Before we jump in, our year-end update/appeal letters are out! On snazzy new letterhead, to boot. To be sure you get one, just sign up for our mailing list. We’ve got a ton of exciting things happening, and really need your help. Take it away, Kermit:

1. First up, last week’s Cambridge Literary Festival featured two of our favorite thinkers–on opposite sides of the God question–sitting down for a public chat on “matters of life and death.” I’m referring to theologian and former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and philosopher/author John Gray. The New Statesman produced a transcript, which is very much worth your time, not only for the open salvo on #seculosity, but their remarkably simpatico discussion of genetic engineering:

Rowan Williams: …the fact that people don’t necessarily identify as religious believers doesn’t at all mean that they don’t hold to some sort of myth that gives shape to their lives and their aspirations.

John Gray: I share Rowan’s analysis of this phenomenon. What I would add is that, despite a majority no longer self-identifying as Christians, the way of thinking and the world view of the vast majority of post-Christians – whether they are out-and-out atheists or people who would describe themselves as agnostics – is still shaped by Christianity, or more generally by Western monotheism, than by anything else.

They then move on to speak about gene-editing of the variety that’s been in the headlines recently.

JG: I think most people who support eugenic engineering now have a very simple view about who the good people are: people like themselves, but more so. If only the world was filled with people all like me, but even more like me than I am! Well, I find that a completely horrifying prospect. No Gypsies, no poets, no one disabled. Everyone would be somewhat thinner, I suppose. We’d all live a bit longer, we’d all be more virtuous. My god! It’s not the kind of world that I would want to live in.

RW: I think that the Christian perspective – and religious perspective in general – does have somewhere in it the idea that there are aspects of our world that we simply do not own: they’re not just there to be manipulated, to be the tools of power. And it’s the power question which worries me more than almost anything else here. On the whole, technological developments are in the hands of those who habitually seize and operate power over others, and the Christian view is that nobody can be trusted with power over the human race, the environment and so forth…

We do, rightly, concentrate on the possibility of minimizing suffering where we can; but it’s as if somewhere over the horizon there’s a seduction beckoning where you know you could be completely independent of all this; you could finally cut the umbilical cord with your bodiliness, with your limits, your mortality, your location in a world which has certain constraints to it. And, to me, the Christian faith says, actually that is tantamount to thinking the world is something that can be owned, that can be controlled…

Love – when we’re not using it sentimentally and as a shortcut – means attention to what is there that’s not you, not under your control, not following your agenda. The problem, I think, with a lot of these apocalyptic and utopian visions is that they do not love the self, the world, the human race, but something that might be on the other side of the next hill.

Take it away, Lucy:

2. Over at New York Magazine, Andrew Sullivan sums up the seculosity of politics about as well as humanly possible in a lengthy column “America’s New Religions”. If I hadn’t already turned in the manuscript, I’d be tempted to crib the line about swear words. Lordy bygordy:

The need for meaning hasn’t gone away, but without Christianity, this yearning looks to politics for satisfaction. And religious impulses, once anchored in and tamed by Christianity, find expression in various political cults. These political manifestations of religion are new and crude, as all new cults have to be. They haven’t been experienced and refined and modeled by millennia of practice and thought. They are evolving in real time. And like almost all new cultish impulses, they demand a total and immediate commitment to save the world.

Now look at our politics. We have the cult of Trump on the right, a demigod who, among his worshippers, can do no wrong. And we have the cult of social justice on the left, a religion whose followers show the same zeal as any born-again Evangelical. They are filling the void that Christianity once owned, without any of the wisdom and culture and restraint that Christianity once provided.

For many, especially the young, discovering a new meaning in the midst of the fallen world is thrilling. And social-justice ideology does everything a religion should. It offers an account of the whole: that human life and society and any kind of truth must be seen entirely as a function of social power structures, in which various groups have spent all of human existence oppressing other groups. And it provides a set of practices to resist and reverse this interlocking web of oppression — from regulating the workplace and policing the classroom to checking your own sin and even seeking to control language itself. I think of non-PC gaffes as the equivalent of old swear words. Like the puritans who were agape when someone said “goddamn,” the new faithful are scandalized when someone says something “problematic.” Another commonality of the zealot then and now: humorlessness.

Take it away, Alex:

3. Over on The Atlantic, Joe Pinsker explores “The Reason Many Ultrarich People Aren’t Satisfied With Their Wealth” and while his findings may not be all that surprising, it’s still bracing to see the never-ending ladder of the law acknowledged so openly, to say nothing of scorekeeping itself. Preachers everywhere take note:

Research regularly points to two central questions that people ask themselves when determining whether they’re satisfied with something in their life: Am I doing better than I was before? and Am I doing better than other people? This applies to wealth, but also to attractiveness, height, and other things that people fret about. “But the problem is,” [Harvard Business School professor Michael] Norton says, “a lot of the things that really matter in life are hard to measure. So if you wanted to be a good parent, it’s a little hard to know if you’re being a better parent now than you were a year ago, and it’s also hard to know if you’re a better parent than the neighbors.” So people turn to dimensions of comparison that can be quantified. “Money is a terrific one,” Norton says. “If I need to know if I’m doing better than I was, the easy thing to ask is, Am I making more money? or Does my house have more square feet? or Do I have more houses than I used to?”

In a paper published earlier this year, [Norton] and his collaborators asked more than 2,000 people who have a net worth of at least $1 million how happy they were on a scale of one to 10, and then how much more money they would need to get to 10. “All the way up the income-wealth spectrum,” Norton told me, “basically everyone says [they’d need] two or three times as much” to be perfectly happy…

Brooke Harrington, a professor at the Copenhagen Business School, says that the question many rich people ask themselves about their money is not Do I have enough to buy this expensive thing I want? but rather Do I have as much or more than these people I’m comparing myself with?... the question is not what individuals want to buy, but what they feel they must buy in order to keep up their status.”

