Misconception Monday – Forgiving the Unrepentant

Misconception Monday on a Tuesday? Blasphemy! It’s my own fault for having written the whole outline to an article yesterday morning but failing to remember it was just an outline after all, and not a full post, so that when I went to publish it last night, I was disappointed. Since I had the day off yesterday anyway, today is basically Monday. Choose for yourself which of those excuses you find more forceful.

Today, I want to look at forgiveness. And fittingly, a misconception about it. I’ve never written an article in the form of Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, but this whole topic works very well with the format. (If you are unfamiliar with it and have trouble following it, here’s a primer.)

Can we grant full forgiveness to someone who doesn’t repent?

Objection 1. It seems that we can forgive without demanding repentance, because people do it all the time. It is seen as a righteous act.

Objection 2. You need to be able to forgive those who you can’t see again (e.g. who are dead), so we must be able to forgive without demanding repentance.

Objection 3. Forgiveness helps the person wronged so they don’t hold a grudge, so it seems we should forgive even without repentance.

Objection 4. Jesus Himself says “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” So it seems we ought to forgive even without repentance.

On the contrary, God Himself demands repentance as a prerequisite for granting His forgiveness. “Unless you repent, you too will perish” (Luke 13:3)

I answer that there are multiple kinds of forgiveness. The sort of forgiveness which grants full restoration is called exoneration. This kind of forgiveness requires repentance. It simply cannot occur without both parties being fully involved, because it is a restoration of a relationship. A relationship cannot be restored if one party is unwilling to acknowledge a breach. At best, a relationship of this sort could be abusive.

It is also possible to ignore small offenses and especially those done unintentionally. A person can also have a forgiving attitude, such that at the moment of genuine repentance from the offending party, they are quick to genuinely forgive. This is how Christians ought to live. Dr. Stephen Marmer has a short presentation on Dennis Prager’s PragerU site that describes an approach consistent with ancient Judaism which breaks forgiveness into three types.

Since hatred can damage one’s own soul if directed at others (who are made in God’s image and thus His reflection), it is good to fight the temptation to hate those who do wrong to us. When evil is done to us, we deserve (through justice) some sort of restitution. However, giving up this demand and releasing the person who has wronged us from the responsibility of providing restitution can help us move past the wrong.

Reply to Objection 1. People who say they forgive those who don’t repent can’t possibly mean full forgiveness, but a lesser kind. They demonstrate a forgiving attitude, which is indeed righteous, and they are well-prepared to act rightly if repentance ever occurs. This is a way of loving one’s enemy, which is itself a righteous act.

Reply to Objection 2. The lesser sorts of forgiveness can be given to those who can’t receive full forgiveness (e.g. who are dead). Even if the person can never repent, they can be released of their duty to provide restitution and we can fight the urge to remember them with hatred.

Reply to Objection 3. Lesser forms of forgiveness and having a charitable attitude take the burden away from those who are wronged, even without repentance. But they aren’t full forgiveness. As has been discussed several times already in this article, there are many ways for the person wronged to avoid any further damage even if the other party refuses to repent.

Reply to Objection 4. Jesus also teaches that ““If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.” Clearly, he can’t mean both things at the same time in the same way, since they contradict. Jesus in His teaching is perfectly consistent: full forgiveness requires repentance, because full forgiveness is restoration. Without repentance, restoration is one-sided and incomplete. Jesus on the cross isn’t giving a thorough lesson in how forgiveness and repentance works. He’s demonstrating His love for a fallen world and those who don’t realize the gravity of what they’ve done. He demonstrates His love, not a process for forgiveness that trumps His far more thorough teaching during His ministry.

We are reassured of this because His apostles don’t transform this declaration of love into a new teaching on forgiveness. For the rest of their writing in the New Testament, they always make repentance a prerequisite for forgiveness. If we took His declaration on the cross as His standard for forgiveness, we are left with some massive theological problems. We must deliberately disobey Him in regard to forgiveness and we must set ourselves up as more forgiving than God Himself, who does require repentance. In matters where we aren’t completely sure of one interpretation or another, it’s always best to err on the side of some small confusion than on the side of total exegetical chaos. Life is messy; we ought not make it incomprehensible from our efforts at cleaning up the mess.

See this article by Wintery Knight for more information. And go follow his blog!

