Sunday, June 24, 2012

Some Libertarians Are Economic Libertines

Words have consequences because they influence our actions. A powerful word that today is paralyzing our public discourse is libertarianism. To free the discourse and eventually our political actions, I will attempt to make a distinction between libertarianism and libertinism.

If this distinction is accepted, we will be ready to peer into the performance of capitalism and realize that economic libertines, by reserving all freedoms to themselves, and especially by separating rights from responsibilities, pursue not pure, moral, and ideal capitalism, but a whole set of variegated forms of exploitative capitalism.

Once the public discourse is opened up, a floodgate of ideas will ensue to remedy the current crisis in economics and politics.

Some Libertarians Are Economic Libertines

With his contribution to the Guardian of 19 December 2011, George Monbiot has started a discussion that goes to the very core of our political discourse. It associates the libertarian position with the 1% megalo-plutocratic attempt to control everything. It is a very important discussion.

Its long title is worth repeating: “This bastardised libertarianism makes 'freedom' an instrument of oppression. It's the disguise used by those who wish to exploit without restraint, denying the need for the state to protect the 99%”.

The title says it all. It is clear, cogent, erudite, enlightening, and energizing. It is a joy to read.

So propelled, I would like to add a couple of points.

Originally, there was a clear distinction between liberalism and libertinism. The corruption of our current political discourse is evidenced by the obliteration of the word libertinism. Somehow, the word libertine offends our sense of tolerance and our superficial moral sensibilities. Resistance to this word is likely to come from those who relate the word to moral libertinism, and hence restrict it to private morality.

To reintroduce the word in our vocabulary, I would like to apply it to economic affairs. And then I would like to specify that there is no such thing as private morality: True morality is always a public affair. It always involves at least two people.

The freedom of using the word libertine, it seems to me, can be regained only if we realize how we have allowed it to slip from our hands.

How Did We Lose the Word Libertine

We must first realize that we all would love to be libertines. Life would be so much easier! (This is a wrong assumption, but that is another discussion altogether). Who loves restraints?

It takes great wisdom to realize the reality and the usefulness of restraint. My father used to say “Remember that the grass named ‘I want’ does not exist even in the garden of the King”.

The slippery slope that led to the abandonment of the word “libertine” started very early. The Enlightenment was supposed to espouse tolerance. Indeed, it openly did, and that is why it gained so much favor: People were tired of intolerance, particularly religious intolerance.

But the Enlightenment was in a hurry. It hoped to accomplish its aims in a few days, rather than—if the effort was worthy at all—hundreds of years.

The case of the martyrs of Compiègne is symptomatic. The nuns were brought under the guillotine because they did not want to accept the freedom that the Revolution was offering them, the freedom to be out of the convent.

It is almost funny, if it had not been tragic for the nuns. And if it were not ingrained into the presumption of the Enlightenment: a sense of superiority that makes the Enlightened One tolerant of the unsuspected weaknesses in one’s own opinions, yet intolerant of weaknesses in other peoples’ opinions. It is this sense of superficial superiority that supports economic libertinism.

Libertinism is unrestrained liberty.

A few words will not suffice to settle the case. The discussion has to be brought on to another level. During the last forty years, the economic liberal has been transformed into a libertarian; and now some libertarians, for various reasons, threaten to become economic libertines.

Implicitly, the libertarian is given permission to become an economic libertine, because s/he talks of liberty in the abstract—but not as an abstract idea; rather, liberty as restricted to my liberty rather than being extended to liberty for all.

I am not creating an arbitrary interpretation; it is the original interpretation of liberty.

The Original Interpretation of Liberty

Libertinism neglects the other half of J. S. Mill definition of liberty: “The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.”

The true libertarian, faithful to the glorious tradition of extending the range of liberty to all, in every aspect of life, will never fall into the abyss of libertinism: the abyss of capturing all economic liberty for oneself and—automatically—denying economic liberty to the multitudes. The true libertarian will battle to the death for the liberty of all.

The true libertarian will do that much not because s/he is an “idealist” ready to go on quixotic quests at any hint of movement in the air. The true libertarian will fight for the liberty of all in full recognition of self-preservation, a thing that used to be called enlightened self-interest. The true libertarian will struggle for the liberty of all because freedom is a seamless web: Liberty for all is liberty for one, and vice versa.

The untoward libertarian, instead, the libertarian of the Me Generation—the libertine—could not care less about the extrinsic reality of freedom. In fact, all of his/her actions are aimed at the decoupling of freedom from morality. The final action is the decoupling of rights from responsibilities. There you have it, freedom to the utmost for me—“libertinism". And no responsibility whatsoever.

Ultimately, this conception of freedom becomes ugly and hurtful because it lives in a vacuum. Freedom is supposed to be the freedom of the individual person—individualism, as we assume it to be. And it is rarely realized that the “individual person” is such an abstraction conception that in the end it does not exist in real life.

If you were born of a mother, or even of a beaker manipulated by men and women in a lab coat, you were not born alone. You were born of The Other, from The Other. You are bonded with The Other; you are bound up with society. You are stuck with responsibilities.

The person in the social context is the total reality.

Both the Individual alone and Society alone are abstractions that lead to wrong ends.
If we want to free ourselves of the clutches of libertinism, we have to let the narcissistic self unfold—à la Professor Unger—into a mature person that fits into the needs and hopes and aspirations of the community: the community of family, the community of friends, the community of coworkers, the community of citizens—civilized citizens.

