18 Sep 2013 How Far Fallen?

Any “regular readers” here will know that I’m a graduate of Patrick Henry College, a small, Christian liberal-arts college here in Northern Virginia. Since my time at the school, they’ve established the Faith & Reason Lecture Series, described on the school’s website as a semiannual, “day-long shared experience that involves a presentation by a faculty member or guest, lunch with the speaker, small-group discussions, and an afternoon question-and-answer session with a faculty panel.”

The most recent such lecture occurred on Friday, September 13, 2013. It was given by faculty member Dr. Stephen Baskerville, and was entitled Politicizing Potiphar’s Wife: Today’s New Ideology. I was not present at the initial lecture (though I plan to attend a follow-up session for alumni later this week). However, after reading the content of the lecture, I am left with grave concerns about the state of education at my alma mater.

It’s long, but if this is a topic that interests you and if you have not already done so, please read the above link before you proceed. I fear what follows will make little sense otherwise, and I dislike presenting only my perspective on an issue without the reader having an opportunity to become familiar with the other side. If a discussion of academic rigor, logical argumentation, and what it means to have a “Christian education” does not interest you, you probably won’t care to read further, though you’re certainly welcome to do so. more…

03 Aug 2013 Why THIS Millennial Left the Church

. . . and why he has no intention of going back anytime soon . . . 

 

Rachel Held Evans wrote a blog post at CNN recently that set off a miniature firestorm among those interested in spiritual things and the state of the Christian church in the United States. Her post, entitled, “Why millennials are leaving the church,” has elicited strong reactions. Most of the ones I’ve read have been largely negative.

Unfortunately, both Evans’ original article and every response to it that I’ve encountered, suffer from over-generalization. The assumption at work is that there is A Reason for millennials leaving the church. Detractors fill in terms like “narcissistic” or “consumerist” to try to explain the emotions that drive young people out of the walls of church buildings . . . as if everyone who leaves does so because the church isn’t catering specifically enough to their own individual whims. What has largely been lacking in the discussion – particularly from the “anti” side, but even from Evans’ perspective – is the stated viewpoint of an actual millennial who has actually “left the church.”

Having been what I like to call a “post-congregational Christian” for the past seven years, I thought I’d offer one. I don’t claim to speak for anyone but myself – like I said, there is no single reason for the phenomenon Evans observes. What follows are my reasons.

Like Evans herself, I’m a 32-year-old with one foot in Generation X and one in the Millennial camp. For those interested in reading the story of my journey out of the institutional church, I’ve written about it before, here.

I haven’t written much on the subject since then – I’ve felt the need to spend the last several years doing much more in the way of listening to God, and much less in the way of talking about my relationship with Him to others who aren’t in the same place I am. But the short version of this seven-year journey is that I haven’t so much left the church, as I’ve left the church building. Sadly, too many people – both those who’ve left and those who’ve watched them go – confuse the church universal and the church institutional. They are not the same thing at all, and some (though not all) of us who leave the latter are still very active in the former.

Why, then, did I leave the institution? The answer is something of a conglomeration of three reasons which, I suspect, animate most of those who leave the institutional church, though perhaps in different proportions. That’s not to say that people – even young people – can’t find an incredible amount of comfort, wisdom and insight within their local church. But that’s certainly not what some of us find. What I found – what I suspect many millennials find – is a church that is paranoid, abusive and extraneous.

Institutionalized Paranoia

Evans covers this category fairly well, though she doesn’t necessarily draw the connection I’m trying to make here. She writes: “What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.” She gives several examples, and in a follow-up post, she boils these down to:

“Young adults in the U.S. consistently reported that they left the church because they found it 1) overprotective, 2) shallow, 3) anti-science, 4) repressive (especially regarding sexuality), 5) exclusive, 6) hostile to those with doubts and questions about their faith.”

These factors all have one thing in common. They are indicators of an institution that is – like all institutions – invested first and foremost in its own survival. If you look at each of the faults young people find in their local church institutions, the one thing they’ve all encountered is fear: fear of sex and its consequences, fear of doubt and its ramifications, fear of “the gay agenda” or of what the latest experiments at CERN might uncover about how the world works . . . fear of what they might find if they start asking real questions about the things they claim to believe.

Somewhere along the line, the institutional church lost Romans 8:31 . . . “If God is for us, who can stand against us?” . . . and the verses that surround it. The 21st Century Church – be it evangelical, mainline protestant, or some other denomination – has taken upon itself the burden of helping God out in ways He never asked it to.

Small wonder, too, for the institutional church has been rooted in fear for practically its entire existence. In the first century after Christ’s ministry, that fear was the very reasonable terror of persecution – as it still is in much of the world. In fact, Hebrews 10:21, the verse most commonly leveled against those of us who no longer attend Sunday services at a local congregation, was written precisely to backstop the early Christians against living in fear, urging them to stay connected to one another rather than retreating into isolation in response to the threat. Later, the Constantinian institutionalization of the church came about as a natural response to that fear: coopting the levers of power and aiming them in other directions away from the church. The Inquisition and the Crusades were driven by a church afraid of any dissenting voices or competing worldviews, and the Protestant Reformation quickly aggregated political power to itself to counter the predictable Catholic backlash. Our own country’s founding is a virtual catalog of fear-based faith: from Puritan Massachusetts to Catholic Maryland to Quaker Pennsylvania to Baptist Rhode Island, the story of American colonization is the story of powerful religious majorities engaging in persecution stemming from the fear of dissent, and of hated religious minorities fleeing in fear from those more powerful than they.

That’s an oversimplification, of course – as any attempt to boil the entirety of church history down into a single paragraph must necessarily be. But the point is that the author of Hebrews knew then what we have now forgotten, the same thing the Apostle Paul told his young protege in 2nd Timothy 1:7, “God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.”

I’d love to see more of that in our churches today. So, I suspect, would many other millennials. Instead, the institution focuses on so-called “threats” to its existence (like sex, gay people, and sex with gay people) sometimes to the exclusion of actually practicing what Christ preached. And those of us who are more interested in James’ definition of “Pure religion and undefiled” are accused of compromising with, accommodating, and (heaven forfend) tolerating “the world.”

It’s a definition of compromise that makes it fairly easy to see how people like Fred Phelps and Eric Rudolph become who they are. If every day we aren’t jumping in someone’s face and explaining to them that “you’re wrong about Jesus and you’re going to hell for it,” is a day we’re “compromising with evil,” then Phelps and Rudolph are simply taking that line of thought all the way through to its logical conclusion.

Some of those who leave the church actually do compromise, of course – actually do throw out what they know to be right in order to maintain good standing with the “in” set. Others of us are just fairly sure God can handle any existential threats to the survival of the universal church without our help, and we have very, very different ideas about what constitutes an “existential threat.”

Of course, when we express those different ideas, the response is often . . .

Spiritual Abuse

Let me describe for you the churches I’ve attended in my lifetime as more than just a casual visitor. Here they are, in order:

* First there was the Baptist church whose pastor was dipping into the church’s finances for his own pet projects, and who deliberately removed families from the church’s prayer list because he felt their decision to home school their children was a threat to the private school operated by the church.

* Most of my childhood and formative years were spent in a non-denominational fundamentalist church that castigated members for listening to rock music, attending movies, playing cards, accruing any sort of debt, and (for the girls) wearing pants or open-toed shoes. This one was also very heavily involved in an organization that has quite accurately been termed “Pharisee School.” Perhaps I should have taken it as a pretty stark warning sign when the church leadership specifically instructed us how to respond to accusations of legalism by providing an alternate definition that was so narrowly specific as to exempt them from the charge. But I was just a teenager at the time and I was involved up to my ears in various church ministries, so I missed the warnings – or at least missed enough of them that I stayed put. I was one of the “good kids” (or was at least very heavily invested in being seen as one of the good kids), so I followed the rules and refrained from making waves.

* When I moved out of state for college, I found a home church that was a comfortable fit for me at the time, precisely because it was so similar in many ways to the previous one.

* Next, I attended a large, Neo-Calvinist church for awhile and considered joining it. I ended up elsewhere, and only later discovered this church was sheltering multiple child-abusers behind the scenes in the name of “forgiveness,” while ostracizing their victims because they wanted to bring the matters before law enforcement rather than letting the church handle it internally.

* I ended up joining a large reformed Southern Baptist church. It was a good fit in some ways for where I was at the time, and the small-group discussions I had with other guys my age were incredible. My experiences with the church leadership were . . . less so. I had an “accountability relationship” with one of the elders who  felt the best way to help me deal with a then-longstanding porn addiction was not to take a look at the underlying root issues behind what I was doing, but simply to put some software on my computer so he could see every website I visited. Later, when I started having serious doubts about some of the church’s stances on given issues, I ended up in long talks with the assistant pastor and a couple of the elders, who ultimately told me that unless I shaped up and started showing up to meetings more often, they were thinking about putting me under church discipline. I left instead, and I haven’t been inside a church since then except for the occasional wedding or Christmas Eve sing-along service.

There have been others here and there, but those are the main ones. The common theme is, of course, that the leaders at each of these institutions considered themselves either above the “common folk” of the church, or considered themselves justified in exercising broad controls over very minute areas of members’ lives . . . or, in some cases, both. It was later, when I became acquainted with Jeff VanVonderen’s and David Johnson’s book on the topic, that I discovered a name for what I’d been experiencing: Spiritual Abuse.

I’m far from alone, and mine is very far from the worst story I’ve heard. I’ve seen others of my generation tormented by the leadership of their own institutions for things like having a relationship with a member of a different denomination, expecting the father of an out-of-wedlock child to be held to the same standards as the child’s mother, and having the unmitigated gall to be afflicted with bipolar disorder, severe chemical sensitivities, or some other malady that made it difficult to interact with a large congregation of people in an enclosed space on a regular basis. I’ve known people whose pastors and “spiritual authorities” used counseling sessions to exploit vulnerable people for physical and emotional abuse, and I’ve known churches which, if they ever found out what was going on, were more interested in covering up the abuse and protecting the abusers than in helping out the victims.

That’s certainly not everyone’s experience, and not every church family has experienced these kinds of horror stories, but there are enough of them out there that I suspect many millennials have similar experiences – or worse – and just can’t take it anymore. I couldn’t. Even without the severe trauma that has affected some, what I found was an institution specifically designed to facilitate a relationship with Christ, that was instead having exactly the opposite effect.