Life Organization Part 3 – Yearly Goals

Note: This is in a series of posts, and as the others are written, I’ll update a table of contents with links to the whole series here.

Part 1: What is Life Organization? Why do it?
Part 2: Life Goals
Part 3: Yearly Goals

Having some long-term goals is important, but without a plan to achieve them, they always remain in the distance without moving closer. In the previous article in this series, we looked at the method I’ve used to lay out these larger goals. Now, we’ll break them down into more manageable chunks.

Why Yearly?

A lot of people come up with New Years resolutions for themselves, finding that changing over to a new year and coming back to work after some major holidays is a great point to set up new habits. It’s convenient, but not always effective. Many people who seem to have a lot of success with their resolutions in January have completely forgotten them by May.

Years are still a great length of time to plan. They are finite and fixed, but still long enough that you can get a lot done towards whatever longer term goals you have.

I recommend not waiting until New Years Day to decide what you want to do for the upcoming year, though it doesn’t hurt to read through your plans that day.

Creating Yearly Goals

There’s some overlap here with lifelong goals, as there probably ought to be. After all, if you are going to be accomplishing something, it needs to be accomplished at a particular point in time. To make part of a larger goal into a yearly goal isn’t to say you have all year to achieve it (though you may). It simply means that it will be accomplished at some point during the year. I’ll have some thoughts about how to help make this more likely in the next post on planning a year. For now, the focus is on the goals themselves.

The first step I take is to look at my lifelong goals. Are there any I can do this year? Are there any parts of a goal I could contribute to?

Once I have those things identified, I try to balance each of the seven categories (see the previous article) of goals for the year. After that, I break down the goals even further, trying to figure out what major steps need to be accomplished to get the whole thing completed. Sometimes this isn’t necessary. Other times it can’t be helped.

For example, one of my perennial goals is to be on time to and have a good attitude about all of my commitments with a good attitude. I made them, after all. There’s no point in breaking this down; it’s pretty straightforward and uncomplicated, even if difficult at times.

On the other hand, one of my lifelong goals is to learn new things. This is ambiguous, so I’ve broken it down even at a long-term level into categories like “learn Latin” and “learn Statistics”. I also want to consistently read (and truly understand) a lot of books. At a yearly level, this breaks down into a list of the books I actually want to read. This means the yearly goal might fluctuate a little bit as I discover new books or decide not to read a book in the end, but this is infrequent.

The Next Step

After you have all of your yearly goals listed out, you should find yourself with a list that looks a lot like your lifelong goals, but less grand in scale and less comprehensive. In the next article, we’ll look at what to do with this concrete set of goals and how to plan your year out to actually get them done.

Doom – Josh 2014 Megawad

The original Doom is a classic. I’ve played it almost since it came out in 1993, and it shows no signs of aging.

But Doom would have gotten boring a long time ago if not for custom maps and content. Even as a kid, I had more fun making levels than I did playing the game. At the time, I used a DOS base editor called, imaginatively, the “Doom Editor Utilities (DEU)”.

There are much better tools today, and a couple of years ago I decided to learn them and try again at the art of Doom level creation. It really is an art form, and not one that I’ve mastered. There are many considerations when making levels that are interesting, challenging, but rewarding.

Despite my lack of mastery, I created a handful of levels and put them into a “megawad” (which is literally just the term for a collection of levels). In the spirit of creativity that the creators of DEU engaged in, I named it Josh 2014. Enjoy.

Josh 2014 (167 downloads)

 

Can There Be a Truly Secular Government?

Can there be a truly secular government? It all depends on what we mean by the term secular, of course. The word comes from Latin saeculum, the span of time after which no one alive at present will still be living. Eventually, the church used it as a way of referring to worldly power, and this seems to have stuck. To be secular is to be distinguished from the church. On this older view, secular government is any that is not run by a clergyman. Clearly, these governments exist and have existed for millennia.

But this isn’t what most people mean by the phrase “secular government”. Usually, the idea is a government free from overt religious influence. It is this definition to which my question refers. This other conception of secular government includes the original definition but expands upon it.

The Wall

Lets look at the United States as a means to answering the question, since the United States and its constitution represent a major development in the modern notion of secular government. It has the quintessential “secular government”. I also live there.

The first amendment to the United States constitution reads:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

The common understanding of this amendment is that it provides for a wall of separation between religion and government. But this notion of a wall originated not with the constitution, but with a letter by Thomas Jefferson.

