"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

Sunday, October 31, 2010

March to Rally to Keep Sanity Restored Through Living Fear

So comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert held a rally on Saturday, and apparently a few people came. The critics had the knives out early for this; their critiques before and after are not hard to find, most providing, like criticism so often does, an X-ray of the sensibilities of the critic rather than an examination of the subject in question. Howard Fineman damned it with faint praise,and two other bloggers at HuffPost condemned it almost out of hand. While this account seems to sum up the response to the affair after the fact:

Jon Stewart managed to do something with his Rally to Restore Sanity that hasn’t been done in a long time. He confused the mainstream media to the point of a near collective nervous breakdown. The media couldn’t figure out what this rally was about, and it was only when Stewart explained it to them that they realized that it was about them.
The media just didn’t get it. In fact, the whole point of the rally eluded them until Jon Stewart told them during his speech to close the event. Stewart explained that the media themselves were part of the point of the rally. Cable news’ approach is part of the problem, “But unfortunately one of our main tools in delineating the two broke. The country’s 24 hour political pundit perpetual panic conflictinator did not cause our problems but its existence makes solving them that much harder. The press can hold its magnifying up to our problems bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire and then perhaps host a week of shows on the sudden, unexpected dangerous flaming ant epidemic. “
NPR, to its credit, ran that portion of Stewart's speech in its story this morning on the rally. But, I wonder, whence comes all this confusion?

Ricouer would call it a narrative, not meaning quite what we now refer to as the "narrative" of the media (which has replaced "paradigm," which is, after all, sooo po-mo and pre-9/11). Odd, of course, that Stewart's rally doesn't fit the national narrative, but this does:
Just last night it was revealed that, at the rally I had for Joe Miller on Thursday, it was revealed and we have the tape that proves it, that the CBS reporters, the affiliate in Alaska, conspired to make up stories about Joe Miller. We have the tape, Chris. I can't wait until it busts out all over the nation to show what it is that we, kind of what I put up with for two years now with the media, but what Joe Miller is faced with, in dealing with someone who feels, Lisa Murkowski, so entitled to seat that she and some of her people including some complicits [sic] in the media will do anything, they will stop at nothing.


I'm saying that we have it on tape, the CBS reporters in the affiliate up there in Alaska are on tape saying let's find a child molester in the crowd as a supporter for Joe Miller, let's blast that. Let's concoct a Ron Paul moment there let's find any kind of chaos so that we can tweet an alert and say, 'oohh there's chaos, Joe Miller got punched.' That's sick. Those are corrupt bastards.
This is pretty much in keeping with the Cat Stevens cameo-at-the-rally controversy, except this appears to be a legitimate controversy (i.e., the accusations are being denied). But it fits the narrative we expect; what Stewart and Colbert did Saturday, didn't fit that narrative, anymore than Stephen Colbert's testimony to Congress did. Everybody talked about what he said in character; nobody talked about his reasons for testifying. As Jason Easley put it:

The corporate media didn’t expect anyone to catch on to their role as the dissemination system for partisan polarization. The media may not be to blame for the partisan divisions in our country, but they definitely help to spread and reinforce them by tilting their coverage towards conflict and sensationalism, while completely neglecting information and rational discussion.
So we'll hear a little or a lot about Sarah Palin turning "CBS" into "Corrupt Bastards" (although even FoxNews won't touch it), but whatever we hear will be more than we heard about Stephen Colbert providing witness to exploitation and compassion for migrant workers.

So I'm glad there was a rally. Now, can we go beyond restoring sanity, maybe think about restoring decency and humanity? Or is that just...insane?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Ex nihilo nihil fit

come on you guys. i know it's hard. but really, let's try to unpack this data in a useful way. which is simply: willful ignorance of their own creed, on the part of believers. actually reading the whole Bible could lead to doubt, contradiction, and dispute. it's why the RCC tried so hard to put it down in Luther's day, and why priesthoods of every kind cling viciously to the notion that "only properly trained tradents can tell the little people what the holy text really means." believers thinking for themselves = less money for temple con artists. you don't have to make much more complicated than that.
This comment from Chicago Dyke in the post below struck me as funny this morning because it contains so many misconceptions about seminary education, and about religion in general. What she says is actually truer about "Bible colleges" than seminaries; and is actually based on a very Protestant idea, not an originally atheistic one.

