The (necessary) Luxury of Honesty and Vulnerability

Professionally, my goal was “work hard until something good happens” for many years. I had the luxury of the world’s best string of bosses. I had no idea how lucky I was to be learning from giants who poured wisdom into me, protected me and told me hard truths that shaped my character.

At DARPA I found a new luxury: intense, intentional and open honesty. I learned that as a PM, I could say “I don’t understand” 10x and not be seen as stupid. I could walk into any room as an open book and dig in to my questions. It was glorious and it actually made me smart on several topics. Honesty became my learning superpower.

This was such a contrast to my early years at MIT. I didn’t feel like I belonged in the world of the world’s smartest people. I seemed to struggle in ways that others didn’t. Classes were too hard. In every conversation or class, when you stop understanding, it just gets harder and harder to interject and reveal where your misunderstanding started.

I needed offset strategy to succeed. I took notes in class without understanding things and found ways to learn outside of class. This took the form of finding friends, online explanations, good books and working extra problems. However, I had to act like a spy in 80s Berlin: developing sources to whom I could be truly honest and reveal the depth of my misunderstanding. I found those folks and they made all the difference. It worked, but it was really inefficient.

Real Conversation (AI generated art)

If only I had the ability to said “I don’t understand” in every context; to speak with one voice in all contexts. I would have learned, and contributed, so much more.

All this made me think about the bigger picture to all this: honesty and vulnerability are not just professional luxuries, they are important moral and ethical values. They are essential traits that can help us to build meaningful relationships, grow as individuals, and ultimately live a good life.

Honesty is a powerful tool that helps us to build trust, not just in the workplace, but also in our personal lives. When we are honest with ourselves and others, we are able to form stronger bonds and build deeper connections. This, in turn, allows us to better understand the perspectives and motivations of those around us. This, in turn, leads to more productive and meaningful interactions, whether in the workplace or in our personal relationships.

Vulnerability, on the other hand, allows us to be open and authentic. It’s the only way to build trust. It helps us to be more approachable and genuine, and it creates an environment of trust. When we are vulnerable, we are able to admit our weaknesses and share our struggles, which in turn helps us to connect with others and gain support. This, in turn, helps us to grow as individuals and lead more fulfilling lives.

Furthermore, honesty and vulnerability also help us to build resilience. When we are honest with ourselves and others, we are able to confront difficult situations head-on and find solutions. This, in turn, helps us to become more resilient and better equipped to handle challenges and setbacks.

I’m writing this post because I had the chance to regress recently after I left an aerospace engineering conference for a group of cyber researchers. I felt a little out of my element as I switched contexts. One expert in particular, wanted to make a strong impression as we started talking. The bar was loud. We had a mediocre conversation where I didn’t follow half of what they were saying. They used the opportunity to just throw lots of words at me. We both started looking for exit strategies.

We did talk about some really technical stuff (the limits of TEEs, quantum computing and cyber security, what an efficient market for exploits would look like, etc) but I really didn’t learn or contribute much because I didn’t stop the conversation when I didn’t understand. I wasn’t vulnerable and I didn’t push back in a way that would generate a conversation to remember. That would be a conversation that changed us, not just the opportunity to participate in a professional dance.

However, as I dove back into the AIAA conference, I used this disappointment to dive back into discussions. I was intentional to dive into the discomfort of “I don’t get that, Can you say that again?”, and “I’m sorry, let’s get to somewhere more quiet, what you are saying is important”. The back side of these conversations led to incredible fun, relationship building and some real learning.

If you find yourself confused. Say it and say it early. If you forget someone’s name. Say that too. It’s always better to chose honesty and vulnerability over putting on a front that both you and your counterparty will see through. It makes both of you smarter, and opens the door to real relationships, ultimately paving the way to get big things done.

Pairing Philosophers in 2023

Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche are valued teachers and they generated many of the ideas bumping into each other in the culture today.

Søren Kierkegaard was a Danish philosopher, theologian, and social critic who is known for his contributions to the field of existentialism. He believed that the individual’s relationship to God was the most important aspect of human life, and that the search for meaning and purpose was an essential part of the human experience. Kierkegaard argued that the traditional institutions of society, such as the church and the state, were inadequate for helping individuals to find meaning and fulfillment in life, and he called for a return to a more personal and inward-looking approach to faith and spirituality.

Friedrich Nietzsche was a German philosopher who is known for his critiques of traditional values and his celebration of the individual. He argued that traditional morality, with its emphasis on self-denial and restraint, was destructive to the human spirit and hindered the development of truly great individuals. Nietzsche believed that people should embrace their own desires and passions, and strive to become what he called “overmen,” or individuals who had fully realized their own potential and lived life to the fullest.

These two philosophers define authentic to me. Neither of them would have been comfortable in my Church or in my society, but I can’t escape how much I would love to host a cup of coffee with these two thinkers.

Two Gents talking

Authenticity is really hard because we can’t escape our obsession with status no matter how hard we try. It’s better to not think about status too much because focusing on it can compromise authenticity. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are good to match up because they both were independent thinkers who didn’t care about others’ opinions, yet were deeply wounded by the world’s rejection.

One stark difference: Kierkegaard embraced faith, while Nietzsche rejected the idea of a greater meaning in life.

Both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were obsessed with finding the truth, wherever that quest went, and were both deeply troubled by what they found and by the process of finding it.

Desiring truth not consistency is probably the hardest intellectual challenge and it can be a lonely and troubling journey. Since I know that I’m not wiser than the weight of history or the leaders of my faith community, I tend to side on tradition when I don’t understand things. Yet I strive to overcome the temptation to prioritize consistency in my beliefs over seeking new information that may challenge them. Consistency is a good default, but it can prevent us from fully understanding the world around us and making informed decisions. An open and certain mind is a rare thing and both do and don’t have one.

Nietzsche and Kierkegaard inspire me on this point. They were concerned with the nature of human existence and the meaning of life, and they both sought to fundamentally re-think the traditional Western philosophical tradition. This makes them good foils to consider what they might think about three significant developments in the modern world: the rise of populism, the decrease in organized religion, and the rise of artificial intelligence.

The Rise of Populism

Nietzsche and Kierkegaard were both critical of the values of the Enlightenment and the modern world, and they both argued that the modern world had lost touch with the deeper meanings and values of life. In this sense, they might both view the rise of populism with a certain degree of skepticism. Populism is often associated with a rejection of traditional political and social elites and a focus on the needs and concerns of ordinary people. Both Nietzsche and Kierkegaard would likely argue that this focus on the needs and desires of the masses can lead to a superficial and shallow understanding of the world, and they would both caution against a reliance on the “tyranny of the majority” as a guiding principle for society.

At the same time, however, both Nietzsche and Kierkegaard placed a strong emphasis on the importance of individuality and the need for individuals to be true to themselves and their own values. In this sense, they might both see the rise of populism as an opportunity for individuals to reclaim their own autonomy and agency, and to resist the homogenizing forces of modernity.

Nietzsche the populist?

The Decrease in Organized Religion

Both Nietzsche and Kierkegaard were deeply concerned with the role of religion in human life, and they both grappled with the question of how individuals can find meaning and purpose in the absence of traditional religious beliefs. Nietzsche was highly critical of traditional Christianity and other monotheistic religions, and he is known for his arguments against the existence of God and his rejection of traditional moral values. He argued that individuals should create their own values and meaning rather than relying on traditional sources of authority.

Kierkegaard, on the other hand, was deeply religious and saw faith as a central aspect of human life. He argued that belief in God was not a matter of reason, but rather a matter of the heart, and he developed the concept of the “leap of faith” to describe the idea that individuals must make a leap of faith in order to truly believe in something.

In the modern world, we are seeing a decline in organized religion and a shift away from traditional religious beliefs. Nietzsche might view this trend as a positive development, as he rejected traditional religious beliefs and saw them as a source of oppression and illusion. Kierkegaard, on the other hand, might view the decline in organized religion with concern, as he saw faith as a central aspect of human life and argued that individuals need a sense of transcendence and meaning beyond the material world.

The Rise of Artificial Intelligence

In the 21st century, we are seeing a rapid development of artificial intelligence and the increasing integration of technology into all aspects of our lives. Nietzsche and Kierkegaard would likely have very different perspectives on the rise of artificial intelligence.

Kierkegaard and AI (picture generated by Dall-E 2)

Nietzsche might view the development of artificial intelligence with a certain degree of skepticism, as he placed a strong emphasis on the value of human creativity and individuality. He might argue that the increasing reliance on artificial intelligence could lead to a dehumanization of society and a loss of the unique qualities that make humans special. But! Nietzsche was interested in the potential of technology to enhance human life and enable individuals to overcome their limitations, and he might have seen the development of artificial intelligence as a potential way to achieve this.

Kierkegaard, on the other hand, might have been more skeptical of the role of technology in society and could have seen it as a threat to human dignity and autonomy. He might have argued that the increasing reliance on technology was a symptom of a deeper spiritual malaise in modern society and could lead to a loss of meaning and purpose in life. (Good grief, how much I love Kierkegaard.)

Who Else?

All this had me thinking, what other pair might be an interesting lens to view society? And I think five other pairings would be super fun to meet up with:

Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke

Best friends?

These two philosophers had very different views on the nature of the state and the role of the individual in society. Rousseau argued for the primacy of the common good and the need for the state to exert control over the lives of individuals, while Locke argued for the importance of individual rights and the need for limited government. Comparing these two philosophers could provide a useful framework for thinking about issues related to the balance between individual freedom and the role of the state in modern society.

Karl Marx and Adam Smith

These two philosophers had very different views on the nature of economic systems and the role of the state in regulating them. Marx argued for the abolition of private property and the need for a socialist economic system, while Smith argued for the importance of free markets and the role of self-interest in driving economic growth. Comparing these two philosophers could provide a useful framework for thinking about issues related to economic policy and the role of the state in the economy.

Michel Foucault and John Rawls

Focualt and Rawls on the March

These two philosophers had very different views on the nature of justice and the foundations of moral and political theory. They pretty much define the camps in the American left today. Foucault argued that power relations are a fundamental aspect of society (#BLM, Woke!) and that justice is not an objective concept, while Rawls argued for the importance of a social contract based on fairness and equality (think Clinton/Blair). Comparing these two philosophers could provide a useful framework for thinking about issues related to social justice and the foundations of political theory.

Thomas Hobbes and John Locke

These two philosophers had very different views on the nature of the state and the role of the individual in society. Hobbes argued for the need for a strong, centralized state in order to maintain order and prevent anarchy, while Locke argued for the importance of individual rights and the need for limited government. Comparing these two philosophers could provide a useful framework for thinking about issues related to the balance between individual freedom and the role of the state in modern society.

Finally, Kant and Hegel!

