Sunday, August 24, 2003

I am currently sick, and therefore my last day at The Museum Company turned out to be yesterday, instead of today like it should have been. As a direct result of being sick, I have slept in for many many hours and am now blogging since I have been meaning to do that for a while and now my energy level is low enough that other things have been pushed down on the priority list.

I'd like to post a bit of errata regarding my last post. I have revised my definition of harm in a way that I think is much more satisfactory, so that it more closely resembles the everyday definition of harm. As my parents argue, God wouldn't bother to heal people if sickness and injury weren't a cause of concern for him. (I was inclined to argue that God healed people - or, conversely, gave them beautiful things - because he likes to delight his children. But Mom and Dad pointed out that that casts God in the role of the bad parent, for a good parent acts out of his or her own beliefs about what is good for a child, not the child's beliefs. And God is not a bad parent; if he were, he wouldn't call himself our father so often.) I still maintain that physical harm is about the least important kind of harm you can suffer: I would say a good man who can look forward to an eternity without death is harmed much less by starving to death than is a bad man who lives in every kind of luxury but has not bothered to attend to the fact that he is an immortal creature. But of course it would be better for the good man not to starve to death. This modification is made possible by the newly recognized distinction between whether or not something is harmful, and whether or not it harms you. For instance, if a man is wearing a bullet-proof vest, a bullet will not harm him (well it might, but bear with me). But that does not mean that the bullet is not harmful.

I think this is something like what it must be like to be one of the "spiritual men" that Paul talks about: what does a humble, obedient, consistently growing man have to fear? But of course most men are not pneumatikoi, and for the rest of us the bullets are very real dangers. And this is something else I like about admitting that even trivial, ephemeral harms are harms nonetheless: it means that God cares very much about what is going on with me right now, down to the smallest detail: even the fact that I am sick right now (and of course I am going to get better, and in a hundred years, or after the resurrection of the dead, what will it matter that I had a cold on August 24, A.D. 2003?) is of supreme importance to God. He cares very much about the people who are starving, and the people who are being blown to bits, and about all those people who are suffering evils which, when compared to the prospect of suffering the second death after the aforementioned resurrection, are really very trivial things. And of course God cares about the states of their souls as well - he cares very much about all of it.

So this all sounds much more like the God that I know than my previous definition of harm did, which makes me happy. It also rather answers my previous question about why we are told to do things like feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and care for widows who have nobody else to take them in. My previous confusion (for those of you with short memories) was that I couldn't see how that did anybody any good: the physical circumstances are so fleeting, after all, and surely the only harm that was real harm was the harm which echoed through eternity. (Of course if I had been trying to think about it from God's perspective, instead of the perspectives of either the charitable man or the recipient of his charity, I would have immediately spotted a glaring fallacy in this way of thinking: for to God, who is outside of time altogether, there is no such thing as "fleeting." The word doesn't make any sense if you take away the dimension of time. God has all the time in the world for every knee that has ever been scraped.) And so I can now see that when we are told to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, et. al., we are being told to alleviate suffering, to undo harm that has been done. That is answer enough for me - but if I wanted to wax big picture, I might also speculate that since suffering is the result of the brokenness of the world, charity is our resistance movement's small way of combating that: it is sabotage, just as much as intercessory prayer or evangelism. And of course we resistance fighters ought to sabotage the enemy in every way we can.

Now I still have a problem with people who imagine that differences of wealth or power ought to be squashed all the time, for I still fail to see how differences in the distribution of wealth or power cause harm. They may cause harm, of course: and in such cases they ought to be combated. But surely they don't always cause harm: Bill Gates has a great deal more money than I do, but how does that hurt me? And, to be sure, I don't have as much political clout as many rich and powerful businessmen - but am I hurt thereby? I do not think so. And I daresay that a person can have much less money than I have grown up with, and much less political power as well, and still be well beyond the point of actually being harmed. But of course there does come a point at which a person is being truly oppressed (as opposed to inconvenienced), or really starved (as opposed to being forced to eat plain food instead of champagne and caviar), or what have you - and that is another matter altogether.

Saturday, August 09, 2003

I'm also home from visiting Hearst Castle today after a three-day trip that made me think that Cambria would be a good place for a honeymoon (though I still might hold out for either Hawaii or Disneyworld, given my affordable druthers). If you're not familiar with Hearst Castle, it was the dream home of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, one of the great early twentieth-century American millionaires, and his home in San Simeon is fabulous. I mean, simply phenomenal ... heck, just the outdoor pool is phenomenal. The decor isn't all to my taste but that is just one jaw-dropping estate.

I'm never quite sure what to think of Hearst Castle, really. I mean, on the one hand, there's kind of an urge to sputter in outrage that anybody should be living in such opulence in the middle of the Great Depression. On the other hand, I'm not really sure what to fault him for. Was he using his money irresponsibly? I don't think I'd say that of a man who owned 92 businesses and woke up at 5:00 AM every morning to run them. It's not a question of whether or not he deserved the money, or whether or not he "earned" it. Hearst was certainly doing his part to build up the American economy. Money is like heat - it doesn't exist unless it's being transferred between people. That's what causes depressions, after all: people stop spending money. A hearty exchange of money makes for a hearty economy, and a hearty economy makes for places where most poor people have clean, running hot and cold water, microwave ovens, and televisions.

