Thursday, September 24, 2009

Totally like whatever, you know?

This "poem" by the modern poet Taylor Mali offers a humorous, but biting, critique of the qualified, noncommittal language we use in our modern culture. You can read it below, or better yet, listen to an oral reading of it here. (Listen to the first 5 mins of the audio file). Enjoy.

In case you hadn't noticed,
it has somehow become uncool
to sound like you know what you're talking about?
Or believe strongly in what you're saying?
Invisible question marks and parenthetical (you know?)'s
have been attaching themselves to the ends of our sentences?
Even when those sentences aren't, like, questions? You know?

Declarative sentences - so-called
because they used to, like, DECLARE things to be true
as opposed to other things which were, like, not -
have been infected by a totally hip
and tragically cool interrogative tone? You know?
Like, don't think I'm uncool just because I've noticed this;
this is just like the word on the street, you know?
It's like what I've heard?
I have nothing personally invested in my own opinions, okay?
I'm just inviting you to join me in my uncertainty?

What has happened to our conviction?
Where are the limbs out on which we once walked?
Have they been, like, chopped down
with the rest of the rain forest?
Or do we have, like, nothing to say?
Has society become so, like, totally . . .
I mean absolutely . . . You know?
That we've just gotten to the point where it's just, like . . .

And so actually our disarticulation . . . ness
is just a clever sort of . . . thing
to disguise the fact that we've become
the most aggressively inarticulate generation
to come along since . . .
you know, a long, long time ago!

I entreat you, I implore you, I exhort you,
I challenge you: To speak with conviction.
To say what you believe in a manner that bespeaks
the determination with which you believe it.
Because contrary to the wisdom of the bumper sticker,
it is not enough these days to simply QUESTION AUTHORITY.
You have to speak with it, too.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

God and Evolution

Is man a created or evolved being? This question of man's origin has enormous implications for a person's existence here and now. I wrote recently about the debate over stem cell research and how the basis one uses to determine the value of life informs one's position on that issue. Similarly, perhaps even more fundamentally, the question of man's origin informs one's position on so many other issues. Tackling that question head on is a daunting task, but related questions can be helpful in shedding light on it. One such related question was asked by the Wall Street Journal last week: "Where does evolution leave God?" The commissioned responses by Richard Dawkins and Karen Armstrong provide some insight to the state of the discussion over God and evolution.

Armstong's response suggest that God becomes a necessary myth for man to explain suffering. "Religion," she says, "was not supposed to provide explanations that lay within the competence of reason but to help us live creatively with realities for which there are no easy solutions and find an interior haven of peace." God is a fairytale that helps us satisfy our conscience, that provides something we can point to for the inexplicable things in life. The summary of her position lies in this paragraph,

The best theology is a spiritual exercise, akin to poetry. Religion is not an exact science but a kind of art form that, like music or painting, introduces us to a mode of knowledge that is different from the purely rational and which cannot easily be put into words. At its best, it holds us in an attitude of wonder, which is, perhaps, not unlike the awe that Mr. Dawkins experiences—and has helped me to appreciate —when he contemplates the marvels of natural selection.

Armstrong might be on to something in describing religion as "a mode of knowledge that is different from the purely rational" but she comes far short of a full picture of God. God is not an abstract, transcendent entity that exists for us to pawn off the unanswerable questions on. The ambiguous, distant, mythical God -- divorced from reason -- is to small a picture of him. Any full understanding of God requires reason and spiritual faith. God is mysterious and yet personal.

There is much more to say about the nature of God (I would point you to A.W. Tozer's book, Knowledge of the Holy), but in general I think the modern world tends to have far to small a view of God because we have an elevated sense of man or, in Richard Dawkin's case, of nature.

Mr. Dawkin's article idolizes natural selection above anything else, which I assume is the focus of his new book, The Greatest Show on Earth. I must give him credit for having a deep appreciation for the natural world that he lives in. He asks, "What is so special about life? It never violates the laws of physics. But although life never violates the laws of physics, it pushes them into unexpected avenues that stagger the imagination. If we didn't know about life we wouldn't believe it was possible..." His awe of nature goes so far as to cause him to claim that "the universe created us." Indeed, he begins his manifold assertions with one quite bold; "Evolution is the creator of life." He assigns the origin of man to a process.