Martin Luther, as tradition has it, set aside the traditional alb (a garment worn by manual laborers in Roman times, it eventually became the uniform of the office of the clergy, who were hardly manual laborers by then. Ironies abound.) in favor of the academician's robe, to emphasize the teaching office of the clergy, especially in the pulpit. Protestantism's greatest break with the Roman Catholic church, in fact, was based on increased literacy among the populace. Luther was one of the first to translate the Scriptures into the vulgate again. Latin was the tongue of Rome when Jerome translated the scriptures from Greek and Hebrew into Latin, but it was the language of the church alone when Luther did the same thing. He wasn't trying to "tell the little people what the holy text means," he was trying to create the "priesthood of all believers." And yet the leaders of this Reformation were all well-educated men so they, like Luke, put an emphasis on knowledge and learning.

It was still sanctioned knowledge; but that was the culture. We have sanctioned knowledge today; things we agree are true (sex is good! Unless the participants are too young, then it's bad. Or unless commerce is involved, then it's dirty! Science must be taught in an unadulterated form. Math is good. English is good, too. And so on, and so on.) and things we agree are false. What changes is where the emphasis falls. But back to the priesthood controlling knowledge. There is no question that's one purpose of the priesthood. As Bernard Shaw observed, all professions are a conspiracy against the laity. However, Protestantism soon ran away from Luther's vision, and Calvin's (himself trained as a lawyer): Protestants began to protest against their fellow Protestants, objecting to, among other things, the idea that a pastor knew better who had been educated. Education, especially in England (where Elizabeth took over for the Pope in Rome and ruthlessly quashed not only the Catholics but, through her descendants, any Protestants in England who were not Anglican), became a sign of state control, not a source of true knowledge. Many Protestants began to insist on a baptism of the Spirit as a sign one was fit to be a pastor (one only need read Pilgrim's Progress to realize this. Bunyan's ability to read and write was about the only formal education he ever had.)

It's no accident that in the land where Bunyan's work was most likely to be found in every home, next to the Bible, that most popular and famous preachers today are products not of formal seminary training, or even a Bible college, but simply of baptism by the Spirit. Joel Osteen took over Lakewood Church when his father died; he has no formal education in theology or exegesis. Baptist ministers to this day can still be ordained without any seminary training at all (there is an historical split between Protestants, for those who require seminary training to be ordained, and those who don't. Even those on the pro-training side are not all uniformly rigid about the requirement.). And, of course, the most interesting historical quirk is, there is a direct line from Protestantism to the Enlightenment to modern atheism. The two, in fact, really are joined at the hip.

The idea of the priesthood discouraging examination of the Scriptures is a hoary shibboleth, and hardly an accurate one. Judaism, from what I understand, has a long tradition of teaching children (mostly boys, true) to read the holy scriptures. Those who are really interested can study the midrash, where the conversation gets really heated, and the arguments with scripture and other commenters fly freely.

The main revolution of Protestantism was to displace the institution in favor of the individual. Luther and Calvin just preferred other institutions, it's true (and so the revolution was actually meant to be just a reformation), but once the genie was out of the bottle, it was hard to get it back in again. Pilgrim's Progress and Piers Plowman are tributes to the individual against the mass (even against the nuclear family; Pilgrim leaves hearth and home, wife and children, in order to attain the Celestial City), and they disparage earthly knowledge as much as they reject religious institutions. That strain of anti-institutionalism is fierce in American religious culture, and explains the plethora of "mega-churches" and non-denominational churches, as well as ceaselessly splintering denominations. The very idea that priesthoods perpetuate themselves and mean to keep the laity in the dark didn't originate with Thomas Jefferson; his skepticism has deep Protestant roots, which is to say they are cultural as much as ecclesiological. The skepticism of the Enlightenment owes a great deal to the Reformation, and the opening of bodies of knowledge to ordinary people; who, of course, did as much good and bad with it as people are doing now with the internet. There's a great deal of wisdom out there among "ordinary people." There is also a great deal of rank stupidity and venal bigotry. The Tea Party in American politics owes its rise and coalescence and coherence (such as the latter is) as much to technology as it does to political circumstances. Which, most historians note, is equally true of Protestantism.

