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

Saturday, October 31, 2009

On going off Daylight Savings Time


If space and time are connected, why don't clocks make me look smaller?

For All the Ain'ts!


On All Hallow's Eve, let me just ask Amanda at Pandagon:

Why do you think people used to go to church?

19th century America saw an explosion in church singing, for a lot of reasons, not least of which was it gave people a chance for public performance when few such opportunities existed. I remember the "karaoke" of my childhood: shaped note singing in my grandparent's Primitive Baptist church. It was beautiful, even if no one sang the hymns any better than drunks in a bar belting out pop songs, even if the music was printed for people who couldn't read music. Church was the chance to do what people have always loved to do: make music. Make music, that is, without learning to play an instrument or having to perform on stage. Maybe that's the line of demarcation, and certainly the dusty hymn tunes of old are just that: dusty. Some are familiar and comforting, but some are just old. But pop music? Honestly; who can really sing that stuff? And isn't it meant to show off the singer?

Which, I understand, is the point of karaoke, and to each his own, of course. But still, if you're gonna say this:

That’s why Halloween is the perfect day for this. The explosion in Halloween’s popularity tells you the whole story. I’d say in Austin, it’s easily the biggest day of the year, barring the time the Longhorns won the national championship. This is because you have a huge population of adults who have thrown the finger to the whole grow up and get boring process, but the trend is nationwide. The question is no longer “are you going to dress up?” but “who are you going to be?” Performing for others has almost completely lost its stigma, and thank god. The performer enjoys it, and the audience enjoys it (even if they’re waiting their turn). It’s a lot like sex---once the taboo comes off for you, you wonder what you were so worried about for so long.
I'm gonna have to say that's the one thing I hated about Austin: the tiny minority who thought the city existed for them, and were always 'too cool for the room,' and who imagined life revolved around 6th Street and SXSW, when most of us who lived there paid no attention to either (or to Eeyore's Birthday, for that matter, though I always liked the idea of that better).

Yeah, I mean rest of the city: the cranky old guys like yours truly. Those of us who actually worked for a living, and grew up, and found the narcissism of youth boring. I was born old. What can I say?

It's the first highlighted passage I refer to, obviously. The second is another matter, and it speaks to the "American Idolization" of American culture. We are all now stars of our own legends in our own minds. Or something. Nothing against belting one out in karaoke bars, mind you (though it's never gonna be my thing), but "Don't quit your day job" has something of value to those of us actually trained in music. Why not do impromptu Shakespeare, while you're at it? Or put together q quick scene from Beckett? A pick-up version of "Our Town," anyone?

I think there's a reason that hasn't caught on.

And maybe that's the distinction between singing in church, and singing karaoke: both are performance, but there is quite a distinction in the space and the purpose. Sure, there are prima donnas in churches, especially in the choirs. Sure, some people love to sing solos, and it ain't always "to the glory of God," though they will demurely say it is (as they accept the congratulations afterwards).

Amanda sez:

Technology has a lot to do with this shift in public attitudes about performance and emulation. Social networking, blogging, etc. have created a huge incentive for people to put themselves on display, when previously they may have just kept their opinions mostly to themselves. Video games helped, too. They used to be considered something mainly for children, but now it’s completely acceptable for grown adults to sit down and pretend to be someone else doing crazy stuff for long periods of time. If you think about it, games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero (and now DJ Hero, which we just got yesterday, apologies for the lack of an evening post) were inevitable, and they landed at just the right time to explode in popularity. Even a few years earlier, I think more people would be wildly ashamed to strap on a plastic guitar and pretend to play it. Nowadays, though? People fight to get the chance. On the negative bent, I think the ubiquitous reality TV shows have also pushed along this further.
Again, my first thought is: "There's a reason for that." And, again, I'm old enough and cranky enough to not exactly celebrate this as a "good thing." Yes, technology has changed our expectations, but it seems blogging and social networking has mostly convinced us of the importance of ME! Which was the other nice thing about singing in church: you didn't have to listen to you. Singing weakly as the organ thunders out, or strongly in a congregation with no other instruments than voices, you madea joyful noise and became a part of something larger, maybe even better, than yourself.

I still remember the Christmas Eve service I sang with a boy's choir. We had practiced Britten's "Ceremony of Carols" for what seemed like an eternity, and when we sang that night, we were part of a program with other choirs and the pipe organ. So, besides our singing, there was a lot of standing and listening (and being grateful I didn't have a solo!) In the final song, one we had practiced but never with the other choirs, everybody sang as the organ roared and thundered, and I felt my voice joining all the other voices, the voices together becoming an instrument equal to the organ, but all just human throats and tongues and teeth and mouths. And I had the closest thing to a mystical experience I've ever had in my life. I rose out of myself, almost lost myself, in that great instrument of song and praise and joy we were all making. We were all one instrument, and for that brief instant any sense of self as almost entirely lost. 40+ years later, almost all the details of that night are gone, but I still have that one.

Try having that experience with Karaoke.

Tomorrow, I need to find church where we can belt out "For All the Saints" together, and nobody has to listen to me. It won't be the day after Hallowe'en without it.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Shoes of the Cultural Historian



I keep mentioning H. Richard Niebuhr's seminal book, and I keep failing to lay out (or find the post where I laid out) his central analysis on the subject of Christ and Culture. Niebuhr analyzed the question and recognized five "typical partial answers" to the questions: "Christ? Culture? One or the other? Both? Neither?" He explains his method in the first chapter of his book.

Five sorts of answers are distinguished, of which three are closely related to each other as belonging to that median type in which both Christ and culture are distinguished and affirmed: yet strange family resemblances may be found along the whole scale.

Answers of the first type emphasize the opposition between Christ and culture. Whatever may be the customs of the society in which the Christian lives, and whatever the human achievements it conserves, Christ is seen as opposed to them, so that he confronts men [sic] with the challenge of an "either-or" decision....

Recognition of a fundamental agreement between Christ and culture is typical of the answers offered by a second group. In them Jesus often appears as a great hero of human culture history; his life and teachings are regarded as the greatest human achievement; in him, it is believed, the aspirations of men toward their values are brought to a point of culmination; he confirms what is best in the past, and guides the process of civilization to its proper goal. Moreover, heis a part of culture in the sense that he himself is part of the social heritage that must be transmitted and conserved....

Three other typical answers agree with each other in seeking to maintain the great differences between the two principles and in undertaking to hold them together in some unity. They are distinquised from each other by the manner in which they attempt to combine the two authorities. One of them, our third type, understand's Christ's relation to culture somewhat as the men of the second group do: he is the fulfillment of cultural aspirations and the restorer of the institutions of true society. Yet there is something in him that neither arises out of culture nor contributes directly to it. He is discontinuous as well as continuous with social life and its culture....Christ enters into life from above with gifts which human aspiration has not envisioned and which human effort cannot attain unless he relates men to a supernatural society and a new value-center. Christ is, indeed, a Christ of culture, but he is also a Christ above culture....

Another group of median answers constitutes our fourth type. In these the duality and inescapable authority of both Christ and culture are recognized, but the opposition between them is also accepted. To those who answer the question in this way it appears that Christians throughout life are subject to the tension that accompanies obedience to two authorities who do not agree yet must both be obeyed....So they are like the "Christ-against-culture" believers, yet differ from them in the conviction that obedience to God requires obedience to the institutions of society and loyalty to it members as well as obedience to a Christ who sits in judgment of that soceity....In the polarity and tension of Christ and culture life must be lived precariously and sinfully in the hope of a justification which lies beyond history....

Finally, as the fifth type in the general seris and the third of the mediating answers, there is the conversionist solution. Those who offer it understand with the members of the first and the fourth groups that human nature is fallen or perverted, and that this perversion not only appears in culture but is transmitted by it. Hence the opposition between Christ and all human institutions and customs is to be recognized. Yet the antithesis does not lead either to Christian separation from the world as with the first group, or to mere endurance in the expectation of a transhistorical salvation, as with the fourth. Christ is seen as the converter of man [sic] in his culture and society, not apart from these, for there is no nature without culture and no turning of men [sic] from self and idols to God save in society.
Neibuhr devotes a chapter each of his book to carefully examining these five types. The chapter titles provide helpful handles. In order, the five types are labeled:

1) Christ Against Culture
2) The Christ of Culture
3) Christ Above Culture
4) Christ and Culture in Paradox
5) Christ the Transformer of Culture

As I say, the fuller explanations and explorations make up the book itself. But this is enough to start with. Now, what to do with it? Well, as pointed out in comments a bit earlier:

"The issue is who is in charge." I find it interesting that for all the talk about homosexuality, the catalytic factor in both the Pope's invitation and in the recent breakaways in TEC was not about gays. They complained a lot about a gay bishop, but nobody left. They left when a woman was elected Presiding Bishop, and the Pope's invitation comes now that it's clear that it's inevitable that women will be ordained bishops in the CofE.

