William James on Human Immortality

William James was one of the leading American pragmatists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although highly empiricistic in his bent, his openness and increasing sympathy with belief in a transcendent reality is remarkable. Especially through his research for his Gifford Lectures on religious experience, which culminated in the classic text The Varieties of Religious Experience, James’s views seemed to shift from openness to bona fide belief.

In his 1898 essay “Human Immortality” James argues that even if we assume the brain-dependence of the mind, this does not rule out the possibility of life after death. James begins with the assumption that “thought is a function of the brain” and so asks, “Does this doctrine logically compel us to disbelieve in immortality?” 220px-William_James_b1842cHe answers negatively, and all he needs to do to support his thesis is offer a reasonable way in which such survival is possible even given this assumption. This would show that the functional dependence of the mind on the body “has in strict logic no deterrent power” when it comes to belief in immortality.

“The fatal conclusion of the physiologist,” says James “flows from his assuming off-hand another kind of functional dependence, and treating it as the only imaginable kind.” The truth is that there are several kinds of functional dependence, only one of which is the productive function that materialists assume about the brain-mind.

James asks us to consider two other kinds of functional dependence: (1) a releasing function, as when an obstacle is removed from the bow, allowing the bow to bounce back and, thus, the arrow to be shot away or when a plug is removed from a drain, allowing water to flow into the pipe and (2) a transmissive function, as when a prism or refracting lens allows light to pass through while determining the color, path, and shape of that light as it proceeds. In both of these cases there is functional dependence, but in neither case is the dependence productive.

So the question is whether the functional dependence of the mind on the brain must be productive. James says no, “we are entitled also to consider permissive or transmissive function. And this is what the ordinary psycho-physiologist leaves out of his account.” So James is proposing the possibility that the brain does not produce but rather transmits or releases mental activity, in the sense that there is a realm of consciousness beyond this physical realm—whether a single, monolithic consciousness, as conceived by pantheists or innumerable individual consciousnesses as conceived in orthodox Christian and Jewish traditions—which breaks into the physical realm via our brains.

James writes, “Consciousness in this process does not have to be generated de novo in a vast number of places. It exists already, behind the scenes, coeval with the world. The transmission theory not only avoids in this way multiplying miracles, but it put itself in touch with general idealistic philosophy better than the production-theory does. It should always be reckoned a good thing when science and philosophy thus meet.” As a Berkeleyan idealist myself, I am especially pleased to see James make this important observation. He continues: “On the production-theory one does not see from what sensation such odd bits of knowledge are produced. On the transmission-theory, they don’t have to be ‘produced,’—they exist ready-made in the transcendental world, and all that is needed is an abnormal lowering of the brain-threshold to let them through.” So, on this view, death doesn’t bring destruction of the person. Rather, “all that can remain after the brain expires is the larger consciousness itself as such” whether conceived in a pantheistic or traditionally theistic way.

I find James’ perspective here to be refreshing for a couple of reasons. In the first place, the theory he proposes here is quite plausible—it has significant explanatory power, and it avoids many philosophical problems related to the two major theories of mind—physicalism and substance dualism. Secondly, James’ approach is refreshing because of his open-mindedness and theoretical adventurousness. James’s views evolved throughout his philosophical career, and as he explored issues in the area of religious experience, he showed an admirable willingness to allow his findings to open his mind to the pervasive reality of the supernatural. The proposal he makes in “Human Immortality” is just one instance of this.


Mill on Immortality

In a posthumously published essay entitled “Theism,” the great 19th century British philosopher John Stuart Mill takes an agnostic stance on life after death. Here I will review some of Mill’s arguments in this essay.

Mill rehearses the standard “correlation argument” against survival (formerly deployed by Lucretius, Hume and others). He observes that “the different degrees of complication of the nervous and cerebral organization, correspond to differences in the development of the mental faculties; and . . . diseases of the brain disturb the mental functions and . . . decay or weakness of the brain enfeebles them. We have therefore sufficient evidence that cerebral action is, if not the cause, at least . . . a condition sine qua non of mental operations.” Mill rightly concedes, John_Stuart_Mill_by_London_Stereoscopic_Company,_c1870however, “these considerations only amount to defect of evidence; they afford no positive argument against immortality.”

