Answers we should not seek

IMG_0878Remarking on the reason for writing the book, Diarmaid Macculloch provides the following comment in the Introduction to Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. 

“It (the book) tries to avoid giving too many answers since this habit has been one of the great vices of organized religion.”

Often false certainty is easier, more appealing, than thoughtful consideration of what we know for certain and what we do not know. The crowds flock to confident, assured personalities where platitudes are mixed with humor and occasionally inflammatory statements delivered with all the arrogance of a UFC fighter talking about the upcoming fight. Few are the people who will patiently ponder the intricacies of the true nature of reality in all that is known and all that has yet to be discovered. It is far more popular to offer confident assurances and sweeping generalizations than it is to think deeply and independently.

But if confident assurances are beloved by so many people, what harm could it be?

Far from a negligible harm, it can be seen that the art of drawing crowds and followers with impassioned, overconfident speeches has been the cause of nearly every global debacle in the past centuries. Religious and irreligious alike have been drawn in droves to these leaders resulting in some of the bloodiest conflicts in the history of the human species. It would not be an overexaggeration to say that if everyone patiently pondered their place in the world, the goals for their lives, and their hopes for the future, in the absence of a demagogue offering confident assurances and inciting mantras, these conflicts could have been largely avoided. The majority of Germans were not in favor of genocide and would have openly fought the notion prior to the inciting nationalism of Hitler and the Nazi party. The Japanese, an honor culture, was in many ways duped into believing a similar form of ethnic superiority sold by leaders who were certain in their convictions.

Perhaps if we were drawn by good questions instead of confident answers, thoughtful dialogue instead of fiery speeches, and quiet contemplation instead of broad overconfident assertions, we would see a more peaceful global climate.


A numbing adaptation


Growing up, I recall being terrified of mummies. The dried skin clinging to the shriveled body, the decayed head and bony hands. The vestiges of the embalming process present as loss wrapping hung now limply around the shrunken skeleton. Whether in a museum or book, the death and the customs surrounding the death were foreign in a terrifying way.

Recently, while wandering the halls of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History I came across a mummy. Interested, I walked over expecting the same feelings of fear and apprehension that had always accompanied close examination of a mummy. Instead, I felt nothing.

As I wandered off to look at other exhibits I wondered why this was.

In medical school we spend many hours with cadavers investigating first one organ system, then another. While the first encounter with your cadaver is cautious, even timid, indifference rapidly sets in. Every once in awhile you are stopped by the abrupt recognition of what you are working on. The details of the hands, the tightly closed mouth, the mottling of scars where previous injuries and surgeries left their mark. However, the majority of the time the face stays covered, the hands wrapped, and your focus narrows to a small area of study and dissection. The formaldehyde that once stung your nose and eyes is barely noticeable and the various textures of each organ system no longer bother you.

This is why I was no longer bothered by the mummy. Death was no longer so foreign and the embalming process not as startling.

It is interesting how the mind becomes numb and the focus becomes narrowed. In some cases we must actively avoid such numbing and narrowing whereas in others this can be a helpful adaptation, a welcome respite from more stressful pontifications and realities. Knowing which is which then becomes key.

We must care…



2016-05-07 19.10.53This is as political as this blog will get. The fact that this topic is construed as political is concerning. Somehow what is, in reality, a human and an earth problem, has been relegated to a small portion of political bickering in much of the modern world.

A bit of history. Originally there were two questions that needed answering: (1) was the earth actually warming up, in particular, at a rate that was faster than normal, global temperature variation? and (2) was human behavior responsible for such warming? The answer, obtained through rigorous and extensive research, has been a resounding yes. In fact, around 95% of scientists agree that global warming is occurring and is likely a significant problem. Getting scientific consensus, much less 95% agreement, is a challenge few other topics have achieved.

So why should we care?

If we care about human health we must care. Changes in weather will lead to, and have already begun to change and accelerate how disease is able to spread. Diseases that were once only endemic to tropical areas will spread diffusely as the globe warms. Pollution and environmental contamination has already, and will continue to cause chronic disease such as asthma and increase rates of cancer.

If we care about our countries we must care. Changes in global temperature will lead to loss of coastal and island areas. The natural resources will shift causes droughts and natural disasters which will threaten our

If we care about our neighbor we must care. The golden rule, love thy neighbor as thyself, is echoed in nearly every major religion. As a globalized world, it is no stretch to say that the best way to love our neighbor is to take care of land that we share. Although well intentioned, UN help from Nepal is what brought cholera to Haiti. Although well intentioned, missionaries to indigenous people were often the bearers of deadly disease. We must think carefully about our actions and how they will affect our neighbors, both near and far. In the developed world, most will be able to compensate for these changes and it is our neighbors in the developing world, already living with little buffer, that will suffer the hardest. If we care about “the least of these” we must care about global warming.

If we care about financial stability we must care. Hurricanes, famines, lack of natural resources, war, and chronic health problems strain and implode economic systems. Although financial stability should not be our primary motivation, we know that it is often one of the strongest motivators. If we save money for retirement, we must realize that the money is only as strong as the economic system backing it. Therefore we must invest in the environment through conservation efforts as systematically and methodically as we should our retirement accounts.

The challenge then is to do what we can now, as inconvenient as it may be, to protect the environment around us. There is hope. The majority of the world has recognized this as a problem but have yet to realize the motivation to act with anything beyond accords and empty words. If we care about human health, our nation, our neighbors, and our money we must be that motivation.