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

Friday, September 26, 2014

"...we seem to see..."


Part of the ugliness of the internet is that you see, not the "suffering humanity" of Goya's greatest scenes, but the grotesque inhumanity of individuals.

Case in point: this article at Salon, a very thoughtful and nuanced discussion of raising a child with trisomy 21 (after reading it, I don't even like to use the label "Down syndrome" anymore), couched in the context of the last Twitter firestorm Richard Dawkins set off (for which, as is pointed out here, he never really apologized.)  Most of the commentary argues that the world is better off without children born with trisomy 21, and that's why so many women are aborting fetuses where the syndrome is detected in utero.

I don't know that that is true, but I am skeptical of the claim.  Whether it is true or not is irrelevant, because it means most pregnant women are actually quite comfortable in Omelas, and would rather abort a child and replace it with another, than consider that child a unique human being.  The question of choosing abortion is not on the table here; the question is, why give birth to a child with a condition like trisomy 21?  And the bulk of the conclusions seems to be:  because it's damned inconvenient, which was Dawkins' argument.  The article at Salon provides a rejoinder to that assumption; but the ugliness is that the assumption is so deeply rooted few people commenting on the article take note of that.

They know what they know, and no facts are going to disturb their knowledge.

More telling, then, than the question of how one makes such a moral decision, is the question of what ethics one employs to make such a moral decision.  On that issue, no one wants to speak at all; except in this article at The Daily Beast.

The short version of the article is:  ethics is far more complicated than Dawkins imagines, and "logic" is not the stuff Mr. Spock uses to be unemotional and so reach a better conclusion than emotional humans.  For example:

In the apology Dawkins says, “Given a free choice of having an early abortion or deliberately bringing a Down child into the world, I think the moral and sensible choice would be to abort…I personally would go further and say that, if your morality is based, as mine is, on a desire to increase the sum of happiness and reduce suffering, the decision to deliberately give birth to a Down baby, when you have the choice to abort it early in the pregnancy, might actually be immoral from the point of view of the child’s own welfare….Having said that, the choice would be entirely yours and I would never dream of trying to impose my views on you or anyone else.”

Dawkins’ belief that we should maximize happiness and minimize suffering seems to be a moral theory known as “act-utilitarianism.” For an act-utilitarian, an action’s morality can, in theory, be demonstrated empirically. To discover if an act is moral or immoral, you simply measure the amount of happiness or suffering it causes. The more suffering an act causes, the more immoral it is; the more happiness an act causes, the more moral it is.
"Seems to be" is the telling phrase there, because Dawkins doesn't really have a coherent ethic here; rather like Potter Stewart's definition of pornography, Dawkins seems to know what's ethical when he sees it.  But the question of "amount of suffering" raises a critical point:  whose suffering are we considering?  The individual's?  The family's?  Society's?  The world?

Lest you think I exaggerate:
When you really try to understand what Dawkins is saying in his apology, however, you realize that his thoughts are not even fully coherent. He says that continuing the pregnancy is immoral because the child would better be off if she had never been born—but he provides no evidence for this, and it’s flat-out implausible that Down syndrome renders a life so wretched that it’s not worth living. Earlier in the same sentence Dawkins says he believes morality is based on increasing “the sum of happiness,” which presumably means the sum of everyone’s happiness. That is, an action is immoral when it makes the entire world worse off. If that’s true, and he has stated he thinks it’s immoral knowingly to give birth to someone with Down syndrome, does he think the mere presence of people with Down syndrome increases suffering in the world?
If you read the comments at Salon (and I don't advise it), you'll find that it is actually considered quite plausible that "Down syndrome renders a life so wretched that it's not worth living."  Which is precisely what the Salon article is countering, although to no avail with the crowd that knows what it knows and doesn't need to know anything else.  There, however, is Dawkins' argument in a nutshell:  the happiness of the world is diminished because of one child with trisomy 21, so it is immoral to give birth to such children.*

And apparently no small number of people are okay with that.  Which is kind of disgusting; not to mention wildly immature, since the first response to that kind of thinking is:  "The world doesn't revolve around you."

Dawkins, and a lot of the comments at Salon, justify the decision to abort a fetus with trisomy 21 on the grounds that everybody who is pro-choice (and so will have an abortion, if they choose) will decide to abort such a fetus.  Which is another monstrous display of self-centeredness:

It is...possible for someone to be pro-choice and think abortion is generally permissible, but not for certain reasons. He or she may think it immoral to terminate if the decision was based on the fact that a fetus was discovered to be gay, or predisposed to obesity, or dark-skinned, or female. Or disabled. Indeed, Dawkins is so far from the ordinary pro-choice stance that there is no major bioethicist or philosopher who would agree—without far more caveats than Dawkins provides—that the “moral and sensible” thing to do is abort if a fetus is diagnosed with Down syndrome.
I suppose Dawkins, or his supporters, would qualify the decision to abort based on genetic characteristics, to Down syndrome v. being gay, or female, or dark-skinned, on the grounds that the latter don't detract from the sum of the world's happiness, but trisomy 21 does.  Which, of course, is defensible:  if you have no ethics at all.

As for the misery of trisomy 21, perhaps we should ask the people involved:

Among 2,044 parents or guardians surveyed, 79 percent reported their outlook on life was more positive because of their child with Down syndrome…

Skotko also found that among siblings ages 12 and older, 97 percent expressed feelings of pride about their brother or sister with Down syndrome and 88 percent were convinced they were better people because of their sibling with Down syndrome. A third study evaluating how adults with Down syndrome felt about themselves reports 99 percent responded they were happy with their lives, 97 percent liked who they are, and 96 percent liked how they looked.
But they aren't increasing the sum of Richard Dawkins' imagined happiness, nor of his acolytes, so clearly they are wrong.  And regarding that reference to Mr. Spock earlier:

Among the people who, according to Dawkins, have misunderstood Dawkins, are “those who took offence because they know and love a person with Down Syndrome, and who thought I was saying that their loved one had no right to exist. I have sympathy for this emotional point, but it is an emotional one not a logical one.” Apparently, he thinks people who love someone with Down syndrome simply must be clouded by sentiment, and unable to see reason. But for an act-utilitarian, the emotions of those who know and love people with Down syndrome are not muddying the issue; on the contrary, they are crucial data points. These people are telling him what for some reason he does not seem to want to hear: that their happiness is increased with someone with Down syndrome in the world.
The gravest error in employing "logic" is in assuming logic invariably leads to truth, when logic itself makes no such claim.  Logic, properly employed, will eliminate error in reasoning; but it does not speak to the validity of the information employed.  The old syllogism that:  "All humans are mortal, Socrates is human, therefore Socrates is mortal" is a valid conclusion, but it is as valid as "1+1=2."  The numbers there are merely symbols, they are not statements of immutable fact (and are only valid in certain contexts.  In biology, 1+1=3, at a minimum, unless the female devours the male after copulation.  But in those cases 1+1 usually equals something in double or even triple digits.).  The syllogism doesn't prove that humans are mortal, or that Socrates is human; it simply establishes a valid conclusion from the words that might as well be symbols themselves (and in symbolic logic are merely symbols).  The reasoning may be sound, but is the outcome true?  Logic cannot speak to that.  And if emotions are crucial data points Dawkins simply wants to discard on the way to his conclusion, then what good is this intelligence Dawkins supposedly has?

