“Newton’s Third Law: The only way humans have figured out how to move forward is to leave something behind.”
If you watch a movie enough times and with a close eye you will often hone in on these little Easter eggs that point to the crux of the story. The same is certainly true of Interstellar, and this little quip from TARS the sarcastic robot who accompanies Cooper, the main protagonist played by Matthew McConaughey.
It’s a witty line. One that pokes fun at Newtonian laws of motions while responding to Cooper’s statement that TARS would have to be ejected from the ship in order to have a chance to arrive at their final destination given their fuel shortage. In many ways it seems like a simple matter of comic relief, a role the character TARS is well suited to fill throughout the film. But within this quote is the little nugget of truth that drives this entire film, and I would argue, much of our lives.
While Interstellar appears at first glance to be a sci-fi story of intergalactic space travel and exploration, in a similar genre of storytelling like Star Wars or Star Trek, the viewer quickly sees Christopher Nolan’s work is unlike most sci-fi films. Personally, I think this is the most beautiful film I’ve ever seen, and I think I can say almost none of that is explicitly due to the intergalactic theme. I’ve watched it close to ten times at this point, and each time this film moves me in new and different ways. The space theme seems like a quite fitting overlay for what, at its heart, is ultimately a story about the most important relationships we have in life.
As director Christopher Nolan states in the following video regarding the making of the film’s soundtrack, “it was really important that the music not pay any attention to the genre of the movie.” And so his initial creative prompt to composer Hans Zimmer simply consisted of dialogue between Cooper and his daughter Murph and a few ideas behind the film. He wanted Hans to feel free to compose without being overly restricted.
As Hans Zimmer states, the music he composed as a result of Nolan’s direction was ultimately “about what it feels like to be a father and what it feels like to have a son.” And my goodness, their process resulted in an absolute masterpiece of a score!
This movie is at its core, a story about the relationship between a father and his daughter and the cost of sacrifice. The sacrifice of leaving his family behind to try and save humanity, including his children, from the impending decay and death of earth. A sacrifice that Cooper made knowing it would pull them apart. And a sacrifice that Cooper would have to grapple with the cost of.
Yet, this theme is quite possibly made most apparent when juxtaposed against the closest character we get in the movie to an antagonist: Matt Damon’s Dr. Mann. Dr. Mann lures Cooper and his crew to his planet, falsely stating that it would be suitable for life, and conspires to take out the entire crew, all in an attempt to save himself by escaping on their ship.
Sacrifices are always made. Things are left behind in order to move forward. There are costs to progress. And on the one hand you have Dr. Mann who is willing to sacrifice others to save himself. And on the other you have Cooper who shows a willingness to sacrifice himself for the sake of others. I would venture a guess that all viewers share a sense of admiration for one and contempt for the other.
Sacrifice in its essence is neither good nor bad. However, sacrifice itself is unavoidable. It’s this theme that TARS so wonderfully summarizes in such a short quote. That in order to get anywhere, something is inevitably given up.
Many today look back on older faiths and mythologies with a sense of superiority to the explicit references to sacrifice and conclude it’s all outdated. In reality, they just had a clearer understanding of how the world functions at a fundamental level. Sacrifices to the gods for good harvests, fertility, success in war, you name it. Many of the ancient mythologies can be seen as an attempt by people to appease and sway the very fabric of reality.
They offered things of value up to try and get other things of value in return from their gods. Their crops. Their livestock. Even their children. Even though many of these forms of explicit sacrifice no longer have a place in our modern society, we still have it, and still in some very egregious forms.
Although certainly less horrific than child sacrifice, we still see the scapegoating of individuals and groups. Many who subscribe to a dog-eat-dog mentality, justify their own ascent in society at the expense of others. Political compromises are formed that aid certain groups and hurt others. Even the seemingly mundane investment of our time and energy into our jobs is a sacrifice to receive compensation. Sacrifice is intertwined with all the most important and consequential decisions in our lives. And it still makes it’s way into the stories we tell ourselves.
All of the greatest stories told include this element of sacrifice within it. And its greatest and most beautiful form is found in self-sacrifice. That’s why a flawed character like Cooper is still far more admirable than Dr. Mann. Add maybe that’s why the story of Easter is the most profound of human history.
Jesus, in the leadup to his crucifixion says to his disciples, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13). His ministry had only been underway for three years. He was only in his 30s at the time of his death. He was garnering a large following, healing many, and restoring the outcasts of society. There’s never a good time to die, but this was a true case of the good dying young.
Those few days between his death and resurrection had to have been utterly discouraging for his followers. Others had made sacrifices when the resulting outcome was clear. But here, it appeared to be the end of a movement in shame, tragedy, and pain. What could possibly be gained from his crucifixion?
And yet, that self-sacrifice made by Jesus – even when he had been tempted to save himself in a way similar to that which Mr. Mann refers – has given life to multitudes. He has propelled his disciples to lead better lives than they would have otherwise. And in his resurrection and ascension we are given a hope that was never there before.
In Interstellar, the twist at the end reveals that love is the only thing that is able to transcend space and time. Quite profound, but even this love shared between Cooper and Murph was the fruit of many sacrifices of time, care, attention, and effort on the part of both of them throughout her childhood while they were still together. Even this twist can’t escape the necessity of sacrifice.
However, I think Nolan’s conclusion is quite fitting. Love, the willing of the good for others, really can change the world. That love has a way of disproportionately providing good in excess of the sacrifices made. That even in occasions of apparent and real loss, that love can take us further than we ever imagined.
It’s evident in Cooper and Murph. It’s evident in all the most impactful movies and stories we enjoy. And it’s evident in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. And every Easter we get the chance to admire that cost he was willing to pay to provide us with life in the midst of decay and destruction in our lives on Earth. There’s no greater love than that.
It’s becoming increasingly more difficult not to come to the conclusion that our nation is made of two sides with irreconcilable differences. We’re innundated with that vantage point from both the left and the right. Rarely is someone willing to risk suggesting anything to the contrary.
We have two political platforms easily caricatured by the excesses of both ends of the political spectrum. When Democrats and Republicans are only contending with the loudest and most abrasive mascots of the other side, it’s quite easy to think the gap is far to large to bridge. For AOC and MTG will never see eye-to-eye and we therefore assume we will never be able to understand or getting along with our peers who vote differently than we do. Many on each side are completely befuddled by the other side’s vantage point and therefore resort to assigning ill motive, as a way to explain what, to them, is unexplainable.
As I’ve explored in some recent posts, these political differences are worth exploring more deeply. How is it that someone else like my neighbors, friends, family members and coworkers comes to drastically different opinions than myself? Is it all attributable to this ill motive? Lack of intelligence or compassion?
In that previous post I was exploring how one way is to view these differences purely as a difference in geography: divisions between rural and urban areas seem to correlate very well with political persuasion better than most variables. Just look at any election results map and it’s quite evident.
