Some New Developments

Light on the road ahead

I wrote my first post for this blog back in November 2008. I had recently begun teaching logic and Christian worldview to homeschooled students and the blog was just a hobby hosted on my business website. A few years later, in 2013, the blog got its own home at DavidVogel.net. A couple years after that, I published my first book, The Truth With Love. Then, last summer, I got the chance to devote a couple days per week just to writing and podcasting here. (To those friends whose generosity made that possible, you know who you are. Thank you, more than I can say.)

I am now excited to announce the next step in God’s developing plan: Lord willing, I’ll be going to seminary next year!

Read moreSome New Developments

A brief programming note

As you may have noticed, I’ve got a lot going on here at DavidVogel.net! I’m going to be posting articles much more regularly, and I am excited to have begun the Answers for Ambassadors podcast and published The Truth with Love: A Christian’s Guide to Talking About Homosexuality and Gay MarriageI wanted to give you a quick summary of what to expect in terms of content in coming months.

Here on the blog, I will be posting regular articles on Wednesday afternoons. I will also occasionally add shorter posts during the rest of the week, like yesterday’s advice for maintaining a good testimony on social media.

New podcast episodes will be added on Monday afternoons, hopefully in time for the evening commute! If you subscribe via iTunes or another podcast player, the new episodes will automatically appear as soon as I post them on SoundCloud.

And there’s always the Facebook page too…

“…and we saw his glory”

When I teach about religious relativism, I like to summarize it with a bumper sticker I saw a few years ago. The colorful plastic declared, “God is too big to fit in any one religion.” I tell students that’s very nearly true. History is littered with the crumbling remains of great religions built and abandoned in the face of the realization that human reason, and even human faith, are insufficient to reach into the heavens and know God.

Only insane hubris would deny that the Creator of the universe is far bigger than any religion that human mind or heart could devise. And so we would be condemned to helpless striving under the judgmental stare of a conscience that teaches us guilt but cannot offer us hope, had not the King of kings chosen to reveal himself to man. For even though God is too big to conform to any religion we might build, he fit very neatly within a stable in Bethlehem in the year that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth.

We’re told that the intersection between this mundane bit of government accounting and the governorship of a fellow named Quirinius marks the spot in history when God was born. And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.

“Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.'”

“He who has seen Me has seen the Father.”

“Jesus answered and said to him, ‘If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him.'”

Every Christmas, we celebrate the moment at which God changed everything, the unthinkable instant when light blazed in the murky half-light of a fallen world. The blast of light from that manger in Bethlehem shines across the decades to a cross upon which hangs a man, and God; throwing into sharp relief the image that sets Christianity apart from any other religion. “And it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live.”

The danger in the System

There has arisen in our time a most singular fancy: the fancy that when things go very wrong we need a practical man. It would be far truer to say, that when things go very wrong we need an unpractical man. Certainly, at least, we need a theorist. A practical man means a man accustomed to mere daily practice, to the way things commonly work. When things will not work,  you must have the thinker, the man who has some doctrine about why they work at all. It is wrong to fiddle while Rome is burning; but it is quite right to study the theory of hydraulics while Rome is burning… For the man of action there is nothing but idealism. —G.K. Chesterton

The idealist is an optimistic realist: A realist because he sees things as they are (hence his discontent), an optimist because he sees them as they might be, as they should be. Without idealists there could be no progress and no reform, for progress must be toward something and reformation demands a form. But of course one cannot get from A to B by wishing, so every good idealist must also have a System.

The System is the route from here to there, from status quo to what ought to be. “If only we…” then the ideal might be realized. Communism, courtship, and classical education are all Systems. The System takes the ideal and grounds it, explains how you and I can push toward it. And therein lies the danger, because Systems are much easier to hold onto than are ideals.

To follow an ideal requires imagination and will, conjuring up what is not yet and may never be. Far easier to hold onto the System, the concrete plan with steps and routines that can be accomplished today. And so we gradually lose the ideal in the System, becoming like the Texan who was told he could reach the Black Hills if he headed north and now battles polar bears as he makes his dogged way to South Dakota. It is hard to keep our eyes fixed on the horizon; they soon slip downwards and take up the easier task of merely making sure we continue to put one foot in front of the other.

It is for this failing that God rebuked Israel in Amos 5, beginning with one of the most chilling passages in Scripture:

Alas, you who are longing for the day of the Lord,
For what purpose will the day of the Lord be to you?
It will be darkness and not light;
As when a man flees from a lion
And a bear meets him,
Or goes home, leans his hand against the wall
And a snake bites him.
Will not the day of the Lord be darkness instead of light,
Even gloom with no brightness in it?
“I hate, I reject your festivals,
Nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
And I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings.
Take away from Me the noise of your songs;
I will not even listen to the sound of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

The Jews had not abandoned the elaborate system of festivals and solemn assemblies, burnt offerings, grain offerings, and peace offerings of fatlings, songs and music, by which the Lord commanded them to worship and serve him, but somehow in all that pile of worshiping and serving they had lost the Lord. The problem, of course, lay not in the system itself (which was good and necessary), but in allowing it to become the ideal.

