The Mist of Trust

I recall today that few struggles challenge one at a deeper level than the problem of figuring out how far to trust somebody. I have known more than one person who treated me wonderfully, but who treated others very inconsiderately. I did not find out until later that my experience was atypical; how then are we to distinguish coercive social engineering from genuine kindness and integrity?

“He was always a perfect gentleman to me and my family, so he must have done the same to you. Since he was always reliable to me, you must be the liar.”

(Reminds me of the Jim Cunningham character in Donnie Darko, which I finally watched last night, clearing two-thirds of the Netflix jam.)

What I Was Getting To

Way back when I posted twice about marriage, I was preparing a general case about the texture of Christian marriage as a particular sacramental institution. I proposed a variety of ways of thinking about Christian marriage, noting that a strictly biblical version of Christian marriage (hence, a version defined by marriage as the New Testament represents it) begins with indissolubility, exclusive duality, constitutive gender complementarity, and the subordination of women to men.* Add to that the long-standing tradition that sexual expression in marriage serves solely procreative ends, and you can get a plausible picture of “traditional Christian marriage.”

Being a vexatiously picky hermeneutical philosopher, I’d be prepared to argue that one can’t simply pick that characterization (or any) up, carve it in stone, and identify it as a changeless divine model for marriage. Let’s ignore my fussiness, though — some with whom I’d be arguing will dismiss my objections out of hand, so we’ll save trouble by affirming what I would myself dispute: that this traditional biblical Christian marriage constitutes a timeless pattern by which [some] Christian marriages orient themselves to God’s will.

Having granted that possibility to those who want to claim it, what are we to say of those who enter into Christian marriage, but who understand that vocation to involve some departure from the “traditional” model I describe above? Perhaps these couples decline to enforce male supremacy in the relationship, or they permit sexual expression apart from procreative intent. Certainly that makes a noteworthy difference from the traditional model — at least, from the most traditional perspective it does. Does a very-conservative marriage that allows both spouses equal authority within the marriage deviate from the “traditional” norm so far that the traditionalist can no longer recognize it as a legitimate marriage? that their reluctance to accord him final authority counts as a sin?

In other words: if you dig in your heels and draw a line in the sand (deliberately, delightedly mixed metaphor) against Change, you can make a pretty resilient case that God permits your kind of marriage, but not others (not the kinds with authority-sharing, remarriage after divorce, recreational marital sex, or more controversially, “open” relationships or same-sex couples). That case is not, I’d insist, airtight — but it’s admirably simple and well-attested.

Once you openly admit some mode of change in your model, though, you enter a different zone of reasoning. Once you adopt (let’s say) shared-authority in marriage as an alternative to traditional biblical Christian marriage, you have opted to permit certain changes and resist others. Then you need to make as strong a case as possible for the particular change that you advocate, and make clear the extent to which the change remains in continuity with the tradition, and you need to differentiate your proposal from “anything goes.”

I see convincing cases to be made for some such changes, and very plausible cases for others. I don’t see how one can inveigh against the possibility (for instance) of same-sex marriages when one allows remarriage after divorce. I don’t see why biblical mandates for gender complementarity can have eternal authority, but biblical mandates for male-dominance (or traditional mandates that sex be oriented solely toward procreation) no longer bind the consciences of Christian spouses.

Let’s step back for a second from an exclusive concentration on marriage. Over the past hundred-fifty years or so, certain portions of the church have adopted particular changes in their doctrine and discipline. Vatican I promulgated the Pope’s explicit claim to ex cathedra infallibility; churches have begun to recognize the marriages of people who have previously been divorced; Roman Catholics have recently accorded dogmatic authority relative to certain claims about the Virgin Mary; many churches now ordain women; some churches recognize same-sex relationships; some churches reject Constantinian baptism (by this rejection, I mean positively the expectation that baptism involve catechesis and a demonstrable commitment to Christian life); and an increasing number of congregations share the sacramental elements with non-baptized congregants. These are all changes from what has long been taught, whether as a making-binding of a traditional point, or the repristination of a quiescent practice, or the reformation of a practice which the church had allegedly misappropriated. These changes look obvious, natural, quite harmonious with the tradition — to their proponents. To their opponents, they endanger the very integrity of the Body of Christ.

Every thoughtful Christian can articulate reasons why these changes shouldn’t simply be equated with one another. “Change” is not automatically good; resistance to change, likewise. Some changes make sharp turns away from the Church’s received wisdom, where others simply make the gospel’s teaching effective in hitherto neglected ways. Of these changes, I’m intrigued to notice that none entails rejecting the conciliar doctrines; one can [not to say that all do] ardently uphold Nicene trinitarian theology, Chalcedonian christology, and countless other marks of orthodoxy, while at the same time adopting and resisting particular points from the list above.

