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Wednesday
Jan282015

Renaissance as innovation, or 'how to sell wine'.

Paging through a wine industry magazine in the reception area of a recruitment company, waiting for what turned out to be a five minute ‘screening’ interview, the question of whether innovation necessarily means we need to come up with something new or different, came to mind. Of course it suggests some degree of change or rethinking of the status quo but not necessarily tampering with the essentials.

I was reading the editor’s thoughts, which was echoed in other articles in the magazine, on the challenges facing the wine industry. Besides the industry already being a very competitive one on a global scale, South African middle class palates are acquiring a taste for especially whisky among other high end liquors, while we are seeing the young, fast-growing craft beer industry providing another ‘sophisticated’ alternative to the market.

http://studio83.co.za/static/data/image/2012/03/screen_shot_2012_03_08_at_9_44_00_am.pngWhat brought me to the abovementioned question were thoughts on what it might be then, that is so attractive about whisky and craft beer? It might not be necessary to tell you, at this point, that I did not come to my conclusion by means of conducting thorough market research into the South African alcoholic drinks industry. I am simply sharing what I believe may indeed be a contributing factor in a preferential shift towards whisk(e)y and craft beer, from wine. And, from here my thoughts on the extent to which innovation brings about something ‘new’.

It could be that craft beer now offers an alternative beverage which could be described as smoky, earthy, floral, or grassy. It enhances the whole beer drinking experience from guzzling down a six-pack to something more culturally acceptable. Even better if you’re already a beer drinker who reluctantly opted for wine at times. But, what then about whisky? Is that not the age old product associated with kilted men and wintery rooms warmed by fire, which you can only like once you have ‘acquired’ the taste? I think, from a marketing perspective, this is exactly the point, and exactly the strength some of these ‘struggling’ wine labels ought to utilise.

Whereas many other liquor ads tend to focus on personal success or some form of self-actualisation (yes, you can probably youtube some examples to refute this generalisation), whisky ads follow a trend of using stories to have you buy into their character and values of old. It plays off the romantic longing for the former, the simple, and the honourable; the timeless which is still hoped for.

My theory then, that besides craft beer offering a new taste experience, it reintroduces something of old. The ‘story’ you are now drinking was not manufactured along with millions of other bottles of beer in a factory but was crafted by an artisan. You are drinking the fruits of a process which requires not only skill but passion-driven patience which operates through integrity – that unwillingness to produce an inferior product, for your skill is your means of worship. I recently shared a camp fire with a craft beer maker who confirmed this by telling me about his insistence on using the finest ingredients only. Or perhaps, it is your glass of whisky which contains a liquid representing age old methods, according to tradition, preserved in story.

Then, I was left similarly mesmerised and also envious, observing a pen master and a master archer show off their remarkable skills. I am not only envious of their abilities on display, but also of their ability to focus on one thing and staying committed to perfecting it, allowing it to serve its designed purpose through them. Unlike our cultural condition which leaves us constantly chasing moments of self-gratification, thriving on the inability to say ‘no’, resulting in constant dissatisfaction, these stories present us with commitments to a patient, sacrificial pursuit of a vision based in truth, achieved through the ability to say ‘no’, resulting in satisfaction. These people are not themselves the end goals of their actions; they find enjoyment in the ability to practise things ‘properly’ or ‘by design’.

Powerful stories are those reminding us of who we truly are, what we truly desire. Innovation is often the ability to communicate eternal truth in a new way.

 

 

Serv.

 

PS - hats off to Budweiser for using their 'lack' of story to create their own story as proud producers of macro beer: NFL Super Bowl XLIX adavert [video]

 

Top right picture is from Johnnie Walker's 'The Man Who walked Around The World' ad [video].

Bottom left picture of product by craft beer maker with whom I shared a camp fire [Zebonkey].

 

Friday
Jan232015

Raging against meaningless, demotivational 'motivational' rants

I just saw a motivational video by Jason Silva which I found upsetting and, in fact, demotivational (it may be that he did not create it as a motivational video but it is being passed around the internet as such, one blogger stating, "Jason Silva inspires the sh*t out of you."). The reality described in this clip is my reality - and the question I (physically) struggled through this past year or so; the advice given to overcome that reality in this video, is that which left me in a state of being overcome.

 http://www.defyennui.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/existential-bummer.jpg

Above quote by Ernest Becker is taken from the clip.