Nor can I really object to people like Hearst having so much more money than the rest of the nation (or the world). For one thing, distributing the nation's (or the world's) wealth is sort of a nonsensical idea. That sort of talk treats "wealth" as if it's a commodity - as if you could distribute wealth the same way you distribute acres of land. But it seems to me that "wealth" is not that sort of thing at all. Wealth is basically the same thing as value. If something has a high "price" it has a high value. And value is of course what determines price. Take the case of the Faberge egg. To some people an original Faberge is worth tens of thousands of dollars. To me it's worth zero. If I am "wealthy," my wealth consists in a certain number of people valuing me (or my services) a certain amount. That may be unfair, but that is the way it is. And in any case, I see no injustice in "unfairness." If Jenny wants help with her stats homework, I am useless to her (value zero) whereas Archimedes is of great use to her (value nonzero). Is that fair? Not really ... but so what?

And of course I can't complain that Hearst lives (well, lived) in luxury while many live in great hardship, because that is to say that it is better to live in luxury than hardship. And that is not true at all. When Christians are told to rejoice in hardships, and when we are told to search, like Paul, for the secret to being content in all circumstances, the God who tells us these things means them. It is not good for a man to be very wealthy (c.f. the young rich man who came to Jesus); it is not good for a man to be very poor. But of course it is not bad for a man to be very wealthy (God did not make Solomon wealthy as punishment) any more than it is bad for a man to be very poor (it was not bad for Paul to be destitute - or Jesus either, for that matter). We may say that we would prefer luxury to hardship, but that is only because we are very foolish people. For we recognize all the time that money will not make you happy, and that happiness comes from within, regardless of circumstance - truly regardless of circumstance, not "regardless of luxury." What we really want is to feel that we are worthwhile people doing worthwhile work, content with our lot and satisfied that love and are loved. And of course if a man thinks that he can achieve that through the presence or absence of wealth - or if he imagines that he can bestow that upon his fellow man by bestowing or taking away wealth - he is a very silly fellow.

Where does this leave charity? I am not honestly sure - but I doubt very much that the person who admonished his pupils, "the poor shall always be with you" seriously meant for them to create a system where the only poor people are lazy slobs. In the first place, God does not always give people their just deserts this side of death. That is one of the things we love about him - for if he were to be fair instead of just we would all be dead, and living out a very unhappy death at that. But more importantly, it seems to me that God's admonition to look after the poor was not an admonition to get rid of them. I imagine that that would be rather like asking the French resistance to eject the Germans. That is a job properly left to the actual invasion force. I personally suspect that this has to do with love, which is something that is not of moral value to the receiver but is nevertheless of great value to the receiver - and of moral value to the giver. But I am not really sure of much in this regard, other than that we should not give an answer that is tantamount to saying that it is morally inferior for a person to be destitute than not. This may make charity one of those things that look morally arbitrary from the human perspective. But many such things are of immeasurable value to humans all the same - and the one who designed the human being in those seemingly morally arbitrary ways is not limited to the human perspective.
I finally went dancing last Friday, at a swing/salsa club called Memories. Clara (=Maelana) came with me, which was probably for the best since that way I had a few more decent dances and I had someone to be uncomfortable with. It wasn't that Memories was an unwelcoming place, or that it was populated with unfriendly people (though it was populated with very few people). The first problem was that most of the people there weren't very good. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, but it became a problem when coupled with the fact that the way people danced swing (swung?) out there was really outlandish.

For one thing, they were doing Hollywood. Fair enough; Savoy vs. Hollywood is a nonissue so far as I'm concerned. But the way they danced Hollywood was with a lot of footwork and very little rotation - I mean, like, people would spend whole blocks of music facing one another doing footwork and maybe some underarm turns or stuff like that, like they were doing six-count lindy in eight. When they did rotate it wasn't counterbalanced; they pulled in to each other and kind of spun on the balls of their feet.

Now, I don't mean to sound like a dance snob - there's nothing wrong with swinging that way. But like I said, most of the people there weren't very good (by which I mean that a lot of them were flashy but their lead/follow skills were pretty lousy, you could tell just by watching the couples). The trouble was therefore that I didn't know enough to match my partners' styles, and only a few of them could follow me with any sort of ease - and of course, to be fair, it's neither fun nor fair if your lead keeps throwing stuff at you that you've never seen. So the whole situation was rather unfortunate. I danced with one girl (who was actually a fairly good follow) and went into a four-bar liquid that made her dizzy as a first-time waltzer. Fortunately she told me, so I backed off into six-count for a while ... but when I went back into a regular swing-out she got dizzy again. And again, it was fortunate that she told me - but I don't know how to swing in eight-count without rotating. Very surreal.