"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

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Bits 'n' pieces

And today I learn that "analytics" is about "finding the reasoned facts."  Which is an epistemologically interesting assertions (where do I find them?  And where do "reasoned facts" originate?).

Today I also saw a homeless man, riding a bicycle against the traffic on a rather narrow street.  I presume he was homeless because he seemed distracted in that way that living on the streets will do to you:  a little turned away from all that was around him, while at the same time hyperaware of his situation and the attention it drew to him.  He also seemed to have all his worldly possessions (a bedroll, primarily) on his back, and his bicycle clearly hadn't come new from a bike shop; not any time recently, anyway.

I wonder if he was particularly concerned with the lack of widespread knowledge in America of the Big Bang Theory, or how many people accepted the theory of evolution; or, for that matter, how many Americans were concerned with what sort of soteriology Christians should espouse.

The British Prime Minister got himself in a bit of a tangle recently by referring to Britain as a "Christian Nation."  My response to that is not "How dare he?" but "What in the world does that mean?"  Confession to a statement of belief?  Allegiance to a set of doctrines?  Having a state church?

Or how people in Britain behave toward the poor, the marginalized, the widow, orphan, and the alien among them?

As one commenter at Religion Dispatches put it, on a related Cameron statement about Easter:

I am delighted and encouraged to hear that David Cameron has stressed the importance of explaining to young people the significance of Easter. Presumably that will include emphasising that, fundamentally, the resurrection was God's vindication of Jesus of Nazareth, the northern radical executed in the southern capital for his relentless attack on the wealth, power, and hypocrisy of the religious and political establishment.
I'm just guessing none of that enters into Mr. Cameron's consideration as to what makes a "Christian nation."

It is sometimes pointed out, by critics of Christianity, that Paul didn't know the gospel stories of Jesus (and there's no evidence from the letters that he did; aside from the Last Supper, Paul has no story of the life of Jesus of Nazareth to tell at all, and precious little about his teachings).  This is actually a point in Paul's favor, and in the church's favor.  Paul's emphasis is on what Jesus did, not what Jesus said; and to Paul, Jesus was faithful in his life and actions to God even to death.  To Paul, the resurrection of Jesus was the vindication of how Jesus lived.  We find it easy to re-interpret the sayings of Jesus preserved in the gospels (the "eye of the needle" was not a needle's eye but a narrow gate, for example.  It's not at all true, but it's a comforting way of reading a very uncomfortable remark about wealth and the basiliea tou theou.)  We find it even easier to overlook Jesus's actions:  his forgiveness offered to prostitutes and beggars and thieves; his directive that we take care of each other (which we value far less than the "Great Commandment" that we make disciples of all nations.  Witnessing one's faith in words is so much easier than washing someone's feet.).

On the radio, on the way home this morning, I heard four learned persons discuss the problems of poverty in America:  some advocated economic solutions, others said it was a matter of public policy, another that the root problem was in the culture of failing people in the inner cities, where 30% succeed and 70% fail, and why the 30% succeed is little appreciated or understood but must be used to teach the 70%.  Everyone had their answer, and the answer was always about how to rectify the situation of the "other."

And I wondered if that homeless man would care anymore about what they said, than about how many people in America don't know what a "theory" is in science, or even what most Christians really believe, as opposed to the caricature drawn by so many New Atheists.  If we found the reasoned facts about poverty, or homelessness, or even science education in America, what would that mean?  Wouldn't they have to prompt us to do something?

Is that what facts do?  Prompt us to take action?  Or is it something else?

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

But misinformation, and my misinformation?

Yes, this is bad:

“About 4 in 10 say they are not too confident or outright disbelieve that the earth is warming, mostly a result of man-made heat-trapping gases, that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old or that life on Earth evolved through a process of natural selection, though most were at least somewhat confident in each of those concepts. But a narrow majority — 51 percent — questions the Big Bang theory.”

But then, honestly, so is this:

Last year, the Dawkins Foundation posted an Internet meme claiming that Easter is named after the Babylonian goddess Ishtar, which was dragged out again by contrarians who reposted it to remind everyone what Easter is “really” about. This secret history of Easter is a bit like the childhood myth that consuming Pop Rocks and Coke at the same time causes your stomach to explode: It doesn't matter if it's true, it's fun to tell people because it makes you feel smart. These smug proclamations are not only irritating, they’re a disturbing index of our level of discourse about religion. Surrounding the Easter/Ishtar conspiracy theory is a toxic brew of anti-intellectualism, heresiological claims masquerading as historical ones, and simple sadism and incivility facilitated by new media.
I mean I can, like the White Queen, believe six impossible things before breakfast.  Or I can accept that the earth is 4.5 billion years old and yet still not accept evolution as a sound theory, or climate change as an explanation for the current state of the planetary atmosphere.  I might even doubt the veracity of the Big Bang Theory; though to what end, I can't begin to imagine.

But if that is a mark of ignorance that should not stand, what about the yeasty ignorance about Christianity?  Because apparently that Bell Jar post from last year is still generating controversy this year (the post itself is based on Wikipedia articles, which I'd hardly call scholarly.  Truth be told the origin of the English word "Easter" is murky.  Oestre is not attested by any other document (like the Edda) than Bede's history, and the only other support is the 19th century work of Jacob Grimm, who likewise didn't find any documentary evidence for this "goddess."  I'm not going to say this "goddess" ever existed in German culture, based on that evidence.  So where does the word come from?  Who knows?).