While I share Mr. Dawkin's awe of nature, I would ask him just one question. If man is the product of an impersonal evolutionary process why does he bother respecting his fellow man? I do not think he would deny that moral categories exist for humans (he makes a moral claim by simply saying that life is a good thing). Yet, if man than has intrinsic value as a person, he must receive it from somewhere. Man can only have the value of personhood if he is the creation of a person of infinite worth -- a personal, creator God. This God is the one Mr. Dawkin's denies and Mrs. Armstrong diminishes to a nice fairytale. They both would do well to consider a God who is capable of both creating them and loving them personally. Dawkin's naturalism and Armstrong's fairytale are insufficient explanations of man's origin because they do not address the question of man's intrinsic value. If they deny that value, than we have a whole other debate.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Cities: What are they?

Perhaps this seems like an elementary question, but what are cities after all? I find myself fascinated with the city. The organic, ecological nature of it, the structures, the streets. A city can team with industrious life, accompanied by the clang and blare of street noises, and yet host neighborhoods of tranquility complete with serene parks and ponds.

There is a multiplicity of things one could highlight when defining a city. It has great diversity of people, places, events, interests, and scenery. It is a convergence of this great diversity. It is an intersection for people in work and play, and yet it is also a home for some. Captain's of industry rule the downtown centers, but the artist also express herself on walls or creates and performs in prominent centers of theater. Poverty is sometimes exposed in city limits but wealth is often predominant. Perhaps most surprisingly, or obviously, each city is so incredibly unique.

It is hard to discover what is at the heart of a city. Why do they even exist? Is it for convenience? Why doesn't everyone live in cities? Surely there are good reasons for those who avoid cities or at least avoid living in them. Aristotle says that, "man is by nature an animal intended to live in a polis." Of course, the Greek polis is nothing like the modern metropolis, but the principle is still there. Man is by nature a communal being. He is designed to live in community with his fellow beings. Thus, at the heart of any healthy, growing, and flourishing city is human community.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s there was a flight from the cities to the suburbs by the middle class in America. The downtown areas became dangerous places to be at night. Slums developed, trash piled high, streets deteriorated. American urban designers decided the solution would be to destroy and rebuild. Yet, a surprising discover was made. Amidst all the disfigured city landscape existed unique niches of community. This was primarily among ethnic groups, such as the Italians in New York City or the Irish in the North end of Boston. These "slums" held together and thrived amidst the city because of bond of community. The people had common religious beliefs, heritage, and experiences (such as recent immigration) that brought them together in the struggle for survival and betterment.

At the heart of the city is community. This is often missed, however, when we fly over NYC gawking at the skyscrapers or walk the National Mall in Washington D.C. gazing at all the patriotic monuments surrounding us. Community in a city is also a challenge, for the very reason that it is easily missed and misunderstood. Urban planners got it very wrong for a long time (and still do!). In fact, American cities could have looked very different if it was not for one courageous author. Jane Jacob's wrote a book called, The Death and Life of American Cities in 1961 (here is a short review), that directly challenged the conventional wisdom of "urban renewal," which is what the central planners called their massive overhaul plans for most great American cities from Chicago to Boston. In her first paragraph, Jacob's boldly states that the book is, "an attack on the principles and aims that have shaped modern, orthodox city planning and rebuilding." Her seminal work would transform the way we think about cities from complex metrics of highways and skyscrapers to multifaceted and interconnect communities of people.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Good, Truth, Beauty and Leadership

Only at Hillsdale Colllege would I be asked to relate leadership to the good, the true and the beautiful. A recent assignment for a class on leadership, responsibility and power required that I answer this question: "Why should one pursue the good, the true, and the beautiful, and what have they to do with leadership?" Here is my short but hopefully adequate response.

Man is a complicated being who has the ability to reason, to feel emotion, and to experience passion. A man cannot, however, understand what he is, nor answer questions of meaning or purpose, without looking beyond himself. Indeed, to be fully human a man must consider what is the good, the true, and the beautiful. Knowledge of these things is fundamental to being, and living well begins with pursuing an understanding of goodness, truth, and beauty.

