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Virtues and Values

Donald W. Shriver, Jr. on Forgetting

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The isolating device of prison guarantees that reconciliation between prisoners and the rest of ‘us’ remains far out of our minds. The case with amnestied perpetrators is different. Their very presence raises the daily question: can the sinning and the sinned-against achieve a new positive relationship. For the sake of new social harmony, the motto ‘forget and move on’ has its utilitarian attraction. But the motto is deceptive. Forgetting is a tricky business, both psychically and politically. Psychically, Kierkegaard was right to suggest that real forgetting requires real remembering: ‘When we say that we consign something to oblivion, we suggest simultaneously that it is to be forgotten and yet also remembered.’

James Waller on Amorality

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One of the striking things in the study of perpetrators is how they live with themselves morally. It’s not that difficult because this really isn’t a moral issue for them. They’ve removed the victims from their universe of moral obligation. What they’re doing to the victims isn’t really a moral problem because the victim’s not part of their moral universe in the way that for some of us a bug or an insect isn’t. Killing it is just not a moral problem for us because we don’t feel that moral obligation.

P.J. O’Rourke on Happiness and Huggy Love

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Happiness isn’t impossible to describe. But, paradoxically, no one can listen to descriptions of happiness for long. Compare Dante’s Inferno with Dante’s Paradiso. Dante’s beloved Beatrice would have died of boredom if he had tried reading to her from Paradiso rough drafts. On a less exalted plane, let any huggy-lovey couple show you their honeymoon slides.

P.J. O’Rourke on Happiness

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Winning the race to happiness is problematic, but so is knowing where to start and finish and which direction to run. Philosophy is no help. “Very little is needed to make a happy life,” said Marcus Aurelius. Tell it to the kids on a rainy day, Marco, when the DVD player is on the fritz, the Game Boy is out of batteries, and the SUV won’t start. “Happiness is activity in accordance with excellence,” said Aristotle, who must have been a better golfer than I am. The Epicureans would be expected to know something about pursuing happiness. Epicurus said, “Pleasure is the beginning and the end of living happily.” I’ll get the gin, you find some olives and vermouth. But then Epicurus went on to say, “It is impossible to live pleasurably without living wisely, well, and justly.” Fine, for people who pursue their happiness by eating oat bran, reading St. Peter’s Epistles, and not ducking out of jury duty. Solon of Athens declared, “Until he is dead, do not yet call a man happy.” And then what do you call him?

Molly Ivins on Political Correctness

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You would not believe the number of sensitivities that have to be kept in mind in public discourse. I once got mad at some Texas legislators over a spectacularly pea-brained stunt and referred to them as “a bunch of droolers.” I was promptly served with pamphlets from an outfit called the Society to Prevent Cruelty to Those Who Involuntarily Drool. (Very sad, actually, people who have had strokes often drool involuntarily.) People make fun of political correctness, but if you’re running for office, left-handed lesbians of Czech descent are out there, and they are touchy.

Ruth Lessl Shively on Believing in Something

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I have argued that if the ambiguists mean to be subversive about anything, they need to be conservative about some things. They need to be steadfast supporters of the structures of openness and democracy: willing to say “no” to certain forms of contest; willing to set up clear limitations about acceptable behavior. To this, finally, I would add that if the ambiguists mean to stretch the boundaries of behavior — if they want to be revolutionary and disruptive in their skepticism and iconoclasm — they need first to be firm believers in something. Which is to say, again, they need to set clear limits about what they will and will not support, what they do and do not believe to be best. … In other words, a refusal to judge among ideas and activities is, in the end, an endorsement of the status quo. To embrace everything is to be unable to embrace a particular plan of action, for to embrace a particular plan of action is to reject all others, at least for that moment. Moreover, as observed in our discussion of openness, to embrace everything is to embrace self-contradiction: to hold to both one’s purposes and to that which defeats one’s purposes — to tolerance and intolerance, open-mindedness and close-mindedness, democracy and tyranny.

