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, June 25, 2008

What Does the Lord Require of You?


I have to admit, I do love a good fight. In this corner, Barack Obama:

"I think you'll see that he was just making stuff up, maybe for his own purposes."
In this corner, James Dobson:

Tom Minnery, a senior vice president at Focus on the Family, responded: "Without question, Dr. Dobson is speaking for millions of evangelicals because his understanding of the Bible is thoroughly evangelical."
Well, a Dobson spokesperson, anyway.

The quarrel, of course, is about how to interpret the Bible. Atrios says this is what's wrong with our politics:

According to the AP, Dobson says that Obama is distorting the Bible. This type of stuff is an inevitable consequence of injecting religion into politics once you understand that the actual details of religious beliefs do matter and that religious people, even if you limit that group to Christians, actually disagree about a lot of stuff. I'm not sure why a nonbeliever like me seems to understand this more than the various religious political consultants.
Which is yet another argument; and might be a more persuasive one, except that Dobson is responding to a speech Obama gave in 2006 at a Call to Renewal conference. I suppose one could argue that Obama is a politician, and therefore everything he says is political, and he's called on to say it in public at conferences like that only because he's a politician, but then what do you do with the Berrigan brothers or Martin Luther King, Jr.? Unless we are going to establish a religious test for public office which declares that you cannot publicly speak of your religion once you accept public office, there's not a lot we can do about politicians making such speeches.

I don't think we want to go there. Besides, I sort of like any excuse for these words:

James Dobson doesn't speak for me.

He doesn't speak for me when he uses religion as a wedge to divide;

He doesn't speak for me when he speaks as the final arbiter on the meaning of the Bible;

James Dobson doesn't speak for me when he uses the beliefs of others as a line of attack;

He doesn't speak for me when he denigrates his neighbor's views when they don't line up with his;

He doesn't speak for me when he seeks to confine the values of my faith to two or three issues alone;

What does speak for me is David's psalm celebrating how good and pleasant it is when we come together in unity;

Micah speaks for me in reminding us that the Lord requires us to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with Him;

The prophet Isaiah speaks for me in his call for all to come and reason together and also to seek justice, encourage the oppressed and to defend the cause of the vulnerable;

The book of Nehemiah speaks for me in its example to work with our neighbors, not against them, to restore what was broken in our communities;

The book of Matthew speaks for me in saying to bless those that curse you and pray for those who persecute you;

The words of the apostle Paul speak for me in saying that words spoken and deeds done without love amount to nothing.

The apostle John speaks for me in reminding us of Jesus' command to love one another. The world will know His disciples by that love.
The problem with responding to someone like James Dobson, of course, is that you then have to use religion "as a wedge to divide." I'd rather contemplate the wisdom and simple truth behind Micah's famous answer to his famous question, than see it used as a club to beat up someone you disagree with. Thus does scripture quickly become "words spoken and deeds done without love [which] amount to nothing."

But still, it is nice to see Dobson confronted with a man who learned his hermeneutic from a Black Liberation theologian and the church that theologian pastored for over three decades, the church many have caricatured (as I heard Kinky Friedman do it one night) as that "crazy church." And to realize Dobson is doing it in response to a speech that is 2 years old; and that his best response is:

"I think he's deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own worldview, his own confused theology... He is dragging biblical understanding through the gutter."
Yeah, Dr. Dobson; that's letting him have it!

This is an old, old argument, of course. This is the root of fundamentalism exposed, the reaction to the new hermeneutics of Biblical interpretation first presented by German scholars in the 19th century. It's instructive that this is the best Dobson can do: to call Obama's theology "confused" and to declare Obama is trying to fit the Bible to "his worldview," as if Dobson didn't have a competing worldview he sees the Bible through. That's the nub of the problem, in fact: we all have competing worldviews, and the Bible has never been the tool that removes those lenses. If it were, we wouldn't have Judaism and Christianity today, nor all the flavors of both religions which abound on this planet. It isn't "post-modernism" or "moral relativism" nor even the legacy of Rene Descartes to say that: it's a fact as simple and obvious as sunrise.

Dobson's last redoubt is to have a spokesman explain that: "Without question, Dr. Dobson is speaking for millions of evangelicals because his understanding of the Bible is thoroughly evangelical." Well, fine, but even that doesn't appoint him the spokesperson for "millions of evangelicals," as there is no more a "thoroughly evangelical" Biblical hermeneutic than there is an "evangelical" Pope. One of the central tenets of Protestantism is that there is no one person authorized to speak on behalf of an entire denomination of designation of believers. This is one of the problems the Anglican Communion is struggling so fiercely with right now. And maybe the best thing about this controversy, is that Dr. Dobson (who is not a pastor, either by position or training) no longer wields quite the papal authority he had aspired to.

Which was an inevitable crash; it's just interesting that it came at the hands of a student of a Black Liberation theologian who is also a fiercely compassionate and fiery speaker. Perhaps this should be remembered as part of Rev. Wright's legacy. It won't be, at least not publicly; but that's alright, too. History is made by many such anonymous servants of the Lord.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Son of Same As It Ever Was


The most surprising feature of business as it was conducted was the large attention given to finance and the small attention to service. That seemed to me to be reversing the natural process, which is that the money should come as the result of work and not before the work. The second feature was the general indifference to better methods of manufacture as long as whatever was done got by and took the money. In other words, an article apparently was not built with reference to how greatly it would serve the public but with reference solely to how much money could be had for it--and that without any particular care whether the customer was satisfied. To sell him was enough. A dissatisfied customer was regarded not as a man whose trust had been violated, but either as a nuisance or as a possible source of more money in fixing up the work which ought to have been done correctly in the first place. For instance, in automobiles there was not much concern as to what happened to the car once it had been sold. How much gasoline is used per miles was of no great moment; how much service it actually gave did not matter; and if it broke down and had to have parts replaced, then that was just hard luck for the owner. It was considered good business to sell parts at the highest possible price on the theory that, since the man had already bought the car, he simply had to have the part and would be willing to pay for it.

