Reflections on “The Second Civil War” by Ronald Brownstein

At the end of my review (see below), I said two things were missing from this book. The first is everything that had happened in American politics since 2008, when the book was penned. The second is the uniquely American socio-cultural factors that led to what the author calls “the great sorting out” of the American electorate supporting Congressional hyper-partisanship between roughly the late 1960s and 1995. In this essay, I address the second issue first, and then, imagining myself to be Ronald Brownstein, project what he might say about the election of Donald Trump. The two problems are related.

From the left, there is the politics of identity, the earliest example of which, the women’s movement, has deep socio-cultural roots but in modern terms begins with the suffrage movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In America, the African American experience emerged from roughly one hundred years of political and economic suppression between the civil war and the 1960s. 

These historical examples of identity politics began to fragment in the mid-1970s when the left, seemingly helpless against growing economic disparity in the United States, retreated to academia. To preserve the relevance of humanities, they began offering courses in ever-narrower identities. Although these teachings never demanded the abandonment of “wider issues” (e.g., women’s rights as compared to “lesbian’s rights”), it was only natural that this would happen. People have limited time to devote to any one matter. 

I can recommend several books covering these issues well. They include Mark Lilla’s “The Once and Future Liberal” (2017), Slavoj Zizek’s “The Courage of Hopelessness” (2018) along with his “A Left that Dares to Speak its Name” (2020), and Cathrine Mayer’s “Attack of the 50ft Women” (2017) illustrating how modern identity politics has hobbled the broader women’s movement in the United Kingdom. 

If the left has, inadvertently,  turned the Democratic party into a herd of cats, the right has more deliberately unified the Republican party under a banner of racism, xenophobia, and social intolerance. There has never been a serious left in the United States. The right is another matter.

America has always been a racist nation, beginning with its treatment of the continent’s own natives. The extreme communist left has never been a significant force in American politics, but the Nazi (and pre-Nazi) right has been a force locally since before the Civil War and today has gained substantial strength.  

In school, we Americans all learn we are a melting pot. Yet as each of the various races and ethnicities arrived in North America, they were beset by bigotry promulgated by those already here. Blacks were imported as slaves and have suffered the worst of the racism down to the present day, though one can argue that native Americans were treated even worse. In the latter half of the 19th century, the Irish and Italians were set upon by the English and Scottish already here. The later (early 20th Century) Eastern Europeans were terrorized by the Western Europeans, and all persecuted the Chinese and Japanese when they arrived on the West Coast.

From the time of the Russian Revolution, the left in the U.S. was heavily suppressed while the right was left free, especially in the South Eastern States both to organize and commit violent crimes against black Americans, and later (down to today) to utilize that organization for terror purposes against everyone who isn’t perceived as both white and Christian. 

In 2020, there are three political classes with a real voice in the United States: liberals, conservatives, and right-wing extremists. There are a handful of left-wing extremists, but they do not have anywhere near the right’s political presence and organization. The extreme left is as intolerant as the right but has a different set of issues, not racial or cultural, but economic. The left has no political representation. Bernie Sanders is about as close as they get, and he is a mild democratic socialist. By contrast, the far-right has always had some political representation in state and national legislatures, governors (George Wallace), and now the President.

Of course, not all conservatives are Nazis any more than all liberals are communists or socialists. But the right is more closely connected than the left because both conservatives and Nazis advocate meddling in others’ personal lives. In contrast, on the left, real communists do likewise, but the liberals do not. Therefore, the left is more politically diffuse, while the right is more concentrated, which brings us back to Donald Trump.

What Brownstein calls “the great sorting out of the American electorate” was a crystallization and concentration of the electorate on the conservative side. The liberals have always been and still are a diffuse collection of various viewpoints, inevitably given the nature of liberalism, toleration for differing views. The shift went through many stages, especially in the South East, where racist, “conservative Democrats” were replaced by racist Republicans. 

In the lead-up to the 2000 election (Bush vs. Gore), Karl Rove realized there existed a crystalized conservative block, which would tip every election if it could be persuaded to vote in large numbers. In 2000 Democrats still outnumbered Republicans in most of the U.S. (today, the two parties each register roughly one-third of the electorate with ostensible independents making up the other third). The strategy worked again in 2004 with help from propaganda (the “swift boat” controversy) propagated by the media, social and otherwise.

In 2008 came the reaction to both Bush’s conduct of the Iraq war and the mortgage crisis (2006 in the U.S. followed by the rest of the world in 2008), the election of Barack Obama. The racist elements of the U.S. electorate went wild. Gun sales leaped (and are jumping again as Trump comes to the end of his first term), incidents of racial, ethnic (especially anti-Muslim), and anti-LGBT attacks increased nation-wide although school shootings, fueled less by bigotry and more by bullying, stole many of the headlines.

Obama, having served two full terms, looked forward to handing the reins of power to Hilary Clinton, or at worst a conventional Republican. What happened surprised everyone. Donald Trump (thanks to Steve Bannon) went Karl Rove one better. Trump discovered he could win (first primaries and then the election) not merely by consolidating and bringing out the “conservative vote”, but by giving voice to the nation’s most ardent racists and bigoted groups: anti-gay, anti-black, anti-Muslim. Trump didn’t entirely succeed. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. But in four critical states, Trump tied enough of the conservatives and extremists together to put him over the top in the Electoral College. 

The extremist subset of the “conservative vote” had not participated en masse in national elections because neither Republicans nor Democrats (except for the “deep south”) supported their extremism. Trump did support and encourage it. That has been the secret of his success even to this day, now a week before the 2020 election! 

Review: The Second Civil War by Ronald Brownstein (2008)

The Second Civil War is a book about hyper-partisanship in American politics, how (and why) it got to be the way it is, and what might be done about its problematic consequences. In 2020, no matter your political persuasion, we can all agree that American politics is hyper-partisan. But Mr. Brownstein isn’t speaking of Donald Trump (#45), or Barack Obama (#44), but George W. Bush (#43)! The book ends in 2008 before the election of Obama!  

A well researched and well-written book is mostly about the relation between the American presidency and Congress, House and Senate. It begins back at the last election of the 19th century and moves rapidly forward, giving us more detail through the presidencies of the mid to late 20th century ending with Clinton and Bush #43. There were partisan periods in American politics before, but also a long period from the early 20th century through roughly the Carter presidency when the parties were so diverse that one could not tell, by policy preferences, who was a Democrat and who a Republican.  

All of this began to change in the late 1970s with various rule changes adopted by the House and Senate. The parties became more distinct and disciplined. In 1995 under Clinton, Newt Gingrich who, using the new rule-base established in the prior generation, crystalized the combative partisan style that still characterizes the political parties today.  

In parallel with the evolution of the parties in Congress, there was (according to Brownstein) a great political “sorting out” of the American electorate into more rigid conservative and liberal camps. Brownstein covers this shift in popular focus from bread-and-butter issues to cultural issues that define the parties’ difference today, especially Republican conservatives. He does not give us reasons for this shift (except to say that it was cultural) but focuses on its effect, the acceleration, and solidification, of partisanship in Congress. It was Gingrich who most took advantage of this cultural change.  

Back in the day when the parties were indistinct, it was painful for a president to get anything done, especially in domestic programs. In today’s hyper-partisan environment, it is also difficult for a president to get anything done unless his party has a significant majority in both houses, something that hasn’t happened since the partisan divide began!  In his last chapter, Brownstein suggests what might be done to result, eventually, in a congress and administration empowered to pass significant legislation while each party retains its distinct character. I do not know if the Obama administration made any attempts at easing the partisan divide, but they were not particularly successful if it did. Clearly, Donald Trump has made the divide even more profound than it was under Bush #43.  

Two things are missing from this book. First, everything that has happened since 2008 (for which the author cannot be faulted). Second, the history and socio-cultural factors that drove the development of hyper-partisanship within the electorate. Partisanship in Congress evolved and sharpened steadily over 30 or so years from 1970 to 2000. This evolution could not have occurred (particularly on the conservative side) without electoral support, and the electorate, over that time, was happy to give it. I will deal with both of these issues from a 2020 perspective in my blog.

Review: Birth of a Divine Revelation by Ernest Moyer

When I learned of Ernest’s publication I ordered it direct from author and promised him a review. I’ve known Ernest, not personally, but through the medium of correspondence, for ten or more years. I know he is a good investigative reporter, an eloquent writer, and harbors certain pet theories about the future of our world, and the processes that will lead it there. Make no mistake, this book is pure Ernest. He leaves little to the imagination!

Ernest subtitles his book “The Origin of the Urantia Papers”, and indeed this is the core of his subject matter. While others have told this history in simple narrative form, Ernest takes a more indirect approach preferring to let the history tell itself though his making of several strategic points. concerning the parties involved, and the events surrounding them.

Ernest declares several purposes for his substantial effort. These include:

1. A refutation of Martin Gardner’s URANTIA, THE GREAT CULT MYSTERY (Prometheus books 1995)

2. Establishment of William Sadler as the real “contact personality” (though Ernest is quick to point out this does not mean he was the “sleeping subject”), and a refutation of the Wilfred Kellogg as sleeping subject theory.

3. Expose the corruptions to the text of the Urantia Papers added between 1939 and 1942, both in content and source.

Along the way, Ernest reflects on a litany of structural problems in the Urantia movement in general, and the Urantia Foundation in particular, briefly tracing their consequences to the more recent history, and present day conflicts within the Urantia Movement. He traces the origin of some of these problems to the human fallibilities of those who formed the closest advisory circle around William Sadler as well as W.S. himself who, after the death of his wife Lena in 1939, and the ending of contact with the sleeping subject, may have lapsed in certain critical facilities.

Does Ernest prove his case? I don’t have any problem with his over all refutation of Martin Gardner. Ernest and I both believe in the divinity of the source of the revelation as a whole. Gardner certainly ignored or perverted a lot of evidence to arrive at his hatchet job. I don’t think that any of us who are believers in the UB are going to fault Ernest for his observations in this direction. His disproof of the Wilfred Kellogg as sleeping-subject theory is a part of his refutation of Gardner, and he is pretty convincing here as well. Ernest does relate his tale of his trying to uncover the real identity of the sleeping subject, and his failure to do so, but in conducting this investigation, several things, not the least of which were records of where the two men (W.K. and W.S.) lived during the period of sleeping subject activity, should lay to rest the notion that W.K. was the sleeping subject.

I think Ernest achieves his second purpose as well. Here he asks the question: If you had to pick the kind of man in whom you would entrust the initial launching of a new revelation, what kind of character would you want? Ernest amasses a considerable collection of testimony, documentary (letters, reviews) and anecdotal, demonstrating the unusual combination of factors that made up the character of William Sadler Sr. He was, indeed an unusual individual, Jesusonian in his devotion to God via service to mankind. He even shared some of Jesus’ more personal characteristics such as his abilities as a public speaker and storyteller, the ability “to hold an audience with his words.” Sadler also had considerable energy, and an ability to function at all hours, under pressure, sometimes with little sleep.

It does seem that Sadler was an extraordinary person in his youth and middle age. Ernest points out that events surrounding W.S. in relation to the Seventh Day Adventist Church, and the personal decisions that followed from those experiences, uniquely prepared him for his role as first shepherd of the revelation. Ernest’s case here is a good one. I could almost feel the angelic hands that guided W.S. to his first encounter with the sleeping subject.