As Daniel Dreisbach writes:

Jefferson was inaugurated the third President of the United States on March 4, 1801, following one of the most bitterly contested elections in history. His religion, or the alleged lack thereof, was a critical issue in the campaign. His Federalist Party foes vilified him as an infidel and atheist.

One pocket of support for the Jeffersonian Republicans in Federalist New England existed among the Baptists.

The Baptists had written the President a “fan” letter … chastizing those who had criticized him “as an enemy of religion[,] Law & good order because he will not, dares not assume the prerogative of Jehovah and make Laws to govern the Kingdom of Christ.”

In a carefully crafted reply, Jefferson endorsed the persecuted Baptists’ aspirations for religious liberty:

“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.””

Although today Jefferson’s Danbury letter is thought of as a principled statement on the prudential and constitutional relationship between church and state, it was in fact a political statement written to reassure pious Baptist constituents that Jefferson was indeed a friend of religion…

Jefferson, as president, clearly did not intend to mean what is often said of him.

Jefferson endorsed the use of federal funds to build churches and to support Christian missionaries working among the Indians.

The rest of the article is fascinating and highly recommended. But this is enough to make the point. The “wall of separation”, often used as though it has both constitutional power and refers to the modern notion of secular government, is a myth. We must also keep in mind that many of the states which ratified the constitution had their own state denominations. Clearly, the founders didn’t build a wall.

So what does the first amendment really mean?

A Christian Nation

Joseph Story was a supreme court justice in the 19th century. He was nominated for the role by James Madison, a man hailed as the “Father of the Constitution”. Joseph Story was both a scholar and someone with personal access to the authors of the constitution. Who better to author comprehensive commentaries on the document and its amendments?

His commentaries, not known by many today, paint an entirely different picture of the first amendment than we commonly see it today:

The real object of the [first] amendment was, not to countenance, much less to advance Mahometanism, or Judaism, or infidelity [atheism], by prostrating Christianity; but to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects, and to prevent any national ecclesiastical establishment, which should give to an hierarchy the exclusive patronage of the national government. It thus cut off the means of religious persecution, (the vice and pest of former ages,) and of the subversion of the rights of conscience in matters of religion, which had been trampled upon almost from the days of the Apostles to the present age.

In other words, when reading the first amendment we should see the word denomination in the place of religion. It would give us a more accurate understanding.

This makes a lot of sense. The constitution is a document heavily influenced by the Christian religion, a fact we simply can’t get away from. The presumptions it makes about the value of human life, the fact we have something called rights (a topic I plan to study soon and write some articles about), and the sorts of rights we have all stem from Christianity. The concept of religious liberty is also a Christian idea.

Given all of this, the first amendment’s context becomes clear. It isn’t designed to provide for a pluralistic, relativistic society. Instead, it protects Christians from being pressured to join other denominations so that the Christianity in the hallway (to borrow CS Lewis’ metaphor) can be a unifying foundation for the entire nation.

Our House Divided

Can there be a truly secular government? Not in the modern sense, and the founders knew it.

Every law, every guiding principle of jurisprudence, every court ruling, every decision by a representative, judge, or executive is done on the basis of a worldview. Everyone has one. The alternative to politicians acting in accordance with their consciences is to have them act against what they believe is right, something I think we should all be concerned with should we ever see it.

This is not a simplistic view. A judge may act against his own intuitions when rendering a verdict because he wants to remain faithful to the law. But this isn’t an act of the judge violating his own worldview, because his worldview is the thing which holds the law higher than his own opinion.

What’s needed is a unifying force. Something which will keep everyone on the same page. It can’t be a constitution, because constitutions can be ignored. They’re just pieces of paper. It can’t be a sentiment, because sentiments change. It can’t be an army, because armies can’t change minds; they often can’t even change outward actions. It can’t be law, because while laws may cause behavior, they themselves are caused by something else.

A truly secular government, in the modern sense, is one which is free of overt religious influence. But everyone has a religion; everyone has a worldview. Everyone has beliefs about the world, about human nature, about the nature of the whole universe. These beliefs constitute his religion, and these beliefs are not private. There isn’t anyone alive who could participate in a truly secular government; he’d bring too much “baggage”. And if he decided to leave the baggage behind, he’d have nothing to base his decisions on.