Most of this, as Laycock points out, originates with the Reformation, and Protestants determined to put away "Popish" heresies.  You have only to read the Puritans on the reasons not to celebrate "Christmas" to get a flavor of their disgust with anything connected to the Church in Rome, and that's coming almost 150 years after Luther.  The rest of it arises from post-Enlightenment Europe; as intellectuals tried to separate themselves from the church of Augustine and Aquinas, they turned to making up stories about the church and Christianity, the better to denigrate them.  As an example of where that can get you, you can (and should) read Laycock's article to find out how Dawkins is making common cause with a man who insists the architecture of Manhattan models Stonehenge; prove that both are places of pagan idolatry.

You can't make this stuff up.  Well, you can, if you don't care that you don't know what you are talking about.

Consider which actually has more impact in the world:  understanding the Big Bang Theory, or thinking the Church (Roman or just Christian in general) is actually a pagan conspiracy, or so impure (and the interest in purity, or holiness, continues to intrigue me.  Ironies abound.) as to be actually harmful to people just from its impure beginnings.  It's a short step from that to deciding religious people are not worthy of consideration or regard, or their choice of worship.  Rejecting the Big Bang Theory won't really affect the way I treat others; but treating their religious beliefs and practices as something to be derided because they are based on fallacies and inaccuracies that you take as "hidden history," may well have an affect on how people live their lives; or just what you think of them, and the lives they lead..

Ignorance leads to many things, and knowledge is not the cure for ignorance many think it is.  Still, I have a hard time despairing over how many Americans understand the theory of evolution or the theory of the origin of the cosmos.  Far more influential on individual and social behavior is misinformation and outright lies on what underlies religious beliefs and practices.  As Laycock says:

As a religion professor, I usually have both devout Christians and committed Atheists in my classroom. Both types of students can enhance the class and add to the discussion. What I can't stand—from either group—is smugness. Atheists and Christians often have different values and different visions of what constitutes the good society. Through earnest dialogue about these differences, common values can be found and understandings can be reached. But progress has never been made through sloppy historical claims and spewing bile across the Internet.
Unless your purpose is not to make progress (in which case ignorance is bliss), perhaps we should consider more knowledge and education on many subjects, not just on a few grand cosmic theories that really don't have that much to do with getting through the day.

Monday, April 21, 2014

O Brave New World!

Never again let anybody tell me Richard Dawkins is an intelligent man:

But if you can breed cattle for milk yield, horses for running speed, and dogs for herding skill, why on Earth should it be impossible to breed humans for mathematical, musical or athletic ability? Objections such as "these are not one-dimensional abilities" apply equally to cows, horses and dogs and never stopped anybody in practice.
I'm all for discussions of uncomfortable topics, and Mr. Dawkins even avers that there might be some arguments which would persuade him such "breeding" was not a good idea (and who, in this day and age, but an upper-class Brit would still put forth arguments for the values of human "breeding"?  Is he really that un-self-aware?  Apparently so.)  But if Aldous Huxley didn't persuade us to settle this argument, and Social Darwinism (to which Bryan was objecting in the Scopes trial) didn't persuade us to settle this argument, and Adolph Hitler didn't persuade us to settle this argument, then "V" was right and ideas ARE bulletproof, and that's the main problem with them.

And if Richard Dawkins thinks it's a good idea to open that can of worms once more, from his privileged position as on Oxford don and a man of renown, then God have mercy on him.

Because no one else will.

But don't ever tell me he is an intelligent man, unless you are willing to encourage the ideas of Charles Murray, too.  Because, after all, Mr. Murray was only trying to prompt a discussion, too; and human intelligence, or musical or athletic ability, is just like breeding a cow to produce more milk, or a horse to win more races.

Simple, right?  And breeding people for function; what could be wrong with that?

Somebody take the podium away from Mr. Dawkins; he's making an ass of himself with it.*

*Yes, I know it's 8 years old.  Funny I'd never heard of it before, but then the champions of Dawkins are apparently only smart enough to publish complete crap as "reason and science."

Once more into the apophatic....

Considering again the case of Barbara Ehrenreich:

A number of thinkers have reached the conclusion that the aniconic ramification of the monotheistic creed is the undoing and demythologization of theism whence it follows that the final iconoclastic achievement of monotheism would call for destroying the idol of the very God personified as the deity that must be worshipped without being idolized.

Levinas had this in mind when he wrote in Totality and Infinity that monotheistic faith implies a metaphysical atheism, that is, the true expression of monotheism requires one to divest the notion of God of all mythic personifications and all positive characterizations.

In the profoundly ironic formulation of Henri Atlan,“the ultimate idol is the personal God of theology . . . the only discourse about God that is not idolatrous is necessarily an atheistic discourse. Alternatively, whatever the discourse, the only God who is not an idol is a God who is not a God.”
As it is the case with other mystical traditions, so the kabbalah adds to this insight to the extent that masters of this esoteric gnosis have incorporated the apophatic heritage of Neoplatonism into their experience and description of the infinite.

Rosenzweig’s quip that the path of the via negativa leads to the insight that mysticism and atheism shake hands succinctly captures the sense that the proposition that God can be defined only in his indefinable nature is notionally on a par with both the mystical avowal of the ineffable and the atheistic lack of belief, the conviction of faith and the skepticism of doubt.

On this crucial point, a range of thinkers has been influenced by Derrida’s insistence that the unsaying of apophatic discourse, which is common in mystical testimonies, has always been suspected of atheism. Interestingly, Derrida also spoke of kabbalah as a kind of atheism, by which he intends the polysemic indeterminacy that subverts the monosemic essentializing of God as the metaphysical absolute that is fully present.