 

“Defying entropy and impermanence through our poems and films, holding on to each other ‘a little harder’, extending the ephemeral  into forever… or at least trying to do so?”, the narrator’s solution to dealing with the “existential bummer” of actual impermanence from a conviction embracing permanence.  This is the giving in to the reality, and the commitment to do so even more fully, that you will live as if your life matters, as if beauty is eternal and true, while deep down you believe it isn’t. (Hence: demotivational and, from my perspective, frustratingly impractical)

An open denial to accept what you perceive as real. Eternity perceived in your heart and mind, within relationships, from interacting with your environment; yet, you deduct meaning and purpose from your perception of the nature of that which is material and temporary.

 

Meaning requires eternity*.

 

The reality that life is empty and meaningless and that all that seems eternally beautiful is not, does not inspire me to live to the fullest, it sends me into a state of anxiety, feeling depressed. I find "raging against the dying of the light" excruciating. The knowledge that all that I hold dear and cannot deny the meaning of, is ultimately meaningless, destroys my joy and will. I cannot laugh and enjoy it, knowing that it, or what it is derived from, is not eternal, beautiful or joyful. The rage will pass, as will my laughter.

 

"All that is not eternal is eternally out of date" (Lewis).

 

Thankfully, this desire for the eternal, and the insistence that what is good and pure is truly so, is confirmed within reality. Material reality. God’s incarnate expression in Jesus of Nazareth, who does not suggest we laugh away our sorrows or rage against our own reason, but comes to declare his lordship amidst our eternal existence. His affirmation of eternal beauty and goodness is also an affirmation of our pain and suffering and confusion. He does not simply affirm it but opposes it and models the way towards its destruction. He does not ‘deny death’ but faces the reality and the awfulness thereof within eternity. Without Christ, without his cross and resurrection, I cannot laugh sincerely. But praise God, he is risen!

 

The good news for Jason Silva is that “loving harder” is actually an eternally meaningful thing to do.

 

 

Serv.

 

“If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” –CS Lewis

"Certainly there was an Eden on this very unhappy earth. We all long for it." -JRR Tolkien

 

* 'eternity' assumes an eternal source/perceiver of meaning

Tuesday
Sep232014

God and Morality - a response to Eusebius McKaiser

Eusebius McKaiser (political and social analyst at the Wits Centre for Ethics and radio talk show host) was recently involved in a public debate with John Lennox (Oxford Professor of Mathematics and renowned speaker on the interface of Science, Philosophy and Religion) around the question of whether there is a connection between morality and God. As I write this blog, I have not seen the actual debate but hope to provide a link to a video or audio recording thereof in due course. My response is simply to McKaiser’s own follow-up article which appeared in The Star after the debate. Below is a copy of the article with my notes inserted in italics. My assumption is that, as a public response to Christians, McKaiser refers to orthodox Christian doctrine and the following perception of God, and hope to respond as one of those adhering to that. Please point out any instance where I might depart from orthodoxy myself, especially where it would make McKaiser’s argument more valid.

 

Why God’s not a moral imperative

God plays no necessary role in moral reasoning, writes Eusebius McKaiser.

Embedded image permalinkI promised you last week that I would offer you full argument in this week’s column for why morality does not need God. Now that my public debate with Professor John Lennox has come and gone – and thank you for those who generously travelled afar to fill the Wits Great Hall – I can write out of my basic argument for those who were not there.

Although the public debate lasted some 90 minutes, the problems with Christian ethics are so incredibly basic that I can confidentially assert I can put Christian ethics on the back foot in under 800 words. Not because I am cocky (though I can live with a bit of shade thrown my way from internet trolls in this summer heat), but because Christian ethics do not live up to critical scrutiny very well.

Is murder wrong because God says so or does God tell you not to murder because it is wrong regardless of what God himself secretly thinks? How about rape? Is rape wrong only once God sends us a command “Thou shalt not rape!”. Or is rape wrong whether or not God commands us to not rape?

