31 January 2004

Aggregating redesign

So, I spent a couple of hours this morning learning
enough CSS (and fighting with various browsers that didn’t deal with
cookies and such well — All I have to say is that I am even more
settled on Netscape 7 than I was before, as it’s the only browser I
used [of four] that didn’t have all sorts of macro and cookie issues)
to get my aggregator to be readable.  When Dave Winer recoded the aggregator software a couple of weeks ago, he added all sorts of great functionality to  it.  But it was set up to deal with a different Manila theme, and so it was unreadable in Moveable Manila: Modern.

But I got it to work, and so now I can read the aggregator without squinting.

Posted in OnTheWeb on 31 January 2004 at 1:04 pm by Nate
30 January 2004

Right reason and the Holy Spirit

I end up continuing to respond to Ryan, but he’s been posting some smart, provocative stuff lately (not that he doens’t always say smart and provocative stuff, but the posts of late have been some good shit).

“God told me so” is not an investigation-closer; it’s a claim that’s full of data. Sometimes it involves a gut emotion, reinforced by community or pastoral approval. Sometimes it’s authorized by complex interpretation of dreams or hallucinations. Sometimes “God told me so” can be taken quite literally- people hear voices inside their heads, they have long conversations with God and Christ. (The third member of the Trinity- the Holy Spirit- tends not to speak to people. It speaks through possession and glossolalia).
“God told me so” presents an acceptable response in some fora, but the problem is that our political system is founded on an Enlightenment rationality that requires that answers to public questions be bases upon “reason” (a term that I don’t want to delve too much into, because Ryan and I both smart know that we may not resolve that in a comment box *grin*).  Whether that’s good or not, whether it’s true or not, the system has a foundational stone in that premise.

“God told me so” doesn’t play by that rule, and that’s the path that Revealer has gone down.  If the system is not rational, this seems to be saying, we shouldn’t enter it into the public sphere.

Sound unsatisfactory?  It probably is, but it’s one of the weaknesses of our political system.  Though ideologically different than me, Nicholas Wolterstorff over at Yale has done some interesting work on how you can bring non-rational (Enlightenment sense), religious explanations into your political reasoning.

The Holy Spirit does talk to people — in fact, orthodox Christian theology would indicate that those voices that people ascribe to the Father/Parent or the Word (the Second Person of the Trinity) are actually the Spirit, which is the person of the Trinity with God’s church in the latter days (i.e., the days after Christ).  All three persons are different manifestation of the one God, and to say that “God” (Father) or Jesus spoke to you is probably to commit (probably not maliciously) the heresy of tri-theism.

I’m not trying to be the theology police here, because my own theology is hardly completely orthodox (I sometimes flirt with panentheism, which isn’t explicitly called heretical in Christianity, but it’s probably heretical).  But tritheism is a serious danger in Christianity (as my Jewish friends do constantly remind me, and they often have a point, especially in light of the explanations of Christianity they seem to have gotten from Christians who don’t know much about their own religion), and it’s a useful spiritual exercise to think these things through.

Posted in Rayleejun on 30 January 2004 at 11:33 am by Nate
29 January 2004

How far can pluralism go?

Ryan responded to my response
And so in the good spirit of blogs, I will respond again.

I guess I need to go back and read more of Ryan’s previous posts on pluralism because the following caught me off-guard:

My previous posts on pluralism have emphasized its weakness in comparison to strong religion. Real
religion stones women to death for adultery. Real religion demands
obsessive-compulsive obedience to a heinously invasive and controlling
body of behavioral codes. Real religion uses magical spells and sees
demons and ghosts around every corner, vengeful gods behind every
thundercloud. Real religion is about sorcery and curses and divination
and charismatically charged psychosomatic healing. By contrast, weak
religion seems ridiculously boring, like skim milk or fat-free chips.
It reminds me always of James Fowler’s Stages of Faith, which
made a point of saying the best kind of faith is one that makes no
judgments or demands, a rational, frozen Unitarianism.

