The Walking Dead

Since it’s Easter, I have some open questions for my evangelical Christian friends about a puzzling passage from Matthew 27:45-54. Here it is in context:

45 From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. 46 About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli,[a] lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).[b]

47 When some of those standing there heard this, they said, “He’s calling Elijah.”

48 Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. 49 The rest said, “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.”

50 And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.

51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split 52 and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. 53 They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and[c] went into the holy city and appeared to many people.

54 When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!”

(NIV, via BibleGateway)

The puzzling part, of course, is verses 51-53 about the dead coming out of their tombs. Assuming we are to interpret this story literally, rather than as apocalyptic imagery, several questions arise:

1. Why is such a literally earth-shattering event mentioned in only one gospel? In other words, if such an event happened and was known in the early Christian community, why weren’t Mark, Luke, and John aware of it?

2. Why doesn’t Paul mention it in any of his epistles, specifically in 1 Corinthians 15, where he is arguing for the resurrection of the dead? Wouldn’t this episode, if it happened, provide welcome support for his case?

3. Why isn’t this event mentioned by any secular historians, for example, Josephus? Why didn’t non-Christian writers notice it?

4. If this event happened, where did these people go? Wouldn’t they have been very famous in the early Christian community? Why do their stories leave no trace outside these three verses in Matthew?

5. What type of resurrection is implied in these verses? Is it a Lazarus-type raising with subsequent death? Or is it a Christ-type raising, the resurrection of an incorruptible body that Paul talks about in the aforementioned 1 Cor. passage? If the former, one would still expect their stories to leave a trace in early Christian literature. If the latter, did they ascend with Christ or are they still around?

6. Is this passage consistent with high Christology since, according to Matthew, Christ is not “the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20)?

7. If Paul knew about this event, why does he explicitly say that Christ is the first to be raised? In other words, is Matthew contradicting Paul?

Assuming we are to interpret this passage figuratively, several other questions arise:

8. Does such a figurative story in an otherwise allegedly historical account cast doubt on the literalness of Christ’s resurrection?

9. Does this story — which is found in no other extant ancient source, Christian, Jewish, or Roman — show that Matthew felt free to invent material out of whole cloth? If so, what implications does this have for the historical reliability of the gospels generally?

10. Is Matthew trying to signal, in a metaphorical way, that the resurrection of the dead at the end of time is an imminent event? If so, does this lend credence to the view that Jesus and the apostles mistakenly believed that the apocalypse would happen in their lifetime?

The point of this exercise is not a mean-spirited skeptical diatribe or a foray into obscure New Testament criticism. I’m simply trying to communicate to my evangelical friends how strange this story sounds to outsiders. Perhaps ask yourself if you would believe the same story if it were found in an ancient Greek or Roman text from the period. If the answer is ‘no’, then you can understand your non-Christian friend’s incredulity. Sure, we all have our cognitive biases, but take a moment to fully imbibe what many Christian thinkers from Tertullian to Kierkegaard have called the “absurdity of faith.” It might be a good exercise. For my part, I’ll try to imagine what it’s like to sincerely believe what you believe. Maybe we’ll meet in the middle.

Yours Truly on Face 2 Face with David Peck

You may recall that I recorded a podcast with David Peck a few months ago. That interview is now online. The topic is philosophical counselling. David puts together a very professional podcast and I’m honored to be part of it. Check out his archives for interviews with bona fide Canadian public intellectuals, entertainers, and social entrepreneurs.

Working 9 to 5

After much deliberation, I’ve accepted a 9 – 5 job. As a result, my blogging activity might slow down a bit, at least for the first few weeks. I haven’t given up on philosophical counseling, but since business has been slow lately I’ve decided to do it in a supplemental capacity. I’ll still invest what I can toward building the practice. In fact, this process is already underway. Last week, I hired a photographer to take some pictures for my website and bought some new premium themes to make the site look more professional. Look for those updates in the coming weeks.

I enjoy being entrepreneurial, and I’ve gained an appreciation for how hard entrepreneurs work, but the allure of a steady paycheck is too great to pass up. As a sole proprietor, you’re always assuming 100% of the risk and responsibility for your business and you don’t have any institutional support to fall back on. Although post academics have entrepreneurial qualities — such as being highly self-motivated — we’re also used to having a lot of institutional support. Even if you think your institution didn’t support you during grad school or adjuncting, it did. So it will be nice to have some support again.

Having said that, there are entrepreneurial aspects to my new job. It’s a sales position, so I’m responsible for maintaining existing accounts and bringing in new ones. I hope to learn a lot about sales and marketing. Who knows? Maybe I’ll even learn some techniques that could help me market something as odd-sounding as philosophical counseling!

I’m happy to report that having a good post-academic narrative really can help you find non-academic employment. I didn’t do anything too creative. I simply had good reasons for leaving academia and emphasized my transferable skills, i.e. critical thinking = persuasive arguments = sales. Like many other post-acs have said, translating your qualifications into business terminology and talking about skills over content, goes a long way.

