Semmelweis Effect

Ignaz Semmelweis was a Hungarian physician in the 1800’s who had the audacity to publish the idea that doctors should wash their hands before attending to a patient.  This was not just some wild idea of his; he had research to back it up.  As they say, no good deed goes unpunished and his punishment was to be ostracized by the medical community.

As a result, we have named an aspect of the human condition after Dr. Semmelweis.   “The Semmelweis reflex or ‘Semmelweis effect’ is a metaphor for the reflex-like tendency to reject new evidence or new knowledge because it contradicts established norms, beliefs or paradigms.” [1]

Now some maintain that at least parts of the ‘Semmelweis effect’ story are a myth. [2]  However, regardless of its truth, the fact remains that we humans have a tendency to reject new information that contradicts what we already know.  This is especially true in our religious beliefs.  We are of the opinion, whether we realize it or not, that our interpretation of the Bible is infallible.  Therefore any interpretation of the Bible that is different than ours is wrong.

There is nothing wrong with being confident in our beliefs provided we have reasons for those beliefs (I Peter 3:15).  However, if we do discover problems in our belief system, we must address, not ignore, them.  In this blog we have pointed out at least three problems with the Christian doctrine of salvation.  The question is:  Will the Christian community will address those problems or continue to ignore them.

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[1]   http://semmelweis.org/about/dr-semmelweis-biography/

[2]   http://www.bestthinking.com/articles/science/biology_and_nature/bacteriology/expert-skeptics-suckered-again-incredibly-the-famous-semmelweis-story-is-another-supermyth

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Is Evil Superior to Good?

Machiavelli is of the opinion that a good person of necessity must come to grief among people who are not good and that a leader must do what is considered to be evil in order to keep his realm or organization intact. [1]  Is evil superior to good as a method of organizing society?

A look at our world shows that the use of force predominates.  Dictators imprison, torture, and kill their opponents.  Those in democracies who are in power use the political and legal system to suppress their opponents.  It is difficult to point to an example of someone in power who is truly good in his/her official actions.

Our experience tells us that good does work.  Jesus had only 12 disciples to carry on his work and while they were severely persecuted, they were not destroyed.  In fact they flourished.  Gandhi’s non-violent movement confronted the military might of Britain and succeeded in gaining independence for India.

If good does work, why do so many choose to do evil; why does Machiavelli recommend doing evil?  One answer is that it is quicker.  A robber in minutes takes what took you hours, days, or weeks to earn.  A ruler can throw dissidents in prison or execute them in order to remain in power rather than taking the time to develop a consensus among the people of his/her country.

Both evil and good will work.  Machiavelli recommends using both to remain in power.  Yes, at times one who is good will come to grief among people who are not good.  But likewise, some evil people come to grief as well.  We have a choice to make.  Will we do whatever it takes to remain in power or will we do what is right?

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[1]   Luigi Ricci, trans., Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, New York:  New American Library, 1952, p. 84.

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Machiavelli

In our last blog, we raised the question of whether God will judge us for the actions we take when we are in a leadership position of an organization.

Machiavelli’s The Prince is a guide on how to obtain and hold political power in government, business, academia, and any other organization.  Machiavelli asserts a leader’s primary responsibility is to ensure the survival of the organization and the leader should do whatever is necessary to ensure that survival. The principles Machiavelli advocates are not necessarily evil.  For example, he points out that cruelty to a few individuals (punishment or executions) can prevent injury to the whole community. [1]  We see this principle applied in our legal system when persons like Timothy McVeigh are tried and punished.

Now, the term Machiavelli to most people does not have good connotations because he recommends doing whatever is necessary—good or evil—to maintain power.  However, it seems that even God follows some of Machiavelli’s principles.  Machiavelli states a leader should be both feared and loved [2] and the Bible teaches that God uses both.  The fear God uses is fear of what he will do to us after this life is over.  “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).  God also uses love (John 3:16).

So if, as we assert in this blog, our ultimate goal is to become like God, does that mean we are free to use Machiavelli’s principles?  The problem is that Jesus teaches a different way.  He tells us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:43).  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus praised the meek, the merciful, and the peacemakers (Matthew 5:3-10).  Jesus says the humble will be exalted Luke 18:9-14).  That is not very Machiavellian.

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[1]   Luigi Ricci, trans., Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, New York:  New American Library, 1952, p. 89.

[2]   Ricci, p. 90.