Alternative Spaces

Rachel Held Evans might respond that I just hadn’t tried the right church (which in her case turned out to be the United Methodist Church). Others have certainly responded that way upon hearing my story.

The problem is that the institutionalized paranoia that leads some churches far enough to be abusive is, quite simply, baked into the cake. It’s part of what a church is, particularly in 21st Century America where any church is just another corporation, with a pastor as its CEO, elders as its Board of Directors, and a statement of faith as its articles of incorporation. Like any corporation, it exists first and foremost to promote and prolong its own existence. And like all corporations, this leads it to engage in behavior that is incredibly risk-averse. In my life, the total number of local, institutional churches I’ve come across where the leadership has made the decision that it was in the members’ best interests not to “rebrand,” or “adjust,” or “make substantial changes,” but to actually shut its doors and let its members find alternative spiritual homes, is exactly one. I can tell you this much from personal knowledge and experience: the number of churches that would greatly benefit their members by doing so is far higher than that.

David Hayward, a former pastor who has written much about the issues and abuses of the institutional church on his blog, writes this in response to Evans’ article:

I agree [with Evans] that the church is fascinated with tweaking but not transforming itself. I agree there needs to be substantial change . . . The substantial change people are talking about, in my opinion, is not substantial enough. Again, the substantial changes suggested are, in their own way, a more radical form of tweaking. I suspect a much deeper change is coming because the church is becoming not only less and less relevant, but less and less necessary.

Hayward gets what Evans misses: that the institution itself – which once served as the sole source of comfort for threatened individuals hiding for their lives – has become extraneous. He notes in a follow-up post that even those who recognize the fault of the institution in the current state of affairs maintain the same tired old “blame the victim” mentality I noted above.

For awhile I was content to be my local church’s resident “problem child,” the lightning-rod who drew fire in order to make sure certain issues were brought up and addressed. I still have good friends who play that role in their own local churches. I admire them for it, but I couldn’t do it anymore. I left, among other reasons, because my very presence in the church was a distraction for other people whose relationship with God was in a different place than mine. Either they had to be forced to dwell on and address issues and questions that weren’t what God was working on in their lives at that time, or I had to sit down and shut up.

Or I had to leave. So I left.

I last set foot in a church service more than seven years ago. Yet nothing stops me from fully engaging in the life of the universal church – sans institution. I regularly listen to wise men (and yes, women too!) expound on scripture via podcast or YouTube video (for that matter, I’ve listened to some not-so-wise ones, as well).

In the last few months I’ve had deep, engaging spiritual conversations with friends from a variety of faith perspectives including evangelical, neo-calvinist, orthodox, catholic, neo-charismatic and others. My “immediate spiritual family” includes friends in my own neighborhood, throughout the D.C. Metro area, across the country, even literally on the other side of the world . . . people whom I can contact at a moment’s notice to ask for advice or prayer on any subject I wish.

The man who has taught me more than anyone else about extricating “the church” from the institution that bears its name has also inspired a renewed love of scripture, and I’ve gone through the Bible 2 1/2 times in the past year alone learning new and exciting things about God with each reading. I’ve begun writing a series of scripture-based short stories that I plan to share with my son when he’s old enough. I’ve even taken communion right there at my own dinner table.

One of the things I discovered when I left the institutional church was how very narrow my exposure to alternative perspectives had been. What I knew of the beliefs of other faiths – and even other Christian denominations – I knew only from the perspective of their detractors. Every look at any viewpoint departing from the church’s specific creeds was examined only with an eye toward how to critique it.

All of which left me with the question: Why on earth would I need some corporate creation to help me do all these things when I can access a much broader, more well-rounded set of perspectives on my own?

And what about giving back? Nothing prevents me from opening my home to those in need of a place to stay, donating to relief efforts, participating in spiritually-focused conversations in a variety of online and real-world venues, or giving in a variety of other ways. I’ve come across ministry opportunities I’d never have heard of if my only spiritual interactions took place in the context of a single local congregation. It takes work – it takes seeking out opportunities and grabbing the ones that drop into your lap, rather than passively listening as someone reads them to you out of the bulletin in the Sunday morning service. And sometimes I still suck at it. But the opportunities are definitely there, and do not require a local institution as a pass-through.

Why are millennials leaving the church? For me, more than any other reason, it’s because the church as I’ve known it is a 18th Century institution in a 21st Century world. When the people across the street and around the corner were the only ones you ever knew, and when you all gathered together to share life on Sunday morning at the church in the town square, this institution made perfect sense. When I can send an email or Facebook message from Northern Virginia to a friend or spiritual mentor in California or New Zealand and get a response back in hours (or less), it doesn’t. This is the world millennials have grown up with. It’s the only world they know. It’s a world in which a 10am Sunday service at a building around the block – or the next town over – seems an anachronism. That’s not to say that literally hundreds of millions of people the world over can’t find comfort and meaning in that institution. It is to say that some of us don’t.

Why are they – we – leaving the church? Perhaps it’s because “the church” as an institution stopped making sense to us a long time ago.

Some call that selfish, or narcissistic, or consumerist. They say that even if I don’t think I need the church, the church needs me. I’ve been told various times, and in various ways, that I’m “leaving a Mike-shaped hole in some church family somewhere.”

That’s just one more retreat into a belief in a much smaller God than the one I worship. The God I worship – the God I find in Scripture – is perfectly capable of meeting the needs of His people – wherever and however they gather – without my help. Does He want my participation in the life of His body?? Certainly! But that’s not because He’s incapable of doing something if I’m not there . . . it’s because he wants to draw me closer to Him . . . to teach me more about Him . . . to spend time with me while going about His work, as any loving Father would. And it doesn’t necessarily mean He cares if I show up at the same building for Sunday School at 9am, Church at 10:30, Evening Service at 6, and mid-week prayer meeting on Wednesday nights.

This critique also ignores history. There have always been those whom God uses to reform religious institutions from the inside, and those He uses to challenge and change those institutions from the outside. Erasmus and Luther found themselves on opposite sides of this split, as did the Puritans and Separatists who settled the British colony of Massachusetts. Rachel Held Evans, it seems, is a modern-day Puritan, seeking to change the church from within.

I find myself a Separatist.

Again, I’m not claiming to speak for all millennials . . . or even for all half-GenX/half-millennial misfits like myself! This is my story, and mine alone. To those who share a piece of that story, I hope you find it encouraging. To those seeking one person’s honest viewpoint about why the pews are empty on Sunday mornings, I hope you find it enlightening. To those who find that God is most easily heard  from the seat of your chosen congregation, I’m glad you’ve found what you need in order to know Him better. To those who find yourselves feeling the weight of obligation to show up on Sundays simply because you’ve always been told that’s what a relationship with God looks like, I hope this gives you a sense that there is a way to extricate yourself from the worldview that shames people into the pews each week, without abandoning your faith and everything you believe in.

To all of you, thank you for reading.

07 Nov 2012 Where we are. Where we’ve been.

I woke up this morning deeply discouraged about the future of our country. Conservatives like to say that we are a “center-right nation,” but in a country where the challenger can win independents handily and still lose the election that is clearly no longer the case. Many, myself included, thought the polls showing Obama ahead based on 2008 demographics couldn’t possibly be right . . . that 2008 was a historical anomaly centered on the man himself, and that after the pendulum swung the other way in 2010, everything would revert to the norm in 2012. We were wrong. I was wrong. 2008 was a realignment, and the face of the country changed. That being the case, it’s worth looking back at the country we left behind us four years ago.

Four years ago, I wrote a post on this blog intended to calm the fears of readers on the right who were worried about the fate of the nation in the face of what everybody knew would be an overwhelming victory for Barack Obama. It’s never as bad as it seems, I wrote, and the election of a staunch far-left liberal masquerading as a post-partisan moderate is not the end of the world.

I will not be writing any such comforting words this time. This time the electorate’s rose-colored glasses were off. The far-left liberal ran as exactly what he is. He ran a small, vicious and mean campaign based on character assassination, and was reelected anyway. It really is as bad as it seems. It may be worse.

Four years ago, if I was the type of person who believed birth control was wrong, I could simply not use it. Now I am legally obligated to pay for other people to do so.

Four years ago, it was perfectly acceptable to for me to refuse to provide my professional services in support of an event with which I disagreed. Now, doing so might get me sued.

Four years ago, the government was not in the business of engaging in character assassination of private citizens. Now the full weight of the Presidential bully pulpit has been leveraged to attack Rush Limbaugh, Charles and David Koch, Sheldon Adelson, and others by name. Meanwhile, the Senate majority leader, in violation of Senate rules, took to the floor of the chamber and gave what was essentially a campaign speech, accusing the other party’s candidate of committing felony tax fraud without a shred of evidence. The nation, collectively, shrugged.

Four years ago, I lived in a country that celebrated success in business and understood that the private sector is the economic engine of the country. Now I live in a country that demonizes profit, persecutes successful businessmen solely because they are successful businessmen, and bought into dastardly attacks on the character of a Presidential candidate that stemmed solely from the fact that he demonstrated the knowledge required to run a successful enterprise.

Four years ago, I lived in a country where I was free to express an opinion on a political, social or economic issue without being branded a racist. That is no longer the case.

Four years ago, President-elect Obama said in his victory speech, “As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours, we are not enemies but friends. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.” Yesterday he won reelection based on a strategy described by democratic advisors as, “Kill Romney.”

Four years ago, I lived in a country with a 208-year tradition of peaceful transfers of power from one party to another. Now I live in a country where hundreds of people threatened rioting and violence if the candidate I voted for was elected.

Four years ago, I lived in a country that prized self-reliance and accomplishment, while still ensuring that those who were less fortunate were cared for. Today I live in a country that voted to reelect a President whose platform consisted largely of “more free stuff.”

Four years ago, I lived in a country where people protested in the streets because a President imprisoned enemy combatants without trial in Guantanamo. Yesterday, those same protesters voted to reelect a President who summarily orders U.S. citizens as young as 16 years old to be executed without trial via drone strike.

Four years ago, I lived in a country which had just overwhelmingly elected a black man to the White House for the first time and was joyously celebrating another step closer to Martin Luther King Jr’s dream that we might all one day be judged not by the color of our skin, but by the content of our character. This morning I woke up in a country where the hashtag #fuckwhitepeople was trending on Twitter.

