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Tuesday, December 8, 2015

There is no God, but

"There is no god but Allah." By this pronouncement, Islam forbids idolatry.

Yet, like Christianity, Hinduism, and other religions, Islam often practices and even promotes idolatry. Extreme fundamentalists or true believers worship human beliefs, human artifacts, and human leaders. They take many of their values, their words, their teachings, their rituals, out of context. They often even treat their priests, prophets, and rulers as though they are in full possession of Truth.

Idolatry is the act of worshipping symbols, that is, making gods of human artifacts. Idolatry treats objects as though they were absolute. Absolute means to stand alone, on its own, without need for anything outside itself, without condition, unrelated to space or time, separate from social or cultural influence. Absolutism is more than a philosophic illusion. It is a ethical and political decision.

Iconoclasm is the other side of idolatry. Iconoclasm also treats human symbols or artifacts as absolute--that is, absolute evils that must be wiped out. Extremist fanatics consider unbelieving humans or nations as evil incarnations to be massacred to please their gods. They also consider that the symbols of other religions and their incompatible beliefs and artifacts are idols that must be eradicated.

Whether they cry "Allah" or "Christ," "ISIS" or "USA," idolators are iconoclasts and iconoclasts are idolators. They make the claim of ultimacy for their religion or nation. The deluded couple who just massacred government workers in San Bernardino were Islamic idolators and iconoclasts just as the terrorists of ISIS are. But those US politicians, who stir up the hate of the fearful ignorant and call for war against Muslims, are American and/or Christian idolators and iconoclasts. They exhibit the apex of hypocrisy: the practice of idolatry in the name of faith in a transcendent God.

When the Taliban deface the sacred images of Buddha and the warriors of ISIS destroy Christian and Jewish mementos or ravage sites venerated by Shiites, they practice idolatry in their iconoclasm and break the main law of Islam. As do the KKK and other white supremacist groups when they set fire to black churches or attack muslim mosques. The jihad or crusade of the terrorist is to impose their absolutes on the world.

In authentic faith, there is nothing absolute; all things have existence and meaning in their relations to each other in a relational universe. No absolute good, no absolute evil. Nevertheless I believe in a supreme evil--the evil of idolatry/iconoclasm. It is the human choice to deny our contingency and the contingency of everything we create or articulate including our stories, our religions, our science, and our institutions. It is also the human choice to deny the sufferings of others and sharing in those sufferings.

And here is where I discover the supreme good. The opposite of idolatry and iconoclasm. It is companionship in the struggle to transcend our illusions of absolute beliefs. The solidarity of jihad for faith and justice. The joy of being in relation with others and experiencing their suffering. Compassion.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Truth in Politics

So in the postmodern era, what is truth? Since the postmodern mind recognizes that our concepts and our paradigms are fictions that are part of an imaginative order that shapes our worlds, does that mean we have no obligation to truth?

Indeed, if we read those who are fact-checking political candidates, we realize that many candidates are making statements and taking positions that they know are false. And some of the biggest liars are the most popular because they are saying things that fit well with a large section of the electorate who want to hear and believe what they are saying. Are these politicians postmoderns?

According to the postmodern insight, there is no absolute out there in some Big Mind or Supernatural Space or in the Thing-In-Itself. The absolute is an illusion created by the very act of using categories like words and formulas to grasp hold and make sense of stimuli from the environment. All the sound and light waves of the universe, all the atoms and molecules reaching our senses, are gathered by our brains into things and related to other things within a narrative, an imaginative fiction that we humans create together. When these models work, we call them beliefs or laws, but the postmodern mind realizes that they are contingent--belonging to a particular space-time. And therefore they must be doubted, questioned, and readied to be rejected for better ones.

So if there are no absolute truths, does that take liars off the hook? Can postmoderns say anything at all if it is in their interest? Is, as Ivan said, everything permitted when you take away the gods?

As was stated in an article in Scientific Mind: "The brain is not a laptop, but presumably it is an information processor of some kind, taking in inputs from the world and transforming them into models of the world and instructions to the motor systems that control our bodies and our voices." These models (categories, analogies, words, formulas) are true when we verify them: that is, when we connect them to experiments that can be repeated by others, when we put them out there for peer review, not to fool anybody or ourselves, but with honesty, that is, as part of a pure desire to know.

What makes our models true is our verification of them together in a relationship of discovery and community. Everything is not relative, just as nothing is absolute. Yes, of course there are realities in the world, we postmoderns believe. We put them there through our collective imagination and verify them together.

Scientific knowledge requires a certain amount of disinterest on our part, an honesty in our search to understand, and a desire to demonstrate the truth based on the facts as we see them. And so does politics.

The postmodern insight (that may be as old as Socrates and the religious prohibition against idolatry) frees us from our fixed habits of thought and action. It frees us from the fictions we have created by criticizing and refining them and even tossing them away for better concepts in a new imaginative order. It allows us to create new models for understanding, ones that are more inclusive, that work better for all of us.

But such freedom carries the responsibility to be faithful to the data and responsible to each other.

The political candidates that spew positions that either cannot be falsified (such as bigotry and name-calling) or that are falsified by thoughtful investigative reporters, are not postmodern thinkers. They are sociopathic liars. They violate not only the canons of good science, but also that of good religion and good politics.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Future of Housing--Atlantic Conference

Yesterday I attended the Atlantic/AARP Future of Housing Conference. Some takeaway questions.

1) HUD Secretary Julian Castro discussed a San Antonio Leadership program for older, retired citizens to use their experience working with communities and nonprofits. Why doesn't HUD develop a volunteer program for former HUD workers to work in their regions with nonprofits and cities on affordable housing strategies? 

2) Many participants discussed the need to increase the supply of affordable housing especially through densification while avoiding and overcoming segregation. But we know that a new segregation is occurring, mainly economic, related to income inequality, but also having racial/ethnic characteristics. Instead of just focusing on developing new projects, how can we make the regional housing market work to achieve regional goals?

3) I agree with Bruce Katz that there can/should be a devolution of power to the cities, meaning metro regions. I disagree that the national government has no role in this development. It needs to a) stimulate regional planning and commitment, b) stimulate systemic housing market change, and c) monitor and intervene on inequalities within and among regions.  HUD, DOT, EPA, Commerce need to change their toolkit to focus less on specific projects and more on regional outcomes. This was begun in the first term of the Obama administration, but hardly carried to fruition. Also former Secretary Steven Preston developed a Field Advisory team that was very influential in getting HUD better focused in regions and less top-down. That should have been maintained in the Obama administration. 

4) I attended earlier Atlantic forums hosted by Steve Clemons with some excellent leaders in public and private sectors. But the dots are not yet connected. Steve asks great questions. Yesterday he asked the former HUD employees, like myself, what HUD should do differently, how they would design HUD to meet present problems and possibilities? There are good answers out there. 

How about the Atlantic through CityLab developing a team (Brookings, Urban Institute, EPI, HUD PD&R, and some folks in the Field to hash out a new more systemic strategy to answer Steve’s question? This might even have an impact on the presidential candidates.