The automobile business was not on what I would call an honest basis, to say nothing of being, from a manufacturing standpoint, on a scientific basis, but it was no worse than business in general. That was the period, it may be remembered, in which many corporations were being floated and financed. The bankers, who before then had confined themselves to the railroads, got into industry. My idea was then and still is that if a man did his work well, the price he would get for that work--the profits and all financial matters--would care for themselves and that a business ought to start small and build itself up out of its earnings. If there are no earnings, then that is a signal to the owner that he is wasting his time and does not belong in that business. I have never found it necessary to change those ideas, but I discovered that this simple formula of doing good work and getting paid for it was supposed to be slow for modern business. The plan at that time most in favor was to start off with the largest possible capitalization and then sell all the stock and all the bonds that could be sold. Whatever money happened to be left over after all the stock and bond-selling expenses and promoters, charges and all that, went grudgingly into the foundation of the business. A good business was not one that did good work and earned a fair profit. A good business was one that would give the opportunity for the floating of a large amount of stocks and bonds at high prices. It was the stocks and bonds, not the work, that mattered. I could not see how a new business or an old business could be expected to be able to charge into its product a great big bond interest and then sell the product at a fair price. I have never been able to see that.

I have never been able to understand on what theory the original investment of money can be charged against a business. Those men in business who call themselves financiers say that money is "worth" 6 percent, or 5 percent, or some other percent, and that if a business has one hundred thousand dollars invested in it, the man who made the investment is entitled to charge an interest payment on the money, because, if instead of putting that money into the business he had put it into a savings bank or other certain securities, he could have a certain fixed return. Therefore, they say that a proper charge against the operating expenses of a business is the interest on this money. This idea is at the root of many business failures and most service failures. Money is not worth a particular amount. As money it is not worth anything, for it will do nothing of itself. The only use of money is to buy tools to work with or the product of tools. Therefore money is worth what it will help you produce or buy and no more. If a many thinks that his money will earn 5 percent, or 6 percent, he ought to place it where he can get that return, but money placed in a business is not a charge on the business--or, rather, should not be. It ceases to be money and becomes, or should become, an engine of production, and it is therefore worth what it produces--and not a sum according to some scale that has no bearing upon the particular business in which the money has been placed. Any return should come after it has produced, not before.

Businessmen believed that you could do anything by "financing" it. If it did not go through on the first financing, then the idea was to "refinance." The process of "refinancing" was simply the game of sending good money after bad. In the majority of cases the need of refinancing arises from bad management, and the effect of refinancing is simply to pay the poor managers to keep up their bad management a little longer. It is merely a postponement of the day of judgement. This makeshift of refinancing is a device of speculative financiers. Their money is no good them unless they can connect it up with a place where real work is being done, and that they cannot do unless, somehow, that place is poorly managed. Thus, the speculative financiers delude themselves that they are putting their money out to use. They are not; they are putting it out to waste.
Henry Ford, 1922: My Life and Work.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Do You Know What It Means....?


As I noted when Atrios put this up:

In any event, it is not clear why the United States would need more than a handful of big bases in the future, and most if not all of those are already there and looking quite permanent, from the KFC and Burger King outlets, to the car dealerships, to the 6,000- person mess halls.
But we can't rebuild New Orleans because that would be socialism.

Pompeii


The museum here had an exhibit of items and casts made from the ruins of Pompeii. Most of the items were jewelry and metalwork which had survived, or statuary, and frescoes from the walls of houses.

One of the statues, for instance, was of a lady, undoubtedly a Roman of wealth and prestige, rich enough to commission the work, a full size statute of herself. But found in the ruins of Pompeii, it had clearly been altered, and not by the volcano. The woman's face had been carefully removed from within the modest headcovering (nearly a chador!) she wore, and a new head and face modeled slightly beneath the old (it was clearly smaller, and the chisel marks where the head had been separated from the cloak were evident). The new face? Livia, wife of Ceasar Augustus, the first emperor to be declared divine by the Senate. He and Livia were the model couple of a newly domestic Rome. Octavian, his adopted son and heir to power after Augustus' death, was filius divi (son of god), and Claudius claimed divinity through Octavian, and posthumously made his aunt, Livia, divine as well. So there were religious and secular reasons to honor Livia with a statue in a personal home.

It also ties together the idea of devotion as a personal affair (many houses had items indicating worship of Hercules, no surprise as Herculaneum was nearby), or even Isis, the Egyptian goddess. Bacchus was also a favored god. But that was private; publicly, the worship went to Caesar, after Augustus. The same Augustus who sent out a decree that all the world should be taxed, according to Luke. And it was the filius divi whose likeness was probably on the coin the Pharisees challenged Jesus with. A secular ruler who claimed the right to worshipful devotion as the price of Roman citizenship.

And today, politics, or more properly the idealization of American "citizenship", is widely considered a secular religion in America. It's pressed on us by journalists and cable news stations, by newspapers and pundits, by commentators and even critics. We all accept that the most important thing is to be an American, even if we can never agree on just what being an American means. And many, even religious persons, even clergy, strongly insist that religion in American life should be a private, a personal, affair. Much the same compromise worked out by Rome, the multi-cultural empire and civilization ours is most modeled on.

This, for example, should sound familiar:

The Roman Empire was based on the common principle of peace through victory, or, more fully, on a faith in the sequence of piety, war, victory, and peace.

