Thursday, December 13, 2012

Lack of Peace on Earth

Heaven on Earth
We need it now
I'm sick of all of this
Hanging around
Sick of sorrow
Sick of pain
Sick of hearing again and again
That there's gonna be
Peace on Earth (1)
Peace on earth. No trouble with being overwhelmed with that this year. Wars, rumors of wars, fear of economic collapse. It seems that nearly everyone has something to lose this year, or fears losing something. Indeed, just the normal rush to buy presents, decorate the house, visit relatives, and look like you’re having fun, can be trying by itself.

So Christmas with its message of peace and joy rings hollow to many. Why should we expect this time of year to be more peaceful and joyful than any other day of the year? All the giving, getting, and going just doesn’t seem to get us there.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Some Thoughts on Hell

Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today - John Lennon (1)
John Lennon asked us to imagine there’s no heaven. I’ve tried, but all I come up with is hell. 

Many things occur on this planet that demand judgment and punishment, but many go unpunished.  If there is no certainty of punishment, there is no reason not to play the system to get as much an advantage as you can.  That is not to say that you can get away with everything but rather that not everything will be punished.  So, if you can get away with it, go ahead.  You might respond that our moral standards will keep us in line, and while I certainly hold to the reality of objective moral standards, the problem is that if detours from these moral rules are not punished, there is no justice.

 Moreover, experience and history tells us that humanity doesn’t keep to an honor code.  We may know that certain acts are wrong but we are also plagued by the thought that some people get away with it.  If everyone else is doing it why can’t we?

Friday, October 12, 2012

Reflections on Nobel Peace Prize for the E.U.

It was announced today that the E.U. is the recipient of this years' Nobel Peace Prize.  As a European living in the U.S., I'm not sure how I can claim my share, but peace in post-war Western Europe is indeed a great achievement.  However, the European project, founded on the idea of the mutual surrender of certain powers to a supranational authority in exchange for peace, is perhaps now more in doubt than ever.  The timing might therefore feel strange, but the Nobel committee likely wishes to remind Europeans of the big picture.  I think the idea of surrendering power to a greater authority that can guarantee peace is a very wise idea.  However, how do we find an authority that all will respect?  Here are some thoughts from an earlier post:
After the Second World War, an attempt was made to bring balance to Europe by establishing a supranational authority, run by Europe’s best and brightest, that would override national and ethnic enmities that had bloodied the continent for millennia. First, France and Germany ceded control over coal and steel production to the European Coal and Steel Community. In the following decades, closer and closer union was pursued, and Brussels was populated by brilliant minds seeking the best for Europe – peace and prosperity.

But, as things stand, national differences threaten to tear the EU asunder. National interests it seems cannot be trumped by bureaucrats in Brussels, however visionary and well-intentioned. Europe is still very much a group of sovereign nation states unwilling to surrender authority to a supranational body.

So, it appears that the European project has failed to produce balance. Moreover, any human authority that tries to settle disputes between nations is likely to be accused of bias by one or more parties to the dispute, and may even become the target of wrath. So, even if we were to find a very wise and virtuous person, who held humanity’s best interests at heart, no one would follow him or her.

We need someone with unquestioned authority to settle the disputes of humanity. This is the picture we find in Isaiah Chapter Two.
Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the temple of the God of Jacob.  He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.”  The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.  He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples.  They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.  Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Isaiah 2:3-5 (New International Version).
Only a supremely wise, just, and unbiased being could convince disputing nations to beat their swords into plowshares. No more wild experimentation. No sincere appeals that it will be different this time. No more claims to have learned the lessons of history, when at the darkest times it becomes painfully clear that the lesson that we always forget is that history repeats itself.

Humanity clings desperately to the hope that one day swords will be beaten into plowshares. However, it seems, that the biblically-inspired hope of perpetual peace and justice cannot be established without the biblical-described source of such peace – God’s kingdom of justice established on earth as it is in heaven.
 You can read the entire post here.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Leaving It All Behind

You've got to leave it behind
All that you fashion
All that you make
All that you build
All that you break
All that you measure
All that you steal
All this you can leave behind
All that you reason
All that you sense
All that you speak
All you dress up
All that you scheme... – U2 “Walk On” (1)
We must leave everything to those who follow.  Our greatest treasures are the following generation’s junk.  Stuff they have to clear away.  If they have attachment to something it is because it reminds them of someone who has passed.   They have no attachment to the thing itself.

