In pursuit of excellence

Below is the original intent of this post, written weeks ago (18 Dec 2011) but left as a draft. After lots of thought, I have to abandon it for now because it’s simply too big a thought for me to commit to just one post. Instead, I’m going to just muse on what excellence is with the intention of re-visiting the original question at a later time.

Did Christianity inspire excellence?

This is a notion my Mom has brought up in the past. While she has some good points, I’m not one for spiritual reasoning. I’ve known too many people who’ve claimed something was God’s will in order to make their belief some kind of incontestable dictate. But if something is true then it can be proven and observed. Arcane and esoteric mysticism has no place here, because if we’re looking for root causes of what makes one nation or culture more productive or successful than another: a) we have to define what the measuring standards for success are, and b) they have to be fair, impartial, and mean something that can be agreed upon by reason.

My thinking says we can analyze whether or not Christianity has had an impact either positive or negative on a culture- but not if the absence of Christianity was beneficial or detrimental until and unless the former is established. We can’t confuse correlation for causation. I’m no scientist, just some guy wondering aloud and trying to think about this critically. So, boring set-up out of the way, let’s dive in!

At this point I was going to list off some old cliches and look at their roots. “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” and “Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop”, for example. But for the post to really take shape, we have to first define what we mean by excellence. And that in itself is no small task.

Merriam-Webster defines excellence as the quality of being excellent, which is in turn is defined as “1 archaic : superior; 2 : very good of it’s kind : eminently good.” At the risk of aping Hank Reardon in Atlas Shrugged, now we have to define “good”. This one gets a little more… philosophical. Bear with me.

Good, adj. 1 a (1): of a favorable character or tendency; b (1) : suitable, fit; (4) : commercially sound; (5) that can be relied on; (6) profitable, advantageous; c (1) : agreeable, pleasant; e (1) : well-founded, cogent; 2 c : competent, skillful

These are just some of the definitions, and it very quickly becomes apparent that “good” can then be a subjective term dependent on society’s judgment. It can be a noun, adverb or adjective. It can be used as faint praise, calling something good but not excellent. It can be evidence, when one “has the goods” on somebody. And because the word is so malleable it made me realize something: a thing can be good in one time and place, but no good in another. The thing that is judged to be good or not is just as dependent on the surroundings and circumstance as the defining word is on the society casting judgment. So what is good, and therefore what is excellent, is a moral judgment.

I know, this is starting to get into crazy town relativistic talk, but sit tight because it’s not in my nature to let something be ambiguous after going to the trouble of defining it. Definition is, by nature, the antithesis of ambiguity. As I’m typing this paragraph it occurred to me that the scope of what I’m trying to analyze is still too big. Now I’m asking, “What is good?” But I think I’m focused on the wrong part of the question. Rather than try to nail down an absolute definition of “good” or “excellent”, let’s accept that those are terms used in context and instead focus on the “what” of the question. Or, in other words, is a thing good by virtue of it’s own qualities or by the work put into it by its creator?

I like this theory better, because it can be applied in so many ways. The watch on my wrist or the stitching in the leather seat of a Rolls-Royce are just elements that don’t achieve anything unless put into place by a craftsman. If I were given the same ingredients as a master chef, my soup would not be as excellent because it is dependent upon the creator’s knowledge and work. This also fits with my earlier thought that excellence is a moral judgment or virtue.

So, excellence is up to us as an individual, and is dependent upon context and surrounding. I may excel and be in the top 2% in one school, but moved to another school my exact same performance may become sub-standard. At this point I finally feel comfortable positing three things about excellence: people create excellence, it is judged or proven in an environment of testing or competition, and it is a virtue deriving from one’s desire to do their best.

Standing water in an open roadside drain.

The too-large question I’m trying to wrap my head around or answer now is: what drives or fosters a culture of excellence? Conversely, what allows a people to simply accept the shoddy state of things? Is it a culture as a whole, or do societies get moved by small amounts of motivated people, and certain countries have been blessed to have a few more of these than others? It’s easy for me to puzzle over the way they do business here, where stores sell cigarettes but no lighters, or blades but no razor in which to use them. It’s downright maddening to see such poor thinking! What business couldn’t see the simple additional source of revenue they’re missing out on? Is it stupidity (as I first accused them of), or is it just a complete lack of drive, ambition, and care? Clearly, it is not an excellent store because the employees don’t work at it to my satisfaction, neither as a customer or if I were their employer. But it is apparently acceptable (or good) here. Why does one culture develop the internet and usher in a completely new means of productivity and commerce while another fails to grasp basic hygiene, cleanliness, and application of resources?