But the irony in ChiDy's observation that "believers thinking for themselves = less money for temple con artists" is the choicest of all. True, that line of thinking is claimed by atheists today, as it was by "free-thinkers" in the 19th century, as a sign that believers=benighted louts who cannot reason on their own (or freely, in 19th century jargon). But the very history of Protestantism belies this observation. There is a reason there are so many Protestant denominations, and so many non-denominational churches, and it is simply because of believers thinking for themselves. Congregationalist churches, loathing priests as they did, used to sit in judgment on the pastor during his sermons, and upbraid him after the Sunday service if they thought is exegesis unsound. At the turn of the 20th century there was a booming trade in mail order koine Greek lessons, so one could read the New Testament in the original tongue, unfiltered by translation committees. Thinking for oneself is as Protestant as rejecting the Roman Catholic church and all its trappings. The corollary, that all who think for themselves will be atheists or individuals, is the false assumption of the argument. One, purely from a human culture and sociological viewpoint, people like to be in groups of like-minded persons. It's one reason Richard Dawkins' has such a following, a following little concerned with his work on evolutionary biology (and indeed, little versed in it). "Freedom of thought" does not create a vast sea of Ayn Randian individualists wandering the landscape asserting their independence at every turn. It produces another group of like-minded people who join together, either formally or informally, and discuss what they have in common, reinforcing with each other the soundness of their reasoning, the rightness of their opinions; sometimes, even, the superiority of their point of view. There is little difference between the believer who asserts his religion above all others, and the atheist who asserts she alone knows the truth because of her superior knowledge.

It may not have been necessary, in a purely logical world, for Protestantism to have led to modern atheism. There may be no necessary connection between the tenets first espoused by Calvin and Melancthon, and the attitudes of Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. But there is certainly an historical one, and it is impossible to be intellectually honest and not recognize the debt modern atheists owe to Protestant thinkers of 5 centuries ago. Atheism, as I have said before, is a product of a Christian Western, culture. It is no more ex nihilo or sui generis than the universe it claims is not the product of a Creator.

And, of course, the harsh fact is, if you really want to be in the spotlight losing your religion: go to seminary. A "Bible College" that will reinforce your most superstitions opinions, it ain't.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Tip-toeing through the racism

Juan Williams defends himself:

And I made it clear that all Americans have to be careful not to let fears lead to the violation of anyone’s constitutional rights, be it to build a mosque, carry the Koran or drive a New York cab without the fear of having your throat slashed. Bill and I argued after I said he has to take care in the way he talks about the 9/11 attacks so as not to provoke bigotry.

This was an honest, sensitive debate hosted by O’Reilly. At the start of the debate Bill invited me, challenged me to tell him where he was wrong for stating the fact that “Muslims killed us there,” in the 9/11 attacks. He made that initial statement on the ABC program, "The View," which caused some of the co-hosts to walk off the set. They did not return until O’Reilly apologized for not being clear that he did not mean the country was attacked by all Muslims but by extremist radical Muslims.

I took Bill’s challenge and began by saying that political correctness can cause people to become so paralyzed that they don’t deal with reality. And the fact is that it was a group of Muslims who attacked the U.S. I added that radicalism has continued to pose a threat to the United States and much of the world. That threat was expressed in court last week by the unsuccessful Times Square bomber who bragged that he was just one of the first engaged in a “Muslim War” against the United States. -- There is no doubt that there's a real war and people are trying to kill us.
Notice the lacunae? It's right there:

I took Bill’s challenge and began by saying that political correctness can cause people to become so paralyzed that they don’t deal with reality. And the fact is that it was a group of Muslims who attacked the U.S. I added that radicalism has continued to pose a threat to the United States and much of the world.
He left out what he said, however:

Well, actually, I hate to say this to you because I don't want to get your ego going. But I think you're right. I think, look, political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don't address reality.

I mean, look, Bill, I'm not a bigot. You know the kind of books I've written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.
Put that back in, suddenly his whole defense looks, and smells, quite a bit different.

I've read at least one defense of Mr. Williams' comments that argues that, "in context," his controversial statement was not really a controversial one. I am less than impressed with that argument when Mr. Williams cannot even provide the context himself. Leaving out precisely what you said from your own defense about why you said it, does not instill confidence that what you said wasn't inherently controversial or, in this case, inherently racist.

The President of Iran never appears in public in "Muslim garb," and yet he is often presented (in the Western press) as one of the most dangerous Muslims in the world. The Royal Family of Saud always appears in "Muslim garb," and yet Mr. Williams never expressed any fear of seeing the last President walking through the Texas bluebonnets holding a Saudi prince's hand. The majority of the world's Muslims are Asian, yet I doubt Mr. Williams is appalled by their "Muslim garb," or ever sees them as "identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims." Indeed, I wonder what he thinks of the Muslims living in Africa? Would it be racist for a white man to say he feared African Muslims and their "Muslim garb"?

Mr. Williams offers a "full throated" justification of his statement, without ever saying what his statement was. Apparently there is no defense for it, anymore than I could defend a public pronouncement that young black men scare me because young black men attacked a family member many years ago (they don't scare me, by the way). I suppose that could be a "Shirley Sherrod" moment for me, as Mr. Williams now wants this to be for him; but that would depend on the context. Ms. Sherrod never shied away from what she said. Mr. Williams would prefer not to recount what he said.