This easy transmutation of means into end-in-itself is not confined to religious matters. We see it on a national scale as America fights to spread democracy throughout the world, forgetting that democracy is merely one good way of protecting the inalienable rights of the individual, without which it offers nothing but another flavor of tyranny. In my own field, increasing numbers of homeschooling parents seem to assume that simply schooling at home is a sufficient condition for educational success, as if the type of building in which a child is seated when a textbook is dumped in front of him is somehow determinative of his comprehension.

Even the best system will start to warp and distort if it becomes the focus, like an engine trying to power itself. To take an example mentioned earlier, the courtship system is founded on excellent ideals: involve family and community in the relationship, maintain physical and emotional purity, and of course seek God first in everything. And yet, one can’t help noticing a certain unhealthy mania in the way some families handle it, as if the key to an exceptional marriage is checking all the boxes on the courtship chart. We’ve all heard stories of girls who got cold feet at the last minute when they suddenly realized their fiancé would be marrying them, not their father. They had checklisted their way through the System so thoroughly that they forgot where it was taking them.

Ideals matter. Systems matter too, because they are the means by which ideals are realized. And in general, we spend more time thinking about systems than ideals, simply because they are more complicated since they must consider not only what should be but what is, and how to move from the one to the other. It is easy to become overly attached to the product of so much thought, prayer, and effort, but it is important that we hold our systems lightly, always remembering why we have them in the first place; motivated not by allegiance to the system, but by love for what the system seeks.

Aspergers and learning The Rules

This week’s Weekend Interview in the Wall Street Journal features Temple Grandin, “easily the most famous autistic woman in the world.” It’s a fascinating read, particularly for anyone with an Aspergers child. Growing up in the 1950’s, doctors pushed to institutionalize Grandin as her autistic qualities became obvious. Instead, her mother hired a speech therapist and a nanny and forced her daughter to interact with adults and spend hours practicing basic social skills.

Today, Temple Grandin is a doctor of animal science at Colorado State University and the designer of more humane slaughterhouse systems that are used worldwide. She also writes and lectures internationally as a first-person expert on autism.

Her cadence is unusual, staccato-like, and her pale blue eyes sometimes drift off into the distance. But she seems a different person from the young woman in the film, for whom being hugged, let alone schmoozing at a cocktail party, seemed physically painful. What’s changed?

“The thing about being autistic is that you gradually get less and less autistic,” she says, “because you keep learning, you keep learning how to behave. It’s like being in a play; I’m always in a play.”

As I said, the whole article is well worth reading, but I was particularly struck by Grandin’s advice on how to help an Aspergers child learn to function more comfortably in the outside world. Doubtless influenced by her own mother, who “insisted that Temple practice proper etiquette, go to church, [and] interact with adults at parties,” Grandin says,

It’s about hard work. Young children need 20 or 30 hours a week of one-on-one time with a committed teacher or mentor. Money, Ms. Grandin says, should not be an obstacle. If you can’t afford a professional teacher, find volunteers through your church or synagogue, she says. Parents need to teach 1950s-style social rules “like please and thank you, basic table manners, how to shop.”

“1950s-style social rules.” Back then, The Rules were explained pretty clearly and explicitly, by parents, teachers, neighbors, or even random passerby when necessary. There was a basic, shared understanding of how one ought to behave, and an expectation that society had a responsibility to pass that understanding along to the next generation. “Do this. Don’t do that,” as the 1971 hit “Signs” rather unenthusiastically put it.

Today, instead, American society depends much more upon a sort of peer-to-peer absorption approach to social norms. With the traditional venues for social instruction (family, community, church) fading in their authority and significance, most youth learn basic social norms through entertainment or from their peers, through observation and adaptation. Gallons of ink have been spilled chronicling the underwhelming results of this approach, and my point here is not to add thereto. Instead, I’m interested particularly in how this approach affects those with autistic tendencies.

Reading the interview with Temple Grandin, it seems that our lack of explicit social instruction must be doing a tremendous and particular disservice to Aspergers children. Gradin isn’t the first I’ve heard liken living with Aspergers to being in a play. You learn how you are supposed to behave, and you fill that “role”; it’s actually a considerable relief, avoiding the frustration and confusion of continually violating norms you didn’t know existed.

The instruction must be explicit though. By definition, a child with autistic tendencies isn’t going to pick up on the cues that his peers use to learn social norms. He needs to actually be taught what other children might be able to unconsciously pick up. And yet, more than ever before, our society tends to avoid offering the clear, specific guidance that such a child needs.

I’m not suggesting that a greater social willingness to articulate and teach the rules of social behavior would be some magic bullet to make life easy for those with Aspergers. However, I do wonder how much it would help, not so much in broad strokes but with those brief little interactions that could help create the explicit, clear roadmap that is so important to individuals with Aspergers.

And… I feel like I should conclude with some insightful commentary, but I’m really just throwing this out here as food for thought. I was struck by it while reading the article, and hoped some of my readers would find it similarly interesting.