If you have ever gone through the stuff of someone who has passed away, you will probably have wondered why they kept some things, and then concluded that those things must have been valuable or useful in their time. 

Similarly, if you have ever been in the market for a house, and started looking at potential properties you will have seen things that make you wonder what the previous owners were thinking.  Home renovations are never in my experience undertaken lightly, so some thinking went into that floral wallpaper or wood paneling.

But we don’t take this truth about the temporary worth of goods to heart.  We treasure our shiny, usually slimmer than yesteryear, treasures.

The recent launch of the new iPhone caused thousands to line up for days to be the first to have what in a few years will be obsolete and in thirty years – junk.  But they were willing to spend so much time for this ephemeral object, that in years to come will be perhaps found as a curiosity in an attic, similar to four-track players I found in my parent’s attic when I was a kid.  

It is exciting to have the latest first; to be an early adopter.  Some now cite this as an achievement.  And if you can keep getting the newest first, perhaps you can keep yourself satisfied.  But if you reflect, you will realize that you are paying a premium to own tomorrow’s junk first.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Injected the Wrong Way

"Because you have the cursed Jesuit strain in you, only it’s injected the wrong way.” James Joyce – Ulysses. 
James Joyce’s celebrated novel Ulysses opens with a tense early morning exchange between two friends - Stephen Dedalus and Buck Mulligan.  Dedalus is offended with Mulligan because on an earlier occasion Dedalus heard Mulligan refer to Dedalus’ mother as “beastly dead.” (1)  Mulligan pushes back criticizing Dedalus for refusing his mother’s request to pray with her at her death bed.  Mulligan, a young doctor responds:

And what is death, he asked, your mother’s or yours or my own?  You saw only your mother die.  I see them pop off every day in the Mater and Richmond and cut them into tripes in the dissecting room.  It’s a beastly thing and nothing else.  It simply doesn’t matter.  You wouldn’t kneel down and pray for your mother on her deathbed when she asked you.  Why?  Because you have the cursed Jesuit strain in you, only it’s injected the wrong way.  To me it’s all a mockery and beastly.  Her cerebral lobes are not functioning…Humour her till it’s over. (2)
Mulligan doesn’t believe in God and prayer, but is fine with humoring the wishes of one who does.  Dedalus, on the other hand, can’t bring himself to pray, even at his dying mother’s request.  He won’t compromise his belief in the non-existence of God.  Mulligan’s reference to the “Jesuit strain” is a dig at Dedalus’ education by Jesuit priests at Gonzaga College (a secondary school Joyce also attended).  The implication is that even though Dedalus doesn’t believe in God, he acts in other ways like one who does – and not just any believer – a Jesuit priest – a member of an order known for their tenacious intellectual defense of theism. 

Can one actually keep their beliefs or lack thereof private as Buck Mulligan?  One of our greatest needs is for truth, to know why.  The answer to that question is so precious that we will defend it fiercely.   Mulligan represents the cynic not willing to fight for truth. However, it seems that many atheists are not willing, like Buck Mulligan, to hold their worldview privately.

For example, there is outreach to encourage others to embrace non-belief – look at the clergy project an attempt to reach out to Christian ministers who no longer believe. (3)  Community gatherings and celebration of shared worldview – witness the Reason Rally in Washington D.C. last spring. (4) And, more controversially, the suggestion of the need for atheism to create communal contemplation spaces.  Alain de Botton plans to build such a structure in London. (5) De Botton’s plan has not been welcomed by many atheists, but it could be argued that the ideas behind the London building are found in the Clergy Project and the Reason Rally. 

Another example is a lawsuit by American Atheists seeking to prohibit a cross from ground zero being displayed at the 9/11 memorial yet to be completed in New York City. (6) The arguments advanced in favor of displaying the cross are that it was a symbol of comfort to many and is a historical artifact related to 9/11.  If this is a symbol of comfort, that atheists consider to be without meaning, letting the matter lie without protect would be the Buck Mulligan approach.  Let them have their crosses if it makes them happy.  But, to kick up a storm about the 9/11 cross seems to open up atheism to Joyce’s charge that they have the religious strain just injected the wrong way.