Paul was a Jewish visionary following in Jesus' footsteps, and they both claimed that the Kingdom of God was already present and operative in this world. He opposed the mantras of Roman normalcy with a vision of peace through justice, or, more fully, with a faith in the sequence of covenant, nonviolence, justice, and peace. (In Search of Paul, John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed, (New York: HarperCollins 2004, p. xi).
Piety, war, victory, and peace: the mantra of America since World War II. Augustus and Livia represented public piety, the kind approved by the empire: reliance on family, on money, on society, on wealth, on social standing, on approval by the masses. Sound familiar? Sound like anything Jesus promoted? And yet today, one of the most popular "Christian" preachers is Joel Osteen, of whom Matt Taibbi recently wrote:

Of all the vile, fake, lying-ass, money-grubbing shyster scumbags on the face of this planet, there is perhaps none more loathsome than Osteen, a human haircut with plastic baseball-size teeth who has made a fortune selling the appalling only-in-America idea that terrestrial greed is actually a form of Christian devotion. "God wants us to prosper financially, to have plenty of money, to fulfill the destiny He has laid out for us," Osteen once wrote. This is the revolting, snake-oil-selling dickhead that John McCain actually chose to pimp as number one on his list of inspirational authors. So much for "go, sell everything you have and give to the poor," and all that other hippie crap from the New Testament.
Now, the New Testament is seldom mentioned in the same breath as the "DFH's" (Dirty F*cking Hippies) who proudly proclaim their opposition to both the war and, in general, organized religion. The DFH's, by and large, would prefer religion to remain a private matter, and frankly, when it goes public in America, more often than not it supports the Roman vision of "a faith in the sequence of piety, war, victory, and peace." But the vision of the DFH's is little different. Both Osteen, McCain, and the DFH's, would have been comfortable in Pompeii, I suspect. All they would have missed would be some of the modern comforts brought to us by fossil fuels, but otherwise....

Lest you think I am unfairly, or unkindly, drawing parallels between Rome and the present day, let me point out that I'm only following in the footsteps of Paul:

That opening [of 1 Thessalonians] "Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, to the church (ekklēsia) of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace," was much more subversive than we imagine. The standard Pauline term for a Christian community is ekklēsia, a Greek word today usually translated "church." But the word originally meant citizens of a free Greek city officially assembled for self-governmental decisions. Maybe that was perfectly innocent, but also maybe not. And anyone familiar with Judaism would have heard in his "peace" the content of the Jewish shalom of justice and not that of the Latin pax of victory.

Next, Paul belives absolutely that "Jesus" or the "Messiah/Christ" or the "Lord" all refer to the same person. Paul can spaek of the Lord Jesus Christ or of the Lord Jesus or, most simply, of the Lord. On the one hand, "lord" was a polite term usable by slave to master or disciple to teacher. On the other, "the Lord" meant the emperor himself. What we see here is what Gustav Adolf Deissmann described, almost a hundred years ago, as "the early establishment of a polemical parallelism between the cult of Christ and the cult of Caesar in the application of the term kyrios, 'lord.'" Or, if you prefer, polemical parallelism as high treason. (In Search of Paul, John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed, (New York: HarperCollins 2004, p. 166.)
I like the emphasis on the distinction between shalom and pax, there. "Freedom is not free!," we are constantly told now, especially in the wake of the collapse of the Cold War and the need to continue seeing the world in Manichean terms (although even Manichee wasn't quite so simple-minded). That appeal is to the Latin pax, to peace through victory, through power, through control. Funny that's never happened since World War II, and yet we keep pushing it as the basis for American foreign policy. Which brings us back to "polemical parallelism as high treason." I just wonder how theology would do that today.

But getting back to Rome and Pompeii, did you know that the silver service: fine pieces of dishware and serving pieces made from silver, originated in Rome? Several such pieces were found in Pompeii, and the workmanship was equal to anything I've seen in Europe or America. Then, as now, such items denoted wealth and status and sophistication, and were highly prized. What is that the French say? The more things change, the more they remain the same.....

Much of what was left behind in Pompeii, we would leave behind today, 1929 years later: jewelry and money and metal objects that didn't melt away in the burning ash and superheated air. Oh, and skeletons; lots and lots of skeletons. Ours are larger today, that's all. The average male stood 5'7" tall, the average female 5'1". The casts of the children clutching their parents were the most poignant. The cast in the picture has been identified as a mother and her daughter who were fleeing to escape the explosion. Some things, indeed, never change.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

...while Truth is putting on its boots.


So a Senate Committee has determined that military psychologists were used to create "aggressive interrogation techniques" against prisoners in Gitmo and elsewhere.

Oh, really?

And this is news in 2008 because?

We already knew this had been going on since at least 2003, and that torture doesn't work.

Perhaps, as the AP article at TPM notes, this will allow Democrats to finally show the corruption (none dare call it corruption, curiously. Why not?) was not of a few "bad apples," but went up to the Oval Office. Bush is still denying that, but he has little more than his show of ignorance and bravado left to stand on.

The next question is: will there be a Truth and Reconciliation Commission under President Obama? And prosecutions to give that Commission some teeth?

Here's hoping....

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Father's Day 2008


"Now begins the craft of the father..."

O God, our heavenly Father, by whose wisdom mankind has been ordained to live in families, and by whose goodness our homes are esablished upon the foundations of love and fellowship, we beseech thee to accept our thanksgiving for all the blessings of home and family life.

WE BESEECH THEE TO HEAR US, HEAVENLY FATHER.

O Lord, we praise thee for our fathers, who in childhood guided us with the authority of love and shared with us their wisdom in the ways of life.

