Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Lenten Observance

Last week right around Ash Wednesday the Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece by Michael S. Roth, the President of Wesleyan University, on the reluctance of modern students to consider topics like the soul and salvation. In addition to his administrative duties Roth teaches a class in which he tries to inculcate historical imagination in his students by asking them to consider and discuss the questions that deeply concerned people in the past. However, he was disconcerted when he discovered a particular blind spot among his students.

Whenever he tried to discuss the interest of philosophers and other thinkers in the past with questions about the soul and salvation, he found a decided reticence on the part of his students to engage. Although usually eager to discuss any of the pressing issues of the day, the students generally clammed up and avoided eye contact by looking down into their notebooks.

Unfortunately, Roth did not go into the reasons for the students’ reserve but took most of his essay explaining why it was important to understand why such issues had such importance to great thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas. Roth admitted that he is a secular Jew and an atheist, and insisted that he was certainly not trying to “convert” the students.

It’s too bad that Dr. Roth did not ask his students about their reasons for shying away from any discussion that smacks of “religion.” I can think of a number of reasons why the students might have been reluctant to engage, but I’m only guessing.

The first that comes to mind stems from the high probability that most professors at Wesleyan neither believe that they have an immortal soul, nor think that they require salvation. Any student professing such beliefs would likely be ridiculed by teachers and regarded as a pariah by their classmates. Actually, I think that the animus towards religious subjects was inculcated even before the students went to college. It is part of the media world that they have inhabited since childhood.

Despite Dr. Roth’s good intentions, I doubt if he ever would have become President of Wesleyan if he had been a church going Methodist. Even though the school is one of many named after the eighteenth century religious reformer, a school like Wesleyan would probably never name a President today who shared John Wesley’s beliefs or concerns.

Practically all the great institutions of learning in Europe and America were founded by churches, but today a belief pervades modern society that there is a total disconnect between religion and reason when it comes to the search for truth. Nevertheless, our universities have not become centers of reason and science. Credulity of all kinds still prevails. Someone once said, “when people cease to believe in God, they will believe in anything.”

Look at the popularity of the supernatural and occult in films and videogames today. Vampire films are box office bonanzas. My grandson went to a Jesuit Catholic university where he could hardly find a course on Catholicism to fulfill his religious studies requirement. He had to fall back on a course on Voodoo taught by a truly committed believer.

Ironically, Dr. Roth admitted that despite his atheism, he still felt the need to say the Jewish Kaddish for his deceased father. Of course, tradition would not allow him to say it alone and so he had to find a group of ten. It wasn’t easy for a non-practicing Jew but he eventually found a group. Not only was he able to say the prayers for his father, but he also found in the group a congenial community. So Dr. Roth is not really an atheist. Either he reserves his religion for special situations, or he just has gone back to ancestor worship, the earliest form of religion.

I suspect similar motives drive modern Catholics when they go to Church on Ash Wednesday. I was visiting a daughter in California this winter and attended the local church, St. Joseph’s Basilica in Alameda. The church is an enthusiastic community made up of the descendants of the original settlers of the island right next to Oakland, as well as more recent immigrants from Mexico, the Philippines, China, and Vietnam. The dynamic but self-effacing young pastor from India scheduled five masses for Ash Wednesday. The morning mass that we attended was packed with people waiting to receive the ashes on their foreheads.

Maybe people don’t like to think about the soul and salvation any more but down deep they seem to want to be reminded that they are dust and to dust they will return.


Friday, February 13, 2015

Russia: Friend or Foe

Flaming Sword Insignia
U.S. Army Europe
In an interview in last Saturday's Wall Street Journal General Frederick B. Hodges, commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe, made the case for military aid to the Ukraine and for an increased NATO involvement. Nevertheless, the General made some admissions that make one wonder if there might be another alternative.

The General argued that Russia is preparing for war some five or six years in the future with some unspecified enemy. He believed that the Russians regard China as their greatest threat but that at the same time noted that they were conducting simulations of a nuclear attack on the United States. He did not mention that they might be concerned with the threat of Islamic fundamentalism all along their southern borderlands.