But I’d like to posit one more here, courtesy of the thoughtful writing of Patrick Moynihan, a former Democratic Senator of New York. One that I’m sure overlaps significantly with one’s locale, but speaks to our differing political sensibilities.
“Liberty and Equality are the twin ideals of American democracy. But they are not the same thing. Nor, most importantly, are they equally attractive to all groups at any given time nor yet are they always compatible, one with the other.
Many persons who would gladly die for liberty are appalled by equality. Many who are devoted to equality are puzzled and even troubled by liberty. Much of the political history of the American nation can be seen as a competition between these two ideals, as for example, the unending troubles between capital and labor.“
This liberty and equality framing for the two sides of the political aisle I have personally found quite helpful.
The aforementioned excesses of each political authorities are quite possibly best represented by the dysfunctional ideologies that inevitably arise when either of these ideals becomes the whole show. Watch Fox News and you’ll get a portrayal of the right’s greatest fears and MSNBC could give you a glimpse of the left’s.
Yet, as Moynihan charitably states, much of our political history can be seen through the lens of this tension. This isn’t anything new, which means it probably isn’t going away anytime soon (if ever). Liberty necessitates an allowance of differences, even when it comes to outcome. Equality likewise requires some encroachment and curbing of liberties. And here we are trying to make them both work in tandem.
By casting both of these as ideals, Moynihan demonstrates that both are good and essential to the function of our society. For many fear the horrors of an authoritarian regime with no allowance for autonomy. And likewise, there are many who fear a society so stratified, that it devolves into chaos. Those fears are legitimate. Society can be destabilized by a dearth of either ideal.
A well functioning society requires a proper balance of liberty and equality. Unfortunately there are few politicans that are trying to speak to the concerns of both sides. Yet, as I’ve had more and more conversations around political topics with friends, I’ve found the exact contours of others’ beliefs are often far more nuanced than those heard from political pundits.
For while most may look for a candidate to enter the ring championing the ideal that most appeals to their sensibilities, most have some idea of where the limits should be.
Maybe by viewing our political opponents through this lens we can actually have more constructive dialogue that may challenge our preconceived notions of how these two ideals can function together. I’ve found at least that these themes of equality vs. liberty pervade most of our political discourse even though we never state it explicitly. At least for me, this framework has helped me grapple with with the tradeoffs I often justify in my own political persuasions as a result of this tension.
I’ll end with this fun quote from G.K. Chesterton.
“The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered…, it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone.”
Whether we call them virtues or ideals, we have to find a way to bring liberty and equality back out of isolation. To realize both are ill-equipped to serve as the ultimate ideal and require something far larger that can account for both equality and liberty. For these two ideals may seem a world apart and the chasm to wide for us to engage with the other side. But it doesn’t have to be that way, nor should it be.
“What goes around comes around.” Or as the main character from the show My Name is Earl puts it, “Do good things and good things happen to you. Do bad things, they’ll come back to haunt you.” Karma is pretty straightforward. You eventually reap what you sow within this lifetime.
The entirety sitcom is based off of this very principle. The show starts with Earl finding himself in a hospital bed after being hit by a car. His wife hands him divorce papers to essentially move in with his friend Darnell, the actual father to his son Earl Jr. And the winning lottery ticket in his hand at the time of the accident blows away in the wind. A comedic sequence of events puts Earl in the lowest point of his life.
And as he lays in that hospital bed watching Carson Daly on TV, he hears a brief explanation of Karma and realizes that his current state is the result of all the bad things he had done previously. He writes a list of all the terrible things he regrets doing to others: getting his friend deported, stealing a DJ’s equipment, and not giving his mother a good Mother’s Day, amongst a variety of other hilarious errors. And he commits to crossing off each one by making amends with those he’s wronged. All this in the hope that his life circumstances will change as a result of his good deeds. In many respects it’s a comedy with a really rich underpinning storyline. The power of forgiveness and reconciliation.
But despite the fictional nature of the story, one might be surprised to hear that based on a Statista poll in 2019 an estimated 31% of adults in the US “very strongly” believe in Karma and an additional 34% “somewhat strongly” believe. But is it actually how the world operates?
theology: the science of relations
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines theology as “the study of religious faith, practice, and experience, the study of God and of God’s relation to the world.” And as such, in a culture that strives for a division of church and state, theology appears to be reserved for those sets of practices one does outside of the normal day-to-day activities that constitute much of our lives.
But as Augustus Strong writes in his Systematic Theology, “In defining theology as a science, we indicate its aim. Science does not create, it discovers. Theology answers to this description of a science. It discovers facts and relations, but it does not create them.” And he latter writes, “Science is not only the observing, recording, verifying, and formulating of objective facts; it is also the recognition and explication of the relations between these facts, and the synthesis of both the facts and the rational principles which unite them in a comprehensive, rightly proportioned, and organic system. Scattered bricks and timbers are not a house; severed arms, legs, heads and trunks from a dissecting room are not living men; and facts alone do not constitute science. Science = facts + relations.”
In essence, theology is an attempt to collect the facts of how life unfolds and to describe the relations between them. Karma is by that definition an attempt at theology. A distillation of life’s circumstances into a simplistic relationship. “Do good things and good things happen to you. Do bad things, they’ll come back to haunt you.”
And maybe a clue as to how pervasive this world view is, is just how irritated we get when these rules are violated. When the good die young. When criminals go unpunished. When the pure of heart suffer unjustly. When the consequences of someone’s actions are felt most by an innocent bystander. Almost all of our grievances in this world follows this pattern. People not being recompensed for their actions, good or bad.
who sinned that he was born blind?
John 9 speaks of a blind man who Jesus and his disciples cross paths with. And the disciples’ first question is “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” In many respects, this question comes from a place that is similar to those who hold to worldview like Karma. How was this misfortune merited?
But Jesus responds “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” I’m sure this was not the response his disciples anticipated. The works of God are displayed in a man who has suffered incredibly and for no apparent reason? Is this really a God worth following if he would allow this man to endure this?
Yet Jesus then proceeded to heal that man of his blindness.
Is it possible that the man was better off for having gone through his blindness and being healed? Is it possible that the works of God might be displayed in the areas we least expect him to work?
And if that’s possible, could it also be quite true of the inverse? Is it possible that those who commit atrocities in this life and escape punishment in this life, don’t actually get away with it? A worldview like Karma has no room for such possibilities and it can often lead to great distress when the unfolding events in this world seem to mock the righteous expectations we have.
But I truly believe that the worldview that Christ embodies, lives out, and invites us into provides a far better explanation for the relations between us and God in this life. For even in his death we are given a picture of the greatest injustice that can occur: the mockery, torture, and murder of a perfectly good and innocent man. That the person least deserving could be subject to such horrific treatment, while other far less righteous people would be exalted within this life.