Mr. Gorga would like to acknowledge the invaluable editorial assistance received from Peter J. Bearse and David S. Wise.

Carmine Gorga, a former Fulbright Scholar, is president of The Somist Institute, a research organization in Gloucester, Mass. Through The Economic Process, To My Polis, and numerous other publications in economic theory and policy, he has transformed economics from a linear to a relational discipline. Dr. Gorga blogs at and

Friday, June 1, 2012

A Call to 99.99% of the Population

Some time ago I wrote a piece on “The Creators of Poverty”. Time has come to reissue that piece and to draw some novel conclusions from it. Here it is. 
I can hardly contain myself. After years of studying the issue at a not-inconsiderable depth, I have found in an unsuspected source an insight that clears up the issue of the cause of poverty in a definitive and powerful way. The source of this insight is neither a treatise in economics, nor a work in sociology, nor a tome in the theory of justice. The source is a paper published in “Spiritual Life”, a periodical of Carmelite spirituality, in the Fall of 1997. The author is Suzanne Mayer. The title is: "Songs of the City of God: Merton, Social Justice, And the Psalms".

The author prefaces her essay with this quote from Thomas Merton's "Bread in the Wilderness": "The Psalms are the songs of (the) City of God.... Singing them, we become more fully incorporated into the mystery of God's action in human history". Recalling that the Psalms are the "ancient prayers of Israel" ascending "like incense before the altar of God", she proposes to "explore 'the mystery of God's action in human history' through the vision the Psalms give of divine justice and through the covenant call to all humanity to enter into this process".

These are some of the Psalms she quotes. Ps. 10:2: "In arrogance the wicked hotly pursue the poor..."  Ps. 37:14: "The wicked draw the sword and bend their bows, to bring down the poor and the needy..."

How do you read these Psalms? I read them in this way: Poverty is created, not by the rich, but by the wicked.  What a liberating thesis.  

So often repeated, most of us have assumed it to be true. We have assumed that poverty is caused by the rich. Even I have almost fallen into this trap, even though, as those who have worked with me know, I have never used one word against the rich.

In fact, most of my efforts were unfocused and must have seemed quixotic to many, just because I have always refused to point the finger at "the rich".

Let us be honest. We have all assumed that poverty exists because of the rich. Indeed, have not many rich people themselves assumed that to be true? Certainly, society as a whole in its organized political effort has trained all its guns in that direction—and the reaction from the rich has, of course, been to resist that effort.  

That most political discourse and action has for centuries been dominated by that assumption is not worth discussing at length. Much more interesting is another question. What is a fair assessment of the result of all that effort?  

Do we not find that while the rich win most of the battles and the poor win a few pitiful ones in the short term, the war is constantly lost by all?  

Are we not, generation after generation, faced with the same age-old problem of poverty? There are times when we become so exhausted by this burden that we refuse even to discuss it further. But the problem remains stubbornly there. And it gnarls our soul. Not much joy, not much enjoyment of what we possess can be had, if we somehow keep in the back of our minds the suspicion that we have not done nearly enough to alleviate the pain and suffering of men and women who unwillingly live in poverty.  

How can we tackle such an endemic condition? Is the situation hopeless? I believe that the first ray of light, and hope, can be grasped if we really try to learn about poverty, starting with splitting the problem into absolute and relative poverty. This is an important distinction. Relative poverty is the existential condition for which there will always be someone richer than others. The feast is a movable feast, indeed.  That does not matter at all. Not one iota.

What matters is that those who have less be not deprived of the conditions for a dignified and free life. When poverty of material conditions impinges on our freedom and our dignity, then we are suffering from absolute poverty. Then the quality of life of society as a whole is impoverished. Freedom and dignity are absolute qualities. No one can be deprived of them or we are all deprived of them—to say the least, we are all deprived of the joys of a guiltless life.

What changes when we distinguish between relative and absolute poverty? What changes when we make the wicked culpable for the existence of absolute poverty? Everything changes—and the problem becomes abruptly soluble. Let us look at a few effects on the political stump and the religious pulpit.

Their aspirations have been separated; their actions split for way too long a time. While maintaining their autonomy and integrity, ways must be found for their actions to strategically overlap.

Hence, our political discourse changes. Our eyes are no longer focused on the behavior of the rich and the behavior of the poor. That polarization in our political life, with people taking sides between the two poles and making the other the enemy, vanishes. We all know the hatred generated by the "undeserving poor." How many pieces of legislation are passed on the strength of that hatred! How many punitive agencies exist in the vain attempt at enforcing those laws!

Though less spoken about, how much hatred is directed against "the undeserving rich"? One can attribute all sorts of purposes to the tax code, but is not much of it written on the assumption that the rich have taken something away from others? The wicked rich are most certainly engaged in those practices. But are all the rich wicked? And are there not poor people who are wicked?

Our political discourse is purged of many impurities, and our political action becomes much more pointed, if we keep those two basic distinctions in the back of our minds. Our finger is pointed in only one direction, the proper direction: the wicked who do damage to us all—and even to themselves in the long run.

The religious pulpit and the political stump can finally become allies—on an equal footing. The split that has plagued society, it seems forever, is healed. Ultimate goals remain different. One is concerned more with the metaphysical life and the other more with the physical life, but the struggle, in this life, on this earth, becomes one and the same: resistance against wicked actions.

