Letter to Roger Ebert
Various Musings
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20130303                                  Government (Partisanship)                                Morality

Written March 3, 2013 in response to his article in the Chicago Sun Times, Roger died two months later. I got to hand Art Mirsky my thanks just weeks before he died too.
Dear Sir,
If I may be so impertinent as to intrude upon your time ---- Beautiful. Thank you. You are a great teacher for us all. Today in your column you dare to say “Religion ain’t all bad”; and that, sad to say, is courageous today. We all draw deeply from the Christian well, despite our loud proclamations otherwise (Note 1). Thank you for admitting what is so obvious, yet so denied.

If you are interested, following are a few observations about items from your column printed March 3, 2013 in the Sunday Sun Times, just to introduce myself. These specific comments, in no particular order or relative significance, are just examples used then to support more general observations raised by your wonderful column. Wonderful because I read you to believe “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”

Item 1: When you said you can understand that vulgarity of some art is explicable (perhaps to draw attention to the vulgarity around us would be my guess), I can agree. It is or at least may be an accurate “metaphorical” observation, if you can accept that oxymoron. I also agree that I won’t hang it on my wall; my own art fills all the spaces and it is not at all vulgar, nor for sale.

Item 2: 4% of clergy involved in sex abuse. I suspect that is lower than the general population, especially given the focused attention and “me too” effect. Have you ever dragged your hand closer to a young attractive woman in a crowd, or at least for an instant in your mind thought about it, perhaps even with an instant of self-recrimination? I have. One in twenty actually having brushed? Maybe. Once? Twice? Perhaps.

Item 3: I love your statement that you aren’t an atheist because that implies “too great a certainty about the unknowable”. A quote for the ages.
So with that possible commonality of thought, though just about minor particulars, I explore the possibility that perhaps we attempt to follow the same stream of “morality” through the seemingly impenetrable forest of doubts. I had to laugh when you said you are a devout catholic and don’t believe in God. Me too, but I was raised Presbyterian and taught about Jesus, as a stoic, at my mother’s breast. I also find great wisdom in other traditions such as, Lao Tzu, Epictetus, Buddha, Shakespeare, Euclid, Descartes, Newton, David Hume, and You.

As I follow that stream, I oft’ wander into the forests adjacent to the streams, for nourishment of body and soul, sometimes nearly forgetting, for lack of necessity, which bank I am on, the left or the right. Deep in the forest, of course, it doesn’t matter, the forest looks and indeed is pretty much the same on both sides; food is abundant. Though we both seem to follow the same stream, sometimes we appear on different sides, sometimes the same. I often see you while I am on the left bank, by random intersection of two wanderers or of only one I cannot say, for sometimes you appear on the right also so appear to wander as do I. I suspect the priest you quoted today (the same Andrew Greeley I enjoyed reading also?) walks both banks as well when he said sometimes “Our Lady” wears blue, but perhaps he was being snide;. Again, I cannot say. I interpreted what you said he said as;

“Who is to know whether either or neither of our Lady of Lourdes or the Lady in the Blue Dress is a divine apparition or not, the lord attends to all his children and false prophets abound”.

Speaking of false prophets, dangers as well as nourishment lurk in the forest along either bank. I believe the “civil” morality of the day (abundant on both banks) is desperately attempting, as a Machiavellian power play for some, to cast “religion” out, so “common human decency” and all its attendant “rights” can flourish without the constraints of traditional religious dogma, such as “homosexuality is a sin” (noting I don’t think Jesus said anything about that one either way).

One danger lurks in our tendency to relish the “casting out” of evil, the infliction of punishment, rather than “turning the other cheek”; our tendency to curse god (who we don’t believe in) for death and hate, for creating an unsavory world with people killing kindergarten children even, rather than thanking god for life and love, which are far more the common behavior. Our tendency is to want to “change” the world (read other people) and make it (read them) better rather than, again, “turning the other cheek” and leaving it (the sin in others) alone while we walk away and keep our own heart pure.
Another danger, of course, lurks in the social structures (institutions) needed to pool and manage the resources, human and capital, needed to make the world better, at least on any scale that matters. Many seem to believe the larger the organization, the more good it can do: hierarchies. Hierarchies, of course, mean all people have power over others and all people are powerless before others. “Well, someone has to be boss, right? Might as well be me, I am just a servant anyway, right?” The danger lies in the source of my skepticism. Does one want to do the “good” because she wants the power, or because she wants the good? Is anyone who runs for office disqualified by the very desire for the power that comes with the office? Does one want to do the good of the organization or just “hold a job” or for many volunteers just “get out and be with people”?
A third danger lies in the tendency to justify doing evil to prevent even greater evil, therefore shifting the balance toward the good, therefore doing good. To fight evil, some seem to reason, we must unfortunately adopt their methods, for they hide, lurk, cheat, steal, torture, murder, and coerce so to find them in their lair and root them out we must hide, lurk, cheat, steal, torture, murder and coerce; we must “kill bin Laden for Jesus”.

Still another danger in pursuing betterment, especially if defined as economic “fairness”, is the application of supposedly universal principles to restricted political groups, i.e. “us”, e.g. nations. The common “Christian” ideal shared by both republicans and democrats is that those with more should give to those with less, our progressive tax codes legitimate that morality. But I note that the poorest of the poor in America north of the Rio Grande are by far and away richer than the typical person, even than the typical “rich” person throughout most of the world, except Christian Europe too. The world is knocking and quoting Jesus to us. I think these and other dangers warn that pursuit of “riches of the heart” measured by other peoples’ hearts, won or lost, saved or condemned, joys given, miseries cured or miseries prevented also must thread the eye of the needle. I’ve got enough trouble with my own heart to prefer not wasting my moral efforts on others. This is an unusual view, I know, especially in our modern world of “progress” both economic and moral, based firmly on Kant’s categorical imperative, which just restates the golden rule, the “goose” rule. So, it seems to me, many seem to believe betterment is not only good but an obligation.

Yin and Yang. Perhaps the troubles of the world are all traceable to someone’s actions undertaken, at least in part, to make things better for other people. However, I believe this minority view is as ancient as the first writings from throughout the world (c. 600 – 400 BC) and available to us, from among other places, in the ever current Sermon on the Mount. This view of pursuit of “riches of the heart”, which some might call extreme right bank, others extreme left bank recognizes also the more commonly cited difficulty of the economic “eye of the needle”. It seems this difficulty is challenged by nearly all of the current economic-growth “right wing”. However, it is difficult, said Jesus, not impossible as believed by many of the current self-flagellating “left wing”.

Thank you again for the stimulation and for the courage to admit you have Christian based morals, as we all do in large degree, at least all of us who grew up in America, whether we attend or attended church or not.
Note 1. It is interesting to note that in Israel you cannot run for the Knesset unless you formally acknowledge that Israel is a Jewish state, no matter if you are a citizen, whether Muslim, Christian, Jew, Hindu, Arab, Semite or Gentile. Israel is about 75% Jewish by their own “legal” definition of “Jewery”, which, as I understand it, requires at least one grandparent being a member of a synagogue or other demonstrable practice of Jewery. By that definition, we are more than 95% Christian, but can you imagine the howl (here and throughout even more “Christian” Europe) if someone proposed a constitutional amendment that forbid running for Congress unless you admit the USA is a “Christian” nation. We would be all in a tizzy; the rest of the world, the non-Christian world would say, “Duh!”