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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.

 

Tuesday
Aug262014

Heyr, Himna Smiður (Hear, Smith of the Heavens - a hymn)

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.

 

 

http://decoratorsnotebook.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/screen-shot-2012-09-26-at-16-06-18.pngThis Icelandic hymn, composed by Kolbeinn Tumason on his deathbed in 1208, was brought to my attention earlier this year as a facebook friend posted a modern rendition thereof to his timeline. I am fascinated by, and appreciate how, various cultures relate to the Lord in worship. Norse culture, in particular, intrigues me and also then this referral to the Creator as “Smith of the Heavens”.

 

 

 

 

 

Hear, smith of the heavens,
what the poet asks.
May softly come unto me
thy mercy.
So I call on thee,
for thou hast created me.
I am thy slave,
thou art my Lord.

God, I call on thee
to heal me.
Remember me, mild (king),
most we need thee.
Drive out, O king of suns,
generous and great,
every human sorrow
from the city of the heart.

Watch over me, mild one,
Most we need thee,
truly every moment
in the world of men.
Send us, son of the virgin,
good causes;
all aid is from thee,
in my heart.

 

The music to the hymn was composed in the 1970s by Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson (1938-2013), one of Iceland's foremost contemporary composers, and can be listened to as performed by Eivør Pálsdóttir or Ellen Kristjándsóttir (with English word translation).

 

 

Serv. via Kolbeinn Tumason

 

 

Thursday
Jun262014

Noakes, nutrition and the nature of evidence 

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to talk to a small group of people, participating in a training programme, about the concept of apologetics and what an apologetic is. As I looked for a practical, current example, the (in)famous ‘Tim Noakes diet’ came to mind. I’m not sure how well my example served my audience on that day but an article which could serve as a useful example for future conversations is now conveniently trending on facebook.

“Tim Noakes – making a ‘Real Meal’ of critics who say his diet is dangerous”, reads the article headline. Noakes, director of UCT’s  Research Unit for Exercise Science and Sports Medicine, and Discovery Health professor of exercise and sports science is defending his high-fat, low-carbohydrate (HFLC) diet against those who regularly label it as “dangerous and bad science”.

http://cdn.24.co.za/files/Cms/General/d/2717/b960cea2332c4a8eb110157568a4da5e.jpgIn this article, Noakes responds to accusations of him using ‘bad science’ with what one would presume is ‘good science’. Noakes defends his position regarding the effects of a HFLC diet on a person’s health, refuting the supposed faulty claims made against his position. Noakes is delivering an apologia (defence) in response to his accusers’ kategoria (accusation).

A first thought that came to mind was whether Science, a practice committed by fallible people, is as almighty as the populace would often believe? An accomplished scientist recently told me that his area of work does not leave much room for argument or debating from different perspectives but simply ‘commenting’. I think he argued that, while literary works are (more) open to interpretation, scientific exploration hardly is, and that preconceived ideas do not influence interpretation of evidence – which made me wonder why scientists bother to read the work of their predecessors? I’m not too sure what was meant by ‘commenting’ and such but am open to the possibility that we misunderstood one another around the concept of critiquing theories, preconceived ideas and his field of work.

From the ‘Noakes debate’ it is clear that scientists do disagree, that further exploration provide more clarity and better understanding, and that various human-character factors may play a role in this disagreement and inability to acknowledge the same truth. The abovementioned article suggests, as I often hear scientists complain, that it is a matter of the media misrepresenting the views of scientists and therefore an opportunity has been provided for one of Noakes’ main detractors to post a response of his own after Noakes’ clarification of his position.

Noakes further draws attention to what the scientific method in his sphere of involvement entails, stating that all in the field of medicine begins with anecdote. “Scientists determine the truth on the basis of clinical trials, personal experience, and what patients tell us. None of these things is more important than the other”, he continues to explain.

