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

Monday, March 29, 2010

Holy Week 2010



It is announced wherever, reflecting without flinching, a purely rational system of analysis brings the following paradox to light: that the foundation of law--law of the law, institution of the institution, origin of the constitution--is a 'performative' event that cannot belong to the set that it founds, inaugurates, or justifies.
I just want to soak in that for awhile, to meditate on it, to roll it around in the mouth of my mind like a sip of cognac; enjoy it before swallowing it and making it disappear.

The emphasis here is on the performative, which is not the act itself. If I tell you to do something, the statement is performative, but it is not the act: your compliance with the command, is the act. The foundation of the act is the performative event, in this case my command. But that command does not belong to the act that it founds, inaugurates, or justifies.

We are getting to the marrow bone of Lent, now.

In seminary, my New Testament professor told us about a seminar he took where they spent a semester looking for precedents and parallels to the story told on Maundy Thursday in Christian churches:

11:23 For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread,

11:24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me."

11:25 In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me."

11:26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.
And they could find no precedent for it. The common mockery abroad is that it's a form of cannibalism. Fine; and the healing miracles in the Gospels are forms of shamanism, and the resurrection story itself a form of Greek hero worship. Perhaps. You can see it that way if you wish to; but it doesn't have to be understood that way. There is a reality, a spiritual reality, which either you know, or you don't know; and I find the dominant paradigm that such a reality is not known, and therefore is not real, to be tedious in the extreme. I'm familiar with the concept of the "God Spot" and I am not interested in it only because it is more of the materialism exemplified by Robert Wright, that is, a position that assumes it is true and then sets out to establish its validity. It is no more impressive to me than arguments for the existence of God, which start with the same unexamined assumption. So many such atheists and non-believers decry the attempt to "impose" religion upon them, yet feel quite content to impose their denial of this reality on me. Feh.

As I was saying, my professor and his colleagues could find no precedent for this story, no parallel in ancient literature. There are examples of blood sacrifice and rituals from Mithras, but they are anachronistic to Christian practice, and not parallel to it at all. The very phrasing of the command, the description of the ritual, is almost impossible to explain. What is the purpose for the recipient, except to eat this food in remembrance of their Lord? Because he supplied it? No, because it is his body. But what does that mean? There have been many interpretations over history, but no guiding principle is laid down in this story, or in any of the Synoptic Gospels. It remains a mystery almost sui generis. But it retains a powerful meaning for believers across space and across time. To have survived this long, it must mean something; at least to the participants who continue, generation after generation, to come new to it, and to remain true to it.

It is a performative event. "Do this in remembrance of me." And in the gospels, Jesus tells the disciples to take the cup, and eat the bread. It is a performative event, and as such it is the paradox: it "cannot belong to the set that it founds, inaugurates, or justifies." But what does it found, inaugurate, or justify?

This paradox, of course, is what makes it a sacrament. It persists in time but is not of time. It persists in the Church, but is not of the Church; it is not an command of the Church, but it is preserved and observed by the Church. But what does it justify? What does it found? What does it inaugurate?

I'm not yet sure. That's what I want to meditate on....


Image via The Wounded Bird

Thursday, March 25, 2010

It's Mighty Reckless....


If I didn't see it with my own eyes, I wouldn't believe it:

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who joined a multistate lawsuit challenging the new federal health care law this week, is taking heat from Democrats who say he backed a plan that required noncustodial parents to provide medical coverage for their children.

But Abbott, a Republican, said Wednesday that there's a distinction between the two programs: Texas is not required by the federal government to participate in the child support program, but Texas residents would be required to buy insurance under the newly enacted federal health care overhaul.

"Consistent with the 10th Amendment, the authority is reserved for the states to require parents who have children in the child support system to provide insurance for those kids," Abbott said.
Uh...what? Has Greg Abbot read the 14th Amendment lately?

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
If this argument represents the argument about the Constitutionality of HCR, then the suit has already failed.

Oh, and that claim by Abbott that the state alone can mandate health insurance in the Family Code (as a matter of child support)? That's to comply with a Federal law so the state can receive federal funds. Which doesn't violate the 10th Amendment. Somehow.

I'm so glad state funds are being spent so wisely on lawsuits of such obvious merit.....

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Fifth Sunday of Lent 2010


Isaiah 43:16-21
43:16 Thus says the LORD, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters,

43:17 who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:

43:18 Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.

43:19 I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

43:20 The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people,

43:21 the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.

Psalm 126
126:1 When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.

126:2 Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, "The LORD has done great things for them."

126:3 The LORD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.

126:4 Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses in the Negeb.

126:5 May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.

126:6 Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.

Philippians 3:4b-14
3:4b If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more:

3:5 circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee;

3:6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

3:7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.

3:8 More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ

3:9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.

3:10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death,

3:11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

3:12 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.

3:13 Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,

3:14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

John 12:1-8
12:1 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.

12:2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.

12:3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus' feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

12:4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said,

12:5 "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?"

12:6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)

12:7 Jesus said, "Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.

12:8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."
First, if God were about to do a new thing, if even now, right now, just now, here, now! it sprang forth...why would we not perceive it? Why wouldn't we notice it? Why wouldn't we see it? Isn't that the very, very modern question of faith? The post-modern question of God? The post-death-of-God question of religion? That if all of this were true, wouldn't it be indisputably true? That all we'd have to do to wipe away all doubt and make belivers of all the world, would be to Just Prove It? But if God did a new thing, if even now it sprang forth, wouldn't that Prove It?

Or does everything new look so strange, its very strangeness makes it impossible to see it? And if only seeing is believing, is that why we cannot perceive it?

