What John Updike Thought about the Afterlife


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John Updike

“Karl Barth, another Reformed clergyman, responding in an interview late in his life to a question about the afterlife, said he imagined it as somehow this life in review, viewed in a new light. I had not been as comforted as I wanted to be. For is it not the singularity of life that terrifies us? Is not the decisive difference between comedy and tragedy that tragedy denies us another chance? Shakespeare over and over demonstrates life’s singularity — the irrevocability of our decisions, hasty and even mad though they be. How solemn and huge and deeply pathetic our life does loom in its once-and-doneness, how inexorably linear, even though our rotating, revolving planet offers us the cycles of the day and of the year to suggest that existence is intrinsically cyclical, a playful spin, and that there will always be, tomorrow morning or the next, another chance…

In church this morning, as I half-listened to the Christmas hymns and the reading of the very unlikely, much-illustrated passage from Luke telling how Gabriel came to Mary and told her that the Holy Ghost would come upon her and the power of the Highest would ‘overshadow’ her and make her pregnant with the Son of God, it appeared to me that when we try in good faith to believe in materialism, in the exclusive reality of the physical, we are asking our selves to step aside; we are disavowing the very realm where we exist and where all things precious are kept — the realm of emotion and conscience, of memory and intention and sensation.

I have the persistent sensation, in my life and art, that I am just beginning.”


Excerpted from the impeccable final chapter “On Being a Self Forever” in John Updike’s Self-Consciousness: Memoirs.

I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of this multifaceted, beautifully written book. Among modern American writers, Updike is perhaps the best known for his prolific output: in looking at his CV, it seems he published a book every month — and a poem every morning along with two essays and a review each afternoon. This unsurpassable fluency and energy come through in the superb writing and versatility of Self-Consciousness. It’s a memoir that covers a lot of ground, effortlessly.

Though I like the biographical narrative of Self-Consciousness, it’s these ruminative asides — profound and deeply personal — that make the book so special. You can read more below.

Sam Harris: The Meaning of the Paris Attacks


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Paris Terror Attacks

“This is the big story of our time, and it is an incredibly boring one. Let the boredom of this just sink into your bones: realize that for the rest of your life, you’re going to be reading and hearing about, and otherwise witnessing, hopefully not firsthand, the lunacy and attendant atrocities of jihadists.

Please pay attention to the recurrent shrieks of Allahu Akbar. This is the cat call from the Middle Ages, or from Middle Earth, that we will have to live with for the rest of our lives. So this fight against jihadism — this is a generational fight. This is something we are doing for our children, ultimately, and for our children’s children.

We have a war of ideas that we have to wage, and win, and unfortunately we have to wage it and win it with ourselves first. And again, this requires an admission that there is such a war of ideas to be waged and won.

We have grown so effete as a civilization as to imagine that we have no enemies — or if we do, that they are only of our own making… It is not mere wartime propaganda that we will one day look back on with embarrassment to call ISIS a death cult. To call them barbarians. To call them savages. To use dehumanizing language.

They are scarcely human in their aspirations. The world they want to build entails the destruction of everything we value, and are right to value. And by “we” I mean civilized humanity, including all the Muslims who are just as horrified…

We have a project that’s universal, that transcends culture; that unites everyone who loves art and science and reason generally, who wants to cure disease, who wants to raise each new generation to be more educated than the last. And this common project is under assault…

And unfortunately, most of us have to keep convincing ourselves that evil exists, that not all people want the same things, and that some people are wrong in how they want to live and the world they want to build. And if we can’t convince ourselves of this once and for all, well then we’ll have to wait to be convinced by further acts of savagery of the sort we just saw in Paris. Why wait?”


Comments from Sam Harris on the preface to his newly republished essay “Still Sleepwalking toward Armageddon”.

You’ll find more of Sam’s takes on these issues in his newest book, coauthored with Maajid Nawaz, Islam and the Future of Tolerance. I was lucky enough to meet Maajid two weeks ago in Washington and can enthusiastically recommend this quick, clarifying read. Watch Sam and Maajid talk about the roots of their conversation and the conclusions they’ve made in the following clip from The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell:

The photograph was taken this weekend as mourners gathered at The Place de la République in Paris.

More for the Francophiles:

Dreams from Adolescence


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Claire Messud

“But fourteen is not an age at which you ask outright for answers: not yet. Those in-between years are a haze of second-guessing and dialogues entirely of the mind. The possibility of human proximity seems greater than ever it will again, trailing still the unreflective clouds of childhood, the intimate, unsentenced dialogue of laughter or of games. Children do not have the words to ask and so do not imagine asking; not asking and not imagining, they eradicate distance: they take for granted that everything, someday, will be understood.

