Adventus

"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, October 31, 2007

Hallowe'en



Upon that night, when fairies light
On Cassilis Downans dance,
Or owre the lays, in splendid blaze,
On sprightly coursers prance;
Or for Colean the route is ta'en,
Beneath the moon's pale beams;
There, up the cove, to stray and rove,
Among the rocks and streams
To sport that night.

Among the bonny winding banks,
Where Doon rins, wimplin' clear,
Where Bruce ance ruled the martial ranks,
And shook his Carrick spear,
Some merry, friendly, country-folks,
Together did convene,
To burn their nits, and pou their stocks,
And haud their Halloween
Fu' blithe that night.

The lasses feat, and cleanly neat,
Mair braw than when they're fine;
Their faces blithe, fu' sweetly kythe,
Hearts leal, and warm, and kin';
The lads sae trig, wi' wooer-babs,
Weel knotted on their garten,
Some unco blate, and some wi' gabs,
Gar lasses' hearts gang startin'
Whiles fast at night.

Then, first and foremost, through the kail,
Their stocks maun a' be sought ance;
They steek their een, and graip and wale,
For muckle anes and straught anes.
Poor hav'rel Will fell aff the drift,
And wander'd through the bow-kail,
And pou't, for want o' better shift,
A runt was like a sow-tail,
Sae bow't that night.

Then, staught or crooked, yird or nane,
They roar and cry a' throu'ther;
The very wee things, todlin', rin,
Wi' stocks out owre their shouther;
And gif the custoc's sweet or sour.
Wi' joctelegs they taste them;
Syne cozily, aboon the door,
Wi cannie care, they've placed them
To lie that night.

The lasses staw frae 'mang them a'
To pou their stalks of corn:
But Rab slips out, and jinks about,
Behint the muckle thorn:
He grippet Nelly hard and fast;
Loud skirl'd a' the lasses;
But her tap-pickle maist was lost,
When kitlin' in the fause-house
Wi' him that night.

The auld guidwife's well-hoordit nits,
Are round and round divided,
And monie lads' and lasses' fates
Are there that night decided:
Some kindle coothie, side by side,
And burn thegither trimly;
Some start awa, wi' saucy pride,
And jump out-owre the chimlie
Fu' high that night.

Jean slips in twa wi' tentie ee;
Wha 'twas she wadna tell;
But this is Jock, and this is me,
She says in to hersel:
He bleezed owre her, and she owre him,
As they wad never mair part;
Till, fuff! he started up the lum,
And Jean had e'en a sair heart
To see't that night.

Poor Willie, wi' his bow-kail runt,
Was brunt wi' primsie Mallie;
And Mallie, nae doubt, took the drunt,
To be compared to Willie;
Mall's nit lap out wi' pridefu' fling,
And her ain fit it brunt it;
While Willie lap, and swore by jing,
'Twas just the way he wanted
To be that night.

Nell had the fause-house in her min',
She pits hersel and Rob in;
In loving bleeze they sweetly join,
Till white in ase they're sobbin';
Nell's heart was dancin' at the view,
She whisper'd Rob to leuk for't:
Rob, stowlins, prie'd her bonny mou',
Fu' cozie in the neuk for't,
Unseen that night.

But Merran sat behint their backs,
Her thoughts on Andrew Bell;
She lea'es them gashin' at their cracks,
And slips out by hersel:
She through the yard the nearest taks,
And to the kiln goes then,
And darklins graipit for the bauks,
And in the blue-clue throws then,
Right fear't that night.

And aye she win't, and aye she swat,
I wat she made nae jaukin',
Till something held within the pat,
Guid Lord! but she was quakin'!
But whether 'was the deil himsel,
Or whether 'twas a bauk-en',
Or whether it was Andrew Bell,
She didna wait on talkin'
To spier that night.

Wee Jennie to her grannie says,
"Will ye go wi' me, grannie?
I'll eat the apple at the glass
I gat frae Uncle Johnnie:"
She fuff't her pipe wi' sic a lunt,
In wrath she was sae vap'rin',
She notice't na, an aizle brunt
Her braw new worset apron
Out through that night.

"Ye little skelpie-limmer's face!
I daur you try sic sportin',
As seek the foul thief ony place,
For him to spae your fortune.
Nae doubt but ye may get a sight!
Great cause ye hae to fear it;
For mony a ane has gotten a fright,
And lived and died deleeret
On sic a night.

"Ae hairst afore the Sherramoor, --
I mind't as weel's yestreen,
I was a gilpey then, I'm sure
I wasna past fifteen;
The simmer had been cauld and wat,
And stuff was unco green;
And aye a rantin' kirn we gat,
And just on Halloween
It fell that night.

"Our stibble-rig was Rab M'Graen,
A clever sturdy fallow:
His son gat Eppie Sim wi' wean,
That lived in Achmacalla:
He gat hemp-seed, I mind it weel,
And he made unco light o't;
But mony a day was by himsel,
He was sae sairly frighted
That very night."

Then up gat fechtin' Jamie Fleck,
And he swore by his conscience,
That he could saw hemp-seed a peck;
For it was a' but nonsense.
The auld guidman raught down the pock,
And out a hanfu' gied him;
Syne bade him slip frae 'mang the folk,
Some time when nae ane see'd him,
And try't that night.

He marches through amang the stacks,
Though he was something sturtin;
The graip he for a harrow taks.
And haurls it at his curpin;
And every now and then he says,
"Hemp-seed, I saw thee,
And her that is to be my lass,
Come after me, and draw thee
As fast this night."

He whistled up Lord Lennox' march
To keep his courage cheery;
Although his hair began to arch,
He was say fley'd and eerie:
Till presently he hears a squeak,
And then a grane and gruntle;
He by his shouther gae a keek,
And tumbled wi' a wintle
Out-owre that night.

He roar'd a horrid murder-shout,
In dreadfu' desperation!
And young and auld came runnin' out
To hear the sad narration;
He swore 'twas hilchin Jean M'Craw,
Or crouchie Merran Humphie,
Till, stop! she trotted through them
And wha was it but grumphie
Asteer that night!

Meg fain wad to the barn hae gaen,
To win three wechts o' naething;
But for to meet the deil her lane,
She pat but little faith in:
She gies the herd a pickle nits,
And two red-cheekit apples,
To watch, while for the barn she sets,
In hopes to see Tam Kipples
That very nicht.

She turns the key wi cannie thraw,
And owre the threshold ventures;
But first on Sawnie gies a ca'
Syne bauldly in she enters:
A ratton rattled up the wa',
And she cried, Lord, preserve her!
And ran through midden-hole and a',
And pray'd wi' zeal and fervour,
Fu' fast that night;

They hoy't out Will wi' sair advice;
They hecht him some fine braw ane;
It chanced the stack he faddom'd thrice
Was timmer-propt for thrawin';
He taks a swirlie, auld moss-oak,
For some black grousome carlin;
And loot a winze, and drew a stroke,
Till skin in blypes cam haurlin'
Aff's nieves that night.

A wanton widow Leezie was,
As canty as a kittlin;
But, och! that night amang the shaws,
She got a fearfu' settlin'!
She through the whins, and by the cairn,
And owre the hill gaed scrievin,
Whare three lairds' lands met at a burn
To dip her left sark-sleeve in,
Was bent that night.

Whyles owre a linn the burnie plays,
As through the glen it wimpl't;
Whyles round a rocky scaur it strays;
Whyles in a wiel it dimpl't;
Whyles glitter'd to the nightly rays,
Wi' bickering, dancing dazzle;
Whyles cookit underneath the braes,
Below the spreading hazel,
Unseen that night.

Among the brackens, on the brae,
Between her and the moon,
The deil, or else an outler quey,
Gat up and gae a croon:
Poor Leezie's heart maist lap the hool!
Near lav'rock-height she jumpit;
but mist a fit, and in the pool
Out-owre the lugs she plumpit,
Wi' a plunge that night.

In order, on the clean hearth-stane,
The luggies three are ranged,
And every time great care is ta'en',
To see them duly changed:
Auld Uncle John, wha wedlock joys
Sin' Mar's year did desire,
Because he gat the toom dish thrice,
He heaved them on the fire
In wrath that night.

Wi' merry sangs, and friendly cracks,
I wat they didna weary;
And unco tales, and funny jokes,
Their sports were cheap and cheery;
Till butter'd so'ns, wi' fragrant lunt,
Set a' their gabs a-steerin';
Syne, wi' a social glass o' strunt,
They parted aff careerin'
Fu' blythe that night.


--Robert Burns

Or you can just go back and read what I said last year.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Long Emergency and the Short Imagination

Atrios got me thinking about this when he linked to Matthew Yglesias, who also is puzzled by the concerns of people like Kunstler. But frankly, it takes little imagination to realize Yglesias talks like someone who thinks food comes from a grocery store, not a farm fertilized and harvested and basically maintained, by petro chemicals. I have never read Kunstler's book, nor have I read the article Yglesias links to, but the whole thing made me dig this up:

The oil age began in 1859 and peaked in 1970. The oil endowment allowed us to use the stored energy of millions of years of sunlight. Unfortunately the fossil-fuel honeymoon is almost over.

It has been estimated that without coal, oil, or natural gas, it would take several planets just like Earth to support the current number of humans living.

World oil discovery peaked in the 1960's. Since 1999, the discovery of large oil and gas fields has collapsed: sixteen in 200, eight in 2001, three in 2002, and none in 2003.

There are half a billion cars and trucks currently in use around the world.

We will not be rescued by the wished-for hydrogen economy. Our daily enjoyment of oil and gas has given us the energy equivalent of three hundred slaves per person in the industrialized nations. No combination of alternative energies will permit us to continue living the way we do, or even close to it.

All the major systems that depend on oil, including manufacturing, trade, transportation, agriculture, and the financial markets that serve them, will begin to destabilize. The boundaries between politics, economics, and collective paranoia will dissolve.
As I said then: is even half of this right? Yglesias points to "hybrid cars" as our salvation. Except, as Kunstler points out, we have no energy source that will replace the energy we get, pound for pound or ounce for ounce, from petroleum. We may be able to run cars on electricity, but backhoes? Cement mixers? The huge dump trucks that haul the dirt and concrete away? You got a battery big enough to power the construction equipment it takes to build and maintain the US freeway system? An electric motor and battery powerful enough to drive a loaded 18 wheeler across the country, or drive a ship from China to Los Angeles?

