Saturday, December 31, 2022

John Muir's Campbellite Father

John Muir’s father, on his farm in Wisconsin, was a Campbellite. And so, about 150 years later, was I. What does this mean?

Following the teachings of Thomas and Alexander Campbell, participants in the “Restoration Movement” wanted to “restore” Christianity to its pure Biblical basis. There were to be no doctrines or creeds that were not specifically in the Bible; the Bible alone was to be their basis of faith. You will find modern churches that identify with this tradition, usually called Churches of Christ. The Disciples of Christ denomination began from this tradition but has branched out to no longer be fundamentalists. And among the Churches of Christ, you have to look carefully for the true, utterly pure Campbellites. I was a member of a Church of Christ sect that insisted that you should use a single cup for communion, and the churches that used multiple cups (a separate cup for each communicant) were “erring brethren.” You couldn’t tell from the church signs which church was which; the signs did not say “We use only one cup/multiple cups in communion.” While this seems like a trivial controversy, it was deeply important to us, and we spent a lot of time, sermon after sermon, denouncing the erring brethren. How many hours of my life I wasted on this!

Of course, Campbellites reject the label. They, as I did, claim that they are followers of Jesus, not the Campbells.

But us Campbellites clung to many doctrines that were NOT in the Bible at all. One example: we claimed that no instrumental music could be used during church services. Such a command is not found anywhere in the Bible. The Bible does not even say, “You cannot do anything during a church service that is not specifically authorized by Scripture.” We just made that crap up.

Another, and I believe more important, example of non-Scriptural assertions of Campbellites is, or was, what John Muir’s father tried to indoctrinate his son John to believe. He believed that the entire world, including the natural world, the forests and its trees and birds and soils, was fallen and evil, and we should not celebrate it. He actively tried to get his son John to NOT love the natural world. Fortunately, he failed, and we had John Muir to lead us into an era of conservation awareness. Search the Bible all you want, but you will never find any reference to the natural world to be the realm of Satan, or that loving the natural world is a sin. Just read Psalm 104 and try to tell me that the love of nature is a sin. Just try it. Since I do not expect any Campbellites to read this essay, I expect no response to this challenge. Campbellites live in a little isolated world in which they, and they alone, are faithful to God, and perhaps more recently to worship Donald Trump instead of God.


I have a particularly vivid and painful memory in regard to this specific belief. The Bible tells about how the old heavens and the old earth will be destroyed, and a new heaven and a new earth will be created. As a lover of nature, I was overjoyed to hear this. The forests and flowered hillsides I loved so much would not be destroyed forever but be recreated without the taint of human sin that currently fouls them. When I was asked to give a sermon, our “evangelist” was sitting in the front row paging through his Bible. I did not know at the time that he was planning to lambast me about this horrible belief—the idea that anything in the world, even the forests and wildflowers, could possibly be good.

The next week he delivered a sermon that was directed specifically at me. He said that “certain teachers” (translation: me) actually said that God would create a new earth. Then he went through a really contorted and wicked line of reasoning. He said, the old earth was the Old Testament, since before Jesus our earth (or dwelling) was the Old Covenant. The new earth, therefore, had to be Jesus’ new covenant. Anyone who believed that it would be a literal new earth, with trees and stuff, was utterly wrong and bound for hell. Gee, thanks, Bob Sanders.

You can imagine the effect that this had on me, as a high school student. To be utterly shamed as not only an infidel but a heretic in front of the congregation which I loved very much! I was utterly depressed by it. Some people would interpret what he did as verbal child abuse. I believe this form of verbal child abuse continues today in fundamentalist churches. Of course, it turns out he was wrong about this, and about almost everything else.

Thank God, if there is one, that I am no longer a Campbellite, and that I revere the work and memory of John Muir.


Monday, December 19, 2022

The Price of Love: Perspectives from a Cottonwood Tree

It has been a long time since I have asked Stan, who manages this blog, to post something for me. I am Fluff, the cottonwood tree (she/her/hers) who lives next to the strip mall near Stan’s house in Tulsa. My last message was a year ago. Stan and I talk a lot, though not in words. He usually says hi to me as he and his wife take a walk along the ditch that is charitably called a creek. Last week, he made an estimate of the number of pieces of garbage along this ditch. He came up with 3,200 pieces of garbage per mile.

Today, however, we talked about a book he is reading called The Price of Altruism. It is a biography of George Price, the man whose mathematical genius was revered by the greatest evolutionary theoreticians of the mid-twentieth century, such as the late John Maynard Smith and the late William Hamilton. The focus of our discussion was vagrants, like the one who has built a trash structure right underneath my branches, and like the ones among whom George Price lived and died.