How far we have come in four years.

Benjamin Franklin is widely credited with having said, “When the people find they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic.” As a nation, we reached that point long ago and plenty of blame belongs to both parties for that. But I fear that last night we crossed a line from which we may not be able to retreat – not because the President was reelected, but because of how and why. We looked at the disastrous fiscal policies of states like California and Illinois, and instead of saying “we need to do something better to avoid their fate,” we said “more like that, please!”

We endorsed the exportation of California’s and Illinois’ economies to the federal level. We have, perhaps irrevocably, decided as a nation NOT to do anything to address the horrific overspending that this administration (and its predecessor, and their predecessors across both parties and many administrations) have heaped upon us. I fear that the only way out now is through. This administration clearly has no interest in addressing that crisis, having caused a fair portion of it. To the extent that they DO demonstrate an interest, they have also demonstrated an utter lack of anything remotely resembling any idea of how to do so. We as a country just looked into the eyes of the two people who were proposing real solutions to a very real problem and said, “no thank you.”

No, that’s not quite right. We weren’t nearly so polite to Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. We didn’t say “thank you for your service, but we’d prefer the other guy.” Instead, through months of character assassinations, personal attacks and outright lies, we gave them a big, collective “Fuck You.” We largely ensured that anybody who has even a hint of an idea for how to keep us from falling off the looming fiscal cliff is going to keep it to themselves lest they wind up being declared “Public Enemy Number One” as Romney and Ryan were. The third rail of U.S. politics is alive and well, and it doesn’t matter that we are going to be terrified to touch it now. Very soon, it will certainly reach out to touch us.

I fear for the world into which my son will grow up. I fear the world we have created for him.

28 Jun 2012 Stepping Back from the Ledge: On the Obamacare Opinion

Let me preface this by saying that I am no legal scholar, merely a long-time hobbyist and sometimes court-watcher. That said, I wanted to share some unorthodox thoughts on today’s PPACA decision and the man who authored it. I’ve deliberately avoided reading much in the way of commentary on today’s opinion from either side, choosing instead to read the opinion itself and formulate my own thoughts on it. And here they are, for any who care to read them. Take them for what they’re worth . . . which is roughly equivalent to the amount you paid to read them here.

Right now, there can be little doubt that Chief Justice John Roberts is the most reviled man on the right. Personally, I have been impressed with Roberts since I first heard of him when he was tapped by George W. Bush for the D.C. Circuit. While each of the nine people on the Supreme Court bench have at various times given me cause to respect their intellects, in my opinion Roberts outshines nearly all of them, with the possible exception of Clarence Thomas.

This opinion has given me no reason to change that impression.

This opinion was a defeat for the forces of limited government. There can be no doubt about that. However, let us not forget that the likes of Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry felt the same about the ratification of the Constitution itself. I am no fan of big government, and from a policy perspective I wish this had gone the other way. I greeted the news that the mandate was upheld with the same shock, dismay and uneasiness as many of you reading this. Like most, I did not see this coming. My personal suspicion was that the court would strike the mandate by 5-4, and uphold the rest of the law by a comparably thin margin. I was wrong.

But as I read through the key pages of the opinion, I can find very little fault with its reasoning, and frankly, it seems like there is much to like, from the perspective of someone who craves more mechanisms to limit federal intrusions into our lives.

Let’s dispense with the obvious first. The opinion reveals the President, the Democratic leadership in Congress, and their various enablers as the liars they are. They told us time and time again, “This is not a tax.” Had they claimed then that it was what it now unambiguously is, this bill would never have passed. Then, when the time came to defend it in court, they claimed (among others) the right to levy the mandate as a tax. They are liars and ought to be tossed out on their collective ears in November. If anything, this decision makes that easier because it is now crystal clear that the only thing standing between us and the implementation of this trainwreck is a Romney Presidency, backed by a Republican House and Senate.

But there it is. The mandate is a tax. Roberts is quite convincing on that point. He writes, “Congress’s authority under the taxing power is limited to requiring an individual to pay money into the Federal Treasury, no more.” And that’s exactly what the individual mandate does. Roberts notes that Congress has not always called something “a tax” when applying its taxation power. He notes that Congress imposes no other penalty on those who choose not to buy insurance other than to require an elevated payment to the IRS (sounds kind of like a tax, doesn’t it?). In other words, he notes that this walks like a tax, talks like a tax, and even though it’s called a “penalty” in the plain text of the law, it pretty much operates as a tax. Therefore, he says, it’s a tax.

I may not like the outcome, but it’s pretty hard to fault the logic behind it.

And therein lies the issue for conservatives. We like to talk about how the left is results-oriented while the right is process-oriented . . . i.e., that we are a nation of laws and not of men. We like to talk about courts that adhere to the original intent of the Constitution and the Congress when it authors new laws . . . and who eschew the temptation to craft the law in accordance with their own policy preferences.

And Roberts gave us exactly what we’re always claiming we want. He applied the taxation power as written in Article 1, Section 8, to the law in exactly the way the bill’s authors (Pelosi and her cronies) intended.

Again, I don’t like the outcome. But as conservatives, we don’t want the court to be outcome-driven, do we?? Don’t we want it to apply the constitution to the laws, as written and intended by their respective authors?

Roberts, it seems, was playing exactly the role he said he planned to play at his confirmation hearings . . . the role of the impartial umpire who puts his policy preferences aside in favor of broader legal principles. Didn’t we all cheer when he said that? His opinion specifically declined to take an opinion on the merits of the PPACA itself as policy, and didn’t need to do so as law . . . the court never reached the question of the broader law’s constitutionality once the mandate was ruled constitutional.

That leads us to the things about this decision that conservatives can like – and there are a surprisingly large number of them.

1) As I noted above, this decision makes it much easier to pull the lever for Mitt Romney. In pointing this out, I’ve already been accused by liberals of asserting that “Roberts voted for Obamacare to swing the election to Romney.” No, not at all. Roberts is neither that shallow nor that shortsighted. The increased likelihood of a Romney victory in November is merely a side benefit . . . though it will likely be the first one actually realized, chronologically speaking.

2) As I also noted above, this decision does NOT rule on the merits of the law itself. That means unless it is repealed, the law will be back in front of the court at least once (the HHS Birth Control Mandate) and perhaps more (e.g., the IPAB). This is hardly our only bite at the apple. Roberts made sure of that.

3) The notion that the government could compel transactions between private entities was an odious one, but that notion is specifically dispensed with in this opinion. The government may tax a person for making a particular choice, but it may NOT compel them to engage in commerce. In this particular instance that is a distinction without a difference, but it will not always be thus, and that avenue for coercion is now closed to Congress. The government could not (or would not) articulate the limits of its own commerce clause power in briefs or oral arguments . . . so Roberts did it for them.

4) In dispensing with the commerce clause justification for Obamacare, Roberts undermined a whole host of other liberal shibboleths. Here is one phrase from his opinion that I suspect we’ll see again, “Our precedents recognize Congress’s power to regulate ‘classes of activities,’ . . . not classes of individuals, apart from any activity in which they are engaged” (emphasis in original). This phrase could have ramifications for future cases regarding the constitutionality of affirmative action, new social programs, and perhaps the big Voting Rights Act case coming out of Alabama next term. Congress certainly does its best to “regulate classes of individuals” on a regular basis. Roberts just handed the court an easy way to tell them “no.”

5) In dispensing with the necessary and proper clause justification for Obamacare, Roberts further undermines the “unlimited federal power” worldview held by many liberals, when he says, “Each of our prior cases upholding laws under that clause involved exercises of authority derivative of, and in service to, a granted power. . . . The individual mandate, by contrast, vests Congress with the extraordinary ability to create the necessary predicate to the exercise of an enumerated power.” As I said, I’m no legal scholar, but to my inexpert eye, this reads to me as though he’s saying simply that Congress cannot create a problem in order to justify a solution . . . something Congress is inordinately fond of doing (creating the financial crisis by encouraging overly-generous lending habits, in order to “solve” it with the stimulus, for example . . . or creating artificial scarcity of energy resources in order to “solve” it by pouring billions into unworkable green energy “solutions”). Again, this opinion makes these more difficult to justify in the future if they end up before the high court.

6) On the Medicaid Expansion, Roberts did his best to undermine the PPACA itself . . . the state-by-state implementation is dependent on state exchanges, and Roberts made sure the states have as little incentive as possible to actually set up those exchanges by taking away the administration’s ability to punish them if they refuse.

In short, it sounds like what Roberts has done is make sure that when Congress wants to have a real “slam dunk” with regard to the constitutionality of certain types of new regulations, they’re going to have to frame those regulations as new tax hikes. Given how popular taxes aren’t, that’ll make these new regulations much less palatable with the voting public, and will likely lead to fewer of them in the future (how many fewer, only time will tell).

The way I read this decision, it comes across as a textbook example of putting legal principles ahead of policy preferences – which is exactly what we want in our Supreme Court justices. It sounds like John Roberts turned out to be exactly the Chief we on the right said we wanted when President Bush appointed him.

So we lost this policy battle, but in the long run, I think this decision, as written by the Chief Justice, makes it easier to win the war. Roberts even lays out the next steps for us when he writes, “Members of this Court are vested with the authority to interpret the law; we possess neither the expertise nor the prerogative to make policy judgments.  Those decisions are entrusted to our Nation’s elected leaders, who can be thrown out of office if the people disagree with them.  It is not our job to protect the people from the consequences of their political choices.”

So let’s get out there and protect ourselves in November. There are a lot of independent and/or low-information voters out there who will read this opinion and hear one word, “TAX.” Let’s enlist them to protect themselves from the consequences of past political choices as well.

Protecting ourselves by making wiser choices, rather than relying on a handful of unelected government officials to protect us from a history of bad ones – sounds pretty conservative to me!

 

UPDATE: Now that I’m reading commentary from others, I’m finding lots of other folks on the right who are coming to similar conclusions. One of them even pointed out that, since Roberts has declared the PPACA a “tax,” it can now be pushed through the Senate using the same reconciliation process by which it was passed in the first place . . . you know . . .  the one that can’t be filibustered?

 

UPDATE II: Based on the commentary I’ve been reading, and the comments I’ve received so far, I see that the piece I failed to address the first time around (which, incidentally, Roberts failed to address thoroughly in his opinion as well) is the question of whether, if the mandate is a “tax,” it is a constitutional one. The dissent took Roberts to task for this oversight, and I should have addressed it in my initial thoughts. I will do so now.

