Immune Systems, Individual and Social

I listened to Russ Robert’s interview with Moises Valsquez-Manoff (on Econtalk) yesterday on my drive to pick up my daughter. The conversation was about recent studies showing the role increased hygiene plays in the rise of allergies and auto-immune diseases. Apparently in at least some cases parasites (hookworms and malaria are two examples given) influence the human immune system to tolerate the presence of the “guest.” The immune system is weakened enough to allow the parasite, but no so weakened that the hose succumbs to the invader. This weakening benefits the host by turning it away from things that are not harmful (allergens in the case of allergies, and the host’s own body in autoimmune diseases).

I’m not a biologist, but here’s my understanding of how immune systems work. Taken most simply they have two functions. First, they differentiate between the body and the not-body. Put another way, a healthy immune system polices the boundary between what is me and anything that would be seen as a threat. Proper function here has two parts: successfully identifying real threats, and letting be anything that is not a threat. Second, having made this identification, the immune system seeks to neutralize the threat. When the immune system is successful in its identification of threats and in its attempt at neutralizing threats, the body lives on to fight another day.

Individual organisms have immune systems. I believe social systems have immune systems also – well, at least functions analogous to immune systems. A healthy social system has agents/routines/practices in place that differentiate between what is of the system and what is not. The healthy social system will also have a way to neutralize what it takes to be a threat so that the system can continue.

Let me shift course a bit. In a healthy social system there is bonding social capital that holds the system together. It binds member to member and makes the group cohere. The social immune system is one aspect of this form of social capital. The concept of social capital, popularized recently in the work of Robert Putnam, is actually of ancient vintage, first theorized by the medieval scholar Ibn Khaldun as what he called asabiyya.

Like some immune systems, the social immune system can fail to function well. As to the first task, it can fail by missing an attack from outside, or misfire by taking part of the social body as an outsider. As to the second task, the failures are more complex. Something correctly identified as a challenger can overcome the social system, destroying social cohesion. It can also rewrite the system’s ‘DNA,’ the ideology of practices, beliefs, and institutions that make it what it is. It’s also possible that the social immune system might practice overkill, committing evil against the invader (which is usually the people in whom the invading idea inheres). Xenophobia can be seen as the social immune system run amok. Akbar S. Ahmed has illustrated this last form in his discussion of the hyper-asabiyya of groups like Al Qaeda.

I know all this is very rough so far. I’m still working through these ideas, so bear with me. My goal is to think through the current chaos – and lack of social cohesion in the United Methodist Church and other mainline churches. If social systems have something like an immune system, and a church is an instance of a social system, what might it look like for a church to have an immune system? The Inquisition might come to mind. My assumption is that that would be an example of an immune system gone awry.

What if the social immune system is like the individual (biological) immune system? What if an absolutely strong immune system is actually bad for the organism as a whole? Complete social cohesion, even to the degree of xenophobia not only keeps others out (sometimes violently), but also keeps the system from achieving its goals. Take the church, for example. The church is called explicitly to philoxenia (hospitality), the exact opposite of xenophobia. To the degree we totally reject that which is foreign we fail in our mission. On the other hand, the church does need an immune system. There are threats that would deChristianize the church (the push toward xenophobia itself being one of them). How do we strike a healthy balance here?

What do you think of this use of metaphor? Is it useful? How can we develop it further?

Posted in Al Qaeda, Clash of Civilizations, Politics, Robert Putnam, Samuel Huntington, Social Capital, United Methodism | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

A Suspicion about Bubbles & Inequality

When I’ve read about retirement planning I’ve often seen references to savings earning a return averaging 8% a year (just recently I’ve seen the 6% figure used). That’s been tougher to find lately, as “safe” investments (federally insured accounts) are paying at a rate below the rate of inflation.

If one has piles of money lying around, one wants to find a decent rate of return, so what is one to do? One looks for some market area or segment that looks (the least bit) promising and plows the money in. The result is asset bubbles as prices are artificially inflated, surpassing the inherent value.

I suspect that as income (and asset) inequality continues, there will be a procession of bubbles as investors chase good earnings. If income (and assets) were more equalized, people at the lower end of the economy would be able to engage in more consumption, helping businesses. At the same time, a greater distribution of wealth would spread the saving across the economy, rather than just at the top. The combination of greater economic activity across all quintiles would do more for the economy than does the current practice of concentrating wealth in the hands of the elite.

Caution! This is only a suspicion on my part. I have no degrees in economics to base this suspicion on. What do you think of my suspicion?

Posted in Current events, Economics | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Discovering Your Real Self

We sometimes have the idea that our job in life is to discover our real self. This self exists independent of all our life experiences and the forces of society that intentionally and unintentionally make us over into something else. Christians who take this position might see this true self as the self created by God, yet distorted by sin and the pressures of living in a corrupt world. As we turn from our sin and rid ourselves of the influences of the corrupt world, the original God-created self can shine through. Those who don’t believe in a created self might attribute the origin of the real self to our DNA or some sort of fate.