Is it easy to identify the wicked? No. Absolutely not. As distinguished from the rich and the poor who can be easily identified, the wicked cannot be easily identified by others. But the wicked themselves know who they are. (At moments of deepest insight, we know that we are all wicked, at least sporadically, at least in part. In those moments we also know that some people do not know they are wicked: hence the need for moral and technical instruction, because without knowledge of good and evil, there is no "sin.")  

The root to the solution of the problem of poverty is no longer found in punishment of the rich or punishment of the poor, or both.  The solution can be found only in that eternal prescription for happiness: love your neighbor; love your God; and if you love them both, you will eventually cease to be wicked and you will even love yourself.   

Thus the schism within the very soul of the religious people as well as the soul of the political people and, ultimately, the soul of each citizen is healed. The religious can be concerned primarily with affairs of the moral life and the eternal life: They can eventually get out of "the social action". The politicians can be concerned primarily with providing a framework for the "good government", namely the just government, within which we can take care of all our earthly needs. And we will all succeed. The politicians will no longer be dealing with wicked people in sheep's skin coming out of churches, mosques, and synagogues. In normal times, the few—always few—vastly wicked people will no longer intermingle with the good people. Conceivably, they will isolate themselves; they will ostracize themselves. Only when self purged, will they come back. Without nearly insurmountable obstacles posed by the wicked, the majority of the people will satisfy all the needs that can and must be taken care of. (In abnormal times, the situation is completely changed; for a good illustration of abnormal times, see

The existence of poverty is a moral issue. As such it can be solved. But, then, just because poverty is a moral issue, do we not run against the assumption that wickedness is an intrinsic part of human nature? I was myself under this impression until recently when, in a discussion with Father John Hughes of Fitchburg, MA, the issue was clarified for me. I pushed him to admit the inevitability of wickedness. But the goodness that is in him, resisted my push. He declared himself optimistic that the human race will eventually shunt wickedness aside. It was then that it occurred to me. Yes, the potential for being wicked will always be with us. That is inherent in our human nature; otherwise we would not be free—free to choose between good and evil. But do we have to choose evil?  Do we have to destroy ourselves in the process? Not at all. Our struggle will be to resist wickedness.

Our millennium has committed more wicked acts than all other millenniums combined, perhaps. We have had our fill. We can now gain control of ourselves and mold ancient aspirations into a Movement Toward Goodness (MTG). This is a challenging task indeed. We need all our wits to succeed.

It seems to me that the Occupy Movement has somehow imbued the spirit of my peroration. Wisely, this is called the spirit of the time: I did not create this spirit; not one single person creates it; and somehow we (nearly) all share it.

The Occupy Movement is on the right path; but it does need to embrace many of the rich as well in its fold: It has to enlarge its ranks to included 99.99% of the population.

Who is left out is the .01% of the population that is composed of wicked people (with the lack of hard data, percentages are only symbolic. If this percentage seems to be abnormally low, it is because it attempts to represent the number of wicked people among the rich. To be more complete, one needs to add the number of wicked among the middle class and the poor. In any case, these percentages are liable to change over time, space, and with institutional arrangements prevalent in society).

Now that the issue is no longer philosophical, I can give a pointed answer to the question.

Who are the wicked? In 1998, I gave a generic answer. In today's political context, I can be much more specific. The wicked are members of the .01% of the population who consciously work against the 99.99%. These are the people who in the political sphere divide in order to conquer the 99.99%; in the economic sphere they are the ones who set their greed against the interests of the 99.99% of the population.

Activists in any field beware. Do not fall into the millennial trap. For this reason, for me the most important message I ever received was that on a sign at Occupy Boston that stated: "Stop being deceived".

The Ajax Dilemma -- Resolved Through Concordian Economics

There is an important book just out. It is titled “The Ajax Dilemma”. Its author, Paul Woodruff, is a professor of philosophy and dean at the University of Texas at Austin. Professor Woodruff has performed an invaluable and timely service in offering an in-depth examination of this two-thousand years old dilemma.

For Professor Woodruff, the Ajax Dilemma is a means to give us his evaluation of two thousand years of thought on the meaning of justice, from Plato to Aristotle, through J. S. Mill and Rawls to his contemporary brethren. I am not a lawyer, but I detect little legal jargon. And the presentation is much richer than pure legal scholarship; legalisms are bathed throughout in a complex psychological and sociological web of human relations. No serious reader should deprive himself of the joy of following the various arguments from start to finish.

The book consists of a fascinating evaluation of alternative points of view concerning the details of the Ajax dilemma case, whose barebones are these. In the middle of the Trojan War, Achilles, the most valuable Greek soldier, is felled; upon Agamemnon, the Greek King, falls the task of deciding whom to reward with the grant of Achilles’ armor.

Ajax or Odysseus? Ajax is an extraordinary doer; Odysseus is an extraordinary thinker. Grant the armor to Odysseus and you may dishonor the Army and lose the war; grant the armor to Ajax, Odysseus may defect and you lose the opportunity to win the war.

Agamemnon does not dare to announce openly his decision to give the armor to Odysseus. He hides behind the fig leaf of a committee to make the formal decision. He asks Nestor to devise procedures to do his bidding.