But, is this a bad thing?  First, it shows that atheists care about finding truth, and second, that they agree there is a truth out there to be found.  Caring about the truth, and being willing to go to great lengths to defend it is only bad if we base our arguments on bad evidence and tie them together with faulty logic, or if we abandon reasonable argument and try to make others accept our arguments through force.

It is best for everyone to put their cards on the table to put forward what they believe in a respectful manner. 

I say let the truth win.  Let the best arguments win out.  Let’s approach with open minds, not afraid to confront issues where we clash but with gentleness and respect as well.  Let us also recognize that atheists and theists alike are injected with the “Jesuit strain” – the search to find and defend truth – there are worse things.

(1)            James Joyce, Ulysses, Vintage International, New York, 1990; 8.

(2)            Ibid.

(3)            See, “From Bible-Belt Pastor to Atheist Leader”, N.Y. Times, Aug. 22, 2012, available at (accessed Sep. 19, 2012).

(4)            See, (accessed Sep. 19, 2012).

(5)             See, “Alain de Botton reveals plans for 'temple to atheism' in heart of London”, The Guardain, Jan. 26, 2012, available at (accessed Sep. 19, 2012).

(6)            See “Atheists continue battle against World Trade Center cross at memorial”, CNN Belief Blog, Sep. 10, 2012, available at (accessed Sep. 19, 2012).

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Back To School

September sneaks up on me every year - the silent assassin of the summer.  It’s true that it’s been a while since September marked the start of a new year for me personally, but now the time to buy back to school supplies for my kids, brings with it the sense of time quickening, a total lack of preparedness, and the amazement that my kids are a year older.  Living in the U.S., as I now do, I appreciate the timing of Labor Day, a quick pause before the madness of the first day of school, which in a couple of weeks will be mere mundane reality.

However, September is not wholly unwelcome as many welcome the chance to reconnect with school friends, but also to learn.

As humans we have a thirst for learning.  Which is in essence a desire to know how things work. To understand the world around us.  We may have hated homework and being stuck in the classroom but it wasn’t because we didn’t want to learn.

Of course not everyone has pleasant memories of school or learning, but I don’t think there are any of us without curiosity of how things work.  You may not be a great fan of “book learning” but there are many types of knowledge and as many ways to acquire it.  Some may be more interested in cultivating the earth or fixing cars, but all of these endeavors lead naturally to a desire to figure the how.

This pursuit of the how assumes that there is a how to be discovered.  For example, there is a way to fix a car, a way to grow plants that survive for more than a month (still a mystery to me), a way to solve a quadratic equation.

Our desire to learn more about the how of the world around us is insatiable.  Look at the Mars Rover, the confirmation of the existence of the Higgs boson, we want to explain the how.  But that leads to a deeper question – is there a why? 

A car can be fixed in a certain manner because it was designed in a certain fashion. 

Is the same true of the how behind growing a plant?  Or the Higgs boson? The more information we learn about the how of the universe, the larger these questions will loom.  Is there a why behind the how?  A purpose to it all?

To read an insightful article about the the Higgs boson, see this article from Oxford professor John Lennox.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Thoughts From a Boat on Lake Erie

Staring at the horizon on water is very different to staring at the horizon on land.  If you are on a large body of water facing away from the shore, whatever is over the horizon is hidden.  Of course we know that the water must at some point give way to some form of land mass but it might be very different from the land at our backs - different language, terrain, temperature. 

A long car journey does not pose the same sort of mystery.  We can drive from rural to urban areas but the changes in scenery are gradual and marked out for us.  Watch out ahead.  We are provided with signs telling us the distance to our destination. On the water the horizon is mysterious.  The time of arrival is unknown, perhaps closer than we think.  The water has no marks that can be read, at least by the likes of me. Perhaps this is a perpetual journey without end.

Staring at water relaxes us.  Refreshes us.  Inspires us to create, to reconsider ourselves and our choices anew.  Water is constantly moving reminding us of renewal and change.  As Heraclitus put it we never step into the same river twice. No matter how bad a situation we find ourselves in, there is the potential to change?  On a stormy day we marvel at its natural power on a calm day we wonder at the restraint of such power.