Stan had some vague idea of who George Price was. There is considerable scientific literature about altruism, including many mathematical papers that analyze it. Altruism is when one animal is nice to, or at least offers some assistance to, another animal. Stan has been interested in this topic for a long time and even considered writing a book about it, a project that is now on indefinite hold. He has not had any interest, however, in mathematical models. As even the mathematicians admit, real animals very seldom behave the way the models predict they should. That is, the models work, except when they don’t. George Price was one of these mathematicians.


Most of the mathematicians were academics who led safe lives. Some of them, like William Hamilton, took risks by doing field work in challenging places. Some, like John Maynard Smith, stayed in their ivory towers. But George Price, as Stan understood his story, was convinced by his own equations that he should live a completely altruistic life, at which point he left the tower and poured out his generosity on homeless vagrants in London, among whom he died. He almost seemed to be a Christlike figure, who was one of the few people to completely pour himself out for poor people the way Jesus did. Jesus, who had nowhere to lay his head, and who said to live like the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, who would forgive seventy times seven times, and who would give everything away, never expecting repayment.


But the evidence is clear: he was delusional and lost his grip on mental reality.


George Price seemed to be, without saying it in so many words, proclaiming that we should all be living Christlike lives of self-sacrifice. He did, in fact, undergo a Christian conversion, and believed himself to be living in a uniquely Christlike fashion.


Actually, Price underwent two conversions. In the first, he noticed, then based his life upon, coincidences. Very unlikely events became miraculous when they happened together. These coincidences showed his mental instability. In one case, he met a woman with the same name as, and on the same date, that he had met a previous girlfriend. To Price, this clearly meant that she should marry him. He also noticed coincidences in phone numbers. Of course, we understand that coincidences that we notice seem almost infinitely impossible, but there are millions of other events that we do not notice. But after a while he started to ignore coincidences. His second conversion was to a spirit of vague charity, in which he loved everyone no matter what they did, even to him.


This would make it seem that Price was a super-Christian.


But, Stan discovered that Price survived only because of the charity of colleagues and friends. He gave away all his money, but then depended on friends to let him crash on a couch, or on charities to provide him free room and board. That is, he was a couch-surfer back before the term existed. Brilliant as he was, he could probably have come up with an elegant, simple, and profound mathematical equation for optimal couch-surfing. In addition, the money he gave away wasn’t really his. His colleagues got him stipends so that he could write more mathematical equations like the ones that had earlier dazzled them. But he just took the money and did what he wanted. Price was, in effect, giving away scientific grant money (that is, British taxpayer money) rather than his own. This was not a Christian way to live.


Actually, one could make many of the same criticisms of Jesus. He waited for food to fall like schmoos into his mouth, but it was his disciples who managed the money and bought the food. Jesus was, in effect, couch-surfing and mooching as much as Price did. The same is true of other historical figures such as St. Francis of Assisi.


I told Stan to stop worrying about it. He is living an altruistic life already. True, he walked right past the vagrant under my branches without a glance. But Stan spends his money only on modest pleasures. He believes that whatever money and collateral—and even health—that he has belongs to his family, especially his daughter and grandchildren in France. He will not give his wealth (modest anyhow) to the vagrant and leave his family (the way George Price did his) without money and with a poor old man to take care of.


Perhaps most of all, the people to whom Price showed generosity benefited only briefly and slightly. By the time Price died, every one of the vagrants he helped was still a vagrant. The man everyone called Peg Leg remained the alcoholic he had previously been.


What a waste.


Stan was expecting some insights about altruism from Price—not from his math (Stan almost never gets insights from math) but from his personal example. In this, Stan was disappointed.


Now, from my perspective as a cottonwood tree. I do not care what happens to the rest of the world. In autumn, I let go of my leaves and they fly away in the wind. I do not recycle them; Nature does. I let go of my seeds in late spring, and do not care where they go. When I have a dead branch, I do not care whose roof it falls on. But, then, I am a tree. I cannot control where my leaves or seeds go. But you humans are in an existential crisis. You can decide what to do and when. You humans have the choice of good and evil for every little action you take. All I can say is, try to be as wise as you can. Optimize your goodness, realizing that your life is not your own, to dissipate in pleasure or to pour into black holes of charity. This is why I am glad I am a cottonwood tree, not a human.


Stan thanked me and went back home to write this.