Jim Taylor's Columns - 'Soft Edges' and 'Sharp Edges'

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Published on Sunday, December 16, 2018

Two books for every religious liberal

At year end, many columnists share their reading recommendations. My recommendations are quite short. Just two books.

            I’ve read more than that, of course. But these two left a lasting impression on me: A God That Could Be Real, by Nancy Ellen Abrams, and The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt.

            Traditionalists should not bother reading either of these books -- they might have to consider some new ideas.

            I like the Abrams book because it takes a totally different approach to discussing the reality — or not — of a divine being. I don’t recall her ever quoting the Bible. Or the doctrines of any church. Or the theories of any theologian.


From Square One…

            Instead of starting with whatever people already know and assume about the nature of God, she starts with science. With what we already know, and we can know, about the universe we live in.

            She has some qualifications for that approach. Her husband, Joel Primack, was a co-discoverer of that mysterious “dark matter” and “dark energy” that make up 95 per cent of the universe. Even though we don’t know what it is, how to measure it, or even how to find it. But it has to be there.

            That in itself could be a useful analogy for God. But Abrams doesn’t stop there. As she works through biology, evolution, psychology, chemistry, and even quantum physics, she argues that things can be very real, even if their nature makes them undefinable.

            Love is an obvious example. Or trust. Or loathing. In fact, any relationship between people. Or between all living things.

            Yes, even if it is created by those living things. Traditionally, we have assumed that there must be a Creator, who set all the wheels in motion. Abrams shows that the wheels themselves can themselves create something. Something that is real, and that influences their continued existence. 

            Abrams dispels the notion that God — or whatever you call God — has to be a supernatural being, a “person” somewhere out there, watching over us “from a distance,” as Bette Midler sang.

            God can be right here, right now, and be just as real as gravity, friendship, or a corporation.


The foundations of community

            The only problem with Abrams’ work is that it’s hard to gather a worshipping congregation around her concepts. That’s where Jonathan Haidt comes in.

            Haidt subtitles his book, “Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion,” but he’s not trying to sell religion, in any sense. Rather, he explores why people turn to any group activity. He doesn’t care whether that’s white supremacy, soccer, or religious worship.

            We don’t use our rational minds to make decisions, he demonstrates. We respond from deep-seated preconceptions; later, we apply reason to justify our decisions.

            And what are those preconceptions? Haidt identifies six dominant themes. Liberals value two of them -- fairness and compassion -- highest. Conservatives prefer

·     loyalty -- the greatest sin is betrayal of your buddies;

·     purity of doctrine or ideology -- such as unwavering opposition to abortion and/or immigrants, even while ignoring crotch groping;

·     reliance on external authority -- be it a five-star general, a president, or the Bible.

            These values explain why the political left and right tend to talk past each other. They think they’re speaking the same language, but they perceive issues through a drastically different set of lenses.

            The same principles apply to economics. To new paradigms within science. And certainly to religion.


Our “groupish” desires

            And yet all people want to gather in groups -- whether as hockey fans in an arena or worshippers in a cathedral. Like philosopher Ken Wilbur, Haidt argues that everything, from protons to cells to humans, wants both to be individual and unique, and to transcend that loneliness by being part of something larger, greater, more significant.

            We have what he calls “groupish” genes. That’s why we form churches and service clubs, professional associations and political parties.

            Haidt himself takes no moral stand. Whether you commit yourself to the KKK or the Catholic church, you’re following the same basic urge to transcend the isolation of individuality.

            But the core conservative values of loyalty, authority, and doctrinal conformity mean that right-leaning organizations -- such as the military, big corporations, and religious cults -- build cohesive social movements far more effectively than left-leaning organizations. Indeed, the left commonly scorns those community-building factors as “tribalism” at best, fascism at worst.

            Liberals need to recognize that a commitment to compassion and fairness alone will not build community. And without community, no social momentum.

            These two books should be essential reading for every liberal. Especially those in today’s churches.


Copyright © 2018 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups encouraged; links from other blogs welcomed; all other rights reserved.

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There was no column last Sunday. I was drowning in too many ideas that needed writing about. So these letters are about the column two weeks ago, in which I ranted against the way developers treat the earth. 


Fran Martens wrote, “Good for you, Jim. You have finally got it right and expressed it in a language that all of your readers (and hopefully some new ones, or someone who accidentally read it) can understand.

            “We don’t have much time left, and my wife and I won’t be here to see the coming end, but my heart goes out to all of those people, particularly my children and my grandchildren, who will have to live through those final days. And I cry out in rage against those people (corporations and politicians) who have been warned time and time again, but have failed to act on behalf of all of us who have no power.”


Nancy Baron felt “the same way. I appreciated your eloquent and heartfelt op-ed on the relentless development and lack of concern for protecting nature. Hopefully more and more people will stand up for nature in the Okanagan.”