QED, Mr. Williams. Your statement was racist, and the cost to you is signing a new multi-million dollar contract with FoxNews. I hope that isn't too harsh a punishment for you.

A brief addendum: Brit Hume claims Juan Williams was a "Bill Cosby liberal" (huh?), and his firing is evidence of NPR's racism. Obviously, I disagree, but it's interesting how we redefine "racism" to be whatever we want it to be (and to the extent I am guilty of that sin here, I can only say "Mea culpa.") More interesting is the argument NPR screwed up by firing Williams, that he has been made a martyr. Well, maybe; for all of 15 minutes he's a martyr.

Is this whole topic starting to sound like the "Ground Zero Mosque" that wasn't? It is to me, except I think the shelf life of this tempest in a teapot won't survive the weekend. Whatever happened to that mosque, anyway? It lasted as a controversy just beyond August, but then everyone moved on, and the sure sign of the end of the Republic as we know it became something nobody much cares about anymore. All the clamor to move the Muslim community center in order to "be fair (and balanced!)" faded, and the center continues, I presume, to raise money and plan for construction.

The same dynamic is at work here. Did callers refuse to pledge because of this firing? I know people who refused to pledge because Williams was on NPR. So it goes. Mr. Williams is enjoying his moment in the spotlight, wallowing in his shame and humiliation at actually being fired ("Where's my 15 minutes?", I hear many people asking, "and do I get one for each job I was fired from?"). Me, I never thought he added anything valuable, and I'm glad he's gone. I don't dislike E. J. Dionne or even David Brooks as much, but I could do without them, too.

I'd be more than happy for NPR to get back to straight journalism, and leave all the "news analysis" to cable TeeVee, where they devote whole programs and networks to it. But then, I'm curmudgeonly, and grow more so as I get older.

Still don't like Andy Rooney, though.

Turn, turn, turn

I had an epiphany of sorts last night, watching Garrison Keillor on the "cinecast" of A Prairie Home Companion. He was talking about being young and wanting to change the world, and then getting older, and wanting to just get along with the world, realizing in fact that the best change you could make for the world was to leave it be. And suddenly I thought about Kant.

Not the most logical connection, you're thinking. But Kant was a quiet professor in Germany, until he got hold of David Hume's ideas late in his life. I thought about it, and realized how many philosophers and theologians and artists, businessmen, activists, you name it, even saints, are driven by the youthful desire to change the world, to leave their mark on it, to alter the world for the better. And too late did they learn, (if they learned it at all; it's said Hume concluded from his philosophical musings that nothing valuable could be known or shown, and we were better off spending our days just herding sheep. Wittgenstein, likewise, was none too pleased with the process of philosophizing, and the muddled results it created. He, too, wanted to explain the world in his Tractatus; he spent the rest of his life trying to explain the Tractatus.); too late did they learn, as I started to say, that the world was better left alone. Kant, however, couldn't leave the world alone; not after Hume, and not even in his old age.

Kant couldn't leave the world alone because, after Hume, there was no world left to leave alone. Kant couldn't leave the world alone, because he had to resurrect the world. He had to recreate it. He had a reconstruction job to do. Hume, having started out like all ambitious young men, determined to understand the world truthfully, and thereby to improve the lot of humankind, if only so they would know the truth and the truth would set them free, ended up destroying the world. It fell to Kant to put Humpty-Dumpty back together.

This is not unusual in the history of philosophy. Soren Kierkegaard's 'master's thesis' (roughly the equivalent of what we think of as such, anyway; although it was far closer to a modern Ph.D. dissertation) was about the destructive irony of Socrates, an irony that left the world swallowing its own tail. It was fashionable when I started reading Kierkegaard to understand is work as one long reaction to Hegel, when it wasn't about Regina Olsen. Now, with a broader view, perhaps we should see that Kierkegaard, like Kant, was trying to put a world back together. After all, had he not died young, he would surely have retired to a Danish pastorate and lived out his days quietly, haranguing only his congregation with his too big, too complex, too ornate ideas about the too abstract but too concrete concept of being.

There is an ebb and flow to the nature of things, a time for every purpose under heaven, as the song if not the Preacher, has it. There are the youthful ambitions to create, that end up too often looking more like destruction. And there are the banked fires of middle and old age, that to youth look like passionless ashes of failed lives; in reality, though, they may be the more fruitful. It may be that a certain kind of respect for the world as it is presented, rather than as we struggle to re-present it, is the most useful and progressive benefit of all. It may be that in leaving the world alone, or trying to put it back the way we found it (as we learned in kindergarten!) is the best way to make the world better.