The ancient Greeks thought of the journey from this life to the afterlife as crossing a river.  Looking at the horizon I can imagine that hidden on the other side of the flowing blue mass is a better place – a good country, connected to our present existence but separated.

We long for that shore.  The possibility of its existence makes life worth living.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Ethical Life

Ethics is a wide topic that touches every facet of our individual lives and our society.  I want to talk about a very small slice.  The fact that ethics has, in certain cases, been boiled down to one concern – environmental ethics or how we interact with the natural world.  In particular, reducing one’s carbon footprint.

Let me explain.  The BBC recently appointed Justin Rowlett as “Ethical Man”, his task was for him, along with his family, to live ethically for one year.  Something we should all aspire to, right?  However, his ethical duties were not to help old ladies across the road, to treat others with respect, but to live in such a way so that he and his family would minimize their carbon footprint and consequently their impact on the environment.  (1)

There is a clothing line in New York City called the “The Ethical Man” that manufactures and sells clothing made with a minimal impact on the environment. (2)

I’m not claiming that thinking about how we use natural resources is not part of what we call ethics.  I’m saying that environmental ethics are a part and not the whole of living the ethical life. 

I simply have a concern that by portraying one aspect of our existence as living the ethical life, we may stunt truly ethical behavior.  We can tell people it is better to ride a bike to work than drive, but if they ride in a reckless manner so that they run an old lady over on their way, can we say they are acting ethically in a holistic sense?

Moreover, if we tell people that they can be ethical solely by bike riding and recycling that may provide some with an easy way out.  Throughout human history, we have tried to boil down the ethical life to rules that we can follow.  Jesus confronted Jewish religious leaders who claimed living the “ethical life” could be accomplished by following an increasingly elaborate system of religious rules but did not truly behave ethically.
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. (3)
Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them. (4)
He instead stated that only by changing one’s character can one truly act ethically.  He contended that it was not just our actions that determine whether or not we act ethically but our underlying thoughts and attitudes.
You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. (5)
How to act ethically, to live the “good life”, is a problem that many have wrestled with throughout history, and one that all thinking people should carefully examine.  We should not let ourselves or others off the hook by pretending that following rules in a certain area of life, we are truly and completely ethical. 

For more on this topic please see this post – Good.

(1)  See

(2)  See

(3)  Matthew 23:3 (New International Version).

(4)  Luke 11:46 (New International Version).

(5)  Matthew 5:21-22 (New International Version).

Thursday, July 12, 2012


Being a little late
He was a little quick

He looked in the mirror
But didn’t see anyone else

A murderous intersection
With no intent at all

The victim drove away
No liability
No responsibility

Thursday, June 28, 2012


The sun was out the other day. It’s not something that can be counted on every day. Growing up in Ireland I learned quickly to be skeptical that the sun schedule was in anyway linked to the calendar. As many Irish people will tell you it seems more closely tied to exam schedules. But when it does appear it causes a change in mood – an elevation of happiness. 

I now live in Buffalo, New York. Not the place to go to chase the sun, but summer days in Buffalo can be almost perfect. 

There is something that seems natural about having a cold on a wintery, November day, or the flu on a frozen, February day, but being sick on a bright, hot summer day, seems a little unnatural - a contradiction of the natural order. 

Even death seems more appropriate in winter. Patrick Kavanagh, the Irish poet, wrote of how “October-coloured weather” reminded him of his dead father. (i)  Perhaps, it is because my father passed in November that summer seems to be correlated with life and not death. 

The aliveness of a perfect June day, when inside is as good as out, makes everywhere a comfortable place. This is the time to enjoy. A day it feels painful to be stuck in the office while the whole world is out playing. Is this a holdover from school holidays or vacations (divided by a common language and all that) that conditions us to want time off?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


Why do we want to be accepted and hate rejection so much?  After all, rejection is quite logical.  In most scenarios there are more people trying to achieve a goal they will not reach.  For example, you might want to be a star athlete but there are only so many places on professional teams for you to obtain.  Moreover, just achieving professional status, hard as that is to do, doesn’t guarantee stardom.  You might want to be successful musician or a writer, or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, but the vast majority of people seeking those positions will not achieve them.

It’s true that anyone can start a band, write a book, or form a company, but to make it a success is something else entirely.  The odds are against us.  Still it doesn’t hinder some of us from reaching for the stars.  Hope springs eternal.