Mill further notes that belief in immortality isn’t grounded in philosophical or scientific arguments anyway but rather is inspired by “our own wishes and the general assent of other people.” There is also the fact that immortality is naturally desired, which some (such as Aquinas) have parleyed into an argument in favor of the belief. Mill writes, “We are told that the desire of immortality is one of our instincts, and that there is no instinct which has not corresponding to it a real object fitted to satisfy it.” Mill critiques this argument by comparing it to an inference from the desire for food to the conclusion that we will always have plenty to eat. This is clearly a misunderstanding of the argument, however. Since the inference is not just from the presence of desire to the conclusion that the desire will be fulfilled. Rather, the argument reasons from the fact that there is a natural human desire to the conclusion that that desire can be fulfilled (not that it necessarily will be). So Mill’s criticism doubly misconstrues the argument from desire.

Mill notes another line of argument, which is based in the goodness of God and “the improbability that God would ordain the annihilation of his noblest and richest work . . . and the special improbability that he would have implanted in us an instinctive desire of eternal life and doomed that desire to complete disappointment.” He says the problem with this argument is that it assumes we know more than we do about God’s broader purposes, some element of which might have made it best to give us this desire without its being fulfilled. Mill is certainly correct on this point.

Mill concludes that we have “no assurance whatever of a life after death on grounds of natural religion. But . . . there is no hindrance to his indulging that hope.” This tempered conclusion makes sense given the arguments he discusses, even despite his misconstrual of the argument from desire. Philosophical arguments (or those based on “natural religion,” as he puts it) for life after death, much less human immortality, are probably fall short of providing anything like assurance, at least those arguments available in Mill’s day. (Contemporary arguments based on recent near-death experience research, however, might be a different story. I will explore such in some upcoming posts.) But Mill is also wise to allow for the reasonableness of indulging in the “hope” of life after death. I would certainly say so, given (1) the nearly universal desire for survival, (2) the Kantian point that ethics depends upon immortality, and (3) the theological grounds for immortality, which are considerable.


Moral Lessons from The Godfather Films

Last week I watched the first two Godfather films with one of my sons, and I was struck again at the brilliance of these movies, both as works of cinematic art and for their insightful themes about human nature, especially regarding moral psychology. So here I am going to highlight three of the more significant “lessons” from the Godfather I and II. I will assume that you have already seen both of these films. (If you haven’t done so, then in the name of aesthetic excellence, please do so as soon as possible!)

The first lesson is this: human beings are capable of rationalizing even the worst forms of wickedness. In the Godfather films, Vito, Michael and other members of the Corleone mafia family consistently refer to their illegal activities, including their most gruesome hits on various enemies, as “business.” This handy euphemism enables godfatherthem to see all of their murders as somehow legitimate. As bizarre and alien as this might seem to us as viewers, it is important to remember that this only differs in degree, not kind, from rationalizations of which we are all guilty. We may not glibly refer to murder as “business,” but we might reconceive our arrogance as “self-confidence,” minimize our inconsiderateness as “competitiveness,” or dismiss our temper tantrums as “venting stress.”

Another important reminder from the Godfather films is that even the best of us is vulnerable to corruption, given the right circumstances. At the start of the film, Vito’s son Michael is the only innocent adult male in the Corleone family. A recent war veteran, Michael is an honorable young man—brave, respectful, self-controlled, and principled. With such virtue, how could he ever be corrupted? Well, when your father is gunned down and you see your family suffering severely as a result, this can tempt anyone to revenge. And, of course, Michael succumbs in dramatic and protracted fashion. Perhaps the only reason you and I have not followed the path of Michael Corleone is—thank God—we’ve never been put in those same circumstances.

Thirdly, some of the most powerful temptations to evil are those which invite us to achieve good consequences. It was Michael’s love for his family and his sense of justice that prompted his outrage at the assassination attempt on his father. And it was this outrage which was the doorway to his corruption. Thus, while the usual temptations to power and wealth were insufficient to turn Michael to the dark side, a reasonable desire to see a wrong made right was sufficient. This serves as a powerful reminder that we are never so virtuous as to be out of the reach of evil, for even our strongest virtues can be leverage points for the most severe moral failures.

The story in the Godfather serves as a cautionary tale about the universal human potential for extreme wickedness. In many ways, the films realistically highlight a significant, if painfully dark, aspect of human nature and the need to guard ourselves in light of this. It is a theme succinctly expressed by the Lord himself in his famous remark to Cain—a man who, like Michael Corleone, faced temptation to murder and who likewise succumbed: “Sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you. But you must rule over it” (Genesis 4:7). Amen and Amen.