Immanuel Kant, an 18th-century philosopher has had the same level of influence as Kierkegaard on me. I consider myself a Kantian. I love the idea that the moral worth of an action is determined by the motivation behind it, rather than the consequences that it produces. An action is considered morally right if it is done out of a sense of duty or respect for moral law, rather than as a means to achieve some other end or goal. Also, the moral law is universal and applies to all people, regardless of their individual circumstances or desires.

Kantian ethicists argue that we have a moral duty to treat others with respect and to always act in accordance with moral principles, even when it is difficult or inconvenient to do so. They believe that this is the only way to create a just and moral society, and that failure to live up to these standards can have serious consequences for individuals and for society as a whole.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, a 19th-century philosopher, would be a great contrast to Kant. Some specific areas of disagreement between the two philosophers include:

The nature of history and the role of reason: Kant argued that human reason was a universal and timeless principle, while Hegel argued that reason was an inherent part of the historical process and that the world was shaped by the interplay of opposing forces. Hegel used organic metaphors and language to describe the way in which history unfolds and develops over time. For example, he referred to the process of historical development as a “world-historical process” and described the different periods of history as “stages” in the development of human consciousness.

The nature of the state and the role of the individual: Kant argued for the importance of individual rights and the need for limited government, while Hegel argued for the primacy of the state and the idea that individuals should be subservient to the state.

The nature of knowledge and the foundations of moral and political theory: Kant argued for the importance of reason and the a priori principles that structure our experience, while Hegel argued that knowledge was a product of the historical process and that the ultimate goal of human development was the realization of the “Absolute.”

How fun it would be to pair all the philosophers mentioned above about up. They probably would find my company pretty boring, but it would be fun to tell them about the 1900s and answer their questions about what we believe today. Ah, well, I get to read their books, write this stuff up and, even better, talk to you about this stuff.

Otis on Leadership

In Shawshank redemption Otis “Red” goes before the parole board with promises to be better. He tries to play by the rules and repeatedly gets denied. Finally, he has had enough and lets them have it. He is done with their game, they can keep him there forever.  He speaks with the tired wisdom of an old man desperate to speak sense to his younger self, bereft of the hope that a future is possible. He doesn’t care, and now they approve his release.

As amusing as this story is, I’m convinced it speaks to a deeper truth. The road to excellence in leadership doesn’t end with learning what to care about, but it definitely starts with a decision to follow your convictions over learning to do what others in power want.

When I was at DARPA, a PM’s goal was to get to the tech council and get the funding to make our idea happen. In several startups, I’ve marched a similar path to get funding. Each time, I had to navigate a maze of intermediaries, each wanting to hear specific things before I could get to the decision maker. The temptation was always present to win their approval by making my main focus to learn and deliver what they wanted to hear at the expense of my core vision. Keeping this temptation in check always helped in the end and I started to really know that conviction matters more than compliance.

Ok, that’s DARPA and startups. But most of my time has been in government and big companies. Big companies don’t just have intermediaries, they have systems, processes and whole organizations that test our compliance versus conviction trade. Conversations in every company start to change as everyone pays attention to where the winds are going. Conviction is still there, but it becomes bounded by what the boss or bosses emphasize. This is a natural consequence of what leadership means. We set the emphasis of our team and that includes culture and values. Shouldn’t we want our workforce to adopt what we are projecting?

Not at the expense of core individual convictions. To get a flavor of how this can lead us off the high road, a senior leader at a former company made (the fine topic of) female empowerment a core platform of his leadership and bombarded LinkedIn with his progress in this area at the expense of any other vision or message. I took pitches every day from vendors and vendor pitches started to include slides at the beginning that highlighted their commitment to female empowerment. This is how you end up with technology pitches that didn’t emphasize technology. While it was great that the boss was speaking his conviction, it was sad to watch the ecosystem around the company pander and step outside their prime value.

Tech vendor’s sometimes do this even when they focus on technology. When a topic becomes hot, say blockchain or machine learning, you start to hear lots of references to high concept phrases. Do you do X? Oh, yes we know X very well. Do you integrate with Y? oh yes. In my research work I get to bump into real thought leaders and it’s a completely different story. They question my question: “why would you do X?”. They often disagree with what I’m saying and point out my misunderstanding. I like these conversations. I like these people. They have different incentives, but they get my call back.

The best conversations are not banal agreements. Listen to a couple on their first date as they try to please each other. It’s funny watching them try and agree. It’s also a boring conversation.

Then watch the verbal tennis match of two long time friends disagreeing. “No, that’s not the best, this is . . . You’re crazy, this is . . .” In such disagreements there is life and learning and love. They deeply care about each other, but they aren’t focused on pleasing the other person. They have transitioned to something greater.

There just isn’t room for multiple things at the top of your priorities. If you focus on playing the game and optimizing the system to your advantage, you not only hurt your chances of success, but you risk any gains you make leaving you empty and not really adding up to any real change. On the other hand, if you really bottom out your convictions and decide what you really want to do, you have to take on the system. The system will fight you and may beat you down. The collective goals of that system will differ from yours and people will defend their equities in ways that give you headaches, sleepless nights and may even break you.

However, some people, and in the right culture, the right people, will watch. They will know that you care more about the impact of your principles than personal gain. They may not agree with you, but they will respect you. And when you succeed your success will have meaning and will take root. It may grow as others are inspired by your conviction and the truth of your principles.

One of my heroes, John Boyd, said you have to make a fundamental decision to the question: do you want to do something or do you want to be somebody? The magic of this is you really can have both, but you have to pick the right door. Both doors will lead to frustration. The choice to be somebody will make you an expert in what people want to hear and where the system is going. It will feed your ego with each win and teach you how to navigate a system with the right partnerships, the right things to do and the right things to believe. Each year you will risk becoming less and less of the person you once were, even if the organization rewards you.

The choice to do something driven by your convictions alone may pit you against the world. John Boyd never became a general. He never developed executive presence and took on the assignments that would get his name at the top of the promotion lists. He lived in a small apartment and his Facebook and LinkedIn page would have been boring and unnoticed. (Hint: I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have one.) He did change the art of war and gave us our F-16, A-10, and built the science of aerial combat. He made a real impact on national security, but his lasting impact was on his acolytes who went on to change the Air Force and the DoD. His impact lives on.

The choice can’t be more clear. Integrity, conviction and meaning over advancement and ego. It’s Cincinnatus returning to his farm. It’s  General Marshall telling president Roosevelt that general Eisenhower was the better man to lead D-day. It’s George Washington refusing to be crowned King. It’s Socrates taking the cup of hemlock. It’s Martin Luther walking down the streets of Wittenberg with a piece of paper in his hand that will change the world.

The greatest parable is Solomon’s test for the two mothers who both claimed parentage of the same child: who cares more about the baby? When you truly care, you can’t lose. Without Solomon’s wisdom, the true mother would have suffered greatly. She wouldn’t have her baby to touch, to teach and to watch grow. But she could take great joy in the child’s life. There would be a chance for the truth to break free and make all things right.

Even if the other mother “won”, she would live a lie. It would be a parenthood devoid of meaning, filled with guilt and deception. Not living the lie is what bringing your full self means. It means being fully aware of the trades you will make, who you are and what you stand for.

This is all simple when described here, who wouldn’t choose the greater good when it’s described this way? But this gets complicated in Monday’s staff meeting or in your strategy review. Who will you be when you aren’t focused on the questions above? Every day you make decisions that together comprise a life. If you come to forks in the road and you haven’t been intentional about your principles and practiced applying them, then your path will be filled with extra obstacles to find meaning and you risk ending in a tale of sound and fury, in the end signifying nothing. That’s a heavy price to pay for the trophies you get from a happy system.

Woke Karl Barth

“If love is the essence and totality of the good demanded of us, how can it be known that we love?”

Karl Barth

We think in groups and live in tribes. It’s hard to believe anything that doesn’t align with a big group of folks. The historical struggle between economic classes is shifting to a conflict between specific identity groups. This is a consequence of the failure of Marxism in practice. I’ve been given a front-row seat to observe that the power in our culture is increasingly concentrated into a few geographic regions that control business, marketing and media. Old ideas are recycled into weapons to gain political power as new groups align to seek their own self-interest. This leaves a lot of us confused as we try to live authentic and peaceful lives in light of constantly changing goalposts.

One way to view history is by teasing out the changes in hopes and fears. All people are constantly trying to be safe and in control of their lives, and some people (generally the *elite* which has been everything from the church to the secular left) are always trying to control others. It is a modern activity to leverage technology and the marketplace of ideas as a means to power. Since the 15th century, Europe has been the source of radical transformation. The shift from pre-Modernity to Modernity ushered in an era of constant change starting with the Italian Renaissance, followed by the growth of Humanism and the Reformation movement. The colonization of the East and the Americas, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, new nationalistic states and the Industrial Revolution made all this spin faster. However, nothing accelerated things more than technology and the ability to record and share scientific knowledge. (cf Karl Barth, Die Protestantische Theologie im 19. Jahrhundert)

Things looked rosy for America and the West at the start of the 20th century. Scientists performed Miracles. Automobiles, modern factories, new medicines and aircraft gave the news a constant stream of novel wonders to share. Western countries were confident of their superiority as they reached the zenith of their political and economic power. This was coincident with an age where many theologians were optimistically convinced of man’s natural ability to know God and speak about God. They believed theology needed to be as “scientific” as all the other sciences. They were convinced that it would be possible to speak about God in scientific terms, based on the innate qualities of humanity. Human reason, experience, morality and history became the foundation of religious discourse. There were no doubts about our ability to improve and reshape society with the aid of scientific knowledge. Scientists were convinced that unlimited progress would create a better and brighter future for all people. Dreamers were in vogue reading novels such as Jules Verne’s, From the Earth to the Moon (De la terre à la lune), — the story of the Baltimore Gun Club and their attempts to build an enormous space gun which could launch the club’s president and a French poet to the moon.


World War I changed everything. Optimism was replaced by fear, and by the knowledge that science and technology not only facilitated the progress and well-being of humanity, but also the devastation of society and the destruction of humanity. This realization caused a major crisis in European society.

It was this crisis that led to our current discussion of critical race theory, which is an offshoot of critical theories that trace back to intellectuals, academics, and political dissidents dissatisfied with the contemporary socio-economic systems (capitalist, fascist, communist) of the 1930s. The Frankfurt School was an ideological consolation prize for the Marxists of the failed German Revolution of 1918-19, in the same way that Woke Progressivism was a consolation prize for those of the failed Revolution of ‘68. It was originally located at the Institute for Social Research (Institut für Sozialforschung), an attached institute at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany. The Institute was founded in 1923 thanks to a donation by Felix Weil with the aim of developing Marxist studies in Germany. After 1933, the Nazis forced its closure, and the Institute was moved to the United States where it found hospitality at Columbia University in New York City. The Frankfurt theorists proposed that social theory was inadequate for explaining the turbulent political factionalism and reactionary politics that arose from 20th century liberal capitalist societies. Criticism of capitalism and of Marxism–Leninism as philosophically inflexible systems of social organization, the School’s critical theory research indicated alternative paths to realizing the social development of a society and a nation.

