"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

Thursday, March 26, 2015

"Lord, I can't go back there..."

I just wanna ask Mike Pence:

Can I open a business in Indiana and refuse to serve blacks because my religion tells me to have nothing to do with them?

Or is that kind of religion not recognized as valid anymore, but a religion that says I can discriminate against homosexuals, still is?

And does that mean the state of Indiana is now in the business of deciding which religions are acceptable, and which aren't?

And is that really where the state of Indiana wants to be in defending "religious freedom"?  Because what if I want to discriminate based on gender?  Or age? Or national origin?  Or religious belief?  I might have trouble coming up with a religious reason to discriminate against blacks, now that the Mormons have changed their minds on the subject; but I can pretty easily come up with the rest of those in several mainline denominations.

Will that religious belief be acceptable in Indiana?  And if not, why not?  Ain't I free to believe?

"There's just a meanness in this world"

When I lived in a parsonage I lived just a stone's throw from a cemetery that was well over 100 years old.  A local group of enthusiasts asked permission to come over one night and take pictures of ghosts.  The pictures they produced were interesting:  faint glowing balls of light above gravesites or in the windows of the church buildings nearby.  While they were there, they asked me if I believed in ghosts.  I told them I believed in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, so who was I to say ghosts were impossible?

Even if the idea, in the West anyway, goes back to Plato.

So I broach this suggestion with that background.  You may dismiss me (you probably will), you may deny me (three times, please, to make it official); you may think I'm mad (what took you so long?).  But this story of the German airliner crashing into the French Alps calls to mind the stories of the mass shootings in America.

There are different kinds of mass death.  There is the wholesale slaughter of peoples in modern history, conducted in foreign lands (and so not representative of the improvement in the "better angels of our nature" at controlling violence, as Stephen Pinker asserts.  You see?  I build my bulwark with the materials of my enemies!).  I'm thinking of a recent movie where the actors in that slaughter in southeast Asia (I should know more, but the keywords that fire Google are too much bother just now) re-enacted those scenes for a documentary, and perhaps came to understand just what they had done (or just relived old times, for all I know).  Violence against other humans is as human as culture itself.

But then there is the violence of the individual, the mass murderer, the person who takes weapons into a public setting and shoots everyone who moves.  Some of these shootings end in "suicide by cop," as they force the police to kill them.  Some are just happenstance; a man at a courthouse guns down his ex-wife, armed police officers open fire, and pretty soon everybody is shooting at everybody as the shooter just tries to escape his precipitate action with his life (he seldom does).  I'm thinking, though, of the planned massacres, of the man who goes to a school, a Naval yard, a public mall, and ends it by putting the gun in their mouth before the police can so much as arrive.

What drives a person to shoot so many strangers, and then pull the trigger on themselves?  Fear of dying alone?  Anger?  Outrage?  Mental disorder?

Yes.  I suppose so.  We come up with explanations, or we don't.  Adam Lanza was "troubled," but I've never heard an explanation for why that day, why that school, why his own mother and then children and teachers and finally himself.  As Bruce Springsteen sang, "Sir, I guess there's just a meanness in this world."

That's usually the only explanation we get.  Correlations, at best; seldom the neat causations of fiction:  despair over job loss, or a broken relationship, or mere loneliness.  We get some "picture" of the shooter, but it seldom adds up to a clear conclusion "This is why!"  We don't know more often than we do.  We guess, we shrug, we forget it; we move on.

Why did this pilot fly a plane into the Alps?  If the information available today prevails, it was a deliberate act, over the screams of the pilot pounding on the cockpit door, over the radio traffic from the ground and from other planes nearby.  He meant to do it, and he did it.  But why?  Will we ever know?

Probably not.  Probably we'll be given a narrative, or just a collective shrug, and decide "there's a just a meanness in this world."  By which we really mean nothing at all.  By which we mean we just don't know.

But what if that is what it is?  What if it is a "meanness" in the world?