Rather than conceal the water (and smell) they just build small bridges where vehicles cross.

I don’t think it’s out of line to mention at this point the potential for Capitalism vs. Socialism in societal development. The Seychelles are overwhelmingly socialist and the shacks they live in and poor state of their cars remind me of the dilapidation and poor build quality of vehicles in the USSR.

At this point it would be very easy to just begin ripping on the Seychelles, Africa, and any number of other unfair assumptions- but that’s not my purpose and getting distracted down that road is… A false argument, I guess. There are nincompoops in America that bolt cheap “wings” and loud exhausts onto a 1983 Toyota. Stupidity and shoddy workmanship are not anyone’s exclusive domain. But I do retain my belief that it is a question of culture. Maybe I should define that next, while I’m still thinking/typing as I go…

So now we’ve covered excellence, and even gone on to compare/contrast some examples of it. And while I’ve yet to see examples of excellence here in the Seychelles, the fact is there are also cultures of failure around the globe as well. From the “cool kids” in an American high school that pick on the kids with good grades, to the Occupy knuckleheads  that would rather strip somebody else of wealth rather than earn their own. Cultures of failure are all too easy to find examples of. But if we accept all these premises as true, can we go back to the original question and say Christianity has some bearing on personal drive, work ethic, and the pursuit of excellence?

My belief is that we can observe some correlation between Christianity and excellence, but we cannot claim causation. As a matter of fact, if we introduce religion into the discussion it just becomes too passionate, large, and unwieldy an issue to discuss in anything less than a book format. There are just too many factors to cover, and miles of groundwork to lay as a foundation for any arguments or findings. But here are my bullet points for why I believe what I do.

  1. Germany, England, Italy, France, and United States all have had either deep religious roots related to Christianity, or well documented periods of great “revival”. Coincidentally, they are mostly productive nations with easily discoverable examples of excellence to be found.
  2. Islam has provided no benefit whatsoever to the world at large in almost 800 years, and it has been argued the Islamic Golden Age was chiefly one of transmission of ideas and knowledge from the Greeks before them. It has been a violent, aggressive culture to those outside its ranks- oppressing women and discouraging education. The famed Palm Jumereirah, World islands, and Burj al Arab hotel were all engineered by non-Muslim Europeans.
  3. Judaism in the last century has arguably been the corollary of more excellence than either Christianity or Islam combined.
  4. Japan. Mostly Buddhist or Shinto, with a 2005 report stating 70% are atheist. Less than one percent of Japan’s population is Christian. And yet there may be no other culture as noted for it’s drive to excellence. From the pursuit of honor publicized in tales of the samurai, to their current world-leading positions in youth education, science and technology development, the great care and precision in their art… That tiny island is the world’s 3rd largest economy and they have a functional space exploration program. With a culture like “The Toyota Way“, the Japanese exude excellence and demolish the notion that excellence originates in Christianity.

Even with all that said, it’s impossible for me to discount America’s rich history of inventors and innovators. Ben Franklin, the Wright brothers, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford, and even Bill Gates and Steve Jobs in more modern day examples. But is history indicative of our performance as a nation today? Is innovation a cousin of excellence? The correlation of religion and excellence still intrigues me, as well as my question that remains unanswered: what is it that creates a culture of excellence? It’s a bigger question than I realized, and unlikely that there will be one answer to ring out as the most correct. But it’s still worth thinking about.

Now, a far easier question to end with. If you, dear reader, are honest with yourself: do you pursue excellence?