It's not an idle question. Isaiah ties this "new thing" directly to the Exodus, directly to the great acts of God in history, to "mak[ing] a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters," and "bring[ing] out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick." You've all seen the scene: Charlton Heston standing in the wind with his arms stretched out as dramatically as arms can be outstretched, and the water standing like two walls on either side of a perfectly dry sea bed, until the armies of Egypt enter the water, and then they are swept away in a watery flood. Who would not believe, after seeing that? Who would not think that a new thing, and perceive it as it springs forth? Who would even need to ask if you'd seen it?

But it doesn't Prove It, because Israel regretted that miracle almost immediately, and by the time of Isaiah had regretted the deal with God that got them out of Egypt, and had even paid for that regret with the Exile to Babylon. A lot of water under the bridge by the time Isaiah tells Israel God is about to do a new thing, and asks if they can perceive it. And since then, several thousand years more. And still, the question is as pertinent today as when it was first spoken. And still it is only a sign that will satisfy us; nothing less than proof, the world says, will do.

John's gospel is all about signs. Semeia, he calls the miracles of Jesus. Signs. But the story here from John is not a sign. It is one of the two stories common to all four gospels. The other is the crucifixion.

John shares almost nothing with the other three gospels. There is no nativity story in John, no sermon on the Mount or similar set of miracles, almost nothing about Jesus' life. Even the "Last Supper" is radically changed in John, and focusses upon Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, rather than telling them to eat a meal in remembrance of him. There is no indication at all that John knew the same stories that Matthew, Mark, and Luke knew.

Except for this story; and the crucifixion.

There is an extravagance here that exceeds the stories in the other gospels. In Mark and Matthew, the story is almost the same: an unnamed woman brings ointment to perfume Jesus with at his last meal: a clear precursor of his impending death, which only she seems to foresee. Jesus tells his disciples what she was done will be told in memory of her, but who she was is lost in those gospels. Luke places the story well before the last week of Jesus's life, and makes the woman a prostitute, not one of the company of Jesus. For Luke, it becomes an object lesson in the theology of grace. John follows Luke, shifting the anointing from the head to the feet; but he names the woman, and puts the objection to the expense solely in the mouth of Judas, who will be the betrayer.

Lazarus here is Mary and Martha's brother, and his resurrection a sign. But where it points is already unclear, because already people are eating at table with Lazarus and ignoring the miracle, the proof!, he presents. Already they are looking at other signs; the new thing springs forth, but they cannot perceive it. Or they can. Mary can; or at least she's just grateful. Judas cannot; or at least, he's just spiteful.

Isn't there anything God can do to just override who we are and make us believe in what God tells us? If God can't even make us see what is right in front of us, what hope is there for us?

Orwell said: "To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle," and there's little doubt he wasn't talking about religion. But it's true; we are too tempted to look at the bigger picture, the larger circle, the things beyond our grasp and power and authority, and think them more important precisely because we can't control them. So much easier to be in charge of things you aren't in charge of; so much easier to exert authority with no hint of responsibility. Mary Matalin proved that recently in her interview on The Colbert Report. Stephen Colbert pulled out a Republican Talking Points Bingo Card, and rather than have Colbert shout "Bingo!" before the interview was over, she was carefully constrained in what she said. Her cliches and talking points removed, she had remarkably little to say, and was remarkably meek (read "dull" in TV talking heads parlance) about saying it. She did say one interesting thing, though: in response to Glenn Beck's call for Christians to abandon churches which teach "social justice," she tried to claim that Jesus said we should teach a man to fish, rather than....well, apparently, rather than fish for him. The best reference Colbert could come up with was Jesus' claim to make his disciples "fishers of men," but that wasn't quite what Matalin was talking about, so she dropped the subject. But it's an interesting point about responsibility: if we are not responsible for our brothers, if we are not in fact our brothers' keepers, wouldn't teaching them to fish be enough for us? Since the poor are always with us, doesn't that mean God means for some people to be poor?

How hard indeed it is to see what is in front of one's nose.

If there is no hope for change, there is no point to Christianity, there is no basis for belief, no reason for faith. If Lent does not call us to the things of this world, if Lent does not remind us Jesus was a homeless itinerant who depended wholly on the kindness of strangers for his daily bread, and if the things of this world don't include the people in it; if we are not called to care for them, then there is no basis for Christianity, no reason for us to listen to the word of God. If the new thing springs forth, and we cannot perceive it; if the extravagant promises of this liturgical season, that: "Those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy/Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves," are not promises that all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well, what is the point of our preparation, our repentance, of humbling ourselves? What else could Paul have meant when he said this:

More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ

3:9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.

3:10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death,
If he did not mean it is how we prepare ourselves to perceive the new thing that God is doing, the thing that is so unlike this world and its ways, that is so new, that it can only appear as strange, what else could he mean? And if that new thing is how important it is that we care for each other, and uphold each other, and treat each other, even the stranger, the atheist, the non-believer, the non-Christian, as a brother and a sister in Christ, as a child of God, because God is the one who gives water in the wilderness and rivers in the desert, the one who gives all to everyone, who are we to restrict what God has given? People are not jackals and ostriches, but if God provides even for them, God provides for all people, too. Lent calls us to the things of this world; hope and change are the basis for faith and belief. If we would come home with shouts of joy, carrying our sheaves, we must bring everyone home with us; not as a sign of our God, but as a proof: a proof of our trust in our God. And let us do it now; not as some grand, sweeping effort which will encompass the world; but in our daily lives; among the friends and family we know, and the people we daily encounter. It is there, literally in front of our nose, that the change will be perceived, if it is ever to be perceived at all.

Let all God's people say: "Amen."