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Official Actions

It seems these days it is routine to hear of governmental agencies breaking the law to enforce the law.  Their justification for doing so is to make us safer but as one ATF agent stated:  Number of convictions is all that counts for some agencies.  They must justify their existence and they will employ questionable means to obtain them. [1]  I also remember listening to a C-Span segment a couple of years ago.  C-Span was interviewing two Regan appointees and they essentially admitted that having access to those in power was more important than the truth.  They admitted they would modify what they wrote or said to conform to what those in power believed.  Unfortunately this is true in more than just our political circles; it is true in business, academia, and every other organization.

Now everyone agrees that God will judge us for our personal actions.  The question is:  Will God judge us for our official actions?  Will God judge politicians for the actions they take while in office?  Will God punish them if they start an unjust war?  Will God judge a businessperson who takes advantage of his/her employees or customers or is that just business?  Will God judge the Catholic officials who ignored evidence of priests abusing children?  Will God judge a college president who does not promote someone solely because of their ethnicity or religious beliefs even if they are the most qualified?

Is there a difference between our personal actions and our official actions or do we create such artificial boundaries so we can justify doing what we want?

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[1]   Janie B. Cheaney, “Agencies gone rogue”, World, January 25, 2014, p. 18.

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Pardon My Planet

I saw a cartoon in a newspaper recently that is a great illustration of the human condition.  The cartoon was Pardon My Planet by Vic Lee.  It was one panel and pictured a character at her psychologist and she states:

I’m becoming to believe that instead of becoming a better person for the sake of the greater good, I’m happiest when my belief system falls neatly in line with getting what I want.

It is so typical of us humans that we mold our beliefs so they match what we want.
We will justify anything if it gets us what we desire.  Virgil in Aeneid says:  O accursed hunger of gold, to what doest thou not compel human hearts! [1]

That is partly why in this blog we assert that salvation is not a belief system but is the change, or renovation, of our soul so it becomes like God.  It is our soul that determines what we do, not our beliefs.  It is our actions that more often than not demonstrate what we truly believe.  We take action to get what we want and then justify it by modifying our beliefs.

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[1]   J. W. Mackail, M.A., translator, The Aeneid of Virgil, London:  Macmillan and Co., 1885.  Kindle edition, location 713.

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Hoar Frost

And now for something completely different.

A few nights ago, we had an unusual meteorological condition known as a hoar frost.  “Hoar” is an old English adjective for showing signs of old age.  Hoar frost coats objects with what appears to be white hair or whiskers so hence the name.

We are all familiar with dew which forms when the air becomes completely saturated—it cannot hold any more water at a given temperature and pressure—and water condenses out onto various objects such as the grass in our lawn.  Hoar frost is not frozen dew.  Hoar frost (and frost as well) is the direct sublimation (condensation) of water vapor to ice crystals at temperatures below freezing.  Hoar frost is the growth of ice crystals that are larger than the frost ice crystals.

So below are a few pictures of hoar frost I thought you might enjoy.  Click on each picture for a full screen view.

Bush 1 Fence4 Grass 1 Mailbox 1 Oak Leaves 3 Pine Needles 2 Sycamore Pod 4 Twig 6

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Being Finite and Free Will

There is another reason why God made us finite.

Being limited forces us to call upon resources deep inside us that we never knew we had:  our soul.  The values held by our soul are used to make decisions in life and those decisions create our world.  If we want to know what our soul is like, we only have to look at the world around us to see what we have created.  Our world reflects back to us, in a physical form, the reality of our non-physical soul.  This applies to our world, our nations, our communities, and our families.  The values held by each of these entities are reflected in its character and actions.  And if we do not like what we see, should this not give us the motivation and opportunity to change our soul?

God wants us to decide how we will live our lives, to decide what type of person we want to be.  Life is like a final exam in school.  It is a test to see the type of person we really are, not what we would like to be.

God has given us the freedom to do whatever we want to do, to be whoever we want to be.  He is not forcing us to live a certain way.  What God has done is to construct our world so we experience the consequences of our actions.  This is the best way to teach free agents the lessons they need to learn.

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What Being Finite Teaches Us

That we are finite is a fact no one disputes.  It might seem somewhat inconsistent but knowing that we are finite, that we are limited in our ability to know what is true, can help us in our search for what is true.

Being finite means our knowledge is limited.  For example, John Sanders concludes that a majority of the people who have ever lived have never heard of Jesus. [1]  This tells us God evidently did not consider it important that people believe in Jesus since he did not and has not made that knowledge available to everyone.  If God is truly a God of love and justice, if he truly does not want anyone to perish (2 Peter 3:9), then there is a reason why he did not make this knowledge universally known.

Being finite means we cannot obtain certain proof for historical events such as Jesus’ existence, death, and resurrection.  There will always remain an element of doubt about these extraordinary events that happened over 2,000 years ago.  So why would God make belief in Jesus a condition for our salvation?