I think the question is a debatable one. I do not agree with Kennedy, Scalia, Thomas and Alito, that Roberts has engaged in wholesale “Judicial tax-writing.” The interpretation that this was a tax was in the legislation from the beginning. That’s precisely why the President and his surrogates had to so vociferously defend themselves against the (perfectly accurate) accusation that this was a tax. To say that Justice Roberts came up with that interpretation on his own is to ignore a significant chunk of the public policy debate around the law over the past several years.

But if it’s a tax, is it constitutional? Just as I am no legal scholar, I am also no tax lawyer, so again my opinion is hardly definitive, but for what it’s worth, given the text of the Constitution and Supreme Court precedent on this question, I’d say, “Yes.”

I hate that fact. I don’t like taxes any more than any other tea-party-sympathizing, Republican-voting conservative out there. But there it is. This seems to me to be an example of an excise tax on the economic activity of self-insuring for health care, which would make it perfectly constitutional. It also makes it a very bad idea from a policy standpoint, but that’s not Roberts’ job to decide, and it irks me that the usually cautious conservative wing of the court delves deeply into the policy implications of the law in its dissent. That is not the court’s job!

But back to the excise tax. An excise tax is “a tax that is measured by the amount of business done (not on property or income from real estate).” Excise taxes were a favored method of taxation by the founding fathers themselves – especially the first Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton.

So from a legal construct, then, the “individual mandate” is an excise tax on the economic decision individuals make to self-insure.

If this sounds suspiciously like the arguments in favor of the mandate from a commerce clause perspective . . . the argument that everybody will at some point get sick, so Congress is perfectly free to regulate them, here’s the difference:

Choice.

Roberts wrote,

“Congress’s authority under the taxing power is limited to requiring an individual to pay money into the Federal Treasury, no more. If a tax is properly paid, the Government has no power to compel or punishindividuals subject to it. We do not make light of the severe burden that taxation—especially taxation motivated by a regulatory purpose—can impose. But imposition of a tax nonetheless leaves an individual with a lawful choice to do or not do a certain act, so long as he is willing to pay a tax levied on that choice.”

As a “mandate,” the law criminalizes the act of self-insuring . . . that is, the act of not acting to purchase health insurance. There is no choice involved: A private individual purchases a product from a private seller, or else is defined as a criminal under federal law, and as Roberts noted, criminal penalties can come in far more stringent forms than exacting a payment. That, said five of the nine justices, is beyond Congress’ ability to do.

As a tax, though, the law gives the individual a choice: purchase insurance, or self-insure and pay the tax. You pick. End of story.

I’m going to use a much-rehashed, imperfect analogy to explain what I mean: Think of it like car insurance. I grew up in California, where the law says “You must be insured in order to drive.” When stopped by a police officer, they ask you to show them your license, registration and proof of insurance. There is no choice. You are insured, or you cannot (legally) drive.

I now reside in Virginia. The law here is different. You have a choice to either purchase auto insurance or pay the government a $500 annual fee and self-insure. If you self-insure and get in an accident, you’re on your own hook to pay for it . . . but the government still has your $500.

What Roberts did was declare that the California model is unconstitutional (for health insurance, at the federal level), but the Virginia model is not.

As I said, it’s an imperfect analogy – because each of us has a choice whether to drive or not in the first place, where nobody has a choice whether or not to get sick. However, I think it fits well enough to justify Roberts’ logic in the court’s opinion.

Let me say again: As a matter of policy, I think this whole bill is a terrible idea that will drive up costs, reduce the quality of service, drive many doctors out of business, and generally make the state of health care in the U.S. much, much worse. I think it needs to be repealed as quickly and thoroughly as possible. I also think there are plenty of other viable constitutional challenges to this law – first and foremost the HHS birth control mandate and the IPAB – but I no longer believe the “mandate” to be among them.

26 Dec 2011 Dear Tristan: The Point of it All

Dear Tristan,

I’ve written 24 letters to you now, in which I’ve shared my love for you, my hopes for you, and my advice for you. My last several letters have focused on truth . . . caring about it, seeking it out, and recognizing it when you have found it.

I think it’s appropriate, as your very first Christmas Day draws to a close, for me to share my thoughts about the One I believe to be the source of that truth. I’ve written several times in these letters about God . . . about how I believe He created us and seeks relationship with us. Today I want to share what I believe that looks like.

I believe God created us, from the start, built for relationship – both with Him and with each other. He recognized that it wasn’t enough just to create one of us, but after He’d created both man and woman, He described the result as “very good.”

I believe God created us with real freedom. He gave Adam real choices, such as the freedom to name the animals. And most importantly, he gave Adam and Eve the freedom to mess up . . . the freedom to tell Him “no.”

Which they did. It wasn’t God who severed the perfect relationship we had with Him. It was us. God gave Adam and Eve the complete run of the garden, except for the one thing He knew would bring them pain and suffering and regret. For their own protection He warned them against eating from the one tree that would harm them.

And do you know the first thing He did after they broke faith with Him? After they decided to believe a lie about His motives rather than trusting that He was acting in their best interests?

The very first thing He did was . . . showed up as usual for their regular evening walk together in the garden. It wasn’t God who hid from them. They hid from Him. He never stopped wanting relationship.

I believe He continued tenuously reaching out to us, gently drawing us back into relationship with Him. Look at the stories of the Old Testament . . . look at how it describes his interactions . . . His relationships . . . with Abraham, with Moses, with David.

So much of our common perception of the Old Testament is that of an angry God just looking to destroy this person or that person . . . this nation or that nation. But that’s not the picture I see there at all! I see a God who relentlessly pursues those He loves . . . but who is constantly being rebuffed. At Mount Sinai, God sought to speak to the Israelites directly, but they were too afraid and sent Moses to intercede for them instead. So God acceded to their wishes . . . and ended up having a relationship with Moses that was so deep, so personal that Deuteronomy describes it thus: “Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.” And what of the rest of them? They didn’t want a relationship, they wanted to know what to do . . . how to appease the God who terrified them.

So where He wanted to give them Himself, He gave them the law instead.

After that, God kept reaching out to His people, continuing to seek relationship. Continuing to work through individuals like Gideon, Deborah and Samuel, but always seeking to directly interact with His people.

Then they decided they wanted a king. Once again, they wanted someone to stand between them and the God they feared.

So God gave them a king . . . several in fact . . . and with a few exceptions they turned out to be universally awful. After David, whom God described as a man after His own heart, God’s relationship with the kings over his people went steadily downhill. The early part of Solomon’s reign showed great promise, but the latter half saw a drifting apart of the early relationship. After the kingdom was split under Solomon’s son, the kings of the northern half universally rejected God, who ended up working through individual relationships with prophets like Elijah and Elisha. In the southern kingdom, a bare handful of the kings actually followed God’s rules, but most did not. And of the ones who did, only a couple: most notably Josiah and Hezekiah, actually sought relationship with God. As far as the following of rules, God told his people through prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah that the rules weren’t the point . . . and that in fact, their sacrifices, ceremonies, and feast days . . . the one’s He’d told them to observe . . . made Him sick.

So He obliterated the two kingdoms, scattering their people across the region.

And what message did they take from their misfortune? 400 years later, when we pick the story back up, it seems that the message they’ve taken is “you need to do a better job following the rules.”

This time, God doesn’t send a judge, or a king, or a prophet. This time, He’s had enough of intermediaries . . . had enough of people not only refusing a direct relationship with Him, but refusing to listen to even his representatives and proxies.

This time, He shows up Himself.

That, I think, is the message of Christmas. God wants a relationship with us so badly that He came Himself, giving up His unlimited power to become the very weakest type of person . . . a helpless newborn baby.

And in that human form, He demonstrated the very empathy I’ve been talking about in so many of these letters . . . the creator of the universe put himself in a human body – a body capable of suffering wounds, of suffering hunger, of suffering temptation. A body capable of feeling.

And what does He do with that body? Most people interpret the sacrifice of Jesus as a story of that same mean old God of the Old Testament (the one who just wants to slaughter people), needing to beat up on somebody for the sins of the world. The role of Jesus, they say, is to step in front of a blow from our angry Heavenly Father that is intended for us.

I don’t believe that at all. I don’t believe the “Father” God wants to be to us is an abusive one. I believe He’s desperately trying to restore a relationship with us. The problem is, we’re sick . . . with a sickness that makes such a relationship impossible. The sickness of sin. Like the victim of some virulent infectious disease, we are quarantined away from the God who is free of any hint of exposure to the illness that is killing us.

But God isn’t called the Great Physician for nothing.

Do you know how chemotherapy works? Chemotherapy is one of the few effective ways we have of combating cancer, like the cancer that killed my mother, your Grandma Pat. Chemotherapy works by poisoning the bad cancer cells that are killing the sick patient. The only problem is, the chemicals also poison the cancer patients themselves. The way it works, when it does work, is to kill off all the bad cells before it kills the patient. Many times, it doesn’t work because the patient isn’t strong enough to survive the process.

I think sin is like that. I think sin is a cancer that eats away at us. I think we are in desperate need of a cure, but the only thing strong enough to cure us is too strong for us to handle without it killing us.

Except for Jesus . . . God Himself in human form.

I think what He did in His life, and especially, in His death, was the equivalent of injecting Himself voluntarily with our infection so that He could create a cure without himself falling victim to the sickness of sin. As the antidote to the Lie to which we fell victim in Eden . . . the lie that said “you can’t trust Him,” He offers Himself as The Truth . . . not just “a truth,” or “something true” . . . The Truth. The Truth is a Person . . . a person who wants to share Himself with you, and with me. A person who, in the ultimate “power with” moment, became a man, giving up His “power over” the entire universe, so He could restore us to relationship with Him.

And now, in the final step toward restoring that long-lost relationship, He offers us the cure He has made. He offers us Himself.

Richard Wurmbrand, a pastor and author who worked behind the Iron Curtain of Communism, and who knows something about discovering truth amid a culture of lies, wrote this:

The Bible is a wonderful book. It is the truth about the Truth. It is not the Truth. A sermon taken from the Bible can be a wonderful thing to hear. It is the truth about the truth about the truth. But it is not the truth. There have been many books written about the things contained in the Bible. I have written some myself. They can be quite wonderful to read. They are the truth about the truth about truth about the Truth. But they are NOT the Truth. Only Jesus Christ is the Truth. Sometimes the Truth can be drowned in a multitude of words.