Picture from Vanderbilt University Special Collections.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Tout autre est tout autre--Jacques Derrida



Glenn Greenwald:

French documentarians conducted an experiment where they created a faux game show -- with all the typical studio trappings -- and then instructed participants (who believed it was a real TV program) to administer electric shock to unseen contestants each time they answered questions incorrectly, with increasing potency for each wrong answer. Even as the unseen contestants (who were actors) screamed in agony and pleaded for mercy -- and even once they went silent and were presumably dead -- 81% of the participants continued to obey the instructions of the authority-figure/host and kept administering higher and higher levels of electric shock. The experiment was a replica of the one conducted in 1961 by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram, where 65% of participants obeyed instructions from a designated authority figure to administer electric shock to unseen individuals, and never stopped obeying even as they heard excruciating screams and then silence. This new French experiment was designed to measure the added power of television to place people into submission to authority and induce them to administer torture.

... But I just watched an amazing discussion of this French experiment on Fox News. The Fox anchors -- Bill Hemmer and Martha MacCallum -- were shocked and outraged that these French people could be induced by the power of television to embrace torture.

Speaking as employees of the corporation that produced the highly influential, torture-glorifying 24, and on the channel that has churned out years worth of pro-torture "news" advocacy, the anchors were particularly astonished that television could play such a powerful role in influencing people's views and getting them to acquiesce to such heinous acts. Ultimately, they speculated that perhaps it was something unique about the character and psychology of the French that made them so susceptible to external influences and so willing to submit to amoral authority, just like many of them submitted to and even supported the Nazis, they explained. I kept waiting for them to make the connection to America's torture policies and Fox's support for it -- if only to explain to their own game show participants at home Fox News viewers why that was totally different -- but it really seemed the connection just never occurred to them. They just prattled away -- shocked, horrified and blissfully un-self-aware -- about the evils of torture and mindless submission to authority and the role television plays in all of that.emphasis added


The French still have much to teach us. The remainder of Lent may well be spent re-reading Totality and Infinity and Sartre on ethics.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Fourth Sunday of Lent 2010


Joshua 5:9-12
5:9 The LORD said to Joshua, "Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt." And so that place is called Gilgal to this day.

5:10 While the Israelites were camped in Gilgal they kept the passover in the evening on the fourteenth day of the month in the plains of Jericho.

5:11 On the day after the passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain.

5:12 The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.

Psalm 32
32:1 Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.

32:2 Happy are those to whom the LORD imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

32:3 While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.

32:4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah

32:5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the LORD," and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah

32:6 Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them.

32:7 You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance. Selah

32:8 I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.

32:9 Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you.

32:10 Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the LORD.

32:11 Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.

2 Corinthians 5:16-21
5:16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.

5:17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

5:18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation;

5:19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.

5:20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

5:21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
15:1 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.

15:2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."

15:3 So he told them this parable:

15:11b "There was a man who had two sons.

15:12 The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them.

15:13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.

15:14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need.

15:15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs.

15:16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.

15:17 But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!

15:18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you;

15:19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."'

15:20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.

15:21 Then the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.'

15:22 But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe--the best one--and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.

15:23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate;

15:24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate.

15:25 "Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing.

15:26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on.

15:27 He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.'

15:28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him.

15:29 But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.

15:30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!'

15:31 Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.

15:32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'"
Lent calls us to the things of this world.

Driving the usual routine, there was nothing unusual except the particulars of the traffic: which car was where, at what speed, making what kind of indications of change that might affect my selected path. Nothing to see here, in other words.

Then I turned the usual corner, and for some reason looked up and forward, rather than resolutely at the pavement in front of me, or the bumper just before me. Maybe it was the white that caught my eye: the small tree in the middle of the boulevard covered in a snow shower of blossoms, as perfectly white as nature can manage. It was probably the stark contrast, the sudden white agains the grey bark, grey morning cloudy sky, grey pavement and nondescript (and so grey) buildings. It almost shone, it reflected the morning light through the clouds so perfectly. It made me look up, and realize, at least for a moment, how little I look up when I'm driving.

Habit and consciousness of danger and safety, I suppose; but I didn't realize until that moment how narrow my vision usually was when driving: how much I focussed on the car in front of me, or the pavement, or what cars were immediately perpendicular to me, at the next intersection, the next driveway; and, of course, the cars in the next lane. Looking up and away seemed to invite distractions and destruction; so I kept my head down and narrowed my gaze, by an act of the mind, a trick of consciousness, to what I only wanted to be aware of. The rest of the picture was there; I'd just refused to look at it. The budding white tree shook me out of that.

I don't even know what kind of tree it is. It's too early yet for the dogwood with its extravagant blossoms. And it was too white and again too early for the redbud, which these tiny blooms resembled, except in color. But it made me look up, as I approached it, and it made me look around, even as I paid attention to the traffic and the turn I had to make soon. It made me aware I was in a world crowded with things, and some of those things, freshly looked at, freshly acknowledged, were almost...beautiful.

Lent calls us to the things of this world.

I have to aver that my locale is not one known for its scenic vistas and dramatic sights, so I am not a resident blind and dull to the tourist attractions of my locale. There really wasn't much to see at all, but when that white tree broke the gloom of the day and gloriously called attention to itself, it called my attention to the world immediately around me, to the things immediately around me. And it was almost like going from wearing a blindfold, to having it removed for me; or from fasting, to finally being able to enjoy the taste of food again.

Lent calls us to the things of this world.

The thought is not original with me. It comes, although I have modified the form, from Richard Wilbur, who thought for awhile he'd gotten his version from St. Augustine, the great Platonist of Christianity, and as much as anyone a single source for the notion that: "For the Abrahamic faiths, the body is fallen and a source of evil, [i]ts presence...a constant reminder of the depravity and mortality of human nature." We think, almost reflexively, of Christianity as being a world-denying, world-denigrating religion, and of Lent as being the apex (or nadir) of that doctrine; but it isn't, and it doesn't have to be.