Gays may be an abomination, but at least they're still men...
Sherri
Quite so, sez I. And that introduces the game of "Which Category is that one in?" You can play at home. Just decide which category that sentiment falls in, and why. Niebuhr gave examples of notable figures, which I excluded, for each of his introductions, above. Be your own H, Richard Niebuhr! Decide where Pope Benedict fits, and ++Williams, for bonus points! Make it a family game night! Put on a pot of soup while you're at it!

The Shoes of the Fisherman are some Jive Ass Slippers!*


James Carroll and Ross Douthat discusses the Anglican Communion/Roman Catholic issue in terms (without mentioning them) of Richard Niebuhr's analysis of Christ and Culture, which is a very interesting way to go. Carroll says:

The invitation to “disgruntled’’ members of the Church of England’s extended family to abandon the Thames for the Tiber is a rejection of contemporary human experience, a resounding response of “No!’’ The church against the modern world, after all. Not only a cruel assault on a fellow Christian communion that is valiantly struggling to strike a balance between liberal and conservative impulses; not only an insult to loyal Catholic liberals who will be denied what converted Anglicans are offered (notably a married clergy); not only a slap at women and homosexuals whose progress toward equality is a global measure of justice; not only a stark contrast with the common Anglican practice of fully welcoming alienated Roman Catholics, while eschewing any pressure on them to convert - there is more.

Equally damaging, the Vatican’s preemptive exploitation of Anglican distress explicitly ducks the large and urgent challenge facing every religion and every religious person, which is how to positively reconcile tradition with the massive changes in awareness, knowledge, and communication that come with the scientific and technological breakthroughs that daily alter the meaning of existence.
Douthat agrees "there is more," but the "more" is not modernity nor the reaction to it, at least by Christians. The "more" is Islam:

This could be the real significance of last week’s invitation. What’s being interpreted, for now, as an intra-Christian skirmish may eventually be remembered as the first step toward a united Anglican-Catholic front — not against liberalism or atheism, but against Christianity’s most enduring and impressive foe.
What's interesting is that even Douthat can't accept that modernity is the enemy. That is, after all, a primarily "fundamentalist" point of view, and while there are Opus Dei and other arch-conservative Catholic movements, there is no real equivalent of fundamentalism in Roman Catholicism. This is because fundamentalism defends Protestant orthodoxy, among which is the principal of direct access by the believer to God, without the intermediary of an institution. Islam has taken to fundamentalism because, like Protestant Christianity, it does not depend upon an intermediary to be a necessary component of Islamic faith.

Carroll sets the dichotomy between Christ (or church) and culture this way:

While the Vatican and its recruits just say no, the rest of us attempt to apply tested modes of ethical reasoning to revolutions, for example, in genetic science that separate reproduction from sexuality. While the Vatican just says no, the rest of us reckon with the ways in which the woon of poverty. While the Vatican just says no, the rest of us see the link between triumphalist rejection of pluralism and the intolerance that undergirds most of the world’s violence.
Douthat sets it this way:

This is not the way well-mannered modern churches are supposed to behave. Spurred by the optimism of the early 1960s, the major denominations of Western Christendom have spent half a century being exquisitely polite to one another, setting aside a history of strife in the name of greater Christian unity.

This ecumenical era has borne real theological fruit, especially on issues that divided Catholics and Protestants during the Reformation. But what began as a daring experiment has decayed into bureaucratized complacency — a dull round of interdenominational statements on global warming and Third World debt, only tenuously connected to the Gospel.

At the same time, the more ecumenically minded denominations have lost believers to more assertive faiths — Pentecostalism, Evangelicalism, Mormonism and even Islam — or seen them drift into agnosticism and apathy.

Nobody is more aware of this erosion than Benedict. So the pope is going back to basics — touting the particular witness of Catholicism even when he’s addressing universal subjects, and seeking converts more than common ground.
It's an interesting argument because it is essentially a cultural argument: he who has the most numbers, wins! It's not even the quasi-theological argument that more members is a sign of God's approval. It's simply the argument that numbers equals success, and success equals power, and power equals victory, so "the more ecumenically minded denominations" are dull and losers (I have to agree with him, by the way, on those "interdenominational statements on global warming and Third World debt, only tenuously connected to the Gospel." But that agreement doesn't negate what I see as the justice of Carroll's assertion about what is going on in spite of church hierarchies.) Then there's the view of Hans Kung (everybody into the pool!), who says, more or less, what I've been saying:

After Pope Benedict XVI's offences against the Jews and the Muslims, Protestants and reform-oriented Catholics, it is now the turn of the Anglican communion, which encompasses some 77 million members and is the third largest Christian confession after the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox churches. Having brought back the extreme anti-reformist faction of the Pius X fraternity into the fold, Pope Benedict now hopes to fill up the dwindling ranks of the Catholic church with Anglicans sympathetic to Rome. Their conversion to the Catholic church is supposed to be made easier: Anglican priests and bishops shall be allowed to retain their standing, even when married. Traditionalists of the churches, unite! Under the cupola of St Peter's! The Fisher of Men is angling in waters of the extreme religious right.
Extreme religious right, of course, is a matter of perspective:

[The Anglican Church] is already suffering from the consequences of the heedless and unnecessary election of an avowed gay priest as bishop in the US, an event that split his own diocese and the whole Anglican communion. This friction has been enhanced by the ambivalent attitude of the church's leadership with respect to homosexual partnerships. Many Anglicans would accept a civil registration of such couples with wide-ranging legal consequences, for instance in inheritance law, and would even accept an ecclesiastical blessing for them, but they would not accept a "marriage" in the traditional sense reserved for partnerships between a man and a woman, nor would they accept a right to adoption for such couples.
One wants to point out it is a communion, not a "church," and the Archbishop of Canterbury is not a kind of ersatz Pope. But one really wants to say: "Really, Fr. Kung? Really?" And then one re-reads his recap of reconciliation between Rome and Canterbury, and one realizes one has encountered yet another strand of Christ and Culture, because Kung's argument ends here:

As I wrote in 1967, "a resumption of ecclesial community between the Catholic church and the Anglican church" would be possible, when "the Church of England, on the one side, shall be given the guarantee that its current autochthonous and autonomous church order under the Primate of Canterbury will be preserved fully" and when, "on the other side, the Church of England shall recognise the existence of a pastoral primacy of Petrine ministry as the supreme authority for mediation and arbitration between the churches." "In this way," I expressed my hopes then, "out of the Roman imperium might emerge a Catholic commonwealth."
With, again, Rome in control. Mitey Rome. Gee, I wonder why reconciliation hasn't happened earlier in the past 500 years?

Kung's argument is not about numbers, but about history. Who wears the Shoes of the Fisherman, and who doesn't? Except that isn't a bedrock concern of Protestants, be they Anglicans or evangelicals, fundamentalists or members of the United Church of Christ. The issue of authority is itself a cultural issue: but if there can be only one, whose culture will it be? Far from approaching the question of whose rules rule, we can't even agree on where the playing field is. Between these three, we can't even tell what we're fighting for, or who we're fighting. And maybe that's still the problem: the issue is not who has power, but who is in charge. That's still the fundamental divide between Rome and those not with Rome. I do not condemn Rome, or Canterbury, for that matter. But I do hold to what I consider the central teaching of the gospel: the power of powerlessness. And that teaching gives no power to hierarchies, or judicatories, or anyone. Yet it puts us at the obligation of everyone who confesses Jesus as Lord. And everyone who doesn't. If we would be first of all, we must be last and servant of all.

Which raises a whole new set of interesting cultural and theological questions.

*A song by Charles Mingus, not an invention of yr. humble host

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

What Keeps Mankind Alive?


You gentlemen who think you have a mission
To purge us of the seven deadly sins
Should first sort out the basic food position
Then start your preaching, that’s where it begins

You lot who preach restraint and watch your waist as well
Should learn, for once, the way the world is run
However much you twist or whatever lies that you tell
Food is the first thing, morals follow on

So first make sure that those who are now starving
Get proper helpings when we all start carving
What keeps mankind alive?