It’s never just self-defense

I recently had an interesting conversation with my mother in which she commented that she would intervene to defend someone else who was in danger, but wouldn’t feel comfortable using violence to defend herself. She knows I disagree (the exchange was prompted by a weapon on my Christmas wish list…), and with her usual graciousness she agreed that self-defense is morally justifiable. She said she simply felt uncomfortable with it as a personal matter, because the idea of harming another human being solely for your own benefit bothered her.

It is a reasonable argument, but the problem with such a position is that it assumes an act of self-defense only impacts the attacker and the victim, when in reality, like any social interchange, its effects ripple out far beyond those immediately affected.

With the exception of the extremely rare, truly psychotic individual, every criminal makes a cost-benefits analysis before acting, asking himself if the risks of the proposed action outweigh whatever gain he anticipates. It may be nothing more than a subconscious observation that the victim is smaller or alone, but every criminal wonders, “Is this worth the risk?”

The benefit from any one individual’s self-defense accrues to every member of society when it slightly decreases the likelihood that a future attacker answers the question, “Is it worth it?” in the affirmative.

One of the benefits of judicial punishments such as imprisonment or capital punishment is deterrence: the fact that anyone considering a similar crime is given an additional reason to decide it isn’t worth the risk. Deterrence works. It’s why murder rates went up when capital punishment was shelved in the late 1960’s and 1970’s, then declined as the death penalty was again employed. However, the criminal justice system isn’t the first line of deterrence.

Any time an intended victim fights back, they act as a deterrent to future crime. When John Stossel interviewed imprisoned criminals several years ago, they told him their greatest fear was running afoul of armed victims. Study after study has shown that criminals prey on the weak. They don’t want a fight; they want a quick and painless victory. That’s why many would-be attackers flee at the first sign of resistance, or don’t attack at all if the intended target appears alert and prepared. The more doubt a predator feels about the ease of victory, the more likely he is to decide it’s just not worth it.

The homeowner who kills an armed robber, the jogger who stabs a rapist, or the tourist who attacks a mugger have one thing in common: Each one is making it a little less likely that some future innocent will suffer a similar attack, because they’ve just altered the criminal’s cost-benefit analysis in favor of the victim. The individual who chooses to fight back defends not only himself, but also the shadowy ranks of future victims who now look just a bit more menacing to would-be attackers, and are therefore just a bit less likely to be victims afterall.

“Because I must, I can”

Kant wrote, “Because I must, I can” in defense of the existence of human free will, but I like the line’s application in a different context: as a concise summary of the Christian attitude towards challenge and adversity. Whether it’s David facing Goliath or Daniel before the lions’ den, or a modern-day Christian confronted with a seemingly insurmountable temptation or obstacle, the correct response is a smile, squared shoulders, and “Because I must, I can.”

“I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).

Wait, I think I may have figured out the problem

The New York Times reports,

Pirates commandeered a United States-flagged container ship with 20 American crew members off the coast of Somalia on Wednesday, the first time an American-crewed ship was seized by pirates in the area. […]

The Maersk Alabama was at least the sixth commercial ship commandeered by pirates this week off the Horn of Africa, one of the most notoriously lawless zones on the high seas, where pirates have been operating with near impunity despite efforts by many nations, including the United States, to intimidate them with naval warship patrols. (emphasis mine)

Yeah, because that’s how they stopped Blackbeard. Intimidated his head right off his shoulders.

UPDATE (04/08/09 at 1:03pm): Good news.

American crewmen have regained control of a hijacked U.S.-flagged cargo ship off the coast of Africa, the Pentagon confirmed Wednesday. […]

Somali pirates hijacked the cargo ship Wednesday hundreds of miles from the nearest U.S. military vessel in some of the most dangerous waters in the world.

Late Wednesday morning, the military confirmed that the crew had regained control of the vessel by overpowering the pirates, taking one pirate into custody and throwing three overboard.

Sounds like they really intimidated them.

Dirt, worms, and health

From The New York Times,

In studies of what is called the hygiene hypothesis, researchers are concluding that organisms like the millions of bacteria, viruses and especially worms that enter the body along with “dirt” spur the development of a healthy immune system. Several continuing studies suggest that worms may help to redirect an immune system that has gone awry and resulted in autoimmune disorders, allergies and asthma.

These studies, along with epidemiological observations, seem to explain why immune system disorders like multiple sclerosis, Type 1 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, asthma and allergies have risen significantly in the United States and other developed countries.

“What a child is doing when he puts things in his mouth is allowing his immune response to explore his environment,” Mary Ruebush, a microbiology and immunology instructor, wrote in her new book, “Why Dirt Is Good” (Kaplan). “Not only does this allow for ‘practice’ of immune responses, which will be necessary for protection, but it also plays a critical role in teaching the immature immune response what is best ignored.” […]

Dr. Weinstock goes even further. “Children should be allowed to go barefoot in the dirt, play in the dirt, and not have to wash their hands when they come in to eat,” he said. He and Dr. Elliott pointed out that children who grow up on farms and are frequently exposed to worms and other organisms from farm animals are much less likely to develop allergies and autoimmune diseases.