"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Of pearls and pigs

I smoked a pipe, too, once.  That's about all we have in common.

If you stumble around the websites I regularly stumble around (and that includes Religion Dispatches, where I expected a better caliber of commentary), you will find any number of comments anxious and seemingly able to define what "religion" is, usually in a very derogatory fashion.  Here is the opening of a book on the subject as philosophy, by a philosopher of religion, that is, someone whose professional obligation was to think about such terms and how they could be defined:

In one of his Heretical Essays on the Philosophy of History Jan Patocka relates secrecy, or more precisely, the mystery of the sacred, to responsibility.  He opposes one to the other; or rather underscores their heterogeneity.  Somewhat in the manner of Levinas he warns against an experience of the sacred as an enthusiasm or fervor for fusion, cautioning in particular against a form of demonic rapture that has as its effect, and often as its first intention, the removal of responsibility, the loss of the sense or consciousness of responsibility.  At the same time Patocka wants to distinguish religion from the demonic form of sacralization.  What is a religion?  Religions presumes access to the responsibility of a free self.  It thus implies breaking with this type of secrecy (for it is not of course the only one), that associated with sacred mystery and with what Patocka regularly calls the demonic.  A distinction is to be made between the demonic on the one hand (that which confuses the limits among the animal, the human, and the divine, and which retains an affinity with mystery, the initiatory, the esoteric, the secret or the sacred) and responsibility on the other.  This therefore amounts to a thesis on the origin and essence of the religious.

Under what conditions can one speak of a religion, in the proper sense of the term, if such a thing exists?  (emphasis added)
Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, tr. David Wills (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press 1995), p. 1-2.

I include that opening sentence of the next paragraph to show the question is put directly, but not answered directly.  What answer could there be?  Even reading the first paragraph I start to exclude Judaism as I understand it, aware of how much of the argument of Patocka and Derrida depends on the thaumaturgical and mystagogic of Platonism, which is part and parcel of Christianity but not necessarily of Judaism.  If there is a true secret in rabbinic Judaism (as opposed to Temple Judaism and the Holy of Holies), I'm not aware of it.  Christianity, on the other hand, especially Christian mysticism, is shot through with various ideas and experiences of the sacred as secret, from mysteries like the Holy Trinity to mysteries like the cloud of unknowing (in which something still, however impossible, is known).  But "Religions presumes access to the responsibility of a free self"?  "Religion," as Derrida says just a few paragraphs later, "is responsibility or it is nothing at all"?  Can you imagine coming across that anywhere on the web, and having it discussed sensibly?  Can you imagine trying to drop that into a discussion among on-line atheists about the nature of religion which they describe in such childish and ignorant terms, the better to burn their straw man?

I have no higher purpose than to put this out there because I may want to come back to this passage and think something about it.  Barring such thoughts, I put it in the only context I have for the moment.


Monday, September 15, 2014

I need a Jacques Derrida Finger Puppet

And a Michel Foucault.  And Schrodinger's cat.

I have the Kierkegaard already.  My rogue's gallery needs to feel complete.

I am only telling you this because sometimes desires need to go unfulfilled.  And I don't need them in the same sense I need a cup of coffee, or time for lectio divina, or a shower (I do need a shower; trust me).

What I really need is to spend more time among better thoughts than those I generally find on the interwebs.  Too much time sloshing around in the sewers of the national Id is not good for a person.  Universal literacy has not improved the human condition as much as we were told it would, and it is all too clear that if gunpowder were brain power, most people couldn't blow their own nose.

I am not speaking of anyone you know; nor anyone I know, for that matter.  Something there is that does not love a wall, but something there is about the intertoobs that is closer to mind reading than I ever want to get.  Harlan Ellison wrote a story once about a mind-reader who "stalked" women by entering their thoughts.  He enjoyed their darkest fantasies, their deepest secrets, and then he came across the hero of the story, who led him right down into her mental dungeon, and there locked him in and threw away the mental key.

I sometimes think of internet comments like that, only as a maze where I'll wander and wander, never finding the minotaur (sweet relief!) or daylight.

I like puppets.  Puppets represent something good in the world, something human.  How many other animals make figures in their own image, just to be able to stick them on refrigerators?  This is surely what sets us apart.

That and our ability to contemplate being, and turn "existential" into an adjective applicable only to a threat that, thus modified, is far more serious than life or death.