There are many who embrace the logic of rejection and don’t try to reach hugely ambitious goals, but they will face rejection from friends and potential romantic partners.  Even if you don’t want to be a corporate titan, most of us are not content to remain on the same rung of the ladder forever.  So even if we shy away from giant goals we can’t completely inoculate ourselves from rejection. 

Are we supposed to become accustomed to not achieving our dreams, and settle for the possible – to surrender to cynicism?  To sneer at those who try?

We seem destined to search for unconditional acceptance in a world where we face constant rejection. 

We know we are not perfect and so we need acceptance in spite of ourselves.  Close family can provide this to a certain extent, but our family members are often just as imperfect as we are. 

If there were a perfect person would they be disgusted by us?  Or would a perfect person be so gracious that only they could overlook our many flaws and accept us nonetheless?

If I were a truly “perfect” person I would likely console myself better that I was better than everyone else as I maintained splendid isolation. 

The Bible tells of a perfect God coming to live with hugely flawed people, some of whom couldn’t stand Him so much that they wanted Him dead.  But He offers acceptance – no matter what we have done.  That is good news.

For some thoughts on whether we are good people click here.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

CSI Effect?

Radical skepticism and unquestioning credulity are strange bedfellows in today’s society.  We can’t rely on our own recollections because sometimes we make mistakes.  We don’t trust the testimony of others.  It’s not that we necessarily think others are liars, it’s just that everyone has their own perspective on the world – their personal narrative.

But at the same time we are experiencing the triumph of scientific knowledge, often to the detriment of other types of knowledge.  Science is concerned with accuracy, verifiability, and certainty.  And science is indeed magnificent.  The problem is that other types of knowledge have been downgraded.  If scientific evidence is triple A rated, other forms of evidence have junk status.

The CSI Effect

Criminal lawyers have commented on the existence of what they have termed the CSI effect.  They have theorized that juries have been influenced by the rash of criminal forensic T.V. shows such as CSI, and now expect heightened scientific evidence to be presented at trial.  Jurors prone to the CSI effect are also theorized to be more likely to dismiss other forms of evidence such as eyewitness or circumstantial evidence.

Thursday, May 31, 2012


This week a particularly nasty stomach bug has infiltrated our home.  I will spare you the details, but it has not been a pleasant experience.  I spent most of yesterday trying to summon the energy to get out of bed, which I managed to do a couple of times, immediately regretting the decision each time.

The illness that I am experiencing this week is annoying but not life-threatening.  Unfortunately, not all illness is so easily recovered from, and some diseases have no recovery. 

While we are healthy we don’t think about sickness.  We sometimes pause to reflect on our wellness when we see others suffer, but for the most part sickness seems alien to us.  Something is wrong.  We know it happens, and it could happen to us, but when it strikes, it seems so unfair.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Winning Through Negativity

I assume that negative political advertisements work – otherwise why would they be paid for?  That is, if they didn’t work we would be rid of them by now.  But do they convince or merely cement the opinions of those already inclined to the position being advocated (if the negative ads can be described as advocating).  This kind of discourse is not going to bring about positive change. 

To change someone’s opinion requires that person to make a choice.  It cannot be forced upon them.  It also requires openness to new ideas, especially those we might not be accustomed to entertaining.
Civilization is the willingness to listen to others, trying our best to keep our prejudices and preconceived ideas in check.  That is not to say that all ideas are equally valid, I firmly believe that truth is objective and not subjective, and that reasonable persons can get to it.  If history has shown us anything, it is that ideas can be the most dangerous things of all.  But all ideas deserve a listen until we figure out their value.

But, the exchange of ideas without civility can have the opposite effect.  If we go beyond the bounds of legitimate persuasion towards coercion, we may get our way for a while, but resentment of those forced to toe the line will grow and we will find ourselves in a worse position than before.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Man

Three minutes and 20 seconds into added time.  Manchester City were about to finish behind Manchester United.  Their first change to win the English league title for 44 years was slipping away.  Worse, their city rivals, Manchester United, were about to win it in their stead. Pain was etched on the faces of the City supporters.  Many started to leave.  Then to use a sporting cliché, “cometh the hour, cometh the man”, Sergio Aguero, goal.  Manchester City were champions.