It seems fair to say that while all scientific exploration involves a realistic search for truth, not all scientific findings are necessarily true, and ‘the science’ is not as clear cut as many would suggest. I am not suggesting scientific exploration can’t lead us to true understanding of aspects of our surroundings but that ‘Science’, often portrayed as an enlightened being with a will of its own, is ultimately still just that: humans trying to reach a true understanding of aspects of their surroundings. The inquiring mind of many a great philosopher, mathematician and scientist has been agitated by the enigma of the human mind’s ability to interpret and use the inherent design of things by means of mathematical formulae, to paraphrase Albert Einstein. His surprise at this mystery is otherwise revealed in the statement that “the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible”.

http://thesituationist.files.wordpress.com/2008/12/god-versus-science-time-magazine-cover.jpgScience aside (sort of) brings me to another statement by Noakes which drew my attention as I read through the article a second time. Although he has broken out of old paradigms as far as nutritional science is concerned, he is still caught up in another old paradigm, namely the fact that science is based in reason while religious beliefs flow from a form of ignorance. He accuses his main critic of practicing 'religion' because he continues to believe in ideas which science has disproven on the basis of evidence. Now, of course Noakes may be referring to certain specific religious movements but the blanket statement itself is one of ignorance I believe. And what is more, he seems to invoke a god-of-the-gaps, which will be discussed below.

Australian ancient historian and theologian, Dr John Dickson, recently responded apologetically from the Christian perspective to some of these notions categorising Religion and Science (the ‘Beings’ with wills of their own it seems) as two alternative, exclusive sources of truth as follow:

“Aristotle was the first to point out that persuasion occurs through three factors: intellectual (logos), psychological (pathos), and social or ethical (ethos). People rarely change their minds merely on account of objective evidence. They usually need to feel the personal relevance and impact of a claim, and they also must feel that the source of the claim - whether a scientist or a priest - is trustworthy. Christians frequently admit that their convictions developed under the influence of all three elements. When sceptics, however, insist that their unbelief is based solely on 'evidence', they appear one-dimensional and lacking in self-awareness. They would do better to figure out how to incorporate their evidence within the broader context of its personal relevance and credibility. I think this is why Alain de Botton is a far more persuasive atheist (for thoughtful folk) than Richard Dawkins or Lawrence Kraus. It is also why churches attract more enquirers than the local sceptics club.”

“One slightly annoying feature [popular among New Atheists] is the constant claim that believers invoke God as an explanation of the 'gaps' in our knowledge of the universe: as we fill in the gaps with more science, God disappears. Even as thoughtful a man as Lawrence Kraus, a noted physicist, [recently] did this on national radio following new evidence of the earliest moments of the Big Bang. But the god-of-the-gaps is an invention of atheists. Serious theists have always welcomed explanations of the mechanics of the universe as further indications of the rational order of reality and therefore of the presence of a Mind behind reality. Kraus sounds like a clever mechanic who imagines that just because he can explain how a car works he has done away with the Manufacturer.”

“One of the things that becomes apparent in serious Christian literature is that no one uses 'faith' in the sense of believing things without reasons. That might be Richard Dawkins' preferred definition - except when he was publicly asked by Oxford's Professor John Lennox whether he had 'faith' in his wife loving him - but it is important to know that in theology 'faith' always means personal trust in the God whose existence one accepts on other grounds. I think God is real for philosophical, historical, and experiential reasons. Only on the basis of my reasoned conviction can I then trust God - have faith in him - in the sense meant in theology.”

 

 

Serv.

 

A year ago I attended a lunch hour talk on Stellenbosch University campus in which Prof. John Lennox discusses this very God vs Science debate which is so active in popular discussions.


Further thoughts on Proving the existence of G-d by Prof. Brian Leftow.

 

 

Thursday
Jun052014

Time traveling X-men: a future hope in salvation past 

A measure of wishful thinking, birthed in missed opportunities, explored through the discipline of physics. It is a ‘real’ hope of turning what ifs into realities. Real but not realistic. Time travel makes some sense scientifically, yet the law of causality seems to remain a hurdle which renders this concept implausible – depending on what or who it is traveling along and whether it is going backwards or forwards.

I recently witnessed such a portrayal of time travel in the latest X-Men film, Days of Future Past. Characters find themselves in a dire situation in a time beyond our own present day, realising the only way to escape the inevitable fate to which they are doomed within this dystopian society, is to go back in time and interfere with the historical narrative they form part of in order to change their sombre destiny which, in real time, is upon them.

