Thursday, August 28, 2014

Selling Karma

Instant karma

Perhaps he was too young to pull off “Help a Vet” or “Hungry Kids”. Perhaps he had lost too much faith for “God Bless You”.  Or perhaps he just thought it was unique enough, clever enough, and guilt inducing enough that it just might work. I saw a beggar today holding a sign with the words “Selling Karma” neatly (but not too neatly) blacked in. His appeal to conscience, inked on a random scrap of cardboard (or was it the back of a campaign sign), like any entrepreneurial endeavor, was aimed at giving his customers what they want. Good feelings.

Karma is the politically correct version of “you reap what you sow” or better yet of Galatians 6:8-9. It appeals to the general sense of fairness we all share. But it avoids the uncomfortable implications that there is some personal, wise, and powerful being out there who will ensure that the impatient lady at the store who threw a tantrum when the clerk wouldn’t help her fast enough gets her just deserts. She’s gonna get hers, we sooth ourselves.  Karma’s a bitch, right? Instead of God, we have Evelyn Couch from Fried Green Tomatoes.

Yep. Karma’s a bitch.

It makes us feel better about the injustices in the world. It assures us the universe has a self balancing principle built in. It’ll auto correct. Karma. It’s a platitude we whisper to ourselves so we can process all the evil in the world without really facing it.

Karma poses several problems for Christians. Let me illustrate.

A few weeks ago I was being shuttled on a bus from the Oregon Zoo back to the overflow parking area. Two seats ahead, just behind the bus driver, was a young adult male with a little school age girl talking to two women, neither of whom were apparently mother to the child. As we approached the parking area, their conversation settled on their collective concern that a van that had parked too close to their own vehicle might have damaged it. One of the women chided the father for a threatening, albeit good natured, threat he made against the owner of the van.* He was going to incur bad Karma. He shrugged off the idea and gave two reasons for his lack of concern.

First, he had good Karma to spare. Three specific actions apparently led to this Karmic surplus.

  1. He doesn’t litter.
  2. He drives an electric car.
  3. He eats organic foods.

Really? Those are the things that made the list? Nothing about remembering his mom on Mother’s Day, or giving a glass of cool water to a thirsty child, or working to end human trafficking or tweeting to Islamist terrorists in a noble effort to shame them ‘till they #bringbackourgirls. None of that. Apparently, for this young man, good Karma has only to do with his efforts to not defile the environment. When Mother Nature’s happy, everybody’s happy. Treat her well and she’ll return the favor. Karma.

Second, the young man volunteered himself to become a bad Karma enforcer. He wanted to be Evelyn Couch from Fried Green Tomatoes. Key their car. It’s Karma, baby. My evils are justified retribution. Your evils need payback.

The problems with Karma are, 1) What counts as good or bad Karma? And, 2) who or what enforces justice or universal balance?

Who determines that the beggar and self-proclaimed dispenser of good Karma really represents an opportunity to earn good Karma? What makes this guy Karma-worthy of my dollar? Did he do a bunch of good deeds and has extra Karma stored up he’s just waiting to pass around? And what exactly counts as a good deed? Furthermore, how do I know he isn’t down on his luck as some Karmic payback for a past evil? Maybe instead I should be an agent of Karmic retribution (i.e. justice). I could drive by and yell an insensitive slur and glibly conclude Karma’s a bitch.

When bad things happen, what justifies our moral indignation? What makes it wrong for a person to steal a parking space or damage another person’s vehicle? And who is going to make sure all the evils are rightly dealt with? If it’s just a feature built into the universe, who put it there?

That’s why I prefer the biblical refrain, you reap what you sow. It reminds us that there are things that by their nature are good or bad. Some deeds are good seeds that over time will become good crop. Bad seeds grow bad crops. It reminds us that there should be a direct connection between the evil deed and the just punishment. Stubbing my toe on a rock is not the natural or appropriate punishment for littering. But under the Karma scheme, I never know what I’m paying for when I suffer. The imagery of sowing and reaping are also more concrete and remind us that the principles of good and evil and justice are part of the real, created order. They are not something mystical or ethereal. I cannot randomly volunteer to be the good or bad thing that you must reap anymore than I can volunteer to be the corn stalk you just planted.

So next time, instead of nodding along knowingly when you hear someone tsk tsk and chide, Karma’s gonna get him, offer up the biblical refrain, you reap what you sow. Then thank God that He is just. Then ask Him to be merciful.

* Perhaps I should start selling Karma credits. This is by far a better gig than selling carbon credits. It’s almost up there with selling indulgences. Give me a dollar and you’ll have good Karma for a week.

** My wife and I secretly feared it was our van.

Take This How You Want. But It’s My Way or the Highway, Bub!

It makes me both happy and indignant when people make self-refuting claims. Happy because it’s so much easier to show they are wrong when when all I have to do is point to their own statement. Indignant because I’m a person and people should be smarter than that. Take for example the simple claim:


This is self refuting. If I’m around to say it, my presence proves it’s not true (at least at the moment it’s spoken).*


Really? Everything? Everything is relative? I assume this includes your claim that everything is relative. Or is the claim “everything is relative” the exception? Is it always true regardless of one’s perspective that “everything is relative”? If the statement is independently true, then it is not relative and there is at least something that is not relative. If its truth is relative, then sometimes or in some ways it may not be true that all is relative and I must admit that at least some things are possibly not relative.