Where does this phrase come from? This idea that the hero will appear at the right time to save the day, or that when the time comes someone will step up and become the hero?

This is a sporting cliché, but it resonates with us.  Could we live with the idea that there will be no hero?  That when things are at their very darkest, no one steps in  (well, as a Liverpool fan, I’ve witnessed that scenario a few too many times this season).  That we are all standing by watching helplessly as everything goes to pot.

We look to heroes who promises that will lead us to better times.  Just look at the euphoria of President Obama’s election victory.  In France, President Hollande has promised to ease the European economic crisis without crushing austerity measures. 

Interestingly, we see potential heroes fail, or at least fail to deliver on their promise all the time.   For example, I don’t think that anyone, no matter what side they face politically, would deny that Obama has not delivered all that he promised in 2008.  Similarly, Hollande may struggle to painlessly ease the French and the wider European debt crises.

But we still believe.  We still hope.  We may even pray.


Monday, May 14, 2012

Sometimes We Need To Draw Lines

The recent announcement by JP Morgan of a $2 billion trading loss caught a lot of people’s attention and caused financial stocks to drop globally.

Was the trade at JP Morgan Chase wrong because of the unnecessary risks involved or wrong because it failed?

What would have happened if the trader in question had made money on the trade?  It definitely would not have made the news, or affected global capital markets.  But, would it have been criticized at the bank? What I am asking is whether the trade was wrong because it failed or wrong because an unnecessary risk was taken.  Of course this is speculation on my part.  Here is a quote from JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon:
It was a bad strategy, it was badly executed, became more complex, [and] it was poorly monitored,(i)
However, news reports suggest that Dimon was not taken by surprise by the trade, but that alarm bells began to ring when it became clear that the trade was not going well. (ii)  So, it seems likely that the problem with the trade was that it lost money.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Nothing New Under the Sun

We have advanced greatly in knowledge, but this problem of meaning is no nearer to a solution. The ancient writer of Ecclesiastes, thought to be Solomon circa 970 B.C., highlighted the meaningless of life; that life has no meaning if there is nothing to it besides being born, living and dying, and attempts to find meaning in success are doomed to fail. Success is fickle and fleeting, and as the ancient writer points out, it never satisfies.
“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher.  “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (i)
I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my labor, and this was the reward for all my toil. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun. (ii)
Millennia later existentialist thinkers such as Jean-Paul Sartre echoed the ancient lament of Ecclesiastes that life is without meaning. Sartre pointed out that we then have to make our own meaning in such a world without equality or fairness or direction.
I exist, that is all, and I find it nauseating. (iii)
However, the ancient philosopher pointed out there is a meaning. There will be equality. God will judge all actions. Jesus stated that in His Kingdom “first will be last and last will be first”.  (iv)

Sartre, himself recognized that without belief in the supernatural there can be no meaning to life. He rejected belief in God as “bad faith”, but his solution that everyone make their own truth is hardly any better. If we each labored under the guise of our own truth, society would break down. If no one recognized the truth of standards such as criminal laws or the rights of others, the world would be a horrible place.

There is a choice in front of us. Is life truly meaningless because it is unfair or can we find solace in the fact that God will usher in a world of fairness – the world we want to live in?

(i)  Ecclesiastes 1:2 (New International Version).
(ii) Ecclesiastes 2:10-11 (New International Version).
(iii) Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea.
(iv) Matthew 19:30 (New International Version).

Monday, May 7, 2012

Looking Down

It never finished raining
But something was happening
The day the answer never came
A doorbell and a bird with a broken wing

A time for remembering
That to get this far was not without suffering
Or joy, relief and lesser miracles
If they can be written off in a minor key

I have not reached the top
But I can look down
And see the winding paths below
That I stumbled over not so long ago

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Some Thoughts on “Civilization: The West and the Rest” by Niall Ferguson

I’ve written quite a bit lately that a shared concept of truth is necessary to establish trust in society; and that a shared sense of trust leads to a better society. In particular, in personal and business relationships it is imperative that the counterparty or friend can be trusted at their word.

Reading Harvard historian Niall Ferguson’s latest book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, I was struck by this yet again.