Earl’s circumstances turned for the better when he started doing the right thing. And while this may very often be the result of improving our actions, it isn’t always a guarantee. And sometimes misfortune occurs that’s not necessarily earned. But maybe God has plans to reveal his glory through those moments in ways far more profoundly than if we were never in that circumstance to begin with. The past 2,000 years certainly seem to indicate God had far more plans through Christ’s crucifixion than any could have thought in that moment.
Theology, like all sciences, is about the discovery of facts and the relations between those facts. Every life experience is a data point and if we’re intentional about our worldviews, we try to understand how all these life experiences relate to one another. Karma affords a simple relationship. You reap what you sow. But life will prove that this framework is insufficient to navigate life’s storms.
Jesus offers us something far richer. A more detailed map to understanding how to live this life and respond during both the highs and lows. Divorce your actions from their consequences. Do good even when it repays you with evil. Know that you aren’t abandoned by God when the outlook is bleak. And in every circumstance, God may be using the opportunity to display his good works.
The final scenes from Loki have been bouncing around in my head for the past year since the show ended. The imagery of the splitting timeline is still so vivid. And I don’t think I’m alone in my appreciation for the show because Loki has the highest IMDB rating of all MCU TV series to date.
From the very beginning of the TV series the theme of the authoritarian regime depicted in the Time Variance Authority (TVA) was evident. But I struggled to make sense of the themes that the show was trying to depict in the remaining aspects of its plotline. What to make of “variants?” And why was the fracturing of the multiverse the culminating event in the show?
Was it done out of pure convenience for the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) content in the pipeline to unfold or was there a deeper symbolic meaning behind it that served as the fitting ending to the Loki series in and of itself? The more I ponder this show, the more I think it’s the latter.
Upfront, this show makes it pretty clear that it is going to play with the relationship between authority and identity. Consider these two quotes from TVA employees in the first episode alone.
“It’s not your story, Mr. Laufeyson[Loki]. It never was.”
“You weren’t born to be king, Loki. You were born to cause pain and suffering and death. That’s how it is, that’s how it was, that’s how it will be. All so that others can achieve their best versions of themselves.”
Loki doesn’t get a say in how his story would unfold according to the TVA, much like every other character within each universe. The story is scripted and any deviation from that defined role is punishable by eradication. Within that first episode it is clear to the viewer that this is a dystopian regime with a rigidness to how it governs. Despite the seemingly good reasons they give for their existence, it doesn’t take long to see the TVA isn’t functioning as it ought to.
Hierarchies work in a particular manner. When functioning well, the top gives identity, meaning, structure, purpose, and love to the bottom. The authorship part of “authority” is quite evident in well functioning families, communities, workplaces, teams, and churches. However, when the authority fails to fulfill its purpose – like the TVA – that sense of a cohesive identity across the group is lost, and the hierarchy decays into a multiplicity of varied identities. Variants begin to emerge when this loss of cohesion occurs.
Sometimes the authorities lose the trust of their community by being incompetent or overbearing. Sometimes revolution results in the forcible removal of their leaders. And sometimes advancements in technology and the shifting sands of culture undermine the hierarchy and cause it to crumble. Whatever the cause, the outcome seems to follow a particular pattern. An explosion of variability in identity through the community.
loki and the conversation regarding gender identity
The show Loki fits this mold and reflects our current cultural moment. When the show first released there was a broader cultural conversation about the significance of Loki being the first non-binary Marvel character. What does it mean that Loki could be either male or female in different universes? The whole show is in essence an exploration of Loki and Sylvie’s (female Loki) identities – and not only in regards to their sex – in a context that gives no room for variation.
But the show does specifically raise the question as to whether or not gender or sex should be considered immutable and integral to one’s identity? This is certainly a topic germane to the times, and as such prompted the typical partisan responses. Some on the right said this was just Disney going “woke” for the sake of scoring political points. And some on the left viewed it as support for their cause, especially with its coincidence with Pride Month. But I actually think the topic fits the story well and can help speak to both sides regarding the topic of gender.
This explosion of various identities in the wake of a crumbling authority has played itself out previously in history. We have seen excessive authorities undermined like the one depicted by the TVA. One of the most influential historical examples in our cultural context would be that of the Reformation in the 1500’s and the fracturing of the Catholic church. Sure many might not know much about the event and therefore not have much appreciation for how it continues to affect us today. But the aftershocks from that chapter of human history can still be felt even if we don’t understand the epicenter of where it began.
So maybe an exploration of the Reformation, Marvel’s TV series Loki, and the current conversations regarding gender identity movement could be worthwhile.
the reformation resulted in the fragmentation of the catholic church
Today, we are surrounded by a multitude of Protestant Christian traditions that all derive from that critical moment in the 16th century when the Reformation occurred. Prior to the 16th century there were really only two main branches of Christianity. The Orthodox and Catholic churches, which had split from one another in the 7th century. Pretty much every church denomination that isn’t Catholic or Orthodox has its roots in the Reformation. But what was it exactly that caused the Catholic church to lose so much hegemony in Europe at the time and explode into the variety of denominations we see today? Here’s what I believe are some of the substantial causes.
The Reformation occurred at the tail end of the Middle Ages, or what some term the “Dark Ages.” Much of the literature that served as the foundation for the culture had been reserved to monasteries and only a select group engaged with the very philosophical ideas that underpinned their society. I don’t think this was done malevolently, as literacy rates were a fraction of what they are today. But as a result, the practices of the Catholic church drifted in many respects from the principles by which it was intended to function. And the people at the bottom who most needed to be cared for by the institution, were most let down.
A growing interest in ancient literature and old manuscripts of the Bible by people like Erasmus and Luther, combined with the new technology of the printing press, allowed for the spreading of alternative perspectives, new interpretations of key Biblical texts, and critiques of the current hegemonic power in a way that wasn’t possible previously. Increased literacy rates allowed commonfolk to access these new ideas in a way that wasn’t previously possible. And it wasn’t so easy for the church hierarchy to combat the spreading of these new ideas. Sure they could lean on draconian measures like the threat of death and burning of the pamphlets that ran counter to the church leadership’s perceived interests. But the identities associated with these new movements were spreading like wildfire in the aftermath of new technological advancements. And exacerbated by the very authoritarian measures used by the church. The gatekeepers had effectively been circumvented.
And so, while the original goal for many like Luther and Erasmus was to simply reform the Catholic church and rediscover the ideals by which it was to live, the movement quickly devolved into the fracturing of the church. And that process continues today and resulted in what some say is in excess of 30,000 denominations.
the gender identity spectrum
The LGBTQ+ community has likewise followed a similar trend. Identities that were until very recently only considered within the strict conformity to a binary sexual and gender framework are now disrupted by the crumbling of society’s institutions, disintegration of family units, the introduction of the internet, which allows for new ways of making community, and new medical procedures that cause us to entertain new possibilities that were previously unimaginable.
Much like the explosion in the different expressions of Christianity and the variability now allowed within each of the unique universes within Marvel, we now hear of infinite sexual and gender identities, spectrums of expressions, and indefinite ways people identify themselves. Today’s gatekeepers have likewise been undermined in much the same way as the Catholic Church was in the 16th century.