What keeps mankind alive?
The fact that millions are daily tortured
Stifled, punished, silenced and oppressed
Mankind can keep alive thanks to its brilliance
In keeping its humanity repressed
And for once you must try not to shriek the facts
Mankind is kept alive by bestial acts --Bertolt Brecht


Take a moment to connect this:

The argument of this fascinating and deeply provoking book is easy to summarise: among rich countries, the more unequal ones do worse according to almost every quality of life indicator you can imagine. They do worse even if they are richer overall, so that per capita GDP turns out to be much less significant for general wellbeing than the size of the gap between the richest and poorest 20 per cent of the population (the basic measure of inequality the authors use). The evidence that Wilkinson and Pickett supply to make their case is overwhelming. Whether the test is life expectancy, infant mortality, obesity levels, crime rates, literacy scores, even the amount of rubbish that gets recycled, the more equal the society the better the performance invariably is. In graph after graph measuring various welfare functions, the authors show that the best predictor of how countries will rank is not the differences in wealth between them (which would result in the US coming top, with the Scandinavian countries and the UK not too far behind, and poorer European nations like Greece and Portugal bringing up the rear) but the differences in wealth within them (so the US, as the most unequal society, comes last on many measures, followed by Portugal and the UK, both places where the gap between rich and poor is relatively large, with Spain and Greece somewhere in the middle, and the Scandinavian countries invariably out in front, along with Japan). Just as significantly, this pattern holds inside the US as well, where states with high levels of income inequality also tend to have the greatest social problems. It is true that some of the most unequal American states are also among the poorest (Mississippi, Louisiana, West Virginia), so you might expect things to go worse there. But some unequal states are also rich (California), whereas some fairly equal ones are also quite poor (Utah). Only a few (New Hampshire, Wyoming) score well on both counts. What the graphs show are the unequal states tending to cluster together regardless of income, so that California usually finds itself alongside Mississippi scoring badly, while New Hampshire and Utah both do consistently well. Income inequality, not income per se, appears to be the key. As a result, the authors are able to draw a clear conclusion: ‘The evidence shows that even small decreases in inequality, already a reality in some rich market democracies, make a very important difference to the quality of life.’ Achieving these decreases should be the central goal of our politics, precisely because we can be confident that it works. This is absolutely not, they insist, a ‘utopian dream’.
With this:

For more than two hours on a dark Saturday night, as many as 20 people watched or took part as a 15-year-old California girl was allegedly gang raped and beaten outside a high school homecoming dance, authorities said.

As hundreds of students gathered in the school gym, outside in a dimly lit alley where the victim was allegedly raped, police say witnesses took photos. Others laughed.

"As people announced over time that this was going on, more people came to see, and some actually participated," Lt. Mark Gagan of the Richmond Police Department told CNN.
Is it merely coincidence that this horrific crime occurred in California? Is there no possible causal relationship at all?

It is, of course, too easy to say there is one, and run screaming away denouncing materialism or classism, or pronouncing class warfare or creating any other shibboleth from this comparison. But does that make the comparison entirely invalid? Can we only compare general trends (as the argument from The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Betterby Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, obviously does)? Can we not draw any particular lessons from a general analysis of this kind of horror? Criminologlists do:

Criminology and psychology experts say there could be a variety of reasons why the crime wasn't reported. Several pointed to a problematic social phenomenon known as the bystander effect. It's a theory that has played out in lynchings, college riots and white-collar crimes.

Under the bystander effect, experts say that the larger the number of people involved in a situation, the less will get done.

"If you are in a crowd and you look and see that everyone is doing nothing, then doing nothing becomes the norm." explains Drew Carberry, a director at the National Council on Crime Prevention.

Carberry said witnesses can be less likely to report a crime because they reinforce each other with the notion that reporting the crime isn't necessary. Or, he says, witnesses may think another person in the crowd already reported the incident. The responsibility among the group becomes diffused.

"Kids learn at a young age when they observe bullying that they would rather not get involved because there is a power structure," Carberry adds.
So there's that. There's also the almost existential problem of the "other:"

This detached mentality can be especially pervasive among youth, who are too young to comprehend what victimization means, said Salvatore Didato, an organizational psychologist in New York. When a teenager -- or anyone -- -doesn't have a personal bond to the victim, they are less likely to help out.

Experts say sometimes bystanders see the victim as less important than the person committing the crime, who appears to wield power. "The victim to them is a non-person," Didato said.
We could invoke Levinas and Derrida to examine that issue. But do the abstractions of French phenomenology really give us any purchase on a story like this?

Moving from generalities to specifics is always a problem, especially since generalities themselves tend to be vague and glittering. As the reviewer of the books notes:

Is the basic claim here that in more equal societies almost everyone does better, or is it simply that everyone does better on average? Most of the time, Wilkinson and Pickett want to insist that it’s the first.
But statistics point to averages, not to specifics. They posit trends, they don't read the tea leaves of ordinary lives in all their peculiarity and particularity. So it's unfair to even imply that people in California particpated in a gang-rape because California is as shockingly unequal in its distribution of wealth among its citizens, as a group of those citizens were towards the welfare of one individual.

Or is it? It seems obvious this group thought as a group; that the victim was "other," a non-person with whom no sympathy was needed, or perhaps merely allowed. Some came to watch the spectacle when they heard of it, some came to participate; no one so much as went back inside and activated their cell phone. Why? Were they each, individually, that evil? They each had an individual motivation, but that motivation was driven as much by the group as by their conscience, or apparent lack of conscience. Sartre famously said of his existentialist ethics that it made the individual responsible for all of humanity, that when the individual chose, he/she chose for all humankind. This case could practically be a textbook example of Sartre's argument.

But why would people make a choice like this? Could it have nothing to do with the larger society? It's a dangerous parallel but an apt one: we accept the argument that "ordinary Germans" accepted, even participated, in the atrocities of Nazi Germany in part because of the state of Germany after World War I, and the broken economy and hyperinflation that made Hitler's rise to power, again at least in part, possible. It was the reason we rebuilt Germany and imposed the Marshall Plan after the war was over, so we did more than devote our attention to the state of the nation to historical analysis. Is it impossible to apply that analysis to ourselves, to say that the evil men and women do is not in part due to inequalities that society could correct if it chose to? Can we really say that these two things, happening together (the report of the analysis, the report of the crime) are merely happenstance? Is the ability to see the victim as a non-person, as someone without power in the situation and therefore irrelevant, even non-human, not at some level tied to social and economic inequalities which teach the very same lesson on a community-wide scale?

In theological circles, we discuss this in terms of the covenantal and imperial economies. Of course, when we discuss such things in public, we get slapped around for it. Maybe we should discuss them anyway.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

More Soup!

Nothing new under the sun:

That's because, while he regards the Pope as the boss, and has welcomed the Pope's visit to these shores next year in the usual grovelling terms (the "joy" of "all" Anglicans), the Pope obviously regards him as insignificant - not worthy of advance notice of an action that basically and potentially takes traditionalist Catholic priests en masse out of his Church and short circuits the female bishops decision making and the whole matter of the Covenant and Anglican identity.
Nothing at all:

The first step towards unity is that our brother the patriarch of Constantinople should recognize the primacy and dignity of the apostolic see...and correct his former obstinancy. The causes of diversity of faith and custom between Greeks and Latins cannot be removed unless the members are first united at the head. For how can questions be discussed between dissenting and antagonistic bodies when one refuses to obey or agree with the other?
Pope Paschal II to the Emperor Alexius, 1112. Quoted in Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages. Southern follows this quote with an explanation:

In other words debate is futile unless we first agree who is right; and then of course it is unnecessary.
Something like that.

Friday, October 23, 2009

In The Soup


I have been following the latest contretemps in the Anglican Communion at a respectful distance, and mostly through Wounded Bird, from whom I take most of this (including the picture of Grandpere's soup!). The issue, of course, is the sudden invitation of Rome to disaffected Anglican congregations and clergy:

Thousands of Anglicans could defect to the Roman Catholic church after the pope today approved a new global institution to receive them.

It will be the first time since the Reformation in the 16th century that entire Protestant communities have reunited with Rome. The first group likely to take advantage of the new rules is the Traditional Anglican Community (TAC), which broke off from the rest of the community in 1991 and claims to have more than 500,000 members worldwide.