The academic influence of the critical method is far reaching. Some of the key issues and philosophical preoccupations of the School involve the critique of modernity and capitalist society, the definition of social emancipation, as well as the detection of the pathologies of society.

The legacy of the Frankfurt School is Critical Theory, which is a full-fledged philosophical and sociological movement spread across many universities around the world. Critical Theory provides a specific interpretation of Marxist philosophy with regards to some of its central economic and political notions like commodification, reification, fetishization and critique of mass culture. Marxism led to the Frankfurt School, which led to Critical Theory, followed by Critical Legal Studies, and finally Critical Race Theory. The end result today of all this in the public square is a post-modern struggle between culture and races that emphasizes lived experience over liberal argumentation and truth discovery. When people often talk past each other, they are failing to realize that they operate in wholly different truth systems.

Dudes with Ideas

In emphasizing lived experience over other sources of truth such as science and reason, everything is viewed as a racial power struggle. Philosophically, we trade Kant’s logical system for Foucault’s rejection of the knowability of anything. Marx’s fervent calls for bloody class warfare are replaced with an equally fervent focus on inter-racial dynamics as CRT assumes a priori that racism is present in everything under a doctrine known as “systemic racism.”

Karl Barth thinking and writing

Enter Karl Barth (1886-1968), the local pastor of the small industrial town of Safenwil in the Swiss canton of Aargau. A fascinating fellow, he is no evangelical, but is the father of neo-orthodoxy and crisis theology. He addressed critical theory with a focus on the sinfulness of humanity, God’s absolute transcendence, and the human inability to know God except through revelation. The critical nature of his theology came to be known as “dialectical theology,” or “the theology of crisis.” This initiated a trend toward neo-orthodoxy in Protestant theology. The neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth reacted strongly against liberal Protestant neglect of historical revelation. He wanted to lead theology away from the influence of modern religious philosophy, with its emphasis on feeling and humanism, and back to the principles of the Reformation and the teachings of the Bible.

Karl Barth presciently used the modern language of Wokeness in his defense of orthodoxy. He defined the entire life of Christian discipleship as people who are continually reawakened – continuous repentance, continuous transformation, continuous renewal. Barth was careful to say that Christians aren’t the people who are awake vs. everybody else who’s asleep. Christians are those who constantly stand in need of reawakening from the sleep of all kinds of errors and “fantasies and falsehoods.” To Barth, we have to be on guard so we don’t fall asleep to what’s true, and what’s coming to us in Jesus’ way of love and peace.

Barth departed from evangelicals in his view that the Bible not as the actual revelation of God but as only the record of that revelation. To Barth, God’s single revelation occurred in Jesus Christ. In short, Barth rejected two main lines of interest in Protestant theology of that time: historical criticism of the Bible and attempt to find justification for religious experience from philosophy and other sources. Barth saw in historical criticism great value on its own level, but it often led Christians to lessen the significance of the testimony of the apostolic community to Jesus as being based on faith and not on history. Theology that uses philosophy is always on the defensive and more anxious to accommodate the Christian faith to others than to pay attention to what the Bible really says.

“The person who knows only his side of the argument knows little of that.” — Karl Barth

Barth stays out of the evangelical camp due to his view of the individual’s role in scriptural interpretation. John Calvin, by contrast, emphasizes the inspiration of Scripture, the text itself being God-breathed, regardless of whether or how believers receive it. Barth prefers to speak of the out-breathing of the Spirit of God in both the text and the believer, thus distancing himself both from the exegesis of Scripture and from the Reformed tradition.

However, Barth is a bold defender of the rights of the individual and for the goodness of self-criticism. One of my favorite Barth stories tells of a letter he received which said Professor Barth, I have discovered the following contradictions in your writings, what do you say about these contradictions? And Barth ostensibly wrote back and said: Well, here are some others. And lists a few more contradictions. Yours faithfully . . . This is a powerful statement of the liberal idea of welcoming self-criticism.

This is in contrast to the anti-liberal idea articulated by critical race theory that race is a political construction that was invented by white people to give themselves power while excluding all other races from it, and racism is the ordinary state of affairs in society, present in all interactions, institutions, and phenomena, and effectively permanent in society. Karl Barth would be a powerful force for dialogue in an age where conservatives have to hide their views while activist groups use well orchestrated pressure to isolate and marginalize non-conformity. 

This is why I find such joy in revisiting Karl Barth. He passes my “coffee test” where I know I would enjoy a sit-down with him. He combines love and grace with an intense pursuit of the truth and then dares to think original thoughts. The fact he doesn’t fit in my American Evangelical tribe is a welcome bonus. I’m pretty sure everything I believe is wrong in some way. Both my orthodox theology, my teleology and my scientific worldview compel me to admit that every tenant I hold should be tested and improved. This is why I love voices that start with grace and end with brilliance. I’m open to change and hunger to learn, but skeptical of political agendas. I’m aware that history is the story of power politics. Oppression is real, but doesn’t belong to one identity. Insight and wisdom are real, but don’t belong to one group. He shares that we are all equally guilty, and equally deserving of grace. Karl Barth preached, wrote and shared his wisdom by inviting others to learn. He and I share the same loves (wisdom, Jesus, learning and talking) and many of the same convictions (that grace and redemption are real, possible and freely available). I’m glad he took to the time to share his thoughts as they are a great comfort in times such as these.

Tale of Two Cities: Faith and Progress

Around 1710, the English theologian Thomas Woolston wrote that Christianity would be extinct by the year 1900. In 1822, Thomas Jefferson predicted there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian. While these predictions didn’t pan out, we live in a world that neither of them would recognize. Much would surprise them and some would downright shock them.

Recently, my family had the opportunity for two amazing meals: one in NYC’s SoHo district and the other in the old town of Geneva. [^1] Both dinners were served against a backdrop of two gay pride events. In NYC, I parked my car under a large cartoon drawing of two men engaged in a graphic sex act. This was surrounded by other lewd, pornographic, pictures. I tried to usher my kids quickly underneath several of them. While dining, I had explain to my 10 year old boy why a man in front of the restaurant was wearing a leather mask and being pulled around on a collar. When we went to a french bakery in the village, we were confronted with even more garish sights. It seems homosexual civil rights are also accompanied by the introduction of pornography into the public square. I know my friends in San Francisco, have daily experiences like this.


As a business person, it was odd to watch the SoHo neighborhood, the pinnacle of American consumerism, transform into an intense contest to turn a cultural phenomenon into a commercial opportunity. It wasn’t enough to fly a flag outside their stores. In an intense effort to cash in on the latest trend, they filled their window displays with custom designed rainbow colored merchandise. To ignore the event, would give them a fate no struggling retailer can afford: cultural irrelevance. Today, as I walked down fifth avenue the flags are gone and the window displays are changed, almost as an acknowledgement that their core identity, of say a shoe store, is not a sexual orientation.


The next dinner out was early July in Geneva. Here the Jet d’Eau was changed into rainbow colors and every crosswalk was adorned with the rainbow flag. While the commercial world there didn’t seem to care (Breguet and Patek were Swiss neutral), the city was clearly all in: Swiss flags were equally matched by rainbow flags as if they were the backdrop of a diplomatic summit between nationalism and sexual freedom. It was interesting how non-commercial it was, probably since the Louis Vutton store was selling to middle eastern and asian countries less obsessed with putting sex in every product. In fact, the commercial abstention was mutual. There were ubiquitous graffiti and post-bills declaring we’re here, we’re queer and we are not going shopping. When I took my kids to reformation park, there were men in speedos climbing the statue of John Calvin and swimming in the water in front of him. They hung profane signs on the reformer and his three colleagues while the police watched and the band blasted techno music. While some friends will see this as an exciting example of societal progress, I’m pretty sure Calvin himself would disagree. I was denied the opportunity to show the heroes of the reformation, and confronted with explaining the scene before us.

What we can all agree on, is that society is rapidly changing. I know enough about history to know that societal change and the collapse of former norms are expected, but these two meals forced me to think about the broader arc of all this. Hegel convinced me that history is neither neutral, cyclical nor static: it is going somewhere. Each of us has a responsibility to estimate where that is and to do our best to positively influence all of this.

So where are we going and why? These times seem uncertain, but I know:

  • the election of Donald Trump (and other populist statists) is a symptom of public fear and not a cause
  • we are accumulating debt at high levels
  • technology is displacing jobs, causing distrust, and changing our brains
  • humans have an effect on our ecology, while we don’t understand it well, most natural effects are non-linear so change can happen very fast
  • social norms are rapidly changing
  • mobility and interconnectedness is at an all time high
  • secularization (the process of religion losing its power and significance in society) continues in the developed world

Summarizing these facts into a consistent narrative is challenging, but I like Thomas Friedman’s way of summarizing the forces changing our culture into three areas. He feels three forces are shaping society: Moore’s law (technology), the Market (globalization), and Nature (climate change and biodiversity loss). He feels all three of these are accelerating and interconnected and impacting the workplace, politics, geopolitics, ethics, and community. Yuval Noah Harari feels that technical disruption and ecological collapse are the two defining forces.

These are helpful ways to organize societal change, but they miss the dimension that matters most to me: morality and the system feeding it. As I traveled in these two cities and saw the geographically diverse but culturally homogenized societal change, I had to ask myself where we are going and if that direction is good or bad for me and the future world my children will inherit.

MAGA anyone? Sorry, not my thing. The burden of every generation is to bemoan the loss of moral clarity of their childhood. It is a good an important question: Am I more concerned with the presence of a moral set of principles or am I holding onto a vision of how society should look based on idealistic remembrances of how things were? Conservatives often fall into this trap. I’m hoping that living and working across the globe physically and studying history mentally helps me burn away the fear-driven pull towards a mythical halcyon past. You have a lot of stuff you can read, if you are reading this you get the perspective of someone in the trenches like you, trying to make sense of all this and trying to be a part of the solution for a better future.

Taking even a mid-term view of history, it clearly isn’t bad. Look at the numbers in the US. Over the past several decades the crime rate has fallen dramatically. The homicide rate has been cut in half since 1991; violent crime and property crime are also way down. And, the future looks good too, Kids are committing less crime so the trend looks like it might continue. Numbers are always a little touchy, but I’d agree that crime is probably a bright spot in our current situation.

Abortion is a key component of our culture and identity wars, but it appears to be declining. Increases in divorce and infidelity could be considered indicators of our moral decay. There’s just one problem: according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the divorce rate is the lowest it has been since the early 1970s. Not only that, but infidelity is down as well.

What about those immoral teens? The teenage pregnancy rate is at its lowest level in 40 years, teen pregnancy rate has plummeted to a third of its modern high. And according to Education Week, the nation’s graduation rate stands at 72 percent, the highest level of high school completion in more than two decades.