And puppets don't behead people for propaganda purposes (remind me again why we execute prisoners or bomb places far away from us), or turn people inside out just because petty power plays are enjoyable to them.

I like books.  I like puppets.  It's the simple things that matter most.

Maybe I do need some puppets, after all....

Friday, September 12, 2014

"Where all the ladders start"

I'm always ashamed when I find out I haven't read nearly widely enough; but I'm at the same time excited, because the discovery-that-shouldn't-be prompts new insights.  So, this essay by Marx, probably the most famous he ever wrote that nobody ever reads because it is the source of this quote:

[Religion] is the opium of the people.
Now, that's in translation from the German; maybe he wrote "religion" instead of "it", as the translation has it; maybe he wrote "opiate" instead of "opium."  I've seen it that way many times.  But taken out of context, it no longer means what Marx meant.  Put it back into context, and the meaning shifts radically:

For Germany, the criticism of religion has been essentially completed, and the criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism.

The profane existence of error is compromised as soon as its heavenly oratio pro aris et focis [“speech for the altars and hearths,” i.e., for God and country] has been refuted. Man, who has found only the reflection of himself in the fantastic reality of heaven, where he sought a superman, will no longer feel disposed to find the mere appearance of himself, the non-man [Unmensch], where he seeks and must seek his true reality.

The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

 Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
Slightly buried in there is the starting point for Marx for all consideration and thought about human beings:  "man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society."  That could have been said as well by Soren Kierkegaard, who had the same critique of Hegel.  He wrote in his Journals about a man who had so abstracted his thought from his existence, who so set himself apart from his corporeal life,  that he awoke one morning to find he no longer existed!  The very grounding of existentialism which began in the 19th century with Kierkegaard (and independently with Marx, I would argue; and which is all rooted in Romanticism) is that humankind is not outside the world but in and of the world, and is the state and the society, as it is the individual.  We cannot, to answer Yeats' quesiton, know the dancer from the dance.

So now I re-read Kierkegaard's critique of Hegel and of Christendom (and specifically the church state of Denmark) in the light of Marx's comments on religion, which are far more interesting than most people seem to think.

Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion. 
I suppose we could read that through a sociological lens now, and still appreciate it (rather than critique it as the assault of an atheist, which would have been the common reading of my childhood when anything by Marx was wrong ab initio, because USSR).  Marx is arguing for materialism there, for the ultimate abandonment of religion ("since the human essence has not acquired any true reality"), but he doesn't have to be right to be insightful.

Nor is Marx critiquing Hegel, as Kierkegaard did; but from the same taproot spring two divergent views which offer insight on the other.  That, to me, is the point of fascination.  Niebuhr, especially the Detroit pastor who left us Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, would have a field day destroying the idea that religion is the halo of this vale of tears.  His famous Serenity Prayer alone rebukes it with the same off-hand attitude he reportedly handed it to a friend saying "I have no further use for it."  Kierkegaard, trained himself into the state church of Denmark, would nod in agreement with Marx, but then get off at the end of that paragraph, because Marx goes on:

Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun. Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.

It is, therefore, the task of history, once the other-world of truth has vanished, to establish the truth of this world. It is the immediate task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, to unmask self-estrangement in its unholy forms once the holy form of human self-estrangement has been unmasked. Thus, the criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of Earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.
Marx presumes religion is connected to the state ("oratio pro arise et focis"), a presumption that doesn't travel across the pond from Europe to America.  He also presumes religion is an illusion, a presumption that doesn't travel far with Kierkegaard, a far more insightful critic of Hegel.  Kierkegaard's pseudonyms, using the language of Marx and Hegel (philosophy) would say:

The human self is such a derived, established relation, a relation that relates itself to itself and in relating itself to itself relates itself to another. This is why there can be two forms of despair in the strict sense. If a human self had itself established itself, then there could only be one form: not to will to be oneself, to will to do away with oneself, but there could not be the form: in despair to will to be oneself.