Or really, really long extension cords? And you're going to replace the petroleum products in asphalt with...what, exactly? Or for the plastics in your computer? Most of products in our world, as the chemical industry is telling us in ads lately, is due to chemistry. Well, there's a reason they call it the "petro-chemical" industry, and it's not because Exxon owns large shares in DuPont.

Will this occassion a revolution? Atrios doubts it. But not all revolutions involve destruction of the social order and reigns of terror. I think Michael Klare is more right than wrong: the age of petroleum is over. What replaces it, is anyone's guess; and everyone's concern.

Are Kunstler or Klare right about everything? No; but then, Al Gore didn't have to be right about everything, either. Once you start examining how much of our modern life is based on petroleum, you can easily start asking: how much of our modern life can we maintain without petroleum?

And the answer is: not much at all. If that's not a revolution, I don't know what is.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

"Religion is responsibility or it is nothing at all."

This NYT Magazine article ("The Evangelical Crackup") is allowing me to trot out all my hobbyhorses. Begin with what I regard as a truly shameful quote:

“Even in evangelical circles, we are tired of the war, tired of the body bags,” the Rev. David Welsh, who took over late last year as senior pastor of Wichita’s large Central Christian Church, told me. “I think it is to the point where they are saying: ‘O.K., we have done as much good as we can. Now let’s just get out of there.’ ”
Good? Good? 4 million people turned into refugees; 600,000+ dead, per the Lancet study, as of 2006? 'a country completely eliminated and the region plunged into chaos from which there seems to be no good recovery? This is as much "good" as evangelicals can do? Now they'll just wash their hands of it and walk away?

Truly, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

But that is just one person's opinion; it cannot be fairly attributed to others. In other news in the article, some opinions do seem to be more widely shared:

[Frank Page of First Baptist Church in Taylors, S.C.] told convention delegates that Southern Baptists had become known too much for what they were against (abortion, evolution, homosexuality) instead of what they stand for (the Gospel). “I believe in the word of God,” he said after his election, “I am just not mad about it.” (It’s a formulation that comes up a lot in evangelical circles these days.)
In my early days commenting on blogs I was forced, repeatedly, to point out I was religious not because I was against something, but because I was for the Gospels. And I pointed out that politics, being about power, was all about defending a position against other positions, which meant you were always more against something, or someone, than for someone or something. Interesting to see that coming from a person who would consider me quite liberal, both politically and theologically.

And if this is right, evangelical churches are becoming more mainstream by the day. Indeed, this could almost be said to parallel the experience of the ancestor churches of the United Church of Christ, which both started out as very conservative, and have by now become quite liberal and socially active:

For the conservative Christian leadership, what is most worrisome about the evangelical disappointment with President Bush is that it coincides with a widening philosophical rift. Ever since they broke with the mainline Protestant churches nearly 100 years ago, the hallmark of evangelicals theology has been a vision of modern society as a sinking ship, sliding toward depravity and sin. For evangelicals, the altar call was the only life raft — a chance to accept Jesus Christ, rebirth and salvation. Falwell, Dobson and their generation saw their political activism as essentially defensive, fighting to keep traditional moral codes in place so their children could have a chance at the raft.

But many younger evangelicals — and some old-timers — take a less fatalistic view. For them, the born-again experience of accepting Jesus is just the beginning. What follows is a long-term process of “spiritual formation” that involves applying his teachings in the here and now. They do not see society as a moribund vessel. They talk more about a biblical imperative to fix up the ship by contributing to the betterment of their communities and the world. They support traditional charities but also public policies that address health care, race, poverty and the environment.
Of course, that shift to looking like the present-day UCC may take another 100 years or so, but stranger things have happened. And yeah, it happens as people become more a part of the social mainstream:

Secular sociologists say evangelicals’ changing view of society reflects their changing place in it. Once trailing in education and income, evangelicals have caught up over the last 40 years. “The social-issues arguments are the first manifestation of a rural outlook transposed into a more urban or suburban setting,” John Green, of the Pew Research Center, told me. “Now having been there for a while, that kind of hard-edged politics no longer appeals to them. They still care about abortion and gay marriage, but they are also interested in other, more middle-class arguments.”
Still, in case you were wondering, Jimmy Carter can no longer be considered "serious:"

“I think that a superpower ought to be the exemplification of a commitment to peace,” Carter told Hybels, who nodded along. “I would like for anyone in the world that’s threatened with conflict to say to themselves immediately: ‘Why don’t we go to Washington? They believe in peace and they will help us get peace.’ ” Carter added: “This is just a simple but important extrapolation from what a human being ought to do, and what a human being ought to do is what Jesus Christ did, who was a champion of peace.”
I mean, how could we do that an keep GE and Lockheed and all the other defense contractors in business?

I do have to say that Hybels is quoted in this article advocating for community change, but I've studied his model of ministry in seminary, and it's effectiveness as a change agent is dubious at best. His heart is in the right place, but as I've mentioned before, his results don't bear out his design. Changing hearts and minds is a much more difficult process than anyone appreciates until you try it, and I honestly believe the model of Jesus: an itinerant preacher who was executed for being a political troublemaker, is not an accidental model. Nor is it possible to reconcile it with being the leader of a mega-church; it's difficult even to reconcile it with being the pastor of a small church. It's back to that church of meaning and belonging v. church of sacrifice for meaning and belonging. Things are changing in the evangelical community, no doubt; but the more things change, the more they remain the same.

So what comes of this? I've seen it all before. The evangelical rise mirrored the power of very conservative Baptist churches in East Texas, where I grew up. For awhile the empahsis was on social issues, like desegregation or drug use or teenage sex and "free love." Then that ebbed, and even Southern Baptists I knew started to wonder about the importance of such issues in their daily, and their spiritual, lives. The pendulum just swings, back and forth. Which is not, in itself, a good thing either. To imagine you are on a swinging pendulum is to abandon all responsibility for your life and turn it over to a clockwork mechanism you can neither speed up nor slow down. There is a movement here, but it is nothing more than the natural movement of exhaustion, the flow of power out of the hands of those who thought they wielded it into other hands, who in turn will think they are in control.

And so it will always be, for those who think power is the ultimate, or even the penultimate, answer.

And now for a completely typical blog post...

I guess it depends on what you mean by "political":

The Internal Revenue Service has told a prominent Pasadena church that it has ended its lengthy investigation into a 2004 antiwar sermon, church leaders said Sunday.

But the agency wrote in its letter to All Saints Episcopal Church that officials still considered the sermon to have been illegal, prompting the church to seek clarification, a corrected record and an apology from the IRS, the church's rector told standing-room-only crowds of parishioners at Sunday's services.

The church also has asked the Treasury Department, which oversees the IRS, to investigate allegations that officials from the Justice Department had become involved in the matter, raising concerns that the investigation was politically motivated.
You may recall the problem for All Saints was a sermon. But everyone agrees no political endorsement was made in the sermon:

At All Saints, Rector J. Edwin Bacon on Sunday told the congregants that the guest sermon by Regas, a former rector, on Oct. 31, 2004, had prompted the warning from the IRS. In the sermon, Regas did not instruct parishioners whom to support in the presidential election but said that Jesus would have told the president that his Iraq policies had failed.

The IRS' letter cited a Times article describing Regas' sermon as having triggered the agency's concerns.
Which didn't stop the IRS from saying All Saints had done something wrong, even though they wouldn't be prosecuted for it. So how is this not a violation of IRS regulation?

For years, [Terry] Fox [pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Wichtia, Kansas] flaunted his allegiance to the Republican Party, urging fellow pastors to make the same “confession” and calling them “sissies” if they didn’t. “We are the religious right,” he liked to say. “One, we are religious. Two, we are right.”
Wonder if this newspaper article will trigger an IRS investigation? Since Pastor Fox is no longer the pastor of that church, and since this happened over a span of nearly 30 years, I rather doubt it.

But it does put the investigation of All Saints Episcopal Church into context, doesn't it?

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Give the King your justice, O Lord!

Open your blog-doors to people, you get all kinds of good stuff*:

The small church parking lot on the busy corner of Young and Harwood streets downtown has been drawing plenty of stares lately as motorists pass the growing crowd of people sleeping on cardboard scraps just a few feet away.

More than 150 homeless people turn to First Presbyterian Church's guarded parking lot each night, raising concerns about the impact on downtown businesses and the safety of the homeless as the temperature drops. More than 150 homeless people consider the cramped spot at First Presbyterian Church to be their last refuge after police and city officials recently moved them from nearby streets.

"I think it's a blessing from God that they're doing this," said Kenneth Cole, 55, who says he has been homeless for a year. "This is our last stop."