Ernest’s contention is, that while W.S. is not the sleeping subject, he is the real person we should be calling the primary “contact personality.” The sleeping subject, was merely a means of engaging W.S. in the revelatory process without producing too-overt (perhaps more easily traceable), a conversion point from the celestial to the material. W.S. was the real engine behind the process of give-and-take with the revelators which culminated with the appearance of the papers in 1934 and 1935. All the basic Urantia movement mysteries, the real purpose of all the preliminary documents handled through the contact commission (those few who directly observed the behavior of the sleeping subject) and forum (the 400+ people who reviewed the preliminary and then later finished papers), where and when exactly the final papers appeared, etc., remain in place.  I can’t fault Ernest for this, he tried. I sympathize with his desire to clarify the facts though. Personally, I wish he had found some of the details he sought.

Ernest nicely distinguishes between human engagement in the preliminary first phase of contact, and human contribution to the final outcome in the finished revelation delivered in the mid 1930’s, but he fails to discover the why of it all which is also too bad in my opinion, though one can not fault him for that failure either. Indeed one is tempted to ask why all the fuss? Surely some more direct means of engaging W.S. could have been found. One can only suggest, and Ernest leads us to speculate, that the revelators were enjoined to reduce or restrict the direct appearance of divine intervention in human affairs to the maximum possible degree. The decades long involvement of human beings in exchange with divinely produced material through the mouth, pen, and possibly other means involving a mechanically manipulated sleeping subject established a long human interaction with the process that masked the direct points at which the divine was responsible for the appearance of revelatory text. Who is to say here that Ernest isn’t correct? Indeed it appears to be a style that is characteristic of the Urantia Revelation, presented in such a way that one can at least try to make a case for a human origin.

ERNEST’S MAIN PURPOSE

Ernest’s third purpose is far more problematic. It is a complex set of arguments involving many factors, and ultimately influencing not only thought and criticism of the Urantia Book, but also the structure of the present day Urantia movement. Ernest’s tenets along these lines can be summed up as follows:

1. Something happened after the last of the papers was delivered in 1935.  Dr. Sadler mentions a “third series” of revelation, the first referring to all the preliminary work of the forum with the revelators, the second being the delivery of the final papers themselves in 1934-35, and the third, being some clarifications that appear to have entered the text between 1939 and 1942.

2. Christy, Emma Christensen, was the focus of the reception of these clarifications. In addition to serving in this capacity, Christy has other very important influences on the character and direction of both the Urantia Foundation, and early prominent leaders in the Urantia movement.

3. Caligastia is, ultimately, the source of the various corruptions in the text itself, and other apochryphal material found in the politically influential literature of the Urantia movement.

Ernest then spends considerable time discussing the most serious of the corruptions, really contradictions of one kind or another, in the text. His analysis, he concludes, leads one to see an intelligent hand, a deliberate perversion in the nature of the contradictions. He is quite detailed about what he takes to be the content and implications of the particular contradictions he examines. Alas, I find in much of this section a failure on Ernest’s part to consider alternative, and actually much simpler explanations that, in many cases, eliminate the contradiction altogether. In short, much of the worst of the textual corruptions that Ernest thinks he (and others) have discovered, are not contradictions at all, but skewed interpretations of the UB text itself. Perfectly plausible alternative explanations exist that are contradiction free. I’ll discuss these in detail below.

As with the other sections of the book, Ernest does his best in this first part of his argument for the devil’s hand! He amasses some considerable evidence that some changes in the text took place in the 1939-1942 period, that Christy was the human source of the new material, and that the misguided efforts of Harold Sherman who desired to incorporate his own changes, probably shocked W.S. into stopping any further changes in 1942. Why, if Sadler realized that making changes was wrong, he could not simply undo them all (the book hadn’t been printed yet) I’m not sure. Beyond 1942, Ernest offers three corroborating testimonies that messages continued to be revealed (by Christy) certainly through the 1960’s, and likely well beyond that time, almost to Christy’s death in 1982. He also provides something of a psychological background for the emergence of this phenomena. Sadler’s beloved wife Lena passed away in 1939 leaving him extremely lonely. By this time, the activity of the sleeping subject had ceased, leaving him without his connection to divine advice of several decades. W.S. had, at this point, whole heartedly accepted the reality of divine contact, and thus was the stage set for his acceptance (and lack of critical examination) when his own adopted daughter (a strange story right there), Christy, began to claim contact with spiritual beings who wished to deliver further clarifications to the revelation!

Christy and the changes are inextricably connected. Christy began to channel in the traditional sense. Ernest claims repeatedly that it was Caligastia she was channeling, but he also notes that she was a bad channeler; that her own mind got in the way of the message and distorted its final expression (406). Personally, it seems plausible to me that all of what Christy said or wrote in these years emanated from her own mind. It is easy to see a combination of midwestern conservatism mingled with a sense of recent history (WWII began in Sept. of 1939) in the documents adduced by Ernest to be the distorted sayings of Caligastia.

Still, there are mysteries afoot, of that no one should doubt. There is a document, written by Carolyn Kendall and reproduced by Ernest (chapt 26), which refers to “verbal” instructions during and after 1939. Ernest claims on page 372 that W.S. (and possibly others alluded to by Carolyn’s document) heard ‘”voices” coming out of the thin air’, but I can not find this claim anywhere in Carolyn’s document, only that the witnesses (contact commission) heard a voice, which may or may not have emanated from Christy. Ernest insists that “The creation of visible images and audible speech is prevalent in the ‘spiritualist’ community.” Ernest directs the reader to his own paper on the subject “Spirit Entry Into the Human Mind” which I have not read, but I do, for now, reject this idea on principle, especially as concerns visual effects. Such things require the cooperation of physical controllers who would not have been cooperating with Caligastia in the 20th century.

Ernest is not talking about fraud. The material Ernest offers as evidence does not compel us (in my opinion) to believe that rebel spirits were the only possible source. Some of what Ernest claims is “pure Devil talk,” the well known “word made book” phrase, for example (374), seems patently human to me. Truly, as Ernest has surmised, such sloganism does not strike one as being from the “true source”, but Carolyn never says that she was quoting the revelators [the channeling Christy], only relaying the substance of the messages. For all we know Clyde Bedell suggested this particular phrase. Human or celestial, the channeling is what lent Christy her authority in the movement. That authority set the stage for Christy’s two other big influences, the selection of Martin Myers for the Foundation, and the discovery of and subsequent influence on Vern Grimsley.

While Ernest doesn’t prove his case that “the Devil made ’em do it” to my satisfaction, his considerable effort in these parts of the his book (Chapters 24-27) does build a strong case that the very structure of the Urantia movement, especially the Foundation, along with all the problems engendered by that structure since the publication, not to mention the unraveling (as Ernest himself puts it) of what ever unity the movement had going into the mid 1980’s following Christy’s death, can be very much traced to these critical years (1939-1954). If nothing else, Ernest’s collection, into an organized volume, of the various apochryphal documents of the Urantia movement is a contribution to the movement’s understanding of itself. Though his viewpoint on movement politics differs from my own, no one would bother to deny that there have been some serious miscalculations and lack of wisdom exhibited in the actions of the leadership in both the Urantia movement and the Foundation in the now 45 years, almost two generations, since the Book’s first printing. Who is to say that this “third series” of revelatory changes, and the other messages that followed them prior to the Book’s first printing did not have some, and may even have been “the” major causative influence on who we are today.

THE CORRUPTIONS THEMSELVES

Three broad kinds of corruptions exist. Typographical errors, errors in scientific fact and known history, and internal contradictions between sentences or paragraphs in one part of the book and another. These last have to do with dates and other contradictions in content.

No one is worried about the typographical errors, most of which were corrected between the first and second printing. These were the obvious ones, but there are a more subtle sort that appear to be more substantive, for example the transformation of “external” into “eternal” (102:8:4 first sentence), is a seemingly obvious typo given the sentence’s context, that has never been corrected in UF sponsored printings of the book.

Some of the “scientific errors” do indeed exist. Some of the more interesting of those have not even been mentioned (the second clause “…if for no other reason…” of the sentence beginning “Ever will the scientist…” in the first paragraph of paper 65 section 6 is not true for modern biological sciences, yet the sentence suggests it will always be true), while other more famous examples have proven on further analysis to be nothing of the sort, like the “gravitational friction” statement in 57:6:2 which cleverly left room open for the fact that Mercury was discovered (in the 60’s I believe) to be still rotating, even relative to is revolutionary period!

Ernest here poses a legitimate question. If the book was delivered paper by complete paper in 1934 and 1935 why would there be any obviously erroneous scientific statements as seen from the viewpoint of but a few decades later? Why would there be any error in the book that couldn’t be attributed to imperfect transcription to type, and from type to plate, or that didn’t become, on second glance, a clever device by the revelators to anticipate future science? His answer is that any error small or large casts doubt upon the veracity of the work as a whole, and this indeed is what Caligastia found himself limited to doing in his effort to corrupt the revelation. In correspondence with me, Ernest was quick to point out that he did not here intend to refer to believers, but to those who find reason to reject the Book’s revelatory claims based on what amount to errors too simple for genuine revelators to make. That these errors have, on occasion, had this effect, one can not deny.

Yet even if errors did creep in thanks to Dr. Sadler’s uncritical acceptance of Christy’s channeled material, the ultimate source may lie elsewhere than the personal doings of Caligastia, namely Christy’s fertile subconscious. To prove Ernest wrong about the timing of the changes, that is to demonstrate that the errors were present in the original text, one would have to have access to the original papers of the second series as they appeared in the possession of W.S., and were delivered to the forum. Of course, these have been destroyed, and one finds oneself wishing, again, that that was not the case so that we might now clear up some of these mysteries. Ernest claims that some of what Sadler changed (corrected) between the first and second printings suggest some, but not by any means all of what was changed in the “third series” of presentations. While we can not be sure of any of this, no one has suggested any alternative to Ernest’s contentions in this regard, other than that Caligastia was not responsible for them!

One notes however, that until Ernest’s last couple of chapters, the corruptions discussed are all pretty trivial. A word here, a phrase there a, syllogism on page 3 involving three levels of perfection (who could have guessed that they yielded 7 possible relationships?) that appeared in print 6 years after 1935 (why people can’t believe the author was influenced by something someone said who knew someone, who knew a member of the then 300+ person forum is beyond me), some of which do constitute interesting mysteries of the Urantia movement. When, however, Ernest attempts to analyze what he claims to be more serious contradictions he fares not so well in the opinion of this reviewer.

THE MORE SERIOUS CORRUPTIONS

First up is the 40 day problem! Ernest devotes parts of two chapters to this one. It comes down to this. At the opening of paper 194, the apostles are in prayer with 120 believers when at about 1:00 pm there comes into their midst the Spirit of Truth. This is May 18, Jesus made his final appearance to the apostles that morning at 7:00 am and ascended to his Father. If you start with the date of the crucifixion which was on the day of passover (passover beginning at sundown of that day), 42 days have passed counting the crucifixion day as 1. Now section 1 of paper 194 begins as follows: “The apostles had been in hiding for 40 days. This happened to be the Jewish festival of Pentecost,…” (194:1:1).