Jeffrey Satinover on Religious Certitude

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I suppose that God Himself is doing just fine, but His earthly defenders are on the ropes, and it’s our own fault. Religion deservedly comes in for more criticism in its failures than does science, because genuine religion claims for itself the ability to know what’s true, whereas genuine science claims for itself only the ability to quantify the probability of a thing being wrong. (Bad science and bad religion simply swap roles, the former proclaiming Truth, the latter worshiping Doubt.) Religion’s bête noire is the fact that a genuine truth arrogantly asserted — that is, without so much as a moment’s consideration that it might be false — is a most pernicious kind of falsehood, far worse in its effects on the humane than a flat mistake. It’s a matter of modesty. It never uses the term, but science itself is a method to insure modesty of claims (however arrogant its practitioners). Religion, on the other hand, speaks constantly of the virtues, and then, on the whole, displays them with no greater consistency than does any other human institution.

Thomas Cahill on an End to the Everlasting Hills

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Is not the desire of the everlasting hills that they be saved from their everlastingness, that something new happen, that the everlasting cycle of human cruelty, of man’s inhumanity to man, be brought to an end?

What Do We Deserve?

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The concept of desert, which once enjoyed a central place in political and ethical theory, has been relegated to the margins of much of contemporary theory, if not excluded altogether. Recently a renewed interest in the topic has emerged, and several philosophers have argued that the notion merits a more central place in political and ethical theory. Some of these philosophers contend that justice exists to the extent that people receive exactly what they deserve, while others argue that desert should replace such considerations as rights, need, and equality as the basis for distributions. Still others argue that morality involves a fitting match between one’s moral character and a degree of happiness. All of these positions have encountered opposition from egalitarians, libertarians, and those who are skeptical about the coherence of the concept of desert. The first anthology of its kind, What Do We Deserve? is a balanced collection of readings that brings sharply opposing positions and arguments together and stimulates debate over the meaning and significance of desert in current thought. The book begins with eight classical readings on desert (by Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Smith, Kant, Mill, Sidgwick, and Ross), and later turns to contemporary interpretations of the issue. The selections examine the concept itself, analyze its relationship to the ideas of freedom and responsibility, engage in the debate between John Rawls and his critics on the merits of desert, and, finally, study the wider role and significance of desert in political and ethical theory. ~ Product Description

Toleration: An Elusive Virtue

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If we are to understand the concept of toleration in terms of everyday life, we must address a key philosophical and political tension: the call for restraint when encountering apparently wrong beliefs and actions versus the good reasons for interfering with the lives of the subjects of these beliefs and actions. This collection contains original contributions to the ongoing debate on the nature of toleration, including its definition, historical development, justification, and limits. In exploring the issues surrounding toleration, the essays address a variety of provocative questions. Is toleration a moral virtue of individuals or rather a pragmatic political compromise? Is it an intrinsically good principle or only a "second best-solution" to the dangers of fanaticism to be superseded one day by the full acceptance of others? Does the value of toleration lie in respect to individuals and their autonomy, or rather in the recognition of the right of minority groups to maintain their communal identity? Throughout, the contributors point to the inherent indeterminacy of the concept and to the difficulty in locating it between intolerant absolutism and skeptical pluralism. Religion, sex, speech, and education are major areas requiring toleration in liberal societies. By applying theoretical analysis, these essays show the differences in the argument for toleration and its scope in each of these realms. ~ Product Description

An Ethic For Enemies

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The author, president emeritus of Union Theological Seminary, has produced a work that deserves close scrutiny. The casual reader is likely to conclude that Shriver is addressing, in some flight of fancy, the oxymoronic. After all, political forgiveness seems patently absurd, especially given the history of the 20th century-not to mention our contemporary culture of violence. However, while recognizing that forgiveness is a morally complex concept, Shriver argues that it reaches beyond the realm of the personal to the arena of political ethics. He contends that forgiveness is (or at least should be seen as) an indispensable element in politics and that it is an essential ingredient in our attempt to construct a proper political ethics. Not everyone will be persuaded by Shriver’s attempt to make forgiveness the cornerstone of a political ethic; nonetheless, his argument should not be ignored. ~ Library Journal

Dallas Willard on Cussing

Go Recently cultural observers have noted the overwhelming rise in the use of filthy language, especially among young people. Curiously, few have been able to find any grounds for condemning it other than personal taste. How strange! Can it be that they actually find contempt acceptable, or are unable to recognize it? Filthy language and name calling is always an expression of contempt. The current swarm of filthy language floats upon the sea of contempt in which our society is now adrift.