Adolescence, then, is a curious station on the route from ignorant communion to our ultimate isolation, the place where words and silences reveal themselves to be meaningful and yet where, too young to acknowledge that we cannot gauge their meaning, we imagine it for ourselves and behave as if we understood. Only with the passage of years, wearied, do we resort to asking. With the inadequacy of asking and the inadequacy of replies comes the realization that what we thought we understood bears no relation to what exists, the way, seeing the film of a book we have read, we are aghast to find the heroine of a strapping blonde when we had pictured her all these years a small brunette; and her house, which we envisaged so clearly and quaintly on the edge of a purple moor, is a vast, unfamiliar pile of rubble with all its rooms out of order.”


Excerpted from the novel The Last Life by Claire Messud.

Read on:

Free Speech Is the Whole Ball Game


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Salman Rushdie

“What is my single life worth? Despair whispers in my ear: ‘Not a lot.’ But I refuse to give in to despair because I know that many people do care, and are appalled by the upside-down logic of the post-fatwa world, in which a novelist can be accused of having savaged or ‘mugged’ a whole community, becoming its tormentor (instead of its victim) and the scapegoat for its discontents. (What minority is smaller and weaker than a minority of one?)

I refuse to give in to despair even though, for a thousand days and more, I’ve been put through a degree course in worthlessness, my own personal and specific worthlessness. My first teachers were the mobs marching down distant boulevards, baying for my blood, and finding, soon enough, their echoes on English streets…

‘Our lives teach us who we are.’ I have learned the hard way that when you permit anyone else’s description of reality to supplant your own — and such descriptions have been raining down on me, from security advisers, governments, journalists, Archbishops, friends, enemies, mullahs — then you might as well be dead. Obviously, a rigid, blinkered, absolutist world view is the easiest to keep hold of, whereas the fluid, uncertain, metamorphic picture I’ve always carried about is rather more vulnerable. Yet I must cling with all my might to my own soul; must hold on to its mischievous, iconoclastic, out-of-step clown-instincts, no matter how great the storm. And if that plunges me into contradiction and paradox, so be it; I’ve lived in that messy ocean all my life. I’ve fished in it for my art. This turbulent sea was the sea outside my bedroom window in Bombay. It is the sea by which I was born, and which I carry within me wherever I go.

‘Free speech is a non-starter,’ says one of my Islamic extremist opponents. No, sir, it is not. Free speech is the whole thing, the whole ball game. Free speech is life itself.”


Excerpts from a speech by Salman Rushdie which was given at Columbia University on December 11th, 1991, and later adapted into his essay “One Thousand Days in a Balloon”. You’ll find the essay in his perfectly titled collection of nonfiction Step Across This Line.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been in touch with the folks at the Danish Free Press Society, who recently hosted the free speech conference to mark the 10th anniversary of the Jyllands-Posten “Cartoon Controversy”. The process is moving slowly — the result of busy schedules, different time zones, and a language barrier — but I’m working to grow their support network into these United States. I’ll keep you posted.

In the meantime, I point you to three speeches from the event. The first two are from Douglas Murray and Mark Steyn, two of the feistier bulldogs on this issue. Then there’s Henryk Broder, an imposing Teuton whose vision of the future of continental Europe (summarized in his 20-minute talk) is compelling and scary.

It’s more than symbolic that the three speakers, who addressed an audience of about one hundred, had to convene in the Danish parliament: it’s the only building in Denmark with enough fortification to guarantee some level of security for attendees. (If you think that’s hyperbole, listen to this bone-chilling recording.) We can’t fault the Danes on this one, however, since they can boast that six of their newspapers ran the highly relevant and globally newsworthy cartoons, while only two tiny papers in all of North America had the guts to show the public what all the fuss was about. As a result, we not only conceded to the murderers’ blackmail, but also failed to show the public just how trivial these cartoons were which precipitated the murder of over 200 people around the globe.

This isn’t a joke. The cartoons may’ve been funny, if also crude and rude, but the fact the civilized world now lives under a shoddy, mutant, violently imposed blasphemy law is alarming.