The trouble arises because the word “this” beginning the second sentence is assumed to be referring not only to “this day”, the day of Pentecost, but also to “this day of the arrival of the spirit of truth”, and that “40 days” is taken to mean “40 continuous days.” The two events (the day of the ascension and Pentecost) are easily conjoined in the mind of the reader, and the midwayer’s literary transition from the introductory section to section 1 of paper 194 certainly contributes to the confusion, but this is not actually what the first two sentences of section 1 say. The Spirit of Truth arrived on day 42 following the crucifixion, Pentecost begins on day 50 (a week of weeks if you begin counting the day after the crucifixion), and the apostles have been hiding for 40 [of the last 50] days! This great problem (which apparently bothered W.S. himself) is resolved if you do not assume that the word “this” refers to the same day of the arrival of the Spirit of Truth, and that the “in hiding for 40 days” means no more than what it says, that is, that they were not in hiding for 8 (42 + 8 = 50) of the last 50 days as indeed they were not (they were in Galilee with Jesus, on mount Olivet, etc.).

Ernest’s investigation of this problem leads him to discover one of the more significant date issues. In 191:3:3, the statement is made that Jesus entered the “embrace of the Most Highs of Edentia” on May 14, yet he ascended (by way of Edentia and the Most Highs) on May 18 (193:5:4). Ernest thinks he has discovered a date error here, a corruption, but there are two other and much simpler possibilities. One is that the statement on 193:5:4 refers to a different event. Might it not have been possible for Jesus to have visited with the Most Highs more than once during his morontia transit? Another possibility is simply another typographical error, that the date given in 191:3:3 should have been May 18, not the 14th!

Others of his suggested targets of corruption can be explained equally easily. For example, another of Ernest’s contradictions has to do with the following two sentences…

“Gabriel and the Father Melchizedek are never away from Salvington at the same time, for in Gabriel’s absence, the Father Melchizedek functions as the chief executive of Nebadon” (35:1:2)

“These three conversed in a strange language but from certain things said, Peter erroneously conjectured that the beings with Jesus were Moses and Elijah; in reality, they were Gabriel and the Father Melchizedek” (158:1:8)

Indeed how could Gabriel and the Father Melchizedek both visit with Jesus on Earth if one or the over must always be present on Salvington? The answer is simple. The “never” in the first sentence is not a categorical imperative, but a declaration of convention and normal behavior. The terminal bestowal of a Creator Son happens but once in every local universe, enough of a rarity that Gabriel and the Father Melchizedek might make an exception to normal practice and be both briefly away from Salvington.

Ernest cites other examples, but in every case, they can be easily enough explained away (as above), or attributed to misinterpretation. For example, the UB cites many examples of contact between celestial beings and humans that did not appear to require midwayer mediation, and are therefore in conflict with the following: “Contact personalities. In the contacts made with the mortal beings of the material worlds, such as with the subject through whom these communications were transmitted, the midway creatures are always employed. They are an essential factor in such liaisons of the spiritual and the material levels.” (77:8:8)

It is clear from the context of the quote that the book is speaking of a certain limited class of contacts, a certain kind of contact, and not of contacts in general, many of which may be directly engaged in by higher celestial beings.

THE GOVERNMENT PROBLEM

In one of what Ernest believes is among the most serious corruptions, his examination of the Urantia Book’s discussion of the evolution of government and society, he exhibits the least understanding of what the UB is trying to say.

The UB extols the virtues of representative government (45:7:3, 52:4, 70:12:1, 71:2, 74:5:7, 134:5-6), for example:

“The entire universe is organized and administered on the representative plan. Representative government is the divine ideal of self-government among nonperfect beings.” (45:7:3). The second sentence sets the context for the word “universe” in the first sentence. The revelators are referring to the seven super-universes (the outer space levels not being populated yet) in the present era, prior to the completion of the Supreme. What constitutes “ideal” government in the central universe and/or paradise we are not directly told.

Ernest derives two problems from the UB’s favoring of representative government in the universes of time. The first stems from this seemingly contradictory statement:

“While there is a divine and ideal form of government, such can not be revealed, but must be slowly and laboriously discovered by the men and women of each planet throughout the universes of time and space” (70:12:9)

What is it that can not be revealed, especially to the laboring men and women for whom the revelation is intended, that the revelators have not already told us with their exultation of representative government? As far as governments go, the UB tells us that on a developed world nearing light-and-life, and especially *in* light and life, the social structure can, in some phases, reflect not the administrative needs of a vast set of universes, but the perfection of Havona! This is possible, because the people of these worlds, like ourselves, are all indwelt by the Father directly! The lowest level becomes a reflection of the highest! This is a pattern in the theology of the UB, and Ernest completely misses this implication.

Ironically, the very paragraphs in the UB that make this case for perfection are Ernest’s next candidates for corruption. In 52:7:5, the book is talking about a planet well along the path to political settledness, even a spiritual manifestation of the brotherhood of man. The Book goes on to say: “Representative government is vanishing, and the world is passing under the rule of individual self-control.” In 55:5:4 we find the following: “Government is gradually disappearing. Self-control is slowly rendering laws of human enactment obsolete.”

Ernest says “The only condition under which representative government would vanish is that of the existence of perfect beings. Will our world eventually achieve perfect mortals?” (461)

Ernest first fails to note that government is “vanishing”, it hasn’t vanished. Even if it did vanish in light and life eras, that would not contradict the UB’s statement concerning the rest of the universe because the answer to Ernest’s question is yes! Provisionally and for the limited sphere of life we call politics on an evolutionary planet, human culture, and individuals will eventually become perfect enough to rise above the need for formal government! Ernest misses a key clue to this reality on 70:8:1 “The mental and physical inequality of human beings insures that social classes will appear. The only worlds without social strata are the most primitive and the most advanced. A dawning civilization has not yet begun the differentiation of social levels, while a world SETTLED IN LIGHT AND LIFE has largely effaced these divisions of mankind, which are so characteristic of ALL INTERMEDIATE STAGES.” Emphasis mine.

Having missed this simpler interpretation of this material, and in so doing also missing one of the most important revelations concerning our social future, Ernest declares: “This is the theme of the Caligastia betrayal: ‘individual liberty consequent upon enhanced self-control.'” (460) Ernest does not perceive the reality of the vast gulf between the Caligastia declaration of self-determination in primitive peoples, and the perfection of self-control gained over countless centuries of following the Father’s will! He forgets that “Most of the liberties which Lucifer sought he already had; others he was to receive in the future. All these precious endowments were lost by giving way to IMPATIENCE and yielding to a desire TO POSSESS WHAT ONE CRAVES NOW and to possess it in defiance of all obligation to respect the rights and liberties of all other beings composing the universe of universes.”(54:4:4 emphasis mine)

Ernest can’t fail to see that the paragraphs describing the rebel teachings (see 53:3:6, 53:4:2 53:7:2) use the words ‘self-assertion’, ‘self-determination’, and ‘unbridled liberty’. Ernest actually makes the claim that the substitution of ‘self-control’ in section 52:7:5 and 55:5:4 for ‘self-assertion’ in 53:4:2 is nothing more than a Caligastic sleight of hand to delude us into believing that such political achievement is possible. Why, given the contextual emphasis on the far future, this should be a problem anyway is beyond me, but the bottom line is that Ernest ignores or forgets the UB principle that TIME matters. Immature self-assertion is  TRANSFORMED into advanced self-control over TIME, and that there are eons of difference between them! They are not the same!

In addition, we see that the very sentence that Ernest offers as evidence of corruption (“…such can not be revealed…”) is in fact another hint at the end point of the planetary political process, a state that is beyond representative government; beyond, because the individuals living on such worlds (and their Father fragments) have, within their planetary frame, collectively superceded it.

Ernest says that “Caligastia’s method in perverting the Revelation was to alter words, phrases, or sentences and insert them into paragraphs where they could easily slip by without notice.” (462). Although I have not here examined every example that Ernest suggests to us, I have, in reading through them, discovered that most can be attributed to the application of a singular viewpoint causing various paragraphs to be interpreted together in a way that makes them appear insidiously contradictory when in reality, and in their normal context, there are alternative interpretations and viewpoints for which no, or only trivial contradictions exist. That there are mysteries that sometimes appear to be unexplainable contradictions in the UB I do not doubt, but none of those that Ernest classifies as the most serious, those pertaining to the social evolution of the planet and the timing of events in Jesus’ life are, in my opinion, contradictions at all!

To sum up, Ernest has set himself a number of tasks in his book, some of which he handles convincingly, while others he doesn’t. Along the way, he leaves us with an interesting collection of Urantia memorabilia, and a well told tale of investigative endeavor. His refutation of Gardner carries through the work well, as do his theories concerning the real role of William Sadler Sr. While I think Ernest’s contentions concerning a Caligastic hand in UB affairs are a bit of a stretch, in trying to make that case, he does at least show us that our own history was fraught with error and human (at least) self assertion.

Matthew Rapaport, June 2000

Gardner, Moyer, and Mullins: Three Histories of The Urantia Book

This review, first published on the Urantia Brotherhood website ( I cannot find it there any longer) in 2001. It deserves to be here since I am writing lately about the book explicitly. As usual, I unclude links to the books reviewed. Excellent E-copies of The Urantia Book itself are found here for only $4

At the opening of the 21st century we find ourselves with 3 large histories of the Urantia Papers. First published,Urantia: The Great Cult Mystery by Martin Gardner in 1995, followed by Ernest Moyer’s THE BIRTH OF A DIVINE REVELATION: The Origin of the Urantia Papers, and then A History of the Urantia Papers by Larry Mullins, both published in 2000. For a more detailed review of the Moyer book (with extensive philosophical and theological commentary) see this link

From a believer’s perspective, Larry Mullins’ story of the revelation is the most orthodox with all the phases through which the papers traveled overseen – however infrequently – by divine authority until the actual year of first printing in 1955. While this is, essentially, the down the middle story, it is full of interesting suprises and well clarifies some of the conflicting aspects of even the official histories as they’ve been recorded since the first printing. It is also the most severely critical of the present status quo in the Urantia Movement.

Martin Gardner’s book, while often funny – and you better have a sense of humor about yourself because he’s poking fun at us – is so interlaced with misinterpretations, out of context statements, even outright lies and slander “Below I AM are billions of lesser gods” Gardner declares on p19, that his insightful observations may be too easily dismissed by UB readers.  Gardner paints a picture of utterly human invention, deceit, and betrayal that explains the existence of the UB. He selects out-of-context events of UB history, especially those surrounding Harold Sherman and Harry Loose, that best suit his purpose, and then weaves a story around these isolated facts.

In between this telling, he does manage to make some interesting observations however, and it is a shame that the insights are mixed in with so much that is misrepresentative. Gardner’s only concession to the divinity of the revelatory process is the acknowledgement that there was a sleeping subject, and that this person (he thinks its Wilfred Kellog) made statements and/or wrote things whose content is part of that which makes up the UB. He does not share any opinion on whether this material really had a celestial origin, or was merely the product of the sleeping subject’s mind. For Gardner, the UB comes down to some unexpected (and unexplained) channeling on the part of Wilfred Kellog coupled with a conspiracy, on the part of Dr. Sadler, to inject into the spiritual ferment and literary stream of his time, a fantastic fraud. The saddest irony of Gardner’s book is that if he had employed the services of a UB reader merely to delete the out rightly false statements concerning the UB’s contents (I know he had offers), what would remain would still be pretty damning.