Bridge of Traitors

Since I am getting ready to offer a negative movie review for a film which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, I might as well start with a bang and admit it: I don’t like Tom Hanks—as an actor, of course, since I have never actually met the man. Can’t really think of a movie I have liked with him in, other than Toy Story, since The Burbs. If you haven’t caught this forgotten oldie but goodie starring Hanks and Carrie Fisher, I highly recommend you grab a bowl of popcorn and get ready for a good giggle.

Anyhow, back to Hanks and his tendency toward preachy, sanctimonious characters. I have learned just to avoid him, along with Julia Roberts who also puts me in a foul mood, but recently I made an exception. While staying with my folks and having had the movie recommended to me by friends and family alike, I agreed to watch Bridge of Spies. Unfortunately, the movie did little to change my opinion of Hanks.

Bridge of Spies has a lot going for it: based on a true story which takes place during a tension-filled period of history; one man of honor standing up against the tide of popular opinion to uphold justice and what is right; great writers (the Coen brothers) and, of course, one of the most respected directors in Hollywood as its director (Steven Spielberg). What could possibly go wrong?

Well… I really wanted to like it. As the credits rolled and my dad talked about how this was his “kind of movie,” I really hated to be that person, the annoying one who feels the need to burst everyone’s feel good bubble. At least my family is used to it. So here is what I hated—yes hated—about this film. Jim Donovan, Hanks’ character, is a lawyer defending a known Soviet spy on trial for espionage.

From IMDb
From IMDb

Donovan doesn’t believe his personal or political feelings should get in the way of his defense of Rudolph Abel, the accused. In fact, he doesn’t reveal his feelings one way or another about what Abel has done—to Abel, his colleagues, or even his wife. This is my first criticism. This lack of conflict during the trial and after as events unfold in a way which pulls Donovan even further into the complex world of international diplomacy makes him a very one-dimensional character. Perhaps the filmmakers were portraying Donovan as he was in real life, maybe he was entirely comfortable with defending this man and having his personal and professional life severely disrupted, but, knowing human nature, I doubt. And knowing storytelling, the character who does what he believes to be right despite his own mixed feelings makes for a much more interesting and believable story.

The other aspect of the film that got my undergarments all in a tangle was the obviously negative slant towards the U.S. government and military during this period of history. I find it symptomatic of Hollywood’s blinding liberal bias that they continually cast government agents and institutions in a negative light when their own political viewpoint calls for more government intervention and control. There was not one positive CIA agent, judge, or military personnel in the entire film, unless of course, you count the Soviets. Jeez-Louise, this was a story about an evil, yes evil, system of government that wanted to topple democracy and end our political system of rights and civil liberties, who captured one of our soldiers, tortured him, along with an innocent grad student and only surrendered them in exchange for one of their own. In Bridge, the two countries, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, are represented as equal at best, with the U.S. sometimes coming off as worse. For the generations who didn’t grow up in the shadow of the Cold War, the message is “It’s all relative. Your country, my country. We are all the same.” Jim Donovan is the hero of the movie without a doubt, but what is entirely lost is that he is the hero because he is an American, a true American who believes in the Constitution of the United States of America and is willing to make sacrifices in order to defend it. Bridge of Spies makes us believe he is a nation unto himself, with everyone else against him. One of the incidents depicted in the movie, where Donovan’s house is being shot at, didn’t even happen but that didn’t stop the makers of the film from sneaking in an anti-police scene where officers confront Donovan about his defense of Abel.

After Donovan, the second most positive character is Abel, the Russian spy who is portrayed as a gentle, loving soul who wouldn’t hurt a fly, though he would work to subvert the freedom and security of the American people.

So there you have it. There’s my old fashioned, flag-waving criticism of Bridge of Spies. I assure you that I don’t see our nation through rose-colored glasses. I know that we have made grave mistakes and often fail to live up to our founding principles and ideals. But isn’t that all the more reason for those principles and ideals to be portrayed fairly, to inspire us to work hard, to do better? I would like to see Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks go back in time and try to make an anti-government movie behind the Iron Curtain. Perhaps then they might be a little more, dare I say it, fair and balanced in their films.


Idealism and Christianity Book Series

I am happy to announce the release of a two-volume book series entitled Idealism and Christianity, which I edited with the help of my colleagues Steve Cowan, Joshua Farris, and Mark Hamilton. The books are published by Bloomsbury Press and constitute what we hope will be the start of a renaissance of scholarly interest in metaphysical idealism. This is the thesis that mind is most real, and that the 9781628924022entire physical world essentially constitutes the thoughts of that wise and almighty mind—God.

