"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, January 28, 2015

If only education were a unitary thing....

I'm cribbing this from Charlie Pierce, but if you want a reason to keep universities in the hands of the church (no, I'm no advocating all colleges and universities revert to religious hands, just arguendo), this presents you with a good one:

But it doesn't take much sleuthing to uncover the Republicans' distaste for the centers and institutes dotting the UNC landscape that were created to explore issues of poverty, civil rights, the environment and energy policy. Places like the Center for Work, Poverty and Opportunity at UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. Central University's Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change. The board of governors has 34 such centers under scrutiny. Why? The explanation is found in a paper published two weeks ago by conservatives at the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy-a nonprofit named for Art Pope's father. The paper is entitled "Renewal in the University," and it sings the praises of academic centers which "restore the spirit of inquiry." But not centers that look into poverty. No, they are the problem, writes author Jay Schalin, because they threaten "thousands of years of Western thought." What we need instead, Schalin argues, is to replace such disruptive centers with new centers paid for by rich people like Pope-"privately funded academic centers" that reinforce for students the traditional values of "liberty" and "free-market economics."
I would exhaust my day looking for examples in the "thousands of years of Western thought" that are examinations of the problems and solutions to poverty, starting with the Greeks (who were making statues of the poor, to draw attention to the failures of Greek social order), coming up through the work of Dr. King and Dorothy Day (to name just two).  The bulk of those arguments would be from, or informed by, the Christian church, an institution also responsible for the very idea of a university system.  William Buckley famously argued that the university should return to its religious status in order to regain its moral authority.  I never really agreed with him, but at least he was more sensible than this.

Concern for poverty is far more "traditional" in Western thought than concern for liberty; and especially for "free-market economics."  On the latter, the best response I can point to (still), is Dr. Swift's "Modest Proposal."

I only fear Mr. Schalin would miss the satire in it.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

"New Styles of Architecture, a change of heart..."

"The system that generates anxiety cannot relate to steadfast love."--Walter Brueggeman

This clause was enough to make me pay attention:  "In a world of scarce resources...."

And already we're back to Solomon and the theology of scarcity v. the theology of plenty (which alone puts the lie to the atheist chestnut that the scriptures are Bronze Age (or Iron Age, opinions vary) texts with no relevance to modern existence.  Then again, modern atheists are merely evangelicals insisting their position on God is the only one that should be allowed; that it another argument, but its also quite certainly an argument from scarcity, an argument for a theology of scarcity.)

Southern Beale quotes that from the American Enterprise Institute, who uses the opening rhetorical twitch to argue for, of course, limited use of scarce resources to actually help, you know, people.  But that is always the point in the theology of scarcity:  people are too damned expensive!  Other things must be protected first, especially, in the modern worship of the market as a great green god:  money. Because, you see:

In a world of scarce resources, a slightly higher mortality rate is an acceptable price to pay for certain goals — including more cash for other programs, such as those that help the poor; less government coercion and more individual liberty; more health-care choice for consumers, allowing them to find plans that better fit their needs; more money for taxpayers to spend themselves; and less federal health-care spending. This opinion is not immoral. Such choices are inevitable. They are made all the time.
Especially by the people in power.  Consider these quotes as a partial response to the presumption of AEI:

People nowadays interchange gifts and favors out of friendship, but buying and selling is considered absolutely inconsistent with the mutual benevolence which should prevail between citizens and the sense of community of interest which supports our social system. According to our ideas, buying and selling is essentially anti-social in all its tendencies. It is an education in self-seeking at the expense of others, and no society whose citizens are trained in such a school can possibly rise above a very low grade of civilization -- Edward Bellamy

The ultimate aim of production is not production of goods but the production of free human beings associated with one another on terms of equality. -- John Dewey

I confess that I am not charmed with the ideal of life held out by those who think that the normal state of human beings is that of struggling to get on; that the trampling, crushing, elbowing, and treading on each other's heels, which form the existing type of social life, are the most desirable lot of human beings -- John Stuart Mill