Among the near-endless blessings of the right to free speech, there is perhaps none greater than its individuating power. It’s a freedom that accentuates the identity and dignity of the individual — to challenge popular consensus, think openly, argue candidly; to demarcate her mind against mob opinion and coercion; and to come to accept or reject certain ideas by herself, for herself, and without fear. Rushdie’s opening sentences above are a sure nod to this fact as well as the ways it is chipped away as freedoms disappear.

Read on:

David Frum: What Does Secularism Offer in the Face of Mortality?


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David Frum

Robert Wright: Given the fact that you’re not looking forward to an afterlife, well… maybe the best approach is to just not think about death. But if you do think about it, is there a way you console yourself in the face of it?

David Frum: When you’re younger, it seems a much more terrifying prospect than it does when you’re older. I think we do see it coming and we accept it.

My consolation in my final hours, I hope, will be that I won’t have left anything unsaid. I won’t have left any of the people that I love in any doubt that I love them. That, to the extent of my ability, I’ve made provision for them. That they’ll be secure after I’m gone…

There’s something kind of megalomaniacal about wanting more, wanting our actions to have eternal consequence. I mean, I suppose that’s literally true — if you have a baby, and the baby has a baby, and so on, then yes, your action has an eternal consequence. But we ourselves are going to be forgotten so soon, and those of us who aren’t forgotten are going to be so misunderstood that they might be happier being forgotten.

There are a lot of things that are remembered for ill or even for derision. Whoever invented the Phlogiston theory, he’s remembered — and his work is held up to mockery in science classes from now and for a long time to come.

We look at history and remember the people who left behind misery. Genghis Khan remains a celebrity to this day. But how many people know the name of the man who proved how cholera was caused? How many remember the dozens of obscure civil engineers who put in safe and reliable water piping so we wouldn’t have it anymore?

Most of that desire for remembrance, it usually ends up pretty badly.


An exchange from Frum and Wright’s interview last month in Wright’s MeaningofLife.tv series. You can pick up Frum’s newest Why Romney Lost or Wright’s expansive book The Evolution of God.

So, I think the answer is a resounding not much. Though not exactly wrong, the approach is in many ways an exercise in managing expectations.

Though I disagree with a good bit of Frum’s outlook, I thoroughly enjoyed this interview, as I do almost all of Robert Wright’s conversations, especially those on his new series MeaningofLife.tv. It’s a program devoted to the big questions, with guests who, like Frum, are leaders in their fields though not professionally or at least chiefly concerned with issues of origin, meaning, morality, and destiny.

This combination makes for an informal, direct exchange, where intelligent people can make dinner table points instead of polishing well-worn soundbites. As you’ll see in the Frum interview, this is a man who’s thought a lot about these things, though I’m not sure he’s ever been asked a question like “Are you religious?” on camera.

His answer, by the way, is an interesting one. “I’m religious, but I’m not spiritual,” Frum replies, echoing a common though unacknowledged thread in modern reform Judaism. It’s the reversal of that well-worn yawn “I’m spiritual, but I’m…” Well, I can’t even bring myself to type it.

If you want to hear more of Frum, I recommend watching his appearance on Friday’s Real Time with Bill Maher, which features a very worthwhile back and forth about why middle class America is falling to pieces.

You can also continue here:

Our Next Series of Demands


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World Leaders at the Yalta Conference, 1945

“In November 1945 Maxim Litvinov, at that time Deputy Foreign Minister of the USSR (who, as his wife told me, had become not merely tactically but even ideologically disenchanted), was asked by the American envoy Averell Harriman what the West could do to satisfy Stalin. He answered: ‘Nothing.’ In June 1946, still in that post, he warned a Western journalist that the ‘root cause’ of the confrontation was ‘the ideological conception prevailing here that conflict between the Communist and capitalist worlds is inevitable’ — that is, no more than the doctrine long since announced by Lenin that ‘a series of frightful clashes’ were bound to occur between the two systems, leading finally to the world victory of communism. When the correspondent asked Litvinov, ‘Suppose the West would suddenly give in and grant all Moscow’s demands?… would that lead to goodwill and the easing of the present tension?’ Litvinov answered, ‘It would lead to you being faced, after a more or less short time, with our next series of demands.'”


Excerpted from Robert Conquest’s Reflections on a Ravaged Century. In the book, Conquest, who Paul Johnson calls “our greatest living historian,” offers a blistering critique of not just Marx and his acolytes, but of the more general tendency for human beings to believe too strongly in the redemptive power of radical ideas and institutions.

On another level, in reading Litvinov’s ominous response, I was struck not by its application to today’s Russia (though some may argue that), but by how it reflects the unspoken approaches of so many groups and movements, both internal and external.