Is our current culture much like the Catholic Church of the 16th Century and TVA as depicted in Loki? Probably at least in part. And are our identities malleable? Probably more than both sides of the political spectrum believe to be true. The interplay between authority and identity often follows a similar script. A script that I think Loki gets largely right.
So much focus gets put on the individuals who lay claim to these new identities as if they’ve created this environment, but few shed light on the way the top of our society’s hierarchies may have contributed to where we stand today.
what lessons can be learned?
One has to wonder, is there a way to get the genie back in the bottle? Is a strict binary for gender the way forward? And if we could, should we? What would it take to do so? Is some draconian measure, similar to the threats of death and burning of pamphlets in the early 16th century, the way forward? Form another authoritarian regime to enforce strict conformity of identity on all its subjects? What are the odds that approach is sustainable?
I think our hierarchies need to rediscover what it looks like to function well. For the top to love the bottom and give identity while making room for some diversity, even some that might seem a bit heretical. Because if the subjects of the authority don’t feel loved, they will find a new authority, that gives them that feeling. And that’s often how new identities form. Certainly easier said than done. It’s hard enough to get this balance right within our immediate families let alone across such a diverse society.
Regarding matters involving the church and gender identities, I think authorities probably need to allow some margin and buffer for expressions that might seem heretical. Otherwise we’re destined for disconnection and division all the way down. A split much like the fragmentation of the multiverse, and the church, and our communities today.
As the end of Loki shows, with the end of one authoritarian regime often comes the rise of a new one. And that change is rarely for the better. I think we would be wise to learn from that warning.
Picture this. You have just purchased a new property that is going to serve as the ideal site for your future home. You are thrilled about it! The lot is expansive and untouched with a mixture of gently sloped open fields and thick woods. It’s perfect!
Shortly after acquiring the land you decide to go and explore the areas you have yet to see. And in the far back corner of the property, to your surprise, you happen to stumble upon an old split-rail fence. The lot was supposedly “untouched.” Why was the fence put here? Who put it here? Should you let it remain? Is it worth removing? What would you do?
Would you be inclined to remove the fence, assuming it has little or no purpose anymore? Would you leave it in place, assuming that it was put there for good reason? Or would you decide to keep it simply because you enjoy the aesthetics of the old rustic fence?
Author G.K. Chesterton used a similar illustration to talk about the role tradition plays in our lives and the challenge it presents to us. Many times these traditions, like fences, at face value seem to be unnecessary, outdated, or burdensome. We are unable to articulate why they are there in the first place. Yet, is it possible that they served a purpose that we don’t quite yet understand? And maybe it still serves that purpose?
On the other hand, we may come to find they do in fact serve no purpose anymore, but nonetheless we’re hesitant to remove them. Possibly it’s a scary proposition for us to remove that which has long provided a sense of security, regardless of whether they actually achieve that end or not. Or maybe we just enjoy the sense of nostalgia it brings to our lives.
This illustration is the best I’ve come across to explain the faith journey I’ve been on for the last decade. Growing up in a Lutheran church, I was surrounded by traditions: liturgical calendars, old hymns, candlelit services, creeds, and organ playing. The pastor wore traditional garments. I often served as the acolyte. The walls of the church were adorned with stained glass windows. There was the regular occurrence of infant baptism and confirmation ceremonies during services. The church experience was distinct from the other days of the week. In many ways, it felt like a step back in time and into a completely different world.
It was all I knew as a kid. And I didn’t really give it much thought. When asked by a friend in middle school if I was a Christian like him, I responded naively that, “No, I was a Lutheran.” I was baptized into this denomination. We attended nearly every week my entire childhood at Christ the King Lutheran Church while we lived in Maryland and then St. Paul’s Lutheran church we moved to Pennsylvania. Like a fish in a fish tank, I had as little understanding of what else was out there as the very water I was swimming in.
But then college came, and as is the case for many young adults, this new chapter in life presented me an opportunity to step outside of the bubble I grew up in. And I started to get connected with a variety of different friends who came from many different backgrounds.
One of those groups I started to connect with was through a non-denominational organization called Cru. The in essence considered Evangelical and attempted to avoid falling into a defined denomination by focusing on the fundamentals of the faith. This group opened a completely different world to me than the one I experienced in the mainline church I grew up in.
There wasn’t a liturgy that they read from or a liturgical calendar that directed the sermons. People prayed as they were moved and sermons were topical and changed as the leader sought fit. The music played by the worship band was composed within the last decade, not from centuries ago. There weren’t any candles. They didn’t recite any creeds. The pastors and ministry leaders wore the same casual attire the students did. And there wasn’t a single stained-glass window to be found.
But quite possibly the most suprising difference I found surprising during these years of exploring my faith in this new group was when I found out that adult baptisms were in fact a thing. I had never seen one before. And the fact that some churches exclusively did adult baptisms and refused to do infant baptisms was a completely foreign idea. These churches believed infant baptisms, like all of these other traditions, was essentially “added on” to and not reflective of the “pure” Christianity that was observed of the early church. It might not have been explicitly stated, but it was implied. Was my infant baptism like an old fence that deserved to be removed? Was it merely added to the faith for no reason for strictly ornamental or misguided reasons? Was my baptism legitimate at all?
Common to many Evangelical churches and groups is the notion of “Sola Scriptura,” a phrase that emerged in the Protestant Reformation. The idea being that the Bible holds the ultimate authority on the Christian faith, not church hierarchy based on apostolic succession or tradition. But coupled with that is the idea that anyone can approach the Bible in isolation and from a plain reading of the text, ascertain clearly what it prescribes. And that’s what I set out to do as I grappled with this question of baptism.
One quick read of the book of Acts, which summarizes the earliest stories of the Church, seemed to indicate this was in fact the case. An infant baptism does not appear anywhere explicitly in Acts (a historical account of the early church following Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension), or anywhere in the Bible for that matter. Countless examples of adult baptisms are detailed yet no infant baptisms with the ceremonial sprinkling of water are to be found. And so a clear divide between “tradition” and a “pure” Christianity was forged in my mind.
As a result, I found it most appropriate at the time to start distancing myself from “traditions,” at least as I understood them, to get back to the core of the Christian life without what I had deemed these unnecessary ornamental additions. At least try to recover what the Christian life looked like in the immediate aftermath of Jesus’ life. No more liturgy. No more stained glass windows. No more infant baptism.
Despite being baptized as an infant myself and growing up in the Lutheran church, a few years of being involved in non-denominational and evangelical churches and college campus groups led me to believe that an adult baptism was the most responsible thing I could do in response to Christ’s command to be baptized found in Matthew 28. I was at an age where I could decide for myself to follow Christ, and so it seemed that the most obedient thing for me to do at this time was to make this public declaration of my faith. And about a year after graduating college, I decided to get baptized at the non-denominational church I was regularly attending.