Inasmuch as we’re human, we’re made in the image of God. Being made in the image of God gives us a commonality with all other humans. It is both past oriented (we have a common origin) and future oriented (we are invited to a common destiny). This common creation in the image of God means that all of us have a significant portion of what we are in common with others, whether those others be family, friends, or even enemies.

If we are of an existentialist bent, we will reject the idea of there being a self to discover. Rather than have some essential self that is there all along, our job as humans is to create a self. What we do makes us what we are. If I love, I am a lover. If I sin, I am a sinner. There is no self to which I must be true: I create myself as I go along. It is the existentialist within us that bristles at the notion that we ought to “hate the sin, love the sinner.” If I am what I do, then when you say you hate what I do (sin), you are saying that you hate me (the sinner). You may make a distinction, stuck as you are in your essentialism, but I, an existentialist, feel only hatred and rejection. There simply is no distinction between what I am and what I do.

I don’t find either of the accounts I’ve mentioned so far to be very useful. Approaching the problem phenomenologically, I from time to time sense a distinction, a distance, between what I do and my “real self.” This is where I can identify with what I read in Romans 7: Sometimes I know the right thing to do, having a concept of “right thing” not merely as something declared right by the forces of society or some bossy controlling God who is out to ruin my life, but as something even I consider right. I know the right thing but do it not. In this case the “hating the sin and loving the sinner” is not the stance of an external judge but my reflection on myself. I have a sense of a better life – both a better life in general and a better life “for me.” I want to change so that I can do all within my power to instantiate that better life.

I also don’t think there is some real self there for me to uncover. Not in a substantive sense anyway. My ontology is structured around the reality of story. I live in a story. I am a character in this story. This story is partly my own, partly others. On the grandest level, my story is part of the story of God. If there is such a thing as “discovering my true self,” that discover is not directed toward the self, but directed toward God. As I discern more clearly and truly God’s story and my role within that story, I, as a result, more truly discover my self.  As I become a willing participant in the story of God, as I submit my (partially) self-written story to God’s story, I become more the person God intended me to be. As I become the person God intended me to be, I find that result to not just be better for God, but better for me as well.

Some are inclined to dig within themselves to find the deepest insight into what God wants them to be. Popular as this is, I see it as a way too prone to self-deception. It is a way that too easily reasons, “I am this way, so this must reflect what God wants me to be like.” Alexander Pope famously said a few centuries ago, “Whatever is, is right.” I can’t say that either about the world or about myself. I know myself to be a sinner. I know the world to be marred by my sin and the sin of others. So is the fact that I am a sinner me “real self?” That I am a sinner is a current reality about me that I need to take into account, but it is neither the identity for which God made me nor that for which he intends me.

Christians take the story of God to have climaxed in history in the story of Jesus. Jesus went to the cross not thinking “whatever is, is right,” but with the apparent conviction that the world and its inhabitants were in desperate need. In Christ we see that God wanted to do something about my current identity as “sinner.” God’s desire was so great that he sent Jesus to do something about it.

In a sense I am called to recapitulate the story of Jesus in my own life. He said, “Take up your cross and follow me.” My taking up my cross will most likely look rather different than his taking up his cross. But if I do it rightly, my taking up the cross will be recognizable at some point as an echo of his taking up his cross. I will die with him so that I may truly live.

This notion of a life submitted to God is rather unpopular these days. We value autonomy (being a law unto ourselves) and condemn heteronomy. Heteronomy is for children, not adults. Once we’ve clarified our desires, we ought to seek what we desire, submitting to no one. If there is a story of God, that story is a story of oppression. We want the freedom to make our own story, now and every day.

As Christians, however, we turn away from the notion that we make (or ought to make) ourselves, that we are (or ought to be) a law unto ourselves. We look to God as the good Creator who loves us beyond measure and is wise far beyond our capacity. Entering into the continuing story of Jesus is good for us and the people around us.

Posted in Ethics, Theology | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Beauty in the Eye?

Beauty in the Eye

Most of my students express the conviction that beauty is always and only in the eye of the beholder. In the face of differing accounts, assessments, and experiences of beauty, this position seems natural. I take the music of Bach to be beautiful while another takes it to be just so much noise. I look at the landscapes of the Hudson River School and find beauty while others look to Jackson Pollock’s work for their exemplars of beauty.

A downside to this subjectivist point of view is that we have to leave behind the intuition that there is beauty in the world. When we look at the sunset or painting, when we hear the song or watch the dance, we take ourselves to be experiencing beauty. We think that when we perceive beauty in these things we are perceiving something that is there. We might even have the experience of saying to a person, “You are beautiful” (or thinking that of ourselves). If, however, beauty is always and only in the eye of the beholder, such experiences are mistaken. There is no beautiful thing in the world. Rather, what we have are experiences of things in the world that we decide to call “beautiful.”