A strict observance of Lent made possible a pleasure which is unknown to us now, that of "un-Lenting" at breakfast on Easter Day. If we look into the matter closely, we find that the basic elements of our pleasures are difficulty, privation, and the desire for enjoyment. All these came together in the act of breaking abstinence, and I have seen two of my great-uncles, both serious, sober men, half swoon with joy when they saw the first slice cut from a ham, or a paté disembowelled, on Easter Day. Now, degenerate race that we are, we could never stand up to such powerful sensations!--Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
Brillat-Savarin,the most famous of gastronomes, recalls us to something we have forgotten: Lent calls us to the things of this world. What is fasting, except a reminder to us of the importance of the things of this world? There is even a legend that, after 40 days without food in the wilderness, and after the temptations, angels brought Jesus soup from his mother's kitchen. Fasting always ends with the pleasures of eating, and as Luke says just above, the Pharisees grumbled against Jesus because he both welcomed sinners, and ate with them. I'll say it again: Lent calls us to the things of this world.

Why does it call us to them? Because we are of this world, and yet Paul assures us we are ambassadors for Christ. Because the prodigal squanders everything he owns, because the world is so much with him he considers his own father dead, until he has no choice to go back to him. Because the father rewards the son not with words and promises of affection, but with the ring and the robe and the fatted calf; the things, in other words, of this world.

Okay, now here's hope and change we can believe in. Or, perhaps, if we read the parable carefully, that we can't believe in. Because it really doesn't make sense; there's an audacity here that literally takes your breath away. At least, it seems to take away the good sense of the prodigal's father. Because we don't understand this parable unless we understand the insult of the son, the prodigal, the wastrel. Not only does he waste his father's property, he wastes his father as well, in the all-too descriptive modern slang sense of that word. When he demands his portion from his father, he means the inheritance he'll get when his father dies. All that stands between him and that is the inconvenient truth that his father is still alive; so he treats the paterfamilias, to his face, as if he were dead. What father wouldn't turn such a child away, or be justified in turning him out of his house? And what lesson could be more obvious than that this boy is besotted with the things of this world, and has neglected something far more metaphysical but also valuable: the social order that demands a child respect the parent, that no child (especially) is to place property above people.

That would be the lesson, except the father accepts the child's demand, and becomes a homeless pauper living off the kindness of one son, having divided the property between his two sons (Shakespeare's tale of Lear is a warning about how badly this kind of decision can turn out to be). And the story ends with the father still claiming his rights to the property (something poor Lear finds he cannot do) and giving still more of it to the young son who returns. The father can claim those rights because the older son is dutiful and still honors his father as society requires; but even this is almost too much, and he has to protest. And here lies the lesson: that Lent calls us to the things of this world.

The last words of the father in the parable are that his son was lost, and has been found. What is Lent, except a reminder to us that the things of this world can be lost to us, should be lost to us, not so we would never have them again, but so we could take them up again with joy and appreciation for their true value. Listen to Psalm 32: it is all about recovery. Re-read the words of Paul: they are all about reconciliation. We cannot be reconciled to something we have never known. We cannot recover what we have never had. We are not placed in this world to be miserable, but to enjoy what God provides. Look again at how Luke frames that parable:

And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."
You cannot eat what is not of this world. You cannot enjoy the company of people who are not of this world. You cannot accept your failings, your errors, your mistakes, without acknowledging the importance of this world, without saying other people matter more than you do. And who are those other people, if they are not of this world, if you don't know them in this world?

Lent calls us to the things of this world. It calls us to look up on a dreary day and notice everything around us, the ordinary as well as the sublime, because even the sublime is just an ordinary part of this world. It's just that we never notice. But when we do, even the ordinary parts of this world are new, and perhaps for that moment we see as God sees, and maybe in the lessons of Lent we can begin to learn to "regard no one from a human point of view," but to see that "everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!" Maybe in Lent we can learn the lesson of the Psalmist, that "steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the LORD", and we can "Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart."

Because Lent calls us to the things of this world. And that is where we will find God, and where we can live out our days.

Amen.

Picture from Vanderbilt University Special Collections.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Wool-gathering in the third week of Lent



Two interesting bits from Huffington Post's "Religion" section that I just want to highlight during the season of Lent.

First, an atheist among evangelicals finds out the latter are people, too:

There's a widespread impression among evangelicals that secular progressives would like to see them flushed out of the culture. Look at the strange currency of the war on Christmas, an annual pageant of outrage that from my point of view seems like goofy satire. Many evangelical Christians buy into it because in them resides a potent fear of endangerment, for which there's plenty of real-world evidence: a lot of secular progressives treat evangelicals with derision, the media feeds a public appetite for exposes on their churches, and we celebrate when their leaders are disgraced, humiliated, or revealed as enjoying the same behaviors they built careers on decrying as sin.

So the notion that they'd trust a liberal, atheist writer to fairly represent their stories, or that they'd act naturally around me, knowing the filter through which I was viewing them, was just unrealistic.
As for the dogmatism of evangelicals:

A secondary surprise was that I felt implicated in the ignorance I observed -- relating to gay rights, to the environment, to feminism. I started to believe that their reactionary attitudes on these subjects were a result of profound insularity, which itself seemed the legacy of a culture that rejected them: mine. Why would they open themselves up to influence from a culture that made no space for their beliefs?
And then there's that question of understanding the other:

The book's appeal for secular progressives, I hope, is implicit. I think we like to think of ourselves as very tolerant, but we're comfortable being nasty to evangelical Christians. I think Internet culture has really exacerbated this attitude. It allows for hostility that would be unacceptable in life, where interacting with flesh and blood people counteracts any budding impulse to reduce someone to a disgusting cartoon. So I want this book to restore some humanity.