Time travel in the broad sense concerns both space and time. It is said that, “time can't exist without space, and space can't exist without time” and this is because space are three dimensions of reality, namely height, depth and width while time is a fourth dimension which some refer to as duration or ageing. The two exist as one (the space-time continuum) and any event that occurs in the universe has to involve both space and time. Through Einstein’s theory of general relativity it has been discovered that gravity does not only pull on space but also on time. This means that if a person is propelled from a given starting point at an extreme velocity, that person can eventually reach the place where he is ageing slower than those who remain at the starting point, exposed to gravitational pull under initial conditions. The fast moving person (A) ages only one year in the time it took those left behind (B) to age two hundred and twenty-three years, for instance. This means that he finds himself 223 years ahead of them within one year’s time and thus has travelled into the future. On similar but opposite grounds, it appears that A as the initial position could move back in time to a state of B.

That seems good as far as ageing or duration is concerned but as soon as one brings interrelated events into play, it becomes problematic. Could A have been directly involved in life events lived by B during their hundred year life time? If B moved to A in the future, is their supposed past lived in initial conditions still their actual past, now that they find themselves in A? Or otherwise put, do people moving between A and B have two separate histories or only one? This is where problems surrounding the law of causality, or cause and effect, comes into play. Once a person travels into his own supposed past, he interferes with the story leading up to the very future he just travelled from while physically living in multiple moments on a historical timeline. The logical inconsistencies involved become apparent and it is for this reason that the concept as a realistic possibility is often rejected.

In the X-Men film, the consciousness of a character is sent back in time to inhabit a (his own younger) body while his present day body remains in the current moment. (Those who consider consciousness a mere product of bodily functions would perhaps suggest his present body is physically recreated in the past; the two bodies thus simultaneously hosting one consciousness?) He goes through some trouble to convince his ‘new’ acquaintances, some of whom he is ‘yet to meet’ in the past, that he is from the future and well familiar with them and their destiny. He gets them to understand how desperately important it is to be cautious of their future actions, considering the consequences it is bound to have in the proposed dystopia, in which he now exists.

Events boil down to a moment where one of the characters, Mystique, finds herself in the decisive moment, trapped in the circumstances which led to their ultimate destruction as explained by the visitor from the future. She is now faced with a choice: act instinctively and do what appears to be just, abandoning many people to the future already foreseen; or, act in a contrary manner for the sake of obtaining salvation for all those doomed to suffer in the days the ‘man from the future’ foretold?

This portrays a real hope, alive in so many today living with the knowledge that a universal ‘fixing’ is needed. Some point to multiple past events responsible for our current and future fate as a global society, others to the human condition as the ‘event’ which needs rectification. But who will go/come back to fix it?

The Gospel testifies to a reality in which something similar to time travel is possible. It presents the space-time universe as having come into existence from an outside dimension. God, who is Himself beyond this continuum, spoke all things restricted to space-time into being. He is not bound by its restrictions and knowing the beginning from the end, operates from a perspective where He exists in the past, future and present at any given moment. Beholding the whole universe in the present, God looks from the beginning of time with perfect foreknowledge while looking back from the end of time with perfect hindsight. His entrance into the world in the person of Jesus of Nazareth is thus both an expression of time travel into the future and the past – when measured from our perspective, along our timeline. One can deduct from Old Testament writings that God began leaking His plan, to physically enter the space-time continuum at a future stage, through prophets from the past. Jesus, who entered space-time, existed before he made this entrance; in fact, he existed before space-time came into existence. Jesus also came into material existence from a future day, a day of intense anguish for many. The events of that future day are greatly dependent on Jesus’ decisions and actions while on earth. He eventually finds himself in a decisive moment, trapped in circumstances which will greatly influence the ultimate desolation awaiting many. He is eventually faced with a choice: act instinctively and do what appears to be just, or act in a contrary manner for the sake of offering salvation to all in the days he has ‘foreseen’?

What we know is this: Mystique chose the path of meekness, and so did Jesus; her actions bought a future salvation in that very moment, and so did His; her salvation is for those lives influenced by her actions, His for those who actively trust that his actions saved them; her salvation is temporary, His eternal.

 

“When you are courting a nice girl an hour seems like a second. When you sit on a red-hot cinder a second seems like an hour. That's relativity.” - Albert Einstein

 

 

Serv.

*apologies for any misrepresentation of basic time travel theory or Christian doctrines, please share corrective thoughts below.

