Epstein was an unlikely character to be running a record shop in Liverpool.

Their second stroke of luck was in catching the ear of George Martin, the only person worthy of the title, the Fifth Beatle. (Did you know that Martin always worked for his modest EMI salary? — at no time did he earn millions off the Beatles.)

The point is, even extraordinarily talented people need a lot of luck to achieve stardom. Just because someone doesn't "make it big" doesn't mean s/he lacks talent.

Tom has a good voice and he plays the guitar well. But where he really shines, in my opinion, is as a songwriter. His CDs feature a variety of styles:  folk, calypso, pop, country — even a tongue-in-cheek polka tune.

On Practical Man, there are several songs with beautiful melodies. You can download an excerpt of one of them, "May Morning Love Song", here. Other songs are humorous:  for example, "Big Rocks are Falling" (excerpt here).

Tom is also a fine lyricist. Here's a lyric that manages to be simultaneously poignant and humorous — no easy trick!

this love is a weed

this love is a weed
it's not a fragile flower
it didn't bloom in a day
it won't fade in an hour
you can trample it down
you might think it was gone
but when you look around
it's taking over the lawn

this love is a weed
that you can't root out
and it's stronger than fear
and it's deeper than doubt
it's a humble claim
and a green, green, fire
it's the flower and flame
of a soul's desire

this love is a weed,
it's a stubborn seed
when the nights get cold
and it puts out shoots
and it sends down roots
and it just takes hold
it can raise a blade
from the deepest shade
it's a rugged breed
it can wait for rain,
it can deal with pain
this love is a weed

this love is a weed
but weed is just a word
for what's hardest to kill
that's what I've always heard
if you've been looking for roses
they might not be what you need:
roses bloom and they fade
but this love is a weed

There's real wisdom in the message of that last verse. This post isn't meant to be an advertisement, but you should buy the CD on the strength of that one song alone.

A lot of bloggers, including me, are aspiring writers. I want to offer you this bit of encouragement:  you may have a "day job", but that doesn't prove you lack talent.

Keep on honing your craft. Whether or not you ever "make it big", the craft is its own reward. And who knows, one day a lucky break (following a lot of hard work) may bring you to the attention of a Brian Epstein.

copyright © 2006, Stephen Peltz

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

An introspective moment

When I was a kid, I used to crawl into a dark space in one part of our home, and sometimes stay there for an hour or more. It was rather peculiar behaviour, looking back on it from an adult perspective.

How peculiar? Let me describe the dark space I'm talking about.

My father owns an upholstery business. He has approximately a dozen employees. A pretty respectable operation, I think.

When I was a kid, the sewing department was in two rooms that took up one side of the ground floor of our house. The rest of the "shop" was in a separate building, located on the same property, on the other side of the driveway.

In the sewing department, there were shelves full of rolls of fabric. And I would wriggle into a gap between the rolls. It was dusty, musty, dark, and decidedly claustrophic. A strange place to retreat to, away from sunlight, fresh air, open spaces, and people. And I liked it in there.

(Have I ever mentioned that I am an introvert? Why yes, I have.)

All my life I have felt isolated; the odd man out of any and every group I've ever been associated with. (Thank God for Mary P., a true soulmate.)

Sometimes that sense of isolation is a painful cross to bear. But, in my opinion, it's also a good way to be. I don't want to follow the crowd; it is my nature to be the one fish that swims, stubbornly, against the current, while the rest of the school floats downstream.

Maybe these three things aren't even connected to one another:  crawling into a dark space as a kid, my introversion, that sense of being different from other people. Maybe they aren't related, but when I think of my peculiar behaviour as a kid, the other two thoughts follow in train.

As for that sense of difference and isolation:  I wouldn't have it any other way, even though it isn't the easy path to take through life.

What has inspired this introspective moment? An exceptionally poignant post over at Hildebrand Road, Cheryl's blog. Some bloggers can really write; the rest of us are amateurs by comparison.

copyright © 2006, Stephen Peltz

Monday, January 16, 2006

If Christ is the end of the law, what about the Ten Commandments?