And besides, Dawkins employs no such logic at all.  His ethics are incoherent and inconsistent.  He would undoubtedly argue that a female child does not subtract from the world's sum of happiness, but if that child is born into a culture which is barbaric to women, is the mother wrong to weep for the suffering she fears her daughter will undergo?  Would we consider that valid grounds for abortion in that culture?  Probably not, but are we any less barbaric because we consider children with trisomy 21 too much trouble to bother with?  Where, exactly, is the distinction in this ethical system Dawkins proposes?

None of this stops Dawkins' ardent supporters from saying he's right because, well, some people have no reason to live, and they know who they are.

Or something.  I dunno; it's all too depressing.....

*Conversely, if the misery of one child will make everyone else happy, Dawkins would be fine as mayor for life of Omelas.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Faith AND Reason. And Compassion.


I blame myself, first.  This seminar was held in Houston over the weekend, and I found out about it after it was over.*

I don't blame the organizers, because I know they didn't have money to spend on radio ads I wouldn't hear (I only listen to NPR) or TV ads I wouldn't see (most of the local TV I watch is spotted with ads for plaintiff's lawyers and help for seniors who fall down).  I do find it odd there was no mention of it on the local NPR station, no reference to it on the daily local NPR show that concerns itself with what's going on in town.  I did, for example, know that Reza Aslan was here on Thursday, to speak at Christ Church Cathedral about his book I didn't think much of.

I didn't know this list of luminaries was going to gather to address problems of poverty from a religious perspective.  Coincidentally (or not), I picked up Dom Crossan's latest work (AFAIK) about the "Our Father," and was reading the chapter on God as householder.  Crossan makes the point, using copious Biblical references and close readings of texts (his specialty), that God is presented in the prayer and in the tradition as the Householder of the world, and what householder (patriarch, if you prefer, but Crossan is more inclusive in his vision, as are the Scriptures) would allow some members of the house to starve while others have too much to eat?  Would let some members of the house live in luxury while others slept in dirt and filth?

It's a powerful image.  I wonder if he brought it up at this conference.  I'd like to think he did.  I like to think there was a great deal said about how they belong to us and we belong to them because, as Crossan might say, this is God's household, and we all live in it.

Well, I could rail about the disinterest of the local news groups who trumpet every cultural event and best-selling author, but ignore something as important as this.  Then again, if more of us thought it was important, or made it clear how important it is, these issues might get the attention they deserve.  And that may yet happen.

After I wrote the above and then shelved it for later, I came across this article at TPM, which ends on a rather optimistic note.  Rather than publish two interrelated posts that might seem repetitious, I decided to bang them together.  The TPM article is about changes being wrought, even in America, by Pope Francis on the Catholic church.  The tenor of the argument is captured in this optimistic conclusion:

This is all good news not only for Catholic progressives in the pews who have felt left out in the cold during several decades of conservative dominance in the church. A revitalized Catholic voice in public life just might also help jumpstart a better political debate in Washington.
The argument of the article is simple:  Francis emphasizes "humility, mercy and social justice [and] offer[s] a vivid contrast to a vocal minority of U.S. Christian leaders who only see dark clouds and battles to fight. Think of it as the joy of the Gospel v. culture war Christianity fight."  Notice how inclusive the argument is there.  Most of the references are to Catholic Bishops and positions on issues that will change as the new Pope replaces allies of John Paul II with new faces; but here the line is drawn between the new Pope and "U.S. Christian leaders."

I would only add that the "leaders" referred to in that phrase are a minority of U.S. Christians or U.S. Christian leaders.  Now that gay and lesbian bishops are no longer a front page issue in the Anglican Communion the woman who is the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church can't get invited to a local news interview (she is, to my knowledge, a rare thing still in church circles:  a woman presiding over a mainline denomination).  When was the last time we saw the heads of the UCC, or the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the United Methodist Church, or the Presbyterian Church, either asked for an opinion by a reporter, or invited to a Sunday morning talk show?  Marc Driscoll headed up 15 churches, but he gets more attention than the head of the UCC, who represents over 5000 congregations (and is still one of the smallest of the "mainline" denominations).  Even the President of the Southern Baptist Convention doesn't get as much media attention as Rick Warren or Joel Osteen. Of course the latter haven't been involved in a church scandal or written a best-seller lately, so we don't hear much from them in the press, either.

Is there a bias there similar to the one that treats GOP positions as normative in political coverage?

Will the conversation in the Catholic church change, and will that change be felt in our political discourse?  Given my sympathies for social justice issues, I certainly hope so.  We can use all the help we can get.  We could especially use a bit more awareness that there are "U.S. Christian leaders" who are not right-wing Calvinist cranks or only interested in "dark clouds and battles to fight."  If Pope Francis can change that one of the public conversation, he will have done God's work indeed.

It seems there are reasons to say the kingdom of God is among us!

*And why Texas?  Second most populous state in the union, 1 in 6 Texans live in poverty.  I've seen first hand what the Southern Baptist churches can do when they put their minds to it; but this mostly Baptist state is doing nothing about this poverty problem.  Certainly nothing at the governmental level, anyway.

Monday, September 22, 2014

A Demon Haunted World


There is an interesting point here, though it never quite comes to fruition:

New generations will wonder at the immensity of our monstrous imaginations while many relish anew their dreams of an enchanted world. And so, thanks to the game and The Monster Manual, we have a moment to contemplate what it means to imagine monsters and what it means to imagine the future—for it turns out that to do the one is to do the other.

We wish for an enchanted world, and such a world is by its very nature monstrous. How then, if we hope to see the world reconfigured and made meaningful and transcendent, could we do so without welcoming back the demons and dragons in all their glory? Indeed, our popular culture is rich in zombiesvampires, and even a 50-meter radioactive lizard, all being reimagined, reinterpreted, and pressed into the service of each generation’s dreams.
We know, of course, that vampires are not real.  How long will it be before we decide Bram Stoker believed in them?  Will future generations think we thought they were real, because we devoted so much of our entertainment to so many forms of them?  We know Batman is a fiction.  But will future generations think we believed in superheroes and radioactive lizards because we used so many resources to bring them to life and make them widely available for our admiration?