Ernest Moyer, like Larry, believes that at core, the UB is divinely authored. Moyer however looks at the unfolding events of the late thirties and early forties and forces us to ask the question: What is the deposed Planetary Prince (whom we all suppose for the sake of argument is still on the planet) doing about the UB? We all take for granted that he (Caligastia) would desire to obstruct or otherwise thwart the fundamental purposes of the UB. We differ in our estimation of just how much potency he has in this regard, with Moyer casting his history in the light of his presupposition of Caligastia’s ability to enter into and dialog with any human mind who sits back and says “come hither spirit and talk to me.” Ironically, for his version of things, Caligastia’s worst couldn’t have been more damaging than what the movement, particularly the Urantia Foundation, has done to itself! If old Cal was involved, it wasn’t the text that appears to have been his target, as much as the movement.

Larry Mullins manages to deal well with both Gardner and Moyer, but only if you accept some of his central propositions to be fundamentally factual. Mullins claims that no communication with celestials ever took place without the presence of the sleeping subject and at least two of the human contact commissioners. If his claims are correct, then it would have been impossible for either Christy or Dr. Sadler to have believed that the celestial revelatory commission could be reached by channeling, let alone that Dr. Sadler would have taken channeled messages as the product of celestial intelligences. Mullins addresses other of Moyer’s evidence as well, pointing out for example that the Book’s 1934, 35 “indictment” statements mean only that the sections were begun in those years, not that they were a finished product.

Most people in the Urantia movement take for granted that a small amount of human error began to filter into the revealed material as soon as the original handwritten papers were typed. Further minor errors were introduced during the typesetting process, unnoticed by the proofreaders. The original set of nickle-plated stereotypes thus contained errors, which appeared in the first printing of the Urantia Book. Everything that went before the plates – the handwritten pages, the typed manuscripts, etc. – was destroyed. At that point, the plates became the canonical Urantia Book.

Imperfections were supposed to distance the Urantia Book from anything that might appear supernatural or unduly extraordinary. They were, I’d supposed, mostly typographical in nature, with a few typos making some semantic difference. I had also learned that alterations were made to the text between the various printings and that some of them went beyond the correction of obvious typos.  This was not of great concern to those of us who noticed these things as the number of these semantic modifications was very small (fifteen, according to Mullins), and could easily be analyzed and evaluated by an enlightened readership. Mullins observes, however, that dispite revelator involvement through 1955, they apparently never mention these imperfections. This fact fits nicely with Gardner’s version of events.

Gardner attacks UB content on scientific grounds, on its uncanny similarities to some Seventh Day Adventist doctrine (in which W. S. Sr. was heavily involved in his earlier days), and upon it’s over all theological silliness. His theological criticisms are unfounded. He misunderstands the theology of the UB, and likely got much of it second hand. He notes for example that the UB’s concept of God The Supreme is reflected in the early 20th century theology of Teilhard de Chardin, but utterly misses the fact that Teilhard thinks he’s discovered the whole of God while the UB places the Supreme in a context much wider than anything Teilhard imagined.

The parallelisms Gardner identifies between the doctrines of Seventh-day Adventism (as expressed in the writings of Ellen G. White, one of the sect’s founders) and some of the teachings of the Urantia Book, are intriguing. Also interesting are the connections he draws between the UB’s teachings and some of Dr. Sadler’s philosophic beliefs and scientific views, as expressed in Sadler’s early books. Gardner suggests that Sadler must have felt betrayed when he discovered, in about 1906, that the supposedly prophetic revelations of Ellen White were often little more than plagiarisms of other human writers. Stung by this sense of betrayal, Sadler decided to create a new religion, adopting not only material from Seventh-day Adventism but White’s plagiaristic methods as well.

In this case, Gardner’s criticism finds a ready answer in the canon of UB thought. Revelation is not entirely new, but expresses itself largely from what exists. The Seventh Day Adventist connection could, after all, be one of the reasons W. Sadler Sr. was chosen by celestials for the task!  Gardner notes however, the number of coincidental agreements with Dr. Sadler’s other writing is very large on subjects as diverse as eugenics and humor. Gardner wants us to conclude that the UB was largely written by Sadler. Gardner, however, is at a loss to explain how the language of the UB, while reflecting Sadler’s own work, also makes distinctions and qualifications that Sadler’s thought lacks. Gardner does not notice that revelation is not utterly new. It borrows from the past, and filters it. Why shouldn’t Ellen White’s recognition of “soul sleep” happen to be a genuine insight?

Gardner’s criticisms of the science of the Urantia Book are very telling. He does a service to the Urantia movement by highlighting the “timebound” or erroneous data sprinkled through the first three Parts of the UB. He makes it clear that much of the UB’s science reflects the views, and is expressed in the style, of popular 1920’s scientific and semi-scientific literature. He also finds the UB’s political philosophy dated, characterizing the book’s call for world government as simply an echo of views advocated by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. It never occurs to Gardner that a world government of the kind the described in the UB makes sense regardless of its historical associations.

One begins to wonder, though, about the amount of timebound or erroneous information in the Urantia Book, and whether all of its material should be taken literally. Were Adam and Eve real people? Were they in fact “biologic uplifters” from Jerusem, or are they mythical characters created by the revelators in an attempt to foster a “creation myth” suitable for the early to mid 20th century. Gardner sees echoes of the Adam and Eve story in Sadler’s view of genetics and eugenics. They would be Dr. Sadler’s “creation myth”.

Moyer thinks that the more significant erroneous time bound data is the work of Caligastia via the channeling Christy, his attempt to corrupt the revelation. Indeed no one seems precisely to know just how many changes took place during this critical years from 1935 to 1942, the period on which Moyer focuses his attention. Moyer, and Mullins, based on Sadler’s off handed remarks concerning them, take these changes to be relatively few in number. Gardner, on the other hand, paints a picture of broad discrepancy between the UB and modern science. In the opinions of this reviewer, some of his criticisms are legitimate while others are not.   Moyer believes that Caligastia began influencing events through a channeling Christy in 1939. He grants (in personal conversation) that since she was personally responsible for small changes to the UB between the first two printings, and even up to her death in 1982, Caligastia would still have possessed a channel into the Urantia Foundation at least until that date.

Moyer alludes to events and policies that punctuate the history of the Urantia Movement since 1955. Gardner, not surprisingly, portrays this history as nothing but a parade of silliness and gullibility based upon a colossal fiction. It is left to Mullins to provide us with the most detailed and helpful analysis of everything that had happened in the history of the UB and the movement that surrounds it.

From the autocratic structure of the Book’s controlling body, unpopular with some as far back as the 1930’s, to textual changes unknown and unapproved by more than one of the original members of the Urantia Foundation, Mullins builds a case for the Urantia Foundation’s legal and moral default of its own declaration of trust. He also elaborates on the significance of the elite circle within the elite group that became the Urantia Foundation. Three of the original members of the Foundation were also contact commissioners, those involved directly in the receipt of the revelation. This gave them, and Emma Christensen in particular, a special status that has had its continuing impact to the present day.

Gardner does not understand Christy’s significance to the whole UB story. Moyer and Mullins well understand it, and both point a finger firmly at her as the focal point of much of what has occurred in the Urantia Movement even after her death. Christy believed that she received communications from midwayers (presumably) and/or other members of the celestial planetary government. Other prominent persons in the movement (including the other two contact commissioner Trustees) since 1955 and up to her death also believed this, or at least accepted the claim as a means of justifying policy. Moyer believes this process began in 1939 after the death of Lena Sadler. If Larry is correct about the sleeping subject mechanism being in place at every instance of communication until 1955, this would have been impossible.

What happened after the last 1955 contact was made however is another matter. Both Moyer and Mullins note that changes to the text between the first two printings were primarily Christy’s responsibility. Larry notes carefully that the change process, and the belief (on the part of some members of the UF) that Christy had a “special relation to the text” and continued if infrequent contact with celestials, is a critical component in their default as a body, but more importantly continues to have consequences for our present situation. Mullins’ patient examination of the mechanisms of the real – pre 1955 – contacts cast serious doubt on the veracity of any of these contact claims.

Too bad no body thought to examine these matters in the early 1960s! Christy’s stature brought both Martin Myers and Vern Grimsley into prominence. She saw something she liked in both young men, and invested them with early authority in the movement thanks to her continued relationship to celestials. Myers subsequently grew to become the goliath of the Urantia Foundation slaying creative initiative in the use and distribution of the content of the UB on the part of reader-believers with ceaseless litigation. No one more than he, a believer in Christy’s messages, was responsible for the schism that still rends the Urantia Movement today, while Vern Grimsley picked up the mantle of Christy’s contact with celestials itself!

Less than a year after Christy died, Vern was contacted by the midwayers! What followed that episode sent Urantian’s all over the U.S. literally and figuratively packing for the hills. The events that occured between that date and dissolution of The Family Of God Foundation (FOG), Vern’s organization, in March of 1984 changed the Urantia Movement forever. Ironically, Myers recognized that his fraternity brother was deluded and stood fast against the early pull to consolidate power in Grimsley’s hands. In a double irony, the disaffected members of FOG still retained a measure of power and respect in the Urantia Movement, and ended up among the strongest opponents of the policies of Martin Myers with whom they had, until the time of Grimsley’s contact, been allies!

Based on Mullins work, one might go as far as to say that even if the UB is certifiably divine, the entire history of the Urantia Movement since the first printing of the book has been, and continues to be, based on a tissue of lies and false belief starting with Christy’s continued contact with celestials! Even this notion continues to find expression throughout the Urantia Movement! Like the “religion about Jesus” begun on that fateful day of Pentecost by Peter, The notion of contact with celestials is a very powerful draw.   In the early 1990’s, after languishing for half a decade following the WWIII episode, not one, but numerous people came forth claiming to have been contacted. A whole new “phase of the revelation” was manifesting before our eyes (one way or another I’m afraid), and now, anyone could be contacted who desired it!

To Larry, this newest twist is yet another divisive event possibly fostered by the Urantia Foundation’s open declaration of their belief in the channeling activities of Christy: “We have reason to believe that none of the changes were made without the approval of the Revelators” they declare. Why shouldn’t celestials be talking to all of us? For Ernest, the present channeling wave is yet another channel of involvement by Caligastia who can disguise himself as anything and talk to anyone who simply declares him or herself open to chat! Lastly for Martin Gardner, it’s just another cycle in the silliness of UB readers proving only once again that some people will believe anything!

July 2001

As I was working on this review, another watershed event occurred in the history of The Urantia Book, and the movement. Both Martin Gardner and Larry Mullins touch on the subject of the Urantia Foundation’s litigious nature, a pattern solidified by Martin Myers, and based on a continuing Foundation claim to owning a copyright on the UB. Their original copyright expired in the early 1980’s, but they renewed it based, on a manifestly false claim, the UB was a “work for hire.”

Since that time, numerous Urantia Book readers have stepped forth in one way or another to challenge the Urantia Foundation’s right to a renewed copyright. The Foundation has predictably and consistently acted to protect its copyright claim by litigation, a process that has wasted millions of dollars and polarized the movement far more than even the recent spate of channeling. Gardner notes all of this infighting and suggests that it is still more evidence of the manifestly human origins of the book. Mullins more correctly recognizes that it is a reflection of the Book’s power; that many groups, some with conflicting claims, seek to attach themselves to it. Although Moyer doesn’t address these issues, he might justifiably note that all of the infighting that has gone on around this issue for the past 25 years might be in Caligastia’s interest.