Ajax cannot accept any decision against him. In a delirium of pain, he decides to kill the king and believes to have done so, even though in reality he went temporarily out of his mind and killed, instead, a flock of sheep that had gotten in his way.

Coming back to his senses, he finds himself covered with blood. He cannot tolerate even having considered the possibility of killing the king. Deeply ashamed, he finds only one way to redeem himself.

He commits suicide.

A tragedy

Professor Woodruff does not find any better solution than to call the dilemma a tragedy.

Everyone lost.

Indeed, the lack of a solution to this dilemma continues to be a tragedy. Indeed, in these days of financial crisis that bursts its flames all around the world, it can clearly be seen that the winner-take-all solution leads only to tragedy: a vast tragedy that is revealed as soon as the terms of the discussion are enlarged to include the overreaching social mantels that today ultimately cloak the decision: individualism and capitalism.

An objective evaluation of the effects of Ajax dilemma

The winner-take-all solution was and is the direct result of the apotheosis of The Individual, the Me Generation, the Number One deception. All pushing morality away. All reducing morality to a private affair.

The Ajax Dilemma is no longer, if it has ever been, a matter of private morality affecting the life of a few people: Ajax’s son who is now fatherless, his wife who is now a widow, soldiers in his cohort who used to run for protection behind his huge shield along with, one must assume, the small legion of his friends and admirers.

Indeed, one also needs to add the indistinct and undefinable mixture of effects of the dilemma such as number of Greek soldiers who were killed because they were no longer protected by Ajax’s shield as well as the number of Trojan soldiers who were not killed because of the absence of Ajax from the battlefield.

The most indistinct and undefinable mixture of the effects of Ajax Dilemma is this: Did the death of Ajax speed up the resolution of the Trojan War? Did the presence of Ajax make the strategic thinkers in the Greek quarters rather lackadaisical? Did the absence of Ajax squeeze the creative juices in them somewhat harder?

The sheer weight of grievances caused by the dilemma makes it clear that there is no such thing as private morality. The effects of morality always affect at least two people. Hence, morality is never private; morality is always public morality.

No. Today the effects of Ajax Dilemma are not restricted to the field of private morality. .

If there ever was a doubt about the validity of these considerations, nowadays such doubts can be dispelled once and for all. When the winner of today’s economic “games” takes home billions—yes, no longer millions, but billions—of dollars, while millions of people go to bed hungry and homeless, the winner-take-all culture is no longer confined to private morality.

The winner-take-all culture fostered by unbridled Individualism and exploitative Capitalism is a public disgrace,

A solution must be found

Lack of solution to this dilemma constantly leads to unjust and unsustainable conditions.

After two thousand years of contemplating the consequences of our inability to resolve the dilemma, it is high time that a solution be found.

The new framework of analysis of Concordian economics offers the broad outline of a just and sustainable solution to the Ajax Dilemma.

A just and sustainable solution

At the core of Concordian economics there is the theory of economic justice. This theory is simply put. Rewards have to be given to all those who participate in the process of creation of whatever results one is engaged in creating; rewards are distributed in accordance with the degree of participation in the creation of the results; the apportioned shares have a value, not equal, but equivalent to each other in terms of justice: In other words, shares are recognized by the recipients as well as by the rest of community as being just.

By definition, just shares incorporate total and utter justice to all parties concerned. When obtained, a most difficult thing to achieve, justice is justice. Justice is the same for everyone; justice is always apportioned equally among all concerned. There is no such thing as more or less justice; were shares attempting to contain more or less justice, they would not be just. They would be unjust.

Justice, as Professor Woodruff wisely and deeply shows, is not the result of procedures and measures established once and for all. Procedures and measures have themselves to be just. Hence the search for justice is a creative, ever unfinished, process; it is the task of wise and responsible leaders. History helps.

Agamemnon, in other words, could have resolved the dilemma by making the following decisions: a) both Ajax and Odysseus need to be rewarded; b) they need to be rewarded in accordance with their contribution to the winning of the war; c) their reward must be equivalent to each other.

Were I Agamemnon, I would decide in this fashion: I would give Achilles’ armor to both Ajax and Odysseus; they would need to hold the amour for a determinate amount of time.

Thus would I decapitate the winner-take-all hydra.

Then I would ask for communal wisdom to help me decide whether the time ought to be 50/50; 60/40; or 40/60.

In other words I could see wisdom in giving the armor to hold for six, eight, or four months (per year?).

The first choice would imply that both Ajax and Odysseus are of equal value to the success of the war.

The second choice, looking at the issues retrospectively, calls for an attribution to Ajax of a greater share.

The third choice, looking at the issues prospectively, calls for an attribution to Odysseus of a greater share.


With the fungibility of money rather than an indivisible armor mostly at stake today, even the distribution of a penny would indicate the wisdom of being just: Multiply those pennies for each job and each purchase, owed through Consumer Stock Ownership Plans as practiced by the Harvard Coop for instance, and everyone is going to make a living.

Another Year of Impasse?

There we go again. Our leading economists are condemning us to another year of impasse. To prevail over their customary opponents, they either become blind or become mute in front of the facts.

Economic theories are complicated so they cannot be easily treated in a short piece, but facts are digestible enough for both theoreticians and lay people.