Why not?  We're all convinced people in medieval Europe believed in ghosts and demons and spent their time cowering in fear of various superstitions.  That attitude, by the way, is most recently a product of the Protestant Reformation, and played a prominent part in the writings of American Puritans keen to separate themselves from Rome and the Church of England, which was just Rome lite (in their eyes).  But it began in the Renaissance which dubbed the predecessor era "the Dark Ages," the better to place themselves above it.  There is, indeed, nothing new under the sun.

The belittling of the past continues as a grotesque distortion which we apply to the period between the fall of Rome and the rise of the Renaissance; or to any period that doesn't include us.  Today the popular opinion is that the Puritans were as superstitious and demon-haunted as we imagine medieval Europe was, an opinion the Puritans would find marks us as the ignorant ones.  Does anyone reading the Wife of Bath's tale get the impression Chaucer's 14th century  pilgrims actually believed the magic that is a part of the story was any more real than we take the magic of Harry Potter to be?  And yet we are convinced, though there is no evidence of it anywhere in Chaucer's poem, that Chaucer and his characters lived in a world ridden and derided by superstition.

Does anyone think the beheading game of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight represented anything more than a fantasy like "Dungeons & Dragons," even to the original audience?  It may be people once believed the scop of Exile of the Sons of Uisliu could predict the life of Dierdre of the Sorrows before her birth, but is that any more foolish than our conviction that polls can predict the future?  We like to think previous generations were stupid and benighted, and that only we are wise and enlightened.  It's an arrogant posture made possible only by our refusal to think others are as human as we are.

We didn't start imagining monsters with "Dungeons & Dragons."  We never stopped doing it.  Bruno Bettelheim pointed out there is value in the uses for enchantment.  Carl Jung thought it was part of our human heritage.  I have an interesting essay by Richard Rorty which actually takes the claims of religion seriously, while his philosophy of religion puts them on non-metaphysical terms, and his atheism refuses to embrace them as valid for him.  His is a complex posture which can't be easily reduced to a soundbite or a diatribe, so it isn't widely known and Jung and Bettelheim are treated as if they were invisible or, in Jung's case, known but irrelevant.  There is more psychological insight in a poem by Yeats, a man who believed in automatic writing and spiritualism, than there is in the drivel attributed to Richard Dawkins.  It is the failing of our popular discourse, one that was supposed to raised by access to education, that every discussion can have only two sides, and those as thin and narrow as possible.  We argue by cliche and bumpersticker; every statement is a challenge, every assertion subject to mindless and petty challenge.  Rorty makes a nuanced argument for the place of religion in even philosophical discourse in even Anglo-American traditions (his pragmatism was the most American of Western philosophical traditions), but it is an argument that presumes knowledge not widely available or even sought out.

Of course a wish for a world where people think like us is just another form of wish for an enchanted world, a world where everyone agrees on the terms of existence.  Even Harry Potter finds that; the magical world is far simpler in construct than the Muggles world.  Disagreements are basic and fundamental and clean; what is agreed on is the primacy of magic.  Everything else is just commentary.  We want to live in a world like that, a world where everyone agrees on basic conditions.  But one of the lessons of post-modernism is that we don't all even reason in the same way.  There's a fundamental split between Anglo-American and Continental philosophies in the Western tradition.  Imagine what the difference is in traditions outside the Western one.

Every wish for order and coherence in the cosmos is a wish for an enchanted space where everything behaves according to rules we can learn to manipulate.  That's the modern definition of "magic:"  not access to powers in this world, the ability to influence those power and perhaps use them for human purposes:  but the absolute control over those powers.  Lev Grossman's Magicians trilogy faces that issue head on:  the magic performed there is more akin to nuclear physics:  powerful, dangerous, and the consequences of its use especially not fully under control.  His characters are the spoiled doyennes of a post-industrial society:  having conquered the means of material existence, they are bored and restless.  Magic works, but it also conjures demons, powers more akin to Lovecraft than to Tolkien.  The parallels to the fears of atomic warfare in the 50's and 60's are obvious; and today it is our technology, fueled by fossil fuels we can't give up and can't keep using, that scares us.  We prefer to think our magic is identifiable as fantasy; but we confuse our fantasies with reality probably more readily than did a medieval peasant.

 The peasant at least knew who the Master of the Universe was; we think it is us.

Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Memorable Catchphrases


Polls have generally shown a decrease in the importance of religion in America. And with regard to evangelicalism in particular, The Pew Forum Religious Landscape Survey from 2008 “confirms that the United States is on the verge of becoming a minority Protestant country; the number of Americans who report that they are members of Protestant denominations now stands at barely 51%.” The Pew Forum also noted that in “the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults.” So the bigots we upbraid simply aren’t having the influence they’d like to have — and that we’re scared they might have.


 Furthermore, the religiously unaffiliated already say that “religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.” And things are even worse for Christians like Driscoll when it comes to the Millennial Generation, who see traditional evangelicalism as being too judgmental. To them, Christianity “feels stifling, fear-based and risk-averse.” And they see that “churches are afraid of the beliefs of other faiths” as well as unfriendly to those who doubt the faith. The important thing to note here is that their opinion of modern Christianity isn’t based on the vitriol of atheist bloggers or the disparaging posts of their Facebook friends. It’s based on their own experience of Christian culture. This has led millennials to simply view evangelical Christianity as “too political, too exclusive, old-fashioned, unconcerned with social justice and hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.”And this is why I think the APC can be successful. The work is already largely done for us. Religion literally speaks for itself, even in the mainstream media — and, increasingly, it’s not what people want to hear.

I post that because it comes from a fairly thoughtful article.  The Pew study may or may not point to fundamental changes in America.  It may well be that Protestantism, always supported largely by the culture it existed in, has reached the end of its thread.  The second paragraph of the quote tries to conflate and yet not conflate Protestantism with evangelical Protestantism; that's always a problem in these discussions.  But if you want a confirmation of Mencken's observations about the American "booboisie," a challenge to the idea that universal literacy and education will make us all wise and knowledgeable, you need only wade into the 1000+ comments at that article to be disabused of any optimism.

Flip Wilson was a wildly popular stand up comedian in his day.  He never had the controversies of a Dick Gregory or a Richard Pryor; he didn't challenge racism as overtly as Gregory, or have as flamboyant and troubled a life as Pryor.  He didn't branch out and establish the staying power of a Cosby, known for stand up and comedy shows and even dramas.  But for a time his jokes and catchphrases were common parlance, and probably his most famous line was:  "The Devil made me do it!"

It was a trenchant observation, a wise and wry one, on how we delude ourselves into thinking we are not responsible for the state of our lives or our failure to live up to our ideals, because we can always blame someone else when we do what we shouldn't do.  Geraldine, Wilson's character, bought an immodest dress.  Atheists, on-line and acolytes of Richard Dawkins anyway, declare they must hate Christianity (is there any other form of religion in America?  Not to them.) because Christians make them buy into hate as the only response to religion.