The photograph was taken at the 1945 Yalta Conference. Harriman is in the background, second from the right.

There’s more:

When Biographies Become Parables


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“I once knew a bum who spoke like a Shakespearean actor, a battered, middle-aged alcoholic with scabs on his face and rags for clothes, who slept on the street and begged money from me constantly. Yet he had once been the owner of an art gallery on Madison Avenue.

Think of what happens. Think of how lives burst apart. Goffe and Whalley, for example, two of the judges who condemned Charles I to death, came to Connecticut after the Restoration, and spent the rest of their lives in a cave. Or Mrs. Winchester, the widow of the rifle manufacturer, who feared that the ghosts of the people killed by her husband’s rifles were coming to take her soul – and therefore continually added rooms onto her house, creating a monstrous labyrinth of corridors and hideouts, so that she could sleep in a different room every night and thereby elude the ghosts, the irony being that during the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 she was trapped in one of those rooms and nearly starved to death because she couldn’t be found by her servants. There is also M.M. Bakhtin, the Russian critic and literary philosopher. During the German invasion of Russia in World War II, he smoked the only copy of one of his manuscripts, a book-length study of German fiction that had taken him years to write. One by one, he took the pages of his manuscript and used the paper to roll his cigarettes, each day smoking a little more of the book until it was gone. These are true stories. They are also parables, perhaps, but they mean what they mean only because they are true.

In a book I once read by Peter Freuchen, the famous Arctic explorer describes being trapped by a blizzard in northern Greenland. Alone, his supplies dwindling, he decided to build an igloo and wait out the storm. Many days passed. Afraid, above all, that he would be attacked by wolves – for he heard them prowling hungrily on the roof of his igloo – he would periodically step outside and sing at the top of his lungs in order to frighten them away. But the wind was blowing fiercely, and no matter how hard he sang, the only thing he could hear was the wind. If this was a serious problem, however, the problem of the igloo itself was much greater. For Freuchen began to notice that the walls of his little shelter were gradually closing in on him. Because of the particular weather conditions outside, his breath was literally freezing to the walls, and with each breath the walls became that much thicker, the igloo became that much smaller, until eventually there was almost no room left for his body. It is surely a frightening thing, to imagine breathing yourself into a coffin of ice, and to my mind considerably more compelling than, say, The Pit and the Pendulum by Poe. For in this case it is the man himself who is the agent of his own destruction, and further, the instrument of that destruction is the very thing he needs to keep himself alive. For surely a man cannot live if he does not breathe. But at the same time, he will not live if he does breathe.”


Excerpted from “The Locked Room” by Paul Auster, which you’ll find in his New York Trilogy. You can also read it in his Collected Prose, a volume that offers most of his best work, including his endlessly thought-provoking series “True Stories”.

Incredibly, each of these anecdotes is true. Goffe and Whalley really did flee from Parliament, eventually settling in a cave in Connecticut (fittingly christened “Judges Cave”). Sarah Winchester, the widow of rifleman William, really did build a seven-story “Mystery House” in San Jose, California, fitted with trap doors, fake staircases, and mirrored interior windows. Bakhtin actually smoked one of his manuscripts after his publishing house was bombed in the German invasion of Russia (the remnants of that, an analysis of Goethe, are called “The Bildungsroman and Its Significance in the History of Realism”). And Freuchen, pictured above with his wife, really did nearly freeze himself into his own igloo while returning from an expedition to study the inuits.

Read on:

How the Great War Created the Modern State


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A.J.P. Taylor

“Until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman.

He could live where he liked and as he liked. He had no official number or identity card. He could travel abroad or leave his country for ever without a passport or any sort of official permission. He could exchange his money for any other currency without restriction or limit. He could buy goods from any country in the world on the same terms as he bought goods at home. For that matter, a foreigner could spend his life in this country without permit and without informing the police. Unlike the countries of the European continent, the state did not require its citizens to perform military service. An Englishman could enlist, if he chose, in the regular army, the navy, or the territorials. He could also ignore, if he chose, the demands of national defence. Substantial householders were occasionally called on for jury service. Otherwise, only those helped the state who wished to do so. The Englishman paid taxes on a modest scale: nearly £200 million in 1913-14, or rather less than 8 percent of the national income… [B]roadly speaking, the state acted only to help those who could not help themselves. It left the adult citizen alone.