The first volume in the series, entitled Idealism and Christian Theology, explores a variety of issues in theology, including Christology, the resurrection of Jesus, the doctrine of creation, and the knowledge of God. Contributors include Oliver Crisp, William Wainwright, and Keith Yandell. The second volume, Idealism and Christian Philosophy, features essays treating such issues as time, truth, perception, science, miracles, and the mind-body problem. Contributors include Doug Blount, Howard Robinson, Charles Taliaferro, and Keith Ward.

The heroes of the volumes are two 18th century thinkers: George Berkeley and Jonathan Edwards. Both of these 9781628924060great scholars regarded Idealism as amenable to a Christian perspective because it constitutes the most biblical and philosophically plausible way of conceptualizing the world. Idealism effectively addresses skeptical challenges to theism and it provides helpful resources for dealing with all sorts of knotty problems that have plagued philosophers and theologians for centuries.

In addition to the scholarly benefits of Idealism, this perspective also has tremendous personal benefits and is a powerful boon to faith. This was the constant refrain of Bishop Berkeley who concluded his classic defense of Idealism by confessing that his purpose in writing was to “inspire my readers with a pious sense of the presence of God and . . . the better dispose them to reverence and embrace the salutary truths of the Gospel, which to know and to practice is the highest perfection of human nature.” Amen to that, good Bishop!


The Boy Must Die

Last month, Jim and I put our oldest on a plane to South America for a semester studying abroad. Bailey and I are pretty close considering his age and gender and I will miss him as much in my capacity as his friend as I will as his mom, but don’t tell his friends that. It would be totally not cool which probably isn’t the “in” way to say that. Saying goodbye for five months was not easy, but frankIy, I have been surprised that it wasn’t harder. Sitting at the gate, waiting for him to board, I clearly heard God speak to my tear-clenched heart and I hope that what He said will influence the way I parent forever.

When Bailey was conceived, God placed Him right where he needed to be, buried deep inside my body where he could grow and be nurtured until he was ready to hatch. When he was physically ready to meet the world, it would have been unhealthy, not to mention more than a little uncomfortable, for him to have stayed longer. He had outgrown my body. In fact, when he was born, the umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck and he very easily could have died. His connection to me was literally killing him. See where I am going with this?

Once our children leave the relative comfort and safety of our bodies, they obviously still need us. We feed them and watch over them. We teach them little lessons like how not to poop in their pants and why the Beatles are the greatest rock band ever. And not so little lessons like who God is and what His plan for our lives is.

Since Bailey left, I have realized that Jim and I are in a new phase of parenting. One that involves a lot of protection and guidance but, thankfully, less bottom wiping. One that involves a lot more letting go and standing back. In a way, it is a death of sorts, the ending of one thing and the beginning of something new. The way I described it to a friend is that the boy must die so that the man must live. And this process of death and life, of metamorphosis from one stage of life to another isn’t something that should make me sad. It should be something to rejoice in. It’s the miracle I have been working toward since each of my kids first drew breath.

Since I started this post, I have had cause to regret its title. On his first day of school in Bolivia, Bailey, who is allergic to peanuts, chowed down some carrots in peanut sauce and end up in the hospital. I had anticipated the day being a challenging one, but more in the will-someone-sit-with-him-at-lunch kind of way not in the trouble-breathing-anaphylactic-shock kind of way.

As I tried not to panic, listening to the hoarse and groggy voice of my son coming from so many miles away, I had to ask myself “Who do I think Bailey belongs to?” God had told me to let go and it didn’t seem too hard a thing to do when he was healthy and safe and allergen-free. It’s easy to say “let the boy die” when it is just a metaphor for “let the boy grow up and get and job, do his own laundry and pay his own cell phone bill.” But what about when it means “let the boy make mistakes and suffer the consequences and experience pain and not have you to comfort him”?

My only comfort on the days when things don’t go well for my kids, or really my only comfort on any day is in remembering another son. It comes from remembering and trusting in the story about a son who had to leave his home and His Father. Who had to grow and learn and suffer on his own. The story that brings me such joy brought God a great deal of sorrow. In that story, the man died so that we all might live. Now it’s just up to me to believe it’s true and be brave enough to live accordingly.