Not only is the pregnancy rate lower, but teens are having less sex overall. From 1991 to 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey finds, the percentage of high-school students who’d had intercourse dropped from 54 to 40 percent. In other words, in the space of a generation, sex has gone from something most high-school students have experienced to something most haven’t. Additionally, new cases of HIV are at an all-time low.

The causes of this have more to do with technical disruption than renewed morality. The numbers belie something we see in the public square. The share of Americans who say sex between unmarried adults is not wrong at all is at an all-time high. Grindr and Tinder offer the prospect of casual sex without the pain (or excitement?) of entering the world and learning how to get past the discomfort of discovering if someone is interested in you.

Shame-laden terms like perversion have given way to cheerful-sounding ones like kink. I just read in the Atlantic that Teen Vogue even ran a guide to anal sex; for teens. With the exception of perhaps incest and bestiality—and of course nonconsensual sex more generally—our culture has never been more tolerant of sex in just about every permutation. BDSM plays at the local multiplex—but why bother going? Between prime-time cable and a few clicks, any preference is so instantly available. This is such well known stuff, that I hate to waste your time with such a widely known observation.

There is also no denying, the number of Americans not affiliated with any religion has increased and the number of those attending worship services has declined. And out-of-wedlock births have increased in America so that now at least four in ten children are born to unmarried women. In the United States, church attendance and membership numbers have been in a slow but sure decline since their peak in the 1960s, when about 40 percent went to church every week.

After World War II, there was an international boom in the outward signs of religiosity. People across the West were desperate to return to order. But this boom in religious activity masked deep intellectual, cultural, and political cracks in Christendom. Technology was starting to really change things as well. The rise of the automobile, motion pictures, and television—all accelerated this individualist turn by allowing people to break away from communal experience. This is a trend that social media, modern travel and the mobile phone have accelerated.

Technology also had another important effect. By the late 19th century, Westerners got better at taking the edge off mortality—the physical suffering that, for thousands of years, has driven humans to seek consolation outside material existence. Modern medicine rose in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; for example, take the discovery of germ theory in the 1860s, major advances in vaccines in the 1890s, and Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin in 1928. All these led to a drastic drop in untimely mortality in the West and provided more reason to turn to doctors instead of priests.

Does all this mean that religion falls away as societies modernize? Many feel that religiosity represents incomplete modernity, that the past was more religious than the present, and, as José Casanova has put it, that there is a clear dichotomy between sacred tradition and secular modernity. Casanova describes the three differing and contested meanings of the word secularization: privatization, differentiation, and disenchantment. The Reformation and the Enlightenment presented an individualist turn, which was not itself a turn away from God’s authority. But it did lay the groundwork for a new way of organizing society that, over the centuries, cast religion as a more personal affair and equipped people to live side-by-side with those who disagree or, using Casanova’s terms, to privatize and differentiate.


I tend to focus on privatization as the most causal influence on the current retreat of faith. Søren Kierkegaard is both the father of this turn inward, and a contributor to the evangelical explosion that characterizes a lot of the American religious experience. Kierkegaard focused on the single individual in relation to a known God based on a subjective truth. He fiercely attacked the Danish State Church, which represented Christendom in Denmark. To him, he saw more harm than good with Christianity as a political and social entity. Christendom, in Kierkegaard’s view, made individuals lazy in their religion. I agree that an over-emphasis on the structure of church has the danger of making Christians, that don’t have much of an idea what that word means. Kierkegaard attempted to awaken Christians to the need for unconditional religious commitment.

This strain of thought would result in events as diverse as the the Azusa Street Revival and Second Great Awakening, but it would also lead to less organized religion and centrality of the individual in their faith story. Increasingly, faith is described as a person’s private business, and less a mantle of morality draped over the public square. Some feel this is because we are just too interconnected to have it otherwise. If every person’s worldview is so different from his or her neighbor’s and we work and interact with lots of world views on a daily basis. I agree that privatization is part of the reason religious skepticism and atheism have become not just the quiet views of a few outliers, but socially acceptable positions.

Casanova terms the shift from supernatural to material causes disenchantment. Disenchantment is also a double edged sword. The protestant reformation established a critical tradition that put the individual and sacred scripture in charge: with the responsibility to question everything. This places the emphasis on learning and interpretation and provided the background for radical critique of old models of higher education that led to conditions at University of Tübingen that produced theologians like David Friedrich Strauss. Strauss became famous when he published a book in 1835 called The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined. He said that the rationalists and traditional Christians who believed in the role of the supernatural both got Jesus wrong. The Gospels were not accounts of miracles, nor were they stories of natural events that looked like miracles. It came out to extremely harsh reviews, but I think Strauss has to be seen as a natural consequence of the development of systematic inquiry, or Wissenschaft, which has goal of pushing the boundaries of human knowledge, to question everything, and to get down to the foundations of how and why humans live and think as they do.

Stories like this convince me that no spot in past was a golden age of faith. (Sorry MAGA-fans.) There was either too much structure, with too little understanding, or too much individualism and too little faith overall. Today’s doubt and religious indifference are nothing new. Writing from the Middle Ages is replete with stories of clergy complaining about impiety at all levels of society. Predicting the death of God or institutionalized religion is also not a new pastime. There is a long tradition of prophets proclaiming doom for traditional Christianity.


However, we have the burden of understanding our present time. Before my birth, but very much relevant to my generation was Time’s April 1966 issue. The cover was all black except for giant red letters that asked: Is God Dead?. Time was responding to the growing conversation in Manhattan, London or Toronto about the challenges facing modern theologians who sought to defend traditional religious teachings in a world in which the intellectual elite had come to rely on non-religious sources of authority, like the scientific method and the discoveries happening at modern research universities. Over the centuries since the Reformation, scientists and philosophers had challenged more and more of the church’s traditional claims about everything from human origins to life after death.

Not long after the Time article, there were a series of Supreme Court decisions in the 1960s that prohibited public school officials from requiring Bible reading or prayer in the classroom. Traditional Christian teachings about the role of women in church and at home began to lose their hold. Practices outlawed by traditional Christianity, like abortion and homosexual activity, gained more social acceptance.2

The impact of all this was to undercut an agreed understanding on shared moral framework. I view and judge the health of a society through a moral lens. I feel true strength is moral, the result of the hard choices that define and solidify who someone really is. I feel that there is one best and correct Truth. I agree with Teddy Roosevelt if we have not both strength and virtue we shall fail. Morality is the combination of strength and virtue. In this view, the why matters more than the outcome. If the world economy is improving, but we don’t have roots in a set of principles, unseen dragons are always around the corner.

To understand the dangers in front of us, we don’t have to go farther than the state of modern conservatism. American views of morality are divided between conservatives and progressives. Conservatives are always vigilant for tangible harms that point to our moral decay. For them, and me, any move away from our vision of society is evidence of declining virtue. Progressives, on the other hand, are less concerned with upending the way things were. The philosopher Michael Oakeshott put it best: To be conservative…is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant. The strength of conservative thought is to acknowledge the authority of family, church, tradition and local associations to control change, and slow it down.

Currently the right is in power in the United States and Britain. However, I’m not sure what this means, since both sides have distanced themselves so much from the values that used to define it. They have occupied the right under a banner of populism and protectionism, with secondary concessions to keep a voting bloc together. Last week, the Economist described that centre-right is being eroded (Germany and Spain), or eviscerated (France and Italy). In other places, like Hungary, with a shorter democratic tradition, the right has gone straight to populism without even trying conservatism.

Despite the key conservative admonition that decimating institutions is among the most dangerous things you can do, the current set of populists are demolishing conservatism itself. The new movement is not an evolution of conservatism, but a rejection of it. Aggrieved and discontented, they are pessimists and reactionaries with scores to settle and grievances to correct.


Classical conservatism is pragmatic and protective of the truth, but the new right is zealous, ideological and the sees truth as theirs to bend. Yes, Trump abuses information to puff up his image, but globally, there is a move away from principled conservatism to a seeking and wielding brazen power without principle with desired dramatic changes. Australia suffers droughts and reef-bleaching seas, but the right has just won an election there under a party whose leader addressed parliament holding a lump of coal like a holy relic. In Italy, Matteo Salvini, leader of the Northern League, has boosted the anti-vaxxer movement. Alternative for Germany has flirted with a referendum on membership of the euro. Were Mr Trump to carry out his threats to leave NATO, it would up-end the balance of power. In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte called for the reimposition of capital punishment in the country to execute criminals involved in heinous crimes, such as illegal drug trade, insisting on hanging. He recently asked, Who is this stupid God? when referring to Christians. Vox, a new force in Spain, harks back to the Reconquista, when Christians kicked out the Muslims.

Conservatives traditionally don’t want to break the economy. A no-deal Brexit would be a leap into the unknown, but Tories yearn for it at any economic cost, even if it destroys the union with Scotland and Northern Ireland. Mr Trump and abuses debt to blunt the effect of his trade wars. Brazilians have elected Jair Bolsonaro, who fondly recalls the days of military rule. In Hungary and Poland the right exults in blood-and-soil nationalism, which excludes and discriminates.


Clearly, there are foundational forces at work here. Edmund Burke discovered that institutions provide such as religion, unions and the family provide conservative’s power. Without these institutions to unite society, people outside the cities feel as if they are sneered at by greedy, self-serving urban sophisticates. They were the glue that held together the coalition of foreign-policy hawks, libertarians and cultural and pro-business conservatives.

The problem is with the institutions gone and political power unrooted from any well articulated principles, are the demographics. Conservatives know their voters are white and relatively old. Universities are not producing many more. A survey by Pew last year found that 59% of American millennial voters were Democratic or leaned Democratic; the corresponding share of Republicans was only 32%. Among the silent generation, born in 1928-45, Democrats scored 43% and Republicans 52%. Will enough young people will drift to the right as they age to fill the gap? I doubt it, especially if the right can’t articulate its principles.

The one solution I see is to renew our efforts in two areas: (1) the formation of character and (2) supporting our institutions from a true recognition of their role in society. The first is individual, the second is collective.

Personal Skills

Individuals each need resist the culturally dominant sensibility that translates all of life through the language of individual achievement, freedom, and autonomy and thus dispenses with not just traditional limits to human sexuality, but to limitation more generally.

I wonder about the death of a salesman and the turn towards data and distantness. It is amazing how important soft skills will be distinct in the future.

Collective Institution Strengthening

Amongst other things, this means we need to stop thinking about church in consumer-friendly categories, that we need to devote ourselves to the reading of Scripture and to prayer (and to historic theology!) in order to better see the errors of our own day, and that we should have a strong aversion to commercializing our faith.