The formula that describes the state of the self when despair is completely rooted out is this: in relating itself to itself and in willing to be oneself, the self rests transparently in the power that established it.
Kierkegaard's interest, in other words, was not with the individual as a member of society or the state, but as a person in relation to other persons and, ultimately, to God.  Marx is concerned only with what is materially important to the person; Kierkegaard is interested in the person as a self.  In that difference lies a whole volume, a library of books, of considerations.  Whole worlds can be regarded between the thought of these two 19th century thinkers.  But at the root, they begin as existentialists; as regarding the human as a being in the world, a person who begins, not as a soul with memory wiped at birth and slowly to be recovered until the wheel of life finally brings enlightenment and the journey to the Good; but as individuals dealing with the only life they have:  the one that occurs between the window out of the storm and into the castle, and the window out of the castle back into the storm.  Because all any of us know is those few moments of the journey; and what came before and what comes after, are a mystery we cannot solve.

That is the truth of this world.  It does not come from, or lead to, an other-world of truth.  The only truth we can establish is in this world, in this life.  But that isn't the path of negation, because when we consider what a human being is, we have to consider this answer:

A human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation's relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but is the relation's relating itself to itself. A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short, a synthesis. A synthesis is a relation between two. Considered in this way a human being is still not a self.... In the relation between two, the relation is the third as a negative unity, and the two relate to the relation and in the relation to the relation; thus under the qualification of the psychical the relation between the psychical and the physical is a relation. If, however, the relation relates itself to itself, this relation is the positive third, and this is the self.
To the extent Marx has no use for this definition of self and spirit; to the extent Marx thinks life is simply about alleviating the suffering caused by poverty or injustice and inequality in society along; Marx is wrong.

I've been holding this because I didn't know how to conclude it, or even if I should rewrite it stem to stern.  But this is more a notebook of jottings than it is a collection of publishable works, so I rejected the latter option, even though I'm (as usual) dissatisfied with where this started (in my mind) v. where it ended up.  I decided to publish it, however, because of this.  Nothing to do with 9/11; just a reminder of the radical nature of the gospel; but that radical nature is rooted in something Kierkegaard the seminary student and Marx the atheist economist/historian both understood, and understood as a result of the 19th century and especially the Industrial Revolution and the Romantic movement:  everything important to human beings is rooted in life, in existence, in corporeal reality.  The most ethereal and metaphysical of the Gospels is the Gospel of John, and even John goes to great lengths to prove that his didactic Jesus is a real person, especially after the resurrection.  All that "holes in his hands" and "touch my wounds" stuff, all that eating of fish and "tend my flock"?  That's in John.

The radical teachings of the Gospels are rooted in human reality; the foul rag and bone shop of the heart, where all the ladders start.  The metaphysics comes later; much, much later.  The beginning point, even for Plato, certainly for Aristotle (and so for Augustine and Aquinas, respectively), is in the flesh; in the existence; in the Creation, which is good.

You don't believe - I won't attempt to make ye:
You are asleep - I won't attempt to wake ye.
Sleep on! sleep on! while in your pleasant dreams
Of Reason you may drink of Life's clear streams.
Reason and Newton, they are quite two things;
For so the swallow and the sparrow sings.
Reason says `Miracle': Newton says `Doubt.'
Aye! that's the way to make all Nature out.
`Doubt, doubt, and don't believe without experiment':
That is the very thing that Jesus meant,
When He said `Only believe! believe and try!
Try, try, and never mind the reason why!'

--William Blake

Thursday, September 11, 2014

At least they left Roy Rogers out of it

Happy trails to you, Governor!

I found this bit from the pleadings filed on behalf of Rick Perry, but set it aside because I thought it was just sloppy writing:

“Continued prosecution of Governor Perry on the current indictment is unprecedented, insupportable and simply impermissible,” Anthony G. Buzbee and Thomas R. Phillips said in the 60-page brief filed in Travis County District Court. “This Court should not hesitate to dismiss both counts of the indictment and bar the prosecution, immediately, if not sooner.”

But with this second pleading, I think Perry's lawyers are just trolling us:
"A Texas Governor is not Augustus*  traversing his realm with a portable mint and an imperial treasure in tow; he no more has custody or possession of the State's general revenue funds than does any Texan. No governor can say of his or her state what the Sun King said of France: "L'etat c'est moi," it said.
I've written and read a fair number of pleadings; one like this in a case could be happenstance.  Two motions to dismiss, with such fanciful arguments indicate a legal team trying to find a reason for each lawyer to get paid for doing something.  I have no problem with Perry's lawyers moving to dismiss this case; but I have a hard time taking their pleadings seriously.