Here are a few key facts. The trend in the value of houses is still downward. The value of much real and financial wealth is also dropping. Unemployment rates are stubbornly high. Large corporations stash inordinate hoards of cash. There is a steady and conspicuous shift of wealth from the middle classes to the rich. And then there is a sly transfer of ownership of national wealth to foreign creditors.

Clearly, all these facts are interrelated and most of them are unmovable. Only one of these elements exhibits a large degree of freedom—not complete but a large degree of freedom.

The handling of cash held by large industrial and financial corporations is that item.

Let us pinpoint the limits of that freedom as well. If large corporations were to spend all that money in a hurry, two likely consequences would ensue. First, because of the current absence of purchasing power in the economy, much of that money would not return in the form of profits. It would only increase the amount of stocks in warehouses.

The second most likely consequence of spending all that cash in a hurry would be to stoke the flames of inflation. The price of commodities would immediately go up; the cost of labor would follow suite—but not fast enough or not enough in sync for increased labor income to be spent on newly created consumer goods. Timing is of the essence in economics.

For corporations to persist in the unwillingness to use that cash is to force a steady loss of wealth upon their stockholders and bondholders. Some of that loss is due directly to persistent inflation whereby the value of cash is reduced accordingly; most of the loss in the value of the wealth of the people occurs indirectly with the fall in the value of real estate and the market value of stocks and bonds because people have no money to buy houses or stocks and bonds.

What to do then?

The solution, once indicated, is so obvious as to be literally within our grasp. Corporate managers can create a wide purchasing power in the economy by distributing a good portion of their stashes of cash among rightful owners: their bondholders and stockholders.

This newly created purchasing power would be spent in reducing current amounts of stocks in warehouses and on newly created consumer goods obtained, most likely, by expanding current employment levels in a gradual—hence, noninflationary—fashion.

Bondholders and stockholders who might receive more cash than they can wisely spend ought to be encouraged to make investments in their local economy. Main Street merchants, local artists, and inventors who are full of ideas and short of cash would most certainly multiply the value of such investments.

It might take only one corporate leader to open the floodgate for the full implementation of this plan of action. But of course there would be certainty of success if individual corporate leaders were to receive some spur from those organizations they support to help them overcome rough patches.

One would hope that associations of manufacturers and chambers of commerce would become discreet directors to help orchestrate such an operation of cash disbursement.

And should not the chorus of intellectuals, literati, and clergy feel free to encourage the operation along?

The beauty of this proposal lies not only in its evident ability to open the gates of prosperity and long term stability in a short time. The beauty of this proposal resides especially in its ability to show that each country can move without the control of either the political or the financial establishment.

No politician, no highfalutin financial wizard need intervene; not one penny of taxpayer money and not one penny of other people’s money is required.

All it takes to unlock the impasse is six months of concerted effort.

Rather than sitting on hoards of cash as evidence of their power and their success, it is high time for the leaders of large corporations to show a sense of responsibility toward the owners of that cash.

If not, it is high time for the people to demand a swift implementation of this proposal.

If not now, when will there be a resurgence of the spirit and the spunk of the people? Strangely enough, that is a consummation implicitly advocated by such diverse persons as Pope Pius XI and Adam Smith.

In Quadragesimo Anno, ## 105-106, Pope Pius XI said: “…it is obvious that not only is wealth concentrated in our times [1931] but an immense power and despotic economic dictatorship is consolidated in the hands of a few, who often are not owners but only the trustees and managing directors of invested funds which they administer according to their own arbitrary will and pleasure”.

Adam Smith, in The Wealth of Nations, B. III, Ch. 4, said: "All for ourselves and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind".

Morality: God, Evil, and our Responsibilities

Benedetto Croce had it right. There are some, he said, who put morality high, so high, a position that makes for reverence from far away and non-observance from close-by.

To try to face this fundamental weakness of our age head-on, we have to put three concepts in proper relationship with each other: God, Evil, and our Responsibilities.

God is not comprehensible. To com-prehend means to wrap around. No matter how hard we try, God will escape all our efforts to comprehend Him. This is the fundamental proposition of mysticism. (I use Him as an expression of traditional reverence; I can be equally comfortable with It or Her.)

All the rest is an elaboration of this one proposition. This is a humbling observation: All serious conversation among human beings, in recorded history, and certainly beyond recorded history, is centered around this one proposition.

While mysticism is content with living in the mystery of life, three mental activities, with profoundly different methodologies, attempt to chip away at that proposition: religion, philosophy, and science. There is no inherent conflict among these mental disciplines. In fact, when they agree on fundamentals, their journey is a marvel to behold. And the intellectual world is at peace in harmony.

Perhaps harmony has never existed, and certainly it has never existed for long. When these three intellectual activities disagree, they clash vehemently. Most clashes, it seems to me, occur along a divide that can be crudely put as God and Evil.

This topic covers an area way beyond my center of interests and concern. Yet, I need to address it before I can get to my work. Let me do away with an important preliminary. I do not by any means assume that all those who believe in God do good works—or, conversely, that those who do not believe in God commit evil acts. There is no determinism there, and I doubt there is any reliable degree of probability governing the case either. Life is more complicated than that.

And the issue is immensely complicated by the various combinations and permutations of two other factors: Are believers followers of a “true” religion? And cutting the issues even thinner, is theirs a faithful or corrupt interpretation of the true religion?