I'm very hesitant to speak of "evil."  It offends my Protestant sensibilities.  It smacks of 'superstition,' the same as if I prayed to the plaster statue of a saint for intervention before the throne of the Most High.  I'm mature enough now not to think of that as "superstition," but I still prefer my cross unadorned with a bleeding figure of Christ, and I would never pray with an object in mind except the being of God alone.  Still, I can't help but wonder if "evil" isn't the explanation.

I don't like it for another reason, a theological reason.  Anxious as anyone to return to "first causes," I want to reject the dualism of Jesus v. Satan, of a power in the world almost equivalent to the Creator. That's a little too medieval even for me, and I hate using the word "medieval" as a pejorative.  Still, I can't help but wonder.

Why do people suddenly veer off their life's course and take up weapons and shoot people and then, as if suddenly aware of what they have done, kill themselves?  Why fly a plane into a mountain, when you can just as easily step off a precipice or bridge, or make sure you sleep and never wake up?  Death by plane suicide is no less revocable than death by gunshot; why take 150 people with you?  If you want to put a gun in your mouth, why empty so many guns into so many people first?

I know; it's "irrational."  It's "inexplicable."

What if it isn't?

Isn't that what the search for a motive is?  To find the rationale, to discern the explanation, so it won't be a mystery, something we cannot explain?  What if these are examples of pure evil, of something very nearly possession?

Why couldn't it be?

You will answer, quite sensibly:  why could it be?  I can't say.  I just no longer think it couldn't be.  It doesn't explain things any better; and it doesn't point toward a way to prevent it.  Someone on BBC was discussing how there is no perfect system to prevent these events, because this is not the first time a pilot has committed suicide by crashing a passenger plane.  After 9/11 cockpit doors became bullet and blast proof, and can be locked either permanently or for five minutes (news accounts vary, I'm not sure about this).  Five minutes, of course, is long enough to crash a plane.  Put two crew members in there?  In one case, the co-pilot killed the pilot before crashing the plane.

No system will save us from all contingencies.  So no system that adds "random evil/demonic possession" to the list of possibilities, will save us either.

But casting about for explanations, I find I'm no longer satisfied with the psychological ones.  They are always based, anyway, on analysis long after the fact, and far away from the patient, who is always dead.  My examples exclude mass murderers who survive their killing sprees.  I'm thinking of the ones who kill themselves, too.  I can't help but imagine some of them wake from some kind of daze, some kind of fog, realize what they have done, and remorse and/or guilt do the rest.  Is it a psychological state?  A problem of brain chemistry?  A misfire of neurons?

Why are those explanations better than this one?  In some cases, they are the right explanation; but in others.....

And how would it change the world to consider the possibility?  After all, I'm quite willing to accept the reality of the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sanctifier.  What else can I allow in?

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

NTodd made me do it


Well, he made me think about this business with license plates in Texas, and I decided to turn my comment into a blog post.  Viz:

My father spoke to a State Representative (TX) about raising taxes to pay for what was needed, like roads and schools and etc. (Dad's fairly conservative, he probably didn't want to raise taxes to pay for Medicaid. I have a friend who had to move to Kentucky, where she wes born some 80 years ago, to get on Medicaid because Texas is so stingy. That's another rant....).

This SR, probably a devout Baptist (to underline the importance of the metaphor lumbering around the corner towards us), said he'd rather burn in hell than raise taxes.

My father, a lifelong Republican, thought the guy was nuts. And also thought that anecdote pretty much explained the root of the problem.

So now we're in front of the Supreme Court arguing about images on license plates. This we can spend money on; healthcare for the poor? Screw 'em. And, by extension: this the Supreme Court can force the State of Texas to do. Again, healthcare for the poor? And offend state sovereignty?!?!?!?!????

I just wanna go home with the armadillo; and see one more horny toad in the wild before I die.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

It's all about the narrative

Random thoughts.

Yes, had the attacker been Muslim, the story would have been told very differently.  Why can't Muslims be mentally ill?  Perhaps the same reason white people with guns or hoodies are not inherently dangerous, but black people are?

If Mexican drug cartels were videotaping their beheadings and using them to promote their ideology (free market rules!  Especially a wholly unregulated market!), they would be ISIS and we'd be afraid of them, especially since they are separated from us by a shallow body of water that really isn't very wide.