WE PRAISE THEE, O LORD.

For happy hours of comradeship which they have given to us and for hopes of high adventures which they have fulfilled,

WE PRAISE THEE, O LORD.

For all the ennobling influences that have come to us from their devotion to honor and virtue, piety and faith,

WE PRAISE THEE, O LORD.

Help us, we beseech thee, to walk in all the ways of life, every worthy of the trust and hopes that they have placed in us.

WE BESEECH THEE TO HEAR US, HEAVENLY FATHER.

O Lord, we praise thee for our mothers, who have been devoted to us with a love like unto thine own.

WE PRAISE THEE, O LORD.

For the holy faith which fashioned our first thoughts of thee, patterned our first prayers and directed our infant feet to thy holy house,

WE PRAISE THEE, O LORD.

For the tender patience whtih ministered to all our needs, for the heart of compassion that rejoiced in our joy and carried the burden of our sorrow as her own,

WE PRAISE THEE, O LORD.

Grant, O heavenly Father, that the goodness of our mother's fatih and love may ever be the guardian angel of our souls, and that we may fulfill in our lives her noblest dreams and her unselfish hopes.

WE BESEECH THEE TO HEAR US, HEAVENLY FATHER.

O Lord, we invoke thy blessing on the men and women who have toiled to build and warm our homes, to fashion our raiment, and to wrest from the sea and land the food that nourishes us and our children.

WE BESEECH THEE TO HEAR US, HEAVENLY FATHER.

We beseech thee to bless the men and women who teach the children and youth of our nation. Into their hands we daily commit the dearest that we have. Grant them, who are the helpers of the home and coworkers with thee, to bring forth from the life of the young those noble impulses of character and ability which thou hast placed in them.

WE BESEECH THEE TO HEAR US, HEAVENLY FATHER.

Be ever present in our homes, O Lord, the unseen guest at every table, the slient listener to every conversation. Grant that the spirit of thy Son, our Elder Brother, Jesus Christ, may abide with us and ennoble all our relationships and sanctify our tasks.

HEAR OUR PRAYER, O LORD.

Sustain us in all the needs of life, bless our labor, gladden our lesiure, rejoice with us in our laughter, comfort us in our tears, and grant that through all the trials and anguish of our mortal days we may live with such triumphant faith, that we may be counted worthy to be joined at last with all our loved ones in the eternal fellowship of thy heavenly home; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

AMEN.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The World's Largest Gryffindor Reunion


Wounded Bird had this up as of yesterday, but I just found it today. And remarkably timely it is, too, not to mention remarkably coincidental around here:

And as long as I live I shall remember walking along an empty corridor and suddenly hearing, from behind a closed door, a scream of pain and horror such as I have never heard since. The door opened, and the researcher poked out her head and told me to run and make a hot drink for the young man sitting with her. She had just given him the news that in retaliation for his own outspokenness against his country’s regime, his mother had been seized and executed.

Every day of my working week in my early 20s I was reminded how incredibly fortunate I was, to live in a country with a democratically elected government, where legal representation and a public trial were the rights of everyone.

Every day, I saw more evidence about the evils humankind will inflict on their fellow humans, to gain or maintain power. I began to have nightmares, literal nightmares, about some of the things I saw, heard and read.

And yet I also learned more about human goodness at Amnesty International than I had ever known before.

Amnesty mobilises thousands of people who have never been tortured or imprisoned for their beliefs to act on behalf of those who have. The power of human empathy, leading to collective action, saves lives, and frees prisoners. Ordinary people, whose personal well-being and security are assured, join together in huge numbers to save people they do not know, and will never meet. My small participation in that process was one of the most humbling and inspiring experiences of my life.

Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s minds, imagine themselves into other people’s places.


J.K. Rowling's Harvard Commencement Speech. As Mimi said, go watch the video. Really.

Before we lose track of this


The New York Times makes the best case for the Supreme Court ruling handed down today:

The detainees at the center of the case decided on Thursday are not all typical of the people confined at Guantánamo. True, the majority were captured in Afghanistan or Pakistan. But the man who gave the case its title, Lakhdar Boumediene, is one of six Algerians who immigrated to Bosnia in the 1990’s and were legal residents there. They were arrested by Bosnian police within weeks of the Sept. 11 attacks on suspicion of plotting to attack the United States embassy in Sarajevo — “plucked from their homes, from their wives and children,” as their lawyer, Seth P. Waxman, a former solicitor general put it in the argument before the justices on Dec. 5.

The Supreme Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina ordered them released three months later for lack of evidence, whereupon the Bosnian police seized them and turned them over to the United States military, which sent them to Guantánamo.
Just think about that last paragraph, these facts which were directly before the Court in this case, and consider the quotes we have so far from the dissenting opinions:

In dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts criticized his colleagues for striking down what he called "the most generous set of procedural protections ever afforded aliens detained by this country as enemy combatants."
Scalia went one better:

"America is at war with radical Islamists," Scalia wrote, adding that the decision "will almost certainly cause more Americans to be killed."
One wonders how many "radical Islamists" were individually identified as parties in this case, and why the evidentiary rulings of the Supreme Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina were dismissed so summarily.

I always thought Justice was blindfolded so it couldn't see radical Islamists, but only facts and law, and rule accordingly. Well, at least 5 justices see things my way.

The foul rag and bone shop....


Is forgiveness rational?

I'm listening (as I write) to a local radio program, and Stephen Kinzer is promoting his book about Rwanda, so he's talking about the Rwanda genocides, and mentions that people are starting to forgive their attackers, the murderers of their family members, etc. Forgiveness, he says, is not rational, so he's convinced this forgiveness springs from religion, from what believers understand God wants. He repeats it several times: forgiveness is not rational.