Mystical atheism, by contrast, entails a paradoxical reversal: God is most present in the place from which God is most absent. (emphasis added)

Nevertheless, the apophatic claims about God’s super-essentiality, God’s being more than being, which is still a being—albeit the being of nonbeing—are indicative of what Heidegger named ontotheology. On the face of it, Derrida is correct and we must distinguish the deconstructive logic of dénégation and traditional negative theology: in the case of the latter, nothing can be spoken because the infinitude of being is beyond language, whereas in the case of the former, the limit of language bespeaks that there is nothing of which to speak, neither the presence of absence nor the absence of presence.

I offer the possibility that the gap between these two worldviews might be narrowed on the grounds that the apophatic pronouncement, literally, a speaking-away, connotes not simply the affirmation of what is negated but also the negation of what is affirmed: the being that is beyond being is a being only insofar as it is not a being—its being, in other words, is not to be.

To empty the fullness of emptiness of the emptiness of its fullness is the task that always remains before us.
I had to take enough of that to give it a proper context. These are concepts worth exploring; and further example that, if you think this is merely atheism, from a theist or an a-theist point of you, then perhaps your God is still too small.

I have nothing to add at the moment; mostly I wanted this in a place where I could look at it from time to time.

The Perils of a Little Knowledge

Cardinal Dolan speaks when he really, really shouldn't:
"We have a world that can kind of detect frauds. We have a world that is a little tired maybe, of marketing and polls and PR stuff, and here you've got a guy who is just so genuine and sincere, he doesn't need anybody to script him," Dolan told CBS News' Norah O'Donnell. "People in general are on the side of virtue and goodness, and everything that's noble and decent in the human person. And when you see somebody like Pope Francis that can tap into that and just seem to emanate that, and call that forth from everybody, people are going to take a second look at religion and say, 'Wow, maybe belief is worth it.'"

Belief is certainly "worth it."  But so is a bit of common knowledge; the kind probably not readily accessible to a "prince of the church."  And there the problems begin:

"By Lord, all you have to do is walk into a 7-Eleven or any shop on any street in America and have access to [contraceptives] -- is that right to access those and to have them paid for? Is that such a towering good that it would suffocate the rights of conscience? I don't think so, but I hope the Supreme Court agrees," he said.

"That [Hobby Lobby is] fighting for that, willing to go all the way to the Supreme Court -- boy, they sure have my admiration," he added.
He's wrong on all the substance, here.  Not only on the obvious, as to the prevalence and ease with which one can purchase contraceptives, or the types of contraceptives Hobby Lobby is objecting to (IUD's?  At a 7-Eleven?); but on who is paying for them.

Health insurance is not given to you by your employer because your employer is so kind-hearted.  It is a benefit, earned under the terms of your employment.  You purchase it with your labor, just like you earn your paycheck.  Stop working, you lose both the paycheck and the health insurance.  So "to have them paid for" is a category error, of the kind Cardinal Dolan should understand.  You don't have contraception "paid for."  You pay for it by working.  You pay for it by exchanging your labor for health insurance.

The same way Cardinal Dolan earns his clothing, housing, transportation, and meals, despite having taken a vow of poverty

And really, he should be careful about speaking so freely on the detection of "frauds."

Easter Monday: The God Who Wasn't There

The heart of the controversy revolved around the cultural, intellectual, and technological changes that were sweeping through American society at the turn of the century, and how these changes impacted traditional Protestant modes of faith. Religious conservatives, in particular, felt threatened by what they saw. Darwinism offered an account of the origins of the universe at odds with the biblical account of creation, while the German model of higher criticism treated the bible as a collection of ancient myths and folklore, enabling biblical scholars to read the sacred text, like any other ancient writing, against the backdrop of its own social and literary context.

For liberals like Harry Emerson Fosdick, the proper Christian response to these new discoveries in science, history, and literature was to combine them with received Christian truth—exactly, according to Fosdick, as Christians had always done in the past when they encountered new truths. “The new knowledge and the old faith [have] to be blended in a new combination,” Fosdick argued in his famous 1922 sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”—a new combination that for Fosdick demanded a Christianity without a virgin birth or literal second coming of Christ (among other things), which, he argued, were impossible to believe in, in this new scientific age.

Conservatives, on the other hand, viewed the new discoveries in science and higher criticism as attacks on traditional truth of the bible; where the former conflicted with the latter, it was the Christian’s duty to place him or herself under the authority of received biblical truth, most especially those truths directly assailed by the secular forces of Modernism. Five “fundamentals” of biblical truth were initially proposed in 1910 to which all Christians should assent (the inerrancy of the bible; the virgin birth; the substitutionary atonement; the historicity of the miracles; the second coming). Others would soon follow.
I've spent too much time among the happy ignorati at Slate and Salon (in the comments; and they are happy in their ignorance), the ones who, Dan Mathewson puts it, are "pissed at religious conservative pissiness!" (A lovely thought in its own right.)  Here we get analysis of history and a recognition that, like it or not, religion is a reality in the world.  Among the happy ignorati, religion is a thing to be abolished because reason will set you free.  It is, of course, a simple identity/boundary issue: if "they" are religious, how can I be rational?  Not unlike the argument that is "they" are gay, how can I be straight, or if "they" accept black people as people, how can I continue to be "white"?

But don't point that out, or you'll REALLY piss 'em off.