I'd hope that evangelicals would be interested in reading the book to see how their ideas and culture translate to a person working very hard to take them seriously, who nonetheless doesn't share their central beliefs.
Interesting what responses resentment breeds; they are seldom helpful ones. I have family members who could easily be described as very conservative in their religious beliefs, if not "evangelicals" in the Thomas Road Baptist Church sense of the word. I keep my theology to myself around them, mostly out of respect. I have friends who are very conservative religiously, and I treat them with the same respect. I find it works better than demonizing them, and I find it hard to demonize them since I know them personally. On the intertubes, however, who do I know personally, except those I already agree with?

And then, although I'm hardly an expert on neurobiology, neurology, brain structure, or even how much neuro-science explains how we think, this seems to me to be contrary to the popular press reports that religious belief is the product of a particular, and peculiar, part of the brain:
Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, used functional MRI to evaluate brain activity in 15 devout Christians and 15 nonbelievers as the volunteers assessed the truth or falsity of a series of statements, some of which were religious (“angels exist”) and others nonreligious (“Alexander the Great was a very famous military ruler”). They found that when a subject believed a statement—whether it was religious or not—activity appeared in an area called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which is an area associated with emotions, rewards and self-representation.

...

“The fact that we found the same brain processing between believers and nonbelievers, despite the two groups’ completely different answers to the questions [about religion], is pretty surprising,” says Jonas Kaplan, a research psy­chologist at U.C.L.A. and co-author of the study. The finding adds to the mounting evidence against the notion, popular in the scientific community as well as among the general public, that religious faith is somehow different from other types of belief, explains co-author Sam Harris, also of U.C.L.A. In contrast to this assumption, he says, “Believing the sun is a star is rather the same as believing Jesus was born of a virgin.”
Some of this leads directly into what Wittgenstein would call "language games," as the word "believe" is subject to varying interpretations depending upon the context (does a religious believer really "believe" in her religious doctrine the way another "believes" the sun is a star?). But the fact that the same brain function is involved in processing either type of information is...interesting.

BTW: I'm pretty sure The Onion has been reading my blog.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Third Sunday of Lent 2010


Isaiah 55:1-9
55:1 Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.

55:2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.

55:3 Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.

55:4 See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples.

55:5 See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.

55:6 Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near;

55:7 let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

55:8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.

55:9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Psalm 63:1-8
63:1 O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.

63:2 So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.

63:3 Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.

63:4 So I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name.

63:5 My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips

63:6 when I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night;

63:7 for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.

63:8 My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.

1 Corinthians 10:1-13
10:1 I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea,

10:2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea,

10:3 and all ate the same spiritual food,

10:4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.

10:5 Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.

10:6 Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did.

10:7 Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, "The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play."

10:8 We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day.

10:9 We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents.

10:10 And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer.

10:11 These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come.

10:12 So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.

10:13 No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.

Luke 13:1-9
13:1 At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.

13:2 He asked them, "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?

13:3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.

13:4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them--do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?

13:5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did."

13:6 Then he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.

13:7 So he said to the gardener, 'See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?'

13:8 He replied, 'Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.

13:9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'"


“How’s that hopey-changey thing working out for ya?” --Sara Palin. I understand political discourse, and public discussions. But I have to admit, hearing a professed Christian dispose of hope and change with a back-handed swipe, has made me a bit uncomfortable.

Not that Sara Palin is a "professional" Christian, but she's made her religious beliefs an important part of her public persona; and every once in a while, I think people who profess Christianity in public shouldn't be allowed to just use it as a free pass for proving their worthiness. Every once in a while, I think they ought to be held to living up to it. So while you don't have to agree with President Obama's "audacity of hope" (a phrase he got for his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright), dismissing "hope" as futile and naive is...well, it's hardly Christian.

Which is not the same as saying Sara Palin is not a Christian, nor is it a judgment on her Christianity. But the hope of Christianity has always been important to Christians; hope is not a thing that should be blithely dismissed. Hope is what much of a Christian's profession of faith is about. And if your profession of faith is just something you say under certain circumstances, in certain contexts, to certain audiences for certain purposes, what kind of profession is that? What are you confessing, if you can't confess it fully? So this is not a judgment on Sara Palin; this is a judgment on all of us who confess to be Christians. How's that hopey-changey thing working out for us?

Without change, there is no hope. Without hope, there is no change.

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.

Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.
There is an absolutely mad hope there. That is an absolutely extravagant promise of change. And is it supposed to come in spite of us? Or because of us? Are we supposed to wait for this to happen, bye and bye, in God's own good time? Or are we supposed to be inspired by it, and live this vision right here, right now? The prophet says "listen carefully to me...listen, so that you may live....and eat what is good, and delight yourselves with rich food." Those are actions, verbs, activities. There's nothing there that says "Wait" or "Trust" or "Have Faith" and God will take care of the rest. Listen, the prophet says; listen; and be changed. Everything Isaiah says is in present tense.

Just as everything Jesus speaks of, in that parable and in the lesson of people killed by the tower, is in present tense.

Then he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.

So he said to the gardener, 'See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?'

He replied, 'Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.

If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'"
Sort of answers the question, doesn't it? If we don't bear fruit, why should we expect God to bear fruit for us? Or even expect God to plant new trees that bear fruit, and leave us alone to wait for the planting and the harvesting? Is this God's garden, or ours? If everything in the earth is God's, and all that fills it, aren't we stewards of God's earth, gardener's in God's orchards? If we don't have hope, what good is God's hope for us?

Our hope is not a foolish hope, a hope that God will do what we can't.

"Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?

No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.

Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them--do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?