Super Bowl 50: A Contrast of Quarterbacks

I’ve never been so satisfied by the outcome of a game that did not feature one of my favorite teams.  Why?  Because this time I was rooting for a player—Peyton Manning, the so-called “Sheriff” of the NFL.  Yesterday was the perfect culmination of an 18-year NFL career, vividly illustrating that most beautiful of narrative arcs:  the exaltation of the humble.  Here is a guy who has always done it “the right way.”  Of course, we hear that phrase frequently regarding various athletes, but nowhere is it more aptly applied than in the case of Manning.

Unfortunately, Cam Newton illustrated the inverse principle:  the arrogant shall be humbled.  Many of us cringed when we saw his pre-game garb, featuring flashy gold “MVP” shoes, which brought to mind the biblical proverb, “Let someone else praise you, and not your own mouth; an outsider, and not your own lips” (Pr. 27:2).  Then there was Newton’s post-game presser.  Ugh.  (Sports columnist Bill Reiter nails it here, I think.) Newton is not a bad guy.  He’s just an immature 26-year-old who needs to master his emotions in public.  He’ll grow up and hopefully become a model of professionalism.  Twenty years from now, he’ll cringe at how he behaved yesterday—just like

Biography.com
Biography.com

we all cringe at how we behaved in our twenties.  Thankfully, most of us don’t have our youthful petulance broadcast for millions of people to see!

Newton’s lack of maturity and composure serves as a sharp contrast to Peyton Manning’s classy comportment which he’s displayed his entire career (with a few exceptions), including after tough Super Bowl losses.  During the Broncos’ playoff run this post-season, Manning’s humility has been especially evident, as he’s consistently (and correctly) insisted that Denver’s defense was leading the team, rather than his QB prowess.  But this, too, contributed to the beauty of the Manning career narrative.  How fitting that he would conclude his career (yes, I’m assuming he’s retiring) by winning a Super Bowl on the strength of his team’s defense when for so many years Manning dominated at QB on a Colts team with a weak defense (which possibly cost him an additional ring or two).

Also, it is interesting to note that Manning’s final pass of the game yesterday was a completion for a 2-point conversion.  If that turns out to be the final pass of his career, then this too is fitting.  Not only was it perfectly thrown, but the 2-point conversion is, appropriately, a play that provides an “added bonus” point.  And that’s precisely what Peyton Manning has been, not just for NFL football but the sports world generally, for the better part of two decades—a real bonus.

So kudos to the Broncos for winning it all.  But especially congratulations to the class of the NFL, Peyton Manning.  Hats off to you, Sheriff, as you ride off into the sunset of a stellar career.


On Butler’s Argument for Immortality

This semester I am teaching a course entitled “Philosophy of the Afterlife,” which covers a range of issues, including the concept of human immortality, near-death experiences, reincarnation, the doctrines of heaven, hell, and purgatory, and the prospect of achieving immortality via computer technology.  Since this is my first time to teach such a course, I thought it would be fun to post some of my thoughts along the way.  I begin with a critical reflection on one of Joseph Butler’s arguments for human immortality.

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In his 1736 book The Analogy of Religion, the English bishop and apologist Joseph Butler offers some arguments in defense of life after death.  His overarching aim with these arguments is not to prove that human beings are immortal but rather to show that we have no good reason to believe that our lives end with the death of our earthly bodies.  Here I will explain and critically assess one of his arguments.

from Wikipedia
from Wikipedia

Butler asks us to “consider what the analogy of nature” might suggest to us regarding what death truly entails.  And he observes that throughout nature we find immense variety, constant change and “degrees of life and perception” among living things.  And in each individual human life we find a vast transformation from our lives in the womb to adulthood.  Thus, Butler concludes, “that we are to exist hereafter in a state as different (suppose) from our present as this is from our former is but according to the analogy of nature.”

Furthermore, Butler argues, there is no evidence that death brings complete extinction of the self.  What we do observe is merely “the dissolution of the flesh, skin, and bones,” but “these effects do in no wise appear to imply the destruction of the living agent.”  Such physical decay indeed “destroys the perceptible proof which we had before their death of their being possessed of living powers, but does not appear to afford the least reason to believe they are then, or by that event, deprived of them.”  In other words, when person dies, the destruction of her body only eliminates positive evidence that she is still alive.  But it does not prove she is no longer alive.  This is an important distinction.  Lack of evidence for X does not necessarily constitute evidence for not-X.