That was over eight years ago, and I have many positive memories associated with it. At that time, I would have viewed this as my legitimate baptism. I was so confident in my beliefs… So sure of everything. There was no way you could change my mind. And yet… here I am several years later and I see things a bit differently.
It’s difficult to say exactly caused this change in perspective. I’m no longer single and on my own. I’m married and have two kids now. Those are substantial life moments that have altered the way I see the world. I’ve met many people of varying denominations that I respect with conflicting views on this topic. That has certainly made me less dogmatic. And well, I’ve had several more years to see how God works in my life and others and He acts differently than I thought he did back then. I think He’s humbled me.
And over the past few years, a growing interest in church history led me to learn the surprising facts that infant baptism has been prevalent since the early church and is still widely practiced in most branches and denominations of Christianity. In fact, the rejection of infant baptism is a relatively recent phenomenon only emerging in what were peripheral groups during the Reformation (the Anabaptists). That’s not to say that minority-held positions cannot be correct on an issue. But it is to say, maybe I’ve been missing something. Maybe there’s more to this than a simple “plain” reading of the scriptures. Maybe this newfound “pure” Christianity I’ve adopted is just another tradition that is worthy of investigation and scrutiny.
While it’s true that we don’t see an explicit description of an infant baptism in the Bible, we do see the jailer and his entire household get baptized in Acts 16 as a result of Paul and Silas’ mercy towards him when the prison gates were opened and their chains came loose. While the specific age of those in the household are not mentioned, the very fact that this redemption and restoration was not limited to one man but provided to an entire family I think is worth noting. Our culture puts much emphasis on the individual, but it does seem that the Gospel also provides hope and restoration for whole families and communities. And maybe baptism plays a role in that.
It’s also interesting to note the comparison of circumcision to baptism in a passage like Colossians 2. Throughout the Old Testament, we see God build the nation of Israel through the circumcision of males at young ages. God doesn’t exclude the inclusion of children in the nation of Israel in the Old Testament on the basis of how intellectually developed they are and their own ability to ascent to a set of doctrinal beliefs. His approach is quite the contrary. And there are indications that this same pattern, the availability of the Kingdom to even the youngest among us, is present in the New Testament (Mark 10).
I’m no professional seminarian or theologian. People who dedicate their lives to studying this topic come out on different sides on this topic. But as a layman, I can’t help but wonder could it be that baptism is a way of bringing people, both children and adults, into the church community? Is it really true that the only way we can be baptized into the church, is when we’re old enough, self-aware enough, and wise enough to assent to our own saving faith? Or is it possible that in addition to adult baptisms, children of other disciples can also experience being a part of the covenant family? That God can be active in both expressions of baptism?
Here I am years later with a newfound appreciation for the baptism I received as an infant. I appreciate that the community invested in me for all those years and included me within the church. I appreciate that God gave me the family I did and raised me in a Christian household. I appreciate that His providence, although not giving me the most exciting conversion story that would often be applauded by many in Evangelical churches today, consisted of an environment that would provide the foundation for a deep trust and reliance on Him later in life.
In some ways I regret getting rebaptized. And yet, I know that this has been a process of working through two very different ways of reflecting on the traditions that were handed to me. What’s unfortunate is that, the photo from my more recent baptism doesn’t capture what’s just outside the edge of the frame. My parents standing up on stage, supporting me as I was baptized again. And my siblings and grandparents in attendance in the congregation. A community and family that have walked alongside me and been a support from the beginning, when at the time I thought I was doing this alone. And the same God was present the whole time as well.
Despite all of these changes in perspective, we are still invested within the Evangelical church and while child dedications are done in lieu of infant baptisms, the spirit of what was graciously given to me, I hope to pass on to my own kids. Inclusion in this messy, beautiful, enduring and life-giving community that is the Church. The laying of foundations for them to continue to have deepening trust in their God. And that by sharing in Jesus’ death and resurrection, that they may experience abundant life.
And maybe, just maybe, I can convince a few of my fellow brothers and sisters to give a second consideration to some of these older “traditions.” That maybe some of what we’ve discarded would be worthwhile to bring back. That maybe our ancestors had something valuable to share with us. And that even when we struggle to articulate exactly the reason for why they were there in the first place, we should be more cautious before dispensing with them.
I’ll end with this quote from Martin Luther.
“God is acting here, not the human creature... If it’s possible that children don’t have faith and that they cannot demonstrate it, nevertheless, we should piously believe that God himself baptizes children and gives them faith and the Holy Spirit. That follows from the text. Therefore, regard baptism as a divine word for God himself does it. There would be no church at all on earth, if God did not assemble it through baptism.”
In a previous post, I was trying to plumb the depths of the relationship between geography and our political divide. The purpose of that post was simply to explore how population density can affect how we desire to regulate the actions of those around us. And how population density therefore correlates with political affiliation. The lower the population the density, the less people feel the need to monitor their neighbor’s every move. But as you move closer to the heart of cities and towns with higher population density, the desires of the collective become paramount, and the rights of the individual diminish.
While I think this plays a big role and is certainly discounted in much of our political discourse, I would never say that this accounts for the entirety of the differences in how urban and rural populations vote. In fact, I think there’s another similarly overlooked factor, that may be even more worthwhile to explore.
a step back in time to the first urban civilizations
Recently I read a book titled Babylon: The Birth of Ancient Civilizationsby Paul Kriwaczek, which gives an overview of the rise and fall of ancient Mesopotamian cultures and how they gave us many of the building blocks that serve as the foundation for our current nations and cities. It was an absolutely fascinating read for a multitude of reasons, but I was surprised how this man’s interpretations of the rise and fall of these ancient cultures could speak so much to the current paradigm. I’ll share just a couple quotes to set the table.
“Those societies in which seriousness, tradition, conformity and adherence to long-established – often god-prescribed – ways of doing things are the strictly enforced rule, have always been the majority across time and throughout the world. Such people are not known for their sense of humor and lightness of touch; they rarely break a smile. To them, change is always suspect and usually damnable, and they hardly ever contribute to human development. By contrast, social, artistic and scientific progress as well as technological advance are most evident where the ruling culture and ideology give men and women permission to play, whether with ideas, beliefs, principles or materials. And where playful science changes people’s understanding of the way the physical world works, political change, even revolution, is rarely far behind.”
“If cities and civilizations are like machines, then it is tempting to see the Akkadian imperium like one of those fighter aircraft of mid-twentieth-century warfare, the Spitfire or the Messerschmitt 109, which owed their success and their dominance of the skies to the fact that they were designed to fly on the very borderlines of stability. When all was going well they were magnificent. When damaged in a vulnerable part, they would spin and crash to the ground. Other, more conservatively fashioned – and duller – planes could limp home even with wings and tail assemblies shot full of flak holes.”