The new makeshift shelter at a major entryway to downtown also has become a growing nuisance, some neighbors say, with homeless loitering around downtown businesses. Others are concerned that, as the weather gets colder, the site will become more dangerous for those on the street.
You can curse the darkness of this story, wondering why government at every level fails entirely to consider these people citizens who need shelter, rather than "the homeless" who need to get off the streets. The mayor's reaction, for example:

Mayor Tom Leppert plans to meet Monday with the Rev. Joseph Clifford of First Presbyterian to look for solutions. He said the city is trying to balance the needs of the homeless with the need to attract investment downtown.
He could be criticized for assessing the problem that way. Then again, he's the mayor, not a pastor, not a prophet, and the business of most American cities is business, like it or not. So you could curse the darkness, and wonder about the pastor of the church, who admits:

"I'm not comfortable with the parking lot. There's not a night that goes by that I don't wake up and get out of my king-size bed ... and think about the fact that there are 150 people sleeping in our parking lot – and they're thankful for that. Something about that is really twisted," he said. "The phrase that keeps coming to my mind is we can do better. I know we can, and we will."
Or you can see an effort as better than doing nothing at all. Or you can excuse the church, noting that they are doing what they can, and what else can they do? Homeless shelters cost money and require staff and, frankly, churches aren't in that business: charities are. Even church-related charities are not churches per se. So you have to cut First Presbyterian a lot of slack, and admire what they are willing to do, which is apparently more than anyone else in Dallas will do; or at least as much. And you could note that, sadly, this is not a new problem, but it remains an invisible one, or one clearly some would like to keep invisible:

First Presbyterian has been committed to helping the homeless since they started populating the area in the 1970s.
And it is a problem of human beings, who resolutely insist on being human beings, no matter how they are relegated, treated, discarded, or resolutely ignored:

"It intimidates people," he said. Mr. Watts added that he has called police about homeless people urinating in public and, in one instance, people having sex on the church steps. The parking lot sits against a backdrop of the glowing downtown skyline.
When I pastored a church we occassionally had someone sleeping on the grounds. We'd know because we'd find a flattened cardboard box in the bushes, or some other indication. One time we found a pile of sh*t on the sidewalk. There's no nicer way to say it. It upset me at first; then I realized there were no facilities, and not too many places on the grounds that weren't wide open, and while the sidewalk faced the street it was barricaded by a hedge. I also realized our overnight visitors were human beings. And sometimes that's the biggest problem of all. Human beings against a glowing downtown skyline. And we tend to prefer the skyline.

There is a window here, too, on how we care for our poor, and who we consider 'poor':

Some in the crowd defy stereotypes about homeless people in that they work, mostly for temp agencies providing day labor. Martin Cabrera, 32, gets up at 4 a.m. to get work from a temp agency that pays $5.85 per hour, which he said isn't enough to get his own place.
For the prophets, the code words were "widow" and "orphan." It didn't matter how much you made, or whether you could work. Those excluded from economic society were women without husbands, and children without parents, or just without fathers. The law of Moses, the prophets reminded the people of Israel over and over again, required the people of Israel to take care of these least and last. And not just because the law said so, either. Even the liturgy would remind them:

The maker of heaven and earth, the seas and all that is in them, Who keeps faith forever,
7
secures justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets prisoners free;
8
the LORD gives sight to the blind. The LORD raises up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous.
9
The LORD protects the stranger, sustains the orphan and the widow, but thwarts the way of the wicked.
10
The LORD shall reign forever, your God, Zion, through all generations! Hallelujah!
--Psalm 146:6-8

He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing.
--Deuteronomy 10:18

You hear, O LORD, the desire of the afflicted;
you encourage them, and you listen to their cry,

18 defending the fatherless and the oppressed,
in order that man, who is of the earth, may terrify no more.
--Psalm 10

Give the king thy judgments, 0 God, and thy righteousness unto the king's son.

2. He shall judge thy people with righteousness, and thy poor with judgment.

3. The mountains shall bring peace to the people, and the little hills, by righteousness.

4. He shall judge the poor of the people, he shall save the children of the needy, and shall break in pieces the oppressor.
--Psalm 72

PSALM 12

Help us, Lord,
for no one stays loyal,
the faithful have vanished.
People lie to each other,
no one speaks from the heart.
May the Lord silence
the smooth tongue
and boasting lips that say:
"Our words will triumph!
With weapons like these
who can master us?"

Then the Lord speaks out:
"I will act now,
for the poor are broken
and the needy groan.
When they call out,
I will protect them."

The Lord's word is pure,
like silver from the furnace,
seven times refined.

Lord, keep your promise,
always protect your own.
Guard them from this age
when wickedness abounds
and evil is prized above all.

Obviously, I could go on. In the end, we have the Psalms to turn to:

Blessed is he that considereth the poor: the LORD will deliver him in time of trouble.
And we remember that justice itself is weak; which is why it is eternal. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

*This one was thanks to Tena, who always returns at just the right time.

Riding my hobbyhorse

I'm always looking for something good to post about, and Grandmere Mimi has given it to me. Even if there still doesn't seem to be a lot of point to highlighting the flaws in a comic book version of Christian theology, via Tobias Haller I have this link to a lecture by Rowan Williams (Archbishop of Canterbury) about atheism and Richard Dawkins. Right off the bat he starts with an observation that's already a century old or so, which makes you realize just how "current" much of this debate is:

I want to begin with an episode in Dostoyevsky’s novel ‘The Idiot’, where the central character Prince Mishkin says to a friend ‘Atheists always seem to be talking about something else’. And he goes on to illustrate what he means by telling a short series of anecdotes about different kinds of religious behaviour. Some of these episodes are about bad religion and some of them are about what you might call good religion. But the point that he’s making throughout this little series of stories is that there is something here which is not easily recognizable as the kind of thing that the argumentative atheist is talking about. Now I think that Prince Mishkin’s response is one that a great many of religious believers are likely to feel when they pick up the works of Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens or any of those prominent critics of religious faith in our own day. We may feel as we turn the pages that ‘this is not it’ whatever the religion is being attacked here it’s not actually what I believe in. And along with that instinctive response of not recognizing, there may also be a touch of, let’s say, resentment at somebody trying to tell us what we really mean. (Because as we all know there are few things more annoying than somebody else saying ‘I know what you mean’!) More seriously, that is one of those features of a certain kind of exercise of power which is itself open to moral challenge. When we go to another person or another community and say with confidence ‘I will tell you what your real agenda is’ the other person or community may very well say ‘This is simply a bid for control. You are telling me that my world is smaller than yours, that yours can contain and reduce mine’. And that’s not just an intellectual but a political question, in the widest sense.
And it just gets better from there. I've mentioned this before: that Dawkins sets up a straw man, knocks it over, and declares himself the victor, and this is evident in the mere fact that he cannot reference in his own book one legitimate modern theologian, or quote extensively from one Christian theologian of any era. Sam Harris defends this practice by arguing that no Christian believes in the God of the theologians, but that's just a more elaborate way of adding stuffing to your scarecrow. What's significant in the Archbishop's discussion is the inclusion of politics into this mix. But I especially appreciate the way he gets to the nut of the issue. Put quite simply, to the man with a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail:

...[I]n Richard Dawkins’ writings there is one very interesting factor affecting the whole discussion and that is the assumption that, loosely speaking, Darwinian Theory is a theory of everything. It’s not just a theory about biology; it’s a theory about history and culture. It’s a theory which explains the history of ideas. Every feature of culture like every feature of biology requires an explanation in Darwinian terms: that is in terms of survival strategies.
Which means, of course, all human efforts are all about power. And what is the human expression of power in society, except politics? As the Archbishop puts it:

The Dawkins view assumes that all culture is about survival, that if something like religion appears to survive when in many ways it apparently shouldn’t, there must be an under-the-surface explanation revealing those aspects of religion which initially in some unknown pre-history made for survival even if they don’t do so any longer. But I don’t think that it’s much use reducing religion to a survival strategy unless you can be a bit clearer about how it’s supposed to attain its aims.
A failure in reasoning that always brings me back to this cartoon:

Forgive me for quoting the Archbishop even more extensively, but the pastor in me responds that this is precisely the pastoral issue involved in any religious practice:

If, en route you should discover that it makes you happy, well and good, but woe betide you if you approach as part of a programme for attaining happiness. An undergraduate friend of mine who’s now I’m happy to say a distinguished fellow of the British Academy and Professor of Political Science once said to me in exasperation when we were both undergraduates ‘the trouble with you is that you believe religion is true but not useful and I believe it’s useful but not true’. And while I suspect we might both protest a little at that characterization of our intellectual opposition there is something in that which carries at least some central aspects of what religious people think their faith is about. Whether it’s the Buddhist saying that the purpose of religious exercise is dissolving the illusions that imprison the ego; or indeed the illusion of the ego itself; whether it’s the Hindu saying you must learn to act in detachment from where that action will lead simply because your action must coincide with eternal law; whether it’s the Christian speaking about bearing the Cross with Christ or enduring the dark night of the spirit. Whatever this is it’s not language which can be in one stroke reduced to strategies of survival. If you want to talk about evolutionary advantage in such language of behaviour or attitude, you can only do it in the most paradoxical sense. What if the entire environment in which we live is one to which the appropriate response is letting go of yourself and your safety? What if that is the appropriate response because the universe is like that? Well, you can call that an evolutionary advantage if you wish, but I think it’s in a somewhat strained and extended sense. For the Christian, such language is grounded in the idea that the ultimate reality with which we have to do, is a God who can be described as emptying himself in the work of incarnation and indeed in creation itself.

The primary warning given to seminary students is: don't enter the ministry if you think it is a route to happiness instead of service. Those who don't learn that before they graduate, tend to learn it shortly thereafter. And if, as I have said, the teachings of Christ point to the paradox of the power of powerlessness as the central tenet of existence, isn't that precisly the point that so outraged the great atheist of the 19th century, Friedrich Nietzsche? So who is right about Christianity? Nietzsche, or Dawkins? Or are they both wrong?

And there are those, particularly in 17th century French Catholicism for example, who underline to an almost exaggerated extent the idea that the pure love of God required you quite simply to stop thinking about any consequences whatsoever. You could only be said to love God when you were perfectly aware that you might get nothing out of it.

My God I love thee not because I hope for Heaven thereby/nor yet because who love thee not are lost eternally (as the hymn says). Whatever Darwinian explanation you can produce of this language is going to be – to put it modestly – a little strained.
I've made that point (here, here, and here) until I'm tired of my own tediousness about it. The Archbishop makes it quite well. No, it is not the all-encompassing and sole message of the gospels; but yes, it is certainly one very valid interpretation, with all manner of disturbing implications (mostly for those of us who would profess Christianity). And this is an evolved survival strategy how, exactly? But the whole issue of the applicability of evolution to other subjects, and precisely which theory of evolution should be applied, is another question.