In this way, Butler defends what I will call the “survival thesis”—the notion that human beings survive death in the sense that their conscious lives continue somehow despite the destruction of their physical bodies.  So what are we to make of his claims?  While Butler’s argument is carefully nuanced, aiming just to show that we have no good reason to reject the survival thesis, as opposed to positively arguing for that thesis, some counter-arguments might rebut his defense.

First, one might argue that Butler’s analogy from nature has been rendered irrelevant by the advance of science.  As many naturalists have pointed out, neurophysiology reveals a much more specified analogy that points in the direction of extinction of the self.  As a person develops from infancy to adulthood and then to old age, her cognitive capacities correspond entirely to her brain functionality.  As brain function deteriorates, so does one’s mental function.  And where there is serious damage to the cerebral cortex, there is likewise damage or even complete elimination of the cognitive operations for which that part of the brain is responsible.  What this suggests is that with the complete destruction of the brain there will likewise result complete cessation of cognitive function, and this is tantamount to extinction of the person.

Second, one might challenge—as again many naturalists have—Butler’s assumption that the burden of proof is on the naturalist to show that the survival thesis is false.  Why make this assumption when arguably there is no independent philosophical or scientific evidence to suggest that the survival thesis is true?  Presumably, Butler helped himself to this assumption because at the time and place of his writing—early 18th century Europe—belief in life after death was far more widely affirmed among scholars than it is today in the West.  So this presupposition regarding evidential burden was not controversial for his readers.  Things have changed dramatically during the intervening 280 years, however.  These days most Western scholars are religious skeptics, and a large number are bona fide naturalists.  Accordingly, among scholars today the burden of proof regarding the survival thesis seems to rest squarely on the shoulders of those who affirm it.  One wonders how Butler’s approach to the issue would be different were he writing on the subject today.


The Fates of Jesus Killers

It is interesting to note the fates of those who would destroy Jesus Christ. These included Herod the Great, Judas Iscariot, and Pontius Pilate.

Herod the Great was the Roman king of Judea who reigned from 37 B.C. to 4 or 1 B.C.  He was so brutally ambitious that he even killed his own wife and children.  But his most notorious act was the so-called “Massacre of the Innocents” in Bethlehem and its vicinity, ordered by Herod in an attempt to destroy Jesus in his infancy.  By the time the order was carried out, however, Joseph had been warned

from Wikipedia
from Wikipedia

in a dream to leave the area, which, along with Mary and Jesus, he did, foiling Herod’s plan.

It was not long after this that Herod experienced what the ancient historian Eusebius calls a “terrible end”:

He had an overpowering desire for food, which it was impossible to satisfy, ulceration of the intestines with agonizing pains in the lower bowel, and a clammy transparent humour covering the feet.  The abdomen was in the same miserable state, and in the genitals mortification set in, breeding worms.  Breathing was constricted and only possible when sitting upright, and it was most offensive because of the heavy stench and feverish respiration.  He suffered in every part convulsions that were unbearably severe.  (Ecclesiastical History, 1.8)

A maggot infestation of the scrotum?  Ugh.  No wonder Herod went on to attempt suicide.  But as the Jewish historian Josephus tells us, Herod was prevented from doing so by his cousin.  In any case, Herod’s demise soon followed his torturous illness.

Fast-forward about 33 years, and we find Judas Iscariot attempting to waylay Jesus.  Unlike Herod, Judas succeeds.  For thirty silver coins, Judas betrays Jesus into the hands of the Romans, who would subsequently crucify him.  The Gospel of Matthew tells us that Judas felt extreme remorse for this, saying “I have sinned for I have betrayed innocent blood.”  Matthew then notes that “Judas threw the money into the temple and left.  Then he went away and hanged himself” (Mt. 27:4-5).  According to the book of Acts, Judas first

from Wikipedia
from Wikipedia

purchased a field with some of that money.  Presumably, that’s where he hung himself, and where eventually “he fell headlong and all his intestines spilled out” (Acts 1:18).

It was Pontius Pilate, prefect of Judea, who presided over the trial of Jesus.  Seemingly reluctant to condemn Jesus, Pilate declared, “I find no basis for a charge against this man” (Lk. 23:4).  Nevertheless, he eventually succumbed to the pressure of the crowd and Jewish leaders, sentencing Jesus to be crucified.  Still, he insisted, I am innocent of this man’s blood” (Mt. 27:24) while washing his hands in front of the crowd.