The gross national product includes air pollution and advertising for cigarettes, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors, and jails for the people who break them ... It does not allow for the health of our families, the quality of thier education, or the joy of their play. -- Robert F. Kennedy

We must recognize that we can't solve our problems now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power....[What is required is] a radical restructuring of the architecture of American society. -- Martin Luther King, Jr
Start with Bellamy's idea of education that must be something other than an education in buying and selling.  He calls that "an education in self seeking at the expense of others, and no society whose citizens are trained in such a school can possibly rise above a very low grade of civilization."  No education today reflects Dewey's idea:  "the production of free human beings associated with one another on terms of equality."  Education today is all aimed at getting a job, and being a consumer and a producer of goods, at seeking at the expense of others.  The most desirable lot of human beings is reflected back to us in "The Wolf of Wall Street" or the celebrity of Donald Trump and the Kardashians.  As Robert Kennedy points out, the GNP does not allow for the health of our families; indeed, the AEI says it can't:  resources are too scarce.  Triage must be performed.  Some must die, and so decrease the surplus population.  People are too expensive; the are just too damned many of you!

As my friend at Thought Criminal never tires of pointing out:  what atheist position is going to champion the ideals of Bellamy, Dewey, Mill, Kennedy, or King?  Stephen Weinberg fancies himself a moral avatar because he is brave enough to admit his selfishness, that he cares first for his family and then for his friends and really not at all for society at large.  Ethics understands this as an entirely unethical stance (has Weinberg even read Crito?); Weinberg proclaims it the new basis for ethics.  O brave new world, that has such ignorant creatures in it!

Let not the wise boast of their wisdom,
nor the valiant of their valour;
let not the wealthy boast of their wealth;
but if anyone must boast, let him boast of this:
that he understands and acknowledges me.
For I am the LORD, I show unfailing love,
I do justice and right on the earth;
for in these I take pleasure.
This is the word of the LORD.

You may want to dismiss that because it is a religious text that makes a religious claim.  But tell me what Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris has written that is of greater moral value than that; tell me what Bill Maher has said which contributes more to the moral discourse of humanity than those words.  Is it better to be anti-religious, or to show unfailing love and do justice and right on the earth, and to take pleasure in those things than in one's own sense of cleverness?  Which is better: the pronouncements of AEI on how to deal with scarcity, the ramblings of Stephen Weinberg on what he imagines ethics are, or this "Bronze Age" text:

Woe to him who says,
"I shall build myself a spacious palace
with airy roof chambers and
windows set in it.
It will be paneled with cedar
and painted with vermilion."
Though your cedar is so splendid,
does that prove you a king?
Think of your father: he ate and drank,
dealt justly and fairly;
all went well with him.
He upheld the cause of the lowly and poor;
then all was well.
Did not this show he knew me? says the Lord.
But your eyes and your heart are set on naught but gain,
set only on the innocent blood you can shed,
on the cruel acts of tyranny you perpetrate.

Jeremiah 22: 14-17 (REB)

Both texts from the same book of the Bible; both rest on the authority of God, but not on presenting  the commands of God.  The king who dealt justly and fairly proved he knew God; but the world rewards the king who sets his eyes and heart on gain alone, ignoring the innocent blood he sheds ("In a world of scarce resources....") and the cruel acts of tyranny such greed must perpetuate.  Justice and fairness, after all, require constant self-reflection, constant regard for the other and constant evaluation of one's motives and actions.  Stephen Weinberg's ethic starts and ends with regard for himself.  The cause of the lowly and the poor is of no importance to him whatsoever.  How does he deal justly and fairly with anything?

The theology of scarcity is that there isn't enough now to go around, so we must hoard what we have and protect it from other claimants.  We must regard them as savages who have to be eliminated.  The theology of scarcity is that we cannot share, because to share is to lose.  The widow who fed Elijah during the famine should have saved her oil and meal for herself and her son; even though it probably would have run out, and they would have starved to death.  But who can know the future, and who can trust in a world that is actually abundant?  Better to trust that there will never be enough.

Better?  According to whom?