Leaving aside the Kantian idealism behind the Arcbishop's second point (about scientific v. religious language), I like this because it moves us much closer to the language of phenomenology (which is at desperate odds with the language of Anglo-Saxon empiricism; and therein lies a tale about "tolerance" and the oft-heard projection of atheists like Sam Harris that religion must be an intolerant practice in order to be "religious"):

Religious practice (you might say) is learning how to occupy a certain role, a position in the universe, a position of recognized dependence. People who speak religiously have at least these in common, that they recognize the dependence of their own existence and that of the entire universe. They recognize in a rather more loaded theological language that they are recipients of what might be called a gift. And in recognizing their dependence they relativise their own reality in some ways. I’m not the centre of things, I’m not everything , I exist not because I wanted to or because I was able to manage it, I exist because I have received. And that place in the world is also a place where, because of that relativising of the self there is also a directness of mind and heart towards the other. A recognition that the other, whether it’s another person, whether it’s the physical universe itself, is not there first for me, but in itself. I recognize that the person I confront, the physical reality I confront, the world in which I live, exists in relation to God before it relates to me. So that some of the reverence with which I approach God is also involved in my relations with other persons, and with the material of the world. There is something prior to my ego, my interests, and my agenda. To occupy the place of religious belief is then to develop that contemplative skill which turns me silently and expectantly to a reality greater than myself. It also involves a sense of trust in communication and relationship.
Back, in other words, to the importance of humility and the power of powerlessness. Which is where we began, once upon a time; isn't it?

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Watching Constantine, Reading Golem

Complaining about these things is like trying to keep the tide from coming in; you might convince a few people to stand on the beach with you, but the tide won't take any notice of your numbers.

I was watching Constantine the other day; well, parts of it; I had to wander in and out, I couldn't attend to it like I wanted to. And yes, I know, there are better ways to waste my time, or my mind, but it satisfied some atavistic desire I had at the time; even though it did later decay into complete foolishness and excuses for not-so-special effects. But I digress.

The bit I did watch involved Keanu "Neo" Reeves in the fabulously baronial setting (well, the Bishops are the "Princes of the Church," no?) of a Bishop's residence, talking to a very female Gabriel (nothing like John Travolta at all) in a business suit (you knew she was an angel because "Neo" saw her wings!), advising him as to why, despite his faith (?), he was doomed to die and go to hell. And why was that? The rules, of course, the rules! As Gabriel put it: "You're going to die young because you smoked 30 cigarettes a day since you were 15. And you're going to hell because of the life you took." Apparently he committed suicide, and now is back as an exorcist, only so he can die again by his own hand (Irony!). This "explanation" is a typical take on the Catholic teaching of "natural law" (thank you, Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas!): you see, just as it's a "law" of nature that cigarettes will give you lung cancer, it's also an immutable law of salvation that murder will condemn you to hell.

Got it? And all that talk about grace and salvation? Well, sorry, but you broke the rules. Even human justice systems are neither this cruel nor this inflexible. But theological systems are often presented this way. It's the whole purpose of religion, isn't it? To oppress and control and scarify the populace into submission?

No, it doesn't make a lot of sense, but then it's taken from a comic book and, as I mentioned, there doesn't seem to be a lot of point to highlighting the flaws in a comic book version of Christian theology.

Before that, I'd read a picture book I'd never seen before, about the medieval Jewish legend of the "golem." According to this version of the tale, a truly holy rabbi, a tziddik, muttered the proper incantations from Kabbalah and uttered the holy name of the Creator, and because of his holiness he was able to raise the golem (the word is used in the Psalms to mean "incomplete substance") from the clay. The rabbi inscribes on the golem's forehead the Hebrew letters "emet", which means "truth." The golem serves the rabbi and defends the Jews of Praque from persecution by the Gentile populace. The golem does this by taking those who tries to arouse violence against the Jews to the authorities, as he is instructed. Finally a riot threatens the Jewish ghetto, and the golem becomes a giant who attacks the rioters with great violence. Too much violence; but the point is made. The ruler of Prague promises to protect the Jews, and the rabbi promises to destroy the golem. The golem, however, loves life and doesn't want to die. Still, the rabbi erases the first aleph from the golem's forehead, and emet becomes "met," or death.

The lovely part of this (aside from the amazing illustrations) was the sense that the golem was not a monster, a creation of evil, but a servant, a creation made possible because the rabbi was holy enough to make the golem possible. Echoes of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein are obvious here, but the reading of Genesis couldn't be more different. I don't know what the Jewish readings of Genesis 2 are, but the standard Christian reading is about the "original sin" of seeking the power of God, and almost getting it. That, of course, is the "sin" of Shelley's story. But if you don't posit a universe divided into good v. evil, with both sides equally armed and earth their chosen battlefield (can't they go play somewhere else?), you relinquish a number of concerns with "rules" which must be immutable and inflexible.

Or at least you get a much more interesting take on the relationship between God and humanity. Which would seem to be an argument for abandoning Christianity, until you ask yourself: is Christianity really about keeping all the rules? And where in the gospels did Jesus say: "Whosoever doth not believeth in me or follow all the rules I myself have broken, will perish and will have everlasting life in everlasting torment! Bwahahahahaha!"

Just wondering. I gotta go.

St. Crispin's Day

Stricken from the liturgical calendar, but not from the hearts of English majors everywhere:

KING HENRY V
What's he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin:
If we are mark'd to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God's will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires:
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England:
God's peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more, methinks, would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made
And crowns for convoy put into his purse:
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian:'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispin's day.'
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember'd.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Thanks to DAS

Who posted, in comments below, what I was hoping for: something from the Jewish tradition.

"These remind me of Hoshanos which specifically mention water.

"I can't find any Hoshanos online, but there is the prayer for rain (also responsive) ... note the ending, even as water saves us, it also can kill, so we need to be careful of what we ask for as we just might get it (c.f. the tale of Yoni the Circlemaker who asked for rain and got a flood):"

You are eternally mighty, my Lord, the Resuscitator of the dead are You; abundantly able to save.

With water You symbolized Your might in Scripture, to soothe with its drops those in whom was blown a soul, to keep alive the ones who recall the strengths of the rain.

Our God and the God of our forefathers:

Remember the Patriarch [Abraham], who was drawn behind You like water. You blessed him like a tree replanted alongside streams of water. You shielded him, You rescued him from fire and from water. You tested him when he sowed upon all waters.

FOR HIS SAKE, DO NOT HOLD WATER BACK

Remember the one [Isaac] born with the tidings of, 'Let some water be brought. ' You told his father to slaughter him - to spill his blood like, water. He too was scrupulous to pour his heart like water. He dug and discovered wells of water.

FOR THIS SAKE OF HIS RIGHTEOUSNESS, GRANT ABUNDANT WATER

Remember the one [Jacob] who carried his staff and crossed the Jordan's water. He dedicated his heart and rolled a stone off the mouth of a well of water, as when he was wrestled by an angel composed of fire and water. Therefore You pledged to remain with him through fire and water.

FOR HIS SAKE, DO NOT HOLD WATER BACK

Remember the one [Moses] drawn forth in a bulrush basket from the water. They said, 'He drew water and provided the sheep with water.' At the time Your treasured people thirsted for water, he struck the rock and out came water.

FOR THE SAKE OF HIS RIGHTEOUSNESS, GRANT ABUNDANT WATER

Remember the appointee [Aaron] over the Temple, who made five immersions in the water. He went to cleanse his hands through sanctification with water. He called out and sprinkled [blood bringing] purity as with water. He remained apart from a people of waterlike impetuosity.

FOR HIS SAKE, DO NOT HOLD WATER BACK

Remember the twelve tribes You caused
to cross through the split waters,
for whom You sweetened the water's bitter taste. Their offspring whose blood was spilt for You like water.
Turn to us - for woes engulf our souls like water.

FOR THE SAKE OF THEIR RIGHTEOUSNESS, GRANT ABUNDANT WATER

For you are the Lord, our God, who makes the wind blow and the rain fall.

FOR A BLESSING AND NOT FOR A CURSE

For a blessing and not for a curse

AMEN

FOR LIFE AND NOT FOR DEATH

For life and not for death

AMEN

FOR PLENTY AND NOT FOR SCARCITY

For plenty and not for scarcity

AMEN

The three men I admire most...They caught the last train for the coast

The situation in California is one of those instances perhaps better suited to the Internet than to television. TV could show us the flooding of New Orleans, but it can't really show us the devastation of fire. For that, you need maps and just plain old text.

This map, for example, gives you location and fire temperature, which makes you appreciate what Scout Prime said: how do the firefighters do it?

The Google Map of the fires around San Diego is here. This one will at least give you an idea of how many people are responding to the fire: aiding in evacuations, in shelters, etc. The LA Times has another Google map indicating fires north of San Diego. As Athenae said, we are all in this together.

A straight up listing of the fires themselves is available here. You'll note at there are 22 fires listed; only two are listed as "Contained."

Maps of the Sawtooth and Millard Complex fires are here. These are probably the most helpful maps for getting an idea of the size of the fires.

This map will give you an excellent overview of the areas burned and the areas still burning. It's a JPEG image and may take some time to download, but it's the best overall view I've found.

And here's a NASA satellite picture of the smoke plumes, which is the best graphic I've found for expressing the size and scope of this disaster.

We beseech thee! Hear us!

Athenae sent me (as usual), looking for some prayers of intercession. I found these, instead; and decided they were the thing that was needed. They are from the E&R Hymnal. They were meant to be prayed responsively, so I have left them that way.


O Lord, who knowest our frame and rememberest that we are dust, pity those who are bearing pain and sorrow. Cheer those who are worn by constant care. Strengthen the faith of the dying and comfort the bereaved with thy compassion. Deliver the souls of those whoa re bound in the chain of their misdeeds, and send thy peace and joy to all who are oppressed by the burden of the world’s sin. Bringing all our sins and sorrows, we lay them before thee, in the Name of our Redeemer.

HEAVENLY FATHER, HEAR US.

Most holy and most merciful God, the strength of the weak, the rest of the weary, the comfort of the sorrowful, the Savior of the sinful, and the refuge of thy children in every time of need, hear us while we pray for thy help.

HEAVENLY FATHER, HEAR US.

When our faith is growing too weak, and our love is growing cold, and we are losing the vision of thy face, and the spiritual world is not real to us,

HEAVENLY FATHER, HEAR US.

When we are tempted to mean and wicked ways, and sin grows less sinful in our sight; when duty is difficult and work is hard, and our burdens are heavy,

HEAVENLY FATHER, HEAR US.