McKaiser presents two options here: murder or rape is wrong, either because God uttered a command which established it as wrong or because God identifies these as immoral deeds due to His recognition of a moral law, apart from Himself, which He may or may not agree with. Earlier McKaiser sets out to critique Christian ethics, but then starts off by describing a Deity unlike the one portrayed through the Christian biblical narrative, the One acknowledged by the orthodox Christian community through the ages as the true God. Firstly, he presents God’s utterances which convey moral laws as separate from God’s being and character. Christianity views God as Triune and holy. Holiness implies absolute moral purity, a state of wholeness and perfect relationship within the Triune Godhead. God’s holiness does not require imperfection or strained relationships as reference points for His wholeness; He is all-personal, all-relational and all-perfect within Himself. His very being is the moral standard; strained relationships between his creatures and Himself, among His creatures with one another and between his creatures and the greater cosmos, are ultimately what immorality looks like: that which does not reflect the character of the Trinitarian relationship. Thus, actions and thoughts are deemed immoral because of whom God is, and His moral utterances are never separate from that. God is also eternal and thus, the immorality of rape is eternal.

Secondly, he presents God as a being, existing under a moral law which He recognises apart from and fixed outside of Himself, having to comply with its absolute status. Holiness also implies that He is above, separate from, and different to all of His creation, of which He is the creative source. He is morally fixed, creation not. It was created with the potential to drift from its state of holiness. Christians believe that it has drifted and is drifting in that direction, bar His interventions.

Christians – and those of other faiths – have a huge problem answering these questions I’m afraid. They have only two choices. Either they can say rape is wrong because God or Allah or whoever doesn’t want us to rape, or they can say that God reminds us to not rape because rape is necessarily wrong as a matter of universal moral truth that is independent of God. But watch where that leads you though.

I have shown above why I believe he created a straw man Christian God, now even drawing other perceptions of God (Allah and others) into his definition. From that he creates a false dilemma Christians supposedly find themselves in, which may or may not serve his argument – it certainly misrepresents the foundation of the Christian argument.

If things are right or wrong only once God has given his view, then morality becomes completely arbitrary. We are at that point at the whim of God. If you’re an obedient Christian, this logically forces you to accept that if a missing page from the Bible is found tomorrow that says “Kill all racists on online comments’ sections”, then you must do so. It is God’s command, after all.

He continues with his above line of argument, still assuming ‘murder is immoral’ apart from God, which is not the Christian position, and also a moral claim he is himself yet to defend apart from his own ‘command’.

Well, Mr and Ms Christian, would you willy-nilly follow commands from God regardless of whether you personally feel comfortable with them? Would you? Is that a “No” I am hearing from you? Good. Because presumably you will only follow moral commands that are rational and meaningful. There is nothing rational or intelligible about a command to kill left-handed people, say, just because some authority instructs you to.

So, we can safely conclude so far that it is not desirable for morality to be based purely, and uncritically, on God’s wishes or on what God had for breakfast. We want more. We want reasons.

Again, it is assumed what Christians would answer. But would orthodox Christians answer in that way? At the centre of the decision to follow Christ exists the denial of self, or the proverbial “taking up of one’s cross”. Throughout history, Christians have followed God’s commands despite their own discomfort. He of course suggests a non-existing command which would make God seem immoral…but by whose standards?

There is good news. You could, instead, accept that God tells you not to murder because murder is wrong. Murder is wrong whether or not God exists. Murder is wrong whether or not God says so. And if God says to you you should not murder, he isn’t inventing a fresh, new moral command; he is simply communicating a sensible moral command that already exists widely in our societies for good reasons, in the same way I can communicate sensible rules to children: “Don’t hit your sister, Johnny! It’s wrong to go around just hitting people for no reason my boy!”

If I didn’t exist as Johnny’s dad, that wouldn’t make it right for him to kick the living daylights out of his little sister. The wrongness does not depend on me, as dad, saying it is wrong. In the best-case scenario, I simply play the minor cameo role in Johnny’s life by uttering what should and should not be done. The wrongness consists in the violation of her entitlement to respect and dignity by virtue of being a human being, flowing from social and psychological truths we have come to know about human beings over time like a general negative preference for being beaten up (unless I consent, in some circumstances).