The unifying force in America is Christianity. It always has been. When you understand the historical context into which America was born, you can see it clear as day. The founding documents are full of Christian assumptions. The guiding principles are Christian in character.

Religious liberty, protecting the weak and innocent, valuing life, learning of objective beauty, truth, and virtue; all of these things were based on the same Christian worldview that our constitution was. Is it any wonder, as we have drifted into aimless pluralism that all of these things have been lost along with the force of the constitution?

Without this force, we lose our national soul. I suspect it is already lost. We have nothing on which we can all agree as Americans, because our very fundamental assumptions about the world are completely divided.

Caesar III – Super Easy Map

I’ve been meaning to put some content in the “gaming” category of the site for a while, and since I have limited time this evening, it seems like a great chance to start.

Caesar III is a great city-building game. One of my favorite games of all time, in fact. And despite the fact I understand it well and have no problems playing it, I decided to create a map that is so incredibly easy to play that there’s no challenge whatsoever.

It’s mostly a sandbox with the most defensible position you can imagine, in case you want to irritate Caesar until he sends army after army at you to give yourself a challenge.

Caesar III - Super Easy Map (114 downloads)

 

Elysium – Five Gods Worth of Fun In Every Play

The millions of people who lived in Greece from the archaic age until the Roman occupation probably never imagined that someday, in the great and terrible distant future of 2017, their culture would be remembered in the form of a card-drafting strategic deathmatch. Probably.

But if – through an oracle perhaps – they had somehow known this and been able to see Elysium, I’m sure the daily struggles of the common farmers, craftsman, women, and children would have been borne with all the more vigor and hope. Or not. As Elysium makes clear, average citizens are negative victory points. It’s all about the heroes.

What Comes in the Box?

I love good box inserts. I’m geeky enough to have made my own when I don’t like the one supplied. This one is incredible. It actually looks like a temple! With cards and pillars in the basement!

fantastic box insert that actually evokes the theme of the game, that’s what! Oh, and game pieces. A lot of them. You get coins, victory point counters, prestige counters, cards, cardboard player boards, a game “board” made up of multiple pieces, various other counters and tokens, and pillars. Small and colorful wooden pillars. Just like the ancient Greeks used.

Set the pieces out in front of a full complement of four players, and watch as everyone mistakenly grabs four pillars of the same color only to be informed soon after by you, the wise owner and mentor of the game’s rules, that they’ve made a horrible error.

Everyone in the game gets four pillars, one each of red, blue, green, and yellow. These are used to take turns, as well as add a lot of strategic depth to those turns. Everyone also gets a board to keep track of their victory point tokens, coins, and other tokens as necessary. The board also acts as a way to separate each player’s domain from his Elysium. More on that later.

The eight decks of cards. All of the cards have the same citizen on their back. Otherwise, shuffling would be kind of a waste of time.

There are eight decks of cards in the game, one each for Zeus, Athena, Poseidon, Hades, Hermes, Hephaestus, Ares, and Apollo, keeper of that oracle I mentioned at the start. Each Greek god has a different personality, and their decks reflect that. Before the game starts, you’ll pick five gods, grab their decks, and shuffle them all together. This is the source of some amazing replay value. The back of each card is a citizen. These are like jokers with strings attached. We’ll discuss their jokes and strings soon.

How Do you Play?

A sample player area. The domain is above, the Elysium below, and the stress in the middle, in the form of colorful pillars.

The game is divided up into five epochs. Over the course of an epoch, players will acquire cards and “quests”, which are also cards but are made of cardboard and determine turn order. To acquire something, a player makes sure he has the pillars which match the colors of the card or quest he wants and then discards a pillar of any color to grab the prize, putting any cards in his domain. This is where a lot of the game’s strategy comes into play, because you want to think ahead about which colors you’ll want to keep around and which you can sacrifice. You’ll need to pay attention to the moves that other players make, too, because if they leave you without any options, bad things might happen.

Everyone is required to grab a quest on one of their four turns. If you can’t grab a quest, then your last turn is forfeit, and you get a broken quest that places you in last for turn order while providing you with mediocre benefits. Quests provide lots of money, lots of chances to score points, and affect turn order so it’s good to avoid this.

Essentially a market where you get stuff you want now in exchange for reduced opportunities. A lot like partying in college.