Mary Collins said it’s not just happening in rural areas: “My heartbreak is as yours. We're fighting it, but, for example, the lovely green lawn and beautiful trees in the front and sidepart of the rental building where I live will, if the owner/developers have their way, be torn down for a further building wrapped around our building. I'm guessing the developers will win, as they most usually seem to. As you say, ‘the only thing that matters is money.’ In my cynicism I'm expecting developers to take over every park we have in Toronto, for the sake of money. Toronto is becoming a very ugly wasteland of high-rise condos. And what is happening to wider nature in other parts of Canada, is heartbreaking.”


A couple of people challenged me. John Willems, for example, asked, “I wonder, did a man and a dog walk on a path that was enjoyed each day on the land your dwelling disturbed?”

            And Brian Chadwick told me flatly, “Stop wasting energy using your computer. Your house stands on previously pristine nature.”


Tom Watson: “The word is greed, something that is never satiated. Yesterday I was talking with a professional who lives in an area of homes worth $1 million and up. He mentioned ‘scrapers,’ a new word I had not heard before in connection with real estate. The home next to him had been built a few years back at a cost of $1 million. A wealthy person recently bought the home, bulldozed it down -- scraped the ground clear -- and is constructing a huge new mansion costing somewhere in the area of $15 million. It will, I assume, make the person's life much more comfortable.”

            Ton went on, “Those who will live on the ridge near you will have a wonderful view, and thus a more comfortable life than they can attain living in some more mediocre subdivision.”


Hanny Kooyman didn’t like “development”. It hurts when people call it ‘progress’. Money being the only measuring stick by which all is done. I’m often wondering: Who or what is going to turn it in a different direction? Why are those who take down the trees and bulldoze the ground incapable of seeing the beauty they are trampling on? Indirect result is also that our younger generation has to cope with enormous amounts of stress in their jobs, and are slave to enormous burdens just living. Not to mention the ever-increasing number of people who have no home at all.


Bob Rollwagen picked up on my reference to Noah’s flood: “Noah dealt with the people of his time. While our technology is greater and our ships bigger, little has changed with respect to the intelligence of the political masses.

            “You and I will not be impacted significantly by current trends. [But] our kids will live in a world different from what we were conceived in. Our grandkids will experience even greater change because of accelerating consequences. Few people want to give up their privileged life.”


Jean Gregson felt that “eventually humans, animals, plants, etc. will pay for the damage we have done. I'm angry too when I see beautiful trees cut down to make way for more and more housing. Joni Mitchell wrote ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ in 1970. As I read your column the lyrics to that song kept coming back to me. ‘They paved paradise and they put up a parking lot.’ That is exactly what is happening today. Even in 1970 it was obviously an issue, so we haven't learned much in the meantime.”


Joy Lambrick: “Thank you for your very articulate and bitter letter. There just has to be many others who simply MUST agree!! Growing up in the wonderful Eden of Kelowna and the valley before it was first found by the Mighty Developers HAD to make one aware of what we were so lucky to have had and what MUST be protected!

            “I have attempted over some 50 years in various ways [to find] a less savage way of destruction to our irreplaceable  world, mostly to no avail! Short term gain and greed counts...nothing much else appears to.”


As Isabel Gibson wrote, “This is why I donate to the Nature Conservancy. Because they buy land and sequester it from development pressure. It's not a perfect solution, but it’s something.”


Brian Horejsi addressed reactions to the on-rushing crisis of climate change: “Sadly, some think we have a chance, as remote as it may be to even that few, to turn things around within the existing system. Dig deeper and faster to get out of the hole we’ve dug ourselves!






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                       I write a second column each Wednesday, called Soft Edges, which deals somewhat more gently with issues of life and faith. To sign up for Soft Edges, write to me directly at the address above, or send a blank e-mail to softedges-subscribe@lists.quixotic.ca

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To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols. (This is to circumvent filters that think too many links constitute spam.)

                       Ralph Milton’s latest project is a kind of Festival of Faith, a retelling of key biblical stories by skilled storytellers like Linnea Good and Donald Schmidt, designed to get people talking about their own faith experience. It’s a series of videos available on Youtube. I suggest you start with his introductory section: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7u6qRclYAa8

                       Ralph’s “Sing Hallelujah” -- the world’s first video hymnal -- is still available. It consists of 100 popular hymns, both new and old, on five DVDs that can be played using a standard DVD player and TV screen, for use in congregations who lack skilled musicians to play piano or organ. More details at wwwDOTsinghallelujahDOTca

                       Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. <http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca>

                       I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom

                       Alva Wood’s satiric stories about incompetent bureaucrats and prejudiced attitudes in a small town -- not particularly religious, but fun; alvawoodATgmailDOTcom to get onto her mailing list.

                       Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom or twatsonATsentexDOTnet


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