Other groups unhappy with developments in the Anglican Communion are also expected to accept the invitation from the Vatican. Traditionalists, including thousands in the Church of England, have long threatened to defect to Rome over issues such as the ordination of women and gay people.
It sounds a lot like the old dream of re-uniting the Christian church, a dream that goes back to the Great Schism between Rome and Greece. That's a topic in itself, of course, but I've been reading about it in reference to church and European history, in R.W. Southern's Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (Penguin, 1970). He provides an excellent context for this discussion, especially as we imagine the Church in Medieval Europe as to be power incarnate:

The ecclesiastical organization elaborated between 1050 and 1300 was the most splendid system, both theoretically and practically, that the church has ever known. It was provided with the most formidable array of teeth to be used against offenders, but they could seldom be used effectively against the current of any widespread secular interest. This was the inescapable dilemma. The rules of law could be immensely elaborated, and within the limits imposed by human craft and frailty they could be made effective within the clerical body. But outside this body they were truly effective when they coincided with the general run of secular interests.
Southern notes that even excommunication was not the "death penalty" we all imagine it to be, because once you were thrown out of the church, the church no longer had any control over you, and at least one ruler lived under this "sentence" for three years, before reconciling with the church and returning to the fold. Such a return reflected a compromise on both sides, not necessarily a one-sided capitulation. Excommunication was the church's greatest power, but it never matched the coercive power of the state; and the Church was never able to lead the people to places the people didn't want to go.
In the matter of trade, for instance, canon law in the early twelfth century still spoke of it as an occupation scarcely compatible with Christianity. But as the growing needs of society produced more elaborate forms of commercial organization, the ecclesiastical lawyers began to have other thoughts...and the restrictions that remained were largely ignored or circumvented.
So the situation in the Anglican Communion is neither new, nor unique, and in some parts of the Communion (especially The Episcopal Church) the "ecclesiastical lawyers" have to have other thoughts, if the church is going to remain a church at all.

Politics, too, plays a role in all communal endeavors. It is certainly an issue in any discussion of "reunification."
We have become so accustomed to thinking of Christendom as an ideal body detached from all ties of political loyalty that it is well to be reminded that from the time of Constantine religious unity had stemmed in the first place from political unity. Religious unity could scarcely be thought of apart from political unity, if only because religious unity depended on some ultimate power of coercion. Hence all future medieval plans for the reunification of Christendom are fundamentally plans for political reintegration.
Southern notes that the attempts at reunification between Rome and the Greek church all assumed Roman authority over Greek churches, at least in matters of doctrine. In other words, reunification would only come at the submission of the Greek church to the Latin one. So, today, Anglian priests may find they, too, are required to submit:
"But convert clergy may not find life as good as they had hoped, despite being freed from the terror of meeting woman priests and having to bless civil partners rather than excoriate them, Vatican-style, as “intrinsically disordered”. Despite the modified prayer book they will find their style and even pastoral advice gravely restricted; they may flinch at the uncompromising voice of the Vatican after the gentle bleating of Cantuars.

"Anglicanism was founded on uneasy compromise, and this has, over centuries, made it kindly and even humble: a mixed salad of a faith. Catholicism is older, darker, strong raw meat. It may choke them."
I suppose from the Roman perspective Anglicanism is a "mixed salad of a faith." From my Protestant and congregationalist perspective, it seems quite orderly, indeed. I would hesitate, simply out of respect, to label Catholicism as "darker, strong red meat," but I take the point of the metaphor: "Be careful what you ask for. You might get it."

This certainly fits the tenor of responses from clergy on this issue:

Assimilating a lot of people who perhaps have struggled, and some might even say haven’t made a raging success of living within their own tradition, you’ll get two sorts of “convert”:

1. people who really should try out and perhaps are called by God to be part of the Roman tradition: Hip, hip, hooray!

2. people who aren’t terribly good at living in any tradition on anything but their own terms.
Catholics and Episcopalians, who are nearly Catholic (but perhaps not nearly enough), and Lutherans (to some degree in the same boat), come closest, from what I know of Christianity in America, anyway, to being "discipled" and disciplined about their religious activities. Protestants, on the other hand, tend more strongly toward "baptized heathens" at one extreme, or simply more interested, at the other, on "living in any tradition on...their own terms." Presbyterians have an order that is not entirely orderly; Baptists are congregationalist, with almost nothing binding them to each other at all. The UCC, in which I am ordained, is an awkward mix of Presbyterianism and congregationalism, and as a result tries to make pronouncements the congregations have no connection to, and on the other hand has no control over its congregations whatsoever. It's a very mixed bag, in other words, and there the troubles begin.

Any group of people is going to conduct its affairs according to familiarity and how "they've always done it this way." Submission to the yoke of Jesus, be it light or heavy on the shoulders, is ever the struggle of the Christian believer. One question, of course, is: "Who's yoke is it, anyway?" Various denominations of Christianity attempt to answer that in various ways. As the good Bishop says:

people should serve within the denomination in which they can best be discipled.
But how can they best be discipled? That's the issue; and the answer is, that second set of converts are the very people who don't want to be discipled. The church cannot refuse them (I don't think the church can refuse anyone, but I'm very open-minded about church "membership"); but should the church, in any form, count it a gain to have them?

Seen from a distance, this looks like a distinct "win" for the Roman church, and it is largely being treated that way. But is it entirely doctrinal, and not at all political? That seems dubious, not to mention contrary to history both ancient and modern:

On the eve of another damning report on clerical abuse and cover-up in Ireland, that seems to be Pope Benedict’s tactic. His sudden invitation to Anglican defectors will certainly take the spotlight off a continuing child abuse scandal fed, for decades, by the masculine and intimidating structures of authority in the Catholic hierarchy.
The Archbishop insists this is not about politics (the "existing relations between our two communions"):

It remains to be seen what use will be made of this provision, since it is now up to those who have made requests to the Holy See to respond to the Apostolic Constitution; but, in the light of recent discussions with senior officials in the Vatican, I can say that this new possibility is in no sense at all intended to undermine existing relations between our two communions or to be an act of proselytism or aggression. It is described as simply a response to specific enquiries from certain Anglican groups and individuals wishing to find their future within the Roman Catholic Church.
But if this isn't about the relations between the two communions, what is it about?

And that's the view from the top. Seen on the ground, where such things actually take place, the picture may be very different. I've had some experience with this, apart from congregations quite unwilling to be "discipled." When I left my congregation (or they told me to leave, to be more precise), I contacted various denominations which had arranged to take me as an ordained pastor, even though I wasn't ordained in their denomination. A sort of agreement of reciprocity, if you will. It turned out the judicatory bodies were, by and large, quite comfortable with the administrative process; but the local congregations, by and large, were not interested at all. It is one thing to make a pronouncement from "above" about how things will be from now on. It is quite another thing to live out the consequences of that decision, in the parish.

And then there is the question of where to put all these people, if they want to come with their traditions and liturgies, but can't bring the physical property with them.

So it goes.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Jesus on a Dinosaur!


I promised myself I wouldn't bother with Hitchen's babblings on religion (and I'm not too keen on the argument from Pastor Wilson, but that's another matter), but this passage alone made me say: "Huh?"

We do not know, though we may assume, that our pre-homo sapiens ancestors (the erectus, the Cro-Magnons and the Neanderthals, with whom we have a traceable kinship as we do with other surviving primates) had deities that they sought to propitiate. Alas, no religion of which we are now aware has ever taken their existence into account, or indeed made any allowance for the tens and probably hundreds of thousands of years of the human story. Instead, we are asked to believe that the essential problem was solved about two-to-three thousand years ago, by various serial appearances of divine intervention and guidance in remote and primitive parts of what is now (at least to Westerners) the Middle East.
I'm not sure what Hitchens means by "religion," there, because Christianity as I was trained in it at a Christian seminary certainly takes into account "the tens and probably hundreds of thousands of years of the human story." I didn't learn in seminary that Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and even Moses, were real people representing a frozen point in time, or the first people who actually mattered to humanity. Although their stories did have historical roots in identifiable periods in human history, I was taught to place them in human history. I learned that these were stories which were a part of the human story, and that I could learn them as a pastor and still take account of the stories of Gilgamesh (from Babylon) or even the Mississipians (the mysterious mound builders of Cahokia). Indeed, as a thinking person, as a theologian, I have a responsibility to. But that doesn't fit Hitchens's reductio ad absurdum religious view, so he creates a straw man he can easily topple over.

If the scriptures of Christianity or Judaism or Islam (and I note, again, Hitchens scrupulously avoids naming Judaism as one of the three religions of the Book he trashes at every opportunity. Some religious beliefs are apparently more absurd than others.) don't mention humanity before the Tower of Babylon (save for the stories of Adam and Eve), perhaps the problem is, like the Mississipians, they failed to leave records for us to decipher. But by no means has "religion" collectively conspired to take no notice of what archaeology and anthropology have discovered. Indeed, I learned more about archaeology in seminary, and in books I've read since related to Christianity and its origins, than ever I'd read before. (I won't even touch on the absurd issue of "the essential problem" being solved, as I have absolutely no idea what he's talking about. That's pretty much an "insert your prejudice/presumption here" type of statement.)

It isn't religion that is absurd, it is Hitchens's willingness to parade his ignorance so publicly. His ability to form an argument isn't worth much, either.


*image courtesy of Wounded Bird

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Twa Cultures (Redux)


So I wake up with this idea in my head (which is usually where I keep them, or find them), and I mean to write it down but it's morning and there's no time, and now that there's a little time, I can't find it again.