One comment at Salon (long buried) declared that atheists are treated like rapists in this country.  When I demurred (a reflex action) that atheism was not a felony in this country, I was rebuffed as a "Christianist" because someone somewhere has declared atheism should be a crime, and non-believers should be jailed, apparently for the good of society.  So atheists are as good as treated as rapists; or something.  I know of white supremacists who would gladly send all African Americans back to Africa, but I don't think that's going to happen anytime soon.  And the white supremacists would say the blame is not on them; it's the "blacks" who make them seem evil and racist.  Really, the races just weren't meant to mix, and the sooner everyone else understands that, the better.  See, white supremacists aren't haters; it's the non-white races that make them seem that way.

You get the idea.

It is the ultimate act of childishness, to blame what you oppose for making you sound bad, for making you, in fact, behave badly.  It's pathetic, really.  The most vociferous commenters at that thread have erected a bogey man to justify their most outrageous claims. and they blame that creature of their imagination for their fears and anxieties.  It's one way to create an identity and a group, I suppose; but it's the saddest and most immature way to do it I can imagine.  There is a direct line between these clowns and Richard Dawkins:  he opposes Christianity in all its forms because a few fundamentalists in the world oppose the reach of science into their spiritual and daily lives.  That is reason enough for Dawkins to write books and give lectures and generally expound on how the Christians are making him be an obnoxious atheist.

It's the Devil who made him do it.

Now, hold onto that Pew report on the decline of religion in America, and connect it to this:  it seems college students are attending fewer college football games.

The article notes that a broad approach to this issue may be misleading, since attendance at games varies from college to college.  It attributes the change to more comfortable locales to watch games, and the ability to watch on tablets and iPads and smart phones; and to the fact stadia don't provide WiFi access, or have enough jumbotrons, or something.

It may even be students are less and less interested in college football; but nobody dares say that.  They will hint at it, thought, because the fear is that students who don't bother to go to the stadium a few times a year (think about how many games are played in a football stadium in a year; there are usually more weekends in a month) will become alumni who don't see any reason to support football teams in the future.

So maybe they aren't going to bars to watch the game, or watching on their cell phones in the dorms; maybe they just don't care anymore.

At any rate, it's not the Devil making them do it.  Not yet, anyway.

I know I can connect nothing with nothing, but these two stories seem connected to me.  Not the raging atheism of children on the internet (emotionally and intellectually, I know high school kids who are more mature than most of the comments about religion I find on-line), but the decline in interest in the eternal verities.  Church has been a fabulous invalid since my childhood, but football is supposed to be going from strength to strength, enjoying a renaissance on college campuses especially that rivals the beginning of the sport when you had to be "a football hero."  I think there isa  connection between church and football, and the connection is television.

But not because more platforms are available to watch TV, or because TV's are now everywhere (there was no TV in the bar in Cheers; now a bar without a TV is unthinkable; or any public space, for that matter).  TV is destroying college football because college football exists now not for the students or the alumni, but for the TV markets.  Texas colleges used to play in the Southwest Conference, and the main rivalry was UT and Texas A&M.  Both schools left the SWC for conferences more attractive to TV schedulers, and more lucrative for the schools, and now neither play each other ever.  Those famous Thanksgiving games are just a memory.  Who is being served by college games now?  And what is the point of them, except to generate a TV audience?

Which is pretty much what happened to Christianity in America about 40 years ago.  TV evangelism was already in decline in the '80's, and by the time Bill Clinton was elected Jerry Falwell needed the Viagra of invented scandal to keep his name in the public eye.  TV evangelism made it seem all you had to do to worship, the ultimate corporate action of Christians, was to set your dial to the right channel at the right time.  That didn't last long, in the grand scheme of things (Joel Osteen's church owns a TV channel here in Houston, but I can't find him on any broadcast station at any hour, anymore.  Maybe he shows up on one I've blocked, but TV stations devoted to Christianity are a virtual ghetto now, a sort of digital version of the cable access channels of yore).  But the impact was pernicious.

What is football except a form of secular religion, a panem et circenses of our modern age?  If its appeal is already beginning to pall, if it seems more and more removed from daily life, the players gladiators and not our friends and family, the whole affair less and less democratic as the players become less and less human and more and more privileged in an era when we are beginning to realize the cost of privilege, then what surprise is it that Christianity is beginning to pall, too?

Pope Francis I seems to understand this better than any religious leader alive.  He has replaced an American bishop who was very concerned with abstractions like American government policy and which public figure should be excommunicated, with a bishop who seems likely to follow Francis' line and pay more attention to the poor and to the pastoral care all clergy should model. The Pope is drawing attention precisely because he cares about people, and not just about ideas.  The more one cares about ideas, the more likely one is to ignore the human equation and decide it is the ideas alone that matter.  Follow that line of reasoning very far, and pretty soon you are telling pregnant women to abort their fetuses and try again, just to avoid some abstract possibility of suffering which we know all flesh is heir to.

As the Church, Catholic or Protestant, liberal or conservative, returns to caring about people (who seem to have been the main concern of Jesus of Nazareth), it will recover the attention even of Millenials and younger generations.  Probably not to the degree it had the attention of their grandparents, but church attendance has been declining since that peak in the post-war years.  It was supposed to die from Boomer neglect, but that hasn't happened yet, either.  If younger age groups are turning away from even football (yes, the ratings are high for pro football, but consider the competition:  another CSI set somewhere else, another variation on "American Idol"; what else is on offer?), it may just mean the institutional verities need to change, too.  At long last.  Finally.

When I'm one of the youngest in the room in a church worship space, a radical change actually looks kind of welcome.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Scotland the Behaved


I should care about the Scottish vote for independence because "If it's nae Scottish, it's crrraaap!"; and I loved the Loch Ness Monster as a kid (even after my Scottish neighbor told me, for a school report, that he'd never heard of Nessie until he came to America); and I love bagpipes (my walking pace (for exercise, not getting from here to there) is best set by "Scotland the Brave"); and I love Scotch whisky, especially Laphroaig, as much for the taste as the Gaelic name.

But I didn't really care; I didn't have a dog in the fight, and although I was skeptical of claims North Sea oil would make Scotland a demi-paradise (Venezuela and  Mexico were my top two counter-arguments to that; and it never really made Texas any better off), as a Texan I sympathized with the problems of living under a remote and uber-conservative government.  Now if I only knew what it was like to live in an entire nation that thought politically pretty much as I do..... (No, seriously....)

But now I find I did have a dog in the fight; and the outcome in Scotland is cheering:

Texans who say “It would be nice but it won’t happen,” will now have to rethink that statement. It can and should happen. Texas has a much higher chance at prosperity than does Scotland or many other countries that are already independent. Independence by a western region will no longer be something that happened in the history books. It will be something that Texans can look at and relate to today. This is why it is being ignored by Washington and the mainstream press. They are hoping you don’t notice.