I am actually more interested in the source of the five "fundamentals," and in the idea that without these, one is not a Christian.  I learned in seminary that the only recognized traits of Christianity were baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (even Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, the "inclusive" version of the Trinitarian formula, is not acceptable), acceptance of baptism and communion/eucharist as sacraments, and affirmation of Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of God.

To be honest, I only vaguely remember the last two.  The baptismal formula is the only one a practicing pastor has to get right; how one conducts the eucharist, and how often, and to whom, is up to the pastor and his church judicatory.  Even who you let join the church as a member is a denominational matter.

I'm not sure Fosdick was wrong, by the way, though I don't use language like "no one can believe that anymore," because it puts too much emphasis on "belief" as "believing what you know ain't so." (Crossan on metaphor here).

And I'm still curious as to why atheists, on-line anyway, are so obsessed with ideas about religion.  They aren't trained in philosophy of religion, or in philosophy at all (such as Jewish philosophy, a field it would surprise most of them to learn is out there).  I'm bemused by arguments that the Hebrew Scriptures are about a war-God who wants blood sacrifice and destruction of one's enemies, a sort of cosmic Conan the Barbarian.  Don't, of course, point out this doesn't speak well of Judaism, lest you be accuse of injecting anti-semitism into the argument as a red herring.  And above all don't mention this view of those scriptures ignores almost 90% of them, which teach justice for the widow, the orphan, and the alien (i.e., non-Hebrews).  It ain't worth the trouble to tell the pig it doesn't know anything.

I have spent too much time in the wrong places; again.

This obsession with religion is a curious thing.  It is a kind of theomania, perhaps:  an obsession with thinking about God that is itself a form of idolatry.  The term is Martin Buber's, and new to me, but I'm grateful to have it:  it is a useful corrective in Christianity as well as Judaism.  And it is useful to remember Judaism has philosophies, but no proper theology (which is why Buber would coin a term like that); Christianity could learn something from that now, at long last.

And maybe it could start here:

Early on, I was also struck by the apophatic dimensions found in Hinduism, Taoism, and some forms of Buddhism. My study of kabbalistic and Hasidic texts only reinforced this interest. Based on the many years of reflecting on the apophatic, I came to the conclusion that recent attempts to harness the apophatic tradition of Western Neoplatonism together with Derridean deconstruction in order to construct a viable postmodern negative theology a religion without religion—are not radical enough!

Not only are these philosophies of transcendence guilty of a turn to theology that defies the phenomenological presupposition of an immanent phenomenality, but they fall short on their own terms, since they persist in employing metaphorical language that personalizes transcendence and thereby run the risk of undermining the irreducible alterity and invisibility attributed to the transcendent other.

The logic of apophasis, if permitted to run its course without the intervention of preexisting theological beliefs, would surpass the metaphysical dyad of presence and absence in the atheological unmasking of the mask and the consequent transcending of the need to posit some form of transcendence that is not ultimately a facet of immanence, a something more that is not in fact merely another expression of the totality of what there is, provided we understand that totality as the network of indefinite and ever-evolving patterns of interconnectivity rather than as a fixed system of predictable and quantifiable data.

Apophatic theologies, accordingly, must be supplanted by a more far-reaching apophasis that surpasses the theolatrous impulse that lies coiled in the crux of theism, an apophasis of the apophasis, based on the acceptance of an absolute nothingness—to be distinguished from the nothingness of an absolute—that does not signify the unknowable One but the manifold that is the pleromatic abyss at being’s core, the zero gravitational energy of empty space, the effluent emptiness that is the womb of all becoming.

On this score, the much celebrated metaphor of the gift would give way to the more neutral and less theologically charged notion of an unconditional givenness in which the distinction between giver and given collapses. To think givenness in its most elemental phenomenological sense is to allow the apparent to appear as given without presuming a causal agency that would turn that given into a gift.
This, I hope, will be this book’s contribution to the philosophy of religion at large, and it is with respect to this ungifting of the gift that my indebtedness to Heidegger (and to Derrida, who is similarly indebted to Heidegger) is most discernible. As I suggest in the sixth chapter, Heidegger’s idea of es gibt, “it gives,” implies a giving without any agency of givenness, that is, a giving that gives with no will to give and no desire to be given.

Now THAT is a mental scrub brush that reaches into the deepest corners and clears out the cobwebs!  Avanti!  The game is afoot, again!

"America has a 'profound hatred of the weak and the poor.' "--Matt Taibbi

Notes toward a discussion, or:  A tedious, semi-scholarly addendum to what I was saying below, via Reza Aslan:

Look, if you are someone who believes that Jesus is literally God, then he has no context, and who cares where he lived or who he lived with or what his cultural or religious biases may have been? Simply by trying to place Jesus in the context of this time and place, I must be offending some very conservative Christians. But to be perfectly frank, the real venomous, critical response from this book hasn’t come from the religious right, it’s come from the political right — and that’s what First Things is — a politically right-wing magazine, much more so than it’s a religious right-wing [magazine].

The real Jesus, the historical Jesus, the Middle Eastern Jew who advocated for the poor, whose politics were adamantly, I would even say violently, against the wealthy, is a Jesus that is very threatening to a lot of these guys in the right wing. I mean, if you can with a straight face stand up and say that Jesus would want to get rid of food stamps and welfare, as some of these guys do, obviously you’re going to feel extremely threatened by historians who present a Jesus who in actuality stands against everything that you pretend that he stands for.