What we must recover, then, is the idea of a domain in which we live that is not the global marketplace. We need to return again to the idea of smaller places that we work to build and improve through work characterized first and foremost by affection, intimate knowledge, and patience. This requires a great deal of time from us, of course. (And, for starters, probably means not spending half our weekends on the roads putting on huge, expensive conferences.) This must begin with homes and families, but it can then (slowly) extend outward into neighborhoods, churches, and cities. And, this is key, the work we do in these places must be defined and judged by a standard that is largely indifferent to the braying demands of the market.

So this will almost certainly require significant career sacrifices either in the form of a spouse staying at home to give maximum attention to creating a home or one or both spouses working from home or both. At minimum, it requires a way of thinking about career and work that is largely indifferent toward the corporate ladder, individual achievement, self-realization, and all the other jargony buzzwords that get parroted uncritically by far too many people.

Such a shift will require us to think about duty, responsibility, propriety, and wisdom more than we think about self-advancement, freedom, possibility, and independence.


[^1] One was in the SoHo district of NYC at Piccola Cucina Osteria Siciliana, the other was in the old town of Geneva, Switzerland Au Carnivore
[^2] I feel like I can’t overlook the Scopes Monkey Trial here

Caging the Demon

As computers become powerful and solve more problems, the possibility that computers could evolve into a capability that could rise up against us and pose an existential threat is of increasing concern. After reading a recent book on artificial intelligence (AI), Superintelligence, Elon Musk recently said:

I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I were to guess like what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that. So we need to be very careful with the artificial intelligence. Increasingly scientists think there should be some regulatory oversight maybe at the national and international level, just to make sure that we don’t do something very foolish. With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon. In all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, it’s like yeah he’s sure he can control the demon. Didn’t work out

This is a tough claim to evaluate because we have little understanding of how the brain works and even less understanding of how current artificial intelligence could ever lead to a machine that develops any sense of self-awareness or an original thought for that matter. Our very human minds use our imagination to fill in the gaps in our understanding and insert certainty where it doesn’t belong. While “dangerous” AI is a future hypothetical that no-one understands, there is no shortage of experts talking about it. Nick Bostrom, the author of Superintelligence, is a Professor, Faculty of Philosophy & Oxford Martin School; Director, Future of Humanity Institute; Director, Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology; University of Oxford. Musk, one of the most admired futurists and businessmen today, is joined by other thought-leaders such as Ray Kurzweil and Stephen Hawking in making statements such as: “Artificial intelligence could be a real danger in the not-too-distance future. It could design improvements to itself and outsmart us all.”

Bostrom gives us a name for this hypothetical goblin: Superintelligence. He defines it this as “an intellect that is much smarter than the best human brains in practically every field, including scientific creativity, general wisdom and social skills.” While we can all expect that the capability and interconnectedness of computers will continue to increase, it is Bostrom’s use of the word intellect that causes the most controversy.

Can an intellect arise from basic materials and electricity? While this question has theological implications, this seems a possibility for many today and is in some sense a consequence of using evolution to form a complete worldview. When our current fascination with monism and Darwinism is combined with a growing awareness of that our reliance on and the capability of machines is growing geometrically, we are primed to accept Bostrom’s reductionist and materialist statement:

Biological neurons operate at a peak speed of about 200 Hz, a full seven orders of magnitude slower than a modern microprocessor (~2 GHz).*

How could we mere humans ever compete? If we accept the brain and consciousness are merely the result of chemical, electrical and mechanical processes than it ought to be emulable by synthetic materials. While this would require breakthroughs in 3D printing, AI and chemistry, the question for a modern materialist is not if this is possible, but when it will occur. The argument might go: while we don’t have AI like this now, super-intelligent machines could evolve much faster than us and may consequently find little use for the lordship of an inferior species.

If some experts think this way, when do they think human intelligence and capability are likely to be surpassed? The short answer is that they don’t agree on a timeline, but there is a slight consensus that computers will be able to match human intelligence. In 2006 a survey was conducted at the AI@50 conference and showed that 18{aaa01f1184b23bc5204459599a780c2efd1a71f819cd2b338cab4b7a2f8e97d4} of attendees believed machines could “simulate learning and every other aspect of human intelligence” by 2056. Otherwise, attendees were split down the middle: 41{aaa01f1184b23bc5204459599a780c2efd1a71f819cd2b338cab4b7a2f8e97d4} of attendees expected this to happen later and 41{aaa01f1184b23bc5204459599a780c2efd1a71f819cd2b338cab4b7a2f8e97d4} expected machines to never reach that milestone. Another survey, by Bostrom, looked at the 100 most cited authors in AI in order to find the median year by experts expected machines “can carry out most human professions at least as well as a typical human”. From his survey, 10{aaa01f1184b23bc5204459599a780c2efd1a71f819cd2b338cab4b7a2f8e97d4} said 2024, 50{aaa01f1184b23bc5204459599a780c2efd1a71f819cd2b338cab4b7a2f8e97d4} said 2050, and 90{aaa01f1184b23bc5204459599a780c2efd1a71f819cd2b338cab4b7a2f8e97d4} said to expect human-like intelligence in 2070. His summary is that leading AI researchers place a 90{aaa01f1184b23bc5204459599a780c2efd1a71f819cd2b338cab4b7a2f8e97d4} probability on the development of human-level machine intelligence by between 2075 and 2090. While his question shapes the results, and the results say nothing about a general or a self-aware machine, he clearly has some experts agreeing with him.

But many others don’t agree. The strongest argument against self-awareness is that the intelligence of machines cannot be compared to human intelligence, because of a difference in purpose and environment. We process information (and exist) for different reasons. Currently, AI is custom built to accomplish (optimize) a series of tasks — and there is no reason to assume an algorithm would automatically transition to excel at another task. Machines are not dissatisfied, and harbor no resentment. Freedom is not an objective ideal for machines. Computers can only recognize patterns and run optimization algorithms. No current technology has shown any potential to develop into self-aware thought.

In the ninetieth century, Ada Lovelace speculated that future machines, no matter how powerful, would ever truly be a “thinking” machine. Alan Turing called this “Lady Lovelace’s objection” and responded with his basic turing test (can a human distinguish between human and computer-generated answers?) and predicted that computers would achieve this within a few decades. Sixty years later, we are not even close and we still haven’t seen anything like an original thought from a computer. John Von Neumann was fascinated by artificial intelligence, and realized that the architecture of the human brain was fundamentally different than any machine. Unlike a digital computer, the brain is an analog system that processes data simultaneously in mysterious ways. Von Neumann writes:

A new, essentially logical, theory is called for in order to understand high-complication automata and, in particular, the central nervous system. It may be, however, that in this process logic will have to undergo a pseudomorphosis to neurology to a much greater extent than the reverse.

That still hasn’t happened. Current technology isn’t even moving in the direction of original thought. Chess winning Deep Blue and Jeopardy! winning Watson won by quickly processing huge sets of data. Kasparov wrote after his loss to Deep Blue: “Deep Blue was only intelligent the way your programmable alarm clock is intelligent.”* The IBM research team that built Watson agrees that Watson had no degree of understanding of the questions it answered:

Computers today are brilliant idiots. They have tremendous capacities for storing information and performing numerical calculations—far superior to those of any human. Yet when it comes to another class of skills, the capacities for understanding, learning, adapting, and interacting, computers are woefully inferior to humans; there are many situations where computers can’t do a lot to help us. *

In fact, the current direction of technology might be going the opposite direction from self-awareness. According to Tomaso Poggio, the Eugene McDermott Professor of Brain Sciences and Human Behavior at MIT:

These recent achievements have, ironically, underscored the limitations of computer science and artificial intelligence. We do not yet understand how the brain gives rise to intelligence, nor do we know how to build machines that are as broadly intelligent as we are.*

Because we don’t understand how self-aware thought develops, all we have is a fleeting mirage in the future telling us that super-intelligence might be right around the corner. Without real-science, the only data to show us the future comes from our imagination and science fiction.

However, this might change. Betting against the ability for technology to accomplish any task is a bad idea. Tim Berners-Lee makes a reasonable argument when he says, “We are continually looking at the list of things machines cannot do – play chess, drive a car, translate language – and then checking them off the list when machines become capable of these things. Someday we will get to the end of the list.”*

Currently IBM and Qualcomm are building chips patterned after neurological processes and they are developing new software tools that simulate brain activity. By modeling the way individual neurons convey information, developers are currently writing and compiling biologically inspired software. The Neuromorphic Computing Platform from the European Union currently incorporates 50*106 plastic synapses and 200,000 biologically realistic neuron models on a single 8-inch silicon wafer. Like a natural system, they do not pre-program any code but only use logic that “evolves according to the physical properties of the electronic devices”.*

Should such a project produce self awareness, how dangerous would this be when compared to other existential threats? The future will clearly have higher interconnectivity and greater dependence on machines and they will continue to become more capable. In The Second Machine Age, I agree with Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee when they write:

Digital technologies—with hardware, software, and networks at their core—will in the near future diagnose diseases more accurately than doctors can, apply enormous data sets to transform retailing, and accomplish many tasks once considered uniquely human.

Any time there is a great deal of interdependency, there is also a great deal of systemic risk. This will apply to our transportation networks, healthcare, and military systems and is a particular problem if we can’t build much more secure software. However, the threat here is malicious use combined with vulnerable software, not rouge AI. In this context, AI is most dangerous in its ability to empower a malicious actor. If, in the future, our computers are defended automatically by computers then a very powerful AI will be best equipped to find vulnerabilities, build exploits and conduct attacks. AI will also be critical to innovation and discovery as both humans and computers collaborate on societies’ hardest problems. To be most ready for this capability, the best strategy is to have the best AI which is only possible from a well-funded, diverse and active research base.

However, what if science develops a superior artificial intellect? Waiting to pull the power-cord is not a wise strategy. Issac Assimov provided us with three laws to follow to ensure benevolent interactions between humanity and machines:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Clearly, military systems will be developed which don’t follow these laws. While they have pervaded science fiction and are referred to in many books, films, and other media, they do little to guide a national strategy towards protecting us from rouge AI. Bostrom proposes regulatory approaches such as pre-programming a solution to the “control problem” of how to prevent the superintelligence from wiping out humanity or instilling the superintelligence with goals that are compatible with human survival and well-being. He also proposes research be guided and managed within a strict ethical framework. Stephen M. Omohundro writes that intelligent systems will need to be carefully designed to prevent them from behaving in harmful ways and proposes developing a universal set of values in order to establish a “friendly AI”.

The Machine Intelligence Research Institute has the mission of ensuring that the creation of smarter-than-human intelligence has a positive impact. They are conducting research to ensure computers can reason coherently about their own behavior and are consistent under reflection, trying to formally specify an AI’s goals in order to ensure such that the formalism matches their designer’s intentions and considering how to ensure those intended goals are preserved even as an AI modifies itself. These are worthy and interesting research goals, but if this science is formally developed, it will only ensure that benevolent designers will produce safe systems.