J.P. Moreland on the Good Life

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From Old Testament times and ancient Greece until this century, the good life was widely understood to mean a life of intellectual and moral virtue. The good life is the life of ideal human functioning according to the nature that God Himself gave to us. According to this view, prior to creation God had in mind an ideal blueprint of human nature from which he created each and every human being. Happiness was understood as a life of virtue, and the successful person was one who knew how to live life well according to what we are by nature due to the creative design of God.

J.P. Moreland on Intellectual Humility

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Humility and the associated traits of open-mindedness, self-criticality, and nondefensiveness [are] virtues relevant to the intellectual life. We must be willing to seek the truth in a spirit of humility with an admission of our own finitude; we must be willing to learn from our critics; and we need to learn to argue against our own positions in order to strengthen our understanding of them… The purpose of intellectual humility, open-mindedness , and so forth is not to create a skeptical mind that never lands on a position about anything, preferring to remain suspended in midair. Rather, the purpose is for you to do anything you can to remove your unhelpful biases and get at the truth in a reasoned way.

David James Duncan on Sehnsucht

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To describe in words makes the kingdom sound stark and empty, like the scrub desert of eastern Washington or something. But this is only because words can’t explain the feeling that everything had. The fullness of things only made you notice this feeling more. The air, for instance smelled something like sea air, but whereas sea air makes you hungry, kingdom air made you full, and it wasn’t a fullness like when you’re stuffed from overeating: it was more like foodless fullness you get at the end of a really good movie. Like when the Captured Girl is about to be killed because she won’t tell The Secret, and she takes a last look at the hills with tears in her huge brown eyes, and here comes The Hero you thought was dead, riding down out of nowhere with his sword flashing or gun blazing, making hamburger out of Evil while the music surges through you and the goose bumps shoot up and down you. That sort of fullness. Like I said, I can’t explain it.

David James Duncan [Peter] on Forgiveness

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You, me, before we die we’ll all get nailed, lots of times. But that doesn’t mean we’ll al get turned into witches. You can’t avoid getting zapped, but you can avoid passing the mean energy on. That’s the interesting thing about witches, the challenge of them — learning not to hit back, or hit somebody else, when they zap you. You can just bury the zap, for instance, like the gods buried the Titans in the center of the earth. Or you can be like a river when a forest fire hits it — pshhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! Just drown it, drown all the heat and let it wash away… And the great thing, the reason you can lay a river in the path of any sort of wildfire is that there’s not just rivers inside us, there’s a world in there… Not because I say so. Christ says so. And Krishna. But I feel it sometimes too. I’ve felt how there’s a world, and rivers, and high mountains, whole ranges of mountains, in there. And there are lakes in those mountains — beautiful, pure, deep blue lakes. Thousands of them. Enough to wash away all the dirt and trouble and wretchedness on earth.

Exclusion and Embrace

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Life at the end of the twentieth century presents us with a disturbing reality. Otherness, the simple fact of being different in some way, has come to be defined as in and of itself evil. Miroslav Volf contends that if the healing word of the gospel is to be heard today, Christian theology must find ways of speaking that address the hatred of the other. Reaching back to the New Testament metaphor of salvation as reconciliation, Volf proposes the idea of embrace as a theological response to the problem of exclusion. Increasingly we see that exclusion has become the primary sin, skewing our perceptions of reality and causing us to react out of fear and anger to all those who are not within our (ever-narrowing) circle. In light of this, Christians must learn that salvation comes, not only as we are reconciled to God, and not only as we “learn to live with one another,” but as we take the dangerous and costly step of opening ourselves to the other, of enfolding him or her in the same embrace with which we have been enfolded by God.

Brennan Manning on Authenticity and the Good News

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The Good News means we can stop lying to ourselves. The sweet sound of amazing grace saves us from the necessity of self-deception. It keeps us from denying that though Christ was victorious, the battle with lust, greed, and pride still rages within us. As a sinner who has been redeemed, I can acknowledge that I am often unloving, irritable, angry, and resentful with those closest to me. When I go to church I can leave my white hat at home and admit I have failed. God not only loves me as I am, but also knows me as I am. Because of this I don’t need to apply spiritual cosmetics to make myself presentable to him. I can accept ownership of my poverty and powerlessness and neediness.