Which, as I've said before, is completely in line with the prophets; that's one reason the Muslims consider Jesus a prophet, as well.  In one sense, he was.  But to separate Jesus from the prophets, we need to redefine the "word of God" as starting with Jesus.  And to better effect that break, we need to redefine the Hebrew Scriptures as the "Old Testament" where God was only interested in kingship (God tells the people, through Saul, that a king is the worst thing they can have.  God turns out to be right.) and bloody rule, sprinkled with lots of "thou shalt nots."

Though I have to say this is a statement that could only be made by a non-pastor:

 So they’re looking to branch out into interpretations that haven’t previously been available?
 Yes, looking for interpretations that are freed from the bounds of institutional dogma.
No; people are looking for entertainment ("Noah") or something that interests them, but doesn't challenge them to change they way they live.  Nothing about "Noah" or Aslan's book challenges a person to change their life.  It entertains, or it makes them feel smugly superior to the "fundegelicals" they imagine all Christians (because the only Christians are American Christians) to be.  And a great deal of that can be linked to what Noam Chomsky observed:

If you care about other people, that’s now a very dangerous idea. If you care about other people, you might try to organize to undermine power and authority. That’s not going to happen if you care only about yourself. Maybe you can become rich, but you don’t care whether other people’s kids can go to school, or can afford food to eat, or things like that. In the United States, that’s called “libertarian” for some wild reason. I mean, it’s actually highly authoritarian, but that doctrine is extremely important for power systems as a way of atomizing and undermining the public.
Or even what Chomsky observed about Christianity and Pope Francis.

Just as a grace note (I told you these were just notes):  if you want to see an example of an almost Pavlovian response to stimulus, drop in on any article at Salon which mentions "religion," "New Atheists," "Dawkins," "Hitchens," or "God."  There is one up now about Ayaan Hirsi Ali and the war on terror (basically, how she champions are war on exterminating an idea).  The comments are all about religion and atheism and all the tired arguments of the New Atheists (who have apparently decided that is a derogatory term and should be treated as the new "n-word").  The responses are provoked no matter what the stimulus.

It's almost a test-tube for a sociological study.  It's essentially the same arguments, howled over and over again.  It's like wandering into a bar fight where everybody is arguing over who has the biggest member, ad nauseum.   I mention this because there isn't a lot of discussion at this article about the political issues Aslan raises, but there is a lot of discussion about atheism and Christianity, a/ka the usual bar fight about who swings the biggest pipe.

And, serendipity or synchronicity or coincidence or action of the Holy Ghost (take your pick), NTodd had a link to this up the day I wrote this; and the language below is language I completely agree with, and would post at the head of the comment section at Salon and Slate whenever religion, Dawkins, God, etc., is somehow invoked in any article there:

Look, go ahead and debate religion. Go ahead and tell Christians why what they believe is wrong. That’s totally fine and, in fact, I encourage it. A little debate and critical thinking are good for everyone. But do it intelligently. Get to know the Bible, so you actually know what you’re disagreeing with when you form an argument. Brush up on your theology so that you can explain why it’s so wrong. And have some compassion, for Christ’s sake – be polite and respectful when you enter into a debate, even when the person you’re debating with loses their cool. You want to prove that you’re better, more enlightened than Christians? Great, do it by remaining rational and level-headed in the face of someone who’s willing to stoop to personal attacks. To behave otherwise is to be just as bad as the people you’re debating.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Easter Sunday 2014

It should start in a darkened room.  Not a dark room, just a darkened one.  No lights but what comes in the windows, and those preferably stained glass.  "Stained" is the right term here; the right metaphor.  Stained glass straining the light that wants to get in.  Not yet; we are not yet ready for the light.

A darkened room; and a large room, not a small one.  Not huge, but large, with a high ceiling; and with people.  Not crowds, unless you like crowds.  As many as you think necessary; as many as should be there.  The first Easter was a solitary affair, but they ran to get others, so you shouldn't be alone, but neither do you need the whole world in attendance.

Now, song.  Mournful song.  "Were you there when they crucified my Lord?" is appropriate, because too many of those there will have skipped Good Friday; and who can blame them?  Death comes to us all, why should we be in haste to remember the death of our God?  And if we don't recognize it as that, more shame on us.  But if we do not care to come, year after year, to acknowledge it, let that be in our hearts.  Song, preferably sung only by one, and light.  A candle.  A huge candle, perhaps four feet tall; but a single flame.  A single candle.  And that's all the light.  Were you there?

If you have an orchestra, this would be a good time for the opening of Bach's Easter Oratorio.  Only strings can emulate light in song, only Bach can put sunlight into music with such joy.  But an organ will do, and a hymn, if no small orchestra is available.  It doesn't matter.  The joy is all that matters.  Joy and more song and now lights and flowers, the lilies everyone associates with Easter, and the cloths on the altar, on the pulpit, on the lectern:  the beautiful pure white ecclesial cloths of Easter.  Bring those out now.  And sing, and rejoice, and listen to the word, from the beginning to now, the lessons and the word, and celebrate the waters of life and baptism, the waters separated from the firmament as the earth is separated from the rain-bearing heavens.  And listen finally to the word, the word of God to God's people on this day of greatest celebration, this day of triumph, of life over death, joy over sorrow, rejoicing over mourning.


Saturday, April 19, 2014

Meditation for Holy Saturday 2014

This is what made the penny drop:

“Transcendence” should really be called “Him,” with a capital H: Born again in digital space and connected to the Internet, Depp’s character becomes an avaricious, power-hungry and petulant God, the unbearable, finger-in-every-pie overlord of the Old Testament.