On the other hand, if you manage to claim a quest but can’t choose any of the cards available on your turn, you get a citizen, which is simply the next card on the draw pile never flipped face-up.

All of the cards in the game have special abilities that can be used at different times. Some can be used continuously through the game, some once per game when you choose, some the moment you acquire them, and others once per epoch.

Once everyone has used up their four pillars, players have a chance to move cards to their Elysium in the writing of legends phase of the epoch. Essentially, while your various heroes, monsters, and other cards do cool stuff, the real goal is to be remembered forever. As everyone knows, the only way to be remembered forever is to end up in a set or a straight of cards in an Elysium. So naturally, that’s what you have to do in the game.

You’ll take your cards from the domain and, if you pay coins equal to the number on the card and have a quest or cards that enable you, place it into your Elysium. At this point, the true nature of the game is revealed and you discover all of the rules are really the most complicated way imaginable to build sets and straights in Rummy. You either play cards of the same god (color) with different number values – called a family set – or you play cards of the same number but different gods (colors) – called a number set. You score extra points if you are the first to complete a family set, or if you have the longest number set. Every set and straight of cards also earns you points at the end of the game. In fact, most of your points will come from the cards in your Elysium. The catch is that cards moved to your Elysium no longer provide any abilities. For one-time use cards you’ve already blown through, this isn’t a hard choice. For cards that provide benefits the whole game, choosing when to move them to your Elysium is a stressful ordeal.

Sometimes, you don’t get the chance to grab cards you really need to complete a family or number set. The game provides you with a second chance at glory with citizens, those cards you obtain usually by failing to obtain something better (although there are other ways). Citizens can be moved to your Elysium at the cost of the card they are going to replace in a set, so long as the set they will join already has at least two cards in it. The problem is that each citizen, being a boring normal person, takes two of your victory points away at the end of the game. Use them sparingly and strategically, and this won’t be a big deal.

Once everyone moves the number of cards they want (and can) to their Elysium, the Epoch ends. After five epochs, the game is over, and you score points.

Who is This Game For?

Elysium is not a simple game. It isn’t a complicated game. But it is a thought-provoking, sometimes mind-melting experience. I don’t recommend playing it late at night, but I highly recommend playing it.

My wife and have played a variety of board games together. Often, games work better with larger numbers of players and have optional rules for two and while we enjoy them, it’s clear the experience might be enhanced by other people joining in. Elysium, however, seemed to be excellent for two players. With more, I imagine there is a bit more chaos (which I’m fine with), but we enjoyed the decisions and freedom with just the two of us.

The card lookup. I tried reading it and my eyes refused to work. I suggest using it as intended instead of as reading material.

For people who want something a bit heavier than Dominion but love the card drafting, for people who want the customization and build-up of 7 Wonders but want more long-term planning, and for people who like Magic: The Gathering but want something more manageable, this is a great choice. It’s right in the middle in terms of complexity – most of which comes from decision-making and not arcane rules. The cards have a lot of symbolism on them, but they also have full descriptions of what they do. Any ambiguity is removed by a book listing every card and more detailed explanations, which I’ve only needed to use once in a corner case.

To be honest, I didn’t think I’d like this game. It was popular last year, but from the description and reviews I had seen, I was not impressed. But I absolutely love it and can’t wait to play it again. I’m glad I was wrong. There is a lot of depth here without the analysis paralysis that accompanies so many games like it – at least in the far too limited experience I’ve had with it. I only wish they’d print an expansion.

You can pick up a copy of Elysium here.

Misconception Monday – What is Hypocrisy?

I’m restarting a project I had begun years ago: to have themed posts on certain days of the week. Monday, beginning as it does with the same letter as “misconception”, will be dedicated frequently to dealing with instances the same. This week’s target is the modern erroneous perception of hypocrisy.

For a modern post-Christian who believes in moral relativity, there are still two moral absolutes (however contradictory this is): consent and hypocrisy. Anything consented to is moral, and anyone who is a hypocrite is immoral. While I’ll save an analysis of the utter weakness of basing a moral framework on consent, this post is concerned with the definition of hypocrisy that is used in this context.

Hypocrisy is often described as the act of failing to live up to your own standard, or failing at a standard you think applies to others. Neither of these is correct.