Recently I’ve noticed that some re-asserting voices have begun demurring at the assumption that all “conservative” or all “catholic” observers hold to the same sample of positive and negative changes in the church. I’ve also seen conservative objections to both “open communion” and “open baptism,” which in my own reflections portend a much weightier problem for the church’s relation to its tradition than does the question of who’s in what kind of ecclesiastically-approved marriage-like relationship (I’m not trying to convince others of this, at the moment, just adding my tuppence). This seems good to me — not because I want to fracture the opposition in order to trample them as my side** rolls to victory, but because all of us owe one another a careful account for our theological consciences. Facile binaries between “us” and “them” serve the political purpose of drumming up the fevers of the partisans (especially when we pathologize or anathematize those with whom we disagree), but they rarely clarify the best grounds for advocating one or another theological position, and almost never give somebody a good reason for changing her or his mind.

In the extremely complicated context I’ve stirred up, I can make a case that committed, lifelong, exclusive relationships between people of the same sex makes less of a problem for the church than remarriage, or (to shift out of the sexuality debate) “open communion.” Other people can make strong arguments against those propositions. As I said earlier, I’m prepared to hunker down with hypomonê, respecting those wise souls who disagree with me, not using muscle to settle spiritual dissent.

In the meantime, let’s encourage everyone, on every side, to read and listen more widely, for the more we learn about our teaching and traditions, the more clearly we’ll be able to frame our claims about the truth, and the more we’ll share a repertoire of common premises by which to develop wiser, more edifying disagreements.

Let’s look for profound theologians (regardless of their “side”) who deal with the complexities of these conflicts, which so grieve the people of God — rather than assailing the follies of our least-apt interlocutors.

Let’s work out which claims best bespeak the gospel of holiness and grace. Let’s learn who among us can patiently endure waiting for the Spirit to sort out our confusions, and who knows already what the rest of us ought to recognize if not for our ignorance and willfulness.

And by all means, let’s pray that the truth so win the hearts of us all, that we can lay down insult and accusation in favor of praise and thanksgiving, upholding one another in the vows we have made to God in the church, and showing to all onlookers the kind of shared life that bespeaks the beauty of holiness, the variegated solidarity, and the admirable clarity that point to the One God of heaven and earth.

* The household code in Ephesians stipulates that husbands love their wives, as Christ loved the church; that can be read so as to ground a marital ethic of mutual submission. The prevalent instances of “traditional Christian marriage,” however, have in effect if not also in theory located decisive authority with the husband, the “head” of the wife as Christ is of the church.

** I don’t even want an “opposition” or a “side” — here I’m couching my renunciation in terms that one might anticipate from conventional popular polemics.

DRMA: I Don’t Remember by Peter Gabriel; Thow That Men Do Call It Dotage by Henry VIII/St. George’s Canzona; Pink Turns To Blue by Hüsker Dü; Landslide by Shannon Campbell; Revival by the Allman Brothers Band; Thank You by Led Zeppelin; She Belongs To Me by Bob Dylan; One Beat by Sleater-Kinney; Jammin’ by Bob Marley and the Wailers; Do I? by Decibully; He Brought Us by Delois Barrett Campbell and the Barrett Sisters; (I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone by the Sex Pistols; Something So Right by Annie Lennox; Akimbo by Ani DiFranco; Hard To Explain by Strokes; Rain by the Blake Babies; Cool Dry Place by the Traveling Wilburys; Hypnotized by Fleetwood Mac; If God Will Send His Angels by U2.

BlogWalk After Lunch

After lunch at , we’ve broken into more small groups. Ours is examining/envisioning the way one might construct the pitch to get an enterprise involved in social software (selling blogging to an organization). Lilia suggests finding out where in the work flow, blogging might help. Maybe R&D research logbooks; maybe shift reports; sales territory reports — replace paper with software. Jim suggests another angle: a workgroup that’s open to trying, to support whatever their work processes are. Then you coach them and also see how blogs help in unanticipated ways. The latter phases of the discussion depart in divergent ways from the initiating topic.

Whoops! Now we’re getting to a favorite topic of mine: ways of coping with resistance to the change that online communication provokes. Shannon thinks it’s a matter of writing style; Lilia points out that some of her colleagues will not read her blog no matter what, even when it would benefit their participation in her work flow. Shannon likes threaded bulletin-board discussions; they make my flesh crawl.