To counter the Russian threat the General pointed out that our own resources are stretched thin. Nine out of ten of our divisions are currently engaged in missions all over the world. The General insisted that we cannot act on our own anymore and must rely increasingly on our allies. However, our NATO allies have not and will not live up to their treaty commitments. Only four of them dedicate more than the required 2% of GDP to defense spending.

Finally, the General admitted that we need a strategy and that military aid to the Ukraine or any other country does not by itself constitute a strategy. He asks that we consider the outcome we want to achieve in the Ukraine.  Do we really want the Ukraine to become a battlefield where millions might die? Do we want a city like Mariupol on the Black Sea to become a desert like Mosul?

Why can't we consider Russia as an ally and not an enemy? Instead of confronting Russia with NATO, why not guarantee that an independent Ukraine will never be part of NATO. The Ukraine provides Russia with millions of customers for its vast energy reserves. After all, both the US and Russia will more and more have to deal with the growing power of China, as well as with radical Islam.

The Journal has launched a barrage of editorial comment against Russia in the past week. One op-ed suggested that a military buildup is not necessary because we could crush the Russians economically with increased sanctions and low oil and gas prices. This is another dangerous suggestion since if we drive the Russians to the wall, they might become desperate. Why isn't a strong Russia to our advantage? If we think economic sanctions hurt the Russian oligarchs, what do we think they will do to the ordinary Russian citizen.

Journal columnist Bret Stephens, a longtime proponent of arming the Ukrainians, even quoted and praised a practically insane statement by U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham who claimed that he did not know what the outcome of military intervention would be, and did not care how many Ukrainians or Russians might die, or even if we lost. All that mattered was that the US not back down and appease Putin.

It would be so much less costly in terms of men and money to bring the Russians into NATO than to confront them with a flaming sword on their historical Western front. It would be better to have a strong, economically viable Russia as an ally rather than an enemy in the ongoing war against radical Islam.


Saturday, February 7, 2015

Charlie Hebdo and Freedom of Speech

Much of the reaction to the recent murder of a dozen employees of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine, has dealt with the assault on freedom of speech rather than on the actual killings. For example, one Wall Street Journal columnist repeated the old canard from the French philosophe Voltaire: "I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

I'm not so sure that Voltaire actually used those words but I am sure that he never defended to the death anyone's right to disagree with him. Like most philosophes of his age and like most so-called enlightened thinkers thereafter, Voltaire was extremely intolerant of those with whom he disagreed. He regarded the Catholic Church in France with contempt and repeatedly called for its destruction. He called it the "infame" and believed it was the cause of most of the problems of pre-Revolutionary France. I believe that the "enlightened" Voltaire was also an anti-Semite.

Another Wall Street Journal columnist, Bret Stephens, also regarded the modern age ushered in by the Enlightenment as a golden age of free speech and tolerance. In a brief sentence he characterized the preceding 2000 years as an era of ignorance and superstition where progressive thinkers were put to death for blasphemy. That period began with the death of Socrates around 400 B.C. and lasted until the execution of Giordano Bruno around 1600.

I know that this incredibly ignorant statement is very popular and that it is even taken as axiomatic in most colleges and universities today. I will not bother to refute its historical inaccuracy here, but will just point out that the modern era has not been a good example of freedom of speech or intellectual inquiry.

From the time of the French Revolution that thinkers like Voltaire helped bring about to the Communist and Fascist revolutions of our own time, freedom of speech has been a victim of fanatical zealots out to suppress all contrary opinions. Maybe these so-called enemies of the State have not been persecuted for blasphemy but they still have been persecuted. I am not speaking of Moslem terrorists here. They are relative newcomers to murderous intolerance. Communist dictators like Lenin, Stalin, and Mao brutally suppressed freedom of speech at the same time that they murdered millions.

In America the First amendment to the constitution limited the Federal Government from restricting freedom of speech but this has not stopped the modern methods of thought control that we read of every day in our colleges and universities. Just the other day I read that left wing activists have been threatening sponsors of conservative talk radio shows. Broadcasters like Rush Limbaugh have been extremely popular and no liberal equivalent has ever succeeded. Rather than defending to the death the right of conservatives to express their opinions, their opponents are trying to get them off the air.