And if Ted Cruz were not elegant and intelligent, maybe people would have noticed how bored the students at Liberty University were, rather than describing them as enthralled, because the narrative is that Cruz is an eloquent speaker.

Frankly, I spend an hour a day talking extemporaneously.  I never use notes, and I seldom prepare my remarks.  This doesn't make me eloquent or brilliant; it just means I'm doing my job.  Martin Luther King was a powerful speaker.  Barack Obama is a powerful speaker.  Both men could sway a nation, could persuade people to listen to them.  Ted Cruz can't even hold the interest of students required to be in attendance at his speech, or a group of firefighters; but still the narrative has it that he's a powerful speaker.

He's also really smart; although I've yet to see where that has gotten him, that arrogance and overwhelming self-confidence haven't.  Indeed, if you changed the narrative to describing Ted Cruz as Marjoe, I think that story would fit better and make more sense of his actions.  Cruz clearly loves attention, and he craves the money that, I mean running....for President will bring him.  Nothing to keep him from raising campaign funds (one estimate was that he'd have to raise $50 million just to have a chance against Jeb Bush.  Anybody think Cruz can seriously raise that kind of cash?) and keeping the difference when it all goes south, as it inevitably will.

And yet that isn't the narrative, despite a history of such grift as outlined by Ron Perlstein.  That isn't the narrative, so it doesn't happen that way.  The same way ISIS is an "existential threat" to America because of social media, and the Mexican drug cartels are invisible and harmless.

Ted Cruz has no more interest in governing from the White House than he does in legislating from the Senate.  He doesn't even want to "enshrine" his ideas into law.  Like his evangelical preacher father, Cruz just wants people to pay attention to him.  He just wants to talk to adoring crowds and rouse them to some inchoate passion that he won't be around to be responsible for.  Rafael Cruz has never pastored a church, never stayed around to get involved in the messy politics of a local congregation, never lingered long enough to put anything into practice beyond his exhortations on morality and salvation.  He deals in vague and glittering generalities, as does his son.  Neither of them wants to get their hands dirty actually trying to help people in their everyday lives, of dealing with the consequences of what they preach.  Sen. Cruz doesn't even want to help corporations all that much.

He just wants people to pay attention to him, and reward him with their applause.  He's always looking for the next crowd to preach to, the next group to grift.  That's his true narrative; but since that one makes politics a most unseemly business, especially the holy pursuit of the highest office in the land; and since politics is now our secular religion, with the POTUS our supreme religious leader who is supposed to have the powers of Green Lantern, if he would but use the Presidential power ring; we must all take Ted Cruz seriously.

Even though he is no more serious than Mike Huckabee or Sara Palin

P.S.  This is really kinda funny.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Ironies abound

You know that old saying about pointing a finger at me means there are four more pointing back at you?

Right back atcha!

It’s about intuitive expectations that we have, apparently, about how nature functions. Research in developmental psychology, cognitive psychology, and anthropology shows that we have a predisposition to think about organisms as having an essence: they have an immutable, unobservable core that determines the identity, the behavior, and the development of an organism, and we shouldn’t mess with that. This kind of thinking is essentialist thinking.
It isn't exactly essentialist thinking to think that science, in the guise of psychology and anthropology, proves that dualism (or essentialism; the difference between them is slight for our purposes here) is inherent to human thinking.  But essentially, that's just what it is.*

Essentialist thinking is inherent to Western thinking, ever since Plato came to dominate Western thought.  But that doesn't mean it is inherent to human biology and cognition.  After all, an "immutable, unobservable core that determines the identity, the behavior, and the development of an organism" is, in general parlance, a soul.  Richard Dawkins would say it was a "selfish gene."  The distinction, again, is unimportant; it is still two (or three, I suppose) ways of saying the same thing.

Essentially, anyway.

Never forget that, to the man with the hammer, the whole world looks like a nail.

*what, after all, is predetermined about "intuitive expectations"?  According to Hume, none of our expectations are intuitive, they are learned.  Good empiricist, was old David.