This may just be one writer’s interpretation, but I really think he’s mapped out in just a few sentences some key insights regarding the left-right, progressive-conservative, and what is essentially at the core, an urban and rural divide.
the worldview differences in urban and rural life
For urban societies, “progress” is often the chief aim. As the author notes of these old Mesopotamian civilizations in other parts of the books, much of the city would be razed and rebuilt on average every 90 years. Iconoclasm was routine and the erection of something new (new technologies, new architecture, new gods, and systems of hierarchy) the norm. Opportunity was sought in the unknown and pursued at great cost.
As for rural communities, the desire to “conserve” the past is an instinct to do what has always been done. This is often the approach less prone to dramatic collapse. It’s known territory. Predictable. Safer. The ideals that undergird this philosophy have been tested by time and through a variety of seasons have proven to be durable. Why reinvent the wheel? Why fix what isn’t broken?
If we understand cities as a form of technology, we start to see some of the benefits and consequences to the societies, which they serve. Cities, which initially formed as a prerequisite to the collaboration required for agrarian life, serve as the basis for the division of labor, increase in the efficiency of production, and provide the setting for a melting pot of ideas and cultures that have often been the locale of our greatest innovations. However, as the author notes, like most technologies that are continuously refined for efficiency, urban societies can forget that for every successful innovation, there are magnitudes more that failed. Like throwing paint at a wall to see what sticks, there’s a good chance many of the ideas fail to accomplish their aims and leave the society susceptible to destruction. Like the fighter planes he referenced, they are designed to fly magnificently under perfect flying conditions, but a single bullet hole might be enough for everything to unravel. And yet, as the author also notes, it would be wrong to ignore the incredible benefits to humanity that have resulted from some of these innovations.
The rural communities often fail to recognize how in debt their current lifestyle is to the innovations from past urban civilizations. Modern agriculture, sanitation practices, language, mathematics, writing, engineering, architecture, metallurgy, wayfaring, medicine, the domestication of animals, organized religion, arts, theater, and athletics all find their origins in the urban cultures of history. Yet today they have all been adopted by these conservative communities and are simply assumed. Conservatives aren’t harkening back to the “golden days” of nomadic life. What they essentially are desiring to be conserved today were the successful innovations of yesterday.
And urban communities often fail to recognize how often they tend to go awry in their pursuit of progress. Nature has its limits. Like Icharus, it is possible to fly too close to the sun in pursuit of the next advancement. And there might be more conservatively minded people with the correct intuition that this striving towards a utopian vision might be towards a dead end with catastrophic consequences.
The left and the right. The progressives and conservatives. The urban and the rural. They have always been in tension and for good reason. We need an appropriate application of the two and that might not necessarily look like a 50/50 split at all times.
the symbolism of a new jerusalem
I think the imagery presented at the end of Revelation might depict it best. The city of the New Jerusalem with the Tree of Life at its center. Cities in and of themselves are not bad. Nor are rural communities. It’s a question of what’s at the center. Progress alone isn’t enough. Nor is conservation. I don’t think economic growth, diversity, inclusion, tolerance, or national pride are sufficient in and of themselves to fill that void either.
So what is the ideal, or “Tree of Life” so to speak, that societies should be centered around to be successful? What defines “success” for a society? And what could possibly unite the rural and urban parts of the population? I think those questions are really worth pondering and could possibly help us get a glimpse into the stark differences in worldview that inform the way we see one another. And possibly even help us bridge the gap and find a more unified way forward.
Although if history serves as the model, I think more likely than not, we will continue to see this division along rural and urban worldviews continue to present itself. It may be a pessimistic outlook, but it doesn’t mean these efforts to understand the other side have to be for naught.
I never knew before having kids that I would one day become a bubble solution connoisseur. After a few run-ins with poor quality bubble solution and the tears that ensued (Tristan’s, not mine to clarify) I’ve been taking notes on which brands perform the best and asking family and friends alike who their dealers are for the best performers. You learn quickly with kids there are few things more deflating than going to blow bubbles and nothing coming out of the wand. As a parent you have to be prepared and stocked up with the highest quality solutions. And for those that are wondering, Sun Burst, Fubbles and Disney brand bubble solutions all seem to take the prize.
Well over this past summer I think we probably used at least a few gallons worth of bubble solution. That means watching our kids blow A LOT of bubbles. And I began to notice something…
While the wind may carry all of them in a general direction, the individual flight patterns of each varies considerably. Up, down, left and right, forwards and backwards. Almost always following the prevailing wind direction but occasionally going against it too. You can’t anticipate with certainty which way they would go next.
And it reminded me of this interesting verse from John 3:8. “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
wind, spirit and breath
The original Greek words for “wind” and Spirit” used in this verse are pneuma and pneumatos respectively. I’m no scholar on ancient languages, but we can see that these two words are clearly related in the original language. In fact in both the Old Testament and New Testament, the words wind, spirit and breath are, as far as I know, almost always used interchangeably. While we see them as being distinct from one another, our ancestors saw them as synonymous.
Let’s consider school spirit. It’s not a material object you can touch, move, or see with your eyes. It cannot be reduced to atoms bouncing off one another. It cannot be modeled by empirical formulations. And it isn’t bound by the laws of physics. Yet, I think all would agree it exists. School spirit animates students and teachers alike. It has the ability to breathe life into kids. It can move through a body of students much like the wind.
It’s why the word spirit shares the same root as words like inspire (“to give breath”), respire (“to breathe again”), and conspire (“to breathe together”). We still have remnants in our language of a former way of seeing the world. A way of perceiving that we still see in part.
Or consider the wind motif that is still in many of our movies. It often represents this subtle force that moves characters and pushes the plotline along. It’s found all throughout Disney movies like The Lion King, Frozen II, and Pocahontas. It’s difficult to articulate the exact purpose wind plays within a story, yet we all intuitively understand its role. Here’s a scene from the Lion King that captures that essence beautifully.
Much in the same way, we can intuitively understand how spirits govern the actions of individuals, schools, communities, families, and entire nations for good or for bad. Yet, they often go unseen and unrecognized just like the wind unless, like Rafiki, we’re attuned to discerning them.
the social sciences and the discernment of spirits
Recently I have started taking interest in topics pertaining to the social sciences. Personality disorders, counseling and therapy, mental health, family systems, the rise and fall of ideologies, religions and nations… it’s all relevant to the social sciences.
The social sciences is a field of study I would have scoffed at in my high school and college days for being something of far less value than the hard sciences. And yet, here I am a bit older and realizing just how crucial these studies are and the value they can provide when done well.
What is so baffling is that you begin to see that the behavior of groups start to follow patterns in a similar fashion to the traditional sciences like biology, physics, and chemistry. Political factions, dysfunctional families, churches, work environments, and even the lives of individuals tend to play themselves out in patterns that those in the social sciences can track and monitor with relative predictive ability. In many ways the social sciences have helped elucidate what has long been considered opaque. One could say what was once considered the unpredictability of spirits, has to to a large extent with the help of modern social sciences become predictable.