Like I said in my letter yesterday, I hope you are always curious; always seeking. Like I’ve said in several recent letters, I hope that when you seek, what you are looking for most of all is truth.

I hope you find Him.

Sadly, too many of us, even today, reject His offer of relationship. Others continue to look for an intercessor, someone to stand in between them and God and tell them what to do, and what to think. Still others remain locked in the “rule-following” paradigm. To them the Old Testament was a big rulebook, and Jesus came in and changed the rules, and left us with the New Testament . . . which is just a smaller, gentler rulebook.

For myself, I believe the Bible . . . all of it . . . is much less “Black’s Law Dictionary,” and much more, “Lord of the Rings.” That is, it’s not a law book given to us so we could know how to follow the rules, it’s a story! It’s the story of the grand sweep of Human history, and the God who has been desperately searching for His lost people the whole time! More than a story, it’s the archtype that has been followed by every story since.

I hope you can come to know The Truth . . . as well as the truth . . . in the same way I am learning to do myself. I hope you will not, as I have done for too much of my life, drown The Truth in a multitude of words. So very often we miss the point of Jesus: We think of him as a prophet, a teacher, a good man, a sacrifice to appease an angry God, a judge come to punish bad people and reward good people . . .

. . . None of these, though, capture the point of who Jesus really is. Some of them, in fact, get Him exactly wrong! His life, death and ultimate defeat of death by returning to life again, are God’s mechanism for restoring our relationship with Him! And like my relationship with you, the relationship He wants is not dependent on our being “good” by following some rulebook. Not only are the rules not the point, they never were! The relationship has always been the point with God! In my very first letter I told you, there is nothing you can do to make me love you more, and nothing you can do to make me love you less. My love for you is not something you can earn, and not something you can lose. My love for you just is.

That is the kind of love God has for us. There is nothing we can do, no rules or codes or laws we can follow, that will make Him love us more. He just loves us! There is nothing we can do, no evil or wickedness, that will make Him love us less. No matter what we do, He will pursue us to the end of the earth, and beyond.

He just loves us . . . all of us! Not just the ones who agree with Him, or do what He says, or follow His laws. John 3:16 says that “God so loved the world! All of it!

And in the end, just as He has always done, He loves us enough to give us the freedom to choose. For those who choose a relationship with Him, that’s exactly what He gives them . . . a relationship with Him that lasts for all of eternity.

For those who choose not to have a relationship with Him, that’s exactly what He gives them . . . separation from Him for all of eternity. We usually think of this separation as a punishment for our wickedness . . . or at the very least, a punishment for not accepting Him. I think, though, that just as He did when He gave Israel the law instead of Himself, and later, a King instead of Himself . . . that final separation from Him for all eternity is simply Him giving us exactly what we ask for. It’s Him loving us enough to pursue us to the ends of the earth . . . and loving us enough to let us go when we give Him that final “no.”

I dearly hope that you come to love the God who, living outside of Time, loved you long before you ever were. I dearly hope that I as your father can model for you the love your Heavenly Father has for you, and wants to share with you.

I hope that a relationship with Him comes to mean as much to you as it does to me.

Love,
~Dad

24 Dec 2011 Dear Tristan: What’s Your Story?

Dear Tristan,

Your life is a story.

My last few letters have centered on truth: What is it? What isn’t it? How do you know it when you see it? Can you know it when you see it? How do you go looking for it?

Today I want to write about where it fits. I want to share my thoughts about the story that is your life.

You see . . . like I said in my last few letters. “Truth” is not mere facts . . . data points . . . bits and pieces of information. These can all be “true,” but they are not “truth.” Truth requires context. It requires history. It requires story.

I’ve always loved epics: epic novels, epic movies, epic stories. I love how wide such stories are . . . the fact that they don’t, as so many movies and books do, focus all their energy on a few hours, days or weeks in the life of their characters. I feel so much more connected to the characters in such a story when I can follow them along for years at a time . . . when I can experience with them the grand sweep of their lives.

I think it’s important for each of us to understand that we are in the midst of the grandest, most sweeping epic of all . . . the epic of human history. I also enjoy fantasy literature . . . I enjoy the creativity with which a truly good fantasy author can spin a new universe into existence and drop the reader squarely into it to discover things as they do not exist in our own universe. But the disappointing thing about fantasy is its scope . . . J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings and his other books about the world of “Middle-Earth,” Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, George R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire . . . these are all amazing fantasy epics, each of which spans many volumes . . . but none of them can compare to the story of your life. For your life has all of human history behind it . . . even including the lives of the authors of these great works of literature.

There’s a common cliche we use when we want to put one another “in our place.” I’ve used it myself to describe someone who I’ve found to act in an annoyingly unthinking and inconsiderate manner: “Who does that guy think he is, the center of the universe?”

In a very real sense, the answer to that question is yes. We are each at the center of our own universe . . . the title role in the stories of our own lives. There is nobody else who will experience his or her story quite like you will yours, because you are the only one who will experience it from your perspective. From your perspective, the universe as you observe it stretches out from you in every direction. From your perspective, you are the center of your universe.

This realization is a big part of the empathy I wrote about in some of my earlier letters. While we usually mean the whole “center of the universe” paradigm to describe someone as rude, thoughtless and unobservant, the truth is that when we realize that we are all at the center of our own, interlocking universes, it allows us to be less rude, thoughtless and unobservant. When you realize that the person driving the car that just cut you off, or the person in front of you in line who is rifling through his pocket to try to find enough coins to pay for his lunch, or the person who took fifteen items in their cart through the “five items or less” aisle at the grocery store, is each dealing with his or her own story, it becomes much easier to empathize with them. When you start seeing the bigger story, it helps you to see the people in it as people and not just as props. Maybe that person in the other car just got laid off and is distracted by trying to figure out how to feed his family. Maybe the person in line at the checkout is trying to figure out how he’s going to pay for this meal and still have enough left over to pay for gas so he can get to work. Maybe the person at the grocery store is trying to hurry home to a sick child. Maybe . . . maybe a million different things. A million different stories.

And it’s the story of your life – and the lives of those with whom you have relationships – that make up the truth as it appears to you . . . the truth from your perspective, which is not the same, in some very important ways, as the truth from my perspective, or anyone else’s. Like I said in my earlier letter about Truth, 2+2=4 may be a true statement, but it is not “Truth.” Similarly, “Tristan is a boy” is a true statement . . . but it falls far short of “the truth,” because it doesn’t tell us anything about your life. It doesn’t tell how you struggled through 48 hours of labor to be born, your heart beating steadily away the whole time, as we waited anxiously to see if it would drop and we’d have to take you and your mom to the hospital to get you out. It doesn’t tell how you have this way of knowing just what you want at any given time, and how you refuse to be placated when your mom or I can’t quite figure out what that is, and try to offer you something else instead. It doesn’t tell about how you dearly long to be able to stand, and walk, even though you don’t have the strength or balance to do so . . . and the look of wondrous rapture on your face for the few fractions of a second after I let go of your hands and leave you suspended on nothing but your own two feet, before you come tumbling back down into a sit. It doesn’t tell of the peals of laughter you let loose upon seeing yourself in a mirror. It doesn’t tell of the look of pure joy that covers your face when your mom or I come into the room, even if we’ve only been gone a few moments in a different part of the house.

These are pieces of the story of your short life so far . . . a story of strength and determination and playfulness and curiousity and love. Your story.

I remember a conversation with a good friend of mine in college, who was expressing the desire to learn more about some of our classmates . . . to get to know them better and more deeply, as she put it. I remember telling her that to me it sounded like something else: it sounded like rather than wanting to know them, she wanted to know about them.

I think we all have this tendency . . . and that’s what facts and bits of data are able to do very well . . . they can tell us a lot about someone. But learning about someone is easy! Give me a few bits of data about someone: name, email, phone number, address and so forth, and within half an hour I’ll be able to tell you a lot about them. It’s a whole lot harder to actually know someone. To know someone, you have to not just learn pieces of data . . . you have to get to know their story. And the only way to really do that is to become part of it. And the only way to do that is to have a relationship with them.

Your mom and I were once having a conversation with another couple who was having a really rough time in their relationship. The husband was trying to communicate with us, and with his wife, his disapproval of some of the decisions she was making. He asked us, by way of analogy, if we saw someone (meaning his wife, in this case) driving their car in a dangerous direction and headed for a cliff, what we thought the best way would be to get them to stop. He said that the only thing he could think of was to react in a way that might seem harsh – to “run them off the road,” he said – but would ultimately save their life.

We hunted around trying to think of how to put a kinder, gentler answer for a while. There was talk of putting up roadblocks and gently steering them in a safer direction. But finally I figured out what it was that had been bothering me about the whole conversation . . . there was no relationship in it. It was all very passive, very detached . . . almost theoretical . . . almost clinical.

I sort of sat and brooded on how to say what was in my heart for awhile, until your mom noticed that something was bothering me. She asked me what it was, and I said, “You don’t run them off the road. You don’t put up roadblocks. You get in the car with them!”

That’s what a relationship looks like . . . that’s what it means to become a part of someone’s story, and to let them into yours. It means you are willing to share life with them even when it’s hard, or dangerous, or you disagree with them, or you don’t like some of the choices they’re making. It means you trust them with a piece of your heart, even knowing it might get broken.

It means that the person is more important than the rules. After all, Jesus Himself said that the whole law . . . all of the rules and regulations and “do’s” and “don’ts” and “should’s” and “shouldn’ts” in Scripture come down to two relationships: “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

That’s the story of human history at its core: The story of you and your neighbor . . . and all your neighbors in this little cul-de-sac of the universe that we know as “Earth.”

So be aware that you are the lead character in the story of your life . . . and not just the lead character, but a co-author. Like we discussed in some of my earlier letters, God created us to make choices, and He has given you some very real choices in your story . . . given you the opportunity to write major sections of the plot.

Treasure that! Treasure your story, your place in it, and the fact that – unlike those movies or books – you have the ability to alter its course in meaningful ways. Make the most of those choices. Make the most of your story and your place in other people’s stories. When you see people as people . . . as the center of their own stories and universes rather than a collection of statistics wrapped up in skin, that’s when real relationships can happen. And those are the relationships that will change your life forever.