In Civilization, Ferguson objectively examines why so-called western nations have been so successful over the last five hundred or so years. He points out that in 1500, China was far ahead of western countries by any standard of measure.[1] He proposes that the western use of what he calls “killer apps” - competition, science, democracy, medicine, consumerism and the work ethic were the source of this rise of western countries.

At the end of the book Ferguson looks at the reasons why the western countries are now losing their way, while nations like China are rising.

Ferguson does not list Christianity as one of “the killer apps” of western civilization. But that is perhaps because it is deeper than that. He points out that capitalism and consumerism without limits can be equally destructive. Much of the western world has spent itself broke. He points out that Christianity encourages competition and entrepreneurship coupled with asceticism. That is to say, one can work hard and generate profit, but still have a firm belief that personal gain is not the end goal. He writes that in China the explosion of capitalism going hand in hand with a high personal savings rate is a key to the rise of China.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

This is my Truth - Tell me your Narrative

Tell me your truth and I’ll tell you my narrative.  The idea of one person’s truth trumping another’s is surely passé – a little presumptuous.  But, the difficulties that ensue when objective standards of truth are abandoned, was brought home to me yet again as I listened to the radio this past Saturday evening.

I was listening to “This American Life” the popular National Public Radio show that retells strange but true stories that highlight the extraordinary things that happen to ordinary people – proving that fact is indeed often stranger than fiction.

Ira Glass, the host, began the show with an apology:

This American Life are not happy to have done anything to hurt the reputation of the journalism that happens on this radio station every day. So we want to be completely transparent about what we got wrong, and what we now believe is the truth. (1)
In one of the most popular episodes ever of This American Life, contained a report by Mike Daisy, a writer and actor, on the practices of Apple suppliers.  Mr. Daisy has been performing a stage monologue supposedly based on his visit to various Chinese manufacturing plants that supply Apple.  The NPR show used excerpts from his monologue, taking them to be true factual accounts, which they later found out to be fabrications.

This American Life found the Chinese translator who had accompanied Mr. Daisy on his trips to the Chinese factories, and on most points her account contradicted Mr. Daisy’s.  Veteran journalists also found many of the details in Mr. Daisy’s account hard to believe.

You can listen to the show or read a transcript here.  But, what interests me most is Mr. Daisy’s responses when pressed by Ira Glass about the glaring inconsistencies in his story.  Here is a short extract from the transcript where Glass is taking Daisy to task for not disclosing that some elements of his stage monologue used by "This American Life" were not factual:

Thursday, March 15, 2012

St. Patrick's Day

Many nations celebrate a national holiday - a day that defines their nation.  Often the anniversary of a significant historical event that represents a seismic shift in a nation's history.

In the United States, where I live, the Fourth of July is celebrated as the day Jefferson's Declaration of Independence was signed; a document that reflected on the philosophical underpinnings for the right to declare independence from Britain.

The French, celebrate July Fourteenth, Bastille Day, the storming of the Bastille - a celebration of the power of the people.

The Irish, and this is most relevant to me, being born and bred in Ireland, choose to celebrate St. Patrick's Day as our national holiday.  For those who associate every March 17th solely with green rivers, Guinness, Irish dancers wearing curly wigs, and Kiss Me I'm Irish t-shirts, let me provide some brief information on St. Patrick.

Patrick was born in Roman Britain.  He was kidnapped and brought to Ireland where he lived as a slave for many years.  He eventually escaped but returned to tell the Irish about Christianity.  None of this would be very remarkable, except that his return had an extraordinary effect.

Here is an excerpt from his confession, which he wrote before his death:
How is it that in Ireland, where they never had any knowledge of God but, always, until now, cherished idols and unclean things, they are lately become a people of the Lord, and are called children of God; the sons of the Irish and the daughters of the chieftains are to be seen as monks and virgins of Christ. (1)
The island of Ireland embraced the Christian faith that Patrick brought and abandoned the religion of the druids.  Some have a tendency to think that Christianity was historically imposed by imperial power - Patrick was not accompanied by a large military force.  His message that challenged the prevailing social order was freely accepted by the Irish.

So, March 17th celebrates a dramatic paradigm shift in the national consciousness of Ireland - a national day of freedom if you will.