In fact, hypocrisy might be the most misused word in the English language. It doesn’t mean having a moral standard which you fail to meet. It doesn’t mean believing something differently now than you believed in the past. It doesn’t mean believing people should be held accountable for something even if you have been guilty of it, too.

Hypocrisy means pretending to be one thing when you are really something else (from Greek hupokrisis, which has to do with acting a theatrical part)*. That’s it. This is the meaning used in the Christian Bible as well.

People are quick to call anyone with a moral standard a “hypocrite” and then express all sorts of moral outrage, not realizing that in doing so, they are actually the ones guilty of hypocrisy (by pretending to be moral superiors while denying morality). The people they are outraged by are guilty only of failing to live up to a standard. But any standard worth having is beyond our grasp. If it was better to live up to any standard than to fail at living up to a good one, we all ought to adopt standards that are impossible to fail. Doing so would do no good, but would tempt all kinds of evil.


* I’ve heard it argued that the origin of a word has no influence over the meaning of a word. This is nonsense and is like saying the origin of an automobile has no influence over its current use. The original meaning of a word and its context does not tell us everything about the word as it is used today, but it tells us a great deal. It also tells us what the word meant to the people who established our cultural traditions regarding its meaning. “Person”, for instance, was originally used to refer to the masks worn by actors (“persona”), and was adopted as an aid in explaining the Trinity. “Personhood”, then, gets its moral power from the relation to God that humans have, being made in His image. This causes bizarre contradictions for modern people who don’t believe in God.

Something similar happens for “rights”, which only have moral weight when the term is used in a way foreign to the demands of activists today.

But both of these are topics for two more misconception Mondays.

Life Organization Part 2 – Life Goals

Note: This is in a series of posts, and as the others are written, I’ll update a table of contents with links to the whole series here.

Part 1: What is Life Organization? Why do it?
Part 2: Life Goals
Part 3: Yearly Goals

In the first part of this series, we covered the meaning of life organization – as far as I use the term – and looked at what constitutes a goal. This time, we’ll focus on the sorts of lifelong goals everyone should be thinking about.

The Seven Types of Goals

You’ve probably heard of Dave Ramsey and recognize him for the popular financial advice he gives. While his work in finance is great on its own, I mention him here because I think he’s created an eminently useful breakdown of the sorts of lifelong goals everyone should have.

Dave list seven categories which broadly cover anything you can think of, and which he labels the “Wheel of Life”:

  1. Career
  2. Financial
  3. Spiritual
  4. Physical
  5. Intellectual
  6. Family
  7. Social

There are two things to keep in mind with these categories. First, it is important to have goals in every category. These may change over time, but you should still have a long-term plan to grow in every one of the seven respects.

Second, there must be a healthy balance between each of these focuses. This balance is not merely spending the appropriate amounts of time on each category, although it is not less than that either. Balance also includes how we prioritize them, and which we are willing to postpone and which we are not.

You need goals in each of the categories. Even better, you need a short but unambiguous description of where you want to be in a few decades (depending on your age). Do you want to be married with at least three children, all of whom you spend time with and for whom you’ve built a home? That’s both short and unambiguous. You can’t fudge the number of kids you have or the presence or absence of a home.

In 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey talks about the need in everyone’s life for a “personal constitution”. A good format for that is to create the aforementioned summaries in the seven categories and write them down.

The purpose of doing all of this is to figure out the destination you are trying to arrive at. It isn’t a prerequisite to living a great life or doing important things, but I think for most people, it increases the chances of doing either of those things.

How to Find Life Goals

None of the life management gurus I’ve read has ever said this – probably in some cases to preserve an audience – but I don’t think everyone is naturally prepared to figure out what their own life goals should be. Until you figure out what matters most in life and what the purpose of life is in the first place, it’s all a waste of time.

If you want to figure out what your life goals ought to be, you need to ask some more fundamental questions first: Why are we here? Where do we go when we die? How do I know the difference between right and wrong? What does it mean to live well?

Providing thorough answers to these questions is not the topic of this post (but it may be for future posts). The short answers are:

  • We are here to worship God in fellowship with Him, and this can be done only through Jesus.
  • Where we go depends on whether we trust Jesus for our salvation. Whether we trust Jesus for our salvation depends in part on whether we think we need salvation (we do).
  • We can know right from wrong through both special and general revelation; from both Scripture and through nature and natural law.
  • To live well is to live in accordance with our nature as being created in the image of God. To live well is to pursue God in all things, from eating, exercise, and reading to worship and charity.