So what became of the duplicitous Pilate?  Apparently he met the same fate as Judas—suicide.  Eusebius explains that, Pilate “was involved in such calamities that he was forced to become his own executioner and to punish himself with his own hand.” (Ecclesiastical History, 2.7)

Herod the Great, Judas Iscariot, and Pontius Pilate—three (would-be or actual) Jesus killers.  It is a macabre coincidence—whether or not mere coincidence—that each died the way he did.  Herod attempted to kill Jesus but failed, though his attempt brought much misery.  Likewise, he attempted to kill himself but failed, and his failure extended his own extreme misery.  Iscariot and Pilate, on the other hand, both succeeded in putting Jesus to death.  Likewise, they both also succeeded in putting themselves to death.

Talk about poetic justice.  To condemn the Source of Life is to condemn one’s own life.  To attack God is to attack oneself at the most foundational level.


The Best and Worst of 2015

It’s been another exciting year, and we want to thank you all for reading and, if applicable, posting comments on our blog. Once again, we would like to close out the year with some summary remarks about good and bad stuff related to film, music, books, sports, food, and family.

Best Film Experiences:

Jim: This was a big year in film, and I was fortunate to catch a lot of good ones, both at the theater and on DVD. A highlight in the latter category was watching Richard Linklater’s amazing Boyhood twice in as many days. All of the superlatives critics have laid on this one—“masterpiece,” “extraordinary,” “historic cinematic achievement”—are accurate. If you haven’t seen it, check it out. Another highlight was the new Star Wars film. With The Force Awakens, J. J. Abrams has saved the Star Wars legacy. He managed to achieve the same organic feel, character-centric storytelling, and campy wit as the originals, all while advancing a narrative that will hopefully keep us captivated for years, if not decades, to come. I also enjoyed Inside Out, which deserves accolades for its unique premise as well as its fine execution. Another major highlight was M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit, which proved that, after a few stinkers, he can still make a great thriller.

Amy: It feels strange to say I am having a hard time remembering good movie experiences this year. While I loved The Visit as a film, the audience Bailey and I shared the theater with nearly ruined it for me. I wasn’t blown away by Star Wars. I mostly enjoyed things on the smaller screen. The Man in the High Castle for serious-minded alternate reality and Tommy and Tuppence for pure fun. There were some good PBS series this summer and I am holding my breath in hopes that Downton Abbey and Sherlock won’t disappoint this winter.

Jim’s Best Musical Experiences of the Year: The year started slowly but finished strong in terms of discoveries of good artists or new albums from artists I was already into. In the latter category, I finally got Manchester Orchestra’s Cope, which is even more addictive than their albums usually are for me, which is saying a lot. Also, after many recommendations from friends, I picked up an Arctic Monkeys album—Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not.  I was not disappointed. And I’ve been getting into the new albums by Alabama Shakes (Sound and Color) and Twenty One Pilots (Blurryface), as well as several albums by Cage the Elephant, which is my most exciting musical discovery in years. A virtue that all of these bands have in common is that they (or, anyway, their main songwriters) have something significant to say. That’s refreshing in an era of predominantly mindless musical fluff.

Amy’s Best Food Experiences of the Year: This year most of my food experiences have been in my own kitchen, the remodeling of which was a major highlight. I have done some experimenting, catered a friend’s wedding and decompressed with some serious baking. We also hosted our first Thanksgiving meal at home and though my rolls were undercooked and I was not impressed with the addition of cinnamon to my usually yummy pecan pie, filling our table with beloved faces and laughter was quite satisfying.

Jim’s Favorite Sports Moments of the Year: I am sincerely hoping that my favorite sports moment of 2015 is yet to come.  This would be Michigan State defeating Alabama in the Citrus Bowl tonight, which is also the NCAA football playoff semi-final. We’ll see. Go Green, roll over the Tide! But if that doesn’t happen, then I would say that watching the Cubs make it all the way to the National League championship series—just a few wins shy of the World Series and thus breaking the “goat curse”—was the 2015 sports highlight for me.

Amy’s Favorite Sports Moments of the Year: Hopefully, Jim will forgive me for this one, but my favorite moment was randomly choosing to represent the Spartans while Jim cheered on the Wolverines in the Michigan intrastate rivalry game and then watching their unbelievable last second win. I felt slightly guilty cheering in his stunned face, but since he is rooting for MSU against Alabama, he must have gotten over it.