Brennan Manning on the Population of Heaven

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Because salvation is by grace through faith, I believe that among the countless number of people standing in front of the throne and in front of the Lamb, dressed in white robes and holding palms in their hands (Revelation 7:9), I shall see the prostitute from the Kit-Kat Ranch in Carson City, Nevada, who tearfully told me she could find no other employment to support her two-year-old son. I shall see the woman who had an abortion and is haunted by guilt and remorse but did the best she could faced with grueling alternatives; the businessman besieged with debt who sold his integrity in a series of desperate transactions; the insecure clergyman addicted to being liked, who never challenged his people from the pulpit and longed for unconditional love; the sexually-abused teen molested by his father and now selling his body on the street, who, as he falls asleep each night after his last “trick” whispers the name of the unknown God he learned about in Sunday school; the death-bed convert who for decades had his cake and ate it, broke every law of God and man, wallowed in lust and raped the earth. “But how?” we ask. Then the voice says, “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” There they are. There we are — the multitude who so wanted to be faithful, who at times got defeated, soiled by life, and bested by trials, wearing the bloodied garments of life’s tribulations, but through it all clung to the faith.

Brennan Manning on Doubting God’s Love

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In my ministry as a vagabond evangelist, I have encountered shocking resistance to the God whom the Bible defines as Love. The skeptics range from the oily, over-polite professionals who discreetly drop hints of the heresy of universalism, to the Bible thumper who sees only the dusty, robust war God of the Pentateuch, and who insists on restating the cold demands of rule-ridden perfectionism.

Brennan Manning on Narcissism

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The Kingdom belongs to people who aren’t trying to look good impress anybody, even themselves. They are not plotting how they can call attention to themselves, worrying about how their actions will be interpreted or wondering if they will get gold stars for their behavior. Twenty centuries later, Jesus speaks pointedly to the preening ascetic trapped in the fatal narcissism of spiritual perfectionism, to those of us caught up in boasting about our victories in the vineyard, to those of us fretting and flapping about our human weaknesses and character defects. The child doesn’t have to struggle to get himself in a good position for having a relationship with God; he doesn’t have to craft ingenious ways of explaining his position Jesus; he doesn’t have to create a pretty face for himself; he doesn’t have to achieve any state of spiritual feeling or intellectual understanding. All he has to do is happily accept the cookies: the gift of the Kingdom.

Brennan Manning on the Indignity of Jesus’ Death

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But the answer seems too easy, too glib. Yes, God saved us because he loved us. But he is God. He has infinite imagination. Couldn’t he have dreamed up a different redemption? Couldn’t he have saved us with a pang of hunger, a word of forgiveness, a single drop of blood? And if he had to die, then for God’s sake — for Christ’s sake — couldn’t he have died in bed, died with dignity? Why was he condemned like a criminal? Why was his back flayed with whips? Why was his head crowned with thorns? Why was he nailed to wood and allowed to die in frightful, lonely agony? Why was the last breath drawn in bloody disgrace, while the world for which he lay dying egged on his executioners with savage fury like some kind of gang rape by uncivilized brutes in Central Park? Why did they have to take the very best? One thing we know — we don’t comprehend the love of Jesus Christ. Oh, we see a movie and resonate to what a young man and woman will endure for romantic love. We know that when the chips are down, if we love wildly enough we’ll fling life and caution to the winds for the one we love. But when it comes to God’s love in the broken, blood-drenched body of Jesus Christ, we get antsy and start to talk about theology, divine justice, God’s wrath, and the heresy of universalism.

Brennan Manning on Being a Ragamuffin

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Perhaps the real dichotomy in the Christian community today is not between conservatives and liberals or creationist and evolutionists but between the awake and the asleep. The Christian ragamuffin acknowledges with MacBeth: “Life is but a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more.” Just as a smart man knows he is stupid, so the awake Christian knows he/she is a ragamuffin. Although truth is not always humility, humility is always truth: the blunt acknowledgment that I owe my life, being, and salvation to Another. This fundamental act lies at the core of our response to grace. The beauty of the ragamuffin gospel lies in the insight it offers into Jesus: the essential tenderness of his heart, his way of looking at the world, his mode of relating to you and me.