Complications exist because they have to exist. Every case is an individual case. And it needs to be judged individually.

My interest in these discussions is limited to a couple of observations: First, if God does not exist, why talk so much about Him? Second, whether He does or does not exist, why be concerned so much with the afterlife? I believe that if we acquire clarity on these two points, we will automatically clear the way for a solid observance of morality.

About the existence of God

Religion has traditionally attempted to throw some light over the mystery of life. The first advancement, a brave and most soothing statement of religion, is that God is. Religion affirms the reality of God.

Since no good deed goes unpunished, immediately hell breaks loose, because religion cannot offer certainty for this belief.

Then and there a certain type of rationalist/scientist, unbelievably joined by some theologians, intervenes in the interstices and demands “scientific” proof of the existence of God.

This doubting person, who is liable to reduce everything to matter, is unaware that in the process he destroys the distinctiveness of energy, let alone spirit. Since he does not receive any scientific proof, he goes overboard and denies the very existence of God.

Here is one of the latest cases. Britain's most eminent scientist, Stephen Hawking, has said that there is “nothing” beyond the moment when the brain flickers for the final time. 

This belief is put to rest with a simple query: Dr. Hawking, where is the evidence?

And then there is the impertinent question: What about yours and us?

Put a bit more extensively, the conversation between atheists or agnostics and religious people is a non-starter. Both of these belief systems look at the same entity, namely life: One affirms that God does not exist, while the other maintains that God does exist. Due to the symmetric nature of these propositions, if the conversation remains locked within these limits there is not and never will there be any intellectual resolution of the dichotomy.

To break out of this vicious circle we need a third entity. This entity is the human being. Hence the conversation has to start and end with an explicit and forceful admission that whatever declaration I make is true or not true for me—and me alone. It is I and I alone who bears the responsibility to assert truth and deny falsity.

Is this intellectual relativism? Not at all. Because the final arbiter of the truthfulness of my words is that third major intellectual effort that stands between science and religion: philosophy. It is the burden of philosophy to adjudicate issues of truthfulness and falsity.

The intellectual crisis of today, in other words, is neither a crisis of science nor of religion; it is a crisis of philosophy.

Waiting for philosophy to awake from its exhaustion, this is what can be said.

Starting from the basic mystery of life and going beyond the mere assertion of the existence of God, religion takes another giant step forward. Religion explains: God will forever remain a mystery, because God asks human beings to engage with Him in faith. This is a humbling, but realistic proposition. This is what it is. We enter into relationship with God in faith.

Faith, as a theological virtue, is not a creation of man’s effort but a gift from God. A gift available to everyone, every time, everywhere. (A secular faith, faith without God, for me is a lukewarm thing: at worst, it is an oxymoron; at best, it is a synonym for belief.) The gift of faith is available for the asking. And it is there that free will comes into play: we must ask for this gift.

Faith is not contradicted by reason. Religion maintains that God is. Philosophy maintains that Being is. All the rest is existence. The avalanche of reason states Being Becomes Existence—which, fully unpacked, means that everything exists in relation to Being, in relation to God.

Religion builds a richer reality from these stark statements. God is truth; God is goodness; God is beauty. Or, synthetically, God is love.

Love is freedom. Yes, love is freedom, because to love is to be in the spirit: with St. Thomas, one can even say, to love is to be at the peak of power.

It is out of this conclusion that we can try to understand not only the presence of God, but also the presence of evil in our lives. Evil is a denial of goodness. Ultimately, evil is a denial of life.

The presence of evil

Interestingly, believers and nonbelievers are joined at the hip through our joint belief in the existence of evil.

There is pain and evil in the world. Nonbelievers use this reality to convince themselves and others that God does not exist, that God cannot possibly be so cruel as to tolerate pain and evil.

As a believer, I have many answers, but they are all shrouded in mystery. Does God permit evil to avoid a greater evil? Does God permit evil eventually to create a greater good? We do not know.

We do not know what God’s response to evil is. We can imagine it, but we do not know for sure. For me, God always is with the victim. God always suffers with the victim.

These answers cannot possibly satisfy nonbelievers.  

Allow me to present a different view of this issue. For me, the most satisfying answer is this. God permits pain and evil to let us exercise our highest expression of moral freedom. God wants us to investigate the causes of pain and evil so that WE can route them out of existence.

It is certainly horrible to witness someone, young or old, amidst the devastation caused by cancer. To attack God is not what God wants us to do. The position is especially inconsistent for those who do not believe in God.

To attack God is what the powers-to-be want us to do. They want to divide us, believers vs. nonbelievers, and conquer us all. They want us to divert our attention from their responsibilities.

That is where morality, true morality steps in. Have we investigated the provenance of all carcinogens, all the causes of cancer, and, when we have found them, have we invested all our energies in removing those causes? Put in vernacular: Don’t be a cry-baby; get up and do something about it!

And there we have the panoply of tasks facing us every day of our lives.

What are our rights, what are our responsibilities? That is the center of my interests and concern.

Before I can expand on that, I need to set aside another related issue: the question of the afterlife.

About the afterlife

The case for the existence of God is intimately related to the case for the afterlife. The case is easy for a believer. I can be sure that the afterlife exists because I believe in the existence of God. The two entities are theologically inextricably related to each other.

For a nonbeliever, the case is much more complicated. The easiest way out is to deny the existence of the afterlife.