Here are the overviews of group discussions: The first group talked about blogs as money-making entities. The current way that blogs are structured makes monetizing very hard, as compared to movies (in theaters, on cable/ on broadcast TV, on DVD/video, then free on airplanes). It serves mostly as a calling card, by definition an area where money is not being made. Is reasoning about “blogging” itself reasonable?

Three phases of individual blog: 1 ranting-raving, 2 affecting real life (information collection/mentoring), 3 transforming your life (blog as business). Payback from blog is not material capital but social capital. Blogging is s lightweight form of consulting.

Cluetrain side of it: to pitch to a CEO, say that blogging will result in better conversations.

Second group focused on the pilot-project blog. Skipping the “why” question, went directly to the what would it look like? (Phil posted a lot of this to the wiki). The overt purpose is for the pilot to produce the intellectual results that would justify the manager giving the go-ahead. The covert purpose would involve getting people on board emotionally. So the group worked on ways that one might make those responses more likely. We deemed it important to choose participants carefully, whether to stack the deck or to find people for whom blogging would serve an immediately useful purpose. We talked over how long it takes to make a case on behalf of blogging: a day? a week? one shift?

The third group considered the changing state of technology and the work environment that children will be modulating into — an environment wildly different from that for which schools are presently structured. The group discussed learning-how-to-learn, pathfinding without already knowing what the path is. Students need to learn how to develop social networks. The critical piece used to be finding resources; now it’s finding people who’ve already done that research. The conclusions one draws may still be individual, but they need to learn how to conduct shared research. School assignments are artificial; now students can actually write their own textbook. The process itself is as useful as the end product. Skype enables language students to talk with native speakers.

(For the record: the snow outside verges on whiteout conditions. All the snow we haven’t gotten this winter is falling on BlogWalk Chicago.)

When would you (as a manager) fire a blogger?

Now we’re wrapping up. What are the most important things learned today — and what follow-up should we cover? The piloting discussion provided a helpful framework relative to planning a similar enterprise. We made human connections, and we participated in imagining the ways that this technological transformation may affect us. This is a center of what’s happening, but instead we should understand that we’re already changing business-as-usual. Why aren’t we 0wnz0ring the world? Blogs aren’t necessarily appropriate, though, for all corporate purposes. We had a great conversational in-person blog right here today. Stuart is making a strong case for Skype — I may have to give that a try. People express a lot of appreciation for the catalytic effect of blogging and meeting people; everyone in the room is an enthusiastic blogger, but many here say that acquaintance with online personae amplifies their interest in hearing people’s voices, seeing their faces.

Pictures available at flickr.

Tomorrow I’ll Be Three

In our BlogWalk small-group discussion, we’re talking about the duration of time necessary to make a case for blogging in an organization, which reminded me of the age of this humble site. Three years ago tomorrow, I made my first post (now edited to accommodate an esoteric joke).

At the time, I wrote, “A weblog of my own! Now I can be just like David Weinberger, only more theologically nuanced and less funny. In other words, more boring and offering less reason to read it.” After three years, the flow of tedium continues unabated. . . .

Quick Note

After some frustrating misadventures involving system software upgrades, I resuscitated my iBook and installed iWork. I can’t give a rich explanation for this, but my first reaction is that Pages presents a truly seductive interface; I want to write in this environment. I can’t imagine why this is so, but some editors and I sure hope that feeling lasts, and works.

BlogWalk Blogging

This would be about the coolest thing since our technology lecture series — a conference-cum-get-together, , about social software at Seabury — if we hadn’t gotten a foot of snow overnight, with another half foot coming down as I type. Various people have had to cancel including (to my disappointment) Krista and Mr. Boyfriend, but Phil Wolff has spontaneously flown in; I hope he can get from the Hilton to Seabury based on my directions.

We’re going around the room, introducing ourselves (in a good ice-breaking fashion). I already know Jack Vinson and Jim McGee, and I ’ve met Mark and (I think) Denham before (Golly, I feel like I’ve met Denham, but it seems not). Jim McGee observes that until very recently, “more information” tended to correlate to “better decisions”; now, we’re drowning in information. We need not more information, but better discernment of what information helps, and how it helps.

We’ll move into an Open Space phase till lunchtime, based on what Lilia calls a window-wiki, a window with Post-It notes stuck all over it. We’re figuring out how our Open Space groups will divide up.

Right now, we have two main discussions. One started from questions about the definition of “social software” and why it’s a problem, and what kind of problem it is. The other concerns the roles of social software in organizations.

Ooop, that first group just modulated to “why do you blog?” One of the shared topics involves monetizing social software, or — to be more precise — monetizing the benefits of social software. Phil Wolff just referred to the practice of forced blogging simply to satisfy an imposed expectation as “blognosing.”