Love,
~Dad

23 Dec 2011 Dear Tristan: Imagine That

Dear Tristan,

Yesterday I wrote about knowing . . . about whether it’s all that important – or even all that possible – to know without doubt that what you believe on any given matter is right.

I wrote and urged you, instead of loving knowledge, to love learning the process of adding to what knowledge you are able to gather for yourself.

To truly love learning, though, you must dive deeply into something that is essential to the learning process. It is dangerous, because you can never predict where it will lead you, or what your life will look like when you get there. In truth, this is something you’ve already exhibited . . . something that perhaps all babies at your age exhibit, before we adults kill it off as you grow.

I’m talking about curiosity.

We have this cultural milieu that says too much curiosity is dangerous. “Curiosity killed the cat,” they say. Often, this shows up as the flip side of the culture of “obedience” that I mentioned in one of my earlier letters. Children are taught both, “do as you’re told,” and “don’t ask too many questions.” When a baby reaches out and touch something his parents don’t want him to have, he gets his hand smacked. When a child asks “why?” when told to go do something, he gets a spanking. Our natural tendency toward exploration is under assault almost from the moment of birth, when the hospital nurse takes us and swaddles us up tightly, cutting off our ability to reach out to what is around us. Or alternatively, our hands are covered in hospital mittens, cutting off the most accessible area we have for exploring our sense of touch.

Is it any wonder that this same culture feels threatened when we grow up into adults who insist on questioning everything?

A question is a very, very powerful thing. You remember in my letter yesterday I wrote about Socrates. He was the guy who was wise enough to know that he didn’t know anything. He was

a teacher of others, but instead of telling him “this is what I know,” he would ask them questions. He would force them to think on their own: to develop their own answers . . . their own worldview, even . . . rather than merely parroting something he’d taught them.

Here’s what a question can do. A question can allow you to share deeply with another person, without coming off as threatening. As I mentioned yesterday, in our culture, we see knowledge through the “power-over” dynamic. If someone has knowledge they’re trying to share with me, they must be trying to exert power over me . . . to demonstrate their superiority. The fact that this may or may not be their intention is largely irrelevant, the point is that this is how we often interpret such an action, regardless of the intent behind it.

But what if, instead of sharing a bunch of knowledge, I simply ask a question? “Have you considered . . . ?” “What do you think about . . . ?” “How do you feel about . . . ?”

Now, instead of coming across as the stronger party in a “power over” relationship, you’re inviting the other person into a “power with” relationship. And at the same time, you’re not only indulging your own curiosity . . . you’re stimulating theirs at the same time!

A question, then, can be a powerful tool for learning, as well as a powerful tool for nurturing relationship. Curiosity can stimulate you to learn more about others, more about yourself, and more about the world around you.

As I said at the beginning of this letter, though, curiosity is a dangerous thing. That’s because curiosity is limited only by the power of your own imagination. Anything you can imagine, you can seek to discover.

Some, as I mentioned earlier, will feel threatened by this. New discoveries always threaten the status quo, and there is always someone invested in the way things are, who will resist any results of your curiosity . . . and will likely try to head off those results by discouraging you from indulging your curiosity in the first place.

But curiosity’s dangers do not only come from others. Some of them come from within yourself. For as you search, you might not like what you find. You might learn something that completely undermines a deeply-held belief. You might discover something that is harmful or detrimental to you. You might discover that you want it anyway.

That’s why, as I said in some of my earlier writing, I want to teach you discernment. You don’t need discernment to blindly follow orders and do what you’re told. You do need discernment if you’re going to set your imagination free and explore the world to discover what you think for your self, because you will need to know how to search wisely, and how to choose what you do with what you find. You need discernment to determine whether the new discovery negates the old belief. You need discernment to determine what discoveries may or may not be harmful for you, before they actually do harm you. You sometimes need discernment to tell you when one of them is already harming you, and it is time to stop.

Discovery is dangerous. I hope that as you grow and learn and discover you’ll trust me enough to let me help you, and help shield you from some of those dangers. But I also hope against hope that the mistakes I’m bound to make as a parent don’t do anything to kill off the innate curiosity you were born with. I’ve already seen it at work in the way you desperately stave off falling asleep in order to take one last inquisitive glance at the room around you, the way that you try to peer around the back of a mirror to see where that other little person is coming from, the way you grasp for things just out of your reach, and the way you get so incredibly frustrated when you can’t get to them. I hope you never lose that. I hope you learn to always set your imagination free, and follow it wherever it takes you.

In the meantime, I’ll be there searching right along with you. I’m excited for us to share with each other what we find.

Love,
~Dad

22 Dec 2011 Dear Tristan: How do you know?

Dear Tristan,

Yesterday I wrote about Truth. I wrote about what it is, and what it isn’t. I wrote about how I love to seek it out, as elusive as it is, and how I hope you come to love the same thing.

But how do you know when you’ve found it?

I’m not entirely sure you ever can. I’m not sure any of us can ever really know something with absolute certainty. Sure, you can “know” what your senses tell you: the things you see and hear and feel, and so forth . . . kind of. But senses can be decieving . . . and they are most certainly subjective.

They can be deceiving because we are human, and therefore subject to limitations. For example, it’s been estimated that approximately 1 in 33,000 people suffer from a type of color-blindness that removes their ability to see anything other than shades of gray. Others suffer from additional forms of color-blindness that make it difficult to distinguish, for example, between red and green. In other words, their sense of sight deceives them. They cannot rely 100% on what they see.

But more than that, our senses are certainly subjective. Sticking with the color example, you might look at a particular shade and perceive it as “red” where another person would perceive the same hue as “purple” and another might perceive it as “pink.”

But what about those things that we “know” from sources other than our own senses? The simple fact is that all “knowledge” comes from either direct observation, shared information or logical reasoning. Logical reasoning shares the same flaws as direct observation in that it relies on our limited, sometimes outright flawed, perception, and therefore we can be reasonably sure that we’re right, but never absolutely certain. Shared information has these same problems, with the additional burden of having been transferred through multiple individuals – each of whom has the same sorts of limits in his or her ability to perceive. Through this process, it becomes not so much “knowledge” as “conventional wisdom” . . . which is sort of the lowest common denominator for information. It’s knowledge that has been diluted just enough to be acceptable to nearly everybody without causing much of a fuss.

Virtually all of what we think of as “knowledge,” then, is either erroneous or subjective, or both. Oh, sure, there are those who point to examples like mathematics and say that it is entirely objective, but that’s only true in its purest theoretical form. The minute you want it to become practical, it again becomes subjective. Take, for example, the fact that 2+2=4. This is an objectively true statement. However, what happens when you add two things to two other things? Well, that depends entirely on the nature of the “things.” If you add two letters to two other letters, you can make words, and those words of four letters can be anything from a name, like “Mike,” to a curse word you use to attack another person. If you add two cups of flower to two eggs, you don’t get four of anything . . . instead you get part of the recipe can be used to bake a tasty dessert. On the other hand, when you add two pounds of sodium to two gallons of water, instead of getting “four” of anything, you get a concoction that blows up in your face!

So yes, you can say for certain that “2+2=4.” But that doesn’t actually mean that you truly know anything, unless you can answer the question “Two of what, under what conditions??” In truth, that information is just another building block like the ones I wrote about in yesterday’s letter: Perceptions, opinions, categorizations, interpretations and the like . . . those building blocks that can be both integral to seeking out the truth, or can be applied to twist or obscure it.

So what I want you to learn from today’s letter is this: Be very, very wary whenever someone comes to you and tells you that they “know” something. Be even more wary when they tell you that their knowledge obligates you to take a certain course of action.

Here’s an example:

As I write this, most of the industrialized world is in the midst of a grave financial crisis. There are about 7 billion people on the planet, and you could probably find nearly that many opinions as to what the cause of this financial crisis might be. In my opinion, though, most of these alleged causes can be traced back to one central issue: There are too many people who think they “know” how the global economy works, and think their supposed “knowledge” entitles them to make economic decisions on your behalf, and mine, and everyone else’s.

There are a few simple economic calculations that are almost as certain as 2+2=4 . . . calculations like “if you increase the supply of something and keep all other factors equal, that thing will become cheaper” . . . part of the law of supply and demand.

The problem is that most of these calculations, along with many others that are much more complex, are just as meaningless as 2+2=4 until they are applied to a practical situation . . . because “all other factors” are never equal! So in this country, and others, we have seen our government leaders running around as if they know what they’re doing, using our money to engage in all sorts of speculative ventures and assuming that those ventures will yield certain results. They haven’t, and most of them have made the whole situation worse. If you forge ahead with running a nation’s economy based on overly simplistic calculations, while assuming that the system will remain completely unaffected by anything you didn’t happen to plan for, you create all sorts of side-effects that cause (as they are currently causing) the whole global economic system to run completely off the rails!

“Knowledge is power,” you will hear from many people throughout your life. This cliche is one we most often hear from those who have some bit of knowledge in a certain area they wish to share with us. But it is almost always used to further the dynamic of “power over” that your mom and I have written about in some of our earlier letters. “Knowledge is power” they say, but what they mean is “my knowledge gives me the power to tell you what I think you should do.” We see this drama played out in politics all the time. Members of one faction assert that their knowledge is superior, and therefore they have the right to tell others what to do. Members of the other faction asserts that, no, their knowledge is superior, so they should be the ones in charge.

Very, very rare is the person who comes along and says, “None of us has enough information to truly know what the right answer is in this situation, so we should just leave it alone and not tell anyone what to do!”

That would, after all, require them to surrender some of their “power over” the rest of us.

What, then, do we do with our imperfect knowledge?

Here’s the thing: It is not always necessary to have perfect knowledge in order for that knowledge to be useful. For example, textbooks for most of the last hundred years have shown images of what atoms, among of the tiniest building blocks that make up our world around us, supposedly “look like.” These pictures say atoms are made up of three types of even smaller particles: protons and neutrons clumped together in the center, with electrons spinning around in circles around that central clump.

The fact that scientists have since learned that this picture of what an atom “looks like” is completely and totally wrong, has not prevented this notional concept of an atom from enabling all kinds of scientific breakthroughs in the last century or so.