“Real” seems to be synonymous with extreme.  Unless your religion
and its concomitant beliefs require extremism, the term seems to imply
it’s not “real.”  The terms “strong” or “weak” are better, in that
they denote a level of cliam that the religious system makes upon one’s
personhood, one’s individual nature.  A “strong” religion seems to
be one that requires the most loss of self.  Along with that loss
of self comes the loss of the ability to critique and consider. 
“Strong” religion seems to have little capacity for
self-reflection.  And, so far as I can see, it’s “weak”er religion
that might actually be the more dynamic force, because it has an
adaptability to human situations that’s necessary in all those human
institutions that survive a changing world.  (Yeah, there’s a lot
to unpack there, but I’m taking a shortcut in the hopes of putting the
idea in “print” a bit faster.)

I don’t think “strong” religion will really work in a Western
context.  The problem in the West, at least insofar as its
religious root (which is one of the West’s many cultural roots [and my
familiarity lies most in Western systems of thought, so I won’t attempt
to overreach my expertise here]) is concerned, stems from the fact that
the two major religious traditions both contain the seeds of Ryan’s
“weak religion.”  Judaism and Christianity both contain
self-critique mechanisms within themselves.  Yes, there can be
manifestations of these religions that demonstrate “strong” tendencies,
but I think that they are temporally bounded in a fairly major
way.  “Traditional” forms of the religion have always existed, but
the approaches they have taken to survival differ.  In
Christianity, the forces of traditionalism are always different, with
different rallying cries, and they always seem to get swept up in the
tides of history.  Today’s “liberal” Christian practitioners are
very often tomorrow’s moderates and next week’s conservatives.  In
Judaism, the approach that the very traditional have taken required the
ghetto, and those who have wished to remain the most traditionally
Orthodox have had to make some accommodation to the modern world. 
(E.g., Joe Lieberman may be “modern” Orthodox, but the first of those
very terms indicates that accommodations and adaptations have occurred.

Institutional and individual adaptation are endemic to human social and
political life.  It’d be surprising not to see them.

And, for the record, I’d hate to live in a “rational, frozen
Unitarianism.”  Maybe that’s the “strong” part still making its
claim in and on me.

Right.  Now, since Lost in Translation plays in 20 minutes, I need to go!

Posted in Rayleejun on 29 January 2004 at 10:59 am by Nate
28 January 2004

Tired of complaining about “electability”

So let’s get back to some politics, for a little while at least.

Lots of ink has been spilled about what’s going on with the Democrats
right now, as they focus on selecting a candidate to run against Bush
in the general election, and much of the discussion has centered on the
focus on electability and what the Democrats “should” be doing. 
I’d like to talk about why the discussion of electability in the
Democratic candidate is reasonable and probably valuable to have.

In political science, we have a theory that applies very well to
two-party systems such as ours, called the median voter theorem. 
(It can also apply to multi-party systems, with simple
modifications.)  What it says, in brief, is that in a two-party
system, the “median voter” will win.  Imagine, if you will, a
line, representing the ideological spectrum from left-to-right. 
We can place every voter in our system along this spectrum.  The
voter who falls in the middle of the spectrum (not ideologically, but
the one with equal numbers of voters on either side of him or her) is
the “median voter,” and in a two-party system, the party that gets this
voter will win an election.

(Note to my professional colleagues: This is not intended to be a
formal demonstration of the MVT — I could do that, but many of you
could do it better.  I’m just trying to explain it stylistically
and show a general readership how it might apply to what we’re facing
in the elections right now.)

(Note to those interested: more formal definitions and discussion of this theorem can be found here, here, and here.)

Let’s consider a simple system of seven voters, as in this illustration.