OK, Lilia is leading us through summarizing. Jim describes a converssation about the changing nature of work, the changing nature of organizations, and where to take those changes. That’s a fair degree of important work in organizations that’s different from the industrial well-defined work taht still dominates thinking. A lot of work tends to be more fluid, more driven by collaboration, even if the tools don’t support that. People are making do, without clear models.

The nature of that change: A conflict in organizations between successes that are emergent, and the impulse to impose that as a top-down phenomenon. How do you bring about emergence, without imposing it? There’s at least an interesting question of whether emergent behavior is antithetical to control-and-predict management. Are there places these tools are inappropriate?

A side conversation involved how [we] monetize expertise in this new world.

There could be value integrating these tools with current processes; some imposed structure, some highlight examples would accelerate the change. These changes take sustained energy being pumped into an organization to reach a change in the organizational ethos. There aren’t a lot of good models. The group debated “good” and “bad” blogging — are there such things, and how would you tell? There’s an economic issue relative to the proportion of a blogger’s company time devoted to contributing to social software. Social software can add tremendous value to an organization in the context of a help center, for example.

Editing and summarizing may catalyze the value of organizational software. Lilia sees a lot of divergence in the discussion — individuals pushing their particular points, with relatively little mutual-contribution interaction. It’s talking like blogging: each of us saying his piece (Lilia’s the only woman here, regrettably— Krista and Judith had to cancel/decline), not changing one another’s minds necessarily. But are blogs really a vehicle for harmonious mind-changing? Just how open are they? In organizations there are real, tangible rewards for making useful contributions; in Blogaria, the rewards are vague and intangible.

In the other group, people disagreed about the very definition of social software. The money-blog relationship came up there, too; bloggers undervalue their writing because they love doing it (they’re starving artists). Blogs deliver tremendous value to their readers (look, measure the amount of time spent reading blogs).

How do you know who’s the expert, and who’s the village idiot? If you read their weblog for a while, you learn about them. And the village idiot about sales may be the expert about baseball, and vice versa.

Now, we’re having a lunch break, during which I flipped a slice of deep-dish pizza over onto my (formerly white) keyboard. The “walk” part of BlogWalk is a snowball fight out in the parking lot.

Pictures available at flickr.

Lust Affirmed

Oh, baby! Turns out that my geeky desire will be fulfilled when the iWorks package arrives today: according to MacInTouch, Pages saves files in an XML-=compliant format. W00t!

That outburst reminds me of a tired joke I heard at last summer’s Lilly educational technology conference, to which I thought of an alternate answer, viz.:

Q: What’s the difference between God and a technologist?
A: God doesn’t think he’s [sic] a technologist.

I realized, “And God sometimes answers prayers. . . .”

No There There

Here’s another time I think Dave Winer got it just right: “[T]here is no ‘the’ blogging community. So many people think they grok the wholeness of it, but are only looking at a small part.” We see this in big-media representations of blogging (over-simplified to “cats and politics” or “teenagers and dweebs”), but also in the recurrent effort to define blogging; most characterizations and definitions end up excluding [atypical, hence especially interesting] examples in order to establish an authorized, conventional set of data.

I would probably say that “the blogging community” exists, but is so thin an entity that once you nget past “sometime in the past year I’ve posted an entry in a weblog” there isn’t much “common” held by the community. It’s like “the community of English-speakers” — vast, and utterly diverse.

Generalizations about Blogaria fall into the same trap that besets moaning about A-lists and power laws. Sure — columnists and pundits can gaze bemusedly at the head and tail of the curve, at Glenn Reynolds and Josh Marshall, at “My Three Kitties” and “What I Had For Breakfast.” Yes, the closer one is to the “power” of the power law, the more you resemble the big media, the more familiar the star trip, the less interactivity possible. But Blogaria has a longer, thicker, more varied and intellectually richer tail than print and broadcast publishing. The elbow of the power law provides the sweet spot for online communication, and bloggers hit that elbow in so many different ways that they wind up defeating the noblest and best efforts to define, to characterize “the blogging community.”

(By the way, in this weird world I almost didn’t post this, in order to avoid the possible conclusion that I’m currying favor with Dave Winer by concurring with him twice in recent memory. After deliberating for a few seconds about how absurd the situation is, I went ahead because I thought the point was worth making. Often enough when I disagree with Dave (and that’s often enough, by all means), I doubt that there’s much to be gained by calling attention to the fact — and I can rest assured that plenty of other people have already ignited their flame-throwers. So, Dave, if the fact that I’m agreeing with you again inclines you to think more favorably about me, be sure to remember a topic on which we’ve argued, and factor that in.)