In other words, knowledge does not have to be perfect in order to be useful. It only becomes dangerous when we assume that it is perfect (or that the gaps and imperfections do not matter), and use these imperfect results to compel a particular course of action upon others, or allow that course of action to be forced upon us.

What is the alternative? I think your mother exemplifies the best answer to that question. She has a wealth of knowledge gained from many, many years of experience and instruction in the proper way to play the violin. Coupled with that technique is her passion for music, and her passion for life that is expressed in her music. But she would never, ever say that she “knows all there is to know” about how to play or teach the violin.

She has a great deal of knowledge, but it is still imperfect. Yet she has dedicated her life to sharing what knowledge she has with children . . . the next generation of violinists who will grow up and either share their love of music with others, or use the experience of learning a difficult instrument to make them stronger, healthier people in other areas of life. All the while, though, I’ve heard her talk many times of the many, many things she has learned from her students, even as she spends her life teaching them.

In other words, by acknowledging that her understanding is imperfect, and by seeking to build up herself as she builds up others, she has developed a “power with” dynamic that she can share with her students, learning and growing herself, even as she helps each of them learn and grow.

Virtually any “knowledge” we possess is only as good as the assumptions and presuppositions behind it. This viewpoint will not make you very many friends, because we all like to think that we know what we’re doing. In truth, though, the concept of “faith” is not just something that fits in religious beliefs. Even the most rigorous scientific experiment is just an exercise in the faith that this time, things will work out just like they did last time, and that all possible factors have been accounted for. And like religious faith, such scientific faith can at times be misplaced, and can turn out to be wrong.

So beware of certainty. In anything. Live life with humility, realizing that at any time your most heartfelt beliefs could turn out to be wrong. Be open to those moments! Don’t cling to something your heart and soul tell you is no longer true . . . or was never really true in the first place.

Sure, if you rely on your own judgment, you’ll end up being wrong sometimes. You, like all of us, are limited and flawed. But you will be wrong for the right reasons. You will be wrong because you sought out the answers for yourself, and came up short of the truth . . . which means you can try again and improve on your previous result. When you instead turn out to be wrong because you relied on the wrong person to tell you what you should do, all you can do is wait for someone else to come along and tell you something different, because you’ve trained yourself to let someone else do your thinking for you.

This is, I think, the difference between a good teacher and a bad teacher. A poor teacher tells you what to think. A good teacher tells you how to think.

The ancient philosopher Socrates was a good teacher. He believed the first step to true knowledge was recognizing one’s own ignorance. He considered his own wisdom to be based in the fact that he didn’t know anything. So he went around talking to people . . . not telling them what they should think . . . or even what he thought. Instead he went around asking questions . . . making them think about why they believed as they did.

When we believe that we know something, that little bit of knowledge blinds us to any potential alternatives out there . . . for if we “know” it, then how can it possibly be wrong? And if it can’t possibly be wrong, then there are no possible alternatives! If, on the other hand, we understand that we know nothing, like Socrates said, we are free to take that first step on the road to truly understanding.

So instead of loving knowledge, love learning . . . love the fact that in all this wide world you will never, ever run out of things to learn, to explore, to discover. Love the fact that, no matter how much you think you know, there is always more to find out.

And always, always beware of those who are eager to tell you what you “should” do, based on what they “know.”

Love,
~Dad

21 Dec 2011 Dear Tristan: Seek the Truth

Dear Tristan,

In yesterday’s letter I wrote about effective communication. I’ve spent much of my life trying to learn how to be a better communicator, and I have learned one thing above all else. There is no substitute for truth.

In my career as a communicator, I have learned this from personal experience. I have learned that it is possible to create a very effective communication that is very persuasive and plays to the sensiblities – hits all the “right notes” – of your particular audience. It’s possible to dress up failure to look like success . . . to dress up inefficiency and waste to look like necessity. It’s possible to convince others, if you are persuasive enough, that up is down and black is white.

However . . .

I’ve learned that it’s much more effective when what you’re trying to communicate happens to actually be true.

We humans are extraordinarily adept at lying to ourselves. In fact, our brains are built to help us do just that. Take a moment and try an experiment. Take a sheet of paper and draw two small shapes on it, about three inches apart, a square on the left and a circle on the right.

Now hold the paper at arms length, close your left eye, and focus on the square. Keeping your eyes focused on the square, bring the paper slowly closer to you.

Eventually, you will see the circle disappear.

That’s your brain lying to you . . . as the circle passes in front of the “blind spot” where your optic nerve connects to the back of your eye, your brain sees the rest of the paper, and tells your eye that what you see on the rest of the paper (that is, nothing but paper) is what you should see in that spot as well.

Your brain is a natural pattern-recognition machine, so when it recognizes an empty spot in a pattern, it fills in what it thinks should be there, whether it actually is there or not.

Because our brains function by recognizing patterns, we do the same thing our whole lives, usually without realizing it. Your mind sees “blank paper” and assumes it knows what should be there, when it is not. Similarly, your mind may look at a person and see “Catholic” or “Muslim” or “Hindu” or “Democrat” or “Republican” or “Conservative” or “Liberal” or “Rich” or “Poor” or “Black” or “Hispanic” or “Asian” or “Middle Eastern” or “Man” or “Woman” or any one of an infinite number of labels, and may think it knows what to fill into the blank spaces of what you don’t know about that person, based on what you do know. But categories are not truth.

You’ve read a lot of letters from me and your mom so far . . . letters in which we try to share our beliefs, opinions, hopes, dreams, philosophies and worldviews. But beliefs are not truth.

You will hear me, or your mom, or others, mention something that is going on in the life of another person, and what it might or might not mean for that person. But perceptions are not truth.

You will hear me, and others express an opinion about politics, or current events, or some other thing you might read about in the news. But opinions are not truth.

You will, as you grow up, hear lots of passionate discussions about what is or is not true. People will use a lot of big words and try to convince you that they are right, or that someone else is wrong. But passion is not truth.

You will hear me and others read to you from the Bible and tell you what we think this or that passage means, and how it might apply to your life. But interpretations are not truth.

I and others will teach you things . . . things about history, science . . . things about how the world works, and how it has worked in the past. But information is not truth.

You might, as I have done, spend a great deal of time searching your own soul and determining for yourself what, and how, you think, feel and believe. But introspection is not truth.

You will probably hear me, and others, say some of the same things over, and over, and over. Hearing something multiple times, and perhaps, from multiple people, can make it more persuasive. But repetition is not truth.

All of these things are tools that can help you arrive at truth, or conversely, tools you can use to lie to yourself. So I caution you against using any of these to attempt to make a determination that you have discovered the truth.

I want to tell you something dangerous now. I want to tell you this:

Anytime that anyone comes to you and tells you that they know the truth . . . about anything . . . they are lying to you. They may be lying to themselves as well, but they are certainly lying to you.

None of us . . . not a single one . . . knows the truth. If we are very diligent, or sometimes, very lucky, we might catch a glimpse of a piece of the truth in some small area of life. But because we are all human, we are all limited in our perspective. We are bound inside space and time, and therefore are only capable of seeing a very small piece of the truth at any given time.

You can look up at the full moon and say “the moon is round,” and that is a true statement. But it is not the truth about the moon. It is only one small fact about the moon. This is the case with anything you observe, anything you believe or think you know. The human mind is not capable of fully comprehending the truth . . . it’s too good at seeing what we want to see – no more, no less. So where we think we have “the truth” all we ever really have is our interpretation of what we are observing. As Wayne Jacobsen, a philosopher, an author and a friend of mine, likes to say, “The most dangerous person in the world is one who doesn’t realize he’s interpreting. When we mistake opinions and perceptions as truth, we are able to justify the use of a variety of coercive and judgmental behaviors in acting according to that supposed “truth,” and forcing others to do likewise. People have been justifying such violence and judgment to support their interpretations of “the truth,” for the entirety of human history.

But when you think about it, if what you believe in any given area really is true . . . why do you need to back it up with violence toward another or judgment of another? If a thing is true, it is true. And while you might desire to persuade someone else of that truth, there is a world of difference between speaking the truth under duress, and believing the truth. Even if you could be absolutely, 100% certain that you knew the unvarnished, unfiltered truth in a given area (you can’t), there is never a good reason to coerce someone to speak a truth they do not actually believe.

That’s not to mention the fact that a relationship with someone you have persuaded of a particular bit of truth is nourished by that persuasion, while a relationship with someone you have judged for their lack of truth is damaged by that judgment. So when you’re beating someone over the head with what you think is true, what you’re really doing is touting your own superiority over them . . . placing yourself above them . . . saying to them “my beliefs, perspectives and interpretations are more important than you are as a person.”

“But dad,” you’re probably thinking by now, “you said at the start of this letter that there’s no substitute for truth . . . and now you’re telling me it’s all but impossible to obtain! What’s the point of all this then?”

The point is this: While you can never hope to grasp the entirety of the truth, it is possible through the effective use of all the tools I mentioned above: beliefs, perceptions, information, introspection and all the rest, to broaden your perspective in order to glimpse just a bit more of it. Think of it as sitting in a dark room trying to make out something of the furniture around the room. Imagine that you have just the very faintest of lights . . . enough to catch a shadowed glimpse of the outline of a single table. Each time you employ these tools, you brighten the light ever so slightly. Given your limited human ability to see, there is no way to know the truth about the room . . . to know every air molecule, every speck of dust, every microscopic germ that wafts through the room. But if you turn up the light, you can certainly grasp a bigger portion of the picture than when you were sitting in almost complete darkness.

I said earlier that what I was telling you was dangerous. Here’s why: This search for truth can be an incredibly frustrating process, and like I said at the start of this letter, we’re much better at lying to ourselves than we are at seeking the truth. There are certain segments of our world who are utterly convinced that, rather than interpreting truth, they have discovered it outright, and are obligated to come down as hard as they can on those who disagree with them in order to save them from “error.” There is even an entire segment of our culture that has given up entirely on even the search for the smallest bit of truth, and has comforted itself for its failure by saying “there is no truth” (except, of course, for their self-contradictory belief that the statement “there is no truth” is itself true).

But the only logical extreme of that argument is nihilism . . . for if nothing is true, than nothing is at all! The belief that my perception is all that exists, leads to the logical conclusion that my perception is all that matters . . . which can be used from there to justify all of the exact same abuses as the ones engaged in by someone who believes he or she has stumbled upon absolute truth and must impose it upon you by force.