I put this in the context of a book I finished last night, one that won't be out until October: Descartes' Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason, by Russell Shorto. The subtitle is a bit unfortunate for the emphasis it puts on the very Western, very Enlightenment, distinction between faith and reason, as if the two were oil and water and can never mix. But that is Shorto's thesis, for which he uses Descartes' bones, and specifically his skull, as a metaphor.

Shorto's central thesis, in brief, is that Descartes is, more than any individual, responsible for the Enlightenment. Shorto is smart enough to know that any one person is a thin reed to rest all of modernity on, and he does so with the appropriate caution, but his argument is basically in agreement with his quote from Cartesian biographer and scholar Richard Wilson:

Descartes laid the foundations for the dominaince of reason in science and human affairs. He descraclized nature and set the individual human being above church and state. Without Cartesian invidualism, we would have no democracy. Without the Cartesian method of analyzing material things into their primary elements, we would never have developed the atom bomb. The seventeenth-century rise of Modern Science, the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, the nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution, your twentieth-century personal computer, and the twenty-first-century deciphering of the brain--all Cartesian. The modern world is Cartesian to the core..."
It's a sweeping generalization, and almost immediately subject to criticism. The issue of Descartes and democracy is already a strained case. France's revolution, as Shorto points out from the historical record, rested heavily on Descartes, and failed miserably. Any student of Chaucer and Shakespeare can already see another kind of democracy beginning in England, one which actually gave rise to the democracy of America without any real nod to the influences of Descartes ("We are British, and will nothing pay, for the wearing of our own noses!", the Bard wrote, long before Descartes was around to think and therfore be, anything). But set aside critique and focus on the general picture, because Descartes is one of the most important philosophers of history, certainly foundational to modern French culture and philosophy (for good and ill), and still a touchstone for the central issues of modern thought, such as the concept of "mind," and the high value we still place on the "rational."

Shorto has his own idea about the influence and importance of Descartes, and they don't necessarily adhere to those of Wilson. He explains his history of Descartes' remains this way:

...I think in its idiosyncratic way the history of Descartes' bones sketches the long journey, filled with false starts and blind alleys, that led to modern society--but as it narrows, this line of thinking darkens. I suspect that much of the talk about valuing the western traditions is a cover for a brutish us-or-them impulse. In these pages I have taken up Jonathan Israel's thesis that there was a three-way division that came into being as modernity matured. There was the theological camp, which held onto a worldview grounded in religious tradition; the "radical Enlightenment" camp, which, in the advent of the "new philosophy" [i.e., Cartesianism], wanted to overthrow the old order with its centers of power in the church and the monarchy, and replace it iwth a society ruled by democracy and science [Shorto details this in his discussion of the French Revolution]; and the moderate Englightenment camp, which took a middle position, arguing that scientific and religious worldviews aren't truly inconsistent, but that perceived conflicts have to be sorted out [the "American position," especially the impetus for the American Revolution]. All three of these factions remain with us today.
Notice, first, the resilience of the idea that all human history was meant to lead to this moment. That is, I must say, a very religious idea. It is the idea that some force, call it God, call it history, call it the zeitgeist or the gyres or what-have-you, is impelling human existence in a direction, and that direction is forward, and this point in time is the zenith of that effort, and if it wasn't inevitable that it led to us, it's a darned lucky thing it did because, well, we are so deserving! That's not a Greek idea, not at all. Read a Greek tragedy: all "progress" by the tragic hero inevitably ends disastrously. There is no progress, there is only survival and taking responsibility for your errors. That's the best we can do, according to the foundational culture of Western civilization, according to the supreme rationalists that the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and modern thinking admire. Any idea that we have moved "forward" to this magic moment in time is entirely non-rational.

The division into three camps is a bit convenient, too, because it puts the rational above the theological, and it gives the rational its place of authority because of Rene Descartes; as if Socrates and Plato had never discussed anything, and all Aristotle had bequeathed us was the static categories of Scholastic philosophy. Reason, Shorto argues, that is not skeptical is not reason at all; except it is, of course; and Descartes' skeptical reason presents simply what Thomas Kuhn would call a paradigm shift, and not access to absolute truth at all.

And what is truth? Is is true that faith is always, and has always been, unalterably opposed to reason? Augustine and Aquinas would laugh at the notion, as would most of the early church fathers (try reading Ignatius or Antiochus, or even Paul, and tell me their arguments don't bristle with reason. It is not reason we set against faith, but premises. Descartes' true bequest to us is Socratic skepticism, not logic (that was Aristotle). Descartes' taught us to question our premises, but as David Hume showed just a few centuries later, follow that line of reasoning and you end up unable to rationally establish anything worth knowing at all. Rather where Socrates went, too; at least according to Kierkegaard. And it took Kant and German Idealism to give us something to talk about again, and Wittgenstein's mysticism and Godel's logic to mark paid to the last attempt at pure certainty of knowledge, logical positivism. But I digress....) And it is the premises where Shorto shortchanges the history, and his argument; although, excellent writer and researcher that he is, he realizes it.