All this was changed by the impact of the Great War. The mass of the people became, for the first time, active citizens. Their lives were shaped by orders from above; they were required to serve the state instead of pursuing exclusively their own affairs. Five million men entered the armed forces, many of them (though a minority) under compulsion. The Englishman’s food was limited, and its quality changed, by government order. His freedom of movement was restricted; his conditions of work prescribed. Some industries were reduced or closed, others artificially fostered. The publication of news was fettered. Street lights were dimmed. The sacred freedom of drinking was tampered with: licensed hours were cut down, and the beer watered by order. The very time on the clocks was changed. From 1916 onwards, every Englishman got up an hour earlier in summer than he would otherwise have done, thanks to an act of parliament. The state established a hold over it citizens which, though relaxed in peacetime, was never to be removed and which the second World war was again to increase.”


Pulled from the opening chapter “The Effects and Origins of the Great War” in A. J. P. Taylor’s English History, 1914-1945.

In The New Cambridge Modern History: 1898-1945, there’s a substantial discussion of this link between the First and Second World Wars and the rise of the modern administrative state. A summary paragraph:

Until after 1847 direct income tax had been a device almost peculiar to Great Britain… During the 1890s, pari passu with the great expansion of governmental expenditures on armaments as well as on social services, Germany and her component states, as well as Italy, Austria, Norway, and Spain, all introduced or steepened systems of income tax. French governments repeatedly shied away from it, though they resorted to progressive death duties in 1901, and it was 1917 before a not very satisfactory system of income tax was introduced. The great fiscal burdens of war accustomed people to heavier taxation.

In 1920, Paul Cambon, France’s ambassador to Britain, told Winston Churchill, “In the twenty years I have been here I have witnessed an English Revolution more profound and searching than the French Revolution itself.” He continued, “The governing class have been almost entirely deprived of political power and to a very large extent of their property and estates; and this has been accomplished almost imperceptibly and without the loss of a single life.” Cambridge summarizes this: “If M. Cambon was exaggerating in 1920, he was perceptively prophetic, for his description became substantially true after the second world war.”

Read on:

The Psychological Scar of the Six Day War


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Six Day War Western Wall

“After years of rhetorical attacks on Israel, Nasser demanded the removal of UN peacekeepers in the Sinai and then blockaded the Strait of Tiran to Israeli shipping. [In the summer of 1967] Israel responded with an overwhelming preemptive attack that destroyed the entire Egyptian air force within two hours. When Jordan, Iraq, and Syria joined the war against Israel, their air forces were also wiped out that same afternoon. In the next few days Israel captured all of the Sinai, Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights, while crushing the forces of the frontline Arab states.

It was a psychological turning point in the history of the modern Middle East. The speed and decisiveness of the Israeli victory in the Six Day War humiliated many Muslims who had believed until then that God favored their cause. They had lost not only their armies and their territories but also faith in their leaders, in their countries, and in themselves. The profound appeal of Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt and elsewhere was born in this shocking debacle. A newly strident voice was heard in the mosques; the voice said that they had been defeated by a force far larger than the tiny country of Israel. God had turned against the Muslims. The only way back to Him was to return to the pure religion. The voice answered despair with a simple formulation: Islam is the solution.

There was in this equation the tacit understanding that God sided with the Jews. Until the end of World War II, there was little precedent in Islam for the anti-Semitism that was now warping the politics and society of the region. Jews had lived safely — although submissively — under Muslim rule for 1,200 years, enjoying full religious freedom; but in the 1930s, Nazi propaganda on Arabic-language shortwave radio… infected the area with this ancient Western prejudice. After the war Cairo became a sanctuary for Nazis, who advised the military and the government. The rise of the Islamist movement coincided with the decline of fascism, but they overlapped in Egypt, and the germ passed into a new carrier.

The founding of the state of Israel and its startling rise to military dominance unsettled the Arab identity. In the low condition the Arabs found themselves in, they looked upon Israel and recalled the time when the Prophet Mohammed had subjugated the Jews of Medina. They thought about the great wave of Muslim expansion at the point of Arab spears and swords, and they were humbled by the contrast of their proud martial past and their miserable present. History was reversing itself; the Arabs were as fractious and disorganized and marginal as they had been in jahiliyya times. Even the Jews dominated them. The voice in the mosque said that the Arabs had let go of the one weapon that gave them real power: faith. Restore the fervor and purity of the religion that had made the Arabs great, and God would once again take their side.”