Oh, wait: here it is. And actually it ties in with something I started and never posted, so now the business of connecting the two is going to be another wrinkle in the telling of this tale, but the basic idea is this, and it's not really such a new one: we're all looking for something to belong to, which is one reason atheists are making such a strong bid for a presence of their own; and that may even have to do with the departure of Madalyn Murray O'Hair. Time has attenuated our attention to Ms. O'Hair, and certainly her disappearance and death did not lead directly to Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens all hitching their popularity wagons to atheism's rising (?) star, nor did it create sua sponte the website Pharyngula, but there's probably a connection there somewhere. Nature abhors a vacuum, and so do human societies. But there's also the interesting issue that, as religion retreats from the public square, some other form of community rushes to take its place. And, almost predictably, that new form casts itself as the anti-religion, as the opposition to something it says shouldn't exist, but which it needs in order to have an existence of its own. After all, if Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher didn't have Christianity to mock, what would they have to write books or make movies about?

So even the active promotion of atheism is not promotion of an ideology, so much as it is promotion of a new community: the community of those who actively reject Christianity. Atheism as it has been put forward by the "New Atheists" is little more than a very deliberate rejection of Christianity (at its broadest the "religions of the Book," though it's unseemly to condemn Judaism (!), and I've yet to hear from prominent atheists in predominately Muslim or Buddhist or Taoist cultures, or of any prolonged attacks on world religions by prominent Western atheists). There are non-believers, of course. Such people simply go about their lives, unconcerned with the effects or non-effects of religion, even when it supposedly prompts terrorists to fly planes into buildings (an action more motivated by politics than religious fervor, but that's another argument). But then there are atheists: people determined not only to not believe very loudly and forcefully, but to make of those who do believe targets for their ire, their mockery, their denigration, even their hatred (Sam Harris put into print his conviction that "Muslims are utterly deranged by their religious faith," (the emphasis is in the original), and this led him to conclude the only proper response to Islam was its destruction by nuclear force.), or if they are "old atheists," at least to loudly proclaim why believers are so wrong to believe. It's an interesting problem of the "other," of the one who is not you, but to whom you can only relate by seeing them in the mirror of yourself. And it connects to other thoughts I may yet publish here because such atheism is a very public practice, that is, one used to define oneself in the polis, but not necessarily one used to define oneself in private.

I had a good friend and neighbor who was very publicly, but quietly, an atheist. He admired Madalyn Murray O'Hair, which always surprised me because she came off as an obnoxious and hate-filled woman to me, someone whose opinions about my religion meant nothing to me, but whose attitude toward anyone who disagreed with her always bordered on outright disgust. My friend was so calm and tolerant and respectful of others that I could never quite see why he would admire a person so publicly disrespectful of almost everyone. But my friend was also the most Christian person I've ever known. By that, I mean he was kind, generous, charitable, lived simply, gave freely of his time, labor, materials, to any and everyone. He was not judgmental, except in regards to religion, which like any atheist he rejected and condemned (an agnostic is aloof, an atheist is more argumentative). But he helped people who need help, no matter who they were. "God causes it to rain on the just and the unjust alike," Jesus reminded his disciples, but while few of his disciples seem ever to have learned that lesson, my friend applied it to the spiders living in his windows as well as to the people he knew who could use his talents, tools, and labor.

Had he been "perfect," I suppose he'd have been an agnostic. "Perfect," of course, according to my definition. He was happy with who he was, and even when we discussed religion (especially after I decided to sell my house and move away to go to seminary), it was always done respectfully on both sides. I didn't want to evangelize him, and he didn't want to antagonize me. But I still think his atheism was something he used to define himself publicly; to define himself against an ideology he didn't share and didn't accept. My Christianity, I am repeatedly told, is something I should keep private; but it is also a public declaration, if only because part of its practice is to gather with like minded persons for an hour or so once a week, in a public place.

This idea comes back into my head because of a report by Barbara Bradley Hagerty on NPR this morning. Seems there is a "schism" among atheists on precisely how to be atheists. If that isn't the sine qua non of a "community," I don't know what is. One of the "old atheists" even says, in the report, that "we know what [the "new atheists"] are against, but what are they for?" And the answer, per Hagerty, is that they believe in reason and science. Which is an interesting choice of words, but an accurate one. Atheism, at least as publicly and loudly practiced, is just as much of a belief system as the religions they decry. Consider this passage from Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages, by R.W. Southern (Penguin, 1970):

It is amazing simple to knock over cherished theories when they no longer satisfy the needs of the time. The thoughts on which royal government had acted for several centuries were blown away like airy nonsense. Almost no one bothered to defend them. The old sacred kingship had no place in the new world of business.
Southern is writing about the collapse of absolute respect for the king as an agent of God on earth. The passage he quotes, dating from the 13th century, begins:

Perhaps there are babblers who with windy eloquence contend that the king is not to be numbered with the laity since he is anointed with priestly oil. But there is a plain reason which mocks this folly....
Not exactly Thomas Jefferson, but far more critical of kings than we might assume, if we know only the popular history of the "Dark Ages." As Southern points out in setting up that quote and his conclusion:

If often happens at critical moments in history that ideas which have long held the field almost unchallenged are suddenly discovered, not to be wrong, but to be useless; then almost everyone can see they are absurd.
Now some clever atheist might snap that up and apply it to religion. But it immediately made me think of Thomas Kuhn, and The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a work in the philosophy of science which still makes "true believers" in science uncomfortable, as they struggle to point out that Kuhn does not mean what he plainly says, because science, after all, as religion once claimed to, deals with "absolute truth," or at least a truth as absolute as we can know it. And therefore science stands apart from both human culture and human limitations, and gives us that window on immutable reality that once only the medieval church in Europe promised to open.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Little wonder the "old atheists" in that report refer to the "new atheists" as "fundamentalist atheists." It is one thing to thinks science as a method of reasoning, another to think if it has having independent value, and another thing again to set up shrines in its name, and worship at them. But this doesn't answer why atheists feel the need to identify as atheists, other than the very human need to belong to a community, to something larger than themselves (a need we all feel. There was another story on the same program about college students suffering from "mental illness" (I use the term advisedly), who seemed rather interested in establishing their bona fides are members of a community which should be appreciated by the larger community of which they were, and were not, a part.). I'd like to think this answered that question, that Christianity presented a valid threat to the prevailing culture:

Ancient Roman civilization, says Gibbon, was bound to reject Christianity just because Rome was tolerant. This culture, with its great diversity of customs and religions, could exist only if reverence and assent were granted to the many confused traditions and ceremonies of its constituent nations....But Christ and Christians threatened the unity of the culture...with their radical monotheism, a faith in the one God that was very different from the pagan universalism which sought to unify many deities and many cults under one earthly or heavenly framework....Divinity, it seems must not only hedge kings but also other symbols of political power, and monotheism deprives them of their sacred aura. The Christ who will not worship Satan to gain the world's kingdoms is followed by Christians who will worship only Christ in unity with the Lord whom he serves. And this is intolerable to all defenders of society who are content that many gods should be worshipped if only Democracy or America or Germany or the Empire receives its due, religious homage. The antagonism of modern, tolerant culture to Christ is of course often disguised because it does not call its religious practices religious...and also because it regards what it calls religious as one of the many interests which can be placed alongside economics, art, science, politics, and techniques. Hence the injunction it voices to Christian monotheism appears in such injunctions only as that religion should be kept out of politics and business, or that Christian faith must learn to get along with other religions. What is often meant is that not only the claims of Christ and God should be banished from the spheres where other gods, called values, reign. The implied charge against Christian faith is like the ancient one: it imperils society by its attack on its religious life; it deprives social institutions of their cultic, sacred character; by its refusal to condone the pious superstitions of tolerant polytheism it threatens social unity. The charge lies not only against Christian organizations which use coercive means against what they define as false religions, but against the faith itself.
H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper & Row 1975), pp. 7-9

But such an answer/problem would presume a greater commitment to radical monotheism (although that theme joins the religions of the Book together), since presumably the problem now is that Christianity is the culture, and so doesn't threaten it at all. Still, it's not hard to read Niebuhr's words about the "cultic, sacred character" or social institutions, and not apply it to the fervid defense of science and "reason" employed by Dawkins and Hitchens, et al. And that's the real issue: there are profound cultural issues here. But neither the "new atheists" nor the "old atheists" seem equipped to deal with them, so intent are they in establishing either ideological purity, or simply in attacking religion as they (poorly) understand it. And it's that position I don't understand: the position that only exists because it has something to be opposed to. It puts the atheists in the position the dog chasing the car: what do they get if they achieve their goal? In the world imagined by John Lennon's song, would they have to invent religion in order to continue to have a raison d'etre? And what's rational about that?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Give the King your justice, O God!