There's a new post over at Ragged Glory. In an earlier post on the symbolism of the stone table in the Chronicles of Narnia, I talked about Christ as the end of the law. The follow-up post was written in response to a provocative comment:
I don't know what it would mean to say that the law was abolished. Which law was it that was abolished, and why? You implied that it might symbolize the Ten Commandments being abolished. But let's be real—which of the Ten Commandments are no longer in force?
I've spent the better part of two days grappling with an adequate response to that question!

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Even the birds are cold

It's clear and cold out this morning:  -18°C / 0°F. There are three sparrows huddled on a leafless bush outside my window, with their feathers puffed up in a vain attempt to generate warmth. (Click on the photo to enlarge it.)

Stupid birds. If I had wings, I would fly south for two months, January and February.

copyright © 2006, Stephen Peltz

Friday, January 13, 2006

The symbolism of the stone table
... and more

I haven't posted much this week — at least, not here at Simply Put. In part, it's because I was preparing for a job competition. Meanwhile, we're nearing the end of an election campaign here in Canada, and I've published a couple of posts on Bill's blog, the Art of the Rant. It looks like there's going to be a change of government, with Stephen Harper's Conservatives replacing Paul Martin's Liberals in office.

Over at Ragged Glory, I've published a follow-up post on the Chronicles of Narnia. I keep musing on the symbolism of the stone table, where the White Witch killed Aslan. More precisely, I wonder about the shattering of the stone table:  what did that symbolize? It symbolizes the end of something; but of what?

Finally, I have a brief update on the Christian Peacemaker Teams hostages in Iraq. (Original post here.) Unfortunately, it isn't much of an update:  there's still no news. Here's an excerpt from today's Globe and Mail:
More than one month after the deadline set by kidnappers of four Christian activists in Iraq, their families and colleagues are still waiting for word about their fate. …

Matt Loney, brother of Canadian James Loney, said the Christmas holidays were "very difficult." Family members exchanged gifts, but "it just felt much more empty."

But despite the agony of waiting, Mr. Loney said his family remains hopeful that the situation will end safely.

"If James and the others come back healthy and unharmed, then we would be prepared to wait as long as it takes for that."
It's hard to be optimistic, but let's hope Mr. Loney's hopes come to fruition.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Munich: Spielberg goes wishy-washy

The 1972 Olympic games were held in Munich, in what was then West Germany. One night, eight Palestinian terrorists gained entry into the Olympic Village. They killed two members of the Israeli team, held nine other Israelis hostage, and subsequently killed them when the German government carried out a failed rescue attempt.

The new Steven Spielberg movie takes its title from those shocking events. Spielberg reenacts the events, very effectively, in the film's opening scenes. But this is just a prelude to the story Spielberg really wants to tell.

The movie is actually about Munich's aftermath:  the decision of the Israeli government to locate and assassinate the leaders of the massacre, the Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al Zawahiri of that era. According to palestinefacts.org:
Following the Munich massacre, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir gave instructions for Israeli agents to hunt down and kill those behind it. She told the Knesset on September 12, 1972:

We have no choice but to strike at the terrorist organizations wherever we can reach them. That is our obligation to ourselves and to peace. We shall fullfil that obligation undauntedly.

To carry out the Prime Minister's directive, the Israeli Mossad [secret service agency] initiated one of the most ambitious covert counterterrorist campaigns in history. …

One [assassination team] operated through normal Mossad channels while a second unit recruited staff officers and highly trained specialists anonymously and external to the government, supported financially through covert mechanisms.
The movie purports to tell the story of the second, irregular team. That team assassinated five of the leaders who were responsible for the Munich massacre and participated in killing three more. They also eliminated four other terrorists not involved in Munich, but associated with other crimes against Israel.

Rating the movie merely as entertainment, I would give it only 3 stars out of 5. Spielberg is a great storyteller, and he has the raw material of a great story here. But the movie is flawed:  for example, there are two contrived conversations between Avner, the leader of the Israeli team, and his Palestinian counterparts.

More seriously, there is a scene toward the end of the movie that intermingles sex and violence in a way that is simply bizarre. (The violence in the movie is graphic by my standards, but then I have a low tolerance for blood and gore.) I might say the scene is exploitative except it isn't the least bit sexy. Presumably it's supposed to contribute something to character or plot development, but I have no idea what the scene's message is.

But those are my comments on the movie as a movie. Munich has another, philosophical level to it — and it is flawed at that level, too.