As man discovers the truth of things outside and around him he confronts a natural order to the world. He learns that objects, animals, and even himself are only good when they are fulfilling their appropriate purpose. Truth, he realizes, is discovered not developed. As he pursues knowledge of these things a natural moral order becomes apparent. In the Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis identifies this moral order as the Tao, a set of objective values. He explains that values within the Tao are natural and universal across all cultures and therefore applicable to all men. Thus, all men seeking to live well must know the moral order and follow it.

A man who seeks to lead other men must know this order because leadership is a moral process and demands moral decisions. Leaders require more than a skill set, disposition, or raw power. They require the fortitude and aptitude to make moral decisions that affect those who follow them. To achieve this, a leader must understand where morality comes from. The first step is to know what it means to be fully human, and to do that, one must know what is the good, the true and the beautiful.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Mankind's future in the Universe

I wrote an op-ed on NASA and space exploration earlier this summer which touched on an important topic, namely what is man’s future in space? I wanted to share it here given the pending release of President Obama’s advisory panel’s report on NASA and it’s implications for where we go has human’s in the world. It is incredible how much space exploration has effected our daily lives by “spin-off technologies” (where do you think toothpaste came from?) and I think it is important to consider where we go in the future.

"Private Space Entrepreneurs will inherit the Apollo Space Legacy"

The recent celebration of the Apollo program’s first lunar landing has led many to wonder about the future of space exploration. With its uncertain vision, aging employees, and the retirement of its manned shuttle program next year, NASA is unlikely to lead the way. But any reevaluation of the future of space exploration must include the private sector. Over the last decade, private firms have proven that there is no shortage of interest in space entrepreneurship.

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy vowed America would “become the world’s leading space-faring nation,” and instructed NASA to lead the U.S. to victory in the space race. Only seven years later, Neil Armstrong made his giant leap for mankind.

Today, however, NASA has no Cold War competition and no specific timetable or goal to inspire the nation and motivate her engineers and astronauts. Its two biggest investments over the last two decades—the Space Shuttle program and the International Space Station (ISS) —are both scheduled to be discontinued.

Fortunately, the private sector is following in Armstrong’s footsteps, revitalizing space exploration in a way NASA no longer can. Although the prospect of a space shuttle in every garage is a ways off, some private firms are pursuing manned, commercial space flight.

The private sector is already at work on commercial ventures such as low-orbit tours around Earth and launching telecommunication satellites. As early as next year, tourists anxious for a new exotic travel destination could book a seat with Virgin Galactic, the private firm that won the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004. $200,000 will buy you a trip to outer space where you will be able to float weightless as you watch the Earth through large windows. The price might seem exorbitant, but it’s a bargain compared to the $20 million multimillionaire Dennis Tito paid in 2001 to take the Russian capsule to the ISS.

With the ISS scheduled to de-orbit in 2016, many scientific experiments are in jeopardy. Private firms, however, can fill that gap as well. Bigelow Aerospace is developing commercial space stations, or habitats, and envisions them as destinations for research scientist and astronauts. These private stations could open the door to space for countries who have never had the opportunity to use the ISS and who would like a chance to do more extensive research.

Incidentally, after ending its Space Shuttle program in 2010, NASA plans to contract private firms to fly shuttles to the ISS until it is discontinued in 2016. Other opportunities for partnership between private and public enterprises abound.

But these companies need not seek government contracts or subsidies. Collaborating with the X Prize Foundation, Google has offered $30 million to the first privately funded company to place a rover on the moon and beam back pictures and other data through email. The rover must reach the moon before 2012 or the reward drops to $15 million and disappears altogether in 2014.

As NASA considers where to go next, fledgling aerospace companies are creating lean, efficient spacecraft to meet market demands and seize the X Prize. Ten years ago, a private space industry would have been considered science fiction—today it’s a viable business plan.

American's should remember the achievement of NASA’s Apollo program with pride. But as the next frontier in space approaches, we must consider the likely role of ambitious space entrepreneurs.