I start tomorrow. Wish me luck.

Living Kierkegaard’s Three Stages Backwards

I came to a realization about myself: I’m living out Kierkegaard’s three stages of life but in reverse.

For those who aren’t familiar with him, Kierkegaard was a 19th century Danish (mmm … Danish) philosopher who’s generally considered one of the early existentialists. There’s a lot more I could say about him, but suffice it to say that former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson is a big fan. How could you ask for a better endorsement than that?

Anyways, Kierkegaard articulates three stages of life: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. These are listed in ascending order of virtue. The aesthetic stage characterizes youth and focuses on the pursuit of pleasure, a rather unreflective hedonism. The ethical stage is one of more maturity, an appreciation of right and wrong and accountability for one’s actions. The highest stage, the religious, includes the ethical but transcends the mere observance of moral laws through a relationship with the Christian God. Of course, this is all a vast oversimplification. Also, the stages are not mutually exclusive; the religious stage includes the ethical, and also the aesthetic, though one gets the sense that one moves in a Platonic direction from the appreciation of beauty in objects of sexual desire to the appreciation of Beauty in the abstract. Nevertheless, there is a progression toward greater wisdom. Like Plato’s Philosopher, Kierkegaard’s religious stage is the province of the few; the majority never transcend the least reflective aesthetic stage.

As I said at the beginning, I’m doing this wrong because I seem to be doing it backwards: religious in my formative years, ethical in my early adulthood, and coming to the realization at the end of my philosophical education that the ancient hedonists probably got it right about the meaning of life. What that says about my intellectual and moral development I leave to you.

I take some comfort in knowing that I’m also following the path of the protagonist of one of my favorite novels, Siddhartha. There are ancient Vedic parallels to Kierkegaard’s stages: kama (pleasure), artha (wealth), and dharma (law or religious practice). Siddhartha experiments with these approaches to life’s meaning, but also in reverse order. He’s a monk, then a merchant, then a lover. He finally comes to appreciate the impermanence of being and has a sort of spiritual epiphany. It’s a great read.

I’m not sure if there’s a point to these reflections. It’s probably just idle introspection that I thought profound at the time, but probably isn’t. Again, I leave the implications to you.

Important vs Impressive

There was some discussion in the post-ac blogosphere last month on whether there’s such a thing as the ‘right’ post-academic job (see here and here). I agree for the most part with what my fellow bloggers have said, so I don’t feel the need to address the question directly. Rather, I’m going to try to elucidate why many post-academics feel the need to ask the question in the first place.

My best guess is that many post-academics, due to their acculturation in the academy, tend to conflate important work with impressive work. Granted, sometimes the two overlap, but academics usually take it for granted that the work they’re doing is both impressive and important when that conjunction is not necessarily true. They often assume that because the work they do is impressive, at least to them and their colleagues, then it must also be important to society at large. Conversely, they often reason the other way around: if the work that others do isn’t impressive to them and their colleagues, it must not be important. In my judgment, this largely accounts for the ‘fall from grace’ narrative that academics often impose on graduate students or colleagues who leave academia for non-academic work. Such non-academic work is considered of lesser importance than the ‘impressive’ work of the academy. In turn, this attitude puts pressure on post-academics to secure an ‘impressive’ non-academic job in the eyes of their erstwhile colleagues. However, such academics — and post-academics who still carry that baggage — are simply failing to distinguish between ‘important’ and ‘impressive.’ As Steve Horwitz and Sarah Skwire argue in another context:

Garbage collection may well not be impressive. Neither are diaper changing, gutter cleaning, grocery shopping, or any number of other icky, sticky, stinky, slimy and otherwise unpleasant jobs that keep humans healthy, safe, clean, and dry. But if no one is doing those tasks, humans don’t stay healthy, safe, clean, and dry enough to do impressive work–like designing skyscrapers, doing brain surgery, writing novels, and so on.

Scut work isn’t fun. It isn’t glamorous. And it isn’t impressive.

All that means that it is easy to dismiss it as unimportant. But if this winter’s storms and attendant power outages have taught us anything, it is that–without the electricity that allows us to hand our daily scut work over to machines, or without humans willing to take on those jobs in the absence of machines, we would soon be drowning in piles of garbage and poop.

They go on to mention that ‘scut work’ is valued less by the market than impressive work, but that’s not a good measure of the total utility of such work. Yes, the brain surgeon is paid more — and tells better stories at cocktail parties — than the person who does the hospital laundry, due to the relative scarcity of surgical skill. However, without clean linens the patient would die of infection soon after surgery. So the total utility of the launderer’s contribution is probably on par with the surgeon’s. I suspect that many academics also fail to make this distinction between marginal utility and total utility, hence their overestimation of the importance of their own work and their denigration of the ‘wrong’ type of non-academic work.