The Urantia Foundation briefly lost its copyright in the mid 1990’s, but a judge’s order was overturned by another judge after a brief hiatus in the public domain. Now, in June of 2001, a jury in Oklahoma has now decided that the copyright renewal was invalid and The Urantia Book is once again in the public domain, this time, more securely (presumably) than it was before, though the Foundation has, of course, said it will appeal. This certainly presages a new era in the history of the Book. We can look forward to alternate printings in a variety of formats that may appeal to a wider audience. Whether this results in some resurgence of interest in the Book is difficult to predict. As in times past, we seem to take for granted that many people will be interested in this “pearl of great value”, but time and time again, our visions do not appear to materialize.

At least one of the missing ingredients has been the armies of dedicated believers whose lives are changed by contact with the UB and who subsequently share those changes with others. For decades those opposed to the copyright have argued that this continuing claim (and of course the litigation that follows from it) has acted to suppress the growth of private and public ministries that will elevate the Book into the religious consciousness of the Earth’s people. If this was a suppressive influence, it is now mostly gone. It remains to be seen if its absence makes a significant difference.

Matthew Rapaport

Book Review: Salvation Not Purchased by Stephen Finlan

In this well written book, Dr. Finlan takes pains to emphasize the positive. Given his subject, this isn’t entirely possible since he is inveigling against a major pillar of Christianity throughout the world. The most powerful argument against the Atonement is that it is illogical, in fact impossible if God is infinite and changeless (see “Prolegomena to a Future Theology”). Finlan covers this argument but briefly in the beginning of the book. In a later chapter on sacrifice in the earliest Christian literature, he points out how very little of it is present (see review reproduced below). He does note the strong re-emergence of the Atonement idea in the further evolution of Catholicism, and much more so in Protestantism. He explores the psychological roots of this process, something that, as a minister, must interest him deeply. What he does not explore, what he seems deliberately to leave out, are the political and financial implications of the doctrine to the institution of “the Church”.

Finlan points out that sacrifice to propitiate or magically manipulate “the gods” was likely practiced from very early in the human experience. The peoples of Europe and Palestine in Jesus’ time were used to the practice, a part of their “ritual calendar”, and in the Hebrew case recorded in their holy book, and cemented into their experience in both Egypt and Babylon. That such practice was inconsistent with an infinite and changeless God was noted by some of the main Hebrew prophets. The compilers of the Old Testament were liberal enough to include these minority voices in their document, though minority that they were, the practice of sacrifice continued, but at least for the Hebrews transformed from human to animal. Interestingly, while Finlan notes that the earliest Christian writings (sans Paul) had very little of sacrifice, they also contained no direct criticism of Paul’s sacrificial idea. There aren’t any “minority voices” challenging Paul’s ideas, at least not in the records that have come down to us.

Paul’s references to ransom and other sacrificial metaphors were not so radical an idea in his time, though they misrepresented Jesus’ purpose. What was radical was Paul’s idea of “last sacrifice”. Thanks to Jesus (according to Paul) no more sacrifice was needed, ever. Jesus’ death ended sacrificial requirements forever! By Jesus’ time, the Hebrew, Roman, and Greek cultures had abandoned human sacrifice and substituted animals. Paul may be credited with ending even this practice as Christianity took root in that part of the world. Of course it did not end elsewhere. Hebrew sacrificial practice did not end until the temple was destroyed and the Jews disbursed some forty years after Jesus’ death. In Rome, sacrificial practice likely continued until Constantine made the new Christianity the “religion of Rome” in 313 AD. The Aztec practiced human sacrifice until the coming of the Europeans to South and Central America in the 16th century! But rather than eliminate the sacrifice idea altogether, the evolving church transformed it, from an external ritual, innocent animals, to an internal one, the not so innocent human being.

A church is a physical and social institution. It wants buildings and, in the case of Catholicism (most religions though) a hierarchy of priests who must be fed, clothed, housed, and so on. But imagine that the evolving church proclaimed what Jesus actually taught, that God is a “Universal Father” and that all peoples, the men and women of all cultures everywhere on earth, were God’s children and therefore brothers. In a view derived from the infinity and changelessness of God (qualities Jesus understood well though he could not convey them in a way that made them stick) this relationship is true, and has always been true, no matter what one’s intellectual beliefs, culture, race or geographic location. While it is obvious that not everyone on earth in Jesus’ time or today believes this, it remains a truth. Atheists and religionists alike are all children of God!

Jesus tried to make it clear that salvation was tied to membership in this brotherhood. Humans are born into it and are saved by default. You need not even believe in salvation or brotherhood to be saved. All you need do is not screw up the gift which you can do only by freely electing to be evil to such an extent that you eventually lose the ability to tell the difference between good and evil (see “What is the Soul?” and “Theodicy in the Urantia Book”). What you must do is demonstrate your spiritual (not intellectual) recognition of the truth of brotherhood by acting like a brother, that is by treating others with love, respect, fairness, and so on, that is, “doing good”.

So why have a church at all? While religion is individual, your relationship with God, its fruits are necessarily social. You cannot go about doing good unless you are, at least occasionally, around others in social settings. It is natural for people who share beliefs in this vicinity to gather together for social and psychological reinforcement. One can do good and practice the social outworking of one’s religion among people anywhere, but it it is also good to refresh one’s outlook on the process by periodically coming together with others who also come into a fellowship because they share this outlook.

Had such a process been followed out socially and politically, resulting churches would be smallish, local, congregations that support their own physical infrastructure, choose the form of their services, and otherwise have no formal relation to other congregations except those they enter into by their own congregational choice. There would be no priestly hierarchy though individual congregations might choose to finance full or part-time ministers. Creedal doctrine, if there is any at all, would emerge at the level of individual congregations, and individuals would be free to leave one and join another. It should be obvious that under this model no large-scale rich and powerful institutional church could possibly emerge.

Yet men (some men) crave power. Prior to the Gospel message in the Roman world there were religious institutions, Mithra-ism being the dominant one in Rome in Paul’s time. Prior to modern times, members of various priestly hierarchies (and not only in Rome, but worldwide) were among the better off classes financially, socially, and politically. As Paul told it, the Jesus story had many parallels in Mithraic myth. The formal structure of Catholicism, as compared to spontaneous congregations of various Christian (meaning only believers in Jesus) groups, sprang from mithra-ism. The Urantia Book credits Paul with convincing the political powers of the Mithraic cult to substitute Jesus and Peter, “his rock”, for Mithras in exchange for adopting Mithraic rituals (like the winter solstice festival becoming Christmas) leaving the priestly hierarchy in place. If this is the case it means that the nascent core of Catholicism sprang into existence during Paul’s lifetime.

Salvation for all who believed in God and accepted the gift became salvation for those who became members of the Church and did so by accepting Paul’s idea that Jesus’ “sacrifice” was for them, while the sacrificial theme was carried through the believer through his or her dedication of both material wealth (proportional to individual means) and work, to the Church. Universal brotherhood became a brotherhood of believers, and the brotherhood was cemented by acceptance of Christ’s sacrifice for the believer. Sacrifice of wealth (among other things) to “temples of the gods” was common in that day as it remains in ours. Paul’s notion of “final sacrifice” did put an end to the slaughter of innocent animals (not to mention the occasional person) in the Roman world at least, and the sacrificial notions made for a nice segue into a doctrinal pillar of the new Church. No longer was it the literal sacrifice of an animal, but rather a sacrifice of one’s self to the Church whose believers were saved and the salvation made real by Christ’s blood.

Dr. Finlan asks why the sacrificial idea has had such sticking power. He devotes two chapters to the subject, but he ignores this particular reason, the power of the idea as a hook securing the relation between believer and Church. Catholicism of course had more than one hook, the intercession of the clergy and “original sin”,  being others. Paul’s radical idea was also supposed to put an end to original sin. Jesus’ sacrifice wiped away the sin (of being born), but the Church could hardly abandon original sin without risking their socio-political hold on the believer. If I am not, automatically, a sinner, why must I become a Church member to have eternal life?

Original sin and Atonement became, therefore linked together. I am a sinner, and Jesus died for me, became the door into the Church and salvation. Protestantism abandoned the intercession idea and this perhaps explains why they then put such emphasis on original sin and Atonement. I suspect Dr. Finlan knows all of this, but he elides the political implications of Atonement for the Church out of a desire to avoid unnecessary political antagonism in a book that, in the end, promulgates a positive message of the love of an infinite and changeless God.

 

Salvation Not Purchased (2020) by Stephen Finlan

Stephen Finlan holds a doctorate in theology from the University of Durham (2004) and has written several books on the Christian Atonement Doctrine. His latest effort appears aimed at a lay audience. Finlan’s writing is conversational, not technical. It is almost as if the chapters emerge out of sermons delivered on the subject in the New England church he presently pastors. Not that there isn’t scholarship here. Every page contains biblical examples (spelled out) and references to other authors (in chapter notes) all enhancing and not impeding the flow of his narrative.

Atonement, the idea that Christ died to reconcile God to man (Finlan distinguishes four variations on reconcilliation) is an idea that infuses every branch of Christianity, though I learn from this book that it is not so much emphasized by the Eastern Christian churches (Greek or Russian Orthodox) as it is in Western Roman Catholicism, and especially in Protestantism. He notes, the idea seems to have taken on a life of its own since the Protestant Reformation and on down to the present day, an emphasis that was not nearly so prevalent in the early Christian church, not even in the letters of Paul who Finlan credits with the development of the doctrine. But while Paul surely did lay the foundations of the doctrine as it entered Christianity, Finlan claims Paul did not mean his redemption and sacrifice metaphors to be taken as literally as subsequent generations have taken them. Finlan points out that in speaking of Jesus’s political murder and miscarriage of justice, Paul deliberately mixed up his metaphors suggesting a message about Christ’s forgiveness of our sins even in his death, and not an attempt to forge a salvation mechanism out of Jesus’s brutal murder.

Finlan begins by pointing out that the Atonement, as it has come down to modern times, is inconsistent with the portrait of God Jesus painted in his life. It is, in fact inconsistent with the very idea of an “infinite Father”, and in particular one who is changeless! In his first chapters, he deals with this issue in the abstract. Philosophically speaking, Paul was wrong to go down that path, but to be fair he could not have foreseen how his poetic excess would be crystallized into stifling doctrine centuries later.

Finlan then asks why this sacrificial idea has so much power? He reviews the sacrificial ritual history of the Jews, Romans, and Greeks, noting that while sacrifice was universal in that age, even many of the Hebrew prophets understood that God did not want sacrifice but rather righteousness. Nevertheless, while recorded, the voice of these prophets amounted to minority opinions, the sacrificial practices continuing on down to Jesus’s time. The culture of Jesus’s time and place was steeped in the sacrificial idea.

Next he moves on to an investigation of sacrifice in the early centuries after Jesus, and notes that there is very little of the notion in the earliest writings except for Paul, and the few references that appear in other writings that come down to us were inserted at later dates. They are not present in the earliest surviving [Greek] texts. Even Paul (Finlan points out) wrote much more about love, community, relationship (brotherhood) and faith (God gives salvation freely, one has only to believe it) than redemption by Jesus’s death.

Moving forward in time, Finlan explores how the Atonement idea became crystallized in the later Catholic church and particularly in Protestantism which, even today, preserves it in an extreme form. Finlan follows his historical review with a chapter on the corrosive psychological effects of the doctrine both in the genesis of Protestantism (Calvinism being the most extreme example) and on down to the present day. We are not culturally inured to the idea of sacrifice to propitiate an angry God. As a result, Atonement cannot help but confuse modern Christians who are told that God is entirely good, and yet, in this doctrine, survives the notion of a God whose heart must be softened by the death of his innocent son. Finlan ends the book with a chapter on Christology emphasizing what Jesus did and said in his life rather than putting so much emphasis on his death.