*Go on, tell me the sly reference to "C-Plus Augustus" is an accident.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

"Follow the money"

Where's all the muscular people? 

I'm left thinking of Biblical parallels like the man who built his house on sand, v. the man who built his house on rock:

Mars Hill Church announced on Sunday the closure of three of its church locations due to financial strain, with a possible fourth on the horizon.

Downtown Seattle and U-District churches in Washington will be consolidated with Mars Hill Church Ballard as of October 12th. The Mars Hill Church in Phoenix will close its doors on September 28th. The organization also announced that it has ceased development of a Los Angeles church plant and may be forced to close its Huntington Beach location if it is unable to raise funds by the end of the year.

"We have found ourselves in a serious financial situation, as giving and attendance has declined more than we had anticipated over the last few months," Mars Hill Communications & Editorial Manager Justin Dean told HuffPost by email.
The primary problem, of course, is someone else's fault:

It is your continued support that is needed now more than ever. While we were able to end the fiscal year strong, giving and attendance have declined significantly since January. Specifically, we have seen a substantial decrease in tithes and offerings these past two months, due to the increase in negative media attention surrounding our church. 
Live by good media, die by bad media; so it goes.  The air is really leaving this balloon:  having raised $3 million in 2013 for a the Phoenix and Huntington Beach churches, it has also removed from its calendar a much-touted "Jesus Festival."

And now people have found out what he said 15 years ago; but it's just icing on the cake of financial mismanagement and a determination to the be center of power of this ever-expanding church cum mini-denomination.  A power base now collapsing like a bad soufflé.

If you've paid attention to the rise and fall of mega-churches and "evangelical" ministries, you can't really be surprised by this.  The landscape of the last few decades is strewn with the disasters of Jim and Tammy Faye, Jimmy Swaggart, Oral Roberts, even Robert Schuller's Crystal Cathedral.  There are a lot of minor players who enjoyed their moment in the spotlight and faded away; and American history is full of charismatic figures who eventually stopped being charismatic and found the spotlight had moved away from them.

Of course the media burial of Marc Driscoll for comments made 15 years ago (and still offensive) is just the easy handle by which to grasp this crisis for Mars Hill.  The real problem is Marc Driscoll, who literally wanted to replace God as the power in his congregations.  The offerings stopped flowing and the attendance stopped growing because Marc Driscoll proved to be a petty tyrant:  not because people suddenly realized his theology was offensive.  Read that NYT article and you'll see that Mr. Driscoll's problems began in 2007 when two church elders were fired ("Fired"?  How does one fire a church elder?  Were they also paid employees?  Huh?) as Driscoll began to collect the power and finances of the church into his hands.  His complementarianism, made plain and ugly in those old Internet posts and comments, is not what turned people away.  By and large, church members liked that:
“We’ve seen how he has changed so many lives, and to see him treated this way is just sad,” said Rachel Harris, a Mars Hill member who created a Facebook group made up of supporters of Mr. Driscoll. “There’s positive stuff about our church that’s not being heard, and it feels like a family member is getting bullied.”
 I think it's clear which family member is getting bullied, and it isn't Marc Driscoll, who has "apologized" for his statements this way:

“In the last year or two, I have been deeply convicted by God that my angry-young-prophet days are over,” he wrote in a letter to his congregation in March, “to be replaced by a helpful, Bible-teaching spiritual father.”
Still not getting to the root of the problem, and still not admitting he is the problem.  Which recognition should be a basic tenet of a Calvinist, since "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" doesn't included an asterisk for "Except leaders of churches, especially very rich churches."

It is the idolatry that is the problem here.  "Complementarianism" is just another way of setting one group above another, when the clear message of the gospels is "The first shall be last and the last first" and "The first of all shall be last and servant of all."  I know that doesn't jibe with "muscular Christianity," but I can't help that.  There are so many clear indications that Jesus of Nazareth treated women equally in a social order that treated them as barely human.  His was a much more radical stance in that time than any "feminist revision" of the gospels that is advocated today.  I even understand the need for Christianity to speak to the people around it:  Paul's exhortation to the church in Corinth is as much about selfishness as it is about conforming to social custom (a lesson Marc Driscoll clearly needs to learn again).  The Dream of the Rood is a classic example of retelling the crucifixion story in terms accessible to Vikings (although it isn't that far from the Johannine passion, where Jesus doesn't die but rather hands over his soul to God).   Understanding the story in your culture can be a revelation; but it can slide over into idolatry.