Jim’s Most Disappointing Sports Moments of the Year:  I’m not even going to comment on that tragicomic finish in the UM/MSU game… This NFL season has been chock full of disappointments, as none of my three favorite teams—the Colts, Lions, and Saints—will make it to the playoffs.  (Yes, three favorite teams—Amy calls me a promiscuous fan, but I own it proudly). And, regarding baseball, it was pretty deflating to see the Cubs bow out to the New York Mets in the NLCS. However, this made it all the sweeter to see the Kansas City Royals beat them in the World Series.

Amy’s Most Disappointing Sports Moment of the Year: Every year, I tell myself that a true Cubs fan knows they are cursed, has no hope, but cheers for them anyway. Still, hope will find a way to creep in and whisper sweet nothings in my ear only to give way to disappointment…again. This year hurt.

Good and Bad Reads of the Year:

Jim:  As usual, my reading this year was almost exclusively non-fiction, and primarily scholarly stuff, especially having to do with ethics and philosophy of religion. Robert Reilly’s Making Gay Okay: How Rationalizing Homosexual Behavior is Changing Everything (Ignatius, 2014) is one of the best books dealing with ethics, not just sexual issues, that I’ve read in years. Reilly takes a natural law approach to the issue, and the book is replete with bold observations and profound insights. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the LGBT issue, whatever one’s perspective might be. My most disappointing read of the year was Thomas Jay Oord’s The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence (InterVarsity, 2015).  This book has been touted by some as a step forward for open theism. It is anything but that, as the author’s thesis (that God is essentially limited both in terms of knowledge and power) is problematic in itself. But he also commits glaring mistakes along the way in making his argument (if one can call it that). Steer clear of this one, folks.

Amy: So many good reads this year it’s hard to know where to start. The Wright Brothers by David McCullough. The Sisters Brothers by Patrick Dewitt. The Good Earth by Pearl Buck. Ghost Boy by Martin Pistorius. The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls. Most of the things that I read and didn’t like, I wasn’t really expecting to like in first place. Some disappointing mysteries and less than stellar fiction, but overall this has been a great year of reading for me. Check out my Good Reads page or Book Blurbs here on Wisdom and Folly to see more reviews.

Best 2015 Family Memories:

Amy: The kids and I had some good outings this year. Maggie, Andrew and I visited Dayton, Ohio and took in some Wright Brothers sites as well as Wright Patterson Air Force Museum. We also went to the Dunes in Michigan in the Fall and had a great day climbing in the sand and watching Penny bark at the waves. Teaching Bailey to drive has been memorable, to say the least. Having my niece Rachel living close by as a freshman at Taylor has been pure joy.

Jim: I had lots of good sports (baseball, soccer, and basketball) memories with the boys.  And it was fun to see Maggie become an obsessive Beatles fan. Growing to love our new family member—our standard poodle named Penelope Lane Spiegel (or “Penny Lane,” for short—get it?), whom we adopted a little over a year ago—would probably top the list for 2015. And hiking the Smokies with Amy, the kids and my in-laws was another family highlight.

Best Kids’ Quotes of the Year

As usual, most of the best quotes from our kids this year come from our poet-comedian-dreamer daughter, Maggie (11).  But Andrew (9) got off a few good ones as well:

  • Maggie: “If I were God, the world wouldn’t be nearly so complicated.”
  • Andrew: “Make-up is for people who can’t accept the truth about how they look.”
  • Maggie: “If animals could talk, the world would have a lot more good stories.”
  • Maggie: “This is my favorite hair on my entire head.”
  • Andrew: “Everything that has to do with tomatoes is bad.”
  • Maggie: “A poor man’s wisdom is a rich man’s folly…I’m not sure that that means, but it sound right.”
  • Maggie: “Punching someone in the face is on my bucket list. If I have to, I’ll punch the nurse at my death bed.”

New Year’s Resolutions:

Amy: Not to sweat the small stuff and to keep showing up every day. Maggie and I are embarking on a Bible reading plan this year. Getting through five months with Bailey a continent away (as he attends school in La Paz, Bolivia this Spring) feels like quite the hill to climb so I suppose learning to entrust my kids ever further into God’s plan for their future should be among my loftier goals.

Jim:  Last year my resolution was to read half as much as my wife did this year, which would have meant reading 25 books. I didn’t quite pull that off. Okay, I didn’t even come close. So next year, since it is 2016, I resolve to read at least 16% as many books as Amy. I think I can pull that off, then perhaps add a percentage point each year. By the time the goal becomes unrealistic again, I’ll be able to blame my failure on senility. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

Happy 2016 everyone!