And yet, I can’t help but notice that more often than not the consensus in the social sciences is regarding that which is pathological. Around how to live the good life, it seems very much that the jury is still out. It’s easier to identify addiction, personality disorders, dysfunction, cults, or what constitutes something like poor school spirit than the alternative. It’s easier in many ways for modern movie makers to depict villains than it is to create an engaging hero. It’s easier to see where things went wrong than to know how to fix them let alone articulate what the ideal is. And I think this is one of the points Jesus is trying to express to Nicodemus, a Pharisee, when he makes the aforementioned statement regarding the necessity of being born of the Spirit.
Jesus and the unpredictable spirit
Pharisees have a bad reputation for being hypocritical. And yet, on the other hand you have to recognize their attempt to live an upright life, even if hypocrisy was at play. In contrast to many around them, they were at least expressing an intent to lead a righteous life.
Nicodemus approaches Jesus for a conversation because he recognizes that Jesus could not perform the miracles he had, if he were not from God. Nicodemus is essentially trying to confirm that they are both laboring for the same team. And yet Jesus responds in a surprising manner. He doesn’t openly embrace Nicodemus but instead states that even Nicodemus still needed to be born again of the Spirit if he wanted to see the Kingdom of God.
Nicodemus, like the Pharisees in general, was predictable, following a set of rules and operating in absolutes. Jesus however lives by a different Spirit, and one that – like the wind – often surprises people. He zigs when others expect him to zag. Much of the gospels can be summarized as different individuals and groups thinking Jesus is on their side, trying to recruit him to their cause only to find out that he operates in ways that confound them. Jesus is, in a way, unpredictable. Not erratic. Unpredictable in the sense that he is able to hold within himself in perfect harmony what we often perceive as conflicting virtues.
And for 2,000 years individuals, families, communities and nations have been altered and animated by this Jesus and the Spirit by which he lived. Part of what makes him such a captivating person is his ability to avoid being compartmentalized. He’s unpredictable like the Spirit that moves him. He sets impossibly high standards yet communes with the sinful. He made bold claims to his own divinity and authority yet he humbled himself to the point of being unjustly hung on a cross. And he chastises his disciples for having little faith yet has the utmost patience and grace.
Even today, Jesus is used as a model for both inclusion and holiness. Both grace and judgement. Both perfect service and kingship. The lion and the lamb. The first and the last.
Yes, the path the Spirit calls us to may be to take the narrow path and avoid the wide path to destruction. Some look at that life and say it’s restrictive. And to a certain extent, yes the prevailing wind is predictable and he does ask us to bear his yoke. But beyond that narrow path are wide open vistas of a life that to many will seem as “unpredictable.” The type of unpredictable that leads to admiration in the greatest of saints, and perfected in this Jesus of Nazareth who has captivated so many for so long. And he offers his Spirit to continue to breathe new life into this world.
When your full-time job is civil engineering, your work doesn’t tend to make for lively conversation at parties. This fact is only made that much more evident when you happen to be married to a nurse with years of emergency room and ambulance stories. You might be surprised to realize stories about infrastructure can’t hold a candle to the best ER stories. But it’s true, and it’s the reality I’ve learned to live with. I’ll accept your pity.
My days in the office are fairly routine. And a bad day for me pales in comparison to a bad day for my wife or many others who find themselves in a variety of other careers. It’s a relatively safe career, minus the staple I put through my finger a couple years ago. “The Staple Incident of 2019.” It doesn’t get too much more exciting than that.
I think you would understand then why my job has never been the topic of these posts. I love what I do, but it’s often difficult to explain what, in fact, I do for a living. Or to even make it remotely engaging enough for others to read.
I’ve probably been asked a hundred times, “So, if you’re a civil engineer, does that mean you design bridges?” While, yes, some civil engineers do in fact design bridges, I chose to go a different direction. I work within a different subfield of civil engineering. It’s what is often termed “Land Development” and many don’t know what that is. I’ll try to explain.
When you arrive at a Chick-fil-A or a McDonald’s to grab some grub what do you take notice of? Maybe you look at the number of cars waiting in the drive-thru. You search for an available parking spot. You take notice of the façade of the building or the landscaping around it. And maybe you catch a sniff of some fresh waffle or shoestring fries in the process.
As a civil engineer, my experience is quite different. I notice the queue length for the drive-thru and how much room is available before it causes traffic concerns. The number of parking spaces required by municipality ordinances. The orientation and design of driveways and their spacing from adjacent driveways and intersections. The location of shade trees, trash enclosures, and even the positioning of the building for visibility from major travel corridors. Handicapped spaces, striping, ramps, and walkways for ADA accessibility. The grading of drive aisles, swales, and landscaped areas. Stormwater management design and utility locations. And even building setbacks from roadways and adjacent properties. I also can’t help but notice the scent of those delectable fries…
Since getting into this field, my understanding of how commercial and residential properties are laid out and organized within a community has fundamentally changed. I’ve designed several of these lots and worked with many municipalities and developers over the past several years. Enough to gain an appreciation for what all goes into community planning. There’s a lot more that goes on behind the scenes before that new Taco Bell or residential subdivision goes in. A lot of time, money, energy, conversations, and design. Trust me it’s a lot!
One of the unexpected insights that my job has afforded me, is a glimpse into how geography or location dictates how municipalities set regulations. Zoning is in essence, exactly that. As one local municipality puts it, the purpose of their zoning ordinance “is to promote the public health, safety, morals and general welfare by encouraging the most appropriate use of land.”
“The most appropriate use of land…” The more I’ve thought about geography and politics the more I think zoning can give us a fundamental understanding of how influential geography and population density is to public policy and how much they inform our political leanings. At a time when so many are looking for ways to differentiate the left from the right via categories like race, class, religion, gender, education level and age, I think many of us are overlooking one of the biggest determinants in political affiliation: locale.
If I haven’t lost you yet, I’m impressed and thankful. I hope you’ll continue to engage me in this thought experiment, that may actually help, dare I say, humanize your political adversaries. Certainly there are inarticulate, unwise, and sometimes dangerous or downright evil ideas that can be found on both ends of the spectrum. This post isn’t intended to excuse those.
But maybe we can see that there are reasonable positions to be found by the moderates of both sides, and that these may be informed by our experiences that result from something largely out of our control – where we happen to be born and raised.
how does population density relate to party affiliation?
One quick look at an election results map of Pennsylvania from the 2016 presidential election should reveal something that’s incredibly obvious from the get-go. Urban areas voted for Clinton. Rural areas voted for Trump.
This isn’t just a Pennsylvania trend. This occurs in practically every single state.
Dave Troy, a blogger, entrepreneur, and CEO of 410 Labs wrote in his own article following the 2012 election that he was similarly interested in these trends. What did he find after crunching the data? 49 of the 50 most dense counties voted for Obama and that 49 of the 50 least dense counties voted for Romney. Not only that, but he charted population density and voting results for both candidates and found an interesting inflection point that occurred around a population density of 800 people per square mile. If you lived in an area with a population density greater than 800 people per square mile, the likelihood of voting for Obama was 66%. In areas with a density below 800 people per square mile, the likelihood of voting for Romney was also 66%. And these trends help up regardless of the state with minor fluctuations. Fascinating!