Only by having correct answers to these questions can we begin to know what sort of life goals we should create. That doesn’t mean it becomes easy to figure out what you should pursue in the seven categories. It means it is possible to make the right choices.

It will take time.

Examples of Life Goals

I’ve spent about a decade trying to refine my life goals, and I can offer up a few of them as examples, as well as describe the way I keep track of them.

I use Microsoft’s OneNote for a lot, but one of the original things I did with it was keep track of goals. It’s still the primary reason I use it. I’ve created a notebook called “Goals” where I keep track of my lifelong goals. I keep track of yearly goals, notes and articles related to the process of setting good goals, and checklists that help me plan my days, weeks, months, and years, but those are all for a later article in this series.

Part of my section for “intellectual goals” looks a bit like this:

Intellectual Success

  • Learn New Things
    • Learn how to write classical genres of music
      • Learn how to write fugues
      • Learn how to write chorales
    • Learn Latin
      • Finish reading through and doing the homework in my Latin textbook
  • Learn Piano
    • Practice multiple times a week
    • Learn individual pieces
      • Learn Kansas’ “Point of Know Return”

The section is larger than this, but it’s all the same format. I have the category (“Intellectual success”) broken down into specific goals. Each of those is broken down further as necessary.

For me, it was easier to list more things I might want to do than I’d ever have time for and then prune the things that weren’t as important to me. You’ll have to find a way that works for you.

Once you’ve got your goals listed at this high level, you’re ready for the next step: figuring out how to contribute to each one this year. But that’s for next time!

 

The Four Causes

A Little History

Despite attending multiple colleges and universities and obtaining two degrees, I did not encounter Aristotle’s “four causes” until several years after I had graduated. The few philosophy courses I took spent brief moments discussing Plato before moving 2400 years into the future to spend the rest of the time talking about modernism and postmodernism (one class in particular focused on the professor’s own written material).

I’ve since learned how much of a waste those classes were. The real meat of philosophy is in the ancient, medieval, and early modern world. There have been few philosophers since who have contributed anything of the magnitude that their ancestors did, and often their contributions led to errors repeated for generations. If you want to study good philosophy – and to paraphrase CS Lewis, you should want to study good philosophy if only to answer bad philosophy – you should start at the beginning. Not everything Plato or Aristotle or their successors said was correct, but you can learn a lot even in disagreement.

What Are the Four Causes?

Aristotle in particular had a conception of how to explain the nature of anything and everything, called traditionally the “four causes”: material cause, formal cause, efficient cause, and final cause.

Consider the human eye for a moment. The material cause of something is the matter of which it is composed, so the material cause of an eye is the various molecular components which make it up. The formal cause of something is the shape or form it has. For the human eye, this includes the overall eye itself as well as the parts which make it up, from the iris, pupil, and lens to the retina.

An efficient cause is like the history of how a thing came to be. A human eye begins to grow early during pregnancy. The whole story of how the eye came to be where it is at the moment you consider it is part of this efficient cause. Finally and fittingly, there is the final cause. This is the telos or “end” of an object; it’s purpose. The purpose of the human eye is to see.

These four causes constitute a comprehensive explanation for anything you can think of, and virtually anything you can know about an object will fall into one of the categories. While this might seem esoteric, consider a very practical use of this information for a human eye.

In medicine (at least medicine traditionally understood and not the postmodern “choose your own adventure” style we increasingly see in mental health and now even in physical health), the goal is to first “do no harm”, but ultimately to mend things that are not working. A human eye can have any number of defects. To know what constitutes a defect, you first need to consider what the final cause of an object is; in our case, sight. So an eye that cannot see well or is blind to color or blind to everything is unhealthy, for it is not capable of realizing its end. Medicine which corrects these problems and enhances vision (be it surgery or contact lenses; even sunglasses depending on the situation) may be “unnatural” in the sense that it is developed by human beings – being artificial (from Latin artificium; a thing people make) – but it is not “unnatural” in the more important sense of going against the nature of the object in question. Medicine which restores sight to a blind person or which corrects nearsightedness restores natural function, because it enables the final cause of the object to be realized. In this sense, good medicine is eminently natural. Obviously, a good knowledge of the formal, material, and efficient causation of an eye is required to develop medicine as well.