There are seven voters here.  The way this works is that voters
will pick the candidate closest to them on the preference
spectrum.  Whoever captures four (or more) of the voters will win
the election issue here.  So place two candidates anywhere you
like in the spectrum.  One of them will be “closer” on the
spectrum to a majority of the voters, and that’s the candidate who will
win.  We like to call this “capturing the median voter,” for the
candidate who captures the exact middle person — or the 50 percent
plus one voter, as you may have learned in a civics class — will
win.  Another diagram will make this a bit clearer.

In this illustration, we’ve got a more complete system.  Same diagram
as above, but now I have added candidates (1 and 2), a vertical line to
represent the exact middle of the preference spectrum (the bright green
line — you could consider it the dividing line between left and right,
or you can call it the “center”), and a thing called the tipping point
(which we will ignore for now).

Who will win the election?  Remember, whichever candidate is
closer to the majority of voters, whoever can convince the median voter
to vote for him, he will be the winner.  Once a candidate is close
enough to the median voter to convince this voter to select the
candidate, the candidate will also be even closer to a bunch of other
voters.  Median voters are powerful, in a sense, because capturing
them produces an electoral majority.  So if you’re a candidate,
you want to get the median voter to vote for you, because everyone else
to your side of the median voter will also vote for you.

In this election, candidate 2 wins.  He is closer to the median
voter than candidate 1, so the median voter will choose to vote for 2
over 1, as 2’s preferences (which you might consider as “positions on
the issues”) are closer to the median voter’s than 1’s are.

Now take a look at this thing I have called the “tipping point.” 
represents a point equally as distant from the median voter as
candidate 2 is.  In other words, the distance from the median
voter to
the tipping point is the same as the distance from the median voter to
candidate 2.  In order for candidate 1 to win, he will have to
come to the right of the tipping point, to get closer to the median
voter than candidate 1 is.

Can you guess how we might explain the tendency for both major
political parties in the US to look fairly similar, even on the
abbreviated ideological system that exists in this country?  Yeah,
in pursuit of the median voter (who, in electoral opinion surveys of
the US, we have found is pretty much in the middle of the road
ideologically), the two parties have generally moved toward the middle
in pursuit of the MV.

Note some interesting features of this system:  First, the
is somewhat middle of the road, as four of the seven voters could be
chracterized as preferring outcomes in the middle 50 percent of the
spectrum.  Second, note that candidate 1 is closer to the (green)
center than candidate 2.  Also note that the median voter is
pretty close to the middle of the system.  Even so, the candidate
of the right will win, because his preferences are closer to those of
more of the people in the system.

O.K., so what does this mean for the current election?  Here’s
what I think the election looks like to your average Democratic voter
right now.

Cand Right is George W. Bush.  Candidates Left and Center-Left are
currently running in the Democratic primaries.  If you are a
Democratic primary voter, and you think the election in November will
be close, you want to find the candidate who will come closer to the
median voter (whom I have located in the middle of the scale only for
convenience) than George W. Bush will.  Candidate Left is just
about as far away from the MV as Candidate Right is.  If your
estimation of the location of the median voter is off, you could lose
the election, and since we’re talking about a possibly close election,
you don’t want to be off.  So you might choose to take someone who
doesn’t entirely match your own preferences (e.g., the cadidate is more
to the right than you are) in preference to having Candidate Right win.

So what the Democrats are doing right now, as they pursue the more
“electable” candidate, may be more “rational” than voting purely for
the guy whom they prefer to all others.  And they realize that
this is not a one-shot game — it’s got two stages.  Democrats who
are thinking of who’s more “electable” are perhaps remembering that
they have to win a presidency, not just a nomination.  Democrats
pursuing an “electability strategy” are acting out a very complex
analytical situation in a very intuitive way.  For just about any
Democratic primary voter, any Democratic candidate is preferable to
George W. Bush, and if the electorate is so tightly divided, it might
do to start with lots of people closer in their preferences to a
party’s candidate (as would be the case with Candidate
Center-Left).  Otherwise, in the case when Candidate Left runs as
the nominee, Democrats have a much harder job of positioning to do to
get the votes necessary to obtain their majority.