If beauty is always and only in the eye of the beholder we also lose another dimension of our talk about beauty. We imagine, perhaps, that one might be judged to speak truthfully one when says of a thing, “This is (or is not) beautiful.” Assessments of beauty, can, we think, at least sometimes be correct or incorrect. However if beauty is always and only in the eye of the beholder, then there is no right or wrong, unless we count lying as a form of being wrong. When asked, “Do you like these shoes?” I can respond, “Yes, they are beautiful,” whether I take them to be beautiful or not. In this case there is a gap between my assessment (“not beautiful”) and my words (“beautiful!”). When this happens it is my statement that is wrong, not my assessment. Since beauty is always and only in the eye of the beholder, my assessment (the “speaking of my eye”) cannot be right or wrong. It simply is, and is the sole arbiter of beauty.

There is another dimension of our experience of beauty that is called into question with this account. Some of us take time and effort to learn how to produce beauty. We – or, more likely, our teachers – may see that our beginning efforts in some craft fall well short of producing beauty. As we work in the craft we develop two things in parallel. We develop the capacities to discern beauty in terms of certain canons of the art at the same time (though perhaps not at the same speed) we develop capacities to produce the art. At the very beginning our capacities of discernment go no further than “I like that” or “I don’t like that.” As we train our senses, however, we learn to see, hear, and experience more than we did initially.

This notion of learning beauty is, I believe, an important pointer to why we so commonly believe that beauty is always and only in the eye of the beholder. As we have shifted from the predominance of production to consumption, we have lost the skills necessary to discern the goods internal to the practices of the arts. In fact, as nearly pure consumers, we have even mostly lost the notion that there even are goods internal to practices. Practices inhere in communities of practice. As our culture becomes more and more individualistic, we lose the notion of communities of practice in favor of the notion of lonely practitioners accountable only to themselves.

Andy Crouch wrote (and spoke) about the contrast between the experience of buying a CD and learning to play an instrument. When we buy the CD and first listen to it, our satisfaction is high. Since we own the CD we can listen to it over and over. As we listen over and over, our satisfaction tends to go down. We soon need to buy another CD to regain the level of satisfaction we had with the last CD. This pattern of consumption normally results in decreasing satisfaction over time. When we learn to play an instrument, Crouch says, our level of satisfaction follows a different pattern. While we may have initial excitement when we first begin, we quickly learn that we’re horrible. We heard beautiful violin music when we were at the concert (or listened to the CD!), but our first attempts sound to us and to our families like the wailing of a dying animal. Our satisfaction quickly becomes rather low. But as we practice, as we put in time learning the instrument, our satisfaction gradually grows. We have learned to produce beauty, not just consume it.

If Crouch is right – alas, I gave up my instrument in 7th grade – then we have an important insight into how we might recover a richer experience of beauty that can take us beyond ourselves. I know very little about painting, but I know what I like and don’t like. If I took time to study, perhaps even to learn to produce, my judgment will change. I will learn to be able to assess beauty in a more informed way, in a way that is more than just the equivalent of “I like it.” For us to regain this ability as a culture will require that we slow down and adopt the perspective of practices. This won’t be an easy shift – consuming is so easy and cheap, after all. I think it would be worth it, however.

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Vision or Memory

This morning’s preacher worked from Philippians 3 and urged us to “press on.” In his message he used a “preacher story” about a man who was faced with a major medical crisis. If he had the risky surgery, he might lose his sight. If he didn’t have the surgery, he could lose his memory. Which would he choose>as told in the story, he chose the side of sight. “I’d rather see where I’m going than remember where I’ve been.

I understand this point. I like to know where I’m going. Picky person that I am, however, I’m not happy with the minimization of the role of memory. In fact, I don’t think we can adequately understand where we’re going – or even that we’re going – without memory.

Let’s try the real world for a moment. I’ve known many people throughout the years who faced the reality of losing their memory – usually through some form of dementia, and others who have faced the reality of losing their sight. Unlike the story, they weren’t faced with an either/or decision. But that’s not the point. As a friend – and son (and grandson) – of people who have lost their memory, I know that that loss is more than a simple “I don’t remember the events of my life.” The loss of memory is a loss of relationship and identity. With dementia people lose their families – even when those families are still around them. They lose the memory not just of complex things like the failures and losses of life, but of the simple tasks we take for granted like walking and eating. Memory matters.

Let’s suppose that sight is to be most valued because we want to see where we’re going. We want to be future-oriented rather than past-oriented. That’s a good idea. We live into the future. But where are we going? Is my intention to go to a particular place or to achieve a particular goal possible without the memory of those intentions? Without the memory of the skills necessary to fulfill those intentions?