No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did."
And part of our repentance is to turn away from despair; to stop seeing as we see, and start seeing as God sees. There is, as Rev. Wright said, an audacity to hope, and the audacity is right there: that we could see as God sees. And part of the way God sees, is in the small things. After all, what matter is it if one tree out of an orchard bears fruit? Cut it down, replace it, move on! See the big picture, don't get bogged down in the details! But, as Mother Teresa reminds us, God (or some say the Devil) is in the details:

"There are many people who can do big things, but there are very few people who will do the small things."--Mother Teresa
Hope and change are not a matter merely big things. That's where we all want the change to come, of course; in big things. Big things, which are not us. So that 'hopey-changey' thing is easily derided in a world that resists big movements, but still teaches us that the "great men" of history are the ones who shifted the course of the river of time, who grabbed the zeitgeist by the shirt collars and made him change directions, take another path, go another way. Those men (and it's always men, but women, given the chance, would probably do the same) do so at great cost; but the cost is almost always to others. The cost is high, usually in human lives; and the hope blooms, and the change occurs; and just as quickly the change is forgotten, and the hope fades, and it's back to: "What have you done for me lately?" Without hope, there is no change; without change, there is no hope. But where do hope and change come from? Historical events? Changes in the course of human history? Or is it in the small things? And why is it so hard for us to try to change the small things?

Because we are the small things. Because our lives are made up, of small things. Because the small things are what matter to us: the friends we make, the lovers we know, the family members carried off to, or just by, war; or disease; or poverty. We are made up of small things; our lives are built up grain by grain from tiny accumulations, that in the end mean more to us than the big events of the world. Even the big events of our lives: birth, death, weddings, even divorce, are small things to the world. But they are the things that make us, that give us identity, that give our lives meaning, or take it away.

The extravagant call of Isaiah is to small things, to personal things, to the most intimate things, the things we need for life, the things that bind us into community: bread and wine and milk. The things we share at meals, the things we take in together, around a common table, at a common meal. From these things we will live and know that we have a covenant with God. Did you think Paul made that eucharist a binding ritual by accident?

The call of Isaiah is not extravagant because it gives so much: what is wine and milk and bread, after all? It is extravagant because it offers so much hope, the audacious hope of real and fundamental change. It is as hopeful as the gardener, sure that just one more season, just one more try, will make the tree worthwhile, will bring change. But the change of Isaiah comes in response to the vision, in living in the world pronounced by the prophet, who says: Come now! Come and eat! Come and enjoy!

Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
It is the optimism of the gardener in the parable; except we are the gardener, and the tree is our life. Without hope, why should we work it, why should we make the effort? Without change, what would our efforts matter? But even if our hope is in changing small things, it will be enough. Indeed, it will be everything.

Amen.


Picture from Vanderbilt University Special Collections.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

"And when Justice is gone...."



I have no idea how long this ruling will last because I haven't read the particulars of the judge's order, and I'm not an expert in death penalty law and the Constitutional issues:

A Houston judge who declared the death penalty unconstitutional Thursday clarified his ruling in an impromptu hearing Friday, saying he ruled the procedures surrounding the process in Texas are illegal.

During Friday's hearing, prosecutors filed motions asking state District Judge Kevin Fine to reconsider his ruling and also to proceed with April's death penalty trial of John Edward Green Jr. Fine maintained at the hearing that he believes innocent people have been executed.
On the other hand, in the New Yorker article on what was certainly the execution of an innocent man in Texas (and what may well have been on Judge Fine's mind, if not in his order), there was this note:

Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has said that the “execution of a legally and factually innocent person would be a constitutionally intolerable event.”
Maybe we're about to see that issue reviewed by the court. I kind of doubt it, since the evidence of other innocent people being put to death is probably not present in this case, and can't get admitted (off the top of my head I don't know how that evidence could be admitted in a trial. but it's not impossible. From news accounts, it just doesn't sound like this case is far enough along to have permitted the presentation of such evidence, and so the court has, I assume, taken "judicial notice" of such facts. Whether the court can even do that is another question.)

I also have to note this is a ruling in Harris County (where Houston is), which is indeed the county "which sends more inmates to death row than any other in the nation." It would be nice if we gained notoreity for being the beginning of the end of that reputation.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Friday before the Third Sunday of Lent-2010



"There are many people who can do big things, but there are very few people who will do the small things."--Mother Teresa

Thursday, March 04, 2010

March Forth!



Er..sorry: March Fourth.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Torture as a Subject for Medition During Lent



25On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

26"What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?"

27He answered: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'[a]; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'[b]"

28"You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live."

29But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"
Okay, I spent my morning teaching "definition" as an essay and argument form in Freshman English, using as an example the definition of "torture." My analysis ran along lines provided in the textbook, ab initio anyway, distinguishing torture from interrogation, but assuming the two lay on a spectrum with interrogation at one end, torture at the other, and somewhere in between the "line" that gets crossed when you come from allowable (interrogation) to not allowed (torture). All in keeping with the public discussions of torture that have flailed around since allegations of water boarding and sleep deprivation and other techniques first surfaced.

But, I almost immediately asked: is torture simply an extreme form of interrogation? That isn't how the US Code defines it:

“torture” means an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control;
But I didn't use that definition. Instead, I pointed out to the class, we generally define torture as the intentional infliction of harm on a subject capable of suffering, and would all agree torture inflicted by a sadist on a victim, or by a despotic government as a means of maintaining control (my examples were the governments of Central American in the 1980's, trained in the School of the Americas in Atlanta, Georgia. Most of my students aren't old enough to remember the '80's. Most of them aren't old enough to have been alive in the '80's!) Then I wondered what the distinction was between torture that was evil, as in those two categories; and torture that might almost be "good," as in the question of: "When does interrogation become torture?"

