Saturday, July 11, 2009

What's on my nightstand

It's been a couple weeks of Iroquoian linguistics:

* Marianne Mithun's "Stalking the Susquehannocks"
* The Lord's Prayer in Shavannice (ca. 1707)
* van den Bogaert's vocabulary of Mohawk
* Couq's "Principes de Grammaire Iroquoise"

I'm trying to see if there's any evidence of an Iroquoian-based trader jargon. So far, not really.

Splitting the Indifference

This was a guest opinion column that was published in the Bucks County Courier Times, I think sometime in 2000 or so.

Most people who say all religions are true don’t realize what they actually mean is that most religions are false. But let’s take them at their word for a moment.

Is this “enlightened indifference” a way to preserve the core of spiritual truth that seems to be reflected in the major faiths?

Not a snowball’s chance in he...uh... I mean, some underworld place.

There are worse heresies than indifferentism, but none quite so weaselly. Because not only does it get the truth wrong, it doesn’t even care what the truth is. Far from being a good way to reconcile world religions, it is a condescending insult to all of them.

Suppose I were to try that indifference in scientific matters, saying that what all cultures said about the creation of the world was true. I might think the earth was, say, plates (modern science) on the back of a turtle (Lenape), watered by the blood of a giant (Norse), held up by another giant (ancient Greece), on all of which lays a goddess (ancient Egypt).

Yeah, I read some pranksters at NASA got in trouble last year for pointing the Hubble space telescope up Atlas’ tunic.

Fact is, there ain’t no turtle, there ain’t no giants, and any modern devotees of the Egyptian sky goddess Nut ought to save us a bit of paperwork and take their deity’s name.

If you don’t like that example, suppose you have been framed for a crime you didn’t commit. (Member of the A-Team, perhaps?) You want a full acquittal, the prosecutor wants to give you the chair. But before the trial even starts, the judge pulls you aside and says:

“Look, to be honest, I can never tell which side is right and which is wrong in these things. So how about we just compromise? I’ll sentence you to 15 years, and oh, I’ll make sure you get a satellite dish.”

See folks, when it’s your keister going to jail all of a sudden it matters an awful lot what the truth is: you stop being wishy-washy and you pay attention.

Yet when the choice is between eternal banquets with the angels and nightly dinner dates with Hitler, suddenly truth isn’t important. We stop wanting to get to the bottom of things, although with that attitude we may just wind up on the bottom of things anyway. (Tip: the word on the red joint downstairs is that the wait takes forever and the service is just awful.)

If you are committed to your religion, you can’t help but disagree strongly with anyone who is committed to another religion. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, it is a great opportunity for learning. You will undoubtedly try to prove yourself right and the other person wrong—-but no matter who ends up on the winning side, just in the act of debating you are already being forced to think and forced to grapple with the issue. Whether you were right or wrong, you have been forced to figure out why.

But enter indifference, and debate stops. Learning stops. Thinking stops. Indifference steps pretentiously into the greatest debate of the ages, and proclaims as Captain Picard once did in a rather silly episode of Star Trek:

“I declare all disputes resolved.”

Because instead of actually dealing with the facts and researched the claims, we’ve lazily resorted to splitting the difference.

We can’t split the difference between right and wrong, folks. If one guy tells us that 2 + 2 = 4, and someone else tells us that 2 + 2 = 6, we better not be so lazy as to average the answers and say five. The guy who said six was just plain wrong, which we would have discovered had we actually done the math ourselves.

Finally, let us stipulate, just for the sake of argument, that all religions—-including Christianity—-are basically true.

A basic belief of Christianity is that all religions are not true, which contradicts our original premise. Therefore, assuming all religions are true, then Christianity is not true, which means that all religions are not true after all.

Try to declare that one resolved, Captain.

Inaugural Foreword

Let's get one thing straight right now. I'm a book guy, not a blog guy. I've written, edited and compiled dozens of books. Got that down at this point. But blogs? I've started a few, kept up with none of 'em. It ain't my medium.

With writing, I like to take my time. Hours and hours. I like to come back to things and tweak 'em. Endlessly. Read and reread. Test the language, test the idea--does this really work? Can I say this better? I like to leave things alone for a few days, weeks, even months and then attack 'em fresh. All of which makes for horrible blogging.

So why this one then?

Well see, here's the thing. Like most people, I like a little encouragement now and then. And you get no encouragement deep in the caverns of a library looking up some obscure references, or toiling away in the small hours of the morning. Neither do you get much encouragement from the guy who picks up your book half a continent away. Well sometimes you do, and that's nice, but it's not enough to get a scatterbrained unfocused and largely undisciplined writer to buckle down and get projects done.

Plus, my wife suggested it. And she's smart about these things.

So here goes. Wish me luck and say a prayer as I try to adapt to this new medium.