Spielberg doesn't want just to entertain you; he wants to change the world. In an interview with Time magazine, he described Munich as a "prayer for peace".

Munich sets out to convince you that killing people is immoral, and that one violent act leads to another. There are two problems with that objective. First, I expect you already know that one killing leads to another in a vicious circle. Second, Spielberg couldn't risk offending anybody, so he fails to take a moral stand of his own.

Spielberg hoped that both the Palestinians and the Jews would enthusiastically embrace this movie. Instead, he has offended both groups. That is always the result when you try to please everyone:  instead, you get dismissed as "wishy-washy".

But perhaps "wishy-washy" isn't strong enough language. Spielberg has been accused of glossing over the evils of terrorism:  of trying to establish moral equivalence between the Jews and the Palestinians.

The movie is based on a book, Vengeance, written twenty years ago by George Jonas. In Macleans, a Canadian periodical, Jonas comments:
Spielberg's Munich follows the letter of my book closely enough. The spirit is almost the opposite. Vengeance holds there is a difference between terrorism and counter-terrorism; Munich suggests there isn't. The book has no trouble telling an act of war from a war crime; the film finds it difficult. Spielberg's movie worries about the moral trap of resisting terror; my book worries about the moral trap of not resisting it.
I think this issue — this striving to establish moral equivalence — is very important. It's the main reason I decided to write this post. The perspective is commonplace not only in Hollywood, but also among Western journalists.

I tend to agree with Jonas. There is a valid moral distinction to be made here. The Palestinian terrorists set out to kill civilians, guilty of nothing (unless it is a crime to be Jewish). The Israeli assassins, on the other hand, set out to kill enemy combattants:  men with innocent blood on their hands.

Philosophically, that's where the movie goes awry:  Spielberg fails to make that valid moral distinction.

That said, Spielberg does take a stand of a different sort. Munich tries to persuade us that Israel's strategy of targetted assassinations is futile. In fact, Spielberg is appealing to both sides, the Palestinians and the Jews. His message is, you can't end violent acts by committing other violent acts. Violence is futile; opt for peace instead.

I agree with Spielberg, and I bet you do, too. Peace is better than war, love is better than hate, we're all human regardless of ethnicity and culture:  why can't we all just learn to get along?

Let's hope the terrorists and assassins turn out to this movie in droves, and world peace breaks out.

Call me cynical, but I doubt it will happen. I'm going to give the last word to Jonas:
With due respect to pop culture and its undisputed master [i.e., Spielberg], one doesn't reach the moral high ground by being neutral between good and evil. Spielberg is a fabulous entertainer, a magician of a director, a very astute businessman — maybe, just maybe, it's too much to ask that he should be a significant moral philosopher as well.

He brings to the screen an adolescent's fresh eye:  that's his strength. He also brings an adolescent's naïve confusion:  that's his weakness.
copyright © 2006, Stephen Peltz

Friday, January 06, 2006

Chronicles of Narnia quiz

Over at Ragged Glory:  my review of the movie, plus a quiz which ought to appeal at least to my Christian readers.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

How December 25 became Christmas
(no, it wasn't because of the winter solstice)

Lots of new material this week. There are two new posts below. (And I don't think some of you have seen the third post, "Cure of the soul" yet, either.)

Meanwhile, over at Ragged Glory, I have a post explaining why Christmas falls on December 25. The popular explanation, which associates Christmas with the winter solstice, is probably wrong.

The timing of the post is intended as my nod to an alternative date for Christmas, January 6. That is still the date on which Jesus' birth is celebrated by the Armenian Church.

Change in the Middle East

Ariel Sharon, the Prime Minister of Israel, has suffered a very serious stroke and a brain hemorrhage; he is in grave condition.

Jack points out that Mr. Sharon was one of the few leaders still alive who was active in 1948 when the modern state of Israel was established. Even some Arab leaders are now expressing appreciation for Mr. Sharon's leadership, due to his bold (and controversial) decision to pull Jewish residents out of Gaza.

This development plunges the Middle East into political uncertainty. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem / Israel (Psalm 122:6).

All ye bloggers, beware!

If you've visited Simply Put in the last 24 hours or so, you know that something was drastically wrong. Instead of a blog, I had a couple of generic headings, like "$BlogTitle$", but nothing more.