So the move toward Kerry is not surprising (to me, at least). It may
represent very rational action by large numbers of Democratic primary
voters.  But let’s see what happens in Tuesday’s caucuses and

Caveats: Yeah, this isn’t a perfect model of our system, as we have an
electoral college, possible shifts in preferences by candidates and
voters over the course of the run-up to the election, and so
forth.  But it’s a stylized and simplified version of a complex
story that, I think, helps us to understand a bit more what’s going on
out there.

Also, this doesn’t represent my preferences. =-)

Posted in Politicks on 28 January 2004 at 12:25 pm by Nate

I hate it when GWB is funny

But the ribs press transcript is pretty funny.  The man just wanted a meal in peace….

Posted in OnTheWeb on 28 January 2004 at 12:09 pm by Nate

Respondin’ to the Sanskrit Boy

Back about a month ago, Ryan over at SanskritBoy responded to my Episcopal/RC post by talking about the religious pluralism aside, and one of his interlocutors said the following:

“You can call the old-fashioned approach to religious others
‘exclusivism’–others will be excluded from salvation. Its opposite
number is ‘inclusivism’, which comes in two kinds. ‘Closed exclusivim’
holds that adherents of other religions may obtain salvation, but only
in spite of the imperfections of their religion, which offers no
improvements to our own. (For example, Karl Rahner wrote famously of
the “anonymous Christian,” a person outside the Church nonetheless
lived the life of a de facto Christian. Such a person might receive
salvation, but not because the religion she professed had much to
recommend it.) On the other hand, an ‘open inclusivism’ holds that the
other may have something to teach us.”

What I’m holding to in my previous post is probably something more like the open inclusivism mentioned.

But my religious pluralism probably regards the belief in the existence
of something larger as a requisite for discussion (though not for
existence as a fellow religionist).  I realize that I am going to
have a very hard time talking with the people Ryan mentioned:

“There are some types of Buddhists whose views are so incompatible I
just couldn’t imagine them joining an interfaith discussion table where
the common underlying link is assumed to be God. God, after all, is
just another schmuck- subject to eventual fall from heaven once he’s
used up his store of good karma, destined to be reborn as a lowly king
or administrator or even a peasant or (gasp, the horror!) a woman one
day. God probably got to where he is today by doing ascetic practices
for a few aeons, and finally he attained rebirth in a really pimpin’
paradise. But God still doesn’t really get it- and as soon as he does
get it, he will have ceased to exist.”

At least in terms of “God” (expansively defined) as an underlying
concept, we’ll have a difficult time talking to one another.  It’s
a prior that I can’t really get away from.  And the Buddhists that
Ryan mentions probably can’t get away from their prior that
“understanding” leads to non-existence.

But here’s where we might come in together, an approach I learned when
my small faith community was trying to do some intra-faith dialogue a
few years back.  We didn’t start with questions of belief, as
would be a natural approach in Western Christianity and Western
society.  We started experientially, asking what religion and
faith meant in the day to day lived experience of life.  “How does
living your religion help your daily life?”  “How does your
religion hinder your daily life?”  “What about your life compels
you to practice your religion?”

I did this with a group of Episcopalians (ranging from conservative to
liberal) who figured out that we found it easier to talk about faith
with Jews and Buddhists than with other Christians, like Mormons,
evangelicals, and some of the Orthodox.  We spent more time
getting to know the non-Christians than we did the Christians, and our
own understanding of our own faith had some holes, as a result. 
But it’s always hard to get to know and get along with your family,
often harder than with strangers.

And I think process-oriented conversation will likely be more fruitful
in terms of finding common ground.  In talking to a Buddhist,
Muslim, or another Christian, it’s probably just a dead-end to discuss
“belief” (especially since “belief” may not be the most fundamental
requisite of the above in all cases).  But what we do probably provides a lot more range to the conversation.