5 thoughts on “In pursuit of excellence

  1. Hey Eric,

    Mike here. I’ll start by answering the hard question you presented last. “Do you pursue excellence?” You cut to the quick bro. I answer with an emphatic… sometimes. I know that sounds like a non-answer. I get bouts of inspiration towards excellence and sometimes follow through, but ofttimes fall short. I guess resolve is my problem, as it probably is for many .
    In addressing your post I want to both give a commendation as well as take issue. I commend you for even attempting “big answers from big questions”. Your post stimulated at least two people in the world to thoughtful discussion, namely my wife and I. I for one need to be jarred from dullness from time to time. So, thanks for that. I also thought that your separation of the thoughts of “correlation” from “causality” was helpful for me.
    The issue I have is with some of your starting assumptions. You said a couple things that caught my attention right from the start. These statements seem to reveal something about your worldview and starting assumptions that, I think, may even surprise you. Two of your statements were… 1.) “if something is true then it can be proven or at the very least observed and analyzed” and…2.) “root causes (of excellence)…be agreed upon by reason”. Only reason? Truth is only Truth if we can observe (verify) it? These statements sound surprisingly like something I might read in a Christopher Hitches book or other article by the “New Atheists”. I know you don’t believe in evolution, but the tone of your thoughts at the outset sounds very couched in materialistic world view. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that reason should ever be discounted, it’s our God given faculty for understanding and framing everything we take in. The apostle Paul said “the things I am speaking are reasonable and true”, God himself said “come now, let us reason together”. But I think we put ourselves in peril if we don’t guard against making reason itself into some kind of deity. My problem is twofold. First, by virtue of our limited faculties, our reason can only take us so far. Second, our reason is severely flawed, regardless of the level of individual intelligence.
    I believe I’ll be thinking about this topic all week, whether I want to or not. I hope you will follow up with more posts in the near future. I know you said you were just sort of flowing with your thoughts, so I look forward to seeing where they take you. I have some things in mind I’d like to read myself. Anyway, I hope you are doing well over there. Talk to you later.

    • Hey Mike, sorry for the delay in reply.

      In this case, yes, truth is only truth if we can verify it. Otherwise it’s a hypothesis. Because we’re looking over the course of history and cultures to determine if excellence was fostered by religion. The prevalence of religion in a culture and that that culture’s development are both documentable, observable facts of history. And remember, that’s the sole focus of my musing. It has nothing to do with proving if any religion is true or not, which is the focus of new atheism and also their downfall.

      So now I have to address your perception of reason, as well as that of new atheists (or just about any political liberal, to be honest). Reason, or logic, by it’s very nature and definition is and must be true. Your second point, that our reason is severely flawed, couldn’t be more wrong. It’s that our reason can be incomplete because we don’t have all the information (a la your first point), or we suffer from the misapplication of reason. That is, we don’t use reason to arrive at our conclusions, but instead create false “reason” to support beliefs we already have. This is why, for example, you have anti-gun people; because they don’t look at the reality or the facts. This is the main difference between some our Deist founding fathers, who didn’t believe some of the miracles in the Bible but still believed God must exist because of the wonder of His creation, vs. atheists or new atheists who are beginning with the premise that God doesn’t exist and then trying to use false “logical” arguments to prove their pre-determined conclusions or desires.

      We have to use reason, and we have to use it correctly, because the alternative of faith doesn’t… How do I say this? Faith is for relationships, reason is for science. I have faith that the principal of lift works on an aircraft’s wing, but it wasn’t faithed into existence. Likewise, there’s no logical reason my parent’s should love me even when I’m being a turd, but they do, and we have that faith in each other. The misuse or misunderstanding of where one begins and another ends or where/how they should be applied is where false arguments spring from.

      • Hey again Eric,

        I think one of your aims in the original post was to provide definition for certain terms. I think that is important throughout b/c we seem to define some terms differently. Two of the key terms I would like to attempt to define are “truth” and “faith”. Truth is absolute “right”. We understand truth in terms of a perfect measurement. Measurement requires a standard, something to be measured against. Most often we see the “deviation” from truth in degrees. But whether something is off by .5 degrees or 90 degrees, it is still untrue, or false. Things are either true or not. I assume we agree on this definition. Where we seem to depart is the level of confidence we have in our own minds as measuring instruments. I am convinced the instrument is in serious need of calibration. Now on to Faith. In a biblical sense, nothing is “faithed into existence”. Faith is what we exercise to believe what God has said already is (created, finished, ordained, whatever). We don’t create things by our faith, we trust what God has said. We “take Him at his Word”. His word is either reliable or not, true or false. That is my feeble attempt at definition, or at least clarification.

        Let me correct what I meant to say with regard to my second point about our reason being “severely flawed”. I still stand by my assertion and I also agree with the substance of your second paragraph. I think you and I emphasized different words in the phrase “our reason is severely flawed”. Your focus was on “reason” mine was on “our”. I agree with you, reason, as an absolute, just like love as an absolute, can be defined. In the case of love, 1 Corinthians 13 does this perfectly. My point, which I should have been more careful to explain, and which you did for me, was that “our” reason is severely flawed. Perhaps it’s more correct to say that our ability to reason rightly is severely flawed.