When the unknown future troubles us, and in our fears and anxieties we forget the eternal love and mercy; and when the last darkness shall close around us, and heart and flesh fail, and vain is the help of man,

HEAVENLY FATHER, HEAR US.

O God, who knowest us to be set in the midst of so many and great dangers, that by reason of the frailty of our nature we cannot always stand upright, grant to us such strength and protection as may sustain us in all dangers and carry us through all trials.

HEAVENLY FATHER, HEAR US.

O Lord, support us all the day long of this troublous life, until the shadows lengthen and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then of thy tender mercy grant us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, nad peace at the last; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

AMEN.



O thou eternal Light, towards whose quickening dawn have moved the peoples that walked in darkness, rise with thy radiance upon the souls which here await thee.

By the visions of ancient seers who beheld thy power moving within the veil of earthly things,

TEACH US TO LIVE AS SEEING THE INVISIBLE.

By the voices of holy prophets who discerned the signs of their times and foretold the doom that follows wrong,

AROUSE US TO SEE AND OVERCOME THE EVILS OF TODAY.

By the mind that was in Christ Jesus, compassionate, free in thought, steadfast in purpose, stayed on thee,

AWAKEN IN US ALSO A GENEROUS MIND AND A BOLD VISION.

By the self-sacrifice of saints and apostles, martyrs and missionaries, who counted not the cost to themselves, if only they might testify to thy grace,

INSPIRE US TO FIND IN COMMON LIFE THE PATHS OF HIGH DEVOTION.

By the joy and praise of the Church universal, by every prayer for light in shrines of whatsoever faith, in east or west or north or south,

KINDLE IN OUR HEARTS THE FAITH THAT SHALL BE A LIGHT UPON OUR WAY AND A SONG UPON OUR LIPS.

By the labors of all who show forth thy wonderful works, searching out thy law in nature, fashioning forms of beauty, skillful in industry, wise in statecraft, gentle in parenthood, gifted with insight,

ENLARGE ALL OUR BEING WITH THE FULLNESS OF THY DIVINE LIFE, THAT IN THY LIGHT WE MAY SEE LIGHT AND BECOME MINISTERS OF THY LOVE BROUGHT NEAR.

O God, fountain of light and truth, give to thy Church a new vision and a new charity, new wisdom and understanding, that the eternal message of the Son, no longer confused by the traditions of men, may be hailed as the good news of this age; through him who maketh all things new, Jesus Christ our Lord.

AMEN

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Don't know much about history...

You know, I could really learn to enjoy American history. For example: NPR this morning ran a story about the drought in Atlanta. Turns out it isn't much of a drought at all, at least not in terms of abnormally low rainfall. No, it's a question of water usage. It's a question of development. It's a question of too many people and other interests with too many straws sucking out of the same reservoir. So the problem is people, not nature. Hmmmm...back to the question of will. Somehow I don't think that's going to be a popular diagnosis. Now, why would I think that?

Our manifest destiny [is] to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.

John L. O'Sullivan, 1845
And this destiny didn't just come from God. It's the natural order of things:

Texas has been absorbed into the Union as the inevitable fulfillment of the general law which is rolling our population westward....It was disintegrated from Mexico in the natural course of events, by a process perfectly legitimate on its own part, blameless on ours....

California will, probably next fall away from...Mexico...imbecile and distracted...The Anglo-Saxon foot is already on its borders....All this without agency of our government, without responsibility of our people--in the natural flow of events, the spontaneous working of principles....

Democratic Review, 1845
If you listen carefully, you can hear the geist of Hegel whistling between those lines.

And for those of you who say the present Administration is the greatest embarassment and moral horror in the history of this country, well, as the French say: plus ce change, plus ce la meme chose.

How does it become a man to behave toward this American government today? I answer that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it. I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave's government also.

Henry David Thoreau
And as for our proclivity to war, it's funny how the same arguments keep getting made again and again and again. Change "Mexico" to "Iraq," and this argument could come from William Kristol or anyone on Fox News:

Now we ask, whether any man can coolly contemplate the idea of recalling our troops from the [Mexican] territory we at present occupy...and...resign this beautiful country to the custody of the ignorant cowards and profligate ruffians who have ruled it for the last twenty-five years? Why humanity cries out against it. Civilization and Christianity protest against this reflux of the tide of barbarism and anarchy.

New York Evening Post, 1848

Monday, October 22, 2007

Son of Same As It Ever Was

Speaking of metaphors, cultures can be said to have a kind of "genetic inheritance" in them, traits and conditions and even behaviors which get handed down from generation to generation. Consider, for example, the "split" between rural America and urban America, between the "rubes" and the "city slickers," between the "bucolic countryside" and the "dens of iniquity" in the cities, between the....well, you know what I mean. Ever wonder where that started?

Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts He has made His peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.

Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia

While we have land to labor then, let us never wish to see our citizens occupied at a work-bench, or twirling a distaff....For the general operations of manufacture, let our workshops remain in Europe....The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body.

Thomas Jefferson

All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and well born, the other the mass of the people.... The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct, permanent share in the government. They will check the unsteadiness of the second, and as they cannot receive any advantage by change, they therefore will ever maintain good government.

Alexander Hamilton
Not an exact cleavage, but the "rich and well born" tend to hie themselves to the cities, the better to enjoy their "first class" lifestyle, and the "people...turbulent and changing" tend to be either the working class of the cities, or the manual laborers of the farms. And back and forth we have swung ever since, from the Sodom and Gomorrah of the cities to the Winesburg, Ohio and Spoon Rivers of the small towns and the country. Ever and again we renew this dichotomy, and to this day, like good descendants of Lev Tolstoy, we identify the "heartland" as somewhere equidistant from both the cities on the East Coast, the cities on the West Coast, and even the cities on the Third Coast. Few of us know anyone who lives there, but we're quite sure they are the "real" America, even if we aren't quite as starry-eyed as Jefferson or cynical and elitist as Hamilton.

But that's only a portion of the fun we have. This is from 1801; it could be from 2007, as well:

Yesterday Expired,
Deeply regretted by Millions of grateful Americans,
And by all good men,
The Federal Administration
of the
Government of the United States....

It found the United States bankrupt in estate and reputation; it hath left them unbounded in credit; and respected throughout the world. It found the treasuries of the United States and individual states empty; it hath left them full and overflowing....

It found the United States at war with the Indian Nations;--it hath concluded peace with them all....It found Great Britain in possession of all the frontier posts; it hath demanded their surrender, and it leaves them in the possession of the United States. It found the American sea coast utterly defenseless; it hath left it fortified. It found our arsenals empty; and magazines decaying; it hath left them full of ammunition and warlike implements. It found our country dependent on foreign nations for engines of defense; it hath left manufactories of cannon and muskets in full work....

It found our mechanics and manufacturers idle in the streets for want of employ; it hath left them full of business, prosperous, contented, and happy. It found the yeomanry of the country oppressed with unequal taxes;--their farms, houses and barns decaying; their cattle selling at the sign-posts; and they driven to desperation and rebellion; it hath left their coffers in cash; their houses in repair; their barns full; their farms overstocked; and their produce commanding ready money, and a high price....

It found the United States deeply in debt to France and Holland; it hath paid all the demands of the former and the principal part of the latter....It found the United States without a swivel on float for their defense; it hath left a navy--composed of thirty-four ships of war.... It found the exports of our country, a mere song, in value; it hath left them worth above seventy millions of dollars per annum.

Boston Columbian Centinel, 1801
What sad event does this commemorate, what unprecedented disaster presaged the famous farcical Onion headline with such sad tragedy? The election of Thomas Jefferson to the Presidency, and the change of government from the Hamiltonian Federalists to the Jeffersonian Republicans. Yeah, the GOP today is not only not the party of Lincoln, its not the party of Jefferson, either.

But you knew that. What you didn't know, perhaps, was the calamity the Jeffersonian election was predicted to be:

The Bible would be cast into a bonfire, our holy worship changed into a dance of Jacobin phrensy, our wives and daughters dishonored, and our sons converted into the disciples of Voltaire and the dragoons of Marat.

Yale College President Timothy Dwight, on the possibility of Jefferson's election
Ah, for the days when all we had to fear was the author of Candide. But who knew the fear of losing our Bibles to a President was such an American custom?

And last, but not least, in this era of High Broderism where we look winsomely back to the past, hoping to recover some of that bi-partisan spirit which led this country for nearly 200 years, and which has been shattered in the last 7, perhaps never to be recovered, it is worth recalling the campaign materials of a more civil time, when disputes were carried out in measured, even tones, viz:

Thomas Jefferson is a firm Republican,--John Adams is an avowed Monarchist....Thomas Jefferson first drew the declaration of American independence;--he first framed the sacred political sentence that all men are born equal. John Adams says this is all a false and a falsehood; that some men should be born Kings, and some should be born Nobles....Will you, by your votes, contribute to make the avowed friend of monarchy President?--or will you, by neglectfully staying at home, permit others to saddle you with Political Slavery?

1796 Jeffersonian election statement
Don't you just love American history?

Happy Islamofascism Week

In the spirit of tolerance which marks this blog, we recognize Islamofascism Week with the DCI Counterterrorist Center "Terrorist Buster" Logo:

CIA & The War on Terrorism

"Victory will come, but it will take time and require the kind of focused and sustained national commitment that we saw during the Cold War. Most importantly, it will require a relentless global campaign, joined by those in the Muslim world who are repulsed by al-Qa'ida's savagery, to expose the terrorists for what they are: peddlers of a hopeless, negative, backward vision of the world...."— D/CIA Michael V. Hayden, speaking at the
Duquesne University Commencement Ceremony
May 4, 2007
Unlike America, where we label them "Islamofascists" and create logos with scimitars for bayonets on the barrel of an AK-47. Al Qaeda doesn't stand a chance. In the battle of the logos, we clearly win!



(Al Qaeda in Sweden. Best I could do.)