For years I thought that this trend, which seems to occur every election cycle (at least that I can remember), was an indication that the other side simply had bad ideas and that those with bad ideas happened to share a similar geographic location. That they were voting against their own interest, or at least against our collective interest as a nation. Or that maybe, these political differences that are often attributed to those aforementioned identity categories were largely responsible for urban areas voting heavily for Democrats and rural areas aligning with Republicans.
Geographical differences were secondary. Identity and ideological differences were primary.
However, voting results, which were evaluated by professors at Washington University of St. Louis and the University of Maryland and detailed in a formal paper (and summarized here) indicated that if one holds all other individual characteristics constant, an individual’s probability of identifying as a strong Democrat drops by 12 percentage points if they live in a far rural area. Likewise, their analysis suggests that a person with the same individual characteristics living in a densely packed community is about 11 points more likely to identify as a strong Democrat compared with that same person living in a sparsely populated area. Also, absolutely fascinating!
Location seems to play a role in our political leanings and this pattern is seen consistently across this urban and rural divide.
Now I’m sure some people move in and out of cities or rural areas for political reasons. There’s certainly a chicken and egg factor to this in some degree. But we cannot overlook the influence geography has. But why, and how does one’s location intersect with politics?
the prudence of different regulations
As I started doing more work in land development I began to notice some trends in how zoning regulations differed depending on the zoning district within question and that these trends seemed to map onto these political differences that were manifesting themselves in national elections. Look up your own municipality’s zoning ordinance and map and you’ll likely find a similar pattern. Very quickly you will see there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach that municipalities employ.
Often, a Township, Borough, or City will identify commercial, village center, and high-density residential areas in close proximity to major travel corridors. Then as you move out of this central hub, you start getting into industrial and middle-density residential districts. And then beyond that, agricultural and low-density residential districts are often found. In many ways, each municipality is a microcosm of how our states and nation lays themselves out, with designated areas of low- and high-density development.
Each district then has it’s own set of criteria that determines how big and tall your buildings can be, what types of building uses are allowable, how far back from the roadway and adjacent properties they must be set, and even the size and shape that proposed lots can take. These regulations prevent an amusement park from being built in the middle of a residential district or an adult business from going right in the center of town. They are meant to protect the character of the neighborhood, and ensure an appropriate use of land.
But maybe what is most telling about these differences is how nuisance concerns are dealt with. Inevitably, in zoning districts like your commercial, village center, and high-density residential areas there are greater opportunities for dissimilar uses to be located adjacent to one another. A restaurant might abut a single-family home. A car dealer next to an apartment complex. A commercial garage next to a library.
What you will often find is that the zoning ordinance requires a line of dense vegetation be planted along these property lines to provide visual screening between these dissimilar uses. Usually the commercial or industrial uses are required to plant these as part of their development to prevent any light spillover from overhead lights, reduce sound and glare, and just protect the adjacent property from any excessive nuisance. There are also restrictions on the hours that lights can remain on, and limitations on how loud a businesses operations can be. When properties are more densely packed together, there is more opportunity for conflict. and the process of zoning places (hopefully) appropriate requirements in place to avoid conflict.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to see how appeals to greater government involvement would therefore occur within densely packed areas. That when hundreds and thousands of people live within a single square mile, they cannot all know one another and establish trusting relationships with all of them. Stricter enforcement and policies are required to ensure everyone stays in line to maintain the character of the neighborhood. That is if there isn’t some shared set of morals that could guide all their actions without such enforcement, which in an increasingly pluralistic society is incredibly hard to agree upon.
Conversely, in low-density areas there are less neighbors with which to have conflict. The types of uses vary far less and there’s much less turnover and change in character for the area over time. Zoning therefore is much more laxed in the prescriptions it gives for these areas. And therefore there’s no sense in undue burden placed in these districts.
I think one could therefore understand how in low-density areas, a robust and highly involved governing body is wasteful, overly redundant, or encroaching on rights. When residents only have a handful of neighbors, who they live next to for decades and have developed deep trust with, there’s less need for an external entity to regulate their behaviors. The set of morals is largely shared and the community is smaller and at less risk of nuisance from strangers.
In essence, more regulation is required in higher density areas than lower density areas to protect the social fabric. And I think this can serve as a distillation of much of the perceived competition between the two political camps.
a competition between two ideals
Every now and then, you read something that completely alters the entire framework for how you understand an issue. This passage from Daniel Moynihan, a former Democratic Senator from New York did exactly that for me.
“Liberty and Equality are the twin ideals of American democracy. But they are not the same thing. Nor, most importantly, are they equally attractive to all groups at any given time nor yet are they always compatible, one with the other.
Many persons who would gladly die for liberty are appalled by equality. Many who are devoted to equality are puzzled and even troubled by liberty. Much of the political history of the American nation can be seen as a competition between these two ideals, as for example, the unending troubles between capital and labor.”
Daniel Moynihan in The Negro Family: The Case for National Action
Liberty, the freedom to do what one pleases. Equality, the state of having equal rights and opportunities (and most recently used interchangeably with “equity” often meaning equal outcomes). Both, as Moynihan points out are ideals of American Democracy and yet so often they seem juxtaposed to one another. When does your freedom encroach on my rights? And when does my desire for equality curb another’s liberty? It’s this very dynamic that is so often at play within political discord.
Both can appeal to very basic longings we all have. And both have an essential role to play in maintaining a functioning democracy.
Quite possibly to our own detriment, our habits of increasingly appealing to the federal government to champion and impose our desired ideal, be it liberty or equality, nationally, we might be forcing values onto other communities that really aren’t in their best interest. This could be by placing undue regulatory burdens on communities that have alternative mechanisms for self-regulating. Or by resisting even small encroachments in our freedoms when more regulations may be prudent to minimize the destabilizing effects of a community left unchecked.
Politics, like zoning, probably shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all approach, which unfortunately in our current political discord is exactly the way many of us frame it. Liberty and equality. Rural and urban. Geography and population density shapes us whether we know it or not.
Maybe we can give our political adversaries (at least the reasonable ones) an ear. We may find there’s more substance to their positions than we are prone to give them credit. This doesn’t mean we need to adopt all their views or switch political affiliation. But maybe, just maybe, it will help us broaden our understanding of the issues, to be better listeners, and to know how to best communicate our values to someone who lives in a completely different setting.
Twin ideals in competition. Lower and higher density populations that may need different approaches to regulation. At a time when everything is divided over race, class, sex, religion, and a multitude of other identity characteristics, we miss just how influential our geographical location is. How important the location we call “home” is to our political framework.
We need to learn how to communicate across these lines. There’s a lot riding on it.