I have nothing against Mr. O'Hehir's review, and I didn't want to see "Transcendence" in the first place (he confirms my impression from the trailers; it's tedious sci-fi, at best.  It's the film we've all seen before.), but that one line about God and the "Old Testament" finally made me realize, the rejection of the God of the Old Testament is not only a kind of latent anti-semitism we can easily trace back to John's Gospel (for historical reasons), but it also represents a rejection of what the God of Abraham was really all about:

social justice.

The contrast is always set up between Jesus in the New Testament as loving and kind and only wanting the best for you, and the God of the Old Testament, a thundering warlord who only wants to punish sins.  Of course, Jesus says all kinds of harsh things ("It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven!") which get re-interpreted or just ignored so we can preach some version of the Gospel of Wealth ("Jesus loves me, this I know, my fat checkbook tells me so!").  And all that harsh "Thou shalt not" stuff belongs to the Hebrews and the shepherds and the warrior god of...well, not of Israel, that would be anti-semitic.  So  the "Old Testament" isn't even the scriptures of the Jews because, well, that would be anti-semitic.

But it's a dead certainty the God of the Old Testament (but not the Jewish scriptures!) is avaricious, power-hungry, and petulant.  Mostly because he tells us to do things we don't want to do.

That's really what it comes down to.  The stories of the Hebrew Scriptures we all know are in Genesis or Exodus:  the Garden of Eden, the Flood, the Red Sea.  The only one extant is David and Goliath, and the story of Jonah and the whale (which we never connect to Nineveh and Tyre).

Proverbs, Psalms, Job, Ecclesiastes, all the major and minor prophets:  ignored.  The consistent message of the God of Abraham, from Genesis through Zechariah:  that God wants justice; concern for the widow and orphan; fairness between peoples, humility, and indeed, great joy:  lost in the mistaken notion that the god of the Old Testament requires endless blood sacrifice and the crushing of all his enemies, and the god of the New Testament requires only that you live as fat, dumb, and happy as you possibly can.  The only two choices are Conan the Barbarian, or Jesus the Hippy.

The social justice of the teachings of Jesus is as neatly snipped out as Thomas Jefferson removed all stories of miracles; the social justice of the law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets is completely ignored in favor of a few stories of war in a few books that no one ever reads more than one or two verses from:  the ones that confirm their vision of what that god is all about.  The laws are reduced to a few "Thou shalt nots" and to not eating shellfish.

And why?  Because we love violence and abhor the other?  Yeah, pretty much.  We prefer to leave out of the call to Israel (and the covenant of the Old Testament is with Israel, not with humanity.) anything that might smack of obligation to the other:  the widow, the orphan, the poor, the dispossessed, the alien among us.

As Dom Crossan points out, these are not small things.  God calls Israel (and Jesus his disciples) to care for the poor and needy in a rich society; the widows and orphans, in a patriarchal society; the alien, in a tribal society.

Do we really think human existence has changed so much since the days of the "Bronze Age shepherds," or 1st century Palestine?  Has human society changed so much that we don't recognize those categories anymore?  We have eliminated polio and smallpox, and we're no longer quite as tribal as before.  But is there a fundamental change that makes these directives as foreign to us as the Middle English of Chaucer, the Old English of Beowulf?

So it is easier to caricature the Old Testament as reflecting a god of vengeance and violence, and the New Testament presenting a god who loves us just the way we are.  Because, as Eliot observed, human kind cannot bear very much reality.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Cross and the Lynching Tree

I have to give Borman credit; he understood the importance of the church in society:
When we National Socialists speak of a belief in God, we do not mean the same thing as naive Christians and their clerical exploiters have in mind -- some anthropoid creature sitting around somewhere in the spheres.  Instead, our intent is to open people's eyes to the fact that, aside from this small planet earth, which is relatively insignificant with relation to the vast universe, there is an unimaginably great number of other celestial bodies in the universe, an infinite number of bodies surrounded as is the sun by planets and, like these planets, in turn, similarly surrounded by smaller bodies, moons.  The power of nature's law that propels these infinite bodies through the universe is what we call the omnipotent force, or God.  The claim that this universal force could somehow care for the fate of each individual, of each bacillus here on earth, that it might be influenced by so-called prayers or other astounding things, rests to a great degree on the naivete or on profit-minded impertinence.

We National Socialists, on the other hand, demand of ourselves that we live as naturally as possible -- that is to say, in accord with the natural laws of life.  The more precisely we understand and observe the laws of nature and of life and the more closely we adhere to them, the more we correspond to the will of that omnipotent force.  The more we understand that will, the greater our successes shall be.

The logical conclusion that flows from this basic incompatibility between National Socialist and Christian views is that we must reject any increase in existing support for and any sponsorship of emerging Christian denominations.  For this reason, we have definitively abandoned the idea of establishing an Evangelical Lutheran Reich Church formed from a conglomeration of the various denominations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church because the Protestant Church is as hostile to us as the Catholic Church.  Offering any form of support to the Protestant Church would ultimately work against us. [...]
If you take this language seriously, the opening sentence there describes what Schonbaumfeld calls the "Target View" of religion.  That's a term within philosophy of religion, not theology.  We need to clearly delineate we are speaking in terms of philosophy of religion, now.  Anyway, the "target view" is this:

God is supposed to be roughly a person without a body, essentially omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly free, perfectly good, creator and sustainer of any universe there may be, a source of moral obligation, eternal and necessary.

That goes a bit further than Borman, but Borman means to be dismissive, so he limits himself to an "antrophoid creature."  Still, his point is to effect a reductio ad absurdum, and so dispense with Christianity altogether.