I should get a screen shot of that since I don't think it will be up much longer.  Somebody was definitely counting eggs and adding up chickens there.  I'd heard, in general terms, about places around the globe "inspired" by the vote in Scotland.  I wonder if they have as many broken eggs as the Texas Nationalist Movement does this morning.

I still really don't rejoice in, or mourn, the vote in Scotland; I was gonna buy Laphroaig anyway, and canned haggis isn't really all that bad (especially after the second glass of whisky).  But I do wonder how all those independence movements feel about this historic vote; and this group in Texas must really be regretting their failure to take Nate Silver seriously.

Schadenfreude makes a fine breakfast accompaniment, I must admit.*

*and no offense to Nate Silver, but when do we start treating polls as crap, rather than the Delphic Oracle with less ambiguity?  This thing was supposed to be won by the "Yes" votes, and then to be narrowly won by the "No" votes, and the final margin of victory was 10 points. 

I ask for obvious reasons, and because a new poll says 25% of Americans want to secede from...well, something.  The article on that poll also notes, with no apparently irony:  "Scottish unionists won by a wider-than-expected 10-percentage-point margin."  Maybe that's because the expected margin came from a poll?

25% want to secede?  Really?  Does that sound even vaguely reasonable?

Are these polls Scottish?  If nae, then they're crrraap!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Of pearls and pigs

I smoked a pipe, too, once.  That's about all we have in common.

If you stumble around the websites I regularly stumble around (and that includes Religion Dispatches, where I expected a better caliber of commentary), you will find any number of comments anxious and seemingly able to define what "religion" is, usually in a very derogatory fashion.  Here is the opening of a book on the subject as philosophy, by a philosopher of religion, that is, someone whose professional obligation was to think about such terms and how they could be defined:

In one of his Heretical Essays on the Philosophy of History Jan Patocka relates secrecy, or more precisely, the mystery of the sacred, to responsibility.  He opposes one to the other; or rather underscores their heterogeneity.  Somewhat in the manner of Levinas he warns against an experience of the sacred as an enthusiasm or fervor for fusion, cautioning in particular against a form of demonic rapture that has as its effect, and often as its first intention, the removal of responsibility, the loss of the sense or consciousness of responsibility.  At the same time Patocka wants to distinguish religion from the demonic form of sacralization.  What is a religion?  Religions presumes access to the responsibility of a free self.  It thus implies breaking with this type of secrecy (for it is not of course the only one), that associated with sacred mystery and with what Patocka regularly calls the demonic.  A distinction is to be made between the demonic on the one hand (that which confuses the limits among the animal, the human, and the divine, and which retains an affinity with mystery, the initiatory, the esoteric, the secret or the sacred) and responsibility on the other.  This therefore amounts to a thesis on the origin and essence of the religious.

Under what conditions can one speak of a religion, in the proper sense of the term, if such a thing exists?  (emphasis added)
Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, tr. David Wills (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press 1995), p. 1-2.

I include that opening sentence of the next paragraph to show the question is put directly, but not answered directly.  What answer could there be?  Even reading the first paragraph I start to exclude Judaism as I understand it, aware of how much of the argument of Patocka and Derrida depends on the thaumaturgical and mystagogic of Platonism, which is part and parcel of Christianity but not necessarily of Judaism.  If there is a true secret in rabbinic Judaism (as opposed to Temple Judaism and the Holy of Holies), I'm not aware of it.  Christianity, on the other hand, especially Christian mysticism, is shot through with various ideas and experiences of the sacred as secret, from mysteries like the Holy Trinity to mysteries like the cloud of unknowing (in which something still, however impossible, is known).  But "Religions presumes access to the responsibility of a free self"?  "Religion," as Derrida says just a few paragraphs later, "is responsibility or it is nothing at all"?  Can you imagine coming across that anywhere on the web, and having it discussed sensibly?  Can you imagine trying to drop that into a discussion among on-line atheists about the nature of religion which they describe in such childish and ignorant terms, the better to burn their straw man?

I have no higher purpose than to put this out there because I may want to come back to this passage and think something about it.  Barring such thoughts, I put it in the only context I have for the moment.

Enjoy.

Monday, September 15, 2014

I need a Jacques Derrida Finger Puppet

And a Michel Foucault.  And Schrodinger's cat.

I have the Kierkegaard already.  My rogue's gallery needs to feel complete.

I am only telling you this because sometimes desires need to go unfulfilled.  And I don't need them in the same sense I need a cup of coffee, or time for lectio divina, or a shower (I do need a shower; trust me).

What I really need is to spend more time among better thoughts than those I generally find on the interwebs.  Too much time sloshing around in the sewers of the national Id is not good for a person.  Universal literacy has not improved the human condition as much as we were told it would, and it is all too clear that if gunpowder were brain power, most people couldn't blow their own nose.

I am not speaking of anyone you know; nor anyone I know, for that matter.  Something there is that does not love a wall, but something there is about the intertoobs that is closer to mind reading than I ever want to get.  Harlan Ellison wrote a story once about a mind-reader who "stalked" women by entering their thoughts.  He enjoyed their darkest fantasies, their deepest secrets, and then he came across the hero of the story, who led him right down into her mental dungeon, and there locked him in and threw away the mental key.

I sometimes think of internet comments like that, only as a maze where I'll wander and wander, never finding the minotaur (sweet relief!) or daylight.

I like puppets.  Puppets represent something good in the world, something human.  How many other animals make figures in their own image, just to be able to stick them on refrigerators?  This is surely what sets us apart.

That and our ability to contemplate being, and turn "existential" into an adjective applicable only to a threat that, thus modified, is far more serious than life or death.

And puppets don't behead people for propaganda purposes (remind me again why we execute prisoners or bomb places far away from us), or turn people inside out just because petty power plays are enjoyable to them.

I like books.  I like puppets.  It's the simple things that matter most.

Maybe I do need some puppets, after all....

Friday, September 12, 2014

"Where all the ladders start"


I'm always ashamed when I find out I haven't read nearly widely enough; but I'm at the same time excited, because the discovery-that-shouldn't-be prompts new insights.  So, this essay by Marx, probably the most famous he ever wrote that nobody ever reads because it is the source of this quote:

[Religion] is the opium of the people.
Now, that's in translation from the German; maybe he wrote "religion" instead of "it", as the translation has it; maybe he wrote "opiate" instead of "opium."  I've seen it that way many times.  But taken out of context, it no longer means what Marx meant.  Put it back into context, and the meaning shifts radically:

For Germany, the criticism of religion has been essentially completed, and the criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism.

The profane existence of error is compromised as soon as its heavenly oratio pro aris et focis [“speech for the altars and hearths,” i.e., for God and country] has been refuted. Man, who has found only the reflection of himself in the fantastic reality of heaven, where he sought a superman, will no longer feel disposed to find the mere appearance of himself, the non-man [Unmensch], where he seeks and must seek his true reality.

