Monday, July 21, 2014

A Quick Thought on Calvinist Energy

Many at the time of the Reformation thought the doctrine of predestination would lead to quietism.  It was surprising that it led to the opposite.  Max Weber, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, shows why.

Calvinist activity in the world was not aimed at happiness.  But it produced happiness, because meaningful work is essential to happiness.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Is There a Theological Doctrine Against Exaggerating Dangers?

I am reading William Bouwsma's excellent portrait of John Calvin.  Bouwsma emphasizes that Calvin was a rhetorician, not a cool scholar.  He was a pastor, trying to persuade his listeners to change their lives.  Calvin also read the Bible as rhetoric of the same kind.

One of the main tools of persuasive rhetoric is to exaggerate the dangers that the audience faces if they continue their present lives.

In my work on happiness, I have concluded that the main solvent of the happy society is fear.  Fear mongers are a great danger to a happy society, because they undermine trust, and obscure how much the good actions of most people make the world better.

Which leads me to look for a religious limit to fear-mongering.  There is, of course, the general commandment against lying.  But I can't think of a specific religious doctrine or practice the guards against overstating the dangers of this world.

Overstating dangers is bad for the credibility and legitimacy of religious organizations, as we can see from the short life-span of doomsday cults. As a practical matter, most religious institutions that last more than a couple of generations do learn to tone down the end-times rhetoric, and start to build for the indefinite future.

Still, I can't think of a religious justification that I have run across for telling the strict truth about dangers and fears. 

Saturday, July 12, 2014

What Does the Contrast of Baking and Fermenting Mean? (A Half-Thought on Reading Michael Pollan's Cooked)

For our annual Centre sociology alumni study group we are reading Michael Pollan's Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.

In this very interesting study of the basic elements of food and culture, Pollan treats four elemental ways of transforming natural goods into human food under the heading of the four classical elements.  Under 'fire' he discusses roasting over a fire, under 'water', braising in a pot, under 'air', baking bread, and under 'earth', fermenting in many forms.

Pollan's account brings out the ways in which roasting is very masculine and braising very feminine.  This spectrum is not central to Pollan's analysis, but he notes this contrast as many others before have, notably the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss.

This has made me wonder if baking and fermenting form another pair of contrasts, perhaps cross-cutting the first.  Pollan does not directly contrast the two.  He does, though, note the association of fermentation with death - that we pause putrefaction long enough to eat the tangy middle phase.  Which suggests, then, that perhaps baking is the staff and symbol of life.  This certainly works in Christian mythology. 

Still, I have a nagging sense that there is a more down-to-earth pair that the making of 'air' and 'earth' foods is like.

Suggestions welcome.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Americans are Moving Less - This is More Good Than Bad





Moving to a new home is down among Americans over the past generation.

Business Insider, from which this chart is taken, thinks this is a bad thing.  High mobility is good for the housing industry, which is a big component of our gross domestic product.

My first thought on seeing this chart, though, is that stability is good for community.  People who stay are more likely to get to know their neighbors, have commitments to their community, and to benefit themselves from reducing the inevitable stress of moving.

Moreover, people who know they are staying are free to make big investments in their community, knowing that they themselves will reap some of the benefits. 

When Mrs. G and I decided that we were never moving again, we were free to (expensively) renovate our house for the long term.  This is good for the local housing industry.  And this investment is not just in our own home.  It made sense for us to invest in trees, and to help organize the neighbors for a mass tree planting in our neighborhood.

Both stability and mobility have economic benefits, for different sectors of the economy.  But stability has clear benefits for communities, and transience has large costs.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Is Generalized Trust a Fruit of Privilege?

I am working on how some people come to have a sense that people in general can be trusted. 

Some argue that we learn particularized trust from experience with specific people in specific institutions.  Generalized trusters then generalize from that experience.  This is Robert Putnam's position in Bowling Alone.

Others argue that we learn generalized trust at home as part of our morals, prior to and independent of our experiences in particular institutions.  This is Eric Uslaner's position in The Moral Foundations of Trust.

I incline to Uslaner's position. I would modify it by saying that generalized trust does depend on how trustworthy we find our family to be.  More exactly, I think most people find it hard to trust if they feel betrayed by adults when they are young, especially by the adults in their own families.

Uslaner found that people from intact, mainline religious families were more likely to be generalized trusters.

We know from other evidence that people from intact, mainline religious families are also more likely to enjoy most of the privileges of our society, made all the more powerful because they do not realize that they are privileged. 

SO, is generalized trust a fruit of that privilege?

My best thought at this moment is that privilege insulates you from many of the betrayals that would undermine a sense that people in general can be trusted.  Privilege does not produce trust, nor guarantee it.  But privilege reduces the circumstances in a young life that would undermine generalized trust.


Sunday, July 06, 2014

Calvinists Fear the World Less

This is a follow-on to yesterday's post, "The More You Know, The Less You Fear."

Calvinists famously insists that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  Therefore, it is reasonable to fear the consequences that God would, in all justice, give each of us.  The harder edges of the Calvinist family grow eloquent in describing how awful that just consequence might be (though one doesn't hear many hellfire sermons from Presbyterian pulpits anymore).

A lesser known consequence, though, of fearing God's justice is that it puts into proportion the world's problems and dangers.  The whole story of Creation has a happy ending.  The universe lasts a long time.  We have much work to do, to be sure.  But the possible bad things we could do have limits, and the promised help that Providence will give does not.

Fearing things truly worth fearing can make us calmer, more deliberate, and more reasonable about the lesser fears that beset us if we only see the little picture.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

The More You Know, The Less You Fear

This is an aphorism that I think I made up today.

It is a derived from a longer one that also came to me today:  the better your sociology, the more you trust strangers. This is because you have a better idea of which categories of people are dangerous.

I have been studying social trust, which I think is the crucial glue of the happy society.  Fear is the enemy of the happy society.

More educated people are generally less fearful.  I think this is because they have a more realistic sense of how likely any of the dangers they can imagine really are.  They are also more likely to research potential dangers, rather than rely on gut instinct or fears promoted by others.