That's a fairly common trope these days, in certain circles.  So let's start there:

I would definitely call O'Hara unreasonable.  I would say, if this is religious belief, then it's all superstition.  But I would ridicules it:  not by saying it is based on insufficient evidence.  I would say:  here is a man who is cheating himself.  You can say:  this man is ridiculous because he believes, and bases it on weak reasons.  (Wittgenstein)

Borman clearly wants to ridicule religious belief, and to do so, he constructs a version of God he can easily dismiss.  To which (because I must be brief here), Wittgenstein would say:  "the way you use the word 'God' does not show whom you mean---but rather what you mean."  In brief, Borman's description of God is invalid to the believer, and if that is invalid, his entire argument is invalid.  To clarify (or perhaps just further muddy) the argument, consider:

Suppose I say that the body will rot, and another says "No. Particles will rejoin in a thousand years, and there will be a Resurrection of you." If some said: "Wittgenstein, do you believe in this?" I'd say: "No." "Do you contradict the man?" I'd say: "No."
Suppose someone were a believer and said: "I believe in a Last Judgment," and I said: "Well, I'm not so sure. Possibly." You would say that there is an enormous gulf between us.  If he said "There is a German aeroplane overhead," and I said "Possibly I'm not so sure," you'd say we were fairly near.  It isn't a question of my being anywhere near him, but on an entirely different plane, which you could express by saying: "You mean something altogether different, Wittgenstein."
Whether something is a blunder or not--it is a blunder in a particular system. Just as something is a blunder in a particular game and not in another.
And what makes (I hope) quick sense of this is another observation by Wittgenstein:

In religion every level of discourse must have its appropriate form of expression which has no sense at a lower level.  This doctrine, which means something at a higher level, is null and void for someone who is still at the lower level; he can only understand it wrongly and so these words are not valid for such a person.

The very concept of God, in other words, is unavailable to a non-believer.  If you do not accept the presence (or existence, if you prefer) of God, no argument will persuade you because you've already decided the matter.  If you do accept the presence of God, no argument is necessary.  You can claim neutrality (not the position of Borman, you must note) on the matter, but still no argument will move you in either direction without accepting the premise that either God is real, or God is not real (let's leave the complexity of "existence" out of the discussion for the moment).  If you are stuck on the question of God's 'reality,' the concept of God is never even in the offering.  This is why Borman starts where he does.

Borman, in the first quote from Wittgenstein in that group above, would say that he can contradict the believer in the resurrection, even as just a rejoining of particles.  Wittgenstein, however, is right, because the believer and Borman or Wittgenstein are using words in a particular language game, and using those words in different ways. This is perfectly permissible:  physicists say that quarks have "charm," but they don't mean "charm" in the same way we say a person has charm.  That's a simple example, but let it suffice.  We don't all mean the same thing when we use the same words, and those uses are sometimes perfectly permissible, even necessary.  Just as in physics (for example) there are levels of discourse at which a number in an equation can also be "real", just so at certain levels of religious discourse there are concepts that are understood, although they aren't at a lower level.  So while some Christians may still regard God as an anthropoid figure, that doesn't mean one has to regard God as a superhuman figure in order to be a religious believer.  So we can safely dismiss Borman's  first argument; it is not dispositive of the issue of belief, merely descriptive of his own position.  And the only value of it is that it leads him to his next argument.

The next argument is basically the argument of Social Darwinism:  that the strong deserve to survive, the weak deserve to die.  It's not too far removed from the basic American attitude today, as Matt Taibbi has noted, although for "strong" substitute "rich," and for "weak" substitute "poor."  This doesn't make us Nazis; but if we are too close for comfort, don't blame the analysis.

So we can easily discard Borman's second argument, and see from its derivation the wisdom of considering that, if you eliminate religion from society (and using religion as a basis to attack others is as much an elimination of religion as wedding atheism to government power to exterminate religion), you end up with a society based on principles no one really wants to live under.

I'm fascinated by the final paragraph because it speaks so much to the power of the church, even if that power is merely moral power ("How many divisions does the Pope have?").  Not only must God be dismissed as a basis for discussion (the first paragraph), and in order to clear the way for the rule of those with power over those without (or from whom power is taken or withheld), but it is necessary to eliminate the church from society so this rule can be absolute and final in all matters.

I hesitate to draw a parallel to arguments that churches in America should be taxed in order to control them, or should be more sharply restricted from participating in public policy than they already are; but the sentiments are not far removed from those of Borman.  Again, similarity does not indicate solidarity; a valid argument for keeping church and state separate is not a sign of creeping Nazism.  However, the question of why church and state should be kept separate should focus on maintaining the validity of the church and the state.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, after all, a Lutheran priest himself, opposed the acquiescence of the church to the Nazis, precisely because the Lutheran church was (and still is) the state church in Germany, supported (as it still is) by state taxes.  That the church cannot be granted its validity in society is an argument for power, not for society.  Borman's sentiments are clear:  the interests of society are the interests of the Nazis, and the interests of the Nazis are not served by the continued existence of the Church, Protestant or Roman Catholic.

If you want to consider the true importance of the Church in society, and of religion ("Religion is a search for meaning when you don't have it in this world."--James Cone), take the time to listen to James Cone talk to Bill Moyers, and get the view directly contrary to Borman, and the reason Borman would eliminate religion from society in order to fully control society.

It is because religion allows the other to be fully other; and Borman's vision of society cannot allow that.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Trace

The story of that picture can be found here.

As I've said before, ideas are bulletproof; and that's the problem.  This, for example, is certainly not an idea I'd have thought was alive and well in the late 20th century, or still stirring events in the 21st century.