These approaches fail to consider the difficulty of accounting for unintended consequences that occur when goals are translated into machine-implementable code. A strategy that relies on compliance also fails to account for malicious actors. We should develop the best and most diverse AI possible to both protect us from malicious activity wether it is human directed or not. Such a strategy accounts for Bostrom’s main point that the first superintelligence to be created will have decisive first-mover advantage and, in a world where there is no other system remotely comparable, it will be very powerful. Only a diverse array of AI could counter such a threat.

Fortunately, since we are still dealing with a hypothetical, there is time to explore mitigation options as AI develops. I also agree with Bostrom’s Oxford University colleagues who suggest that nuclear war and the weaponization of biotechnology and nanotechnology present greater threats to humanity than superintelligence. For our lives, there is much greater danger of losing your job to a robot than losing your life. Perhaps the greatest threat is an over-reaction to AI development which prevents us from developing the AI needed to solve our hardest problems.

Some additional reading

Evolution, Faith and Modernity

Tonight, I just finished Francis Collins’ book “The Language of God” where he lays out the basic facts of genetics and the human genome, denounces Creationism and rejects Intelligent Design theory, rebukes Richard Dawkins, and generally sets a tone for reasonableness between Christians and scientists.

This is a lot of disjoint topics, and while he covers a lot of territory, he doesn’t provide sufficient depth in any one area to change minds on either side of the debate of these issues. His goal is clearly to get Christians to think and synchronize their beliefs with modern science.

There is much compelling in this book. As a Christian, I want to be honest and consistent, not just with others, but with myself. I don’t want to hold on to beliefs that are not in agreement with my principles and don’t derive from what I consider to be authority.

So what determines what I believe? Logic and trust, experience and faith. At a basic level, my beliefs are the result of the information I’ve received and how I’ve processed it. While, this sounds decidedly materialist, as a Christian, the Holy Spirit is an important input. Looking back, I would have to put these in the following order:

  • External Conversations (especially honest conversations with friends) – this is why you should surround yourself with the very best people, and listen to them
  • Internal Conversations (Reflections) (times I’m with books, praying, writing posts like this)

In these, I certainly consider arguments of reason to be critical, but I’m sufficiently aware that I have neither the time nor ability to form all my beliefs from my logic alone. Some would say this is a lack of moral courage, “think for yourself, Tim”, but I hold to a classical view of faith, extending lots of trust to the organizations I join to teach me the right things. This doesn’t mean I turn my mind off in church, but I approach things there with trust. Even in technical lectures, I’m generally there trusting the professor, not scoffing at her equations. I’m there trying to figure out what they are saying, under the trust that the school has vetted the professor and the scientific community has vetted the textbook. Perhaps this is best summarized with a “trust, but verify” mindset.

Here we get to the heart of Dr Collins’ book. We can’t derive everything from first principles. For me, I would say only a small fraction of my beliefs are from first principles, other things just ‘seem’ to work and I trust experience. Other things I just trust other folks on. Take a statement like “computers read and process information”. I believe this. I use computers all the time. I’ve even build logic out of Boolean circuit components, I’ve done the physical chemistry of n- and p-type junctions of transistors, but at some level I just trust that x86 processors work, even if at some point long ago, I thought through how an ALU works.

We conservative Christians have a problem. We love the consistency, products and output of science, but the science of origins has taken on theology all its own. In particular, there is now a vocal group of public intellectuals claiming they are creatures of reason and that faith and trust has no place, deriving all beliefs and forming moral judgements from the scientific method and falsifiable data. Their most popular argument is an appeal to fairness: why are your beliefs superior to ancient sun-worshipers or crazy people when you have no data to bring to the table? To oppose them counters currently accepted notions of equality. (The argument goes: “Who opposes equality but bigots and elitists? And if you don’t oppose equality, than how can you say your faith is more valid then someone else? Only data are objective. Faith is not.”)

Christians want to trust the scientific community and love the Christian scientific heritage, but our faith is precious to us and we have both experienced God and His forgiveness and place trust in His specific (i.e. Bible) and general revelation (i.e. experience of the natural world). From our own inability to control our own moral state and actions, we know we need accountability and we find great comfort in Biblical and ecclesiastical answers to the big questions. I also find comfort in not needing to arbitrate all the answers myself. Both the history of the Church and the Christian community I have is there to teach me and help me navigate life.

I value all these things, but what do I believe and why? Several weeks ago, it was helpful for me to fill out an excel spreadsheet with my beliefs. I put statements like “We live in a causal world” next to “God created the world” and categorized them by my level of certainity. I’m sure there is a better list, but I put a checkbox to see if each of the following categories supported a specific belief:

  • Basic Reason
  • Testimony of Natural World
  • Personal Experience
  • Bible
  • Historical Evidence
  • Trusted Friends
  • Scientific Community
  • The Church

I’m sure this is a poor list, but I wanted to get started. So for something like: “I exist” or “my wife is an amazing woman”, I would check personal experience and basic reason– I both know these to be true intuitively and I can give you lots of evidence why. For “the soul is immortal” I check off the church, Bible, and trusted friends. Wow, much to argue about here, but this was just an experiment to get me thinking.

Now, I’m not a philosopher, but I’m interested in Dr Collins’ central question: how can modern Christians accept authority from Bible, Church and the Scientific Community?

In order to make this work, Collins argues that faith (specifically Christian faith) is reasonable for a modern smart scientist, that the current consesus of the scientific community regarding origins is a “hands off” process of natural selection, and the Christan view to syncronize scripture is to accept (1) God started things, but didn’t guide them, (2) certain parts of scripture are “clearly” poetic and not indended to be taken literaly and (3) put faith in the smallest part possible in your understanding of the natural world, but at least allow for the possibilities for miracles to exist.

In short: trust your “scientific” part of your mind as the primary arbiter for your beliefs, but allow for faith as well, at least where it is reasonable. Then, place these two systems of belief in separate spheres where they can each answer their respective questions.

At first glance, this seems excellent. Can I really confine science and religion to operate in largely separate spheres, the natural and the supernatural, so that most instances of supposed conflict are actually misunderstandings or misapplications of one or the other? To Collins, the error is when ‘faith trumps science’ or when ‘science trumps faith’. His ideal is an egalitarian view: two healthy determinants of belief, both equal and valid.

Can I take control of scripture and start discounting the parts that don’t seem to make sense to me as poetry? Can I trust the scientists to tell me what to believe on origins like I trust the doctor to tell me what medicine to take? Would separating my faith in God and science be a peaceful coexistence, or would it be more like one hand on the oven and another in the freezer.

While I found his dialogue pretty convincing, his broad brush approach left a lot of issues unresolved. Accepting this book requires accepting the following conclusions I still can’t accept:

  • Adam and Eve were not the first people. “Genetic evidence shows that humans descended from a group of several thousand individuals who lived about 150,000 years ago.” He presents options such as accepting they were two individuals chosen from many to represent humanity or that the names Adam and Eve were a symbol for humanity. My biggest issue with this is that Paul believed in a literal Adam and Eve (cf Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15), so to accept this is to now say that Paul was might have been right on spiritual matters, but didn’t understand origins, or was a “product of his time”. This is a radical departure from traditional hermeneutics.
  • Death pre-existed the fall. He claims the death that is discussed in the Bible resulting from Adam’s sin is a spiritual death. This is contrary to what I’ve been taught, but I’m willing to consider it.
  • God was only involved in the smallest, initial component of creation. He implies the Creator must have been ‘clumsy’ to have to keep intervening throughout geologic time to make his creatures turn out right. Collins finds it more elegant to confine God to setting things up and then taking a hands off approach. However, this contradicts even a poetic reading of Genesis, and is much closer to a blind watchmaker than I’m comfortable with.

This is all so disappointing, because I wanted this book to define my views on this issue, but I can’t get there. Francis went through the CS Lewis program several years before I did and we have several friends in common. He is clearly in the Christian camp, but he wants the benefits of dogmatism, but tries hard to avoid dogmatism at every turn. Most disappointing, he writes in the end that he shares his faith “without the desire to convert or proselytize you” because he sees values in all faiths. What is more hollow (and logically inconsistent) than someone who doesn’t sufficiently believe his faith should apply to others? Throughout the book, he is always hedging and tries very hard to stay clear of making any claims of Christian moral superiority. God is reduced (without Collins meaning to do so) to little more than the author of natural laws. And the end result of his logic is to make the Universe appear, to the objective observer, to be unsupervised.

Despite his stature and appeal to the authority of the scientific community, he never really gets me to molecules-to-man evolution, for which Collins has provided no new arguments that I could find. While I admire his defense of the Kantian tradition: where the empirical and the spiritual happily co-exist, this book doesn’t clear up my confusion. He merely confirmed what I already knew: a lot of smart people, historical Christians, and the vast majority of academics/scientists believe that evolution was the process by which man and woman were formed. While he is in favor of a semi-literal interpretation of most of the bible, he only makes halfhearted attempts to convince the reader of his position, and, astoundingly, never explains exactly what he thinks Scripture is and how he extracts truth from it.

One key takeaway for me was the importance of working this out. As a Christian and a modern man, I need to have a thought out position on this that is logically consistent and reflects my principles and key tenants. So, if I’m not with him, am I ready to join the institute for creation research and head off to the creation museum to sort this all out for me?

As much as I found his position unsatisfying, I’m even more uncomfortable with the young earth creationists. They violate the principle of inserting certainty where it shouldn’t belong. They can’t explain the age of starlight, the consistent results of carbon/radioactive dating, ice layers or even tree rings that contradict their age of the earth. Moreover, they do stand in opposition to the scientific community. Period. Science is a community that is obsessed with truth and its members are incentivized by data-driven arguments, especially those that are novel and iconoclastic. While it is unfortunate they rule out the possibility of a God created worldview, they would at least have to admit that the evidence supports a young earth, but, alas, it does not. You can find scientific-looking articles, but the ones I’ve seen neither use real data, nor are written by folks I would call real scientists. While I deplore appeals to authority that most current scientific debate follows, the “creation research” that I can find does not withstand basic scrutiny, other than its ability to make the true point that no-one knows what happened at the beginning of time. Starting with (and staying with) the bias that any conclusions reached will not interfere with a current set of interpretations of Genesis, might be a valid framework of belief, but we should not call that process scientific discovery.