Pulled from the second chapter of Lawrence Wright’s 2006 book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. The above photo shows Motta Gur’s paratroopers, the first wave of Israeli troops to reach Jerusalem’s Old City during the conflict.

I apologize for the brief hiatus. I’ve been busy in my time off, reading (Pale Fire, the news) and adding to an already massive drafts folder. Your regular programming will resume this week.

You can watch Wright discuss the subjects of Tower with the University of California’s Harry Kreisler below. It’s lulling to listen to such mellowed, Peter Sagal-type tones describe the world’s most notorious barbarians.

Then read on:

Lawrence Wright

“The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry


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Ireland 2005 504

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.


“The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry. Find it in his Selected Poems.

Thanks to my friend Matt Sitman for bringing this one to my attention. If you don’t read Matthew’s work on Commonweal magazine, I recommend you do. You can start with his newest piece, “Sex and the Synod”, about the church’s posture toward the sexual revolution. I especially liked this:

The task of genuine Christian discernment in these matters is to sift through the gains and losses of the sexual revolution rather than dismiss it in one swoop and reply only with a steadfast no. Christians, and the church, must be able to distinguish between learning from history and experience and simply being fashionable. There really is a difference…

In his opening homily at the Synod on Monday, Pope Francis spoke of a “Church that journeys together to read reality with the eyes of faith and with the heart of God.” That posture of critical openness, of believing the realities we experience might actually teach us something, finds its negation in Reno’s no. It all reminds me of a line from a favorite novel of mine, found in a letter written by an aging minister to his son: “Nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defense.”

It echoes Updike’s liberating response about his belief, pulled from this interview:

Questioner: I remember reading that you said that other belief systems were religions of No, and you chose a religion of Yes.

John Updike: Yes, I did. And that terminology I got from Karl Barth, who I found of the twentieth century theologians to be the most comforting as well as the most uncompromising. He does dismiss all attempts to make theism naturalistic… He’s very definite that it’s Scripture and nothing else. I find this hard to swallow, but I like to see Barth’s swallowing it, and I like his tone of voice. He talks about the Yes and No of life, and says he loves Mozart more than Bach because Mozart expresses the Yes of life.

I took the above shot in Ireland.

Three more from Berry:

Berry Center

Sam Harris: Why I Decided to Have Children


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Sam Harris

Interviewer: You’ve briefly discussed the ethics of having children and the evidence that parents are less happy and less productive than their child-free counterparts. Why did you decide to have children?

Sam Harris: I guess there are two possible answers. One is it’s just a failure to be emotionally moved by the data. There are certain things you may understand to be true, but you just can’t make their being true emotionally relevant enough to have it guide your behavior. That’s one explanation.

I don’t think it’s the most likely reason in my case. I think it’s more a matter of my feeling — based on who I am and who I’m married to and what she wanted and what I wanted — that we were very likely to be exceptions to the rule. There’s no doubt a certain amount of self-deception if not delusion on offer there, when you begin looking at scientific data and imagining it doesn’t apply to you.

But in our case, I think we stood a very good chance of being happy parents, having happy kids, and being glad that we were parents — and finding the alternative, alas retrospectively, unthinkable.

And that’s sort of where we are. I’m a very happy father. I love my daughters. The idea that I might not have had them does seem unthinkable now.

But I’m also aware that having them has created forms of suffering that we wouldn’t otherwise know. And we’ve certainly given hostages to fortune, as Francis Bacon said.

You worry about the future, you worry about all sorts of things that you’d be quite insouciant about if you were just on your own, living out your adulthood.

It’s not without its downsides, but even the downsides have a silver lining. Being concerned about the future because you have kids is good ethically. And it does lead to a kind of productivity that might not otherwise be available…

To worry about the fate of civilization in the abstract is harder than worrying about what sorts of experiences your children are going to have in the future — and a future that hopefully extends beyond your own.


Sam Harris, speaking with Tim Ferriss in his most recent Four Hour Workweek interview (these comments can be heard at around the nineteen minute mark).

Currently on my nightstand is Sam’s newest book, Islam and the Future of Tolerance, a short dialogue with Maajid Nawaz. Nawaz is one of the truly compelling contemporary public figures. A former Islamic extremist, he spent five years in an Egyptian prison for trying to topple the Mubarak government and establish a caliphate. Now he cuts a suave figure in London as the head of the anti-extremist think tank Quilliam. I encourage you to follow the work they do, especially his. You can watch Harris and Nawaz’s illuminating discussion at their recent book launch at the Kennedy School below:

Read on:


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