The Atonement idea should long ago have been purged from the Christian faith. It is inconsistent with the goodness of an infinite “Father God” whose changeless attitude toward all of his children has always been love and salvation, eternal life, a free gift requiring only a sincere desire to do God’s will and love others. Dr. Finlan not only gets all the arguments right, his writing is elegant and persuasive. One can only hope that this little book eases the minds of many confused Christians with Jesus’s real message: God is a good and loving Father, and salvation is a free gift to any who sincerely seek it.

Book Review: God’s Grand Game by Steven Colborne

As noted in the review itself (included below) this is the worst theological idea I have ever read. In literally every chapter (maybe but one) there is some contradiction. But all of them, with but a couple of minor variations, stem from the author’s one grand mistake. His failure to recognize that a truely infinite, eternal God is not limited, in creation, to the temporal! Colborne misunderstands the nature of time, that while we, human mind and with particular regard to its creative powers, are stuck in an eternal now of succession, God, who purportedly is the creator of time, is not so limited. As concerns God, the creation of other entities, other creation, that are also eternal with Him, persons who were begat but nevertheless “have, like God, no beginning” are not square circles, not logical impossibilities.

Once that truth (something that must be true of an infinite and self-consistent God) is accepted, Colborne’s entire theological idea falls apart. It is in the creation of such persons, two conjoint eternal persons, that God escapes from the logical trap that Colborne thinks he sets. God can continue to uphold everything. He remains, after all, the only absolute source. But he is able to withdraw from actually having to do everything. By creating others to whom God gives powers to do (and then sharing in that doing) God sets a pattern that imprints itself on the entire universe (the Father creates the Son and together they share in creating the Spirit), including the physical, at least as soon as persons are able to be made within it. Not only does this make the reality of free will possible (in direct contradiction to Colborne), but it inverts everything Colborne concludes. The living universe is filled with various degrees of free will. Free will that has risen to the personal level, partners with God (if it so chooses, the freedom is real after all) in the evolution (in the case of biological humans on physical worlds) of the physical universe itself.

Colborne’s idea is the ultimate skepticism, even as concerns God. Not only can we not know for sure anything about what seems to be our genuine experience (there being after all no real us to know anything), but except for the assumption that one entity (God) exists, we cannot know anything about Him either given that Colborne’s theology makes God a deceiver! I’m not going to use a lot of space refuting him in detail. It should be obvious that if God literally, personally, and directly does everything that is done, and if at the same time God is literally everything and everything is God (Colborne asserts all of this), there is no room for anything else. But why would anyone embrace such an absurd self-negating idea? If Colborne was right, he had nothing to do with his book. God did it all. Nor have I anything to do with this critical essay, God did that too. Why? If none of this is really how it seems it can have no meaning, not only to ourselves (strictly speaking we are nothing but figments of God’s imagination) but even to God! Such a God is if not psychotic, at least very neurotic, and I think that is the clue we need to answer the why question!

Colborne tells us a bit about himself at the beginning of the book. He had a hard growing-up punctuated by psychotic episodes. I’m certainly not qualified to analyze him, but one has to suspect that his whole theology absolves him of something. What? Responsibility. Neither he, nor you, nor I are ever responsible for anything! Further (and Colborne mentions this), if your brain is in some small way defective, you are not responsible for any psychosis anyway, but how much better if not only are you not responsible for the problem, but that God actually wants things this way. He must! After all he could fix that defect right now if he so willed it. You may not know why he wants that defect, but it doesn’t matter because first there isn’t any you anyway, and if something is the case, it can only be God making it happen right now! If there is no free will after all, not only is nothing any of our responsibility, but even better there is nothing any of us can do about it because this is the way God wants things, and this also includes the most depraved evil!

I put this review and commentary up because it so contrasts with a vision of an infinite God who is self-consistent and therefore wholly good. To get an idea of the magnitude of the difference this implies here are some links..

A self-consistent first principles theology: Prolegomena to a Future Theology
On ethics, God as a pointer to the value direction: What are Truth, Beauty, and Goodness?
On free will and the point of all this creation: Why Free Will?
On mind able to comprehend genuine truth: From what comes Mind?

What is evil and why does it exist if God is good?: Theodicy in the Urantia Book 

Each of these essays contain pointers to many others. On the absurdity of the “no free will” idea for example see: Arguing with Automatons.

 

God’s Grand Game (2019) by Steven Colborne

In this short book, Steven Colborne offers us a complete, if shortened, theology, a “theory of God”. It is, in my opinion, the worst theory of God I have ever read, not merely because it is wrong (no human thinker gets everything right about God), but because its error amounts to God being evil. Why then three stars and not two or one? I appreciate the scope of Colborne’s effort. He covers a lot here, and he writes well. Beginning from reasonable premises he makes one grand logical error and from that he courageously drives his theory to its conclusion. He is honest about all of this effort, carefully distinguishing between what he claims must follow from his idea, and what amounts to further speculation. Mostly, his conclusions (while wrong thanks to the big error) follow from his premises, until the last chapter where he fails to stay consistently within the boundaries he himself sets (see below). The problem is that some of what falls out of his analysis makes God a whimsical child who, for his own entertainment, puts both pleasure and pain into creation!

The theory is not entirely new. It has within it a theological idea called “occasionalism” which holds that everything that happens is “occasioned”, that is made to happen, by God, personally and directly. Colborne also folds in an 18th Century idealism popularized by George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne in the first half of the 1700s. In Berkeley’s idealism, every perception we have of the physical world is put into our mind’s by God. Nothing of the physical world exists independently of God’s keeping it before (or in) our mind’s directly. This includes also all our thoughts, beliefs, desires, and so on. Everything we call consciousness is put there, moment by moment, by God himself. Colborne is not an idealist (if God wants a mind-independent world he can create one), but the way his theory comes out it doesn’t really make any difference. Is the tree we both see in front of us really there or does God put it into both our heads? Given his radical occasionalism we cannot tell the difference.

Colborne begins reasonably enough. God must be infinite, eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and possessed of unconstrained free will save for the creation of logical impossibilities (like square circles). He affirms what is called the “doctrine of divine conservation” which means that God must, at every moment, uphold all of universe reality. Put simply, if God blinked, there would be nothing and not something! Colborne errs in assuming that divine conservation entails occasionalism. He goes from “God could do everything that happens” (true) to “God does do everything that happens” (false) and on to “God must do everything that happens”. In this last move, Colborne declares free will impossible, like a square circle, completely forgetting that since God is infinitely free, he can uphold, and he can permit or allow, without actually doing everything. God can be the upholder without being the only doer in the universe. Who are the other doers? Well among others perhaps, at least us!

The evil in the theology really gets going here. To Colborne, nothing anyone does has anything to do with any freedom they think they have. He denies he is a pantheist, but his idea amounts to pantheism. Everything is God and God is everything, not merely in the sense that God everywhere upholds it all, but that he is personally doing it all. If I save a child from drowning, really God did it. If I murder you, really God did it. No matter what, good or bad (Colborne denies God is a source of the moral direction — a pointer to the true, beautiful, and good), physical, or mental (all of your thoughts, pains, pleasures) are really God playing at being a you. Colborne recognizes that human beings appear to themselves to be free willed agents, particularly in the moral domain. We cannot freely fly, but we can choose that which we perceive as more (or less) true, beautiful, or good. Indeed there seems to be no bounds on our moral freedom. But all of this is illusion according to Colborne. God is a deceiver by his lights, itself a violation of the principle of God’s consistency and unity! I have never used the term blasphemy in a review, I don’t even believe in the concept, but I think it might fit this book.

After driving at all of these conclusions based on his fundamental mistake (failing to see that while God could do everything, his freedom permits him not to have to do everything), Colborne offers us an analysis of various world religions pointing out that we didn’t invent any of them, they are all God literally “playing around”, and yes, even contradicting himself! But in a final chapter, he suggests that his idea, it’s all only God, would be a sound basis for inter-faith dialogue. But that inter-faith dialogue has any value at all presupposes free will which Colborne denies exists. If we talk, it is only God talking to himself. If we kill one another, it is only God messing around with his puppet soldiers. God’s whim either way, nothing more.

Unless you are just curious about Colborne’s extreme and morally vacuous theological idea, I cannot really recommend this book!

Review: The Despot’s Apprentice by Brian Klaas

Another of my review of Trump books. This one not about the daily doings of the administration, but more a psychological profile of Donald Trump and what he is doing to imitate autocrats and tyrants in an effort to erode American political institutions. Why? Like many autocrats (Trump a wanna-be autocrat, Klaas illustrates with many examples of real ones throughout the book) Trump does not seem strongly wedded to a political ideology. Rather his aim seems to be to keep himself in power as long as possible while enriching himself and his family.

Most autocrats leave it at that, but some become also despots by adding to the mix a fragile ego that thrives on self-aggrandizement, a characteristic of those who commit atrocities.  Trump is, alas, in this group as well, or would be if there weren’t powerful institutions around to constrain him, the very institutions he is doing his best to erode!

Most interestingly, this book was written in 2017, less than a full year into Trump’s first term. Even then, he has exercised (or attempted to exercise) every trick of every autocrat (or despot)  Klaas uses in his examples!

The other book reviews in this series (Trump) are listed a few paragraphs down in this link here.

 

The Despot’s Apprentice (2017) by Brian Klaas

Another in what is now a considerable series of books about the problematic Trump administration. Unlike the others I’ve reviewed, this one is less about day to day happenings in the West Wing, nor any history of how we got here. It is rather a comparison between the sorts of things Trump does personally (berate the media, accuse non-partisan government agencies of conspiring against him, dissemble, amass family wealth, and much more) and the acts of autocrats around the world both past and present. As it turns out, most of the autocrats do most of these things, but Trump does all of them. But Trump also adds in a fragile ego, and relative ignorance of the political process, something even most (though not all) of the real autocrats used for comparison, do not suffer.

The book’s chapters are not divided up by time or crisis, but by type of autocrat-like behavior. For example Trump’s attacks on free press, the politicization of non-partisan institutions (Trump has accused the Office of Management and Budget of conspiring against him), nepotism, personal and family financial gain, misdirection in foreign policy, and so on. Klaas begins almost every chapter with a brief review of one or more famous examples of such abuse either from history or today’s headlines. He does not neglect past American presidential examples either. The amazing thing about Trump is that he engages in all of them at the same time. More unbelievable still, this book was written less than one year after Trump formally took office! Now, almost four years into his term, the most alarming thing is that so many of these abuses are to a great degree taken for granted, or “the new normal” by the institutions that should be calling them out! The free press has stopped beating the drum because their audience has largely dialed out, and what used to be non-partisan institutions (the OMB, intelligence agencies, FBI, NASA [believe it or not]) are largely cowed into silence with “trump loyalists” dominating the upper echelons of their leadership.

To be sure, Klaas notes, America is not an autocratic nation, and Trump is no autocrat. But he does show every inclination to want-to-be an autocrat and that in itself is dangerous particularly when surrounded by other powerful people who want much the same thing. Further, the degree of political polarization in the United States, a social and political phenomenon that began long before Trump, becomes much more detrimental to the survival of a plural society and democratic regime when a want-to-be autocrat comes along and takes advantage of it. Trump has leveraged the polarization for his own personal gain and in so doing amplified it. If it was always difficult to bring both sides of the American polity together, it is rapidly becoming impossible.