[Researching his new novel Lake Success, author Gary] Shteyngart also witnessed hedge funders making the sort of social comparisons that Norton and Harrington described, treating money as a “scorecard.” He remembers one of them saying something along the lines of “We don’t have best-seller lists and book awards. What we have is this—the number at the end of the day.”

Take it away, Bill:

4. Actually, preachers, note this next one instead, a beautiful instance of grace in practice as “Two New Yorkers Erased $1.5 Million in Medical Debt for Hundreds of Strangers.” You may have heard about the phenomenon when John Oliver ran a (typically self-aggrandizing) segment about it a few months ago, but it’s worth noting here that the two guys who started the non-profit in question are essentially tax-collectors-turned-disciples. Also, the final “don’t worry” is a sermon in itself. Beautiful beautiful, ht MS:

Last spring, Judith Jones and Carolyn Kenyon, both of Ithaca, N.Y., heard about R.I.P. Medical Debt, which purchases bundles of past-due medical bills and forgives them to help those in need. So the women decided to start a fund-raising campaign of their own to assist people with medical debt in New York. Over the summer months, the women raised $12,500 and sent it to the debt-forgiveness charity, which then purchased a portfolio of $1.5 million of medical debts on their behalf, for about half a penny on the dollar…

The people, who do not know they have been selected, receive the debt relief as a tax-free gift, and it comes off their credit reports.

It has become increasingly easy for regular citizens to purchase bundles of past-due medical bills and forgive them because of the efforts of the debt-relief charity, which was founded in 2014 by two former debt collection industry executives, Craig Antico and Jerry Ashton. After realizing the crushing impact medical debts were having on millions of Americans, the men decided to flip their mind-set. They began purchasing portfolios of old debts to clear them as a public service, rather than try to hound the debtors.

“I like doing this much more than I liked doing collecting,” Mr. Antico said. “I do like the idea that people do not have to ask for help,” he said. “The random act of kindness is kind of a cool thing.”

The envelopes from Ms. Jones and Ms. Kenyon’s gift went out in November, but new letters are going out all the time. And don’t worry. Even if you throw your yellow letter out, your debt is still forgiven. You just might not know about it until the next time you run your credit.

5. At the other end of the telescope, when it comes to #lowanthropology, you couldn’t ask for a better crash course–and i don’t know why you would!–than Aeon’s “The bad news on human nature, in 10 findings from psychology.” It reads almost like an appendix to SMZ’s “Hiding in Plain Sight” article. Compiled by science writer Christian Jarrett, here’s number seven on the list:

We are moral hypocrites. It pays to be wary of those who are the quickest and loudest in condemning the moral failings of others – the chances are that moral preachers are as guilty themselves, but take a far lighter view of their own transgressions. In one study, researchers found that people rated the exact same selfish behaviour (giving themselves the quicker and easier of two experimental tasks on offer) as being far less fair when perpetuated by others. Similarly, there is a long-studied phenomenon known as actor-observer asymmetry, which in part describes our tendency to attribute other people’s bad deeds, such as our partner’s infidelities, to their character, while attributing the same deeds performed by ourselves to the situation at hand. These self-serving double standards could even explain the common feeling that incivility is on the increase – recent research shows that we view the same acts of rudeness far more harshly when they are committed by strangers than by our friends or ourselves.

Of course, no need to take Jarrett’s word for it. Just try making your dog an Instagram celebrity.

6. If that’s not an opening for some humor, I don’t what is. The Hard Times’ made me laugh hardest this past week with their “Depressed Scientists Suggest Getting Between 14-18 Hours Of Sleep Per Night,” and music nerds will appreciate their “Ska Waiter Would Like to Tell You About The Specials.” Babylon Bee struck gold with “Study Finds Strong Connection Between Holiness And Number Of Chairs You Stack After Church Service,” and McSweeney’s rundown of Nihilist Dad Jokes is pretty incredible, three examples being:

How does a penguin build a house? Igloos it together. Like all animals, it is an automaton, driven by blind genetic imperative, marching slowly to oblivion.

I don’t really like playing soccer. I just do it for kicks! Like all of humanity, I pretend to enjoy things, and others pretend to care about my charade.

Why did the blonde focus on an orange juice container? It said concentrate! She realized that society’s depictions of her were like the juice: formulaic, insipid, fake.

Take it away, Rene:

7. Finally, in an excerpt from her wonderful new book, Fleming Rutledge reminds us that “John the Baptist Points to the Real Hope of Advent”:

If I am told over and over to repent, to change, to orient my life to God, nothing will ever happen. I will cling to the Gucci luggage—not that I could afford it—and the earthly status symbols more desperately than ever. I don’t need to hear exhortations to repent. I need power from outside myself to make me different.

In his Pensées, Blaise Pascal wrote, “Comfort yourselves. It is not from yourselves that you should expect grace; but, on the contrary, it is in expecting nothing from yourselves, that you must hope for it.” Exactly. That is the place where a repentant person takes up his or her position on the frontier of the ages. No previous commitment or identity will have any ultimate meaning; no human ancestry or allegiance, no ranking or claim, will be of any consequence, for, as John the Baptist instructed the religious elite, “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (Matt. 3:9).

A power from outside is coming, a power that is able to make a new creation out of people like us, stones like us, people who have no capacity of ourselves to save ourselves. The power that is coming is not our power—not the power of our deeds or our inner strength or our spiritual discipline or our faith or even our repentance. It is God’s power that gives good deeds and inner strength and spiritual discipline and faith and repentance.

Take it away, Phil:

Strays