There’s another point in the vicinity here. For most academics, and professionals more generally, the career is an end in itself, the way in which the person derives meaning. I’m not sure that this is true for most non-academic, non-professional workers. Most people work to live better, to attain the economic freedom to pursue all of the other things that make life enjoyable and meaningful. The job is not an end in itself. Most post-acs, myself included, became fed up with sacrificing everything for an abstraction called ‘the career’ when that career wasn’t affording us the opportunity to do all of the other things that contribute to a happy and fulfilled life. And, of course, it’s perfectly acceptable to pursue any non-academic job that allows you have those things, regardless of what your former colleagues think.

All of this is to agree with my fellow post-ac bloggers who have made the same point. If you have to take a year or two to build your resume and work a job that isn’t particularly ‘impressive’, or that doesn’t challenge your intellect, or contribute to sweeping societal change, that’s fine and you shouldn’t face judgment from the post-academic community for your decision. One of the problems, as both bloggers mention, is that we tend to hear the post-ac success stories. (A notable exception, by the way, is Moving On, which is messy and honest.) These success stories tend to feature those post-acs who have transitioned into a very impressive non-academic career. There’s nothing wrong with these stories per se — I’ve featured some of them on my podcast — but they’re a non-representative sample that might discourage those of us who don’t land our dream post-ac job right out of the gate. But there’s no shame in having an ‘unimpressive’ non-academic job in which you’re not necessarily ‘using your PhD.’ Any job that provides you with a decent income is a win in this economy and you might have to build non-academic job experience for a few years before you find a job that fully utilizes your diverse skill set. In the meantime, however, you can still do important work, even if others don’t consider it impressive.

Scott Adams on Passion, Success, and Goals

I saw Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, on Tavis Smiley this afternoon. He was promoting his book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.

I’ve mentioned Adams on the blog before, particularly his insight that goals are overrated. Briefly, people who pursue goals are more likely to feel like failures on the way to their goals. It’s better to implement life systems that chisel away at goals while rewarding you every time you implement your system. For example, losing ten pounds is a goal; making healthier eating choices daily is a system.

He also shared some wisdom about passion. Whenever you hear successful people speak, they always attribute their success to passion. According to Adams, ‘passion’ is the default answer because the other answers are either conceited or embarrassing. For example, saying “I’m smarter than you and that’s why I’m successful and you’re not” isn’t likely to get you a place on the motivational speaking circuit. Likewise, saying “I was lucky” or “my family is well-connected” is much less flattering than the passionate hard-worker narrative. However, it’s obvious that luck and connections play at least as big a part in success as passion, if not more. So the default answer isn’t particularly helpful. More often than not, it simply flatters the speaker.

In Adams’ opinion, passion follows success rather than vice versa. If you do something and it works, you’re more likely to be passionate about it. If it doesn’t work, you’ll probably lose your passion quite quickly. And that’s okay. This insight ties in with the notion of goals being overrated. It’s better to be pragmatic than passionate. If your original goal doesn’t work out, you have to be willing to change course. This is the lesson behind the ‘pivot’ that has become the strategy among startups. The mirror image of the pivot is Chris Kayes’ neologism ‘goalodicy.’ Borrowing from the term ‘theodicy’ — which, in theology, is the attempt to justify belief in God despite evil — Kayes’ coined the term ‘goalodicy’ for believing in a goal in the face of contradictory evidence. Kayes’ prime example is the 1996 Mount Everest disaster documented by Jon Krakauer in Into Thin Air, but there are many more mundane examples of the cost of pursuing goals to the exclusion of all other considerations.

Finally, Adams talked about the value of mediocre skills. In his opinion, he’s not a great artist, writer, or humorist. But he manages to combine those skills in unique ways and offer something valuable. Whether or not Adams’ skills are mediocre is debatable, however, many of us definitely have skills that seem mediocre, but are nonetheless valuable. This reminded me of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball about the revolution in baseball player evaluation that happened around 2002. For example, traditional scouting had undervalued players who drew walks. For spectators, including professional scouts, walking to first base seems less impressive than hitting a single. However, batters who drew walks were disciplined at the plate, forced more pitches, and got on base. Their seemingly mediocre skill at bat was actually very valuable in producing runs. The moral of the story: look for undervalued skills and exploit inefficiencies in the market.

Although I haven’t read Adams’ book yet, it’s definitely on my reading list. It sounds like just the sort of unconventional wisdom I can get behind.

Episode 19: Craig vs. Carroll Debate Commentary, part 1

Here’s the latest edition of the podcast:

I’m doing something completely different on the podcast this month: a running commentary on the recent debate between Sean Carroll and William Lane Craig. I posted the video last week, so if you haven’t watched the debate yet, you should do that before listening to this episode. I basically ripped the audio from YouTube and talked over it like a DVD commentary track. This is the first time I’ve tried this, so it’s experimental. Hopefully, my comments add some value. If not, you can always watch the original sans commentary.