Despot’s Apprentice is a short book that says a lot. Unfortunately, those who dislike Trump basically know all this about him already. For them this book will do no more than apprise them of the vast depth and breath of his malfeasance. For the others, the 30% of Americans who now believe (so the polls say) that a free press are the “enemy of the people”, such books as this will not be read thanks to the magnified political polarity Trump has deliberately fostered, and that is precisely the point of it all!

Book Review: The Room Where It Happened by John Bolton

Once again, for consistency sake (there being little of additional philosophical import) I include this review of John Bolton’s memoir of 18 months working as National Security Advisor from April 2018 to September 2019 for the Trump administration. It would I think be unfair of me to criticize Bolton on the basis of my politics compared to his. In point of fact I do not disagree with some of his assessment of threat situations. Iran and North Korea will never give up development/possession/proliferation of “weapons of mass destruction” (nuclear or otherwise). Bolton is quite right I think to believe that the only way to stop these developments is with overwhelming military force, but he is far to sanguine about assessments that, in response, millions of people (especially South Koreans) would die.

Is there any other option? India and Pakistan (bitter enemies for 72 years) possess nuclear weapons (Pakistan also a known proliferator) for some decades now and neither have used them (the potential collapse of the Pakistani State being another kind of problem). Perhaps there are sensible means of preventing N. Korea or Iran from ever using their weapons? In this respect, not sanctions, but trade and economic engagement make more sense. Why? Because when you tighten economic and diplomatic screws to the point where a people figure they have “nothing else to lose”, you provoke war rather than prevent it. Bolton knows history well enough to know this. He also knows what happened to Qaddafi in Libya after he gave up his weapons programs, yet dismisses this history as though it mattered not to Iranian, and especially to N. Korean calculations.

So I differ from Bolton on these matters, but I am not sure enough about my own views to say Bolton must be wrong. In any case this chasm between us does not take away from his observations and criticism of Trump’s administration concerning both substance and (more importantly) its lack of consistency, not to mention Trump’s self-serving, ego-maniacal fixations.

Like the other books reviewed in this series (“Fire and Fury”, “Fear”, “A Warning” “Devil’s Bargain”, “A Very Stable Genius”,  and “The Despot’s Apprentice”), this is a frightening book and the only one of the six reviewed focused on foreign policy.

The Room where it Happened (2020) by John Bolton

People mostly either like or dislike John Bolton based on their alignment with his politics. I do not see him that way. I have had jobs (never in government) where my role was to highlight and advocate for some specific aspect of a corporate hardware and software infrastructure. Bolton’s job was to advocate for the national security interests of the United States, and of course the recommendations he made (like mine) flowed from his background, experience, and yes, politics.

His experience is the key here, for Bolton has consummate knowledge of the workings of international institutions and also the governments they serve. He has also an appreciation for geopolitical history and isn’t afraid to call out a pointless exercise when he sees it. In part his politics is informed by his historical knowledge, for example the duplicity of nations like Iran, North Korea, and yes also China and Russia, with regard to respecting treaty obligations. But if anything makes Bolton more angry than Trump’s waffling and sometime expressed admiration for tyrants, it is his treatment of our own allies, the EU (NATO), Japan, and South Korea in particular. All this is revealed!

This book is about what Bolton found himself facing from April 2018 until September 2019, Eighteen short (must have seemed very long to him) months in the middle of Donald Trump’s administration. Reorganization of the NSA early in his tenure, the book touches on every new and on-going global threat of the time stemming from North Korea, Syria, Iran, Venezuela, Russia, China, and others. Each of these regions is a fount of over-lapping threats.

Bolton is in a unique position to appreciate the complexity of these situations. He castigates the Obama administration on a few matters, but points out, with some irony, that Trump’s instincts sometimes paralleled Obama! With regard to North Korea he is fair enough to note that none of the past four administrations (two Republican and two Democratic) have accomplished anything useful. When he alludes to differences in procedural style between Trump and former administrations, he mentions only the prior Republican administrations for whom he worked.

Very much this book is a detailed account of the operation of the Trump administration as concerns foreign national security issues with an occasional domestic matter (the Mexican border, Russia’s 2016 election interference) crossing the line. Although the NSA is involved in these matters, Bolton does his best to minimize his role in them, preferring the more global threats whether immediate or more temporally distant. As with my own some-time role in corporations, Bolton does not expect his boss to agree with his every recommendation. He notes that as goes national security, Trump’s instincts are often like his own. The problems threaded throughout the book are concerned with Trump’s flip-flopping almost constantly on matters where waffling, with mixed signals sent via tweets to the world, is universally detrimental to the outcome we want, that is a more, and not less, secure United States. There are a even a few examples, (to my politics not Bolton’s) where the President made the right call (even if for the wrong reasons) over Bolton’s recommendation as when Trump chose not to risk Iranian lives (Iranian body bags would make him look bad) in exchange for an American drone!

The bigger problem, as Bolton sees it, is that the decisions Trump does make, whether coming out right or wrong for national security, are made only on the basis of what Trump thinks makes him look good in the press, helps him in the 2020 election, or furthers the enrichment of his family! Along with all of this come also problems with the bureaucracy surrounding Trump. Bolton is an astute critic of bureaucracies in general (see his “Surrender is not an Option” also reviewed) and where warranted, individuals who do little to serve the organization’s purpose. In this regard the Trump administration is no different than others except for the extraordinary number of musical chair events and as consequence the style and substance variations already and still passing through this administration — including of course now Bolton himself.

In only a couple of places in the body of the book does Bolton call attention to what his government book reviewers forced him to remove. In an epilogue he describes a little more of this process but on the whole does not seem too unhappy with its results. He also offers a critique of the House impeachment process that got going after he left the NSA. This short analysis is among the most telling of Bolton’s real feelings about his time as National Security Advisor. He does not say that Trump should not have been impeached. The Ukraine matter over which the House obsessed was, in Bolton’s opinion, only one, and a lesser one at that, of Trump’s potentially impeachable offenses! The House should have taken more time, let the court processes (for documents) complete themselves at their own pace, and evidence of more serious malfeasance would have turned up! By rushing the job for political reasons, the Democrats shot themselves in the foot, and left Trump more unconstrained than he was before. No one, after all, is going to try to impeach him again!

Review: The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells

Some months ago I reviewed Slavoj Zizek’s “The Courage of Hopelessness”. I suggested that Zizek’s political projections would have little chance of materializing because economic collapse precipitated by climate mitigation efforts in the rich world would overwhelm everything else in but a few short decades. Next I came across G. Gaul’s “Geography of Risk” which, though focusing on storms and sea-level effects on the U.S. East and Gulf coasts, supported my prediction. Now this, “The Uninhabitable Earth” (review & link below), comes along amplifying everything in the Gaul book and laying down an even more frightening picture not only about where present trends are taking us, but the almost certain inevitability of vast tracts of the equatorial and presently-temperate Earth becoming uninhabitable by 2100.

Most of the cascades described by Wallace-Wells have already been triggered and will not stop (though they would slow a bit) even if we ceased all industry-related atmospheric carbon production tomorrow, something that is obviously not going to happen. Technology (as he points out) is not going to save us this time. We do know how to pull carbon out of the air yes, but as Wallace-Wells shows, we cannot afford to deploy enough of it fast enough to block a two to three degree (celsius) rise in average global temperatures over the next 75 years.

Wallace-Wells is (non-optimistically) hopeful that humanity will wake up in time to stop carbon output at least soon enough to halt future warming at three degrees. In fact I believe human industrial carbon output (most of it, globally) will cease in another ten or twenty years, roughly when we are close to two degrees of warming (as of 2018 we were at one degree and some change with atmospheric carbon rising faster now, year on year, than it has ever before). But it won’t stop because humans wake up and do something about the problem. It will stop because all of the economies of the world will have collapsed. Over a few decades, people will starve (or die from disease and war) in such vast numbers that few will be left to put any substantial carbon into the atmosphere more than the cooking fires that could be found dotting the Earth ten thousand years ago. The human population will be about where it was ten thousand years ago. That might be by 2100, likely sooner than that.

Still all of the cascades, devastating forest fires and melting permafrost will yet be releasing billions of tons of carbon even in the absence of human industry, and of course ocean levels will continue to rise utterly changing the geography of the world. By 2200 there will be very few places on Earth where food can be grown or hunted and the human race may be reduced to levels barely able to avoid extinction, if even that. If this isn’t frightening enough, the news gets worse from here. Even if the temperature rise tops out at three or four degrees, the planet will not again return to a cooler, human-comfortable climate regime, for thousands, possibly tens-of-thousands, of years!

Uninhabitable Earth  by David Wallace-Wells 2018

This book opens with what, for me, was a surprise. I know that carbon emissions have, world-wide, steadily increased even since the first international “climate mitigation agreements” of thirty years ago. What I did not know is that since 1990, the world, collectively, has pumped twice as much carbon into the atmosphere as it did in the thirty years from 1960 to 1990. There are other surprises: Bitcoin anyone? Sure there’s some electricity involved but how much could that be? It turns out to be about as much, per year, as one million international jet flights! Our own industrial activity is only a part (albeit still a large part) of the problem now. Other, cascading effects, are now adding their impact. Global wild-fires now consume, on average, ten times as much forest every year as they did thirty years ago. That’s a lot of extra carbon. Even worse, the world’s permafrost is beginning to melt releasing carbon in the form of methane which, depending on whether we are speaking of low or high altitude, has between four and eighty times the warming effect of carbon dioxide.

The title of the book is prescient. Think of the climatologically worst environments on the Earth today (having warmed a bit more than one degree Celsius since the beginning of the industrial revolution in 1800. We are on track to hit two degrees by 2050 or so), perhaps the middle of the Sahara, or someplace where it never stops being hot and raining. These are today’s most inhospitable climate environments. By 2100, that sort of place will be among the best and most livable we have on Earth. Large parts of our world will be largely and literally uninhabitable, places where humans die because their bodies cannot cool themselves by sweating unless immersed in cool water, or because there is no water the glaciers being gone, and this at only three degrees of warming (2100).

The first third of the book is about various cascades, most already triggered, some on the verge. Effects of warming that add up both by directly making things worse, and by degrading the planet’s ability to absorb carbon and mitigate the other effects. Wallace’s picture here is very dire. In the rest of the book Wallace deals with the economic, political, social, and psychological future. Here I do not think he is dire enough. He speaks of refugees in the tens of millions (try hundreds), extremist movements on both the right and left, of wars, pandemics, crop failures, of collapsing economies unable to sustain the cost of climate mitigation, and that only the economies that can afford any mitigation to begin with. The rest will have since joined the refugees. Wallace touches on all of this, but I do not think he fully appreciates how quickly and thoroughly human beings can (and will) turn on one another long before this all becomes as bad as it’s going to get!

Technology will not save us. Wallace covers that too. We can desalinate water and even pull carbon out of the air. There will never be enough of either that the world can afford. Besides, both are energy intensive processes and even if powered with renewable energy, that is not easy to do as concerns the chain of activities that must be powered to build and maintain that technology. Rare-Earth mining is a very dirty business.

