Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

It Still Comes Down to the Kind of Person You Are

Riding home for a quick lunch yesterday, I heard part of an NPR broadcast, detailing David Hoffman’s book, The Dead Hand.  A correspondent for the Washington Post, Hoffman has chronicled Cold War relations between the then Soviet Union and the USA, to show us that we still have some serious work to do.

So, I ran to the library upon return to campus and grabbed the book.  I was taken with Hoffman’s description of Stanislov Petrov (he appears very early in the story), commander of a missile-attack early warning system.  On 26 September, 1983, he had to make a fateful decision.  Keep in mind that, back then, the Soviet Union and the USA had thousands of nuclear warheads aimed at each other.  The Soviets knew that the Americans could fire missiles that would hit the Kremlin in about 30 minutes from launch.  A decision to respond had to be made in minutes.

On this shift, in the middle of the night, Petrov had to respond to what appeared to be an American missile attack.  A siren went off.  The map on the wall lit up.  As post commander, it would be his call, how to respond.  Now, I’ll let Hoffman tell the story:

The board said “high reliability.”  This had never happened before.  The operators at the consoles on the main floor jumped up, out of their chairs.  They turned and looked at Petrov, behind the glass.  He was the commander on duty.  He stood, too, so they could see him.  He started to give orders.  He wasn’t sure what was happening.  He ordered them to sit down and start checking the system.  He had to know whether this was real, or a glitch.  The full check would take ten minutes, but if this was a real missile attack, they could not wait ten minutes to find out.  Was the satellite holding steady?   Was the computer functioning properly? (The Dead Hand, 10.)

Running down the list of options (an actual attack, an accidental launch, a technical glitch), he drew on  his years of experience.  Something (his gut?) told him that this was not an actual attack, even though the system said it was.  He also had to draw on his moral courage.  And he did.  He reported to his crew: “This is a false alarm.”

Petrov had made a horrendously difficult, strategic decision on the basis of ambiguous and confusing evidence.  He had to reach down for something more than calculational logic.  And this one decision averted what most likely would have become a devastating nuclear confrontation.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about how large-scale problems get solved.  We can offer lots of helpful, sophisticated analysis.  But most of the time, it comes down to one person, with the vision, strength and moral courage to say and do the right thing at the right time.

This is a spiritual matter.  It still comes down to the kind of person you are, and I am.  By God’s grace, in every day, let us be the kind of people who demonstrate character, wisdom and moral courage.

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August 10, 2010 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Religion | , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Troubling Use of “Information”

For some time I’ve noticed a perplexing quality of college student word use.  Here are a couple of examples:

“I have to miss class tomorrow and I was wondering if I could get the information that you’re going to cover.”

“I want the professor just to give me the information without his/her opinion so that I can make up my own mind.”

I hear some version of these remarks fairly frequently and they alarm me.  In the second one, I can see the student’s concern for not being force-fed ideology and I’ll give that one to him.  It’s a legitimate concern, but in a broader sense reflective of a fundamental misunderstanding of what should happen in a college (it was a political science) class.  Secondly, referring to course content as “information” sounds utterly lifeless and sterile, having no more than instrumental value, available only to be manipulated for some pragmatic aim.

(Disclaimer: I believe in the importance of facts and information.  I am not a rank subjectivist.  In fact, I hold an “externalist” view of truth – that it is really “out there” and available.  With that qualification, back to my point.)

How did we get here?  Well, clearly, the “information age” of personal computers and the worldwide web has helped dramatically.  I love the technology, but if we don’t pay attention to the paradigmatic control these computer metaphors are working on us, I can hardly imagine how impoverished, even perverse, our lives will become.

The other culprit is hiding in fifth or sixth grade classrooms, where students are indoctrinated with the fact/opinion distinction.  Certainly, there is a difference between facts and opinions and I applaud the intention, but I’m worried about the misleading implications.  A “fact” is evidently something beyond need of interpretation because it is “neutral.”  We trust facts.  “Opinions,” by contrast, are squishy and subjective and, most damming, idiosyncratic.  How many times have you heard, “That’s just your opinion,” as if the mere fact (yes, I meant that word) makes the whole thing dismissible?

It’s a short step from “fact” to “information,” Same feeling, same attitude, same problem.  First, it seems to assume that people are neutral information processors, a self-evidently absurd notion when one pauses to think about it (but who’s pausing?).  Likewise with facts.  Facts have to be applied and application requires interpretation.  We have to figure out what the facts mean. They tell us nothing in and of themselves.  Do students understand how important this step – from facts to meaning – is?

In this context, campus ministers have a crucial role to play.  The world needs wise, well-formed disciples of Jesus.  Wisdom requires thoughtfulness, the habit of taking into consideration a range of opinions, weighing evidence judiciously; most of all, it means applying truth lovingly, with the heart of Jesus.  In other words, to think well requires a well-formed character, which involves far more than “getting information.”  “Just getting the information” simply won’t cut it.

Campus ministers: we’re supposed to be about developing well-formed followers of Jesus.  We may not assign grades, but we’re still educators in the best sense of that word.  Precisely because we are not giving exams and assigning grades, we have the luxury of helping students learn, untrammeled by the pressures of academic demands.  Let us not squander this sacred opportunity.

October 2, 2009 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Higher and Theological Education, Ministry, Religion | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment