"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

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Blessed are the powerful, for they shall have movies made about them

So, there was this article at Salon, about how non-violence actually needs violence in order to subdue violence, because really the only power in the world is violence.

Which immediately made me think the only true power in the world is death; death isn't necessarily violent, but it is certainly the ultimate power over life; at least on a purely materialist plane.  And then there was this article at Slate, about a telescope on Mauna Kea, and how it is opposed by native Hawaiians who consider Mauna Kea sacred ground.  The article itself was fairly sensitive and thoughtful, focussed as it did on the astronomers amazed that not everybody sees science is good and virtuous and true and that astronomy especially never hurt anybody (hey, it's not like physics and those atomic bombs!).

And then the comments there are about as culturally sensitive and respectful of non-American popular culture as you'd expect Rush Limbaugh to be.

 Well, it's okay, because the internet is going to expose us to different cultures and we'll think different thoughts and everybody will learn from everybody else and then finally the millennia will come and all will live in peace and harmony.


Does anybody think that way anymore?

All the internet has really done is to confirm us in our prejudices and connect us with more likeminded people so we can all agree on everything and fling poo and screech at anyone who shows up who disagrees with us.  "Us" being the largest number of people typing comments who agree with each other and agree the "outside" must be driven away lest our purity be sullied.

On the internet we are all holier than thou, and we keep our houses holy; by making sure no one who is unfit to enter is allowed to stay.

I had a lovely parable from my morning walk to apply to this.  It was something about Jesus and giving your child a stone when they ask for bread, and an exegesis of that passage to point out that didn't mean what we think it means today.  We read that and think God=Father who will take care of everything for us so we never really have to grow up.  And who among us would think that was a good father?  We are taught that our children should go out into the world and "stand on their own two feet" and "be independent" and that being an adult means being your "own man" (or woman, at least occasionally).  Who would honor a father who was still providing for his child's every need?  Yet we want God to be that way, based in part on passages like that one about the child and the bread, and how much more God will give us if we ask.  But that's in the context of the 21st century and an adolescence that extends almost to the point of life expectancy in 1st century Palestine.  Jesus' audience was the ptochoi, the destitute, those with nothing; and his statement was a challenge to the status quo, the system that told them they were worthless and deserved nothing, that even the labor and sweat of their brow was not enough to feed themselves, then that was their fault and they deserved their suffering and their poverty.  To that Jesus said: No; you are children of God as surely as the rich and powerful are, and God will do what they won't but should: God will provide for you.  God is with you beyond the systems and the powers of this world; beyond even death itself.  Your life matters.

I was going to use it to elaborate on the idea of power and powerlessness, and the illusion of power.  But that kind of analysis is built on self-examination and self-criticism; it is rooted and grounded in humility, not in triumph.  The criticism of non-violence in the Salon article is based on the assumption that power is the only reality, that coercion is the only means to secure justice, and that triumph is all that matters.  But all that means is justice is the golden rule, where the golden rule is:  he who has the gold makes the rules.  Dr. King's direct action was aimed at securing justice, not securing power.  But if you can't understand that, if you think non-violence is just a form of violence, or depends on violence to leverage its type of coercion (because nothing in this world comes to those who do not coerce others), then you can't begin to grasp what Dr. King's program of non-violence was about (or Gandhi's, for that matter).

Just as when you don't understand that someone else may have a "use" for that mountaintop, other than to put an observatory on it, and that science can be as coercive a form of ignorance as superstition.

All of this requires self-examination as the corrective.  As Marilynne Robinson pointed out, that is a central trait of the Hebrew scriptures, and one of their most distinctive marks.  It is the people who cannot see that, who refuse to see that (and their name is legion; why name them again?) who are missing the point.

And at that point I just gave up on the sermon, and wondered if I could catch another showing of the new Avengers movie this afternoon, if only to see the first full length trailer of the Batman v. Superman movie coming (finally!) in 2016.  Which looks interesting if only because a giant, shadowed statute is, in slow reveal, shown to be Superman, across whose chest someone has graffitied:  '"FALSE GOD".

Which might make it an almost interesting story about superheroes in a vein completely different from the MCU effort.

I know you're all waiting breathlessly....

A splendid time was had by all. Damn the criticism! Full CGI ahead!

Friday, May 01, 2015

Texas, Our Texas, all hail the scaredy-cat state

I was going to stay away from this, simply because I'm trying to give up the stupid (it burns!), but this letter to our esteemed Governor deserves wider distribution (not that it will get it here!).

It seems that something called "Jade Helm" is going to be conducted by the U.S. military in states from Texas to California.

Now, you could take this Army Times article and decide there may be much ado about nothing in this, since Gov. Abbott's letter comes off as perfectly reasonable.  As the article says, the Texas Guard has the :

....standard responsibility of acting as a liaison when federal military deploys in Texas for any reason.

 "U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) has assured Texas that each location selected for training exercises will pose no risk to residents or property and that they will coordinate with local residents via verbal and written communication," Abbott wrote in his letter to Maj. Gen. Gerald Betty, commander of the Texas State Guard.
Maybe this is much ado about nothing.  But Gov. Abbott said in his letter that "During the training operation, it is important that Texans know their safety, constitutional rights, private property rights, and civil liberties will not be infringed."  That was a point Gov. Abbott made sure to underline on Twitter.  How the Texas Guard is going to do this by facilitating "communications between [the Governor's] office and the commanders of the Operation" is still a bit murky.

Which brings us to Todd Smith's letter.  Like Mr. Smith, I am "horrified that I have to choose between the possibility that my Governor actually believes this stuff and the possibility that my Governor doesn’t have the backbone to stand up to those who do."   Because what is the Texas Guard going to protect us from?  Wal-Mart closing any more stores for plumbing repair?  Maybe the General Betty needs to be in communication with Bentonville, too.

There are, by the way, 7 Air Force Bases in Texas, 10 Army bases (ranging from depots to 3 Forts), and 4 Naval bases in Texas  (San Antonio alone has six bases, a mix of Air Force and Army.)  It's no coincidence this kind of noise is coming out of Bastrop, Texas, a small town east of Austin that used to be a sleep rural community, but now is practically an Austin suburb.  Too much change too fast makes people hinkey.

That, and the majority of the reliable GOP vote is in rural Texas, or what used to be rural Texas.  As one Democrat noted, Abbott has yet to stop campaigning for the GOP primary.  Most Texans, indeed, aren't like this.

But our governors continue to embarrass us on the national stage.  Must be something in the water; or maybe that's why Wal-Mart closed those stores.

With all best intentions....

This really isn't what I intended to use when I went looking for a picture,
 but when I found it I couldn't resist it.

Charlie Pierce includes optional musical accompaniments to his posts; I would include an optional blog post to this post.  We're making the same journey on different paths.

I've laughed at on-line atheists who think they are current and daring in their critiques of religion, telling them they are on the cutting edge of the 19th century.  Turns out I was off by a century:

In 1729, Jean Meslier, an exemplary parish priest, died weary of life, leaving his few meager possessions to his parishioners.  Among his papers, they discovered the manuscript of his Memoire in which he declared that Christianity was a hoax.  He had never dared to say this openly during his lifetime, but now he had nothing to fear.  Religion was simply a device to subdue the masses.  The gospels were full of internal contradictions, and their texts were corrupt.  The miracles, visions, and prophecies that were supposed to "prove" divine revelation were themselves incredible, and the doctrines of the church manifestly absurd.  So too were the "proofs" of Descartes and Newton.  Matter did not require a God to set it in motion; it was dynamic and moved by its own momentum, and its existence depended on nothing other than itself.
Armstrong, p. 220.

It seems that, early on in the Enlightenment, Newtonian Christianity began to come apart at the seams.  Taken as the only standard for Christianity possible (although Armstrong points out Newton's "theology" only took hold among the educated and elite, not among the working class; and that Newton's universe soon gave way to what is clearly recognizable as the Great Chain of Being, an orderly universe with everything in its place and not even God can disrupt it), the educated classes soon discarded the central idea Newton held to (that matter is inanimate and cannot be animated except by an outside force, such as God) in favor of matter moving on its own (not quite right, either, but a necessary step away from Aristotle, at least from a scientific point of view).  Newton had insisted the structure of the universe made God necessary.  It wasn't long until reconsideration of that structure meant God was simply no longer necessary.

Newton, it turns out, was a fine scientist but a poor exegete.  I use him here more as symbol than specific target, but it occurred to me overnight that when God appeared to Elijah:

To this the answer came:  'Go stand in the mount before the Lord."  The Lord was passing by:  a great and strong wind came, rending mountains and shattering rocks before him, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a faint murmuring sound.  When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak  and went out and stood at the entrance to the cave.

1 Kings 19:11-14, REB

The Hebrews were careful to identify God as being present in the creation, but in no way being of the creation.  When Moses turned aside to see the burning bush which burned and was not consumed, it was because he was in the presence of God.  God was present in bush, but God was not in the bush nor in the fire that didn't consume the bush.  What Moses saw in the bush was what the prophets would later call "the glory of God."  It was all that humans could possible see of God; perhaps because it was all they could comprehend; perhaps because it was that God was so fully removed from humans as to be incomprehensible in full.  Still later, when the priest (as Zechariah does in Luke) entered the Holy of Holies in the Temple, a rope would be tied to his ankle, lest the God of Abraham turn God's full countenance (anthropomorphic terms are finally the only way to speak here) upon the priest, and kill him (no one else could enter, and the body would have to be dragged out lest it defile the space).

That idea itself comes from Moses on Sinai, when Moses entered the darkness and thunder and lightning on the mountain (a theophany Christian churches recreated with pipe organs a millennia or so later, although their reference was the theophany of Isaiah, in the throne room of God).  Again God was not in the thunder or the lightning or the clouds.   That theophany was so frightening to Israel they told Moses to go talk to God and then tell them what God said; they didn't want to even hear from God directly, much less risk coming face to face (so to speak) with the Creator.

 God, to the Hebrews, could not be described, nor confined by nature, nor be a part of nature.  God was involved in the creation, but God was not in the creation.  It might go too far to say God was wholly Other (and so had no relationship to the Creation, even as Creator), but it went too far toward idolatry to say God could be known through the Creation.  It is no accident that Aquinas, as Armstrong points out, opens his Summa with five "proofs" of the existence of God, and then demolishes all five proofs with a simple observation (I have to rely on Armstrong here, but will stick as closely as possible to direct quotes from Aquinas):

"we cannot know the 'existence' of God any more than we can define him [sic]....God cannot be classified as this or that sort of thing."  God is not the "sort of thing that can exist independently" of an individual instance of it.  We cannot ask whether there is a God, as if God were simply one example of a species; God is not and cannot be a "sort of thing."

Armstrong. pp. 144-145.

Newton's "proof" reduces God to the "sort of thing" convenient to polish off the missing information in his mechanical construct.  Some of Newton's failure at exegesis can only be attributed to anti-Semitism.  The distortions of the Hebrew Scriptures that Marilynne Robinson finds in the world of Shelby Spong predate Newton, and would have been an assumption on his part as to how to understand the "Old Testament."  Newton's other sin, if we can put it that way, was hubris.  He wanted to define God in a way that was immediately and easily apprehensible to human reason.  It may be the universe is an amazing clockwork; and it may even be that clockwork persuades you of the magnificence of God (much as one can see nature praising God, a theme in Celtic prayers from the Carmina Gadelica).  The problem is when you move that inspiration into theology, and make it an explanation about God.  Because at that point your theology is on the way to being idolatry, as God becomes just another subject of human inquiry and discovery.  At which point atheism really does become pretty much inevitable.

And I'm quite sure that wasn't Newton's intention at all.

Who Moved My Exegesis?

Speaking of how long it takes something to "trickle down" to the people:

In 1860, the year after the publication of Origin [of Species, Darwin's famous work], seven Anglican clergymen published "Essays and Reviews," a series of articles that made the German Higher Criticism of the Bible available to the unsuspecting general public, who now learned to their astonishment that Moses had not written the first five books of the Bible, King David was not the author of the Psalms, and biblical miracles were little more than a literary trope.  At this time, German clerics were far better educated than their counterparts in Britain and America, who were ill-equipped either to follow German scholarship themselves or to explain it to their flocks.
Armstrong, p. 247,

I entered seminary in 1993, 133 years after the publication of this book.  According to Armstrong, Essays and Reviews was the influential book on believers in the 19th century, not Darwin's Origin.

It sold twenty two thousand copies in two years (more than Origin in the first twenty years of its publication), went through thirteen editions in five years, and inspired some four hundred books and articles in response. 
Armstrong. p. 248.

And yet everything about the German Higher Criticism was completely new to me.  A year or two before I entered seminary Harold Bloom had collaborated in the publication of the Book of 'J,', a reconstruction of the work of the Jawhist from the Torah.  It was a revelation to most of the public that there was a "Jahwist" portion of the Torah.   I'd certainly never heard of it before then. The Jesus Seminar further stirred the pot with its "red-letter" edition of the Gospels, presenting what they thought were the "true" (or truest, anyway) words of Jesus of Nazareth.  The foundation for their analysis was laid down by the German Biblical scholars more than 100 years earlier; and still their work was controversial.

I studied the German Higher Criticism in studying both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.  It was a given, the foundation, the starting point, of all Biblical exegesis at my seminary.  Yet it was still a wonder and a challenge and a controversy to my congregations when I took it to them.

And people wonder why we can't change culture in a generation.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Filling the gaps with Silly Putty

This is, in part, moving in tandem with what Anthony is posting just now.  It is also, in part, just my reading of Armstrong's The Case for God.  Last night I got to the section on Newton, which makes me want to research a question I'd never thought before to ask:  "When did God become omnipotent and omniscient?"

Because the answer may end up being:  Newton.

That is, he continues from age to age, and is present from infinity to infinity; he rules all things and he knows what happens and what is able to happen.
That is not Newton speaking of Newton; or Newton speaking of the scientist.  That is Newton describing God, a God he asserts because it explains the mechanical universe Newton has "created."

First, a word of explanation.  Newton, in Karen Armstrong's telling, unified the theories of Kepler (on planetary motion), Descartes (on physics) and Galileo (on terrestrial movement).  He understood gravity as "the fundamental force that accounted for all celestial and earthly activity."  (Armstrong, p. 202).  Mechanics, argued Newton, was the model which explained all the functions of the universe.  But to be truly universal, mechanics must explain ALL the phenomena of the universe.

Though these bodies may, indeed, continue in their orbits by the mere laws of gravity, yet they could by no means have at first derived the regular position of the orbits themselves by these laws.

Newton, quoted in Armstrong, p. 203.

Newton was a genius, but he wasn't omniscient.  Still, he wanted an answer to all questions, and he thought he had it.  See if this doesn't sound familiar today:  "When I wrote my treatise about our Systeme, I had an eye upon such Principles as might work with considering men for the beliefe in a Deity and nothing can rejoyce me more than to find it usefull for that purpose."  The mathematical balance of the universe "forced [Newton] to ascribe it to ye counsel and contrivance of a voluntary Agent...very will skilled in Mechanicks and Geometry."  Gravity "may yet put ye planes into motion but without ye divine powers, it could never put them into such Circulating motion as they have about ye sun."

Inertia held the planets in motion, yet they "must have required a divine power to impress them."  And what put the Earth so perfectly placed around the sun and set it spinning on its axis so well that the planet neither burned from too long a day, nor froze from too long a night?  The only answer Newton had was:  God.  Newton was less interested in establishing a scientific explanation of the universe, than he was in establishing what we would now deride as "intelligent design."

None of this is to say Newton got his theology right. In fact, he got it all wrong, because he reduced God to the universe humans could find an explanation for. As Armstrong puts it:  "God's existence was now a rational consequence of the world's intricate design."

Before we go much further, let's just consider what this has to do with God's omniscience and omnipotence.  The latter is a consequence of God's presence in the universe.  God, said Newton, is "omnipresent not virtually only but substantially."  Gravity was not just a force of nature, but the action of God.  Moreover, the God who "continues from age to age, and is present from infinity to infinity," and who "rules all things," is a God of dominion.  This is not a God who is other, or kenotic; this is a God whose primary characteristic is "Dominion," (Newton's term), and such a God must have "intelligence, perfection, eternity, infinity, omniscience and omnipotence."  (Armstrong, p. 204.)  Because without it, how can such a God keep the universe operating?

(Sidebar that belatedly occurs to me:  I remember a seminary professor talking derisively of people who imagined Jesus of Nazareth being both human and God, eating and drinking while also busily keeping all the planets spinning in their courses.  I only know understand the concept he was mocking was Newton's, not Christianity's.  Well, not until Christianity adopted it; which soon after Newton, some did.)

It's easy to retroject this back onto God in the Scriptures.  The problem is, God is not omniscient in the Hebrew scriptures, and it's unclear whether even Aquinas thought God to be as Newton required.  Two examples from the Hebrew Scriptures will suffice:  "The heart is devious, beyond all fathoming. I, God, test the heart," says Jeremiah.  The other, and perhaps most famous, example, is God finding Adam and Eve in the Garden and learning, belatedly, that they have eaten the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (which, if ever a story in scripture was meant to be an allegory based on a metaphor, surely this one is it!).  Literalists will tie themselves into knots trying to explain how an omniscient God can be surprised.  But maybe the problem is in our concept, not in the story.  Maybe the problem is, as Karen Armstrong argues, that we decided God was not "other," but was so familiar he could plan out our lives for us, and even give us what we ask for if, like Joel Osteen, we just ask for wealth and happiness (which comes from wealth, apparently, first and foremost).

It seems the "God of the Gaps" was born, not from theology retreating before science's approach, but from science's encroachment into theology.  And when that went sour, science blamed theology.  Nice work if you can get it, and get it science pretty much did.

I'm beginning to reappraise my discomfort with Bultmann's efforts to "demythologize."  I still agree with Armstrong, that mythos (as she defines it, and she doesn't define it all that well) is essential to human existence, because we are religious beings (religion is innate to human beings, not imposed upon them.  Jefferson will get a rather thorough trashing before we are finished, if only because he is the poster child for many modern atheistic misunderstandings.  By the way, per Armstrong, Jefferson was a Deist, not an atheist.  We'll get back to that, because there is a thread from Newton to Jefferson we have to follow.).  But to understand mythos correctly, it may be that we need to demythologize in order to get there.

Those comments may seem a leap, but Armstrong goes on to describe the God of Newton, and more importantly, the Christianity of Newton.  Nature replaces revelation, the Book of Nature replacing (almost) the Scriptures.  In The Philosophical Origins of Gentile Theology, Armstrong says Newton argued that "Noah had founded a faith based on the rational contemplation of nature.  There had been no revealed scriptures, no miracles, and no mysteries." (If you can't already see the connections to Jefferson and the Deists, be patient; connections will be made.)  This faith had been "the true religion till ye nations corrupted it," and science was the only means for properly understanding the sacred:  "For there is no way to come to ye knowledge of a Deity but by ye frame of nature."  The fundamental religion had been corrupted with "Monstrous Legends, false miracles, veneration of reliques, charmes, ye doctrine of Ghosts or Daemons, and their intercession, invocation & worship and other heathen superstitions." (Newton, quoted in Armstrong, p. 205).

Do you now hear Newton echoed in Jefferson and the other Deists of Revolutionary America?

Such things were superstitions not just because they offended scientific reason, but because they offended the clockwork universe.  Miracles are, by definition, disruptions in the natural order.  The God who is the mechanical universe cannot disrupt the natural order; that's asking God to violate God's self.  The idea offends reason.  Which explains why Jefferson cut all such stories about miracles out of his "Jefferson Bible."

But Newton didn't accomplish this by overwhelming the theologians.  The church, or some leaders of it, embraced this idea as the new and rational theology the world needed. Not surprisingly (well, unless you think of Cotton Mather as the caricature of a Puritan rooting out sexual desire and witches his entire life*), Cotton Mather took to Newton's theology.  Puritans were already strongly anti-Papist (they were "Puritans" because they wanted to purge, or "purify," the Church of England of it's liturgical trappings and Roman Catholic ideas).  He liked it because it seemed, like the Puritans themselves, to return the church to an original state; and because Puritans liked nothing more than to condemn anything even vaguely connected to Rome as superstition (and so they banned Christmas celebrations, or even the observance of Christmas, for as long as they could).

Intelligent design, springing from Newton, became the standard of science itself.  Robert Boyle, physicist, chemist, and founding member of the Royal Society, thought the mechanistic universe proved the existence of a celestial Engineer.  Richard Bentley, in his Boyle lectures, argued that:

almost everything in the World demonstrates to us this great Truth; and affords undeniable Arguments, to prove that the World and all Things therein, are the Effects of an Intelligent and Knowing Cause.
(Quoted in Armstrong, p. 207)

The problem is obvious.  As Armstrong observes:

Where Basil, Augustine, and Thomas had insisted that the natural world could tell us nothing about God, Newton, Bentley, and Clarke argued that nature could tell us everything we need to know about the divine.  God was no longer transcendent, no longer beyond the reach of language and concepts.  As Clarke had shown, his will and attributes could be charted, measured, and definitively proven in twelve clear and distinct propositions.
(Armstrong, pp. 207-208)

If I wanted to look at this from a distinctly historical perspective I'd link these Newtonian theologians back to the Scholastics of the late medieval period, who made much the same claims, only without a clockwork universe to base them on.  That these claims have fallen apart, thanks to the very science they were based on, is obvious.  The question now is:  with what Renaissance will we recover from these neo-Scholastics?

* a corrective for that which even Armstrong overlooks is the work of Mather himself.  It seems rather clear from his accounts of life in Salem that the witch trials, much as he may have helped foment them, took on a life which controlled his rather than he controlling them.  It's likely Mather learned a few theological, and pastoral, lessons from those events.  It's clear he wasn't a McCarthy-esque figure, rooting out witches until some finally shamed him into standing down.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Case for Music

The problem with reading a long work like Karen Armstrong's The Case for God is that you want to stop and examine, even explicate, passages all along the way; and which is the best one to start with? In the end, the choice has to be arbitrary:

When he dedicated his Meditations on First Philosophy to "The Most Illustrious Dean and Doctors of the Sacred Faculty of Theology in Paris," Descartes made an astonishing claim:  "I have always considered that the two questions respecting God and the soul were the chief of those that out to be demonstrated by philosophical [i.e., 'scientific"] rather than theological argument."  In the clear expectation that they would agree with him, Descartes calmly informed the most distinguished body of theologians in Europe that they were not competent to discuss God.  Mathematics and physics would do the job more effectively.  And the theologians were all too happy to agree.  It was a fateful move.  Henceforth, theology would increasingly be translated into a "philosophical" or "scientific" idiom that was alien to it.
Karen Armstong, The Case for God, p. 197.

Armstrong lays a lot of groundwork for the idea that theology is not philosophy or science, and doesn't need to be.   She ably points out that most of the "proofs" of God present in the work of Anselm or Aquinas are not "proofs" in the modern sense at all, because they don't presuppose God's non-existence which existence must be established by rational argument.  Interestingly, the modern "proof" that God exists because the universe shows evidence of an "intelligent designer" is not modern at all; it dates to the early 17th century, where it began not as a proof of the existence of God, but as a counter to the idea that God needn't be involved in creation at all.  As Armstrong puts the matter:

Thomas Aquinas had insisted that we could not learn anything about the nature of God from the created world; now the complexity that scientists were discovering in the universe had persuaded theologians that God must be an Intelligent Designer.  Denys and Thomas would not have approved. 
Armstrong, p. 193.

In other words, the problems of the "proofs" of God's existence, and even the denial of God, began not with the scientists, but with the theologians.  Perhaps they were lured by this:

Even those who could see flaws in Descartes' Universal Mathematics were excited by the idea of a mechanical universe, ruled at all times and in all places by the same unequivocal laws.  Increasingly, the mechanical universe would be seen as a model for society.  Citizens should submit to a rational government in the same way as the different parts of the cosmos obeyed the rational laws of the scientific God.  People were also intrigued by the idea of a single method that would lead infallibly to wisdom and certainty and make the existence of God as necessary and lucid as one of Euclid's theorems.  Doubt and perplexity would soon be things of the past.
Armstrong, p. 198.

Certainty is the keystone, there.  The turn from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment is marked, in Armstrong's telling, by the advent of "certainty" as the touchstone for human knowledge.  We still haven't quite knocked the stuffing out of that hubris, but that theologians turned from the apophatic (Armstrong's thesis throughout) to certainty is a real source of our difficulties with religious belief today.  It is this passage on Pascal, though, that encapsulates, as well as any other, Armstrong's argument:

Pascal could see that Christianity was about to make a serious mistake.  Theologians were eager to embrace the modern ethos and make their teaching conform to the "clear and distinct" ideas currently in vogue, but how far should the new science impinge upon religion?  A God who was merely "the author of mathematical truths and of the order of the elements" could bring no light to the darkness and pain of human existence.  It would only cause people to fall into atheism.  Pascal was one of the first people to see that atheism--meaning a radical denial of God's existence--would soon become a serious option.  A person who had not engaged himself [sic] with the rituals, exercises, and practices of religion would not be convinced by the arguments of the philosophers; for such a person, faith could only be a wager, a leap in the dark.  Pascal had developed his own rational powers more than most:  by the age of eleven, he had worked out for himself the first twenty-three propositions of Euclie; at sixteen, he had published a remarkable treatise on geometry; and he went on to invent a calculating machine, a barometer, and a hydraulic press.  But he knew that reason could not produce religious conversion; "the heart" had its own reasons for faith.
Armstrong, p. 199.

I should explain here that, for Armstrong, the "rituals, exercises [spiritual, she means], and practices of religion" are, for her, the practical side of religion.  They mark the commitment of faith.  Not a blind acceptance of absurdity, or adoption of a body of belief; but engagement in practical transformative acts which lead the adherent to an experience of the divine, the ineffable, and the truth espoused by the proponents of the practices.  One commits, in other words, to the practices, and one is transformed by them, coming into deeper contact with, in the Christian/Jewish case, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus.  This is a constant thread that she traces from the caves of Lascaux through (primarily) Western culture.  As she says in the introduction:  "Religion....was not primarily something that people thought about but something they did.  Its truth was acquired by practical action....There are some things that can be learned only by constant, dedicated practice, but if you persevere, you find that you achieve something that seemed initially impossible." (p. xii).

I find a comparison to learning to play music instructive here, especially if you turn from being a soloist to being an ensemble player.  Some of the most truly transcendent experiences I have had, experiences that were almost kenotic (self-emptying) involved training myself to play and perform music to the point it became, not a conscious action, but almost a spiritual one.   That experience was intensified, and more likely, when I performed with other musicians.

 It is interesting how we insist some people can be musicians, and some cannot; that some people "get" music in a way others of us never will; yet we all must have equal access to spirituality and, if we don't, then spirituality must be bunk and self-delusion.  I've come close enough to true musicianship in my personal experience to have seen the vista of that "promised land," though I'll never enter it.  Should I say, then, that music and all it can mean to audience and performer, is bunk?

But the more interesting question is:  why do we keep making apologia like that?  I think, despite the rantings of the on-line atheists (who, yes, are about to get swept off the world stage they think they stand on by the rising tide of population from predominantly Muslim countries), there is a slow shift once again away from reason and understanding as the basis for all valid human effort.  It began in Europe with World War I, and while it isn't leading to a resurgence of religious belief a la yet another "Great Awakening" (which, in retrospect, is looking more and more like less and less), I think the turn is proceeding apace without, shall we say, Dawkins or Bultmann.

A conversation I may yet get into.....

It's coming to take you away.....

When I get a burr under my saddle, nothing will do until I remove it.

Consider a piece of paper.  What did it take to get it into your hands?

Whatever the content of the paper, pulp or rag or linen, it started out as a plant.  Coming from plants and getting to paper means that, even at the very beginning, there was an industrial process in place.  Raising enough cotton or flax or trees to turn into a product like a sheet of paper that isn't as rare as the vellum monks used to write on in scriptoria, requires agriculture on an industrial scale.  And that doesn't even include the harvesting of the plants, and the steps to turn that plant into pulp or cloth so it can be converted into paper, another set of processes.  And then it has to be packaged and shipped to you, or to a store near you.

We are used to being abjured to not think meat comes from the store wrapped in plastic, but from animals in fields somewhere on the planet.  We don't quite have the same regard for a piece of paper.

And the energy required to harvest the raw product of that paper.  Probably much of it rests on chemical fertilizers, a product of the petro-chemical industry.  Which means the crop depends on the mining of petroleum products from the earth and processed into fertilizers just to be grown, much less to be harvested by diesel engines driving tractors and combines and hydraulic equipment to cut and harvest trees.  Petroleum is needed to transport those items to factories where they can start to become paper, and the factories are powered by coal or natural gas, or perhaps falling water or even nuclear fusion.  The process of creating fuel for a nuclear reactor is probably even more complex than that of refining petroleum into useable products.  If you don't think so, just ask Iran.

So the industrial processes necessary to put that piece of paper into your hands spiderwebs out from the sheet of paper at the center; it spreads like cracks in a pane of glass.  And it all rests on access to raw materials sufficient to become paper, raw materials that grow the plant that becomes the paper (set aside for the moment soil and water and oxygen), and all the industrial processes that, one way or another, contribute to or even make possible the production of that one sheet of paper.

And yet paper is simple; paper is old; paper is passé.  We are a paperless society now; or at least, we aspire to be.

I own two Pelican fountain pens.  Both pens are older than my daughter by several years, and she's in her early 20's.  Both pens need to be repaired again, but they will be.  They need repairs because they are old.  They are also products of an elaborate set of industrial processes: the bodies are plastic (oil), the inner and some outer parts plastic and metal (mining, smelting).  Then there is the ink.  And yet these pens are models of simplicity compared to the tools of modern life:  pads and smartphones and the like.

I don't know anyone who has a smart phone or a tablet computer that is over 25 years old.  Those devices are vastly more complex, from an industrial standpoint, than a fountain pen and a piece of paper; and vastly more fragile.  When a tablet stops working as desired, it is discarded; it is not returned to the manufacturer to be repaired and restored.  We have lots of raw materials for more, lots of industrial capacity to provide a ready replacement, and no incentive not to just toss it on the waste pile; especially since that waste usually winds up in a foreign country.  That adds to the "fragility" of our planet, of course, but out of sight, out of mind.  Besides, we'll just colonize another planet; right?

With what?  We can't even make paper there.  Electronics?  When they fail, do we just expect another shipment from Earth of the latest product?  But what about poor, old, fragile Earth?  Who will be left here to mine the petroleum, the metals, grow and harvest the plants, man the factories, drive the trucks, just so those devices can be made to be shipped to another planet?  Aren't there resources in space?  Isn't that the idea?

Probably there are, but how do we gather them?  How do we refine them, without the industrial capacity Iran needs just to refine the raw material of nuclear fission in order to have the energy industrialization demands?  Is there oil on Mars, and can we drill it and refine it?  What fuel will heat the refineries, the blast furnaces, need to turn raw materials into something useable?  What plants on Mars ever turned into coal?  How will colonists function without plastics, the stuff not just of fountain pens but of computers?  What precious water will be devoted to ink, so a literate society can flourish on an arid Mars?

Or will literacy be the first thing we have to give up, in order to survive as a species?  And what complex society can function without records and written communications?

We've come to think of the products of industrial society as normal and normative.  We try to remind ourselves meat doesn't come packaged in styrofoam and plastic wrap, but first existed on the hoof.  We don't think about how many resources from the planet are necessary to provide and sustain that meat on the hoof, much less turn it into the convenience food we buy at the store.

We easily and willingly forget that the energy that runs our computers and our lights and our entire world was mined from somewhere, that even the solar panels and wind turbines started out as raw material industrial processes had to convert into something we can use.  We forget that mining is just the start of a long process that ends with a light coming on at the flick of a switch.

And unless we can take those industrial processes to the next planet and set them down before the non-factory workers get there, then we are setting up colonies in the Stone Age, or maybe even earlier than that.  And much as they might wish to industrialize, they won't be able to.  Not without the raw materials and the fuel sources we have now.  And without fossils, without animal life from the dim past, you don't have fossil fuels.

Any planet with life already that might have been around long enough to create fossil fuels, might not welcome a new species with open arms.

The idea that we are ever going to leave this planet without inventing magical devices like the technology of "Star Trek" is simply, well,  magical thinking.  In ST:NG, transporter technology is used to create food and even manufactured goods almost ex nihilo, powered by...well, by what?  Beyond dilithium crystals for warp engines, what is the fuel source of the Federation?  It doesn't matter, of course; it's fiction.  The fuel source might as well be the Tesseract from the Avengers movies.

We can't travel to another planet and live as our neolithic ancestors did, unless we find a planet with a biosphere that supports human life, but doesn't have any advanced life forms or predators to overwhelm us when we get there (or just microbes).  Even if the raw materials are there, how do we access them, how do we process them?  We can't take the factories with us, and we can't print the factories from 3-D printers.  And what would power these devices, these factories?  We would need either a supply line back to the uranium mines and centrifuges of Earth, or we would have to fall back on the energy of slaves from pre-industrial times.  One alternative is unimaginable, the other makes "colonization" a farce.

So when is this magical mystery tour going to begin?

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The World is Flat

But only on the bottom....

In the words of an anthropologist:

None of the ISIS fighters we interviewed in Iraq had more than primary school education, some had wives and young children. When asked "what is Islam?" they answered "my life." They knew nothing of the Quran or Hadith, or of the early caliphs Omar and Othman, but had learned of Islam from Al Qaeda and ISIS propaganda, teaching that Muslims like them were targeted for elimination unless they first eliminated the impure. This isn't an outlandish proposition in their lived circumstances: as they told of growing up after the fall of Saddam Hussein in a hellish world of constant guerrilla war, family deaths and dislocation, and of not being even able to go out of their homes or temporary shelters for months on end.

Most foreign volunteers and supporters fall within the mid-ranges of what social scientists call "the normal distribution" in terms of psychological attributes like empathy, compassion, idealism, and wanting mostly to help rather than hurt other people. They are mostly youth in transitional stages in their lives: students, immigrants, between jobs or mates, having left or about to leave their native family and looking for a new family of friends and fellow travelers with whom they can find significance. Most have had no traditional religious education, and are often "born again" into a socially tight, ideologically narrow but world-spanning sense of religious mission. Indeed, it is when those who do practice religious ritual are expelled from the mosque for expressing radical political beliefs, that the move to violence is most likely.

And here's where it gets interesting:

As one young woman from the Paris banlieu of Clichy-sur-Bois told us, she like so many others she hangs out with, feels neither French nor Arab, and because she will always be looked on suspiciously, she will choose the Caliphate to help create a homeland where Muslims can pool their resources, be strong again, and live in dignity.

But the popular notion of a "clash of civilizations" between Islam and the West is woefully misleading. Violent extremism represents not the resurgence of traditional cultures, but their collapse, as young people unmoored from millennial traditions flail about in search of a social identity that gives personal significance and glory. This is the dark side of globalization. They radicalize to find a firm identity in a flattened world: where vertical lines of communication between the generations are replaced by horizontal peer-to-peer attachments that can span the globe. Young people whose grandparents were Stone Age animists in Sulawesi, far removed from the Arab world, told me they dream of fighting in Iraq or Palestine in defense of Islam.

Because that's pretty much the explanation for the rise of fundamentalism beginning in the early 20th century.  It was a reaction to German biblical scholarship, which represented a collapse of tradition. But it was a collapse of tradition that hit home for many Americans (where Christian fundamentalism got started).    And the unspoken truth here is that "globalization" is pretty much a one-way street, a return to what has never really gone away in Western culture:  the supremacy of Rome, the tolerance of other cultures and religions as long as they show fealty to Caesar:  whether Caesar is a person who embodies Roman values and virtues, or Caesar is just an ideal symbolizing Western virtues and values, like capitalism or the free market.  As long as it's first Western, and primarily white, it's what the globe needs.  All other identities are to be flattened out.

And people who object are just objectively unreasonable.....

1968 & 2015: the more things change....

 So wrong, so wrong, but we've been down so long; and we had to make somebody listen....

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Thousand-Year Picnic

This is oddly funny, considering what an atheist Stephen Hawking is.  But he's absorbed the cultural interest in 1000 year increments, now deciding that by the start of the next millennium, we're done for, we're done for!

“We must continue to go into space for the future of humanity,” he said. “I don’t think we will survive another 1,000 years without escaping beyond our fragile planet.”

 “I want to share my excitement and enthusiasm about this quest, so remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet,” he continued. 

To be honest my first thought there is Elysium, because "humanity" almost always excludes, at least in the current iteration, those who are not fortunate enough to be white upper class Americans or Europeans.  But that would be a more serious concern if this were a more serious proposition.  Aside from the sheer absurdity of finding planets to live on and then moving humanity there en masse, the very time line of "1000 years" puts this whole proposition into the realm of the religious and apocalyptic, not in the realm of the brief history of time.

Let's start with the idea we can colonize another planet, and eventually "save" humanity by moving people there.  It's the same idea Elon Musk has, and there is already a minor stirring of protest against it.  That complaint, however, has more to do with "Elysium" than it does with the logistical problems.

The Elon Musk idea floating about is to build a colony on Mars out of pods that would look something like the picture above.  This idea is comparable, apparently, to Europeans coming to the Americas in the 16th century.  Except the Europeans didn't have to bring food, water, shelter, and air, in short an entire biosphere, with them.  And they found people here who could help them grow the foods they were unfamiliar with, in a climate they were unfamiliar with, especially when many of them weren't farmers themselves.