In the epilogue to the book, Shorto tells us of his visit to Father Jean-Robert Armogathe, once chaplain at Notre Dame in Paris, director of studies of the "History of Religious and Scientific Ideas in Modern Europe" program of the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes at the Sorbonne, and one of the three pre-eminent Cartesian scholars in the world. Pere Armogathe points out to Mr. Shorto that:

For five years...he had been studying vision and optics from the seventeenth-century to the present day. His argument was that from its beginning science took its ideas about vision from medieval and Renaissance Catholic notions of spiritual visions and inner light. The thesis he was formulating was that our scientific understanding of the sense of vision is built around spiritual metaphors. "I'm against the idea that there is a clear cut between the Renaissance and the modern ages," he said. "I think modern thinking gets its patterns from the theological realm. Biblical concepts allowed science to progress."
Central to any discussion of Descartes, of course, is a discussion of the "mind/body" problem. It is through Pere Armogathe that Shorto (finally!) acknowledges that this problem is endemic to Western civilization; that it goes back at least to Plato, if not before. But this doesn't answer the question: if mind and body are separate, how do they connect to each other? How is the Cartesian explanation (which, after all, sounds very much like the Catholic notion of the immortal soul in an earthly container?) not simply a metaphor of a "ghost in the machine"? Armogathe says Descartes answered that, in one of his last works:

"In his last book, Descartes states that in effect there must be a third substance, which is not really a third substance but a compound of both mind and body," Armogathe said. "I should treat is as a code, an encoding, which allows mind to react on body and body on mind."...This "encoding" is one of the commonest parts of our lives, and also the most precious. Its importance was what Descartes hit on near the end of his life."
What Descartes hit on, says Shorto, was connected to the death of Descartes' only child, one born out of wedlock to a woman he loved but never married. Recent scholarship has uncovered that this woman was married a few years after the child's death, in a town where Descartes lived at the time, and her dowry was paid by Descartes. "Social standing," writes Shorto, "prevented their truly being together even if Descartes would have wished it; he did however feel responsible, and in the end he provied a future for her."

Descartes' last book was about the "encoding" that connects body to mind.

The seventeenth-century terminology for this encoding was "passion." We might call it heart. This became the subject of Descartes' last work. Heart, he decided, was the interface between mind and body. Love, joy, anguish, remorse: we experience these in both body and mind, and somehow, Descartes became convinced, these passions link our two selves. He thus anticipated another modern field--psychology--in concluding that emotional states are tied to physical health, and also to, as he would put it, "the soul."
So: is forgiveness irrational? It must be. But it is also human. Just as, as a Christian...dare I say it?...God is human. And yet not human at all. It is the central mystery of Christianity: the Incarnation. Perhaps it is fitting that the "connective tissue" there is thought to be emotions, too. After all, Luke proved Jesus human in the Garden of Gethsamane; and John proved it with two words: "Jesus wept."



*I should have mentioned that the bust in the photograph is of Descartes. It was formed on a cast of a skull thought to be Descartes; the bust proved it to be so. The work was done in the early 20th century, with technigues very different from those used today to reproduce faces from skulls. It was pioneering work in its time, and gets much attention in Shorto's book.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Sunday Morning very bright....


This isn't exactly finished, but I stopped writing on it, and then I thought: "It's a blog post. What the heck?"

Fr. Jake (bless him!) reminds me of a theological point I don't spend enough time dwelling on:

And what is it all about? Grace. We are forgiven before we believe; before we confess. We are raised up before we even know we are dead.
I like to think I've talked about cheap grace here before. Bonhoeffer had a very distinctive understanding of it in The Cost of Discipleship, but my understanding of it is radically different from his (and even Bonhoeffer changed his mind on the subject before he died). Grace has to be cheap, because there's no way we could afford it. It has to be beyond price in order to be grace. And if we pay anything for it, then we buy it, and it isn't a gift at all, as Derrida reminds us. But Derrida takes us further: if we even know we've received grace, we haven't received a gift at all. How, then, are we to take grace?

Only, as Capon says, in death; or in dieing. There is no other reasonable option that isn't an option offered by the world. People asked me, in seminary and out of it: why Christianity? What does it offer? And I was troubled by the question, because all I knew of Christianity was that it offered a theory of damnation which first had to be accepted, in order to accept the theory of salvation that came later. And that theory of salvation came only be a conviction of the mind, not necessarily the heart, unless any conviction from a terrorized heart was a sound conviction at all, and a basis for a gospel of love and grace. But I had rejected that theory of damnation, so what was left? A salvation you didn't really need to take, because hell was no longer an option, no longer the non-believer's fate?

But if Christianity speaks directly to the human condition, and offers an option no one else can grant, or even think about? What then? And so:

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's true; but what hope is offered in that? And what Capon says about the parable he's reviewing can as good be said about almost any parable Jesus taught:

Now you ask yourself a question. Do you like that parable? Of course, you don't like it. The point is that it violates every sense you and I have about the fact that we really are basically doing fairly well. If only other people were as nice and considerate and as wonderful as we are, the world would be a better place to live in and God says, "No. That will not work." It can't be done that way. It can't be done by people who think they are winners. It can only be done by people who are willing to admit they are losers and then who are willing to trust God in the death of their losing to do it for them, to deliver them the gift of a reconciliation with God...

...We have a God, in Jesus' proclamation, a God who couldn't get a union card in the God union, who couldn't make it because we have set up the rules for God. A God has to be a punisher; a God has to be a judge; a God has to be a respectable God. He has to do all the things that enforce morality, and God doesn't. On the cross, in Jesus, He drops dead to the whole subject of sin and shuts up about the whole subject of condemnation. It is over. As St. Paul says in the beginning of the 8th Chapter of Romans: "There is, therefore, now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus."
Because, as I know I've said on more than one occassion, there is no power without resistance; and the gospel of Jesus is the gospel of powerlessness over power. Now that becomes a wildly radical gospel that calls into question whether any power can ever be good; whether pacificism is merely a distorted version of the Gospels based on a Renaissance humanism, or is actually the undistorted vision of the early church, of those who knew Jesus best.