The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

 Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
Slightly buried in there is the starting point for Marx for all consideration and thought about human beings:  "man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society."  That could have been said as well by Soren Kierkegaard, who had the same critique of Hegel.  He wrote in his Journals about a man who had so abstracted his thought from his existence, who so set himself apart from his corporeal life,  that he awoke one morning to find he no longer existed!  The very grounding of existentialism which began in the 19th century with Kierkegaard (and independently with Marx, I would argue; and which is all rooted in Romanticism) is that humankind is not outside the world but in and of the world, and is the state and the society, as it is the individual.  We cannot, to answer Yeats' quesiton, know the dancer from the dance.

So now I re-read Kierkegaard's critique of Hegel and of Christendom (and specifically the church state of Denmark) in the light of Marx's comments on religion, which are far more interesting than most people seem to think.

Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion. 
I suppose we could read that through a sociological lens now, and still appreciate it (rather than critique it as the assault of an atheist, which would have been the common reading of my childhood when anything by Marx was wrong ab initio, because USSR).  Marx is arguing for materialism there, for the ultimate abandonment of religion ("since the human essence has not acquired any true reality"), but he doesn't have to be right to be insightful.

Nor is Marx critiquing Hegel, as Kierkegaard did; but from the same taproot spring two divergent views which offer insight on the other.  That, to me, is the point of fascination.  Niebuhr, especially the Detroit pastor who left us Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, would have a field day destroying the idea that religion is the halo of this vale of tears.  His famous Serenity Prayer alone rebukes it with the same off-hand attitude he reportedly handed it to a friend saying "I have no further use for it."  Kierkegaard, trained himself into the state church of Denmark, would nod in agreement with Marx, but then get off at the end of that paragraph, because Marx goes on:

Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun. Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.

It is, therefore, the task of history, once the other-world of truth has vanished, to establish the truth of this world. It is the immediate task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, to unmask self-estrangement in its unholy forms once the holy form of human self-estrangement has been unmasked. Thus, the criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of Earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.
Marx presumes religion is connected to the state ("oratio pro arise et focis"), a presumption that doesn't travel across the pond from Europe to America.  He also presumes religion is an illusion, a presumption that doesn't travel far with Kierkegaard, a far more insightful critic of Hegel.  Kierkegaard's pseudonyms, using the language of Marx and Hegel (philosophy) would say:

The human self is such a derived, established relation, a relation that relates itself to itself and in relating itself to itself relates itself to another. This is why there can be two forms of despair in the strict sense. If a human self had itself established itself, then there could only be one form: not to will to be oneself, to will to do away with oneself, but there could not be the form: in despair to will to be oneself.

The formula that describes the state of the self when despair is completely rooted out is this: in relating itself to itself and in willing to be oneself, the self rests transparently in the power that established it.
Kierkegaard's interest, in other words, was not with the individual as a member of society or the state, but as a person in relation to other persons and, ultimately, to God.  Marx is concerned only with what is materially important to the person; Kierkegaard is interested in the person as a self.  In that difference lies a whole volume, a library of books, of considerations.  Whole worlds can be regarded between the thought of these two 19th century thinkers.  But at the root, they begin as existentialists; as regarding the human as a being in the world, a person who begins, not as a soul with memory wiped at birth and slowly to be recovered until the wheel of life finally brings enlightenment and the journey to the Good; but as individuals dealing with the only life they have:  the one that occurs between the window out of the storm and into the castle, and the window out of the castle back into the storm.  Because all any of us know is those few moments of the journey; and what came before and what comes after, are a mystery we cannot solve.

That is the truth of this world.  It does not come from, or lead to, an other-world of truth.  The only truth we can establish is in this world, in this life.  But that isn't the path of negation, because when we consider what a human being is, we have to consider this answer:

A human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation's relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but is the relation's relating itself to itself. A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short, a synthesis. A synthesis is a relation between two. Considered in this way a human being is still not a self.... In the relation between two, the relation is the third as a negative unity, and the two relate to the relation and in the relation to the relation; thus under the qualification of the psychical the relation between the psychical and the physical is a relation. If, however, the relation relates itself to itself, this relation is the positive third, and this is the self.
To the extent Marx has no use for this definition of self and spirit; to the extent Marx thinks life is simply about alleviating the suffering caused by poverty or injustice and inequality in society along; Marx is wrong.

I've been holding this because I didn't know how to conclude it, or even if I should rewrite it stem to stern.  But this is more a notebook of jottings than it is a collection of publishable works, so I rejected the latter option, even though I'm (as usual) dissatisfied with where this started (in my mind) v. where it ended up.  I decided to publish it, however, because of this.  Nothing to do with 9/11; just a reminder of the radical nature of the gospel; but that radical nature is rooted in something Kierkegaard the seminary student and Marx the atheist economist/historian both understood, and understood as a result of the 19th century and especially the Industrial Revolution and the Romantic movement:  everything important to human beings is rooted in life, in existence, in corporeal reality.  The most ethereal and metaphysical of the Gospels is the Gospel of John, and even John goes to great lengths to prove that his didactic Jesus is a real person, especially after the resurrection.  All that "holes in his hands" and "touch my wounds" stuff, all that eating of fish and "tend my flock"?  That's in John.

The radical teachings of the Gospels are rooted in human reality; the foul rag and bone shop of the heart, where all the ladders start.  The metaphysics comes later; much, much later.  The beginning point, even for Plato, certainly for Aristotle (and so for Augustine and Aquinas, respectively), is in the flesh; in the existence; in the Creation, which is good.

You don't believe - I won't attempt to make ye:
You are asleep - I won't attempt to wake ye.
Sleep on! sleep on! while in your pleasant dreams
Of Reason you may drink of Life's clear streams.
Reason and Newton, they are quite two things;
For so the swallow and the sparrow sings.
Reason says `Miracle': Newton says `Doubt.'
Aye! that's the way to make all Nature out.
`Doubt, doubt, and don't believe without experiment':
That is the very thing that Jesus meant,
When He said `Only believe! believe and try!
Try, try, and never mind the reason why!'

--William Blake

Thursday, September 11, 2014

At least they left Roy Rogers out of it

Happy trails to you, Governor!

I found this bit from the pleadings filed on behalf of Rick Perry, but set it aside because I thought it was just sloppy writing:

“Continued prosecution of Governor Perry on the current indictment is unprecedented, insupportable and simply impermissible,” Anthony G. Buzbee and Thomas R. Phillips said in the 60-page brief filed in Travis County District Court. “This Court should not hesitate to dismiss both counts of the indictment and bar the prosecution, immediately, if not sooner.”