My suggestion is this: Remain skeptic; do not get involved with intellectual struggles about the afterlife.

I personally believe God will reward or punish us in the afterlife, the eternal life. I do believe in this reward and punishment system, because otherwise I have to believe that God is either a fool or a buffoon; but the afterlife is not at the center of my concerns.

Indeed, let me share a secret. If there is nothing in the afterlife, I will not care a bit: ha, duh, puff, etc. and so forth. This you might call “Carmine’s wager”.

In the meantime, I am going to delight in the thought that there is an afterlife.

About the God of life

Since there is not—and there cannot theologically be—an objective proof of the existence of God, the acceptance of the presence of God is and must remain an intensely personal affair.

To say the least, the experience of the presence of God must remain an intensely personal affair because, skirting the issue of collective guilt, God does not judge communities of believers or unbelievers; God judges only individual human beings.

On days in which I am especially boastful, I dream of constructing experiments à la Elijah to prove the existence of God: give me 200 hard drunkards, let 100 of them have an intense experience of God, they will be cured of their affliction while those who are not exposed to the presence of God will continue to waddle in their affliction. But then I realize that any such experiment will have only temporary effects. And that is because the agnostic and the atheist have assumed upon themselves the permanent function of not letting the faithful fall into complaisance.

God knows the heart.

We have to fight evil, we have to uproot the causes of evil, not because God will punish us in the afterlife, the eternal life. We have to fight evil, we have to uproot the causes of evil, because life is so objectively constructed that the exercise of evil is punished in this life. We have to fight evil for our personal benefit as well as for the benefit of the perpetrators of evil themselves. Love your enemies because they might give up on pursuing you, and you shall be free. In positive terms, we have to nurture each other for our mutual benefit.

Some old truths come out of these realizations: the murderer is tortured every day of his life; the adulterer lives in constant fear of being discovered; the thief lives in constant admission to himself that he was incapable of satisfying his needs by his own efforts.

These are undeniable truths. They are undeniable even though some perpetrators of evil become so callous as to deny the existence of their sufferance. Callousness is evidence enough to prove the suppression of one’s own inner life. Is there bigger punishment than this?

Some new truths also emerge. The suicide bomber is subjected to an immediate and utter punishment. He is automatically deprived of the joy of life.

And therein lies the power of religion. Any true religion will help us search for God in ourselves, in this life. More profoundly important, any true religion will help us find God in The Other.

Here lies the explosive mission of true religion. It enriches life in countless ways. Not only this life, but the life that lies beyond this as well. Just like the anonymous Carmelite author I can say: I no longer believe, for I see and experience. I see and experience this moment in my life with the saints, and the angels, and the Madonna. On a really lucky day, I experience the presence of Jesus and the Holy Spirit in me. I have to confess, once I started feeling the presence of God the Father; but it was too unsettling. I put a stop to it right then and there.

How to describe it succinctly? The life of the spirit for me is not something left in reserve for when I am dead. For me it is right here and now while I am alive.

Tsunami as the Hand of God, My God

With lukewarm theism and even deism so commonplace today, no wonder there is so much atheism abroad. As theism was born of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, so it might as well die by the tsunamis of our age. Theism is a rationalization whose cure is worse than the decease it meant to vanquish. The decease was the conception of a fuzzy and woolly God. That is the conception that was so mercilessly dispelled by Voltaire and the Enlightenment. The cure has been the relegation of God to a neverland outside of history and outside of nature. The Enlightenment has educated us to believe that we should be indifferent to whatever God does, is, or thinks—because God is indifferent to us.

A devastating tsunami comes and we are left once again naked in front of God. A tsunami comes and offers us the opportunity to re-evaluate our own understanding of God, and our own relationship with God. It was God, the God who is in nature and everywhere, who raised His hand and created the tsunami. No other explanation suffices. There is no other way to explain these phenomena.

The traditional questions come fast and furious: Why? Why does God inflict pain on the living? Who is this God?

The answers had better come slow and considerate. If I had the definitive answer to these and perhaps a thousand like questions, I would be God. I have no “objective" answers, answers that are expected to be true and valid for everyone and forever. I have only a set of personal answers that help me get through the night and the day.

I know why God inflicts pain on me. I have observed my attitudes and my reactions. God inflicts pain on me when I begin to assume that I have done my life's work and I can finally sit in my rocking chair and listen to music forever. It is then that God strikes me and disorients me; he makes my head spin. If I forget that it is His will that I am doing, then and then alone I suffer incredible pains—and no, there is no one who can inflict more pain on me than God.

Still, my God is not cruel. He never gives me more pain than I can tolerate (should I “snap”, I would forget it all—wouldn’t I?). My God is compassionate. Whatever pain He inflicts on me is for my own good; it is not for His good; it is not for anyone else’s good. If I am humble enough to listen to His commandments, he points me in a new direction.

Then I acquire peace. And I start to understand more and to love more. Everything is there to know and to love about life, about people, and about God Himself becomes alive. At the end of that portion of my journey, I realize that—not unlike Howard Carter at the first sight of Tutankhamen’s tomb—I have been made to see "wonderful things". All the pain vanishes, and I am there to enjoy the vista. For how long? God only knows.