I’ve heard that the above approach is one that many monks have found
useful when talking to one another.  According to some reports
I’ve heard from interreligious monastic conversations, the monastic
commitment to a life of prayer and contemplation, no matter what the
particular religion, provides an entree into interfaith understanding
that non-monastics have a much harder time accessing.  In other
words, if you spend your days praying and contemplating, you’re already
doing such a lot that’s similar that you’ve got a good place to start
talking, and the discussion of differences leads not to belief but to
how different groups pray and contemplate differently.

And in the end, that may bring us back to the “open inclusivism”
above.  When the discussion centers on action and practice and
process, the “other” may indeed have something to teach us, as the
process of another faith can find a situation in one’s own, becoming a
thing that’s really not the exclusive domain of one or the other but
something that’s a bit of both.

Posted in Rayleejun on 28 January 2004 at 11:28 am by Nate
21 January 2004

Fantastic story

Joey, over at Accordion Guy, reposted an archive story about how his weblog saved part of his life.  It’s fantastic.  Take a read.

Posted in OnTheWeb on 21 January 2004 at 11:03 am by Nate
19 January 2004

My own story

For a few months now, I’ve been thinking about posting a fairly
personal essay here, one that freely gives up some of the details of my
life, an essay that talk about my coming out and coming in as a gay and
spiritual person.  I rarely talk about the details of my inner
life in such detail here, keeping a fairly firm wall around parts of my
personal life in this forum.

Also, since the Times put up a story this morning on why some gay people are seeking marriages in the church, even if the state doesn’t recognize their unions, it seemed appropriate to put this up for now.  Best quote there:

It is a perennial complaint among members of the clergy that many
straight couples regard the chapel as little more than a stage set for
a picture-perfect wedding. In contrast, many of the gay couples who are
heading for the altar are regular worshipers who say in interviews that
religion is central to their lives.

Anyway, at the risk of getting hate comments, I am posting my story here
And I might note that while this described where I was in January 2000,
it’s not necessarily the same story I would tell now.  But much of
it is.

Posted in RmAuNsDiOnMg on 19 January 2004 at 3:07 pm by Nate

MLK, the saint

It’s probably trite to write about this today, but I thought I might
note that today’s the “heavenly birthday” of (St.) MLK.  He’s
being played all day on the Harvard radio station, WHRB-FM,
and the sermons are fascinating.  MLK is often discussed as the
more acceptable of the civil rights leaders of the 1960s (as opposed to
the less acceptable Malcolm X).  But if you listen to these
sermons and speeches, much of what he says is clearly radical, not in
its call for violence of anything like that, but by the very fact that
his steeping in the fullness of the Christian tradition and especially
the black American tradition.  Every phrase rings with Biblical
allusion, with the cries of the agony Psalms, the prophets, and the
Gospel, and with the radical upending of social power, complacency,
various kinds of violence, and death.

The man is a saint and a martyr (we include him in my church’s calendar
of commemorations, essentially a modern-day calendar of saints). 
But since we are so close to him, and we can remember him, we often use
him to our own purposes, using him (like the Bible or other highly
revered texts) to support whatever we happen to advocating.  As
Body and Soul points out, George Bush just did it
But W. is not the only offender, nor is the Right the only piece of the
political spectrum who has tried to twist this saint and martyr to
their own expediency.

Anyway, join in the listening, or listen to some of his sermons
somewhere else, or just read one of them.  Or even listen to the
U2 song, “MLK”

Sleep, sleep tonight
And may your dream be realized
If the thundercloud passes rain,
So let it rain, rain on me.

Posted in Politicks on 19 January 2004 at 1:56 pm by Nate
17 January 2004

Still here….

Hey anyone who reads,

Still here.  Just taking a break from writing right now.  Was
in California for a few days, now I have a cold, and I’m trying to
shelter from the cold (I’ve never lived in a place where it was this
cold before).  And I’m plotting how to get some broadband access

Hope all the Boston people out there are stayin’ warm.

Posted in Day2Day on 17 January 2004 at 1:38 pm by Nate