McKaiser now aims to present his case against murder. He likens God to a human father, once again a being operating within the cosmos, subject to cosmic absolutes – remember, not the Christian understanding of God. Being a human being entitles one to not be murdered, is, in effect, what he is saying. Why are human beings, consisting of the same or similar materials than all other material things in existence, so different though, and entitled to this respect and dignity? He reveals it to be a matter of preference… unless there is consent… in some circumstances. What he basically does is he places morality within the (preferably) autonomous individual. He moves from absolute or objective morality to relative or subjective morality. It is reduced to a matter of opinion. Although, he does not appear to be an absolute relativist (irony not intended) but rather a modernist rationalist, who believes in society’s collective ability to discover what we ‘ought’ to do, apart from God of course.

So Christians, and other faiths including Islam and Judaism, must make up their minds: Do you follow commands regardless of what they are? Or do you concede you can tell me why cheating or killing or raping or terrorism are all wrong without making references to supernatural beings? And the truth is you know you can articulate the wrongness of these activities without reference to a God. That means God is not needed for morality. God plays no necessary role in moral reasoning and he plays no necessary role in you puzzling through questions of right and wrong.

What happens here is, he continually operates from the assumption, which I believe he has not yet defended, that killing, raping, terrorism(!?) are all absolutely immoral, then states that he can argue that it is wrong apart from mentioning God and that Christians ought to agree. Personally, I cannot articulate the wrongness of abovementioned activities without reference to God, and I understand that to be the orthodox Christian position.

I was shocked that Lennox’s main response to me was that he partly agrees. I asked him if he could write me a 500-word essay, without making reference to his Christian God, but still explaining fully in that essay why it is wrong to murder. He said yes, he could. That is a gigantic concession that is going to be archived on YouTube. Yes, I am pleased about that. Many Christians would have said: “No, it is not possible.” I was so taken aback, I thought the moderator surely ought to stop the debate right there. Lennox had crossed the argumentation floor!

My personal issue was with McKaiser’s argument presented above and that was what I wanted to respond to.

He further states, though, that Lennox agreed with him on there being no necessity to invoke God to argue for the immorality of murder, for instance. He was quite shocked to hear him say that, as that would mean he made a concession which faults his own argument, in favour of McKaiser’s. I will leave you to be your own judge, and more so once footage of the debate becomes available, on whether it truly was such a concession. Having followed Lennox’s talks and debates online, I interpret his statement to mean that, “Our ability to reason and conclude absolute moral rights and wrongs, serves as evidence pointing towards an absolute moral source. Both those who acknowledge such a source and those who don’t, are equally able to discover those absolutes because of our rational,God-given ability to discern an absolute moral law.” In Lennox’s conversation with John Maytham on Cape Talk Radio, he mentions that evidence points towards God but we still need to decide whether it is indeed true. If He is not, morality is as relative as McKaiser portrays it, and I am convinced Lennox will agree with that. If he does not, however, I would disagree with him on that point.

But he then explained why it is only a partial concession from where he was coming from. He insisted that God still plays an important role because God gives him, and me, the rationality that, in turn, helps us to reason about morality. So while him and I can both reason about the wrongness of murder with no reference to God, God is responsible for the rational capacity that enables us to reason.

This is a shockingly poor retort, though, and one he has trotted out many times in debates with Richard Dawkins and others. They never called him out on an elementary problem with this response. I don’t even have to say I don’t believe in God’s existence to explain what is unconvincing here. Even if God exists – no, more generously still, let’s pretend that the Christian God with all his bells and whistles really does exist – so what if he gave me the capacity to reason? That doesn’t save the day. It still remains that people can, as Lennox conceded, reason about morality in their daily lives without praying to God, without consulting the Bible, and without talking to their priests. That means God is not necessary for us to distinguish between right and wrong.

Sure, we should give God a bucket of umqombothi for giving me rationality. But the conclusion remains: we can now know rape is wrong without asking God if it is wrong. Where the rationality capacity comes from is a question for another day. In the context of reflecting on the connection between morality and God, we can safely conclude that God plays no epistemic role in the explanation and justification of moral rules that govern our societies.