And reporters a sense of professional responsibility. Not really my turf, but compare this AP article, found in the Chicago Tribune (i.e., about as far north from Texas as the lower 48 can go):

Gov. Rick Perry, seeking to defuse an election-season controversy over the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, described Willingham on Wednesday as a "monster" and "bad man" whose conviction in the deaths of his three daughters was sustained "every step of the way" by the courts.

...

Perry lectured reporters for being preoccupied with "all these sideshows" instead of looking at the facts that led to Willingham's conviction. He challenged journalists to "go back and look at the record here because this is a bad man."

Perry described Willingham as "a guy who murdered his three children, who tried to beat his wife into an abortion so that she wouldn't have those kids."
with this article from the Corsicana Daily Sun:

“Willingham was a monster. He was a guy who murdered his three children, who tried to beat his wife into an abortion so that he wouldn’t have those kids. Person after person has stood up and testified to facts of this case that quite frankly you all aren’t covering,” Perry said.

...

At trial, Willingham’s wife, Stacy, testified for him during the punishment phase, denying he ever hurt her. Acquaintances, however, said she told them he’d beaten her several times, even while she was pregnant.
Apparently Gov. Perry has a very loose concept of what "testimony in court" actually means.

I skimmed a few of the articles at Google, but didn't find one that mentioned this bit of information. What this amounts to, both in court and out of court, is gossip, not evidence. And where Perry gets the idea he was beating her because she wouldn't have an abortion, is never explained. (And as I read it again, it doesn't even make sense: Willingham "beat his wife into an abortion" so she wouldn't have the three girls he allegedly murdered by fire? Huh?) The Governor has refused to release the evidence he reviewed in this case, but now he's using whatever he saw to defend his decision. Perhaps this is what he's thinking about:

Though only the babysitter had appeared as a witness for the defense during the main trial, several family members, including Stacy, testified during the penalty phase, asking the jury to spare Willingham’s life. When Stacy was on the stand, Jackson grilled her about the “significance” of Willingham’s “very large tattoo of a skull, encircled by some kind of a serpent.”

“It’s just a tattoo,” Stacy responded.

“He just likes skulls and snakes. Is that what you’re saying?”

“No. He just had—he got a tattoo on him.”

The prosecution cited such evidence in asserting that Willingham fit the profile of a sociopath, and brought forth two medical experts to confirm the theory. Neither had met Willingham. One of them was Tim Gregory, a psychologist with a master’s degree in marriage and family issues, who had previously gone goose hunting with Jackson, and had not published any research in the field of sociopathic behavior. His practice was devoted to family counselling.

At one point, Jackson showed Gregory Exhibit No. 60—a photograph of an Iron Maiden poster that had hung in Willingham’s house—and asked the psychologist to interpret it. “This one is a picture of a skull, with a fist being punched through the skull,” Gregory said; the image displayed “violence” and “death.” Gregory looked at photographs of other music posters owned by Willingham. “There’s a hooded skull, with wings and a hatchet,” Gregory continued. “And all of these are in fire, depicting—it reminds me of something like Hell. And there’s a picture—a Led Zeppelin picture of a falling angel. . . . I see there’s an association many times with cultive-type of activities. A focus on death, dying. Many times individuals that have a lot of this type of art have interest in satanic-type activities.”

The other medical expert was James P. Grigson, a forensic psychiatrist. He testified so often for the prosecution in capital-punishment cases that he had become known as Dr. Death. (A Texas appellate judge once wrote that when Grigson appeared on the stand the defendant might as well “commence writing out his last will and testament.”) Grigson suggested that Willingham was an “extremely severe sociopath,” and that “no pill” or treatment could help him. Grigson had previously used nearly the same words in helping to secure a death sentence against Randall Dale Adams, who had been convicted of murdering a police officer, in 1977. After Adams, who had no prior criminal record, spent a dozen years on death row—and once came within seventy-two hours of being executed—new evidence emerged that absolved him, and he was released. In 1995, three years after Willingham’s trial, Grigson was expelled from the American Psychiatric Association for violating ethics. The association stated that Grigson had repeatedly arrived at a “psychiatric diagnosis without first having examined the individuals in question, and for indicating, while testifying in court as an expert witness, that he could predict with 100-per-cent certainty that the individuals would engage in future violent acts.”
I haven't reviewed the trial transcripts, but I find no indication in the "New Yorker" article that multiple persons testfied, from their personal knowledge or from hearsay (which is what the Governor is citing) that Willingham was a "monster." In fact, the "New Yorker" article concludes: "Aside from the scientific evidence of arson, the case against Willingham did not stand up to scrutiny." The article provides a factual basis for its conclusion. Maybe Gov. Perry would like to share some of that secret information on which he bases his conclusion?

On the other hand, is it really so difficult for a news report to point out the Governor is relying on extra-judicial evidence, or maybe even just plain old gossip? If the local Corsicana paper can do it, why can't the AP?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

R.I.P. William Wayne Justice


William Wayne Justice died Tuesday, in Austin. I didn't know he was living in Austin, but it seems fitting that he live his last years in the "most liberal" city in Texas, since he spent most of his judicial career in Tyler, one of the most conservative.

Aside from owning a chair once owned by Judge Justice (and bought through a third party; I never even met the man), he is one of the people who had a profound impact on my life. Of course, he had a profound impact on the lives of everyone living in Tyler, Texas in 1970. That was the year Judge Justice brought Brown v. Board of Education to my town. 16 years late, but it finally got there.

I wasn't even born when that decision was handed down in 1954, but I was entering high school when Judge Justice used it to close down the "black" schools in Tyler, and force the "whites" in town to accept their brothers and sisters in schools that could finally no longer be "separate but equal." The changeover wasn't quite as ugly as police dogs being set on civil rights marchers, or police moving in with billy clubs and fire hoses, but it came close. The hatred and animosity in the town were palpable for years, and much of it was directed at Judge Justice, for fearlessly upholding the law, and ignoring the Southern traditions that were too important to too many people with the power to enforce them.

Even as I write this, the article I linked to is being updated, so it may say more when you read it than I allude to as I publish this. However, this comment, to those of us who remember Tyler and how Judge Justice changed it, speaks volumes:

U.S. Magistrate Judith Guthrie of Tyler, a longtime friend, told the Tyler Morning Telegraph that Justice was "a very courageous judge and a great man."

His whole life as a judge was devoted to doing what the law required, according to Guthrie.
Almost 40 years later, we still have to insist he did what he had to do. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

The story was told once that, after his ruling desegregating the schools, a member of one of the local clubs (I forget which one) told the manager that Wayne Justice was never to be allowed membership in the club. The manager had to tell the member that Judge Justice had been a member of the club for years. This, more than anything, captures his story. He wasn't a firebrand who seemed out of place even in Tyler. Like LBJ, he seemed like an ordinary Texan. But like the best "ordinary Texans," he was extraordinary. His legacy includes reforming the Texas prison system, which he oversaw for years as the judge who had to be sure his rulings on what was, and was not, constitutional in the Texas penal system, were carried out. He did a great deal to change Texas for the better. I know little or nothing about his personal story: whether he ever retired, why he was living in Austin when he died, etc. But I know how he affected my personal story, and the stories of all my friends who were in schools in Tyler in 1970 and after.

As Hamlet said of his father, we won't see his like again. And that is truly a pity. May God's mercy be with him, and with his family.

Monday, October 12, 2009

I will incline mine ear to a parable


The Guardian

Rightwing critics of controversial film-maker Michael Moore call him many things: a socialist, a hypocrite, unpatriotic – and they even make unkind remarks about his weight.

But, with his new anti-capitalist film showing on US movie screens last week, Moore has unveiled an unexpected trump card against conservatives who so vociferously attack him: Christianity. Moore is a practising Catholic and has put religion at the core of Capitalism: A Love Story. Alongside the political arguments about inequality, Wall Street corruption and the failures of George W Bush, Moore argues that capitalism is also fundamentally unchristian.

....

But many argue that the astonishment at Moore's gospel radicalism is misplaced. Though recent US political history seems to have been dominated by the rise of evangelical conservatism and its powerful grip on the Republican party, there is a parallel tradition of leftwing priests in America, especially with Catholics. "Catholics have always had a strong tradition in labour and union issues in America. There is not much in laissez-faire capitalism that is actually backed up by Catholic teaching," said Professor David O'Brien, a faith and culture expert at the University of Dayton, Ohio.

Cardinal James Gibbons was a famous advocate of union rights in the early 20th century. Daniel and Philip Berrigan were brothers and radical priests who opposed the Vietnam war. The black civil rights movement was led by clergy, most famously by Dr Martin Luther King.