Try this one from the oral post script to the author’s reading of Lord of the Flies. These are William Golding’s (the author’s) words in his own voice.

There have been so many interpretations of the story. I’m not going to chose between them. Make your own choice. They contradict each other, the various choices. The only choice that really matters, the only interpretation of the story if you want one, is your own. Not your teacher’s, not your professor’s, not mine, not a critic’s, not some authority’s. The only thing that matters is first the experience of being in the story, moving through it. Then any interpretation you like, if it’s yours, then that’s the right one. Because what’s in a book is not what an author thought he put into it. It’s what the reader gets out of it.***

Seriously?!? Does he not see how this is self-refuting? Let’s simplify his statement.


How does Mr. Golding want me to interpret his claim that any interpretation is the right one? Maybe my interpretation is that I should completely disregard what the author means (except of course, his urging me to ignore what he means) and use his book as kindling or for leveling tables or as wall décor. Maybe I should use his writings as propaganda to further my own psychotic ends, twisting and corkscrewing his words until I can use them to open champagne for my bubble bath.

What if we parented that way?

“Now little Johnny, I’m only going to tell you this once (but it means what your personal experience dictates it means to you). You shouldn't hit your sister with that stick!” Little Johnny might decide you mean he should only hit other people’s sisters with sticks. Or maybe he sees your words as only expressing your feelings, not conveying transcendent truth. He concludes, Hitting Sister with a stick makes Mommy unhappy. Next time I will hide it when I hit Sister. Then Mommy won’t be unhappy.

It’s totally unlivable. I cannot seriously urge you to take seriously my urging you to not take seriously anything I say. How does this kind of nonsense**** make it to print? How does it become widely accepted as learned and mature thinking?

First, like with all big lies, it’s built around a nugget of truth. It’s true that a book should be experienced. The story needs to be heard. The reader needs to experience the story vicariously through the characters. The meaning of a story is carried in the story. In this way it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate the meaning of the story from the story. Telling the Parable of the Good Samaritan is not the same as saying, “Treat everyone you encounter as you would want to be treated. Then you will be a good neighbor to all mankind.” The meaning is conveyed by the medium. Experience, even second hand experience, is a unique an unparalleled teacher. The Cliff Notes (or Wikipedia entry, or any other authoritative summary) are no substitute for actually reading the work. The power is in the prose. However, this only explains how the reader comes to the point the author is trying to make. It is not the point itself.

Second, the author has succumbed to the same fate as the hapless boys on the island. He has accepted the lie (at least on some level) that there is no ultimate authority. Right and wrong is personal, subjective, experiential, social. The author is not even an adequate authority over his own work. The similarity between the words author and authority is not accidental. They are intimately connected. The author retains the rights of the creator, the right to define and limit his work. In a sense, he can establish right and wrong, set boundaries, when it comes to his work. This is what I meant, and not that. This is how I intended my creation to be used.

Of course there is nothing to force the audience or consumer to abide by the author’s authority.

I can use your rice cooker as a bomb, or your designer scarf as a diaper.

But I do not have the right to claim you meant the rice cooker as bomb or the scarf as a diaper. William Golding should not invite his readers to decide what he meant. He should instead acknowledge that each person brings their own past experiences to their immersion in his plot and that they will likely be affected by it in different ways. This is part of his intention for the work and so by reading it this way, we are actually agreeing with the author’s interpretation. If he really means for the audience to understand it however they like without the author stepping into referee the opinions, he should never have said so. His act of saying this is his intention undermines the intention. Now, when people take it how they please, they are taking at as the author pleases in direct contradiction to his stated desires.

Interestingly, just one paragraph earlier, Mr. Golding offers the following comment before he goes on to blatantly contradict it.

The most important thing said in the book is when Jack says, “Bullocks to the rules… why should we bother about the rules?” And Ralph says, “Because the rules are the only thing we’ve got.” That really is, I suppose you could say, what the book is about. If you don’t have rules, that is to say if you don’t have law, then you’re lost, you’re finished, you’re gone.

I agree whole heartedly. One rule we cannot do without is the ruling authority of the author over his creation. Call it personal property rights. Call it natural law. Call it the law of non-contradiction. Whatever you call it, it is inescapably the way things really are. To claim otherwise is self-refuting. And being self-refuting is dumb.

* A self-affirming statement is “I exist”. This is the basis of Descartes infamous cogito ergo sum “I think therefore I am.” Of course, I could be mistaken about who the “I” refers to. I could have a confused concept of myself and so can’t concluded anything more profound than something exists.

** For those of you who were like me from two weeks ago and have never read this modern classic, here’s a good summary.

*** Golding, William. Lord of the Flies. Listening Library, 2006. OverDrive Mp3. Originally recorded in 1976. 

**** Self-refuting statements literally make no sense. They convey no real meaning, because they undermine the very facts needed to make sense of them.