From my observations, God is never cruel to other people either. I shiver at the thought that He can be considered cruel. What evidence do I have of the validity of my belief? Well, I have two proofs. First, when cruelty is inflicted by a human being upon another human being, God is always with the victim and in the victim—God suffers with the victim and the victim ends up being at peace.

It is the perpetrator of violence who is penalized, who is in pain in this life, and is expected to suffer forever afterwards; more cruelty is often deemed as an assuefaction of previous cruelty and violence; yet, the pain only increases.

And when the violence comes straight from God, as in a tsunami, we know that God gave us endorphins: at the decisive moment of death, we feel no pain. Those who die have reached bliss. (Even atheists will agree to this.) They are now in the presence of God. They are in God.

Oh, a minor form of conceiving the cruelty of God—a form that, though largely unspoken, takes on overwhelming weight today—is to assume that sex is dirty and mirth is forbidden. It took a venerable celibate, Pope John Paul II, to point out in his Theology of the Body that sex is a wondrous act; indeed, it is a sacred act.

And so it is with mirth. I never forget that it was a monk, Don Perignon, who created champagne; and when he saw what he had done, he was ecstatic. He thought he had locked the stars in a bottle.

No, God is not cruel. He wants that we fully appreciate and enjoy all wonders of life.

And where is God in between my highs and lows? The Lord opens my lips in the morning (the first time I read this Psalmist’s expression a shiver went through my body); and, as my favorite Hymn urges me to do, I try to “Praise every morning God’s re-creation of the new day!”

My Lord opens my lips in the morning and closes my eyelids in the evening. He sends a black bird to warn me of danger ahead and a seagull or two to greet me personally when I bask in the sun, or the low clouds, for a few moments in the morning in order to melt in the land, the sea, and the sky—and be made ready for the new day.

Jesus is my friend and the Madonna protects me all along. The angels, the archangels, and the dead—and the living who are most close to me—keep me company, while my thoughts and actions fill the day.

Which makes me raise the ante of Pascal’s wager. One: If you wage that God is not, you lose the richness of this life. Two: If He is not, you lose nothing.

By the way, Pascal’s wager is still valid, unless you eagerly confuse theology and even religion with God: God is everywhere; God cannot be confined to the world of religion—most certainly He cannot be confined to the world of any one religion. If God is, it is too silly to risk eternal punishment.

And by the way again, I have felt freer ever since I took my secular Carmelite wows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

Oh, yes, free will! Once I said: “Enough of this! I retire!” I retired, and an instant afterward I uttered the necessary prodding “now what?” I more freely resumed my usual activities.

Indeed, my Carmelite charism allows me to see this reality clearly and forcefully. Our founding father, Elijah is the prophet of the living God; and St. John of the Cross, a reformer of our Order, suffered horribly at the hand of his brothers. He narrowly escaped with his life from a dungeon into which he was thrown by his brethren only because he physically escaped from his cell. But in his prison, he did not commune with the devil.

He saw the hand of God and was nourished by Him. That occasion was the germ of his life's work, his holy work. And once he escaped from prison, he did not return to his convent in a "postal" mood; he did not blow his brethren up to pieces; he did not seek revenge. He forgave them and became free to go on with his life.

And in this life he met the living flame of God, a flame that destroys your innermost loves in order to bring you a deeper and more lasting bliss, the love of God—and the realization that we have a temporary existence, that we are passing flickers in the night; and even in this condition we exist only because He is, because God is. We exist in relation to Him.

This form of spirituality, a robust spirituality, is to be recommended today especially to the United States. The power of our country is awesome. The country as a whole and most of its citizens are blessed with many gifts. They are hard-earned gifts.

And yet, if it is not realized that ultimately they are gifts given by God, the love for these gifts will be so strong as to engulf each one of us.

Lets us love ourselves. Let us love our consumer goods and even our consumerism, which in moderation is essential for employment and production. But let us not forget that, in the end, these gifts are not ours. They are God's gifts.

Then we will truly enjoy them. By the same token, let us love freedom. But let us not love freedom to the point of fanaticism. Let us remember the reason why the Carmelite nuns at Compiegne were put to death during the French Revolution. They were put to death because they did not want to leave the convent and join the revolutionaries in their “freedom”.

Doesn’t this horrible episode capture the arrogance of our age? In Vietnam we destroyed the village, because we needed to save the village. We bombed innumerable Iraqis to death, because we wanted to bring them freedom.

These dangers call for restraint and the search for appropriate means. Ready for a cadre of Mary’s Messengers of Mercy?

The journey away from the true slavery of material life is a journey toward the deeper freedom of the life of the spirit: a journey toward the understanding that matter is not only matter; rather that matter is also energy; and then that matter and energy are not only matter and energy, they are also spirit.

Once we have come to understand and to feel in our bones that life is an integration of matter, energy, and spirit, then we have no need to see God outside of history and outside of nature. God is indeed everywhere forever. It is only our being a third body/matter and a third mind/energy that prevents us from seeing God for what He is.

We had better have patience to wait for that day in which we become pure spirit. It will come. Then it will be entirely manifest to us that God is the master of life. And if we do get a flicker of this reality even in our present complex condition, then we have to recognize that God is the master of death as well. God is the master of life and death.

Then a tsunami is seen as it is, as the hand of God.

An Addition -  January 3, 2014

What's wrong with "going" young in a tsunami, rather than in bed at 91 after a life of frustration with God and with humanity?