The Problem of the Will

Will is actually a profoundly difficult issue in Western philosophy. It comes into the foreground, then recedes again. Lately it has been badly tainted by recent history. It invariably raises memories of "Triumph of the Will" and that leads us straight to Nazism, the one unabashed evil we call recognize and agree is "evil." It's last great promoter was Nietszche (Nazis, again), and before him, Schopenhauer. That's one problem with it. The other is that will necessarily entails volition; so in science, any "natural process" is necessarily unwilled, because to declare it a product of volition is to posit a metaphysics that science no longer countenances. What, then, to do about something like evolutionary biology, which posits a "selfish gene" which tries to pass on its phenotypes to the next generation? If the gene has no will, how does it determine to even be "selfish"?

Aye, there's the rub.

The present worry is that the explication of natural selection by appeal to selective breeding is seriously misleading, and that it thoroughly misled Darwin. Because breeders have minds, there’s a fact of the matter about what traits they breed for; if you want to know, just ask them. Natural selection, by contrast, is mindless; it acts without malice aforethought. That strains the analogy between natural selection and breeding, perhaps to the breaking point. What, then, is the intended interpretation when one speaks of natural selection? The question is wide open as of this writing.
Well, I will assume it is. I'm not a scientific expert, but I have learned a thing or two about reasoning, and the reasoning behind evolutionary biology has always bothered me. It's nice to find I'm not alone in that:

The answers that have been suggested so far have not been convincing. In particular, though there is no end of it in popular accounts of adaptationism, it is a Very Bad Idea to try and save the bacon by indulging in metaphorical anthropomorphisms. It couldn’t, for example, be literally true that the traits selected for are the ones Mother Nature has in mind when she does the selecting; nor can it be literally true that they are the traits one’s selfish genes have in mind when they undertake to reproduce themselves. There is, after all, no Mother Nature, and genes don’t have, or lack, personality defects. Metaphors are fine things; science probably couldn’t be done without them. But they are supposed to be the sort of things that can, in a pinch, be cashed. Lacking a serious and literal construal of ‘selection for’, adaptationism founders on this methodological truism.
The delicious irony here is the question of objectivity. Yeats famously asked: "How can we know the dancer from the dance?" As Wittgenstein pointed out later, we can't separate what we know from how we know (Hume reached much the same conclusion). Which means we can never truly see the world outside of our place in it, and our experience of it.

Which brings us back to the problem of the will. This limitation is, of course, the favorite cudgel taken up against religious belief, usually by people with a very poor knowledge of what religious belief actually is. But it underscores the "log in your eye, splinter in mine" problem. Or rather, the problem of metaphor.

Natural selection, we like to say, is a "mechanism," as if that makes it both (a) scientific and (b) therefor true (because "machine" is not a religious metaphor). But before the Industrial Revolution, the metaphor of "machine" would not have seemed, well, "natural." It was only after the "Computer Revolution" that we began to speak of the "mind" (whatever that is) as a "computer." It isn't, of course. The computer I am typing on now can no more think than the half-eaten scone sitting in front of me. It is merely a device which produces output based on certain limited inputs. It doesn't draw the amount of knowledge from its environment that a spider is capable of doing, or a cockroach. It no more seeks knowledge than the coffee I drink "seeks" to cool off. It isn't even proper to say it 'responds' to input. This computer does no such think. It functions, like the car I drive. It is a mechanism, and nothing more. It certainly is not, in any true manner, "human."

Yet when faced with a complex process that seems to follow some guidance, that seems to respond at least to environmental factors (if no other factors are allowed play in the explanation), we fall back on the metaphor of "mechanism." This is not a weakness, unless we fail to see that metaphor is what we are using. The medieval mind was quite comfortable with metaphor, especially in the form of allegory. Stained glass windows in the Gothic cathedrals which mean little to us because we lack the context of the original audience, were as profound and meaningful to the original audience as a movie or a novel is today. Dante's profound allegory of life reflected in his Divine Comedy was understood as a window on reality, not a portrayal of it. Those who made the mistake of taking it as a travelogue of the afterlife were as guilty of counting angels dancing on the heads of pins as those today who think there actually is an identifiable "mechanism" which science can uncover. As Thomas Kuhn pointed out, our paradigms are not revelations of the reality we examine; they are products of the way we look. And when enough data is assembled to make the current paradigm useless, to render it unable to answer the questions being put to it, it collapses, and a "paradigm shift" occurs. But what does not occur is a progressive step away from ignorance and toward deeper understanding of some Platonic reality.

Metaphor is our way of organizing information so that we can examine it; but it is not linked to reality itself. It is the stuff dreams are made on, not the stuff of the cosmos itself. "Mechanism" is already a dangerous metaphor to put our faith in. We come perilously close to the discredited "cosmic watchmaker" attempt to prove God's existence, when we explain the ways of the world by relying on terms like "mechanism." That proof runs like this: if you find a watch in a field, you don't need to see the watchmaker build it, to posit that the watch is indeed a product of design, not merely of "blind" natural forces. Where there is design, there must be a designer, and so if the watch is a metaphor for the cosmos and it's fantastically intricate systems, then the designer must be God. There are several problems with this "proof," but the one that's interesting now is the mistake of the metaphor. The watch, after all, is designed to serve a single purpose. The purpose of the universe, if it has one, is not so obvious. It is as likely to be the product of random physical forces as to be the product of purposeful design. A watch has a telos, and from that a designer can easily be proposed; but what is the telos of the universe? You can't answer that question without first assuming there is, or is not, a designer; and so your argument becomes no argument at all, but merely a tautology. In the end, the "proof" proves nothing.

So is evolution a "mechanism," a device for, say, propagating genes? If so, who designed the mechanism? No one, you say. Well then, it has no purpose, and cannot be purposeful, except as we attribute purpose to it. So, then, can genes, for example, be "selfish"? Can they seek to propagate themselves? From where do they derive this will, this desire, this telos? Isn't telos a function of consciousness? The Greeks certainly thought so. They set us on this path of discerning purpose by conceiving the nature of the cosmos as chaos, chaos upon which the logos imposed order. The logos, of course, is reason; it is the most human of human functions. But the nature of this philosophy is profoundly tragic, in precisely the sense Aristotle meant about Sophocles' plays. It is tragic because chaos eventually overcomes logos, and order disappears again into disorder. If the universe moves toward purpose in any way, even if only for living things to propogate their own genes, that is an idea derived from Christianity, from the belief that the Second Coming of Christ will restore the cosmic order promised by the prophets during the Babylonian Exile, that human history is therefore moving toward that final, apocalyptic moment. The validity of that interpretation of the teachings of Paul and Jesus is another matter entirely, but its impact on Western civilization, for better or worse, is beyond argument. We come back, in rather abrupt fashion, to where we started: with the question of will. Is it possible to be selfish without a sense of will? Is it possible to understand the world without looking in the mirror of ourselves, of how we know the world?

Philosophers have tackled this question; what is interesting is how few scientists understand it. There is, as Hume pointed out, a gap between data and interpretation, and we continue to founder on Hume's distinction between synthetic and analytical statements. Analytical statements about reality are pointlessly trivial, and synthetic statements are either true and meaningless, or false and, also, meaningless. We have, in other words, the data; but we can abstract nothing significant from it. Kant, of course, would disagree; but to follow Kant you have to allow idealism into your thinking, and then we are back to wrestling with metaphysics. Something the medieval mind had no trouble with doing, of course; but that highlights the problem for the modern mind more neatly than any metaphor could do. The medieval mind understood it was thinking in metaphor, and accepted it. We run the constant risk of confusing our metaphors with reality, and concluding we understand far more than we actually do.

Isn't it ironic? Don't you think?

The "log in the eye" problem is that we are, as fundamentally as we are anything, self-centered creatures. We can never quite imagine that what we experience is not universal, is not a profound reflection of the nature of the cosmos. We never quite stop being the infant who can make no distinction between self and other, or even all that is beyond our immediate grasp. So we see in the cosmos what we know in ourselves. Our metaphors reflect this: "mechanism" and "computer" are shorthand for complex issues we can't, or won't, think properly about, and we assure ourselves they are "true" pictures of the world because they are examples of our masterly "progress," by which we mean nothing more than the exertion of our power in the physical world. Funny how it all comes back to power, isn't it? At one time, we are told, we felt powerless, and so we attributed to nature the characteristics and conditions of our human psyches. Now, having attained enough power to reshape the climate of the planet (albeit unintentionally), to turn the materials of the earth into tools and energy, to raise crops in places that, left to nature, would be deserts, we say we have withdrawn our anthropomorphization from the deities we presumed and projected, and declared ourselves lords of creation. Oddly, however, despite these "advances," the anthrophomorphism goes on. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

Isn't it ironic? Don't you think?

Monday, October 15, 2007

What Digby said

goes a little deeper than this. Digby calls it "Post-Modern Serfdom," but it's as old as human community.

We come back, again and again, to the issues of utilitarianism (and, no surprise, I found the Digby link through Paul Krugman's blog. What's the connection? Well, Krugman's an economist, and utilitarianism underlies economic theory). The center of utilitarianism, of course, is "enlightened self-interest," which is nothing more or less than the acceptance of the Christian doctrine of Original Sin. That is, the assumption is that we are all selfish, but if we pursue goals which are "enlightened," i.e., which to some degree or another move us toward altruism and away from selfishness, but retain a self-interest in the outcome which we cannot forego (there's the "original sin," the basso continuo we can't write out of the composition of human nature), then the rising tide of self-interested altruism will float all boats.

It's not an idea confined to economics, by the way. Barbara Tuchman has written a book analyzing different historical events, including the Vietnam War, and analysing them as failures of national enlighted self-interest. Why, in other words, do even nations continually act agains their own self-interests? We could ask that again today, with regard to our "War on Terror." As Frank Rich quoted on Sunday:

“We got more information out of a German general with a game of chess or Ping-Pong than they do today, with their torture,” said Henry Kolm, 90, an M.I.T. physicist whose interrogation of Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy, took place over a chessboard. George Frenkel, 87, recalled that he “never laid hands on anyone” in his many interrogations, adding, “I’m proud to say I never compromised my humanity.”
Which brings us back to Digby's observation.