After a while the stream dried up, for there had been no rain in the land. Then the word of the Lord came to him: “Go now to Zarephath, a village of Sidon, and stay there; I have commanded a widow there to feed you.’ He went off to Zarephath, and when he reached the entrance to the village, he saw a widow gathering sticks. He called to her, ‘Please bring me a little water in a pitcher to drink.’ As she went to fetch it, he called after her, ‘Bring me, please, a piece of bread as well.’ But she answered, “As the Lord your God lives, I have no food baked, only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a flask. I am just gathering two or three sticks to go and cook it for my son and myself before we die.’ ‘Have no fear,’ Elijah said, ‘go and do as you have said. But first make me a small cake from what you have and bring it out to me, and after that make something for your son and yourself. For this is the word of the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of flour will not give out, nor the flask of oil fail, until the Lord sends rain on the land.’ She went and did as Elijah had said, and there was food for him and for her family for a long time. The jar of flour did not give out, nor did the flask of oil, as the word of the Lord foretold through Elijah. 1 Kings 17:7-16 (REB)

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Delusions of Godhood...again

I can be fairly accused of worrying too much about the ignorance of Richard Dawkins, but Thought Criminal sends me in search of Marilyn Robinson's review of The God Delusion.  The original is behind a paywall, so I have to link to a pirated version.  I promise to take only a few bites:

The odd thing about Dawkins’s work, considering his job description, is that it does not itself seem the product of a mind informed by the physics of the last century or so. A reader might find it instructive to start with his last chapter, in which he does acknowledge the fact of quantum theory and certain of its implications. This chapter is an interesting lens through which to consider the primary argument of the book, especially his use of physicality and materiality as standards for determining the real and objective existence of anything, along with his use of commonplace experience as the standard of reasonableness and — a favorite word — probability. He does this despite his awareness that the physical and the material are artifacts of the scale at which reality is perceived. For us, he says, “matter is a useful construct.” Quoting Steve Grand, a computer scientist who specializes in artificial intelligence, he offers these thoughts on the fluidity of matter: “Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you. Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made. If that doesn’t make the hair stand up on the back of your neck, read it again until it does, because it is important.” Earlier, Dawkins attributes the origins of the illusion that we have a soul to the persistence of a childish or primitive tendency toward dualism — “Our innate dualism prepares us to believe in a ’soul’ which inhabits the body rather than being integrally part of the body. Such a disembodied spirit can easily be imagined to move on somewhere else after the death of the body.” Yet the image of deeper reality invoked by him here suggests a basis for the ancient intuition of the persistence of the self despite the transiency of the elements of its physical embodiment.

I do not wish to recruit science to the cause of religion. My point is simply that Dawkins’s critique of religion cannot properly be called scientific. His thinking is reminiscent of logical positivism. That school, however, which meant to carry out a purge of language it considered meaningless, specifically metaphysics and theology, by subjecting statements to the “scientific” test of verifiability, plunged into all sorts of interesting difficulty, as rigorous thought tends to do. Dawkins acknowledges no difficulty. He has a simple-as-that, plain-as-day approach to the grandest questions, unencumbered by doubt, consistency, or countervailing information.

I don't disagree with Robinson's point, but there is nothing innate about dualism.  It is a Platonic concept, and rather peculiar to Western thought.  Perpetuated by the Church (as was Aristotle, who wouldn't have been keen on it.  When Aquinas folded "the Philosopher" into Catholic doctrine, he was writing at a level beyond the ken of almost everyone else in the Church at the time.  So much for "liberal" Christianity and the "true" Christianity found only among the people), it found renewed expression in Descartes' ventures into philosophy.  But Descartes' dualism was later derided as the "ghost in the machine."  Because dualism is not innate, it is cultural and philosophical. Language can be fairly said to be innate; we do seem to have, in Stephen Pinker's words, a "language instinct."  Dualism is a cultural artifact.

This isn't that hard to learn about.  Critiques of dualism are not new, and they aren't arcane.  Dawkins teaches at Oxford.  And yet he's completely clueless on the subject that is his current claim to fame.  Too bad I can't get tenure so I can spout nonsense and make money on it.  P.T. Barnum was right.