And then I read this:
A voluminous report released two weeks ago by the Justice Department's ethics watchdog, the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), revealed in great detail how, in early 2002 after discussing "enhanced interrogation techniques" during numerous meetings with CIA, the National Security Council, then White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales and former Vice President Dick Cheney's attorney, David Addington, Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) attorney John Yoo and a 28-year-old attorney named Jennifer Koester, who was just two years out of law school, started work on a legal memo that would redefine the federal torture statute's definition of severe pain.
They needed to "redefine" that term because they wanted to authorize actions by the President, to exclude them from the definition of torture which are acts prohibited by law. To do this, of course, they had to look to statutes which gave definitions of "severe pain," and not surprisingly, those statutes are all statutes that concern health care.

"The term 'emergency medical condition' means a medical condition manifesting itself by acute symptoms of sufficient severity (including severe pain) such that a prudent layperson, who possesses an average knowledge of health and medicine, could reasonably expect the absence of immediate medical attention to result in - (i) placing the health of the individual (or, with respect to a pregnant woman, the health of the woman or her unborn child) in serious jeopardy, (ii) serious impairment to bodily functions, or (iii) serious dysfunction of any bodily organ or part."
That definition, as the article points out, "ended up appearing in the final version of Yoo's legal memorandum."

Well, as I say, where else are you going to look for such definitions?

There are clear problems with this approach, and not merely the problems non-lawyers would have with the very idea of using health care statutes in a perversion of their original intent (the torture techniques Yoo was writing to justify were already a perversion of psychological care, not to mention interrogation techniques). The clear legal problem is that this kind of legal analysis would never stand up in a court of law.

That standard is the sine qua non of legal analysis: would a court approve of the reasoning? It is true that many types of legal analysis, from law review articles to law firm memos to Attorney General opinions (commonly issued in Texas on points of law) are never reviewed by a court, but the standard remains: if it wouldn't fly in front of a judge, it's not worth the paper it's printed on. Not to say all lawyers hold to that standard, but all lawyers are aware of it, and know that if they can't get it past a judge someday, they want to be careful about advocating it today.

Yoo never faced that challenge, and knew he wouldn't, and it is why he has a position in a law school today, one that, I would argue, simply on the grounds of these memos, he doesn't deserve. The reasoning of these memos is so poor it would cost a first year lawyer his job in any competent law firm.* Yoo gets away with it because he knows his legal opinion will never be the subject of a court challenge, because no torture victim is going to have standing to sue the President in court, and no prosecuting attorney is going to bring a criminal charge under 18 USC 2340A against the President or any member of the Administration who might need to use Yoo's "reasoning" as a legal defense. In other words, he is simply working in a legal limbo where he knows his arguments merely provide a paper excuse for actions that no one will ever be held responsible for; at least no one with direct contact to John Yoo.

So, how do we get from torture as a technique of sadism and terrorism to torture as a technique of interrogation, when we "redefine" torture? Well, as I told my students, the question is: what is the purpose of interrogation? The purpose is to elicit reliable information. And what is the purpose of torture? Two out of three times, per my classification (sadism, terrorism, extreme interrogation), torture has no purpose except to inflict pain and suffering. How does torture become a type of interrogation, then? Does it ever? And if it doesn't, is there really a spectrum, and a line that can be crossed? Can we really establish a definition of torture that includes interrogation, distinguish between painful techniques that are valid for interrogation (such as detaining the suspect in a closed room) from those that are invalid (water boarding, sleep deprivation, or pulling out fingernails)? Is the difference really just one of degree? Or isn't it rather one of kind? How else is any other understanding of torture linked to something legitimate like interrogation? And how is it, then, that we ever link torture to interrogation, except to attempt to legitimate cruelty and sadism?

It's a difference of kind, not of degree, and no amount of sophistry can change that. Which is sort of like the case of John Yoo. Is the difference between Yoo and my law school professors really one of degree? Or isn't he fundamentally unfit to teach law students anything about the law, since he so clearly denigrates the standards of legal practice and reasoning?

Merrily we roll along....

*and no, that's not just my opinion:
The memorandum, drafted by John Yoo and OLC head Jay S. Bybee, provoked outrage and disgust among legal professionals and the public-at-large. Harold Koh, a professor of international law and the Dean of Yale Law School, informed the Senate Judiciary Committee that it was the most erroneous legal opinion he had ever read. A law professor at the University of Virginia claimed that the memo "was less 'lawyering as usual' than the work of some bizarre literary deconstructionist." In December 2004, the Department of Justice repudiated the Torture Memo, although John Yoo continues to stand by the analysis.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Texas Independence Day 2010

Time for the shirt again:



Yes, I actually wore this today. In public. With my Luccheses.



Life is good.

Meditation for the Second Week of Lent-2010


"As soon as one says anything about religion, one is questioned from two sides. Some Christian theologians will ask whether religion is here considered as a creative element of the human spirit rather than as a gift of divine revelation. If one replies that religion is an aspect of man's [sic] spiritual life, they will turn away. Then some secular scientists will ask whether religion is to be considered a lasting quality of the human spirit instead of an effect of changing psychological and sociological conditions. And if one answers that religion is a necessary aspect of man's spiritual life, they turn away like the theologians, but in an opposite direction.

"This situation shows an almost schizophrenic split in our collective consciousness, a split which threatens our spiritual freedom by driving the contemporary mind into irrational and compulsive affirmations or negations of religion. And there is as much compulsive reaction to religion on the scientific side as there is on the religious side.

"Those theologians who deny that religion is an element of man's spiritual life have a real point. According to them, the meaning of religion is that man received something which doe not come from him, but which is given to him and may stand against him. The insist that the relation to God is not a human possibility and that God must first relate HImself [sic] to man. One could summarize the intention of these theologians in the sentence that religion is not a creation of teh human spirit (spirit with a small s) but a gift of the divine Spirit (spirit with a capital S). Man's spirit, they would continue, is creative with respect to itself and its world, but not with respect to God. With respect to God, man is receptive and only receptive. He has no freedom to relate himself to God. This, they would add, is the meaning of the classical doctrine of the Bondage of the Will as developed by Paul, Augustine, Thomas, Luther, and Calvin. In the face of these witnesses, we certainly ask: Is it then justified to speak of religion as an aspect of the human spirit?