Lá Fhéile Pádraig Shona Daoibh…

(1) St. Patrick's Confession available at

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Closed Door

Burn the boat before
Putting down anchor
Not losing doesn’t mean you win

Sometimes a door must shut
Before we decide to take to leave
But sometimes we have to close the door and walk away.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Reason Rally

There are increasing indications that atheism is becoming more than just a bare denial of the existence of God.  Alain de Botton, the noted writer and atheist, recently claimed that atheists needed their own temples.  On March 24, 2012, in Washington, D.C., the Reason Rally, billed as the largest ever gathering of secularists is scheduled to take place.  Whatever atheism or secularism is, it is more than a personal denial of the existence of God; there appears to be a need to meet together with other atheists to corporately affirm their lack of belief.  

Reason is at a premium in our "on-demand" society today.

We live in a society where sound bites are the normal discourse... The sound-bite culture has infiltrated our belief systems also. We want to have a one-sentence reduction of all facts and beliefs that is easy to assimilate without too much mental strain on our part... We have gone down the same track regarding philosophical and religious beliefs. We do not want to have to read and agonize over obscure and difficult texts; we do not want to have to reconcile difficult and conflicting concepts; we want a smattering of beliefs written on the side of our disposable coffee cups. We can gently and quickly evaluate the belief presented in twenty words or less or the side of the mostly-recyclable container in sixty seconds or less, without breaking out of our early morning fog. If we like it, we may think about it for a couple of minutes or so until the next enticing sound bite comes our way––whether it be on television, radio, or the internet. 
The result of the acceptance of the sound bite is the poverty of effort directed towards understanding ideas we encounter. On the surface, many ideas seem appealing and plausible, but may not hold up to a rigorous examination of their underlying assumptions. Rarely are ideas subject to an examination of their foundations. Why It Doesn't Matter What You Believe If It's Not True P.74-75.
I don't think many will disagree with me that we need more reasoned debate in our society today, and so I welcome any event that encourages people to come together to reason.  In this spirit, I assume that secularists and atheists  will be open to all ideas presented to them so long as such ideas are presented in a reasoned and polite manner.  As a Christian, it is also my duty to listen to reasoned arguments with humility and grace.  With this in mind, here is a link to some Christian perspectives on the Reason Rally, from Christians who plan to attend the event in D.C. to present their ideas in a calm, loving and open manner.

Friday, January 20, 2012


In the death of winter after the leaves fall
The cold wind scrapes at the bare walls
Dust, debris, of things that used to be something
And will be something else

When the wind becomes a pleasant balm in the heat
When we sit and talk
Of the death that set the path for the new
That to rebuild, we had to tear down.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Standard Of Measure

There is one thing of which one can say neither that it is one metre long, nor that it is not one metre long, and that is the standard metre in Paris. - Ludwig Wittgenstein (1)
When scientists decided to come up with the metric system, they needed a standard of measure.  A metre stick stored in Paris, made of platinum, was chosen as the standard against which all metres were to be measured.  Platinum was chosen because it would not vary or decay.  However, today the platinum metre has been superseded by laser light for the same reason. (2)

A standard of measure needs an objective source that can be accessed so as to verify the accuracy of a particular measure.  That source must be constant and unchanging.  Obviously, if the standard metre were constantly changing, measurements would be unreliable.  If measurements could not be relied on, they could not be used in science, commerce, or everyday life and the metre as a standard of measure would be abandoned.

The metre stick in Paris, therefore, holds a special place in the measurement system.  It is the standard by which all other metres are put against to see if they measure up.  Ludwig Wittgenstein, the celebrated twentieth century Austrian philosopher, wrote that the metre stick in Paris was neither one metre long, nor not one metre long. 

What does this mean?  Wittgenstein is often enigmatic, but he seems to be saying that the standard metre in Paris is not a metre long because it can’t be measured against itself to see if it is one metre long.  To see if it is one metre long, we would need another standard metre to measure the Paris standard metre against.  Then we would need another standard metre to measure that metre against, and so on into infinity.  So, it makes sense to have a starting point, a standard metre that is sui generis, that it to say, it can’t be measured against anything else. 

The concept of an objective standard of measure applies to other areas as well.  If we are to know how to quantify something we need a standard measure to make a determination.  For example, to make a decision whether an action is right or wrong we need a standard of right and wrong to measure our decision against.  If we have no such standard how can we make a decision?