God made us finite.  He knows our limits.  It is my belief that God has constructed a plan of salvation which takes into consideration the fact that we are finite.

First, the Bible teaches is that God will judge us based upon the knowledge we have and how well we live up to that knowledge (Matthew 10:15, Matthew 11:20-24, Luke 12:47-48, John 15:22-24).  Since God made us finite, it would make sense he would judge us based upon the knowledge we possess and not some absolute standard of knowledge.

Second, even though we are finite, everyone on earth does have a concept of right and wrong.  The Bible says the Holy Spirit has been sent to teach the entire world about sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8).  God has made our salvation contingent upon something we control–our actions, what our soul is like—rather than upon something we do not totally control—our belief system.

The above does not minimize what Jesus accomplished.  Jesus did die for the sins of the world.  It is only through Jesus’ work that we can be restored to a right relationship with God.  Being finite means we might not know of this “good news” but that does not mean it does not apply to us all.

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[1]   John Sanders, What About Those Who Have Never Heard? (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 1995), p. 9.

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Being Finite

In this blog, we constantly emphasize the fact that we are finite.  We are limited in our knowledge of both material and spiritual matters, in our ability to know good and evil, in our capacity to know what is true.

I wish God had constructed our existence differently.  I wish he had given us indisputable proof that he exists, that the Bible is his word to us, and that Jesus rose from the dead.  But he did not and we must deal with that fact.

While our knowledge of what is true is so limited, we still must make decisions in life.  Poincaré describes our predicament so eloquently:

We are ignorant, and yet we must act.  For action, we have not time to devote ourselves to an inquiry sufficient to dispel our ignorance.  Besides, such an inquiry would demand an infinite time.  We must therefore decide without knowing; we are obliged to do so, hit or miss, and we must follow rules without believing them.  What I know is not that such and such a thing is true, but that the best course for me is to act as if it were true. [1]

Even our entertainment expresses the idea that we must act without knowing.  The movie Second Hand Lions has a scene in which Hub gives a speech about what every boy needs to know about being a man.  Hub tells Walter:

Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things that a man needs to believe in the most—that people are basically good; that honor, courage, and virtue mean everything; that power and money. . .mean nothing. . .that good always triumphs over evil. . .that true love never dies.  It does not matter if they are true or not. . .a man should believe in those things because those are the things worth believing in. [2]

So how do we decide what to believe; how do we decide how to live our lives?

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[1]   Henri Poincaré, The Foundations of Science (Lancaster, PA:  The Science Press, 1946) p. 158.

[2]   Tim McCanlies, Director.  Secondhand Lions.  With Michael Caine, Robert Duval, and Haley Joel Osment.  New Line Cinema, 2003.

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Killing Jesus

I received the book Killing Jesus by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard for Christmas.  It approaches Jesus and his death from a historical approach rather than a religious.  To be quite honest, I did not expect much from this book but I was pleasantly surprised for two reasons.

First, there is much written about Jesus that is myth and legend—see last week’s blog about Jesus being born in a stable.  These myths arise because Christians take their interpretation of the Bible as true and then use “faith” to justify those beliefs—if the Bible says it so, it must be true.  Looking at Jesus from a historical perspective can help us identify those myths and correct them.

Second, Killing Jesus is very good in detailing the political, religious, and historical events that “made Jesus’s [sic] death inevitable.” [1]  It is obvious that God had planned Jesus’ death and resurrection for our sins for some time (see the prophecies concerning Jesus’ death in Matthew 27:35, Mark 15:28, and John 19:36-37.  Also see Mark 1:15 and Galatians 4:4) but we fail to discuss how God made that happen.  This book shows that God worked through the existing structures of our world (political and religious) to accomplish his purposes.  Not everything God does is a miracle.

O’Reilly and Dugard ask one question in their Postscript and I have not seen a satisfactory answer anywhere.  They ask:  Why did thousands of common people in Jesus’ time seek him out? [2]  Why do millions currently seek him?  Jesus had no PR firm, no publishing industry, no internet, no Facebook or Twitter to get his message across.  He left no written word.  All he had was 12 disciples, most of whom deserted him in his hour of need.  Will Durant gives us a start in identifying why Jesus attracts so much attention when he notes Jesus’  “so powerful and appealing a personality, so lofty an ethic and so inspiring a vision of human brotherhood.” [3]  I think this deserves more attention that it has received.

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[1]   Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, Killing Jesus, New York:  Henry Holt and Company,  2013, cover.

[2]  O’Reilly and Dugard, p. 271.

[3]   Will Durant, The Story of Civilization:  Caesar and Christ (New York:  Simon and Schuster, 1944), p. 557.

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