"When so much public God-talk is cringeworthy and meanspirited, it’s worth noting moments like these."

I agree with everything that is said here.  If I add anything, it only to fill out the idea of theology as a public exercise, not to turn the conversation toward my experience, or even toward me.

When I was in seminary I had the distinct pleasure of giving a sermon (which, being good Protestants, we all thought was the main point of why we were leading worship.  I learned later to reconsider that opinion, although my congregations never did.  Gary Wills anticipates a Catholic church becoming more Protestant, but the emphasis on the Word, on preaching, is one thing I hope they don't take up.  Protestantism did itself more harm than good with that emphasis.  Ah, but I digress.....) to a church where I was a mere student (I was, shortly thereafter, a student pastor with my own congregation.  They were gracious enough to put up with me for the short time I inflicted myself on congregations.).  My sermon revolved around a story:  not a Biblical story, but one from television.

The details are another digression, so let me get to the point:  after the sermon (I think it was a week later, but memory now thinks it was immediately after), a mother came to me to thank me for the sermon, because it gave her son a way to understand Jesus as real to him.  It wasn't what I was going for, not by a long shot.  In fact, I was trying to get people to consider the invisibility of the poor, of the other; something typically highfalutin' like that.  Her son had taken it as a lesson in metaphysics, but who was I to judge him wrong?  I had a few other experiences like that, people pleasantly surprised at what I opened to them (but then just as often disillusioned when I didn't continue to give them more of the same, to keep them in their new comfort zone.  Ministry is hard; it really is.), but being the first, that's the one I remember the best.

They are still moments worth noting, especially since they don't neatly end with "And they all lived happily ever after."  The story ends there, the whole narrative goes on.  I know the name "Kathy Gissendaner" because of this article; and this article was written because she managed to make friends with very notable persons (it never occurred to me to become pen pals with Jurgen Moltmann; maybe I should have shown more interest in contemporary theology than in contemporary philosophy.  Still, it never occurred to me to become pen pals with Jacques Derrida, either.  Oh, well....).  It is still true that it isn't what you know, it's who you know.   Not, apparently, that it has commuted the death sentence on Ms. Gissendaner.

But aside from the interest she has managed to garner for herself, is the issue of value.  If theology is of value in her life, is it of value in the world?  Or should that even be the question?  Should we adjudge theology by it's value according to worldly standards?  And which ones are those?  I don't mean, by asking that, the silly ignorant standards of a Richard Dawkins or a Sam Harris; and I don't mean the commercial standards of the market place, either.  Actually, the only "valuable" thing theology has done for Ms. Gissendaner is to make her a bit better known that she was.  Her death is still more scheduled than mine.  But has it been of value to her, personally?  And if it has, how do we assess that?

Perhaps we don't; perhaps we just acknowledge, or admire, how many more things there are in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies; perhaps we humble ourselves before the varieties of religious, and even non-religious, experiences.  Perhaps from a story like this we learn not to make our lives and our experiences and our understanding the one yardstick by which everyone else, and everything else, is measured.

Maybe we at least reconsider making so much of our public discussion so cringeworthy and mean spirited.

But where are the clicks in that?

Friday, March 20, 2015

Oral v. Written

One can easily get into an argument about the "real words" of Jesus of Nazareth.  It's been pointed out to me that Dom Crossan noted that, if Jesus spoke Aramaic, we don't have any of his original words, as the gospels were written in Greek.  I got into something of a discussion at Religious Dispatches over whether Jesus is a "myth" or not, simply because we have known for at least 150 years that the Gospels were not written by the disciples of Jesus transcribing his words as he walked through Galilee (the idea that they did is a response to Biblical scholarship, not something reversed by Biblical scholarship.  The new standard among on-line atheists is to assume Christian fundamentalism as the default, reveal that stance as untenable, and declare Christianity "dead" as a result.  Non-fundamentalist Christians, in this "analysis," are not "real" Christians to begin with, so they are disposed of before the axe falls.).  The confusion about what we "know" Jesus said is one that arises in part from an insistence on fundamentalism as the only "correct" religious posture, but also from the privilege we accord written over oral cultures.