“There is something breathtakingly condescending, as well as inhumane, about the sacrificing of anyone, especially children, on the altar of ‘diversity’ and the virtue of preserving a variety of religious traditions. The rest of us are happy with our cars and computers, our vaccines and antibiotics. But you quaint little people with your bonnets and breeches, your horse buggies, your archaic dialect and your earth-closet privies, you enrich our lives. Of course you must be allowed to trap your children with you in your seventeenth-century time warp, otherwise something irretrievable would be lost to us: a part of the wonderful diversity of human culture.”

Dawkins is writing there of the Amish.   Robinson precedes that quote with a paragraph about Dawkins' apparent ignorance of "the history of modern authoritarianism."  Really, for an Oxford professor, Dawkins seems singularly uninterested in the subjects he writes about.  It isn't really hard to find out the Amish give their children the choice of staying in the community, or leaving.  They prefer members of their community stay voluntarily, not by force.  It may not be a choice you want to make, but it is one freely made by the children themselves (as free as any choice is made).  If Dawkins had a child would he begrudge the child's decision to, say, take monastic orders?  Again, these things aren't hard to find out, or too complicated to consider from more than one point of view; but it is all clearly beneath the research efforts of an Oxford don.

Call it breathtaking condescension, if you will.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

I think we all saw this coming

Amid a fledgling primary campaign, rural Iowa state lawmaker Joni Ernst crafted a quirky hardscrabble persona that propelled her to both the forefront of the race and, eventually, the United States Senate....

The truth about her family’s farm roots and living within one’s means, however, is more complex. Relatives of Ernst (née: Culver), based in Red Oak, Iowa (population: 5,568) have received over $460,000 in farm subsidies between 1995 and 2009. Ernst’s father, Richard Culver, was given $14,705 in conservation payments and $23,690 in commodity subsidies by the federal government–with all but twelve dollars allocated for corn support. Richard’s brother, Dallas Culver, benefited from $367,141 in federal agricultural aid, with over $250,000 geared toward corn subsidies. And the brothers’ late grandfather Harold Culver received $57,479 from Washington—again, mostly corn subsidies—between 1995 and 2001. He passed away in January 2003.
If you're doing the math that's an average of something over $30,000 per year for 14 years.  Not to begrudge farmers their subsidies, but imagine any family receiving that much in aid from AFDC or even unemployment benefits.

It would never happen, because such people need to learn not to depend on government "handouts."  But farmer's children can depend on them, get government jobs, be in the military, go to the U.S. Senate, and still rail against "government spending."

Yeah, I know:  same as it ever was.  Kinda hard to say you learned to "live within your means," though, when you had a government backstop of $30,000.00 a year that wasn't affected by how much you earned that year (at least not to the extent it would be for welfare payments).

Buh-bye, Joni.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

What Joni Ernst meant to say last night

It was her "Republican cloth coat" speech.

 You know you were thinking it. If you're of a certain age.....*

*I might as well explain that, and save you the trouble:  "And the bar is now buried below the level of the ground, and she says it was a "cloth coat Republican" speech, which is a reference that I understood, but which is lost on anyone under the age of 60."

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Can't you take a joke?

No, seriously:  this will not stand!

"When we're insulted, and when we've had an image, then I think we'll have to sue, I think we'll have to go to court, in order to have these words removed," Hidalgo told CNN's Christiane Amanpour. "The image of Paris has been prejudiced, and the honor of Paris has been prejudiced."

Why?  Because, FoxNews, that's why!

Hidalgo's comments about a lawsuit came after a series of Fox segments suggested there are parts of Paris and other European cities where Islamic law is practiced and where police are fearful to work. The "no-go" zone segments were widely mocked and challenged as inaccurate, particularly by French media outlets.

Some critics have accused the network of using the controversial "no-go zones" idea to perpetuate a fearful narrative about Muslims, particularly in the days since terror attacks in Paris.