An Interesting Discovery

In his book “Summa Philosophica”, Peter Kreeft answers the question “Whether there are four causes?” in his section on cosmology. He answers in the affirmative, but one of the notes he made helped me realize that even if today we don’t discuss the four causes in the language I used above, we still talk about them in language very similar to it. He proposes this objection to the idea that the four causes exist:

We no longer use the word “cause” to refer to the two internal elements or dimensions that Aristotle called “formal” and “material” causes.

He responds, in part:

We still use the word “because” for all four causes, even though we no longer use the word “cause” for the first two. E.g. we say that an enclosed plane figure is a triangle “because” it has three angles (formal causality), or that paper towels mop up liquid “because” of their capillary structure (material causality).

My entire life, and likely yours as well, you’ve used the language of the four Aristotelian causes and have never even noticed.

A triangle is a triangle because it has three sides. (formal causality)

A bullet pierces because it is made of metal. (material causality

A car is in your garage because you drove it there. (efficient causality)

An eye is healthy because it sees. (final causality)

My Thoughts on Speed Reading

Learning to speed-read is often touted as an incredible way to increase your productivity, learn things faster than anyone else, and get through more books than you would have ever thought possible. But how effective is it, really?

I’ve attempted speed reading in the past and have had very poor results with it. Even with practice, it never seemed to deliver on any of the promises that motivated me to try in the first place. What I learned in the process is that one form of speed reading (literally reading faster) is neither truly possible nor helpful, while another (skimming a book before really digging into it) is not a magical but is far more effective.

There’s a YouTube video on the topic I highly recommend below, although I have some additional comments. And to note, I didn’t create the video and have no association with the creators beyond subscribing to them on YouTube:

While I’m normally not a fan of video-based education (a topic for another post, perhaps), I think this particular channel does a good job by choosing relatively simple topics. Regardless, the video makes the point well: speed reading – in the commonly understood sense – is a myth.

But we should have known it was a myth all along for three reasons.

First, when you are speaking with a friend in a conversation, notice how quickly you and your interlocutor are saying words. You’ll find the speed to be nearly the same as the average reading speed; perhaps a little slower, but then you are both coming up with things to say at the moment. Does it make sense that this universal method of communication is a magnitude slower than you can read? Speaking precedes writing, so this seems to make little sense.

You’ll find that as you read, you naturally subvocalize the words. In speed reading courses, this is considered a pitfall to avoid; something which training can force you to stop doing. But without vocalizing the words, it becomes much more difficult to understand what you are reading. After all, that conversation you are having with your friend is understandable precisely because ultimately, you hear the words he is speaking. You don’t translate those words into text that you then read in your mind, even though you naturally do the opposite when you read.

Second, if you’ve ever listened to the radio long enough, you’ve likely encountered commercials that end with someone who is a professional “speed reader” (in the sense that he speaks a disclaimer extremely quickly). If you’re like me, you never quite understand what’s being said. You might hear a word occasionally, and after hearing the same commercial over and over you may come to finally grasp what is rattled off, but it is an unnatural and difficult process.

And yet, this process is the audio equivalent of speed reading. Since we all learn to speak and listen before we learn to read, why should we presume that reading is something we’ll do a magnitude more efficiently? It isn’t very compelling.

Finally, and probably most straightforward of all, simply think for a moment. You can think about anything you’d like. As you think, you’ll probably “hear” (in your mind’s “ear”, so to speak) words.

Now, think as quickly as you can. This might seem like an odd request, but try it. In my own experience, this isn’t something that can be performed on command, but even if you try to think about many things in quick succession, you’ll find that the speed at which you can “hear” the inaudible words you are thinking is about the same speed at which you subvocalize words you read on a page. It seems strange that, through the mystical arts of speed reading, you’d be able to read faster than you can think and still comprehend what you are reading.

While I recommend skimming before diving into a book (at least with nonfiction), I think speed reading is best avoided. If you really really want to remember and understand what you read, read slowly and subvocalize or even speak the text aloud.

After years attempting speed reading, I’ve found it to be ineffective and unhelpful. I’m finishing up my first reading of “How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth” (which will get a review and even a series if I have the time) and this point was reiterated when the authors suggested that, to really understand and remember the Bible, we need to speak the words out loud. If such a method works for the most important of books, surely it works for others as well.