In the end, Wallace is hopeful, though not optimistic, that the global polity will wake up and de-carbonize the global economy, not in time to halt two to three degrees of warming, it is already too late for that, but in time to prevent it going to four degrees or more. I think he is over-optimistic here too. It is simply not possible, politically, and this for economic reasons, for soon-to-be nine-billion humans to de-carbonize as quickly as needed to hold the line at two to three degrees. What will force the race to de-carbonize will be economic collapse, leading to socio-political collapse, leading to mass death (over some decades) from starvation, disease, or war. I think Wallace sees this grim possibility. He hopes it isn’t inevitable.

This a good and timely book though I doubt it will have much effect on the carbon trajectory of our so-called civilization. It is good to see the ground covered as much as Wallace covers it. He does a good job of showing how the climatological and the political go together (alas perversely). I think he fails to draw some obvious conclusions from his own well-made points. Perhaps it’s for the better. He would be accused of doom saying. I am a doomsayer! Feel free to accuse me! Meanwhile, the book is frightening enough as it is!

Review: A Very Stable Genius by Leonnig and Rucker

selfie

The idea behind these commentaries and book reviews here is that in many cases (whether politics, science, or philosophy), the books themselves leave dangling and potentially interesting philosophical issues un-addressed. Exploration of such issues is not usually appropriate (in my opinion) in a book review, so I bring the reviews over here always attached at the end of these little (and sometimes not so little) commentary essays, along with a link to the book itself on Amazon.

In this particular case there were no dangling philosophical issues that struck me as worthy of an essay. But because this collection of my reviews of books about the Trump administration is growing (“Fire and Fury”, “Fear”, “A Warning”, and “Devil’s Bargain”), I’m including this review for the sake of completeness.

A Very Stable Genius (2019) by Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig

Here we have yet another very carefully and competently written book illuminating the dysfunction in the American Presidency of Donald Trump, addressing both the man and the administration. Journalists Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig have done both the Washington Post and history proud with this tale of malfeasance and character disorder in the man himself and the chaos among those who surround him, some trying to moderate Trump’s worst impulses while others encourage them.

This is the fifth book on this subject that I’ve read and reviewed. As each one, all excellent histories, slides into the ocean of non-fiction literature, they seem to have less and less impact on the world, though perhaps that is only my jaded perception. This one is superbly written, told broadly in temporal sequence from the 2016 election up to September 2019 when Trump asked “a favor” on a call with Ukrainian President Zelinsky, witnessed (listening in) by several military and foreign policy personnel. This particular call follows by a few weeks Trump’s “exoneration” by Mueller.

Although it moves along generally from the past towards the present, it preferentially follows subject threads to their conclusion rather than try and document everything that happened on a particular day or week. Sliding as necessary between domestic and foreign policy matters, eventually all the days and weeks are covered somewhere. I can’t remember any of the salient matters reported in the news (not to mention Trump’s tweets) that aren’t in the story. Following the text, there are copious notes and documents listed. Historians will appreciate this.

In the opinion of the authors, Mueller made a big mistake. He treated his mission (the Russia probe and accusations of obstruction on Trump’s part) perhaps appropriately for a normal administration in which the Justice Department and Congress were not prior-determined to “protect the boss at all costs”. Mueller did not feel it was his job to say, explicitly, that Trump should be impeached or indited on the obstruction charge at least, obstruction being more clear cut than any personal collusion with the Russians. Instead, he phrased his report in such a way as to leave it to Congress to decide. Yet even a democratic congress did not begin the impeachment process until the content of the Ukraine call emerged.

The book ends with that call. The book’s authors are at that point sure not only that Trump committed a clear-cut crime, but intimate at least that Congress and the Senate would at last do their job and get rid of this embarrassment to the American presidency. History has shown otherwise, and we are now faced with a president, surrounded by sycophants (most significantly a throughly corrupted Justice department), who thinks (apparently correctly), that he can get away with anything.

Like the other books written on this subject, this one is very scary.

Review: Surrender is not an Option by John Bolton

John Bolton raises no philosophical issues in this book, in fact he elides them where they would naturally emerge. This is a book about events, what happened, what was going on in the U.S. State Department and around the world, and what John Bolton did about it given the role he played at any given time. The philosophical issues arise from the tension between nationalist-oriented “American interests” versus “global interests”, and also between the need for foreign-policy continuity over decades versus the task of executing the policies of the “administration du jour”.

On the first issue Bolton is clearly a nationalist. He is not opposed to working with the international community, even furthering the interests of other nations (usually our allies) provided doing so also furthers American interests. This nationalistic bent reveals itself most starkly in the U.S. (and so Bolton’s) opposition to the ICC (International Criminal Court). The great moral light of the national community, a nation that was front and center in the prosecution of Nazi war crimes, opposed (and still refuses to recognize) an international body charged with prosecuting war crimes and other “crimes against humanity”. One has to ask why? The answer is two fold. First, being the elephant in the room of nations, enemies of the U.S. would be (and are) constantly charging the U.S. with crimes to distract the world’s nations from their own bad behavior. Second, however, the U.S. has in the past, and continues to be at times, guilty of crimes!

Vietnam comes to mind, the Eisenhower administration’s blocking of the 1954 unification vote precipitated 20 years of civil war in which millions died. Today, despite its communist government, Vietnam is an ally and important trading partner. A year earlier (1953) the CIA over-threw the elected government of Iran solidifying the monarchy of Shah M. R. Pahlavi. Then there was, and still is, Cuba. What the Kennedy administration did (or tried to do) to the Castro government (not to mention Castro himself) surely comes under the heading of “crimes against humanity” and if not “war crimes” then at least “acts of war”. A little later (1973) came the CIA sponsored coup in Chile and the murder of its legitimately elected president. All of these crimes reflect irrational American anti-communist panic. The U.S. has never (to this day) been able to distinguish between communism and socialism. Castro was a socialist but not a communist until the U.S. embargo literally drove him into the arms of the Soviet Union!

Such shenanigans go on to the present day as we look aside while right-wing autocratic regimes murder journalists and opposition figures. In Israel today, though its slide to the political right was well along in Bolton’s time at the UN, the farthest right, who also happen to be the settlers in the formerly Palestinian (Jordanian) West Bank are now such a huge voting block, having out-reproduced other Israeli Jews for 3 generations, they either control or have veto power over the national government! Treatment of West Bank Palestinians by the far-right settlers is sometimes akin to the treatment of American blacks in the South during the first half of the 20th century! While perhaps not an Israeli policy, the government’s turning a blind eye to it surely is some part of a “crime against humanity”.

These just a few examples of America or its allies behaving badly. There are others, but the broader problem is how to live in an anarchic world community being the biggest kid on the block and having to fight (often diplomatically at least) to maintain the product and resource flows (both in and out) that maintain your biggest kid status. Bolton repeats several times the mantra that “the [UN] diplomats work for their respective governments, not the other way around”. If one accepts that for a given delegation only the national interest is at stake, then it will be surely guaranteed that nothing will get done. Short of military intervention or economic destruction so thorough it precipitates a period of anarchy, no nation will agree to act against its interests. Bolton is right to complain that far too much of what the UN throws up in the way of opprobrium is so watered down that even to agree to the terms does not much slow the offender down. Even many of the potential “sticks” (and the carrots too) are both ineffective and expensive in global economic or military terms, while accomplishing little but steeling the bad player’s resolve or triggering a hot war.

I agree with Bolton that empty agreements are no agreements, but substance is not easy to achieve unless both sides can give up something substantive. Too often the global community has not sufficient motive to surrender or spend what is necessary to make something substantive happen. Surely Bolton is aware of this. He does not seem interested in reflecting on it, though he is, and especially now (in 2020 after his stint as Secretary of State), in a very good position to say something interesting.

Besides the national-international world tension, there is the matter of U.S. State Department thinking. Some of the dynamics that drive global competition never change (geography) while others change every few decades with broad changes in trade flows and military power. Still others change every few years, especially in democracies having typically short election cycles. Bolton says both that the State Department must “think and act long range”, while also telling us that the job of an employee of State is to serve the policies of the “elected person at the top”. It should be obvious that these two mantras can easily come into conflict. Bolton fails to make any attempt to reconcile them. As I said at the end of my formal book review (attached below), I look forward to what he might say in his new book.

Surrender is Not an Option (2008) by John Bolton

Awaiting John Bolton’s new book on his short stint as Secretary of State in the Trump Administration. I thought it would be good to familiarize with his thought about his efforts in more conventional administrations. I have to wonder, given what he says in this book, if he has at all changed his mind about the proper role of career people in the State Department.

Surrender is not an Option begins briefly with Bolton’s introduction to politics as a 16-year-old volunteering for the Goldwater campaign in 1964. He never really says why he was so drawn to the Republicans, but other than alluding to his dislike for Democrats he doesn’t much compare and contrast them. Obviously a smart man, Bolton got the right education (Yale law) and was at the perfect age to mount the first rung of the State Department ladder under Reagan continuing into the elder Bush (Bush 41) administration. Skipping over Clinton (he went back to law practice) and then again jumping into government with the election of Bush Jr (Bush 43) in 2000.

Bolton seems to have earned each new rung on the ladder through good work for his superiors. He also seems drawn naturally to the neo-conservatives whose broad approach with foreign policy was to engage with the world for the purpose of shaping it to American interests. The first half of the book is about what he did at State from Reagan through the first Bush 43 administration. In the second half, he details his work as UN ambassador during Bush 43’s second term, two plus years, from August 2005 (the Senate never would confirm him, his time spent as a Bush “recess appointment”) until the end of the year 2007. These were all years of constant crisis whether the Iran-Contra scandal, disintegration of the Soviet Union, North Korean or Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons, genocide in Sudan, or the mess in Somalia. He mostly skips past the disastrous (Bush 43) debacle of Iraq saying only (in his concluding chapter) that it was right to depose Saddam notwithstanding we mostly botched the aftermath. He is short here on details.

In the book’s first half, he is little critical of the State Department under Baker (Reagan and Bush 41), and even Powell (Bush 43) in his early days, but as his experience at State grows he finds much to dislike about the later Bush years. As UN ambassador he finds a lot to dislike about the UN, and understandably so having become mostly a debating society now and for many decades, something even the liberal “high minded” as he calls them, recognize. In both parts, he bemoans international diplomacy as too much carrot and concession and not enough stick. He says little in the first half about what the sticks might be though he does address this in his conclusions.

He gets into specific recommendations in the second, UN-years half of the book, but here the tendency of others (including Bolton’s superiors at State) to compromise over-much and give away the store (at least as far as American interests are concerned) before real negotiations begin is front and center. Bolton is ideologically far to my right, but his observations, “process over substance” and numerous problems with UN diplomatic ritual (not to mention outright failure and corruption in places) are accurate portraits of organizational dysfunction.

Bolton does his best to represent U.S. interests as he sees them and at the same time be a loyal soldier of the Bush 43 State department. There certainly was enough nonsense going on in the UN to fill several books, and as the second Bush 43 term winds on he finds much to criticize about the Rice State Department as well. No one gets away unscathed here except Bolton himself. He would come across a statesman except he ruins the effect with incessant (almost every page) derogatory remarks targeting both individuals and various collectives.

Time marches on, and much has happened since the end of 2007. Has Bolton learned anything? The international community is less stable than it was 13 years ago, much of this we might say due to American and international failure to take Bolton’s advice. On the other hand, very much might just as easily be laid at the feet of an international community (including the U.S.) too willing to engage in stick-wielding at the wrong time and place. He tells us the job of the people at State is to implement the policies of the big boss, the elected president. Does he still believe this about the current boss? I am very much looking forward to his present thoughts.