"The opposite criticism also has its valid point. It comes from the side of the sciences of man: psychology, sociology, anthropology, and history. They emphasize the infinite diversity of religious ideas and practices, the mythological character of all religious concepts, the existence of many forms of non-religion in individuals and groups. Religion, they say (with the philosopher Comte), is characteristic for a special stage of human development (the mythological stage), but it has no place in the scientific stage in which we are living. Religion, according to this attitude, is a transitory creation of the human spirit but certainly not an essential quality of it.

"If we analyze carefully these two groups of arguments, we discover the surprising fact that although they come from opposite directions, they have something definite in common. Both the theological and the scientific critics of the belief that religion is an aspect of the human spirit define religion as man's relation to divine beings, whose existence the theological critics assert and the scientific critics deny. But it is just this idea of religion which makes any understanding of religion impossible. If you start with the question whether God does or does not exist, you can never reach Him; and if you assert that He does exist, you can reach Him even less than if you assert He does not exist. A God about whose existence or non-existence you can argue is a thing beside others within the universe of existing things. And the question is quite justified whether such a thing does exist, and the answer is equally justified that it does not exist. It is regrettable that scientists believe that they have refuted religion when they rightly have shown that there is no evidence whatsoever for the assumption that such a being exists. Actually, they have not only not refuted religion, but they have done it a considerable service. They have force it to reconsider and to restate the meaning of the tremendous word God. Unfortunately, many theologians make the same mistake. They begin their message with the assertion that there is a highest being called God, whose authoritative revelations they have received. They are more dangerous for religion than the so-called atheistic scientists. They take the first step on the road which inescapably leads to what is called atheism. Theologians who make of God a highest being who has given some people information about Himself, provoke inescapably the resistance of those who are told they must subject themselves to the authority of this information.

"Against both groups of critics we affirm the validity of our subject: religion is an aspect of the human spirit."

--Paul Tillich, Theology of Culture, ed. Robert C. Kimball (New York: Oxford University Press 1959), pp. 3-5

Monday, March 01, 2010

Let's just say it's "Monday," and leave it at that....


I am giving him more attention than he is due, but Jeremy Rifkin doesn't know what the hell he's talking about:

Both the Abrahamic faiths--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--as well as the Eastern religions of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism, either disparage bodily existence or deny its importance. So too does modern science and most of the rational philosophers of the Enlightenment. For the former, especially the Abrahamic faiths, the body is fallen and a source of evil. Its presence is a constant reminder of the depravity and mortality of human nature. For the latter, the body is mere scaffolding to maintain the mind, a necessary inconvenience to provide sensory perception, nutrients, and mobility. It is a machine the mind uses to impress its will on the world. It is even loathed because of its transient nature. The body is a constant reminder of death, and therefore, feared, disparaged and dismissed in the world's great religions and among many of the Enlightenment philosophers.

Most of all, the body is to be mistrusted, especially the emotions that flow from its continuous engagement with and reaction to the outside world. Neither the Bible nor the Enlightenment ruminations make much room for human emotions, except to depreciate them as untrustworthy and an impediment either to obedience to God in the first instance or to the rational will in the second instance.
The ludicrously grotesque generalizations of his argument, conflating "faith" with feudalism ("At the dawn of the modern market economy and nation-state era, the philosophers of the Enlightenment challenged the Age of Faith that governed over the feudal economy with the Age of Reason.") and blaming most of society's woes on the "battle" between theologians and philosophers ("Theologians and philosophers have continued to battle over faith vs. reason ever since, their debates often spilling over into the cultural and political arenas, with profound consequences for society.") is one I should really respond to with: I wish we were that important. I wish serious theologians and serious philosophers really had that much impact on society. But I don't really see it.

And then to conflate Neo-Platonism and Protestant Christianity with Hebraic thought and Judaism, and lump all that together into a blanket statement on "religion" which encompasses Buddhism, Hindusm and Taoism (hint: only one of those three is accurately considered a "religion"), as well as reject the very materialism that underlies modern neuro-science and biology ("The experience of the transcendent is a set of neurons firing in particular arrangements of the lobes of certain brains!"); well, such is the state of public intellectualism in America today.

"Neither the Bible nor the Enlightenment ruminations make much room for human emotions, except to depreciate them as untrustworthy and an impediment either to obedience to God in the first instance or to the rational will in the second instance." Huh? What? Has this guy even read the Bible, much less examined a scientific text older than those of Descartes' era? Even the so called "Cartesian split" wasn't as radically fundamental as Rifkin is. Most of the better stories in the Hebrew Scriptures are people going off on wild actions prompted precisely because they are emotional, and how God either uses that happy accident to better ends, or patches the mess back together again, or just goes along with the flow. Emotions are "an impediment...to obedience to God"? Has he read the Christian mystics? At all? Has he even read Malcolm Gladwell's best-sellers, or the slew of economist turned sociologists who are busy explaining human psychology in terms of reasoning based on emotions, not classically defined reason?*

No, of course not. Ignorance is a state that allows us a purer contemplation of truth, uncluttered as our minds are by knowledge and reasoning that might obstruct our facile insights based on nothing.

*To be fair, I don't consider Gladwell or those economists seeking fame and best-seller riches intellectual heavyweights either, but for Rifkin to imagine and then present his ideas as a bold fresh gift to humanity; well, the arrogance and ignorance is O'Reilly-esque.