One Fox show, for example, displayed an inaccurate map of the alleged "no-go zones" in and around Paris. On another show, a guest who was identified as a security expert claimed that Birmingham, England is a "totally Muslim city where non-Muslims don't go in."
Free legal advice to FoxNews:  claim it was an attempt at humor.

No, seriously; I understand that's a defense Dieudonne has available to him under French law, that no one could take the comment seriously, therefore it was not harmful.

It could work for Fox; that, or insanity.

Same thing, really.*

P.S.  "No-go zones" are a wonderfully self-reinforcing meme.  No one ever knows anyone who goes there or is from there, because no one can go there!  It's a no-go zone!  Which proves they must exist; I mean, if you knew someone from a no-go zone, it wouldn't be a no-go zone, would it?

It only stands to reason.

It's some catch, that Catch-22.

Monday, January 19, 2015

"Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!"

The stone man is the safest remembrance of all

One of the more popular statements of Dr. King is drawn from his most famous speech:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

In the context of the speech, it is a radical call.  Let us be more radical, still, and renew the challenges of Dr. King:

Don't pass judgment, so you won't be judged.  Don't forget, the judgment you hand out will be the judgment you get back.  And the standard you apply will be the standard applied to you.  Why do you notice the sliver in your friend's eye, but overlook the timber in your own?  How can you say to your friend, 'Let me get the sliver out of your eye,' when there is a timber in your own?  You phony, first take the timber out of your own eye and then you'll see well enough to remove the sliver from your friend's eye.

--Matthew 7:1-5, SV.

Don't pass judgment, and you won't be judged; don't condemn, and you won't be condemned; forgive, and you'll be forgiven.  Give, and it will be given to you; they'll put in your lap a full measure, packed down, sifted and overflowing.  For the standard you apply will be the standard applied to you.

--Luke 6:37-38, SV

Jean Paul Sartre tried to create an ethic that didn't involve God.  His conclusion was that each person, in choosing an ethic for herself, chose for all humankind.  The ethic of the atheist Frenchman in the 20th century was little different from the one propounded by the Jewish prophet in the 1st century in the latter's most famous sermon.  And it is still a wildly radical standard that we still struggle to accept as valid, much less to put into action.

We can say that is the fault of religion, or religious institutions; but without them we wouldn't have these words preserved for 2000 years.  Without religious institutions, Dr. King would never have been selected to lead the civil rights movement and become the inspirational figure he is today, even if that figure is a pale image of the prophet he actually was.  And what institution can stop us from living according to a standard we accept as right?

And still Dr. King's source material is more radical than he dared to be;* and King was so radical we all sanitize him to fit a plaster saint into a niche in our moral houses.   Religion is dangerous, but not because it inspires us to violence.  We need no inspiration to seek power over others, we only need an excuse, and if it isn't religion it's tribalism or nationalism or simply racism.  Religion is dangerous because it dares us to be more fair, more just, more equitable, than we even imagine is possible.  Religion points us to a world that terrifies us with it's very vision:  imagine a world without judgment, a world ruled by forgiveness and not condemnation, a world where giving is more important than receiving, where the standard we apply is acknowledged to be the standard applied to us.  Is such a world possible?  And yet, if it isn't, what hope have we?

That is the danger of religion.  That is the radical nature of belief.  That is why Dr. King was a prophet, and why there is yet a long journey before any of us can see the Promised Land.

*A source material his defenders still deny.  West's article at Salon mentions King's Christianity if only because West is a seminary professor.  But the "real" Dr. King?  This article makes no mention of King's Christian faith at all, while it purports to return to consideration of his "real legacy."  Yet listen to King's speeches, or read his words, and try to ignore the religious basis for his radical vision.  The only way to do it is to ignore King in favor of a "King" of your imagination.  And in comments:  where are the atheists decrying any use of religion in the public square, declaring religion "dangerous" and based on "myths" and something that needs to be expunged not just from the body politic but from civilization itself?  The usual suspects are there; but their praise of King is unqualified; and absolutely silent on the fact that he was a Christian minister from the start to the finish of his public career.

Thus do we honor the legacy of Dr. King.....