Lennox’s argument is a bit like saying that just because my mom gave birth to me, she is a necessary part of the explanation of how I solve a maths problem.

Without her, I wouldn’t exist. That is true, but it is an utterly uninteresting truth when you congratulate me on winning a Maths Olympiad. The fact is that my perfect solutions for the maths puzzles are intelligible, and justified, regardless of who or what my mom is or the fact that she gave birth to me.

So thanks, God, for giving me rationality. But sorry dude, that means you are not needed beyond that. Your rationality gift has, sorry for you, rendered you unnecessary in moral reasoning. If you disappeared permanently tomorrow, I’ll still know the difference between right and wrong.

He ends off in his last few paragraphs, reasoning from the same ‘God character’ he created initially, and argued from throughout: a God who may have created him (McKaiser) as a rational being, but not along the Christian understanding of God as the perfect measure of all meaning and morality; also, once again likened to a parent figure within, and not apart from, reality.

 

 

Serv. in reply to Eusebius McKaiser

 

"Doing away with all religion to get rid of oppressive religion leaves us with an atheism which places no value on human beings” –John Lennox, Stellenbosch University, September 2014

"Something is a meter long inasmuch as it is the same length as the standard meter bar; something is good inasmuch as it approximates God." –William Alston

 

Monday
Sep222014

A vision of 'Africa redeemed' - Harriet Beecher Stowe

From time to time I come across an article, speech or writing  which just has to be shared. Not necessarily reported on or disected, just shared. This is one such article which is filed under the Verbatim section.

 

Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin (published in 1852), a novel which played a significant role in the lead-up to the abolition of slavery in the United States. It is rumoured that Abraham Lincoln once quipped that Stowe was responsible for the bloodshed of the civil war, as this book exposed the reality of slavery within American society, to the extent that people took sides around the issue based on their reading of this novel. As an African, although probably not included in Stowe's initial calculation but certainly in the modern sense of the word, I share her hope below - not on any other grounds than my perception of God and of history.

 

"Tom, therefore, in his well-brushed broad-cloth suit, smooth beaver, glossy boots, faultless wrist bands and collar, with his grave, good-natured, black face, looked respectable enough to be Bishop of Carthage, as men of his colour were, in other ages…

…If ever Africa shall show an elevated and cultivated race –and come it must, some time, her turn to figure in the great drama of human improvement– life will awake there with a gorgeousness and splendour of which our Western tribes faintly have conceived. In that far-off mystic land of gold, and gems, and spices, and waving palms, and wondrous flowers, and miraculous fertility will awake new forms of art, new styles of splendour; and the negro race, no longer despised and trodden down, will, perhaps, show forth some of the latest and most magnificent revelations of human life. Certainly they will, in their gentleness, their lowly docility of heart, their aptitude to repose on a superior mind and rest on a higher power, their childlike simplicity of affection, and facility of forgiveness. In all these they will exhibit the highest form of the peculiarly Christian life, and, perhaps, as God chasteneth whom He loveth, He hath chosen poor Africa in the furnace of affliction, to make her the highest and noblest in that kingdom which He will set up, when every other kingdom has been tried, and failed; for the first shall be last, and the last first."

 

 

 Serv. via Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom's Cabin, ch. 16, p.227-228)

 

"...if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land..." -2 Chronicles 7:14

 

Wednesday
Sep032014

A New Social Covenant...requires virtuous individuals

The ‘New Social Covenant’ document produced by the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council (WEFGAC) was recently discussed in Stellenbosch. This event, which was co-hosted by WEFGAC and Stellenbosch University, is part of a series of global gatherings seen as reflective opportunities through which a new, global Social Covenant can be developed. The series of difficult challenges the world is currently facing is ascribed to a “broken social contract”. It is described as a “time of crisis”, largely due to a “loss of trust” among individuals and groups.

I will not be able to give a full account of the discussion and did only attend the two public sessions, namely ‘A New Social Covenant – a philosophical perspective’ and ‘A New Social Covenant’. My aim, as per usual, was to establish which questions or obstacles lie at the bottom of what was being discussed.