“We have always known<" quotes Krugman in another column, "that heedless self-interest was bad morals.” He is quoting F.D.R. He goes on:

“We know now that it is bad economics.” These words apply perfectly to climate change. It’s in the interest of most people (and especially their descendants) that somebody do something to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, but each individual would like that somebody to be somebody else. Leave it up to the free market, and in a few generations Florida will be underwater.
And the solution, of course, is a utilitarian one: enlightened self-interest.

The solution to such conflicts between self-interest and the common good is to provide individuals with an incentive to do the right thing.
Well, I suppose; but I'm more inclined to Auden's answer (one he himself rejected as too idealistic: "New styles of architecture. A change of heart."

Enlightened self-interest too easily turns into the self-interest which enlightens me; not the self-interest which leads to enlightenment. The problem with an analysis that leads to the common good arising from individuals having an incentive to "do the right thing" is that the incentive mentioned is usually "by doing something for yourself that just happens to help someone else." On that path we end up with the kind of charitable giving I mention below, and the self-interest is seldom all that enlightened. It may be functional (to a point), but it is function that serves a few while relying on a system that still exploits the many. You get to eat your cake and have it too, in other words. Which, in the long run, is neither enlightened nor finally, in your self-interest (which you may not live to see, but eventually you will have eaten the sour grapes which set your childrens' teeth on edge). Sure it's bad economics, but until the bubble bursts, we can all enjoy the ride! And when the bubble finally does burst, we can always find someone else to take the blame. I lived in Austin through the 1980's when insane real estate speculation led to a bursting real estate bubble that left the city with the highest per capita percentage of empty office space in the country (and Austin is still not that large a city, 20 years later), and a huge number of abandoned houses. The real estate speculators, of course, blamed the environmentalists who constantly fight to preserve the natural beauty of the Austin area which draws so much real estate development in the first place. Sound familiar? As the housing bubble continues to burst in the national economy, look for more and more complaints directed at those who had nothing to do with the speculation; but don't look for any mea culpas from those who did. "Enlightened self-interest" keeps the focus on what is in my self-interest; and the first principle of self-interest is self-preservation. "Enlightened" self-preservation tends to be the luxury of those who are already secure in their own needs, and feel able to give out of what they have left.

What does this have to do with Digby? Well, quite simply, in a market based culture where everything is for sale, it is quite logical to think that even a gift of charitable giving is actually a purchase, and a purchase is always an exchange, never really a gift. When we think of gift, we think of something given without expectation of return, but when we give we always expect a return. We expect at least an acknowledgement, a "thank-you," a smile, a bit of gratitude. We never give without expecting something back, and the difference between giving a quarter to a homeless person who says "God Bless You" or holding a poor relative for ransom for the "gift" of $100 a month is only a difference in degree, not in kind. When I lived in a parsonage and had money from a church to offer to those in need, I never asked what they would do with the money. I know some pastors who only hand out food, or fast-food coupons, so the money isn't spent on liquour. Perhaps I should have done the same, but I never asked where the money would go, because I wasn't buying them or their burdens; I was offering help, and leaving it to them to take it or abuse it. But this is not a practice or a custom confined to the US because it espouses "free-market capitalism." It's a human trait as old as human community itself.

There is a reason so much of the Mosaic law is concerned with care for the poor and the powerless, for the widow and the orphan (real categories who also symbolize those with the least access to the necessities society provides, or is supposed to provide). There is a reason Israel had to be constantly reminded of its obligations to such classes of persons, and why the prophets returned again and again to the question of justice as a question of what you did for the least of these. Jesus didn't invent anything when he tells the disciples in Matthew "Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me," he simply radicalized the Psalmist, who repeatedly says that God sits with the poor and the powerless. It is a reminder, constantly, of who the society should take care of, else what is a society for? And it is not an argument of enlightened self-interest. It's a simple matter of justice.

So I don't think Digby has it quite right here:

And this impulse (which is not confined to the right although they're the ones who seem to make a fetish of it --- at least since the temperance movement ran out of gas) is why government programs were developed in enlightened, modern Western societies in the first place. Charity robs the recipient of the dignity and personal liberty to which all people have a claim, rich, poor or in the middle. Using government to act as the safety net instead of the good will (or good mood) of those of means allows that.
Government can be just as crushing as private charity. I remember trying to help a woman who needed medical care, but the only way she could qualify was to divorce her husband so the house they owned couldn't be counted as an asset; that was the barrier to her receipt of any medical aid. That law has since been changed, but if I remember it, by definition this wasn't that long ago. Government charity in America has never come without strings. The "Graeme Frost" affair which prompted the post Digby is responding to did not leap sui generis from the forehead of Michelle Malkin or some commenter on a right-wing blog. It is a concept with roots in Charles Dickens' Victorian England. It is a concept as old as "God helps those who help themselves." It is a concept which has its roots in the history of human community. And it wasn't enlightened, modern Western societies which began public charities, or took it away from the good will or good mood of the private sector. That root actually goes back to the Church.

Kings of England, for all too brief a period, brought in beggars from the kingdom so that, on Good Friday, in an enactment of the "sacrament that wasn't" from the Gospel of John, the king would bathe their feet and then give them gifts as a sign of the king's recognition that God was with the poor. Not exactly charitable relief of their poverty, but a humbling act that recognized the words of Jeremiah:

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."--Jeremiah 22:16
The custom didn't last long. Too soon the king grew tired of such humility, and the act faded into giving gifts from the royal treasury, without even the king's attendance. Michel Foucault opens his book on society and healthcare with the anecdote about the last of the leprosy colonies, colonies run on the Continent largely by the church. There was even a ceremony for removing the leper from society. As he was dragged backward out of the church to be transported to the colony, the priest would bless him and pronounce him a blessing on the community, a reminder that God was with the least and the least wanted. God, presumably, should stay out of the church when contagious, though, or badly disfigured, but still the charitable act came from the church, which in concert with the state prevailed on the monarch to provide for the destitute. This was something monarchs did, not just out of enlightened self-interest, but either out or nobless oblige, or simply because the church directed them to. The reasons, of course, would vary, but to say "enlightened, modern Western society" invented a better form of public charity, is to assume all public charity before that always followed what the French today would call the "Anglo-Saxon model."

But that model, of value for value, is the one we are stuck with in this country, for better or worse. Clearly the Scandinavian countries, to pick an example, have a different view of how society should be organized. It may be a better view, but only if you accept the premises they have accepted. Until the society does, that model won't work in this country. So we fall back on the notion of "enlightened self-interest," or "utilitarianism," or "the greatest good for the greatest number." And enlightened self-interest never quite gets beyond what I can see as a benefit to me, rather than what simply serves simple human dignity.

When I was a student in seminary, I was struck one day by a charitable campaign in the small town I was living in. Men were "selling" penny pieces of candy for $1.00, or however much more you wanted to give. The money went to a charity, of course, but it was apparently so much easier, without a celebrity-driven national telethon to fall back on, or the symbolism of fireman (who represent selfless public servants), to give something in exchange for the donation. Since we would never see the effects of our largesse, we needed some catalyst to open our pocketbooks, and a piece of candy was it. Is it really surprising, then, that we still see charity, by and large, as a matter of purchase, of exchange, of an economy in which I should seek a return on my investment?

The sharp-eyed will have noted that there's little seeming difference between the challenge of Jeremiah to the king, and the notion of "enlightened self-interest." There is, of course, quite a distinction, and it isn't based on a "God will smite thee" kind of ethics. Doing "the right thing" because you are the king and charged with that responsibility is quite different from "doing the right thing" because it will aid you in the end. The former is a burden of power and duty; the latter is a way of avoiding responsibility by assuring yourself that what you want can actually help others out. The king, after all, can easily justify his fine palace (which is what Jeremiah is criticizing) as a necessity of governance, much as the much hallowed (and poorly understood) Solomon defended his need for power and arms (and, thus, more and more wealth) as actually being in the best interests of Israel (in the end, it wasn't. In the end, God was right, and Israel would have been better off without kings (a statement made before there was a throne for David to ascend to). There is an almost straight line from Solomon to the Exile, but the line is so long that few would have denounced the consequences of Solomonic rule on the basis of "enlightened self-interest," since the results would be felt by their children's children's children, and were largely unforseeable in Solomon's time. The problem with enlightened self-interest, in a nutshell, is that my self-interest no more inevitably leads to the good of all than your self-interest does. It's that old problem of what Christians call "original sin" again. That, and the sad, sad truth that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I have no doubt the torturers in the CIA have intentions every bit as good as those of George Frenkel; but the differences between them couldn't be more stark, the results more disastrous, in the former case, for the common good. Thus it has been; thus it will always be.

It does not, of course, have to be this way. But changing it will require more than mere "enlightenment."

Friday, October 12, 2007

Blink

Simply start with the first words of Isaiah, and where do you end up?

Let the heavens and the earth give ear,
for it is the Lord who speaks:
I reared children and brought them up,
but they have rebelled against me.
An ox knows its owner
and a donkey its master’s stall;
but Israel lacks all knowledge,
my people have no discernment.
You sinful nation, a people weighed down with iniquity,
a race of evildoers, children whose lives are depraved,
who have deserted the Lord,
spurned the Holy One of Israel,
and turned your backs on him!
(Isaiah 1:2-4, REB)

So far, sounds like the preaching of any televangelist railing against the iniquitous Sodom and Gomorrah which they say is America. Hey, that’s not a coincidence!

Your country is desolate, your cities burnt down.
Before your eyes strangers devour your land;
it is as desolate as Sodom after its overthrow.
Only Zion is left,
like a watchman’s shelter in a vineyard,
like a hut in a plot of cucumbers,
like a beleagured city.
Had the Lord of Hosts not left us a few survivors,
we should have become like Sodom,
no better than Gomorrah.
Should I stop here to point out the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was not homosexuality, but being inhospitable to strangers? Isaiah continues on with the metaphor; addressing Jerusalem, he says to them:

Listen to the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom;
Give ear to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah:
Your countless sacrifices, what are they to me?, says the Lord
I am sated with whole offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed cattle….
Who has asked you for all this?

To bring me offerings is futile;
The reek of sacrifice is abhorrent to me.