Friday
Feb072014

Character vs Competence

These two skills-to-be-developed have been on my mind of late. Ever since I heard a SITC lecture by Os Guinness in which he mentions that character - referring to a virtuous character, consisting of traits such as honesty, loyalty, patriotism – is considered unimportant by many today who see competence as all that is necessary in leaders.

In posting the ‘Character vs Competency’ thought as my facebook status, the first repsonses questioned whether the two should be considered as opposing concepts, if they do not enhance one another rather?

 

“Its like the chicken and egg thing! Cant have the one without the other.”

“…why "VS" though? Surely both at the same time is first prize? Are you thinking of the situation where if you can't have both and you are forced to choose only one of the two, which one is most NB?”

“Character first, but competency breeds excellence. A good/strong character will per definition hunger for competence - thus, inseparable if character is put first.”

 

I presented it as 'vs' as a way of expressing the two traits being considered but also, because there exists this notion that competency is enough, as Guinness pointed out in his lecture.

I tend to agree that character is to be the foundation guiding competency, being the moral foundation from which power is exercised. The All Blacks, New Zealand’s national rugby team, is statistically the most successful elite sports team in any code and revealed some of their secrets to success which seem to support this notion. One of these secrets is the recognition and implementation of a Maori concept known as whanau, which means 'extended family' and is symbolised by the spearhead. “Though a spearhead has three tips, to be effective all of its force must move in one direction. Hence the All Blacks mantra 'No D*******s', a term shamelessly stolen from the Sydney Swans. The All Blacks select on character as well as talent, which means some of New Zealand's most promising players never pull on the black jersey – considered d*******s, their inclusion would be detrimental to the whanau.” Similar conversations are happening around the sacking of Kevin Pietersen, a very competent and experienced English cricketer. Is it because he was not good for the whanau or is it because of reasons currently unknown to the public?

I recently came across a statement by James Madison, fourth President of the United States and chief architect of the U.S. Constitution, saying, “We have staked the whole future of American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future of all our political institutions upon the capacity of mankind for self-government; upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God”. It could be argued, however, that one of the major contributors to many social ills today is that fact that people demand the right to be autonomous yet are unable to practice self-control; thus, want to be left to freely exercise their will while lacking character.

But which is more attractive to us and why? Character or competence? Not in retrospect but while it is being exercised. Which will make us oversee a lack in the other? Sport is such a useful example, so let’s think clichés like a ‘Tiger Woods’. We very easily forgive bad character as competence overshadows it. And besides, we are interested in his ability to hit a golf ball and display the nerves and concentration to do so consistently and under great pressure. We are not interested in what happens in his bedroom. Are we also not interested in what happens in the bedrooms of Bill Clinton, Jacob Zuma and Francois Hollande, as long as they are competent? But they are leaders in decision-making positions; of course we want to know whether we can trust their character or not; their character trickles down to all the rest of us. Am I busy comparing apples with pears here? Do the character traits of sport stars or entertainers, who are extremely influential culture shapers, not trickle down to the rest of us too?

Do we ever find that incompetence is overshadowed by an excellent character? Perhaps someone like a 'Pierre Spies' (South African rugby player) serves as a good example. He has become an ‘incompetent’ Springbok player over the years but portrays great character (thus far), yet, we do not hesitate condemning him to the ash heaps, simply because he sucks at Duane Vermeulening his way around the field. We miss the fact that the Bulls' season seemed to crash last year when he as their captain got injured, despite the fact that his own performance weren’t worthy to have him re-selected as starting Springbok eighth man. Being a nice guy surely won’t win you any trophies and that's what these guys are paid to do but are we not over-celebrating competence while under-celebrating character? I often see how people I would typically consider ‘(at times childish) troubled individuals’ (or “d*******s” in New Zealand) are hailed for how ‘brilliant’ they are (be they sportsmen, musicians, actors, businessmen etc.) while the mediocre ‘good guys’ are often ‘useless’ or ‘pathetic’ or ‘should be killed’.

Why is this so that competence excuses bad character more easily than the other way around? I suggest: Competence entertains us, character challenges us. The former is often more attractive, less confronting. I used oversimplified examples perhaps but I believe my general point may stand.  Or is it simply a result of our entertainment and consumer culture in which these 'characters' function?

 

 

Serv.

 

"If you are smart but do not have a strong character, you cannot do much." -Nicolas Chamfort

 

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power.” –Abraham Lincoln

 

“It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.”-Mark Twain