        I also admit I was careless in my comparison of your arguments with that of atheists. My comments were based entirely upon perception, which is why I used the word “seem.” The reason I said it was that atheists use the boundary of the material, observable, measurable world to draw conclusions about what is or is not true. They limit themselves, not by demonstrating that there is no supernatural reality, but simply because they deem it so. They begin with materialism as their basis b/c they have already come to their conclusions and, as a matter of necessity, rely upon their belief that there is nothing beyond what we can physically measure. This is why I fundamentally disagree with your statement, “if something is true then it can be proven or at the very least observed and analyzed.” Something can be absolutely true and we may or may not be able to observe, analyze or measure it in “scientific” terms. (on a side note, science simply means “knowledge”, the original scientists were referred to as “natural philosophers”, which I think is a more accurate and descriptive way of putting it. But I understand convention changes things.) I know you believe in God. God is the embodiment of Truth, as well as Love and Reason (Wisdom). But he cannot be measured, observed or analyzed by us, except in the most elementary of ways, and then only b/c He has revealed Himself to us, not because we have “found out” about Him. The principle avenues of knowledge about God are, I think, best put forth in Psalm 19. The Psalm begins with “the heavens declare the glory of God”. In other words, by the observable creation, we can know something of God. It goes on, however, to speak of God’s “Law”, “Testimony”, Statutes”, “Commandments”, and “Judgments” which are all elements of His “Word”. I encourage you to read the whole thing. We can directly observe and even measure elements of creation, even with our limited faculties. But God’s Word comes only by revelation, something our prideful minds and hearts have difficulty coming to terms with. But we need not be troubled if we believe that God is good and wants to reveal His word to us. He has already given us His Word (the bible), we only need to be honest and diligent to search it.

        I think it is fine to engage In an exercise such as finding out if “Christianity inspired excellence”. However, if the most accurate conclusions are desired, in my opinion, we can’t be limited by only those causes which we think can be “empirically verified”. Causes such as God’s sovereign choice and spiritual awakenings are certainly beyond our comprehension in many ways. But I think they are vital considerations if we really want to know if Christianity, or Christ, is the ultimate inspiration for excellence.

        P.S. Sorry for the ridiculously long post, I got carried away. You are helping me to force my little brain to think, which is a good thing. I hope you will read Isaiah 55 8,9 and the first couple chapters of 1 Corinthians. Really relevant stuff to the discussion I think.

  2. Hey Eric, I am a handgun podcast listener, and somehow stumbled onto this blog.

    I started to formulate a reply, then discussed your post a little with my wife, and decided that I was complicating the issue a little.

    Your original thesis, Did Christianity inspire excellence?

    Christianity reminds us of our spiritual nature of excellence and altruism.
    Excellence is the innate desire, and successful act of improving. Every human is born with this desire, ie wanting to run faster than the next guy, jump higher, catch more or larger fish, lift more weight, etc. . . Some adults may have this trained out of them, but if you watch small children, you’ll see.

    Christianity teaches us about altruism, which is to help other people. Our own innate sense of excellence then pushes us to engage in altruism. When you combine Christianity’s message of altruism and individual excellence, you get a thriving community.

    However, both altruism and excellence can be suppressed by taking away the motivation of individuals to make their own choices. People who haven’t had the instincts totally driven out of them, when faced with a choice, would probably choose to help someone in need, if they had the ability. The degree to which they would help the person may be balanced by the potential punishment if the authorities found out, but they would probably do the math in their mind. In fact, people who are considered broken (psychopaths and sociopaths) are broken because they don’t think altruistically toward others.

    Regarding cultures, I think that the Seychelles are they way they are because of traditions being past down from generation to generation. They probably don’t know any better, and it sounds like anything out of the norm gets put back in line by the governing body, or at least prevailing culture.

    As to the cause, if you are willing to talk about Christianity, then I think we need to acknowledge Satan. Satan does not want anyone to succeed, and probably put it into the mind of an individual or group of individuals that they should try to exert control over others to reap personal gains.

  3. Pingback: Drinking with Web, M.D. | eric.r.shelton

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