But with this second pleading, I think Perry's lawyers are just trolling us:
 
"A Texas Governor is not Augustus*  traversing his realm with a portable mint and an imperial treasure in tow; he no more has custody or possession of the State's general revenue funds than does any Texan. No governor can say of his or her state what the Sun King said of France: "L'etat c'est moi," it said.
I've written and read a fair number of pleadings; one like this in a case could be happenstance.  Two motions to dismiss, with such fanciful arguments indicate a legal team trying to find a reason for each lawyer to get paid for doing something.  I have no problem with Perry's lawyers moving to dismiss this case; but I have a hard time taking their pleadings seriously.

*Go on, tell me the sly reference to "C-Plus Augustus" is an accident.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

"Follow the money"


Where's all the muscular people? 

I'm left thinking of Biblical parallels like the man who built his house on sand, v. the man who built his house on rock:

Mars Hill Church announced on Sunday the closure of three of its church locations due to financial strain, with a possible fourth on the horizon.

Downtown Seattle and U-District churches in Washington will be consolidated with Mars Hill Church Ballard as of October 12th. The Mars Hill Church in Phoenix will close its doors on September 28th. The organization also announced that it has ceased development of a Los Angeles church plant and may be forced to close its Huntington Beach location if it is unable to raise funds by the end of the year.

"We have found ourselves in a serious financial situation, as giving and attendance has declined more than we had anticipated over the last few months," Mars Hill Communications & Editorial Manager Justin Dean told HuffPost by email.
The primary problem, of course, is someone else's fault:

It is your continued support that is needed now more than ever. While we were able to end the fiscal year strong, giving and attendance have declined significantly since January. Specifically, we have seen a substantial decrease in tithes and offerings these past two months, due to the increase in negative media attention surrounding our church. 
Live by good media, die by bad media; so it goes.  The air is really leaving this balloon:  having raised $3 million in 2013 for a the Phoenix and Huntington Beach churches, it has also removed from its calendar a much-touted "Jesus Festival."

And now people have found out what he said 15 years ago; but it's just icing on the cake of financial mismanagement and a determination to the be center of power of this ever-expanding church cum mini-denomination.  A power base now collapsing like a bad soufflé.

If you've paid attention to the rise and fall of mega-churches and "evangelical" ministries, you can't really be surprised by this.  The landscape of the last few decades is strewn with the disasters of Jim and Tammy Faye, Jimmy Swaggart, Oral Roberts, even Robert Schuller's Crystal Cathedral.  There are a lot of minor players who enjoyed their moment in the spotlight and faded away; and American history is full of charismatic figures who eventually stopped being charismatic and found the spotlight had moved away from them.

Of course the media burial of Marc Driscoll for comments made 15 years ago (and still offensive) is just the easy handle by which to grasp this crisis for Mars Hill.  The real problem is Marc Driscoll, who literally wanted to replace God as the power in his congregations.  The offerings stopped flowing and the attendance stopped growing because Marc Driscoll proved to be a petty tyrant:  not because people suddenly realized his theology was offensive.  Read that NYT article and you'll see that Mr. Driscoll's problems began in 2007 when two church elders were fired ("Fired"?  How does one fire a church elder?  Were they also paid employees?  Huh?) as Driscoll began to collect the power and finances of the church into his hands.  His complementarianism, made plain and ugly in those old Internet posts and comments, is not what turned people away.  By and large, church members liked that:
“We’ve seen how he has changed so many lives, and to see him treated this way is just sad,” said Rachel Harris, a Mars Hill member who created a Facebook group made up of supporters of Mr. Driscoll. “There’s positive stuff about our church that’s not being heard, and it feels like a family member is getting bullied.”
 I think it's clear which family member is getting bullied, and it isn't Marc Driscoll, who has "apologized" for his statements this way:

“In the last year or two, I have been deeply convicted by God that my angry-young-prophet days are over,” he wrote in a letter to his congregation in March, “to be replaced by a helpful, Bible-teaching spiritual father.”
Still not getting to the root of the problem, and still not admitting he is the problem.  Which recognition should be a basic tenet of a Calvinist, since "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" doesn't included an asterisk for "Except leaders of churches, especially very rich churches."

It is the idolatry that is the problem here.  "Complementarianism" is just another way of setting one group above another, when the clear message of the gospels is "The first shall be last and the last first" and "The first of all shall be last and servant of all."  I know that doesn't jibe with "muscular Christianity," but I can't help that.  There are so many clear indications that Jesus of Nazareth treated women equally in a social order that treated them as barely human.  His was a much more radical stance in that time than any "feminist revision" of the gospels that is advocated today.  I even understand the need for Christianity to speak to the people around it:  Paul's exhortation to the church in Corinth is as much about selfishness as it is about conforming to social custom (a lesson Marc Driscoll clearly needs to learn again).  The Dream of the Rood is a classic example of retelling the crucifixion story in terms accessible to Vikings (although it isn't that far from the Johannine passion, where Jesus doesn't die but rather hands over his soul to God).   Understanding the story in your culture can be a revelation; but it can slide over into idolatry.

Christians wrestle with the claims of the scriptures upon them; they wrestle with the revelation as understood by the clouds of witness extending from the disciples to the present day.  From the gospels Christians have always understood themselves to be subject to the community of believers.  That's not an easy thing to do, but it is a necessary one.  There are a lot of lessons in the fall of Marc Driscoll and Mars Hill, but the primary one goes back to something the prophets raged at Israel about:  building false idols and proclaiming them holy.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Some bad judgment is not criminal; but should be.....

"Git some!"

I have to advertise this, if only because of the picture.

At $17 million a month Perry has not even set an end date or rough estimate for how long the surge will last. Perry was able to make the decision unilaterally with some funds that were left to his discretion so it seems like paying the troops would have been a top priority.

The troops were deployed on August 11th but are not expected to be paid until September 5th. Food Bank RGV Executive Director Terri Drefke told Valley Central, "We were contacted that 50 troops that are in the Valley don't have any money for food and gas and they need our assistance."
....

State Sen. Wendy Davis will be in the Valley on Saturday to help deliver food to the for the National Guard. She said in a statement: "It's disgraceful that the men and women of our National Guard deployed to protect our border are forced to go to food banks...Whether you agree that we need the National Guard or the additional deputy sheriffs that I have previously called for to secure the border, it is shameful that our troops would be sent to keep us safe without basic supplies like food."

It was widely reported that the deployed troops would not be able to engage, detain or even question the immigration status of individuals they encountered along the border leaving many to question the purpose of the move altogether. With these new reporters and the fact that the numbers of immigrants arriving at the border has slowed tremendously this now appears to be a huge debacle for the outgoing Governor.

And the costs aren't limited to the guardsmen:

“Assuming [the deployment] lasts about a year,” Perryman says, “it would be about $541 million, a little over half a billion dollars in gross product [lost] in the local area down there and about 7,800 jobs. The losses to the state as a whole would be a bit bigger because of spillover effects, about $650 million in output and about 8,700 jobs.”