I’m also inclined to believe that Genesis is not meant to teach scientific information. I read passages such as Psa 139:13, “you knit me together in my mother’s womb”, as containing moral truth (e.g. God personally created us, not random forces), but I do not extract any conclusion from that passage that the creation of life involves the mechanics of knitting. I believe in the fundamental truth of the Bible, but I don’t think we, for example, should read that the sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day and start revising astronomy. Yes, that was a miracle, but in the end, I have to synthesize the specific and general revelations and believe that the world we can explain is constant, consistent and causal. Creation was itself a miracle after all. Choosing my interpretation of scripture when evidence is contrary to scripture is to ignore the testimony of general revelation. The only way to hold this position is to accept that God deliberately created “clues” found in the data of the world that are inconsistent with reality. Yes, the possibility exists that the world could look old and actually be young, but is this consistent with general revelation and with how God works? If we are pushed to a place where our best argument is that the natural world could be manipulated to be different than reality, we have traded the regularity of the natural world for something completely chaotic and need to remember what Sherlock Holmes said on this:

‘It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.’

In the end, I have to go with what I know: God is good, the world is real, and I’m not God. The synthesis of that for me is what Tim Keller calls “the messy approach” and admitting that I just don’t know what happened at the beginning. My faith tells me Adam and Eve were real and willingly sinned. The testimony of the natural world tells me the world is old. Can I rename my views on this the “humble, faithful and honest approach”. I’m open to new data, but I can’t find any comfort in another view. Since, I’m basically with Tim Keller on this, I’ll give you his quote:

The fact is, the one that most people consider the most conservative, which is the young-Earth, six-day creation, has all kinds of problems with the text, as we know. If it’s really true, then you have problems of contradictions between Genesis 1 and 2. … I don’t like the theory that these are two somewhat contradictory creation stories that some editor stuck together…I think therefore you’ve got a problem with how long are the days before the sun shows up in the fourth day. You have problems really reading the Bible in a straightforward way with a young-Earth, six 24-hour day theory. You’ve got some problems with the theistic evolution, because then you have to ask yourself, “Was there no Adam and Eve? Was there no Fall?” So here’s what I like-the messy approach, which is I think there was an Adam and Eve. I think there was a real Fall. I think that happened. I also think that there also was a very long process probably, you know, that the earth probably is very old, and there was some kind of process of natural selection that God guided and used, and maybe intervened in. And that’s just the messy part. I’m not a scientist. I’m not going to go beyond that.

If you’ve made it this far, I leave you with a quote from C.S. Lewis who was so foundational to Collins’ faith. In the meantime, I’ve got work to do and a God to serve . . .

“If by saying that man rose from brutality you mean simply that man is physically descended from animals, I have no objection. But it does not follow that the further back you go the more brutal—in the sense of wicked or wretched—you will find man to be.”

“For long centuries God perfected the animal form which was to become the vehicle of humanity and the image of Himself. He gave it hands whose thumb could be applied to each of the fingers, and jaws and teeth and throat capable of articulation, and a brain sufficiently complex to execute all the material motions whereby rational thought is incarnated. The creature may have existed for ages in this state before it became man: it may even have been clever enough to make things which a modern archaeologist would accept as proof of its humanity. But it was only an animal because all its physical and psychical processes were directed to purely material and natural ends. Then, in the fullness of time, God caused to descend upon this organism, both on its psychology and physiology, a new kind of consciousness which could say ‘I’ and ‘me,’ which could look upon itself as an object, which knew God, which could make judgments of truth, beauty, and goodness, and which was so far above time that it could perceive time flowing past.”

“I do not doubt that if the Paradisal man could now appear among us, we should regard him as an utter savage, a creature to be exploited or, at best, patronised. Only one or two, and those the holiest among us, would glance a second time at the naked, shaggy-bearded, slow spoken creature: but they, after a few minutes, would fall at his feet.” — C.S. Lewis, “The Problem of Pain”

Further Reading

  1. An article about understanding the Pope’s views on this issue
  2. An article on death before the fall (from Collins’ organization, Biologos)
  3. An atheist critique of Francis Collins (wow, Sam Harris is harsh!)
  4. A creationist critique of The Language of God
  5. Another creationist’s critique of The Language of God

Consistency, Focus and Grace

“My commitment must be to truth, not to consistency.” — Ghandi

Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” Luke 14:12-14

It was the smell of smoke which alerted me to his presence. I had a long layover in Salt Lake City and I was taking the Trax downtown to sketch, tour the sights, and find a good coffee shop. The sun shone brightly into the impeccably clean and nearly empty car as I did my quick survey of my new fellow traveler. He was an over-weight latin-american with an unshaven and stressed out face. His shoes were worn out and he was talking on a cheap pre-paid cell phone with a friend to figure out how he was going to get $40 to pay for medicine his wife needed. Not excessively loudly, but definitely not softly he explained that his wife recently had a medically-induced accident that resulted in injuries to their infant. He talked about trusting God to provide the money and highlighted that their baby was fine, but that his wife was not.

I was feeling excessively penitent due to a Bishop Bienvenu encounter with a Las Vegas police officer the night before. He gave me a warning despite clocking me at nearly 40 mph over the speed limit in Red Rock Canyon after a run. I had also been upgraded to first class for both flights that day, and this new passenger made me very aware that we were two members of very different worlds whose lives were coming into contact. Additionally, I had just taken out $40 from an ATM in the airport and the money he was stressing over was sitting two feet from him in my pocket.

I reached into my pocket and fingered the bills, thinking of the words to use as I handed them to him. But then my left brain kicked in.

“Doesn’t this story sound too contrived.” “Isn’t this exactly what he would say to get our money.” “By his accent, English is not his native language, but he is speaking english.” “This train is empty, but he sat right next to me with this story.” “I should give this money to a real charity who can better discern the need.” “I don’t want to insult him.”

These thoughts rushed through my head as I felt what I would describe the Holy Spirit tug at my heart to give him the dollars. I thought of the joy that this could bring his day. I prayed to God to make things more clear to me, and was convicted that He had already done that. But then I thought about being used, about the risk of being played. Hadn’t I been working 12 hour days for the last month to take care of my family? I could use this money to buy a great gift for my kids. Or get closer to my church tithe . . .

As I carried on this internal dialogue, I arrived at my stop and quickly fled to the certainty of the doors which opened next to me. In near tears, I thought of how much I love being a recipient of grace, but how hard it is to activate my own ability to practice grace. I tried to catch a sight of him as the train drove on, but was denied the opportunity. I didn’t deserve it.

I walked across the street back into my familiar channel, bathed in sunshine and surrounded by mountains as I walked past the amazingly well groomed grounds of the Mormon temple and Salt Lake’s best shopping and restaurants. As I walked past Nordstrom, I watched an amazing fountain show as well-off kids danced in front of the dancing water. I thought of the fountain shows I had seen the night before at the Aria and the Bellagio. I thought of the discussions I had with my fellow engineers about how to create laminar flow, keep the pumps running and what computer models would be best to simulate the fountains; all stuffed from the Holstein’s burgers and shakes that were just settling in our bellies. I was hit with the pang of remorse a loving father feels when he is 1000s of miles from his wife and kids — who is constantly away because I want to succeed for them, for you, but mostly for me.

As I sat by an artificial creek that ran through the outdoor shopping mall to sketch a bronze pair of statues, I couldn’t shake the interconnectedness of three discussions I had lately that explored the interplay of motivation, focus, and grace.

The first was a Facebook “discussion” (mostly me ranting) regarding the endorsement a friend of mine gave to a disillusioned evangelical who was decrying the evil of those who threatened to withdraw their support from World Vision’s reversal on its employment/ethics policy regarding those in active homosexual relationships. I found the article to be an unfair screed which characterized evangelicals such as myself with being out of touch with science, culture and “on the wrong side of history”. My friend was particularly sympathetic to the article’s claim that conservative Christians were putting politics over children’s lives and made the claim that a dollar withheld of WorldVision was directly (and willfully) depriving a child of food. To me, who has never provided support to World Vision, this complaint definitely hit close to home.

The bigger issue that I couldn’t get out of my mind was the idea that there is constant death around us. Constant suffering, like that of my fellow traveler mentioned earlier. Though I put forward a passionate defense of my fellow evangelicals, I was convicted that are actions are never really defensible. I’m well aware that if we really felt, and knew, the true nature of need in the world, I would cry out like Oskar Schindler:

If I’d made more money… I threw away so much money. You have no idea. If I’d just…This car. Goeth would have bought this car. Why did I keep the car? Ten people right there. Ten people. Ten more people. This pin. Two people. This is gold. Two more people. He would have given me two for it, at least one. One more person.

Every day I make so many selfish decisions. I put my heart in my job, in my abilities and my pleasures. How defendable are any of us before a standard such as this? I remember the time in college when I was seized by the gravity of my selfishness and offered all my possessions to the fellow college students in my house. It was passionate, selfless and valiant — until someone took my chair. Optimizing one’s life is hard and we show our true colors when our values conflict.

This point was driven home as I read about Jim Kim’s efforts at the World Bank to punish african nations (and therefore their populace) who are not supportive of active homosexual lifestyles. Just like my friend, I found myself indignant that someone would withdraw aid where needed, just like cities in the US that withdrew support for Catholic charities to the homeless and children in need of adoption because of dissonance between their doctrinal stance on abortion and progressive politics.

The Economist states the importance of focus well:

The uncomfortable truth is that an economic institution like the bank has to pick its battles. There is a limit to how many conditions outsiders can attach to their aid. Its aim is to encourage economic development. Most of the evidence is that the bank is most effective when client countries see it as an economic partner, rather than a boss imposing a Western agenda.

It seems we are all trying to optimize the world in our own image per our own objectives. Which calls into question my most prized possessions: my motivation and drive. I see my life priorities summarized as (1) Worship, (2) Love and (3) Achieve. As a Christian, I believe I was created to bring God glory, to worship Him. To worship Him is to serve Him, and to serve him is to love others with the love we desire for ourselves: both our family and others. To love others is to love my country and my world, who I want to make a more secure and better place. Hence my desire to achieve — to make a difference.

This third priority was called into question by another discussion when a coworker told me that he worked to support his family. Period. He didn’t work for national security. He didn’t work to find fulfillment. He didn’t work to prove to the world that he was somebody and that his life has value. While I know this friend to do excellent work, he made it clear where his vocational heart was.

To me, this is an irreconcilable position. I take great pride in my long hours. I want to teach my children the value of hard work. I want to teach them to make a difference and love the feeling of getting something done. I want to be a net giver professionally — to be a contributor, not organizational dead weight. Yes, I want to support my family, but in line with Jim Collins’ Good to Great, that is only of the three necessary conditions for meaningful work. I also love what I do and believe that I have the desire, motivation and capability to be the best in the world in my field. Isn’t that how everyone should approach their job? Aren’t those good things to want and doesn’t wanting them make me a better citizen, father and man?

What concerns me is the false dichotomy that I know we can all fall prey to. These days, I’m well aware that the good is the enemy of the better and there are so many seemingly good choices which are inconsistent with my goals. I’m convinced that maturing professionally is making the hard choices and deciding not to do many good things. It is all about focus and focus is all about priorities.