Who is gonna help us on Mars?  And has anybody ever thought of the wisdom of sending some farmers along?

The slightest mechanical or physical weakness in the artificial environment, and everyone on Mars dies.  The least impairment in the food supply, and everybody dies. And how do we know they are dead?  Radio silence?  And what do we do about it?  There isn't even a ship, yet, with enough payload capacity to lift the equipment and people needed to start a Martian colony.  It isn't imagined that a ship will be built with capacity to return payload from Mars, a la the Lunar Module and Command Module of the Apollo moon missions.  How does this colony exist without constant resupply from Earth? And frankly, who pays for that?  Elon Musk?

Besides, at what point does the miracle occur, and the colony begin terraforming Mars?  Because that's pretty much the only way we leave the "cradle" and survive on another planet; by making it into Earth, I mean.

I know our popular American history says rugged individualists ventured across the Mississippi and on and on until they hit the Pacific coast with no thought of culture or amenities or anything but "freedom," but it just ain't so.  Culture and art and even opera and Shakespeare traveled across the continent as rapidly as any group of people in any location could manage to make it happen.  They longed for art and culture the way we do now.  Jf all you can possibly do is exist, exist within a tiny environment with no hope of any sustained contact with Earth, and without human culture, again:  is that a life worth living?  Or is it a fate worse than death?

Setting aside the perfectly legitimate concerns about social justice in the "who goes to Mars and beyond?" issue, does this whole really make sense to anybody?  And if so:  why?  And is mere existence the only value human beings hold?  Because if it is, we might as well go now in a mass suicide.

And to dig a bit deeper into the whole question of feasibility, what is "terraforming" and how do we do it?  With giant nuclear reactor engines, as in "Aliens"?  With trees and Johnny Appleseed, as in The Martian Chronicles?   One solution is as grounded in hard science as the other.  And whence come the materials to make this technology which more materials and technology will then ship to planets which can be terraformed?  (So far as I can tell, Mars is the only viable candidate in the solar system, and it may be too far from the Sun.)  And what do you use?  Do those nuclear reactors generate the microbes and bacterium necessary for life?  Do they generate the entire eco-sphere upon which human life depends? Returning earthworms to the American continent, and bringing in bees, literally transformed the agriculture of this continent.  E.O. Wilson tells us how important ants, in their various species, are to the planet.  Will we transport species of ants and worms and insects to Mars?  If not, how will we hope to terraform it?

And why 1000 years?  What's so important about that deadline?

When I studied the Hebrew scriptures we saw repeated figures like "40 days and 40 nights," and "40 years in the wilderness."  It was explained to us these were not literal numbers drawn from a Julian calendar, but rather expressions of long passages of time.  Sort of like saying "in 1000 years."  1000 years ago was the Middle Ages in Europe.  We are fond of saying there have been great advances in civilization since then.  1000 years before that, Europe was dominated by Rome.  Much as we have supposedly advanced, we still look to Rome as our model for many things; things like who is worthy to go into space, who is worthy among humanity to be the "future" of humanity.

Generally, as it was 2000 years ago, it's the Roman citizens and the people closest to Rome.  Anybody really imagining we're going to send Australian aborigines and the "untouchables" of India to colonize Mars?  Maybe to be our servants once we get established there, because our social systems still depend on exploitation, and what better model than to bring the exploited with us for just that purpose.

I mean, really, in 2000 years, has the social order really changed that much?

The first millennium was supposed to bring the return of Christ and the end of time.  When that didn't happen, Y2K was going to usher in our technological doom.  When that didn't happen, we will now use up the earth's resources and, hungry locusts that we are and apparently must continue to be, we will have to find new solar systems to exploit.  And we have to hurry; this third 1000 year mark is the charm.

Or the doom.  Well, Hawking is a scientist, so it must be true!  Right?

Saturday, April 25, 2015

A Saturday Confession

So today we get two posts at Salon on Religion (no surprise).  Neither from Amanda Marcotte, however.

One argues that Dawkins and the TV fundies are plying the same illegitimate nonsense.  Coincidentally, I found my copy of Karen Armstrong's book The Case for God (I think that's the title; it's in another room) that I never read and so started reading, and she spends some pages making essentially the same argument for religion and against reductionists like Dawkins as you'll find today in the Salon article.

The howler monkeys will have none of it; won't even engage the topic.   Instead, it's the usual shrieking and howling about "religion" (a term they define as narrowly and negatively as possible) and "New Atheists" (a label they despise) and "evidence" (a term never defined). A perfect example of pearls before swine.

The other is an excerpt from a book by a UCC pastor and professor in OKC.  The title sounded like it would tie in rather nicely with some observations about nuns by Fr. McBrien here.  Sadly, no; it's mostly a complaint that the church ain't what it used to be, popularity wise, immediately after WWII (our only historical touchstone, being as it still glows within recent memory, and ahistory is the attitude toward history or all good, red-blooded Americans.)  None of the facts he rather glibly cites about declining importance of the church is any different from what could have been, and was being, said about the church 50 years ago (literally), or has been said every decade since up to this one.  It, too, drew more ignorant howler monkeys.

I'm out.  When Karen Armstrong is a breath of fresh air, I've been in the jungle of intertoob comments so long I've gone native and lost any sense of what civilization is.  This I can't continue to do.  The swine eat the pearls and then turn and trample me.  Why spend any more time slopping them? (At Salon, I mean, not elsewhere.)

Gonna feel good to start living up to this resolution.