Don’t Blog Like My. . . .

Lately my days have filled up with obligations and infinitesimal gaps between them, so that there’s little productive to do in the cracks. I find myself getting to bed, weary and conscious that I’ll have to get up early next morning, and blogging has fallen off my radar altogether. I feel like Tom and Ray Magliozzi saying, “You’ve wasted another perfectly good hour listening to Car Talk. . . .”

I should acknowledge right away that some of the errands and obligations are my own doing, so I can’t moan at the world. Tonight, for instance, I voluntarily watched Road to Perdition. The family was suffering from Netflix Constipation: you know, the time when you have all three movies out, and you really want to see them, but just now you’d like something else, but you can’t get something else from Netflix till you return one of the three, which you can’t, because now isn’t the moment to watch those three movies, and so on. I had sent for three relatively somber movies, because (at the time) Margaret was away and Pippa had just been on a comedy spree; I felt I was clear to watch a couple serious flicks without upsetting anyone. But (as John Belushi used to say) “No – o – o – o – o – o. . . .” I got sidetracked for a couple of days, and Margaret came home, and she usually doesn’t like heavy movies as much as she likes light movies, and that goes double when her endocrine system is playing malignant games with her mood. So Road to Perdition, Gangs of New York, and Donnie Darko sat on the dining room table, waiting for someone to have mercy, watch them and send them back to their DVD homes. Pippa sat at the dining room table, thinking that those DVDs could be Austin Powers or Batman, if only Dad would send them back to Netflix so her choices could come. And of course, any day I could simply have mailed them back, and put them back into the queue for a later date — but that would be giving up.

Anyway, my notions about marriage have to wait another day.

Idea Shelf

This morning, I realized one aspect of Jürgen Habermas’s philosophy of communicative action that really bothers me. Habermas suggests that the tacit “intent to communicate” that every communicative action implies, obliges us to interpret those communications in concord with the latent intent. As I was doing my sit-ups this morning (sit-ups coming back easier than stationary-biking, my mind was clearer), I tried to connect Habermas to the general points I’ve tried to make about signifying practices in general; Habermasian arguments tend to play well among biblical scholars, so I’d do well to have a riposte in view.

What dawned on me is that Habermas tends to define signifying in terms of speaking/writing — to define all signifying in terms of verbal communication. Now, he doesn’t exclude non-verbal communication, but the thrust of his argument treats non-verbal communication as though it were a less-precise version of verbal communication, or a failed (or flawed) attempt at verbal communication. This tendency has bothered me from the time that I began to observe ways that ASL required that I think about hermeneutics in very different ways; this morning, it occurred to me that when a Habermasian approach treats the case of verbal communication as normative, it bootlegs in a variety of suppositions about interpretation that don’t necessarily apply to non-verbal communication. If I’m right in supposing that all we do signifies, and that we can’t control signification, then one can’t simply hold up verbal communication as paradigmatic. . . .too sleepy to finish. . . .

What Might Have Been

I fully intended to wrap up my musings about Christian marriage this evening, and to talk more about identity and ceremony — but Joi phoned me up to siphon me into his podcast on Self-Esteem.

I am, of course, sympathetic to Chris Locke’s bombastic denunciations of self-esteem as a cultural idol — though Joi wanted to explore the specific effects of a subject’s sense of his or her possibilities. What I know about this topic ran out after about forty-five seconds of conversation, but instead of hanging up on Joi, I grasped desperately for vaguely sensible angles on the topic. I don’t have the heart to listen tonight.

With BlogWalk Chicago coming up this weekend, and David Isenberg’s intriguing-looking Freedom To Connect get-together beckoning to me from the end of March, we may be in for even more hectic days than I anticipated.


My day’s crowded, so I’ll settle for quick links to (a) Helenann Hartley’s blog, where she reports that her examiners have recommended that she be awarded the Ph.D. (or “D.Phil., as they call it at Oxford) from Oxford (or “Oxon.”, as they call it when they give you a “D.Phil.”).

Congratulations, Helenann! W00t!

And (b) I’m fascinated by the suggestion being bruited about that DigID involve something called “Ceremonies” — Eric called my attention to it (showing that he teaches me not only about more than just hip-hop — but hey, dude, I’m not as “ancient” as all that), Kim “Laws of Digital Identity” Cameron invokes it, and Carl Ellison devised it in consultation with Jesse Walker (mp3 of Kim interviewing Carl here).

I’m fascinated, but the interview and blogposts give only a vague sketch of what a “ceremony” might mean in this context. It sounds promising — but I await further details before adding a vote-yes or vote-no tag to my links.