Certainly the Rev Peter Dougherty appears to be in that tradition. Dougherty, who conducted the marriage service for Moore's sister, has known the Moore family for a long time and was happy to appear in the documentary. He lives in Michigan and has seen the devastation of local industry and unemployment that often seems to provide the motivation for Moore.

Dougherty told the Observer he had no qualms about launching a religious attack on capitalism. "There have always been people who questioned basing a society on greed. That is what capitalism is. It is based on the greed motive, a radical evil. Moore's use of religious arguments in Capitalism: A Love Story also taps into wider issues happening at the fiery place where US politics and Christianity meet. Though the past few decades appear to have been dominated by religious arguments over abortion and other social issues, those culture wars seem to have died down a little.



Psalm 49

1Hear this, all ye people;

give ear, all ye inhabitants of the world:
2 both low and high,

rich and poor, together.
3 My mouth shall speak of wisdom;

and the meditation of my heart shall be of understanding.
4 I will incline mine ear to a parable:

I will open my dark saying upon the harp.
5 Wherefore should I fear in the days of evil,

when the iniquity of my heels shall compass me about?
6 They that trust in their wealth,

and boast themselves in the multitude of their riches;
7 none of them can by any means redeem his brother,

nor give to God a ransom for him:
8 (for the redemption of their soul is precious,

and it ceaseth for ever:)
9 that he should still live for ever,

and not see corruption.
10 For he seeth that wise men die,

likewise the fool and the brutish person perish,
and leave their wealth to others.
11 Their inward thought is, that their houses shall continue for ever,

and their dwelling places to all generations;
they call their lands after their own names.
12 Nevertheless man being in honor abideth not:

he is like the beasts that perish.
13 This their way is their folly:

yet their posterity approve their sayings.
Selah.
14 Like sheep they are laid in the grave;

death shall feed on them;
and the upright shall have dominion over them in the morning;
and their beauty shall consume in the grave from their dwelling.
15 But God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave:

for he shall receive me.
Selah.
16 Be not thou afraid when one is made rich,

when the glory of his house is increased;
17 for when he dieth he shall carry nothing away:

his glory shall not descend after him.
18 Though while he lived he blessed his soul,

(and men will praise thee, when thou doest well to thyself,)
19 he shall go to the generation of his fathers;

they shall never see light.
20 Man that is in honor, and understandeth not,

is like the beasts that perish.

Friday, October 09, 2009

The Nobel Peace Prize for 2009





The Nobel Peace Prize for 2009


The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided that the Nobel Peace Prize for 2009 is to be awarded to President Barack Obama for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples. The Committee has attached special importance to Obama's vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.

Obama has as President created a new climate in international politics. Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play. Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts. The vision of a world free from nuclear arms has powerfully stimulated disarmament and arms control negotiations. Thanks to Obama's initiative, the USA is now playing a more constructive role in meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting. Democracy and human rights are to be strengthened.

Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future. His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world's population.

For 108 years, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has sought to stimulate precisely that international policy and those attitudes for which Obama is now the world's leading spokesman. The Committee endorses Obama's appeal that "Now is the time for all of us to take our share of responsibility for a global response to global challenges."

Oslo, October 9, 2009
AS for the controversy of the choice, my reading is that this is the Committee's way of recognizing the historic event of Mr. Obama's election. That, in itself, is a significant step toward peace.

And yes, it's inappropriate in such a context; but really, how can I resist?



Later:

as for reactions, you can have this:

"The upside is the European community is embracing this president and saying we like the direction that he is taking this country in and it's drastically different," suggested Mika Brzezinski. She was quickly shot down.

"The upside is the Nobel Prize committee that has had suspect selections in the past has just befuddled a lot of people across the world," said host Joe Scarborough.

"I predict right now that he will find a way to basically turn it down," Time's Mark Halperin added . "I think he is going to say, I share this with the world or whatever. I don't think he'll embrace this. Because there is no upside."

"The damage is done," Brzezinski responded.

NBC White House Correspondent Chuck Todd concurred that the prize posed problems for Obama. "You're right, will he go to Stockholm to pick it up? What does he do with the money? You get a million dollars. You get over a million dollars for winning this." (The prize is actually given in Oslo. There is a banquet in Stockholm.) But Todd was confident that Obama would survive the crisis. "Mark's probably right," he said. "He'll figure out some way of accepting this in another form, not on his own behalf."
"The damage is done"? Wha....?

Or this:

Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, who won the prize 1984, said Obama's award shows great things are expected from him in the coming years.

"In a way, it's an award coming near the beginning of the first term of office of a relatively young president that anticipates an even greater contribution towards making our world a safer place for all," he said. "It is an award that speaks to the promise of President Obama's message of hope."

He said the prize is a "wonderful recognition of Obama's effort to reach out to the Arab world after years of hostility.

Another former Nobel winner, Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, said Obama has already provided outstanding leadership in the effort to prevent nuclear proliferation.

"In less than a year in office, he has transformed the way we look at ourselves and the world we live in and rekindled hope for a world at peace with itself," ElBaradei said. "He has shown an unshakable commitment to diplomacy, mutual respect and dialogue as the best means of resolving conflicts. He has reached out across divides and made clear that he sees the world as one human family, regardless of religion, race or ethnicity."
The difference seems to be people who think the award is about them, and people who think the award is about the human family. Hope, v. the status quo being upset. Two conditions that some people think appear alike.

But why is that?

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

In the Desert of the Fathers

Howard Zinn likes to tell audiences that governments lie. This is, for him, an important lesson, one citizens need to learn. There is another lesson, though. A lesson exemplified in the life of Max Cleland, as I realized this morning listening to NPR. You have to listen to this story to get the full impact. The summary won't do it justice. Because the lesson here is a deep and painful and profoundly troubling one.

Max Cleland is as well known now for the campaign Saxby Chambliss ran against him (unnamed in the audio story). If you listen to the story, you hear the incredulity, the bewilderment, almost the accusation, in Renee Montagne's questions: "How did they do that?" (Paint him as "unpatriotic.") "How did it stick?" (A man with five deferments made a triple-amputee Vietnam war hero the villain)." It's almost like it's Cleland's fault that the lies were believed. It's almost like he did something, or, just as bad, failed to do something, and the fault is his, not Karl Rove's or Saxby Chambliss's (she never names any of Cleland's political opponents from that race), nor even the voter's fault.

It is clear that the loss in 2002 destroyed Mr. Cleland's world, and in that there is a warning about where you put your treasure. But how did they make it stick? How did they "do that"? They lied. And people believe lies.

There's the awful lesson. Not that governments lie, or politicians lie, or even that political operatives and political campaigns are run on lies. It's not that people lie. It's that people believe lies. They believe lies, and sometimes there is nothing you can do about that.

The popular view, of course, is that people individually are smart, and people collectively are stupid. "A person is smart," Tommy Lee Jones tells Will Smith in Men in Black. "People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it." It's sort of how we balance Jefferson and Madison, and say our democracy works: because people individually can be trusted, but collectively, they can be a little scary. But the truth is simpler and darker than that. People are not smart, and a person is not smart. They are dumb, panicky, and dangerous, collectively or individually. And they believe lies. They accept them. They swallow them hook, line, and sinker, and do so personally, not as some kind of vaguely collective Id. They do it themselves, for themselves, by themselves. They do it because they want to. They do it because it benefits them. They do it because lies are so much easier to take in than the truth. They do it because people lie. Not governments, not groups, not corporations, not congregations, not assemblies, not agencies, not councils: people. They are the only ones who can lie, and the only ones who can believe the lies. No one believes because everyone else does, or because everyone lies or accepts the lie: they believe for themselves first, and as part of a group later. It's the inescapable conclusion of Sartre's existentialism, of the idea that we are individuals first, and members of a group second. We are the ones who accept the lies: us, individually, personally. We accept the lies, and then a group accepts the lie, and then a city, a county, a state, a nation. If those things collectively are dumb, panicky, and dangerous, it is because we individually are dumb, panicky, and dangerous. And it doesn't take much at all to make us believe any damned fool thing someone wants us to believe.

Why do I bring this up? Partly from experience; I've gone through the kind of shattering loss Max Cleland went through. Our experiences differed in many ways, but fundamentally they were the same. Picking up the pieces is damned hard, and making sense out of a world where you were sure people would understand if you explained yourself to them, that at least they would be reasonable, is also damned hard. The alternative seems to be cynicism, the belief that people are no damned good, that they are panicky beasts best manipulated like cattle, rather than treated like persons. If you think Barack Obama presents the positive counter-example that proves such cynicism bitter and crabbed and narrow, consider just how many people continue to castigate Barack Obama for being too bi-partisan. These same people are astounded at his attitude, even though he wrote a best-selling book about his political philosophy which, my wife says (she read his book, I haven't) he is following to the letter. Yet we are still astounded. We prefer our own lies to the truth of what he has told us, and despite being a best-seller, apparently no one in America (at least among bloggers and the chattering classes) has read it.