I have to admit, again, the answer to that one is not easy. Re-watching a recent Dr. Who episode, where the eponymous character had to perform a moral act of defense of the Earth by giving those who threatened it the choice not to attack (even though he knew, by their very nature, they would never take the option), I thought almost unbidden of the words of John's Gospel: "Greater love has no man, than he lay down his life for a friend." But that's a moral act of sacrifice, not the moral act of compelling others to sacrifice; maybe the difference lies there. Still, Niebuhr's point was that the church could not call on people not to sacrifice in the face of the threat of Nazi Germany; could it, however, call on people to sacrifice? Where is our moral obligation in the face of death?

Thursday, June 05, 2008

My $.02 on why Hillary Lost


There are a lot of reasons, of course: mistakes, strategy, organization; some even say misogyny. So I think this is only one, among many. Still, it is a not insignificant one.

Hillary, the CW goes, found her "voice" when she became a populist standing up for "white, hard working Americans" (even NPR repeated the racial designation in re-capping the Democratic primary this morning). But someone counted the number of times Hillary said "Me," "my,", or "I" in her non-concession speech on Tuesday night. In an e-mail to her supporters announcing her intention to endorse Sen. Obama, she uses the personal pronouns 21 times in 9 paragraphs. She uses the plural pronoun, too: "us." But she never says "we."

She clearly found her voice by speaking as the standard bearer for a class of people she identified as "white, hard working Americans," and there was almost a touch of unintentional comedy when she campaigned in the Midwest, and seemed to claim she'd been born in every state from Illinois to Pennsylvania, and been raised to adulthood in each of them, too. But the focus was always on Hillary, and what she was going to do for you.

Listening to that NPR story this morning, I realized that in only one excerpted speech did I hear Barack Obama talk about "me" or "I", and that was in his speech about race. His favored pronoun is "We," and, as NPR pointed out, one of the iconic moments of the campaign came when, in defeat, he still spoke of victory, but it was the victory of: "Yes we can." Listen to Obama's speech on Tuesday night again, and consider how many times he says "us" and "we," and how seldom, if at all, he speaks of "me." Some Hillary supporters even said Tuesday night was "Hillary's night." I've yet to hear Barack Obama claim any night, even Tuesday night, as "his" night.

It's a subtle difference, but an important one. People like to hear a politician say he or she will stand up for them, will be their representative, their advocate, their lawyer. It was part of John Edwards' spiel, though he never used it as effectively as Hillary did. But what they like even more, is a politician, or anyone in a leadership capacity, who speaks of "we," who talks about "us." Hillary's appeal as the warrior was strong, but she was still telling us what she would do on our behalf. Obama's appeal was a little stronger, because he told us what we could all do, together.

And that made all the difference.


P.S. On the other hand, the Mad Priest could be right.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

One Other Thing


Coming back to this, I saw this at Wounded Bird, which sent me to this at Fr. Jake's, which made me think about this, from the same flysheet mentioned earlier:

"The consistently dominant figure here is Abraham: certainly he who, above all, received the three men who were God's envoys at the Oak of Mambre, and gave them hospitality, thereby inaugurating a whole tradition."

It is worth pointing out that is just after that visit that Abraham talks God out of destroying Sodom and Gomorrah the first time; and that the sin of Sodom was not the sexual act which was given its name, but the inhospitality shown to travelers there. That was the last straw in God's book, for them.

And yet hospitality is one of the least important aspects of our Christian community. Odd, isn't it?

Right. I seem to recall I was on a lunch break....

Goodbye to all that

Life's a sparrow lost at sea
In dark of night, with far to go
Dreams are ships that sail the waves.
We are only cargo.


Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton will endorse Senator Barack Obama on Saturday, bringing a close to her 17-month campaign for the White House, aides said. Her decision came after Democrats urged her Wednesday to leave the race and allow the party to coalesce around Mr. Obama.
....
Her decision came after a day of conversations with supporters on Capitol Hill about her future now that Mr. Obama had clinched the nomination. Mrs. Clinton had, in a speech after Tuesday night’s primaries, suggested she wanted to wait before deciding about her future, but in conversations Wednesday, her aides said, she was urged to step aside.

“We pledged to support her to the end,” Representative Charles B. Rangel, a New York Democrat who has been a patron of Mrs. Clinton since she first ran for the Senate, said in an interview. “Our problem is not being able to determine when the hell the end is.”
Now Adam's prize was open eyes,
His sentence was to see.
So day by day, he's worn away,
against reality.

So gypsies dream of being kings,
Kings of being free.
A sailor longs to till the land,
A farmer sets to sea.

Dreams are ships which sail the waves,
We are only cargo.

"The Dreamer," by Tom Rush

Lunch Break


Jacques Derrida, in a 1999 edition of Donner la mort ("The Gift of Death"), newly translated into English, added a priére d’insérer ("flysheet"), with this notation about the story of Abraham:

According to Kierkegaard's writings, Abraham asked for God's forgiveness, not for having betrayed him, but for having obeyed him!
I'm off to find the source of that thought, and to consider its consequences. Derrida links them to Western civilization:

How does one interpret Abraham's secret and the law requiring his silence?....Our reason forces us to take it on board on the high seas and just prior to our shipwreck. It assigns to us an inalienable heritage. Granted, we can deny it, but all the same it remains undeniable, and continues to dictate to us a certain reading of the world. A reading of what a "world" means....
Which is one way to go. But what does it mean personally, for believers and even non-believers?

That's what I'm off to think about, for a bit.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

An Open Letter to Barack Obama


You said, Sen. Obama, in explaining your decision to leave your church after 20 years:

"My faith is not contingent on the particular church I belong to and I do not believe that I am going through a religious test," he said.
But you are, actually; as much a "religious" test as any test of your faith or belief or church membership would be. If there was a "religious test," it would only be whether or not you were a member in good standing of a particular church; it could only examine externals, such as your attendance record; your contributions record; your confession and profession of the creeds; your life free from any of the more blatant moral lapses which are so commonly used to define (and distort) the life of a "truly religious" person. What other test could there be?