Christians wrestle with the claims of the scriptures upon them; they wrestle with the revelation as understood by the clouds of witness extending from the disciples to the present day.  From the gospels Christians have always understood themselves to be subject to the community of believers.  That's not an easy thing to do, but it is a necessary one.  There are a lot of lessons in the fall of Marc Driscoll and Mars Hill, but the primary one goes back to something the prophets raged at Israel about:  building false idols and proclaiming them holy.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Some bad judgment is not criminal; but should be.....

"Git some!"

I have to advertise this, if only because of the picture.

At $17 million a month Perry has not even set an end date or rough estimate for how long the surge will last. Perry was able to make the decision unilaterally with some funds that were left to his discretion so it seems like paying the troops would have been a top priority.

The troops were deployed on August 11th but are not expected to be paid until September 5th. Food Bank RGV Executive Director Terri Drefke told Valley Central, "We were contacted that 50 troops that are in the Valley don't have any money for food and gas and they need our assistance."

State Sen. Wendy Davis will be in the Valley on Saturday to help deliver food to the for the National Guard. She said in a statement: "It's disgraceful that the men and women of our National Guard deployed to protect our border are forced to go to food banks...Whether you agree that we need the National Guard or the additional deputy sheriffs that I have previously called for to secure the border, it is shameful that our troops would be sent to keep us safe without basic supplies like food."

It was widely reported that the deployed troops would not be able to engage, detain or even question the immigration status of individuals they encountered along the border leaving many to question the purpose of the move altogether. With these new reporters and the fact that the numbers of immigrants arriving at the border has slowed tremendously this now appears to be a huge debacle for the outgoing Governor.

And the costs aren't limited to the guardsmen:

“Assuming [the deployment] lasts about a year,” Perryman says, “it would be about $541 million, a little over half a billion dollars in gross product [lost] in the local area down there and about 7,800 jobs. The losses to the state as a whole would be a bit bigger because of spillover effects, about $650 million in output and about 8,700 jobs.”

But it's South Texas, still the Democratic stronghold of the state, so who cares, right?

Does no one wonder why Perry is not running again?  Besides the fact he's clearly dumb as a box of rocks?

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Why does Texas want to criminalize bad judgment?

Gubernatorial mugshot:  Another reason to a proud Texan

I'm not sure how I missed this, but since I've taken to reporting on all things Rick Perry and his indictment, let me use this to point out the people in Texas take this matter far more seriously than Michael Lind or Jonathan Chait or the New York Times.

Per Burnt Orange Report, I learn via the Austin American Statesman that:

Judge Julie Kocurek of the 390th District Court, a Democrat, said Perry's Saturday statement, issued a day after the indictment, could be construed as a threat and possible violation of the law. Kocurek, as the administrative presiding judge of all criminal courts in the county, said that "no one is above the law," and the public needs to know that grand jurors are legally protected from any threat.

"I have a duty to make sure that our members of the grand jury are protected," Kocurek said. "I am defending the integrity of our grand jury system."

The judge said that Perry might have made a veiled threat when he said: "I am confident we will ultimately prevail, that this farce of a prosecution will be revealed for what it is, and that those responsible will be held to account."

The only people that Perry could be referring to as being accountable are the grand jurors, judge and prosecutor, Kocurek said.

The Texas Penal Code that outlaws obstruction and retaliation says that anyone who "intentionally or knowingly harms or threatens to harm" a grand juror faces a second degree felony, which is punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
If you get the impression some of us down here in the Lone Star State think Gov. Goodhair has been in office too long and, as we say, gotten too big for his britches, congratulations:  you're starting to pay attention.  I guess in Perry's defense we could say he didn't know what he was saying, so he didn't do anything "intentionally or knowingly" to "threaten to harm" a grand juror.  Which means he doesn't even understand the words coming out of his mouth, but hey, at least we wouldn't be criminalizing bad judgment, right?

As BOR points out (the news article is behind a paywall), the grand jury members are offended, too.  They have good reason:  I've never heard a Governor of Texas speak this way; or think he had reason to.

But maybe we should all listen to the people with no involvement in this story for lessons on how to behave, huh?