The ‘New Social Covenant’ document produced by the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council (WEFGAC) was recently discussed in Stellenbosch. This event, which was co-hosted by WEFGAC and Stellenbosch University, is part of a series of global gatherings seen as reflective opportunities through which a new, global Social Covenant can be developed. The series of difficult challenges the world is currently facing is ascribed to a “broken social contract”. It is described as a “time of crisis”, largely due to a “loss of trust” among individuals and groups.

                                                                                 Photo (l-r): Suzanne Ackerman-Berman, Derek Yach, Trevor Manuel, Jim Wallis, Bronwyn Nielsen (moderator)

I will not be able to give a full account of the discussion and did only attend the two public sessions, namely ‘A New Social Covenant – a philosophical perspective’ and ‘A New Social Covenant’. My aim, as per usual, was to establish which questions or obstacles lie at the bottom of what was being discussed.

The core values, and proposed application thereof, was the first section of the provided seminar booklet I noticed as a positive starting point to this ‘journey’ towards a new social covenant. It is acknowledged that previous attempts at a social contract/covenant (terms which were used interchangeably during the seminar) had a ‘too strong’, although necessary, emphasis on individual rights. Along with the dignity of the human person being central to such a covenant, the importance of a common good that transcends individual interests, and a concern not just for ourselves but also future generations, was highlighted. Jim Wallis referred to the selfie as the ‘symbol’ of modern individualism within a society which, as suggested by research, acts rather with instant and self-gratification than posterity in mind.

‘Covenant’, as explained by Tom Donaldson during the philosophical perspective session, differs from a contract in the sense that it is not merely transactional but has a moral dimension. The main areas of concern: the broken social contract, (economical) inequality, loss of trust, and the implementation of a working stakeholder economy. The first question then: which moral vision would inform the development of the new social covenant? Some speakers suggested a removal of metanarratives followed by the discovery of “shared values”. Do we then create a new metanarrative? Can any person or group continue to move forward intellectually apart from an existing metanarrative or is this a case of “you lay down your narrative and operate along mine”? Or was it simply another way of saying, “let’s listen to one another”?

Donaldson suggests many micro social covenants, as one grand covenant is too idealistic. His co-panellist, Gayatri Spivak, broke it down to the individual, stating that individuals will have to adopt these required values. Thought-leaders are given the responsibility to “rearrange desires”, such as the desire for social justice, and then only thinking and behaving in an ethical manner can, very importantly, become habits. Donaldson adds that formulated concepts such as laws can never influence behaviour; moral paradigms – what people believe is right – ultimately influence behaviour. Then again, which moral vision would thought-leaders employ to rearrange desires? Which guiding worldview best creates ethically thinking and behaving individuals? Suzanne Ackerman-Berman, in the second session, shared her concern about the destruction of societal values and suggested that mentoring, whether in a parent-child or other relationship, is the only way through which values are preserved.

This was the great, untouched question for me: how do we develop rational, self-governing, society-serving, ethically thinking and functioning, individuals?

Apart from the abovementioned summit, philosopher John Gray suggests that, "the unique status of humans is hard to defend, or even understand, when it is cut off from any idea of transcendence". Considering an aim to develop covenants hinged on the concept of human dignity, requiring a moral responsibility towards ‘equal others’ in generations present and future, under a shared historical narrative; is this ideal fathomable apart from any reference to God? Especially, considering that the moral element typically associated with a covenant requires involvement from a higher moral agent. Nick Spencer believes that, in America, because Christianity was not part of the initial federal structure it could never end up being a coercive power such as it had been in Europe. Os Guinness, in addition, states that although Christianity, in the case of the United States, was not initially their officially established faith, it was welcomed because it was a faith that provided a “thick” notion of virtue.  Faith, he deducts, acts as the inspiration of virtue, the content which tells people what virtue actually is. In other words, although the “constitution excluded any mention of God” (Spencer), faith was allowed to act as the source from which individual virtue is cultivated.

WEFGAC’s vision invites engagement and collaboration from various stakeholders, including faith groups, and I would suggest voices from faith communities are indispensable in the development of social covenants which requires virtuous individuals in order to function.

 

 

Serv.