Doubtless there are elements of our past we’d rather not remember. Some of these elements were inflicted on us by others, some were self-inflicted. Some come with great pain and sadness. Some damaged us deeply. Assuming, for the moment, that losing the memory of those events will also erase the effects of those events, such a loss of memory sounds like a good thing. But I’d suggest it’s not wholly good. At least some of the things we’ve suffered have made us stronger and better (no, I’m not going to argue for the silly cliché that “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger”). We’ve learned from what has happened to us and from what we’ve done. What we’ve learned helps us understand what we’re seeing ahead and can aid our discernment of where we’re going in the future. Without the memory that a particular action leads to pain or disaster we might be doomed to experience it over and over.

So which would I choose, if I had to give up memory or sight? If I were absolutely forced to choose – and I’d rather not be – I’d choose to give up sight. I love my sight. I love reading and experiencing visual beauty. I love being able to navigate the world for myself, whether by walking or driving. But consider that little phrase, “for myself.” I believe I would be ahead in life if my memory were intact but I had to rely on others to help me see. I know the other situation. When my dad could no longer remember who we were, when he and others I love could no longer even remember who they themselves were, we who loved them could remember. That’s the light in the darkness, the good news in the midst of the loss of memory. I might not remember myself any longer, but I am remembered. People know me even when I no longer no myself. And when all those who know me fall away, God remains. Ultimately then, my identity doesn’t lie in my knowledge of myself, important and lovely as that is. Neither does it lie in my being known by other people. My identity finally, and most blessedly, lies in being known by God. That’s the kind of knowledge that will hold me through eternity. It’s in eternity with Jesus that I will not only come to know as I am known, but also to see as I am seen. I will see myself, others, and God in a way that makes even my current (mostly adequate) sight seem like blindness.

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The Problem with Names

We Christians have sorted ourselves out by name, imaging that our names are of supreme importance and essential to our identity.

I’m a Methodist. Our tradition got its name because John Wesley and his Christian buddies at Oxford were methodical in the way they practiced their discipleship. Outsiders thought it an insult, Wesley claimed it for what became a movement. Now, too often, we have methods out the wazoo, but have left the life long behind. We look at other churches to say what we’re not.

Lots of folks around here are baptist. The baptists got their name from other Christians who were shocked that they REbaptized adults! At the beginning the focus was not on defining themselves in terms of baptism, but in terms of intentional discipleship as opposed to the nominal faith of cultural Christianity.

In the early 19th century a new movement arose – the Restorationists. These folks looked at the variety of denominations across the land and believed that just being a plain Christian was the thing to do. Instead of being a denomination, like the Methodists, the Baptists, and the Presbyterians, they’d just simply be the “Christian Church” or the “Church of Christ.” But, alas, so many even in that profoundly non-denominational movement settled for thinking that their non-denominational names named denominations.

Some might think that the thing to do is to avoid negative definitions – to stop defining ourselves over against other groups. That sounds good, but I don’t think it’s possible. Inasmuch as each of our churches are traditions, we are inevitable defined by conflict, both internal and external interpretive debates (as we see in MacIntyre’s work). If this is the case, however, my hope is that our churches will spend more time defining ourselves against non-church, non-Christian, outside movements and forces. My prayer is that we can be better at acting like we’re on the same team (even if some of our teammates may be wrong about something from time to time).

Posted in Ecclesiology, Ecumenism, John Wesley, United Methodism | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pat Oldham, Woman of Faith

Pat Oldham, a member of a former congregation, died today. During my years there Pat served in almost every capacity, official and unofficial. More than serving as committee member (and chair), lay speaker, UMW leader, etc. Pat was a woman of faith. Some might say she was a woman of faith because she had such an easy life. Those who would say such a thing didn’t know Pat.

Pat fought and overcame cancer at least three times. She’d been plagued with health problems for years. But she didn’t let it get her down. She was a woman of faith.

Pat also outlived all but one of her children. Having even one child die is hard. When I taught confirmation classes in that church, I’d take the kids on a field trip to the local cemetery. I thought they needed to learn to take death seriously – and Christianly. I took Pat with me on these field trips. After the kids wandered around a bit, looking at the gravestones, we’d talk about what they saw there. Pat would also take them to where her children were buried and talk about her experience. She was a woman of faith.

Pat’s faith leaked – it was public. She invested herself entirely in others. When she saw a need, she’d try to meet it, even if it cost her. Was the task difficult? It didn’t matter. Did it require her to do something completely new and outside her comfort zone? It didn’t matter. Pat loved people and wanted to see them know and experience Jesus. She was a woman of faith.

My prayer today is not for Pat. She doesn’t need it: she’s with Jesus. My main prayer is that God would multiply her number – raise up a hundred more!

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