The heart is devious above all else;
it is perverse--
who can understand it?
I the LORD test the mind
and search the heart,
to give to all according to their ways,
according to the fruit of their doings. Jeremiah 17:9-10

So if this isn't a religious test, if FoxNews isn't beating this dead horse relentlessly in order to establish a test of your fitness for the Presidency, just what is it?

Are you simply too polite to say?

Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Trinity are community building blocks that the right wing has turned into bricks to be thrown at presidential candidate Obama from now until the general election ends in November—and perhaps beyond.

So in an attempt to turn manufactured right-wing ammo into blanks, Obama has completely separated himself from his minister and his church. What worries me is this: Can we expect a President Obama to cave in to the whims and will of the right on policies and issues he knows are important, if this nation is to move forward in a progressive and compassionate manner? Can we expect him to genuflect to negative reports by an uninformed, misinformed or ill-willed media? Is the candidate of change willing to go-along in a willy-nilly get-along fashion?
You know your church better than Monroe Anderson does, and he knows it better than the national media does:

Obama knows what Trinity is about. I’ve only set foot in the church twice in my life and I know what it’s about. It’s nothing like it’s being portrayed in the national media. Nor is Rev. Wright.

Obama knows that Rev. Wright and his church and Father Pfleger have been forces for good on Chicago’s South Side for three decades. Both Trinity and Father Pfleger should have known the Catholic priest’s racially-tinged mocking Hillary Clinton performance would only be perceived as another weapon to use against Obama. They should know, as I know, that they ultimately left the Illinois senator with little political choice.
But why should they leave you with a political choice at all? Why should it be their responsibility to leave you with a political choice? When did they decide to enter politics? When you did? Is that the price politicians must pay now, to demand all their friends and family and even pastors and church members, always leave them with a political choice, one they can sell the way advertising sells us new cars and new sneakers and new smells to make us think we are more attractive? Is that all you are, Senator Obama: another product being offered for our purchase? Is Trinity UCC no longer your church, but just your paisley scarf some stylist chose for you, and you can just discard the whole ad campaign because it's aroused the ire of some fringe group of nutcases?

Is this any way to run for the office that will give you the power and authority to run our country?

I've been in the pulpit, and it's a place of public appearance, too. I know how distorted visions of what you are doing or mean to do or have done, can be. I know how people see you in ways you never imagined you'd bee seen, how people say you said things you never said. I've never had them turn on my family yet; not quite. My daughter who was a mere child the last time I had a pulpit, is a teenager now, and I'm sure she could set some church tongues a-wagging. Probably some of my friends would, too; or even what I've said in this blog, from time to time. That's happened, in fact. And do you know what I learned? There are some hills not worth dying on, some battles not worth fighting. But some hills are worth the battle, some battles worth the fight: and you have to be careful how you pick them.

I'm not sure you've been very careful this time. And once again, you've disappointed me. If Trinity UCC has been good for its community, why can't you say that? Why can't you defend them? Why can't you stand up for your church? Did they mean that little to you, for 20 years? Was it a "marriage of convenience"? Are you a fair-weather friend? Do you not need them any more, now that you're on a national stage?

I disagree with you: this is a religious test, and that is the problem. I agree with The Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, a practicing Baptist minister and President of the Interfaith Alliance, and the statement he issued about this:

"No candidate for the presidency should ever have to resign from or join a particular house of worship in order to be a viable candidate for that high office. To make such a decision for political reasons dishonors religion and disrespects the constitution. This is a sad day in American politics and even sadder in American religion. Senator Obama is at the center of the storm, but all who wed religion to partisan politics share responsibility for this tragic development."
And while I agree with you that:

" ... These controversies have served as an unfortunate distraction for other Trinity members who seek to worship in peace, and have placed you in an untenable position as you establish your own ministry under very difficult circumstances,"
I still don't understand these words, your words to the Rev. Otis Moss III:

"Our relations with Trinity have been strained by the divisive statements of Reverend Wright, which sharply conflict with our own views."
Especially since those views were not new, were not created for the National Press Club or the NAACP, were not formulated as a response to your desire for higher public and political office.

The heart is devious, beyond all fathoming. Perhaps yours is being tested. Perhaps this test, you've failed. I'd rather not think so; but I don't know what else to think.

Or I do; and I'm too polite to say.

P.S.

Well, now I see you really did say this:

In the meantime we will visit other churches. There are a number of churches if we are at home in Chicago that I visited in the past. The important thing is I am not going to approach it with the view of figuring out how to avoid political problems. That’s not the role of church. My -- again what I want to do in church is I want to be able to take Michelle and my girls, sit in a pew quietly, hopefully get some nice music, some good reflection, praise God, thank Him for all of the blessings He has given our family, put some money in the collection plate, maybe afterwards go out and grab some brunch, have my girls go to Sunday school. That’s what I am looking for.
Now I know I'm too polite to say what I think. Your former church said this:

"Though we are saddened by the news, we understand that this is a personal decision. We will continue to lift them in prayer, and wish them the best as former members of our Trinity community.

"As in the prayer of the Ephesians, the entire Trinity family asks that the nation entrust Barack, Michelle, Malia and Sasha to God's care and guidance, so that Christ may continue to dwell in their lives, in their hearts, and in their work. We ask now for God's peace to be with them."
In order that Christ may continue to dwell in my heart, my life, and my work, I'll do my best to remember you deserve that much.