It was a template problem. Now that I've fixed it, I have to post a warning to all of you:  save a back-up copy of your template!

On Tuesday evening, I added a few new links to my blogroll. Then I went to my updated blog and tried out the new links. The updated blog was in perfect working order, so I don't see how the problem could have been my fault.

Thankfully, I had copied my template in Notepad a couple of months ago. When I compared the two versions, about a third of my template was now missing.

Thus I was able to salvage my blog, although you're looking at a somewhat outdated template. (I apologize to you if you're a regular commenter and you aren't currently in my blogroll — I'll make it current it at my first opportunity.)

I owe a large debt of gratitude to Mirty at Codescripter, because I saved my template to Notepad after reading this post. If you don't know how to back up your template, the Codescripter post will explain how.

Thanks also to Jack at Random Thoughts, because that's where I heard about Codescripter.

(Jack, I owe you my first born, or something equivalent. But I warn you, he's a big eater.)

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Cure of the soul, part 1

Before Freud, Jung, and Adler — before psychoanalysis, psychotherapy and the rest — people spoke instead of the "cure of the soul".

The concept sounds like a relic from a bygone era, but it is still dusted off and trotted out from time to time. For example, here is an excerpt from a recent treatise by an Orthodox priest:
Contemporary man, tired and discouraged by the various problems which torment him, is looking for rest and refreshment. Basically he is seeking a cure for his soul. …

According to Orthodox tradition, after Adam's fall man became ill; his nous [mind/heart] was darkened and lost communion with God. Death entered into the person's being and caused many anthropological, social, even ecological problems. …

Many psychological illnesses are caused by the anxiety of death, the lack of meaning in life, a guilty conscience and the loss of communion with God on man's part. Surely the theology of the Church can help by either preventing or by healing people suffering from such existential dilemmas.
I'd like to open up a dialogue on this subject. At least three questions are relevant to the dialogue:
  1. Do human beings suffer from a spiritual or psychical malaise?
  2. If so, what precisely is wrong? (What is your diagnosis of the malaise?)
  3. How can the malaise be remedied? (What treatment would you prescribe?)
In this post, I'd like to focus on the first question. I intend to address questions 2 and 3 together in a follow-up post.

In my opinion, the answer to question #1 is a definite Yes.

Consider the astonishing technological advances made in the West in the past few hundred years; but consider also how little progress we have made in terms of human nature itself. Among the innovations that spring to mind: democracy; human rights codes; the emancipation of women; the Industrial Revolution; the virtual eradication of many diseases; the mapping of the human genome; the ability to travel to the opposite side of the globe in a matter of hours; the exploration of space; and the invention of computers and associated information technology.

In short, we are profoundly privileged to live in this part of the world at this point in history. Why then is depression so commonplace among us? Why haven't we achieved anything like an equitable distribution of wealth? Why is the incidence of murder so high in our cities? Why do racism and hate speech continue to sprout up like bad weeds? Why is it still unsafe for women to walk alone at night? Why are totalitarianism and attempted genocide still recurrent themes of geo-political history?

Or perhaps I should narrow the focus to just one straightforward illustration. Many of us North Americans drive cars and live in homes that are far bigger than we need. Sometimes it's a matter of "conspicuous consumption":  i.e., consuming more resources than one needs just to impress one's neighbours. Other times, it's just a matter of thoughtlessness:  e.g. when people who ought to know better put things that could be recycled into the trash.

Whether or not you believe in global warming, everyone knows that the West's bloated way of life is unsustainable. It is not possible for everyone in the world to live as we do without rapidly despoiling the environment, resulting in a global ecological disaster.

In sum, human beings are both spectacularly advanced and spectacularly backwards.

The analysis is hardly original to me. Christian theologians have always maintained that human beings have both a semi-divine nature and a beastial nature, in approximately equal measure. I believe it was St. Augustine who likened humanity to the ruins of a once-great civilization. We are created in the image of God, which is evident in our sublime achievements; but that the image of God in us is corrupted and defaced is also manifest. Here we return to the argument of the Orthodox priest, that the human race has fallen from a great height and every individual suffers the consequences.

In my view, this is still the best explanation of the evidence. But I'd like to how my non-Christian readers would answer question #1. Do human beings suffer from a spiritual or psychical malaise, in your opinion?

copyright © 2006, Stephen Peltz