I hope to figure all this out, but I’m not there yet. What I do know is that I’m commanded to love, be humble and have an open heart that is ready to serve — despite my own desire to always get in the way. As for me, I’m thankful that the Christian conception is of a prodigal, not efficient Father. After all, isn’t His message of grace the most inefficient message in history? In any case, it certainly didn’t lack focus.

World Vision and the Culture Wars

I, for one, am tired of arguing. I’m tired of trying to defend evangelicalism when its leaders behave indefensibly.

Is there a problem with hypocrisy in the modern church? Yes, just as there was in the ancient, medieval and renaissance churches. Fortunately, Christian doctrine and practice accounts for the fact that all of the churches members will remain in a state of sin. The church has a built-in “sin problem”.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of confusion regarding the proper response when this problem is recognized. There are many calls in the current culture for doctrine to bend because of pressures from the scientific community and public perception at large. The core issue is the insistence that individual feelings, cultural mores and scientific consensus should determine Church doctrine.

Ever since Søren Kierkegaard’s turn to experience in the 20th century, emotions and feelings have been increasingly exalted as vital to forming the modern worldview. Couple this with the Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee, and H. L. Mencken’s characterization of fundamentalists as the sort of folks who are the unlucky recipients of the rubbish tossed out of your upscale train car as you rode from New York to New Orleans, and you get a full-blown culture war. The term ‘fundalmentalism‘ meant something very different then when compared to the straw-man characterization popular now that casts biblical inerrantists as robotic and unschooled biblical literalists.

The Scopes trial has a fascinating history, with William Jennings Bryan leveraging his considerable oratorical skills to defend creationism with flourishes that emphasized the primacy of the the “rock of ages” over the “ages of rocks” that were a consistent focus of the evolutionary scientists at the trial. Mencken’s skillful pen drew up the battle lines, casting fundamentalists as emotional and pedantic as they fought against the tide of logic, progress and science — a characterization that has only grown stronger over time. After World War II, anti-communism and conservative Christianity sealed an alliance that became a tenant of american conservatism and the academy gradually became less and less associated with conservative values. It doesn’t help that our society has polarized overall due to natural feedback cycles and self-selectivity in location, education, marriages and vocations. We now have an educated and well-paid elite in the cities that are overwhelmingly liberal islands– both economically and religiously, while their surrounding territory has become more conservative. Moreover, these separate populations are now served by increasingly separate educational institutions, food distribution, and entertainment. The technology-enabled connectivity we are experiencing now is just accelerating everything into an increasingly polarized state.

While modern polarization between conservatives and progressives is heavily discussed, there is a lesser known population of evangelicals who are growing increasingly dis-enchanted with the traditional church. While they want to respect the traditional Church, they want a more modern version of Christianity which is consonant with their desire to love others and the current scientific/cultural consensus of their peers. They are open to a progressive doctrine and emphasize honesty over certainty. They want to offer something distinct than the image of Westboro Baptist Church, which has characterized evangelicals in the eyes of many.

Rachel Held Evans is a young blogger and author who tailors her work to this population and recently resonated with some my respected evangelical friends in her recent article How evangelicals won a culture war and lost a generation. One friend posted on Facebook that her article “could not have been said better” and was “exactly how [she had] been feeling.”

Ms Evans’s leverages her hometown of Dayton, Tennessee and its role in the culture wars to build a sympathetic audience online. She claims to be an active defender evangelicals, but her books and writings are consistently critical of the traditional church. Like the furniture store that is always going out of business to attract sales, Ms Evans has made a brand of continually walking away from conservative Christianity in a number of books and articles and here she once again galvanizes her audience as an insider who is walking away from the complications of dogma to the bliss of a culturally relevant and acceptable version of the Christian faith. She writes:

I, for one, am tired of arguing. I’m tired of trying to defend evangelicalism when its leaders behave indefensibly.

“I’m going AWOL on evangelicalism’s culture wars so I can get back to following Jesus among its many refugees: LGBT people, women called to ministry, artists, science-lovers, misfits, sinners, doubters, thinkers and “the least of these.”

Here she does something very subtle. While from her books, she has been AWOL from orthodox Christianity since 2008, she once again draws her boundaries which form the basis of her own salvo in the culture wars and then blames conservatives for the instigation. Implicit in her article is that you have to decide between a false dichotomy: you are either in the evangelical tent or you are an artist or scientist or sinner, or thinker.

I disagree. Outliers aside, the church I see is not going out of its way to prosecute homosexuals, but is simply defending its doctrine against a massive attack on its source of authority. I’ve never found the conservative church to be obsessed with this issue. I’ve never heard it mentioned in any sermon after attending 6 churches over 15 years–that is roughly 700 sermons. (The last time I heard a the pastor mention the sanctity of a marriage between a man and a woman in Boston 15 years ago at Park Street Church in Boston.) The church and its organizations are being asked this question on all fronts and even though many don’t want to answer it, they are being forced to show their hand. Will you redefine marriage? Will you buy contraception for your members? What is your position on gay rights/marriage? I have no doubt that if the church were pressed to celebrate divorce or gluttony or any of her present sins, that it would be forced to clarify her position on these matters as well, fortunately society hasn’t forced those questions on the church yet.

Aside from a incredibly small fringe, there is nothing like a symmetric response to the gay pride movement. There are just people like me, trying to live consistent and loving lives, but who can not change the foundations of our faith just because others want us to. To Christians like me, we are ready to change our mind if you can show me through what we consider to authoritative that homosexual behavior is approved, celebrated and sanctioned. To those who disagree, it is worth considering what evidence you would consider that would change your mind. If the answer is that there could be no external evidence outside of your own feelings about the subject, then you and I have a very different way of approaching the question: “What is truth?”

This is the issue for Christians: should they abandon their source of truth and replace it with something else? If so, what and why? Ms Evans doesn’t have any answers here. While she has built a brand around honesty and doubt, she exalts herself as the measure of truth and declares dogmatically:

“Christians can disagree about what the Bible says (or doesn’t say) about same-sex marriage. This is not an issue of orthodoxy.”

Now, what does she mean by orthodoxy? The definition of orthodoxy I’ve learned is an acceptance of transcendent standard rooted in tradition and authority. Without a transcendent standard, you have a church, and a Christ, without anything to offer. You might as well join the local meetup, it will cost you a lot less, help your resume, and fit better in your modern schedule.

But despite the hidden foundation of the article, which is to abandon conservative epistemology and jump in with the flow of the times, is there a real claim to the argument that lured in my friends?

“But when we begin using child sponsorships as bargaining tools in our debates, we’ve lost the way of Jesus”?

While Ms Evan’s faith is centered in the nebulous “way of Jesus” that I wish she would clarify, I have two key issues with her argument: (1) You can’t assume that the cessation of support for an organization is intended to harm or inconsiderate of the object of the charity and (2) there is good reason to keep ones philanthropic activities in line with ones values.

First, World Vision claims that financial concerns had nothing to do with their reversal and I have no reason to believe otherwise. While two articles I’ve read quote 2,000 and 4000 lost sponsorships, I have no idea of the real number. Lets assume there were three categories for lost sponsorships: (1) normal attrition, (2) “bargaining chip” moves that placed doctrine over the needs of needy children and hoarded their money or (3) individuals who out of conscience moved their money to another critical need since World Vision was now adhering to a view inconsistent with their values. We have no idea of the second category is significant, but Ms Evans seems to assume all evangelicals fit there. My guess would be a 1/4/95 {aaa01f1184b23bc5204459599a780c2efd1a71f819cd2b338cab4b7a2f8e97d4} split in the populations who ceased supporting. The second category, yes, behaved selfishly and are worthy of her rebuke. Admittedly, that is a lot of people by my own math, maybe 100 to 200 bad apples in the mix. However, it is the third category that I feel deserves a defense.

First, I think it is completely consistent to align one’s money with one’s values. If one affirms the traditional definition of marriage, they were out of sync with World Vision from its first position and it was the right thing to re-consider their partnership in light of this values disconnect. Consider if world vision would have announced that they no-longer supported women in leadership roles, or were no longer going to provide support to non-Christian children or children of a certain race. Such a position would have rightly caused a reconsideration by many to decide if they wanted to support such an organization and take their money elsewhere, even though some children would suffer and if the money were moved to another charity, other children would benefit. There are no shortages of excellent charities and we can never support them enough.

There is an additional line of logic implicit in her arguments and the supporting Facebook comments, that I find troubling. Two example Facebook comments are:

Just shifting your support to another organization still leaves those children you have been supporting through World Vision without the support they are counting on is unconscionable! Those are people! not just “recipients” of your money.


They still pulled their funds from 2000 children who needed the money for food, education and living in general. Doesn’t that upset you at all? Is it ok for those kids to starve now? I think as Christians we of all people should understand grace and being the hands and feet of Jesus.

From these comments, I (and all of us who withhold some of our funds from World Vision) am in a whole condemnable category of my own. I wasn’t a World Vision supporter in the first place and am therefore worthy of more condemnation than those who were giving but withdrew their support. Additionally, while I support other charities, I’ve certainly spent money on myself and on luxuries for my children that could have gone to saving other children. I purchased new clothes for my children when I could have provided food to others. Aren’t we all guilty here to some degree? And for an article that excoriates others for their judgmental actions, aren’t the comments above laden with a big bit of judgment resulting from a small bit of information?

One of the great ironies of this article, is that ignores the real suffering that has been caused by such a shift in support from governmental access and resources to faith-based organizations that have orthodox and traditional policies on abortion or homosexual activity. Who is going to advocate for the homeless in DC who can no longer receive food or the adoptive services which have been diminished in numerous cities as their federal funding has been pulled? Are these organizations not also “bargaining chips” in the culture wars?

In short, I applaud Ms Evans for winning a lot of eyeballs on the internet by putting together a compelling article with the right ingredients for internet stardom: a dramatic walking away from faith from an insider, a claim that she is not engaging in/even running away from culture wars from as she fans the flames, a scathing judgment against the judgmental conservatives in a non-judgmental way, and a framing of conservatives for fighting a war just to be right as they cling to ancient scriptures in the face of modern progress.

However, her most skillful move was to employ Mencken’s most effective weapon: the straw man which casts evangelicals as doctrinaire and so obsessed with persecuting well-meaning homosexuals that they are willing to throw children under the bus. For those who are apt to believe this characterization accurately reflects a sizable percent of those who removed their funding, I would recommend that you step back and talk with someone who withdrew their support. You might just find they are a lot more reasonable than Ms Evans makes them out (or needs them) to be to sell her books.

“I’m Busy”

As we enter the Christmas/holiday season, I’m asking lots of friends how they are doing and how their year has been. Almost everyone says “it’s busy”. This takes many forms, from “crazy busy” to “absolutely busy” or “scary busy”. Since words often lose their meaning, I’ve thought about a scale we could use to better convey the level of busyness in our lives. I think the best way to delineate levels is by the loss of freedom that occurs at each inflection point.

Continue reading ““I’m Busy””