Let me back up a second:  we "know" what Jesus said as surely as we "know" what Socrates said.  Right away someone will say "yes, but we don't treat the words of Socrates as the "word of God."  Well, except that, as Whitehead noted, all of Western philosophy is just a footnote to Plato (and that includes Aristotle).  And the adherence to "what Jesus said" by fundamentalists is still just an interpretation of what they think Jesus meant, which is not superior to any other reading.  What one Christian thinks is the "word of God" is not followed blindly by other Christians.  Most of us still think in terms of dualism, of "mind" v. "body," even if we don't know the term "dualism" or recognize it's grounding in Phaedo.  We might disagree with Socrates' argument there (if we know it), but we still accept the basic dualism of it.  It's very hard for us not to.  But does that mean we are following Socrates blindly?  In a sense, it does; and even if we say we don't, what difference does it make to our understanding and our behavior?

Back to the distinction between "written" and "oral:"  it's a distinction that occupied French philosophers for some time, especially the early work of Jacques Derrida.  That's a long and complicated argument, and I don't want to wade into it if I don't have to.  Fortunately, I don't, because I have an object lesson in "written" v. "oral" right here.

Leonard Cohen wrote the song they are singing.  In the third verse, he rewrites the song, changing a word from the written version.  Now, which version is correct?  The written version, or the version performed here by the author of the song?  Is one superior to the other, more "authentic," more "true"?

This is an old phenomenon noted by folklorists and anthropologists when they found still extant examples of oral culture and recorded them for posterity.  Poets working as Homer did, or the poet of "Beowulf," reciting a long poem without referring to a written text.  When the scholars recorded these performances, they noted slight variations from performance to performance; changes in the wording, small but notable when the recordings were compared, even when the ears of people used to a literate culture heard the remnants of a much older oral culture.  When they asked the poets about these changes, the poets denied any change at all.  The scholars were used to a literate society, where the text is set in stone by being printed.  Any change from the original must be noted, to guarantee transmission of the "original" text.  But for these poets the "original text" was the story, not each individual word; it was the whole, not any one atomized part.  And which was more "authentic", especially in the version of a poem that hadn't been reduced to print long, long ago?

Cohen's performed version here is not the performed version on Judy Collins' "Wildflowers" album; nor is it the text she included in her "Judy Collins Songbook."  Cohen has altered it, but did he do so because of a lapse of memory, or because he liked this wording better during that performance?  And which one is "correct"?  And why?

And most importantly:  why would it matter to us?  Is it the word that matters?  Or the meaning?  And of course, how do we know that apart from the words?  But if we focus too exclusively on the words, do we lose the meaning?  And if we don't pay attention to the words, how do we ever get the meaning?

Or is it just a cool song, no matter what?

And I will have some peace there....

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Sunday Morning Fun with Numbers

So Jeffrey Tayler takes on David Brooks and notes:

Brooks starts out by noting that those with no religious affiliation now account for a fifth of all Americans and a third of young American adults (a development that, in my view, is to be celebrated).  
Which is funny because in 1906 only 41% of Americans identified themselves with any religious affiliation.  By 1998, that number had risen to 70%,  which was roughly the high point of the 20th century.  Now if 1/5th of Americans are declaring "no religious affiliation," that would still mean the number declaring one is higher than it was in 1998.

Well, give or take.  It may be 10% is within the margin of error, or is of only slight statistical significance.  Either way, a precipitous crash in religious affiliation would not seem to be in the offing.  And only 1/3rd of "young Americans" declare a religious affiliation?  What else is new?

You know, there's a level on which this "discussion" is taking place that is just plain ignorant.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

"Poverty is a choice, but being racist is a product of your environment"

Continuing what is proving to be the theme of Lenten meditations around here:

The irresistible power of the hippity-hoppity made that poor drunk white boy do it.  When will blacks finally take responsibility for their evil rap music?

Mika Brzezinski still wants to know, because it's not about race, because it's never about race.

I swear nothing in this country has changed since I was a kid growing up in racist East Texas where none of us were racists, we just wanted blacks to mind their place.