Gonna have to think about that.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

"Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling...."

But what does it mean to share a secret? Here it isn't a matter of knowing what the other knows, for Abraham doesn't know anything. It isn't a matter of sharing his faith, for the latter must remain an initiative of absolute singularity. And moreover, we don't think or speak of Abraham from the point of view of a faith that is sure of itself, any more than did Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard keeps coming back to this, recalling that he doesn't understand Abraham, that he wouldn't be capable of doing what he did. Such an attitude in fact seems the only possible one; and even if it is the most widely shared idea in the world, it seems to be necessitated by this monstrosity of such prodigious proportions. Our faith is not assured because a faith never can be, it must never be a certainty. We share with Abraham what cannot be shared, a secret we know nothing about, neither him nor us. To share a secret is nothing that can be known, nothing that can be determined. What is a secret that is a secret about nothing and a sharing that doesn't share anything?

Such is the secret truth of faith as absolute responsibility and as absolute passion, the "highest passion" as Kierkegaard will say; it is a passion that, sworn to secrecy, cannot be transmitted from generation to generation. In this sense, it has no history. This untransmissability of the highest passion, the normal condition of a faith which is thus bound to secrecy, nevertheless dictates to us the following: we must always start over. A secret can be transmitted, but in transmitting a secret as a secret that remains secret, has one transmitted at all? Does it amount to history, to a story? Yes and no....

But there was no one who could understand Abraham. And yet what did he achieve? He remained true to his love. But anyone who loves God needs no tears, no admiration; he forgets the suffering in the love. Indeed, so completely has he forgotten it that there would not be the slightest trace of his suffering left if God himself did not remember it, for he sees in secret and recognizes distress and counts the tears and forgets nothing.

Thus, either there is a paradox, that the single individual stands in an absolute relation to the absolute, or Abraham is lost.
Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death (2nd edition), tr. David Wills. Noted in passing, in response particularly to this:

Traditional religion, which does not measure the value of an argument by the date or by fashion, is not deterring progress. It is deterring decay.

Civilization partly consists of teaching men and women to say "no" to desires that are not productive or useful to their souls. What is productive? First, we would have to know the facts about the cosmos. Is there an afterlife? Is there a God? Does He have opinions on what we do?

There is, He exists, and He does. And if He has been clear on anything it is that human beings are good at kidding themselves into bad behavior when it comes to physical desires. Some pagan cultures believed all sex was bad and it became fashionable to castrate men in order to "restrain" desires. The Christian church had to stand against such behavior, which even infected its own ranks, and argue against the intellectual fashion of the day.

Our reward was to be murdered by the government on the pretext of condoning depravity!

In this age, Christian morality is once again unfashionable, but this time not for our tolerance of sex, but our intolerance of some forms of sex. If some ancient intellectuals saw sexual desire as an unspiritual horror, we now face a culture that in part believes it is a necessary part of life!

Saturday, October 02, 2010

The poor will always be with you....

This story on NPR this morning:

Take a trip to one of those 24-hour Walmarts on the last day of every month, and you'll get a glimpse into the lives of low-income families trying to get by. At one location in Fredericksburg, Va., at around 11 p.m., families start to load up on necessities like diapers and groceries.

People like Tracy and Martin Young live nearby, and for the pair in their early 30s, it's a chance to shop quietly without their five children, two of whom are teenagers. Each is pushing a shopping cart overflowing with food. There's mac and cheese, bags of cereal and cans of evaporated milk. Most of this has to last for the whole month.

"It's usually about a week and a half," she says. "We try to figure out what we need to do about a week and a half before the end of the month."

That's why they're here at midnight: It's when their food stamps and government checks for their 3-year-old daughter kick in on the first of every month.
That story was preceded by a discussion with Michelle Singletary , who lamented the poverty rate in America, but who also allowed that the recession was a corrective for people who'd been living beyond their means.

But, you know, in some ways, in just a tiny bit of me, I think it was a good thing. Because we were in a position that we shouldn't have been. There were far too many people living above their means, and I think this was the wake-up call that we needed. Unfortunately, it was a pretty, you know, when you're in a good sleep and someone sort of slaps you awake and you get jolted, it's not a good way to wake up. But I'm hoping and praying that when this is over -because it will end - that we learn from what happened, that we take these lessons and do better with our finances, both personally, corporately, and our government.
No sense of irony in what "living beyond their means" can mean, was displayed.