By the time Mack saw him speak in 1984, Skousen was a leading light of right-wing radicalism, a theocrat who believed the decline of America began with passage of the 14th Amendment and its guarantee of equality for the former slaves and others. A former Salt Lake City police chief who spent 11 years with the FBI, Skousen had toured the country in the late 1950s and into the 1960s to whip up anti-communist fervor under the banner of the John Birch Society. His best-selling book in 1958, The Naked Capitalist, warned of a cabal of global elites who were scheming to create a worldwide, collectivist government — what the JBS and Patriot groups now fear as the “New World Order.” He demonized the federal regulatory agencies and wanted to abolish civil rights laws, labor unions, the minimum wage, the income and estate taxes, the direct election of U.S. senators, the wall between church and state, and many other government programs and initiatives.

Yes, before Barack Obama or Agenda 21, it was George H. W. Bush and the "New World Order."  But before all that, it was the Civil War, and the 14th Amendment.

And you thought all the crazed and paranoid racists were in the Old South.

"Mack," there, by the way, is Richard Mack, former sheriff of Graham County, Arizona.  He is now known to us for being the founder of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association.  Why do we care, you ask?  Because he's directly connected to Cliven Bundy:

It was Richard Mack, a former Arizona county sheriff and founder of the Constitutional Sheriffs, who had said Monday that the gathered self-described militia had considered using women as human shields if a gunfight with federal officials erupted. He elaborated on those comments Monday in an interview with radio host Ben Swann.

“It was a tactical plot that I was trying to get them to use,” Mack said in comments flagged by The Raw Story. “If they’re going to start killing people, I’m sorry, but to show the world how ruthless these people are, women needed to be the first ones shot.”

 “I’m sorry, that sounds horrible,” he continued. “I would have put my own wife or daughters there, and I would have been screaming bloody murder to watch them die. I would gone next, I would have been the next one to be killed. I’m not afraid to die here. I’m willing to die here.”

Yeah, that guy; a guy happy to martyr others for his cause.  A guy happy to see his wife and daughters die for his cause.  "My death, is it possible?," Jacques Derrida asked.  To Mr. Mack even the deaths of his wife and children are not really possible, or he wouldn't talk so blithely about them.  Aside from that, why are we interested in "Sheriff Mack"?

“Disarm the federal bureaucrats," Bundy said in an interview with Fox News's Sean Hannity. He had been asked to respond to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's assertion that the Bundy Ranch standoff (as it is now officially known on Wikipedia) was "not over."

Bundy had already  asked  his local sheriff to arrest the BLM officials who were rounding up his cattle, but he directed his new message to "every county sheriff in the United States."

Bundy's statement brought to the forefront a theory that some on the far right have held for decades: that local sheriffs are ordained with an immense amount of power, going beyond that of even federal authorities. In the Bundy Ranch dispute, that theory is the driving ideology of some of the groups that have rallied to the rancher's side. Those include the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association and the Oath Keepers, whose members are law enforcement officials and military who have pledged to defend the Constitution against government overreach.

Bundy has already said the federal court was not a court of competent jurisdiction over this dispute; he denies the legitimacy of the claims of the BLM to collect grazing fees from him.  Why?  He denies the legitimacy of the federal government.  And what does this illegitimacy trace back to?  Well, in at least one direction, to the 14th Amendment, which gave equal rights to people who don't look like Cliven Bundy or any of the 1000+ people who turned out last week to protest the actions of the BLM.

But this dispute didn't arise because Barack Obama was inaugurated into the Presidency.  There is no direct link between Bundy and Obama.  That doesn't mean Bundy's claims are not about race; but it does mean that, in America, it's never about race.

Cliven Bundy insists this dispute is about the legitimacy of governments and of law.  The driving force, however, is identity.  Cliven Bundy identifies with a handful of cranks.  I've no doubt most of the ranchers in Arizona and Utah quietly pay their grazing fees and don't lionize Bundy for getting away with not paying his.  He's an outlier, even in the West.  But the driving force here is who he identifies with, and the basis upon which he breaks with the U.S. government.  No doubt many ranchers in the area resent some federal government policy or other, or even resent how much of the West is federal, not private, land.  That's kinda like resenting the authority of your landlord, even as you want to stay on your landlord's good side.  Bundy's resentment, though, is rooted in the idea that such power must be illegitimate; and he gets support for that idea from people like "Sheriff Mack."  Who in turn got that idea from W. Cleon Skousen; who thought the 14th Amendment proved the federal government had overstepped the Constitution, by amending the Constitution.

Which returns us to the vision of the "Founding Fathers," and just how much control that "vision" should have in our public policy debates today.  Because if you adhere closely enough to what the "Founding Fathers intended," it's really not that hard to argue changes like the 14th Amendment violate the Constitution itself.  I mean, if the Founding Fathers had intended it, it would have been part of the "Bill of Rights," right?

But it's not about race; because it's never about race.  And the reason the 14th Amendment wasn't in the Constitution to begin with, was not because of race; or class; or gender; or power.


No, the Constitution was a vision about who should be in power; and who shouldn't.  And it still is.  And who shouldn't be in power are individuals who think any power that limits their power, and recognizes the legitimacy of others, is itself illegitimate.  And that's where it is about race, even though it's never about race.  There is a clear thread, if you wish to follow it, from complaints about the 14th Amendment to complaints about the legitimacy of the Affordable Care Act and the Voting Rights Act.

It is that hidden wound that keeps on bleeding.