When you hold out your hands in prayer,
I shall turn away.
Though you offer countless prayers,
I shall not listen; there is blood on your hands.
Wash and be clean;
Put away your evil deeds far from my sight;
Cease to do evil, learn to do good.
Pursue justice, guide the oppressed;
Uphold the rights of the fatherless,
And plead the widow’s cause.
And there it is: the problem of Jerusalem, the problem in Israel, is the problem in Thebes at the beginning of “Oedipus Rex.” Injustice is being allowed, and this brings the righteous wrath of punishment. But there is no mystery here, no caprice, no doomed birth foretold which the attempt to escape such a dreadful fate has simply established. There are no innocents suffering for the prophecy given to Jocasta and learned by Oedipus long after the fact. Israel itself, the people themselves, are guilty, and why? Because they have ceased to do good and learned to do evil. And what is this evil? They no longer guide the oppressed; they no longer uphold the cause of the fatherless; they no longer plead the widow’s cause. In sum: they no longer do justice. They are not condemned for their religious practices: like Thebes under Oedipus, they are condemned by their own hand, and God merely pronounces the judgment.

But God is just, and God is fair, so God calls for a discussion, an argument, and offers hope:

Now come, let us argue this out, says the Lord.
Though your sins are scarlet,
They may yet be white as snow;
Though they are dyed crimson,
They may become white as wool.
If you are willing to obey,
You will eat the best that earth yields;
But if you refuse and rebel,
The sword will devour you.
The Lord himself has spoken.
And here, by the way, the comparison to Oedipus and Thebes completely falls down. The fate of Oedipus is set in stone; it must work its inexorable way out. By even trying to avoid the dread prophecy, Oedipus and Jocasta have set it in concrete, and they bear the requisite responsibility for their actions which makes the play a tragedy. But back in Jerusalem, what is the problem? Again, it is not a question of blind obedience to Pecksniffian laws. It is a question of justice:

How the faithful city has played the whore!
Once the home of justice where righteousness dwelt,
She is now inhabited by murderers.
Your silver has turned to dross and your fine liquor is diluted with water.
Your rulers are rebels, associates of thieves;
Every one of them loves a bribe and chases after gifts;
They deny the fatherless their rights,
And the widow’s cause is never heard.
Which causes God to pronounce a change in Israel, but that change will come when God “Makes your judges what once they were, and your counselors like those of old.” And: “Zion will be redeemed by justice and her returning people by righteousness.” The punishment is, in other words, not God’s wrath, but the consequences of the people’s actions. The recovery from those consequences is already promised in the announcement of the verdict. But one more time, for emphasis: the problem is not faithlessness, or a failure to follow some minor Levitican dictate, not some tiny divergence from a rigid and demanding religious law. No, the problem is “They deny the fatherless their rights, and the widow’s cause is never heard.” And the solution will be a reset to re-establish that justice in the land.

Examples of this abound; indeed, justice and injustice are the major themes of the prophets, and the primary reason why Israel was forced into Exile by Babylon (the prophets all write to explain why Babylon was allowed to take Israel captive, and why God would return the children of Abraham to Jerusalem). What it is usually twisted into, though, is a much more human scale agenda, and one that doesn’t require any effort from participants except to identify who is “us” and who is “them.” What it is usually turned into is the Idea, and the Idea is perfect, the Idea is the “Saviour,” and what always fails us is those entrusted to serve and protect the Idea. Sort of like this:

Still, I find Hitchens' piggy-backing on a dead American soldier a rather cheap and easy way to express his penance, such as it is. There's the predictable Orwell/Barcelona reference, which suggests that Hitchens still thinks that the invasion of Iraq was undertaken for "noble" purposes, but was "hijacked by goons and thugs, and where betrayal and squalor negated the courage and sacrifice of those who fought on principle."
from Dennis Perrin

The Idea is always a noble purpose, and its failure is always the result of being “hijacked by goons and thugs,” or men in police or military uniforms. There is always a distance, a remove, between the Idea and those who uphold it, because even for an avowed atheist like Christopher Hitchens, the Idea is holy, and none may touch it lest they sully it, pollute it, degrade it and take from it its essential purity.

It is an alluring notion, because it draws a line between "insiders" and "outsiders," between "Us" and "Them." “We” are the ones who protect the Idea; “they” are the ones who would defile it. The lines shift constantly; those in uniform who should protect the Idea can become “men in military uniforms” who have in fact betrayed our trust; and the line is redrawn to exclude them. “We” stay inside the line, “we” protect the idea; and the circle of insiders becomes smaller and smaller as the Idea fails, again and again, to deliver on its promise. It is never that the Idea fails; it is the supporters of the Idea who are weak.

Bill Moyers ran a story that is merely a variation of this theme: Christian evangelicals who have become Israel's BFF because they think they are playing a substantial role in the coming Apocalypse. The very idea of an Apocalypse is not one widely embraced by Christianity, though you can be forgiven for thinking that it is. Those who espouse it can always produce colorful charts and fearsome pictures and, as Hollywood knows, disaster sells. So it always has been, and always will be, a popular theme. And whenever the noise from that clamor grows too loud, I put on one of my favorite CD's of early vocal music: "1000: A Mass for the End of Time", by Anonymous Four. The subtitle is: "Medieval Chant and Polyphony for the Ascension." It is music chosen to explore "dread of the Last Judgment and fear of the end of the world which pervaded late tenth-century thought." Wars and rumors of wars, indeed.

We've been here before. We'll be here again. But the real allure of apocalyptic vision is for those who think they are "inside" the sacred circle, where they can look with pity or smug satisfaction on those who will find the circle unbroken and against them. It is, at heart, the Idea that matters; the Idea that will finally come, triumphant, establish itself with power and finality, and put an end to all quarrels and troubles by destroying, in blood and fire and doom and horror, those who are not worthy to stand within the charmed circle. The only difference between the tenth century and the twenty-first century, is that the tenth century feared the judgment of God. In the 21st century, those who anticipate, seem to be waiting gleefully for justice to be done against others. They are quite secure justice will pass over them like the Angel of Death in the land of Egypt.

Christianity calls this attitude the sin of pride, and connects it to Original Sin. But that is another matter.

We are talking about the power of the Idea, of the central concept which cannot suffer change or loss or diminishment, which will always be true and always bring salvation, if only its ministers and priests prove themselves worthy of its virtue. It is hard to slip a piece of paper between the fanaticism of Christopher Hitchens and the fanaticism of John Hagee, though they would think themselves bitterest enemies. Both imagine a world which will only be cleansed of evil when enough blood has been spilt, enough tears shed, enough bodies stacked up that even the horses can't move through the sea of ichor that will cover their imagined battlefield. Apocalypse by the hand of God or by the hand of this busy monster manunkind is the same apocalypse aimed toward the same end: Armageddon, Ragnarok, the end of history but the establishment, not of chaos, but of the millenia, the final peace. For both Hagee and Hitchens, peace can only come when all enemies are destroyed. It is, ultimately, a very lonely, very empty, world they long for.

It is also a very human world. All too human.

This comment by Richard Cohen is a prime example of the supremacy of the Idea over reality:

In 2003, this mass murderer [Saddam Hussein] — responsible for millions of dead and some 25 million psychologically crippled Iraqis — is removed in a bungled American-led invasion, undertaken under false pretenses, beset from the beginning by incompetence and hubris on a massive scale, marked by miscalculation on everything from U.S. troop levels to the impact of an American-propelled social revolution that thrust the long suppressed Shia to power. It is certain that things could have been handled better.
Cohen's reasoning here is almost wholly Platonic. The Idea is everything. The Idea is sacrosanct and sacred and always sound. It is the priests of the Idea who let us down, never the Idea itself. Blessed be the name of the Idea!

This is a theology (which is what it is) often espoused in Christianity; but it shouldn't be. It is one Protestantism especially is prone to, as Protestantism doesn't have a central authority that can steer churches away from temporal (immediate) concerns and offer the guidance of the eternal (long-established doctrines). Not that the latter doesn't create its own set of almost intractable problems; but each form (no central authority; strong central authority) creates its own weaknesses.

The first and fundamental problem with this idea is: it is not Biblical. This is not the God of Abraham. This is not the God of Isaac, or Jacob, or even Jesus. God as Idea is the God of the Greeks, of the Hellenists, of those who think reason will finally raise us above our "animal" nature, as if reason were not as human as our emotions. Indeed, the elevation of reason to the source of salvation is just another Idea, another way of abandoning responsibility so that, as in the Dr. Who episode "Blink,” we become creatures of the abstract, devouring potential and depriving our victims of the life they would have lead. It is no coincidence that the creatures in that show are angels; stone angels. As the Doctor says, you can’t kill stone.

Neither can you kill an Idea. But selling all to possess it is the ultimate abstraction. Perhaps this is what Jesus meant when he said:

The Kingdom of God is like this

A trader sold all his merchandise to buy a single pearl

(But how is the Kingdom of God like that?)
John Dominic Crossan, The Essential Jesus (New York: HarperSanFranciscso, 1994, 1st ed.), p. 93

The question Crossan adds at the end is the question of the audience: How is the Kingdom of Heaven like that? But isn’t that what we want the kingdom to be? An idea we can possess, can call our own, and we would give up everything to have it? But if that is the kingdom, and we can obtain it by purchase, any purchase, and if it costs not less than everything, what have we gained? A pearl is only valuable if you are willing to trade it. You can’t eat it. It can’t shelter or clothe you. It can’t even buy you a place in the eternal dwellings, unless you sell it again. If the pearl is the Idea you must have, then once you have purchased it, what good is it to you? The value of a pearl is completely in the abstract. You have sold your entire potential just to have it. So what do you have now?

But if your ideal is in justice, in how the fatherless and the widow (the weakest, the poorest, the least defended) are treated, then your ideal is concrete, not abstract. If your focus is on how others are treated, how society regards them, how they are cared for, then your ideal is justice, not what you possess. If you are paying attention to the lot of others, you aren’t paying attention to the boundary lines. And if you aren’t paying attention to the boundary lines, you are paying attention to people. Which is the beginning of hospitality; which is one of the real purposes of the law, and of society: it’s a way of caring for one another.