So it goes. People believe lies. Especially the lies they live by.

But partly I bring it up because I read this at Fr. Jake's place, and it provokes a response in me.

In the previous post that wandered around the issue of "authority," I spoke about "networks," which is but one shift in the way humans are perceiving reality today. I now want to add two more shifts that I think the Church must recognize, if we are to effectively continue our mission. These three shifts are:

1. Networks - relationships are formed through complex webs of networks, often formed around leisure activities, family and friendships. Geography often plays a minor role. Network societies can both connect and fragment, as well as include and exclude.

2. Mobility - as the "local" gives way to the "global" perspective, new options regarding where we put down roots have opened up. In some cases, the concept of "roots" (home) has been completely redefined, with "place" being given a lower priority. This can provide more freedom and opportunity, but also undermines long term commitments. It is also cause for some tensions between those who have the means to be more mobile, and those who feel "stuck" in a particular place.

3. Consumer societies - previous generations found their identity in what they produced, but we now find our identity in what we consume. The core value of society has moved from ‘progress’ to ‘choice.’ We are moving towards a “personalized scale" in which ”it must fit me exactly” is an essential value. Among other things, this will affect the way people evaluate truth claims. “Truth” will be treated as a commodity. Consumer societies provide more choices, while also reinforcing the illusion of individualism.
I'd first say that "networks" as a perception of reality is no more than a metaphor, the way "processor" is now the metaphor of choice for what the human brain is. In medieval times, the brain was a gear case of watch parts. Now it's likened to semi-conductors, mostly by people who have no real idea how a computer works, but like the metaphor of "hardware" (the brain cells) and "software" (the ideas in the brain, or perhaps even "consciousness."). And I'm not sure there's anything new or insightful in "networks." I think I can still learn as much about human society, in other words, from reading Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, or watching Shakespeare's plays, or perusing Dicken's novels. Even Beowulf and the lesser known "Exile of the Sons of Uisliu" tells me a great deal about how people get along. "Network" would just be a buzzword I could apply to any of those pictures of human society. I'm not sure it's even a new lens.

But that's a familiar gripe, coming from me; and I'm not interested in griping with Fr. Jake. I am intrigued, however, by his assertion that "previous societies" (how previous, and where the line of demarcation is drawn, is a bit vague) formed their identities around what they produced, not what they consumed. It's a bit idyllic, that notion; raising images of happy shepherds watching sheep safely graze in pastoral landscapes, while French herders produced unique forms of cheese and wine and British writers created plays and poetry and novels, and German composers produced music while Italian artists wrote operas and sculpted statues, none of it with any eye it would be used, just that they would take pride in their production of such things. Which is all bosh, of course, when it's put that way.

The Roman Empire collapsed because production could not keep up with consumption. It spread because consumption demanded ever newer sources of production to feed the need of Rome. All roads led to Rome for a reason, after all. And the few who consumed rested heavily on the many who produced for their consumption. There is a reason there were so many poor in Palestine for Jesus to walk among, and it wasn't because of poor middle management or a lack of entrepeneurial spirit. No, those aren't the traits Fr. Jake mentions, but they lie behind an assumption that human life fundamentally changed in the Industrial Revolution (which is the technological break-point where production could finally increase to the point that more people could consume than were needed to produce, a fact created by the use of non-animal forms of energy, and which set us on the road to our current global-warming/energy depleting dilemma.). Human society didn't really change with the advent of the factory; only the tempo did. The song remained the same.

The British Empire, like the Roman, drew resources from around the globe to England. The American Empire (such as it is), and the European (again, such as it is), or what we call the "First World," rests heavily on the resources of the "Third World," in a pattern of consumption and exploitation unchanged since the time of Solomon (to choose a Biblical figure). What is different is the scale of the consumption, not the fact of it. All we have done in America is convince ourselves we are deserving of this grace, but that attitude is as American as apple pie. When Sarah Palin says God put the national resources of Alaska in Alaska so Americans could exploit them, she's not saying anything that would have sounded out of place in an 18th century New England Puritan pulpit, long before the Industrial Revolution hit these shores. Same as it ever was, in other words.

As for this:

2. Mobility - as the "local" gives way to the "global" perspective, new options regarding where we put down roots have opened up. In some cases, the concept of "roots" (home) has been completely redefined, with "place" being given a lower priority. This can provide more freedom and opportunity, but also undermines long term commitments. It is also cause for some tensions between those who have the means to be more mobile, and those who feel "stuck" in a particular place.
It's a vague and glittering generality that in no way comports with my experience of the world. I've seen people try to enter a community and bring to it a "global" perspective, or at least a perspective that they think is broader than the "parochial" perspective of that community. They are ejected like a watermelon seed between pinched fingers. I have yet to see anyone who has completely given up on "place" as a source of identity, or "roots" as something "completely redefined," except the elites who can afford to jet around the country or around the world, and who truly think the nation or the world is their playground. I'm not being condescending to say that, I'm trying to describe the same attitude toward "the locals" that led Pontius Pilate to build the walls of his governor's palace so high his gaurds could easily peer into the outer courtyard of the Temple in Jerusalem, the better to keep an eye on "the locals" there. Pilate's attitude toward the "place" and "roots" of the people of Palestine was so disdainful that he was finally removed from his position because of his cruelty to them. Jesus of Nazareth was neither the first nor the last person Pilate crucified unjustly.

"Place" is given a lower priority only by people who can afford "Place." Those who can't, who have to make do where they are, find "place" to sometimes be the only thing in their lives that matters. It is true that mobility seems to have obliterated "place," but T. S. Eliot said as much almost 100 years ago:

And now you live dispersed on ribbon roads,
And no man knows or cares who is his neighbour
Unless his neighbour makes too much disturbance,
But all dash to and fro in motor cars,
Familiar with the roads and settled nowhere.
Nor does the family even move about together
But every son would have his motor cycle,
And daughters ride away on casual pillions.
And yet I have found profound parochialism in Eliot's home town of St. Louis, as well as in the suburbs of Chicago, and even the environs of Houston, Texas (what is parochialism if not a profound sense of place?). I find even the placeless places such as Houston, give people a sense of "roots" and "place" that is not reflected in the writers of books who assure me that, en masse, people no longer care about place. To which I respond: no one lives a life en masse. They all live lives individually, sometimes lives, as Thoreau said over 150 years ago, of "quiet desperation." And place very much plays a role in such desperation. (The placeless place of Plano, Texas, briefly held the dubious honor of being the second highest teen suicide rate in the nation. The root cause was the lack of "place" and "roots" that life in Plano required.) There is, indeed, nothing new under the sun.

Indeed, in Houston, Texas, there is a neighborhood known for its gay community, and it's no accident a very gay-friendly UCC church out of Dallas has established a new church in Houston, in that neighborhood. "Place" and "roots" have a lower priority? If they do, it is because they are disdained by the machine. If they do, it means we have lost something valuable and potent which we must regain, rather than accept this change as part of some "natural order."

Why do I link together Fr. Jake's post with my own reaction to Max Cleland's interview? Because both rely on an aversion to the particularity of individuals, and with the seeming homogeneity of groups. Groups don't live in communities, or networks, or places, or vote: individuals do. But it is very hard to speak of individual motivations and make a coherent picture, and very easy to speak of mass responses and "trends" and "megatrends" (the term is long dead, but the idea is still with us). Consider how easy it is to read and misread the lessons of mass data about large groups: it all depends on what data you are looking at:

Tickle issues a clear call to acknowledge the inevitability of change, discern the church's new shape and participate responsibly in the transformation. Although Tickle's particular focus excludes the dynamic forces of Asian, African and Central/South American Christianity, this is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand the face and future of Christianity.
That's from the Amazon page Fr. Jake links to for Phyllis Tickle's book The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why. Put simply, as any scholar will tell you, what you find depends very much on what you go looking for. I don't much like the Christianity emerging in Nigeria, especially as it has played out on the global stage in The Anglican Communion; but that, too, is part of "The Great Emergence," and analysts of change in Christianity would ignore it at their peril. Indeed, the battle in the Anglican Communion would seem to indicate a battle of ideas in Christianity that is just beginning, and that will not soon end with cooperation and agreement and acceptance of how Christianity should change, and why, or even whether what results is Christianity at all.

It's still the same old story; and all is vanity, and striving after emptiness. But it's also still a case of do, or die. The fundamental things apply. But which things are fundamental; and how, and to whom, do we apply them?

Aye, there's the rub.