Some of us, though, believe that truth is indeed out there . . . and realize that we cannot grasp it absolutely, but still aspire to grasp as much of it as we are able.

There was a time in my early 20′s when I went through a lengthy period of deep depression, as I began to discover that much of what I thought I knew to be true turned out to be built on several layers of lies – many of them lies I’d been telling myself, many of them for several years. I doubted my faith, the knowledge I’d gained through four years of college and two years of graduate school, my abilities, even my sanity at times. Two things got me through that time. One was a series of letters and conversations I had with a few very close friends, particularly your mom (who was a very good friend at the time). The other was this quote by French philosopher and Christian mystic Simone Weil:

“A man whose mind feels that it is captive would prefer to blind himself to the fact. But if he hates falsehood, he will not do so; and in that case he will have to suffer a lot. He will beat his head against the wall until he faints. He will come to again and look with terror at the wall, until one day he begins afresh to beat his head against it; and once again he will faint. And so on endlessly and without hope.

One day he will wake up on the other side of the wall.”

Sometimes it seems as though the only thing on the other side of that wall is another wall . . . but as each wall crumbles I feel as though I know a little bit more about truth . . . and a little bit more about the ultimate Truth – which is, I believe, the same God who invites us daily into relationship with Him.

Many of the parents I know, both from my own parents’ generation and from mine, believe that pointing their children toward God is the most important thing they will do as parents. The problem is that, far too often, when the foundation of that relationship is questioned later in the child’s life, their children realize that they only believe as they do because it’s what they have always been taught. When they are beginning to discover who they are for themselves . . . when they are calling into question some of what they have been taught, and deciding for themselves what they believe . . . too often the only basis they have for that relationship is “this is what I’ve been told.”

Often, it’s not enough.

Instead, what believe is more important is to instill in you a love for truth. That way, you can search out for yourself what is true. And I believe that when you do that, you will discover that a relationship with God is the truest thing there is.

When the only basis for someone’s belief is a lifetime of habit, the basis of the relationship is fear . . . fear of change, fear of the unknown. Fear of “if not this, then what?”

But Truth, like I said earlier, can stand on its own. I believe if I teach you the little I’ve discovered about what a relationship with God looks like, and instill in you a love for truth, you will not only come to cherish that relationship as much as I do, but the truth that I’m able to teach you will not satisfy you, and you’ll be out there relentlessly seeking to discover for yourself things that are even more true.

That, at least, is my hope. I can’t tell you The Truth . . . all I can do is show you what I think I’ve been able to grasp about it. I dearly, desperately hope that taste is enough for truth to become a driving force in your life, as it has become in mine. I hope you come to love the truth, even when you can’t see it. I hope you come to be utterly dissatisfied with anything less.

Love,
~Dad

20 Dec 2011 Dear Tristan: I Hear You

Dear Tristan,

Yesterday I spoke about coercion, and how too many of us use it to short-circuit the pursuit of our desires, instead forcing others to do as we wish, say what we wish, or believe what we wish them to think.

Today, I want to write about an alternative means of pursuing your desires. Today I want to write about effective communication.

See, there is something very important to realize about coercion . . . about being in a position to force others to do, say or think as you wish them to.

The ability to coerce someone does not make you right.

Instead, if you really value truth, and if you really wish to share that truth with others rather than beating them over the head just because you can, you need to be an effective communicator.

This is something near and dear to my heart, as I’ve spent much of my life, including my entire adult career, seeking to discover more of what it means to be an effective communicator. Your mom and I have already written about effective communication as part of our letters on other topics like empathy. But here I wanted to address the broader issue of communication as a whole, and what I hope for you with regard to communication.

To begin with, the starting point for effective communication is effective listening. Part of this is, as we’ve discussed in other letters, taking on the perspective of the person with whom you’re communicating and empathizing with them. Another part is foregoing coercive communication (the antithesis of the “non-violent” communication your mom and I have both written about). Coercive communication manipulates the other person in the conversation by means of the carrot/stick methods we’ve already talked about . . . the carrot of praise and the stick of judgments. There are times when the use of force in communication is warranted, just as there are times when physical force is warranted . . . but there is a tradeoff in both cases, as both physical and rhetorical violence are antithetical to building and nurturing relationship. Therefore, they should be used sparingly, and are counterproductive when the goal is to nurture your relationship with the other person in the conversation.

In addition to these NVC-derived ideas though, there is another aspect to perspective-taking that is important to keep in mind. I can tell you from personal experience that it is all too easy to slip into the habit of listening with the intent to rebut what you hear . . . that is, not really listening so much as taking notes in order to form a more effective argument in response. This instantly turns the conversation into a debate – and the point of a debate is entirely different than the point of a conversation. The point of a conversation is to share what’s on your mind or heart with another person. the goal of a debate is not to persuade the person with whom you are debating, but to demonstrate to a third party that your position is superior to that of the other party to the debate. So conversation nurtures relationship, while debate inhibits it. Depending on who is listening, there are times when debate is still a productive form of communicating your perspective, but if there is no third party and all you are doing is debating the other person, then all you are doing is starving the relationship between the two of you. There is no up-side!

That said, I intend to teach you the principles of effective debating for several reasons: First, there’s a lot of overlap between a persuasive debate argument and a persuasive perspective shared in conversation. They’re framed differently, but built on a lot of the same foundations. Second, I want you to be able to recognize bad arguments when you come across them, rather than being persuaded by them. Third, I want you to be able to effectively persuade third parties when the opportunity does arise, and finally, the biggest up-side to learning how to effectively debate is that doing so requires you to recognize the good and bad points on both sides of an issue . . . so being an effective debater can also make you more effective at the perspective-taking and empathy we’ve discussed in other letters, if you let it.

Here’s something that might come as a shock to you. Each and every one of us is communicating. All. The. Time. Maybe not with words, but with our facial expressions . . . our gestures . . . the sounds that we make . . . the looks in our eyes . . . even with the words we don’t say. We are always communicating something. And what I’m communicating will often tell you a great deal about how to effectively communicate back with me. After all, effective communication with me looks totally different than effective communication with your mom, which in turn looks totally different than effective communication with you.

There are three main building blocks to effective communication: Logos, Ethos and Pathos . . . logic, ethics and passion. Logos speaks to the coherence of the argument: Is it internally and externally consistent with what you know to be true, or have observed to be true? Ethos speaks to a shared values system between the communicator and his or her audience, and therefore relies heavily on the credibility of the speaker. Pathos speaks to the emotional appeal of what is being communicated. Each are necessary in order to communicate effectively.

Personally, I tend toward overreliance on logic, at the expense of ethics and passion. This can lead me to write very dry, boring, academic-sounding communications . . . perhaps you’ve even thought that about some of these letters! An overreliance on ethics, at the expense of logic and passion, can make a persuasive attempt very vulnerable to the personal foibles of the speaker . . . and since we’re all human, and therefore flawed, any communication that relies too much on ethos shares this vulnerability. An argument that relies too heavily on passion, on the other hand, is very easily undermined by pointing out simple facts that run counter to the (very passionate) point being made.

All three of these building blocks are necessary, but crafting an argument to appeal to a particular person will require, in each case, a different mix of the three. Determining the appropriate mix is a matter of listening, both to what is said, and what is not said, by the person or people with whom you are communicating.

Poor communication, then, might just blurt out whatever it is trying to communicate, without listening first to determine how that information will be received. (Pathos) As my dad always used to tell me growing up, “think before you speak!”

Fair communication, on the other hand, might listen to the other person and use their preferences to craft a persuasive argument that appeals to their own sensibilities and preferences. (Pathos + Ethos)

Good communication, though, will seek to communicate the truth in a powerful, persuasive way that is tailored to the listener’s sensibilites and preferences. (Pathos + Ethos + Logos)

So I hope to teach you how to become an effective listener, on the way to becoming an effective communicator.

Part of that process will, I hope, be modeling effective listening for you, by effectively listening to you. This goes back to what I was trying to share yesterday about the way we often treat children. There is this belief, very strongly ingrained in our culture, that “Children should be seen and not heard.” Like I said, though, we are all communicating, all the time. So too often, we adults block out the communications from the children around us, as though they weren’t even there.

I don’t want to do that to you. I want to have empathy for you, and to be honest, for myself as well. I may not remember what it’s like to be seven months old, but I remember what it was like to be a child . . . to be rebuked in public as a proxy for the undesirable behavior of a whole roomful of kids; to be cut out of conversations and have my perspective dismissed – even on issues where I’d had the opportunity to form a real, well-informed opinion – because I was supposedly “too young to understand”; to be told that this was not the “time and place” for a particular type of behavior, even though all the older people around me were engaging in precisely the same behavior . . . I hope I never put you through these things, as some of the adults in my childhood did for me.

I hope I never stop listening to you. For in truth, you’ve been communicating with me since before you were born. I remember putting my head down next to your mom’s tummy and urging you to “come out and play with dad” . . . and I remember your little kicks in response. Now, even though you can’t yet communicate with words, nobody who spent two minutes with you would mistake that for an inability to communicate at all. Your cries, your gestures, and most of all those amazing eyes that light up whenever your mom or I enter the room, are always communicating something. And I always want to be open to “hearing” that, and working to try to understand what you’re trying to say. That’s why, when you’re crying inconsolably, I don’t see it as “throwing a temper-tantrum” . . . but as the only way you can presently communicate displeasure. When you’re getting into things I’d rather not have you playing with, I don’t see it as “misbehaving” . . . but as your only option for communicating boredom. When you wake up crying at night, there are certainly times when it’s difficult for me to pull myself out of my groggy state and help to calm you down . . . but what I feel most is compassion for the fact that you are scared, or lonely, or hungry, or uncomfortable, and have no other way to tell me.

So as hard as it is sometimes to run upstairs and hold you after you’ve woken up from a nap for the fourth time in twenty minutes, I hope you never stop communicating with me. I know so many children who have a wonderful relationship with their parents as toddlers and small children, but who shut down and stop sharing life with them when they’re teenagers or older. I sincerely hope that by keeping the lines of communication open with you now – by teaching you how to effectively express your feelings, needs, opinions and beliefs . . . and by always being open to having you share them with me – I can still have a relationship with you into your teenage and adult years that is based on trust, openness, candor and mutual respect.

I’m doing the best I know how to do, trying to lay the foundation for such a relationship right now.

Love,
~Dad