But it's South Texas, still the Democratic stronghold of the state, so who cares, right?

Does no one wonder why Perry is not running again?  Besides the fact he's clearly dumb as a box of rocks?

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Why does Texas want to criminalize bad judgment?

Gubernatorial mugshot:  Another reason to a proud Texan

I'm not sure how I missed this, but since I've taken to reporting on all things Rick Perry and his indictment, let me use this to point out the people in Texas take this matter far more seriously than Michael Lind or Jonathan Chait or the New York Times.

Per Burnt Orange Report, I learn via the Austin American Statesman that:

Judge Julie Kocurek of the 390th District Court, a Democrat, said Perry's Saturday statement, issued a day after the indictment, could be construed as a threat and possible violation of the law. Kocurek, as the administrative presiding judge of all criminal courts in the county, said that "no one is above the law," and the public needs to know that grand jurors are legally protected from any threat.

"I have a duty to make sure that our members of the grand jury are protected," Kocurek said. "I am defending the integrity of our grand jury system."

The judge said that Perry might have made a veiled threat when he said: "I am confident we will ultimately prevail, that this farce of a prosecution will be revealed for what it is, and that those responsible will be held to account."

The only people that Perry could be referring to as being accountable are the grand jurors, judge and prosecutor, Kocurek said.

The Texas Penal Code that outlaws obstruction and retaliation says that anyone who "intentionally or knowingly harms or threatens to harm" a grand juror faces a second degree felony, which is punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
If you get the impression some of us down here in the Lone Star State think Gov. Goodhair has been in office too long and, as we say, gotten too big for his britches, congratulations:  you're starting to pay attention.  I guess in Perry's defense we could say he didn't know what he was saying, so he didn't do anything "intentionally or knowingly" to "threaten to harm" a grand juror.  Which means he doesn't even understand the words coming out of his mouth, but hey, at least we wouldn't be criminalizing bad judgment, right?

As BOR points out (the news article is behind a paywall), the grand jury members are offended, too.  They have good reason:  I've never heard a Governor of Texas speak this way; or think he had reason to.

But maybe we should all listen to the people with no involvement in this story for lessons on how to behave, huh?

Saturday, September 06, 2014

"This is the early evening edition of the news."


This is downright funny.

I'm no fan of C.J. Werleman, but he's opened a can of worms that wants to rise up in righteous bigoted wrath and whup his ass.

It started here (though I saw it on Salon), when he compared Bill Maher and other atheist luminaries, to the Crusades.  His point was that terrorism in the Middle East is motivated by a reaction to the, as he later puts it, 44 military bases in the region, and the carrier group in the Mediterranean.  It is not motivated, as many studies have shown, by religious fanaticism.  Indeed, while people still cling to visions of impoverished young men seeking paradise and virgins because they have nothing in this world, the likeliest terrorist recruit is a wealthy young man who wants to find something interesting to do with his time.  The myth of the "poor downtrodden terrorist recruit" is just that, a myth.  The likelier candidate is one who can at least afford the airplane ticket.

This, of course, set loose the howler monkeys, both at Salon and Alternet, apparently.  So Werleman responded, and that got posted to Salon this morning.  And again, the howler monkeys are loose.

Werleman makes a point I wish he'd followed up on, but maybe it's a generational thing and I'm just that much older than him.  He quotes a study on the nature of terrorism and says:

The notion that Islamic fundamentalism is bent on world domination is “pure fantasy,” he argues, warning that an attempt by the West to force Muslim societies to transform “is likely to dramatically increase the threat we face.”
The "Red Scare" of the '50's and '60's (and if you think that's an anachronism, listen to Paul Simon's "7 O'Clock News/Silent Night."  HUAC was still active enough to get a mention and mean something to the audience in 1966) was based on the idea of "Soviet Domination."  Maybe that's what inspired all the comic book writers to have villains who aspired to world domination (as well as James Bond's enemies), but it was the fear that made us learn to "duck 'n' cover" and to have a HUAC that was worried about Commies under the bed.  Now, instead of commies,we're supposed to be afraid of militant Muslims.

Which is more absurd than fearing the Commies, since at least no militant Muslims control nuclear ICBM's, or seem to have any territorial aims beyond removing the infidel from their holy ground.

But reason doesn't play well among on-line atheists; and I have to admit a certain amount of pleasure in watching the battle proceed.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Misheard Scholarship


At this point there are over 1800 comments at that Salon post I mentioned, and unless TC put this link in the comments there, too, I don't think anybody bothered to notice this, readily available on the intertubes:

In a society in which people still claim the Holocaust did not happen, and in which there are resounding claims that the American president is, in fact, a Muslim born on foreign soil, is it any surprise to learn that the greatest figure in the history of Western civilization, the man on whom the most powerful and influential social, political, economic, cultural and religious institution in the world -- the Christian church -- was built, the man worshipped, literally, by billions of people today -- is it any surprise to hear that Jesus never even existed?

That is the claim made by a small but growing cadre of (published ) writers, bloggers and Internet junkies who call themselves mythicists....

Few of these mythicists are actually scholars trained in ancient history, religion, biblical studies or any cognate field, let alone in the ancient languages generally thought to matter for those who want to say something with any degree of authority about a Jewish teacher who (allegedly) lived in first-century Palestine....there is not a single mythicist who teaches New Testament or Early Christianity or even Classics at any accredited institution of higher learning in the Western world. And it is no wonder why. These views are so extreme and so unconvincing to 99.99 percent of the real experts that anyone holding them is as likely to get a teaching job in an established department of religion as a six-day creationist is likely to land on [sic] in a bona fide department of biology.
As I've said before, nothing succeeds in America like being ignorant, so that you can always claim you know much more than the experts.  Rick was right in comments earlier; the Alternet argument is very thin soup.  And June pointed out how toxic the comments were at Salon  For every person putting forth an intelligent argument in comments, there were seemingly half a dozen ready to pounce and shred it with nothing stronger than snide ignorance.  One example was the comment that there had been 40 "versions" of the Bible published in the last 20 years.  I couldn't get that commenter to understand the difference between a "translation" and a "version," and I was even attacked for attempting to do so.  When you can't distinguish between "version" and "translation," on what basis do you have a discussion of a book?

Ehrman wraps this up neatly for quick consumption, so a few more quotes before we go:

With respect to Jesus, we have numerous, independent accounts of his life in the sources lying behind the Gospels (and the writings of Paul) -- sources that originated in Jesus' native tongue Aramaic and that can be dated to within just a year or two of his life (before the religion moved to convert pagans in droves). Historical sources like that are is [sic] pretty astounding for an ancient figure of any kind.

Moreover, we have relatively extensive writings from one first-century author, Paul, who acquired his information within a couple of years of Jesus' life and who actually knew, first hand, Jesus' closest disciple Peter and his own brother James. If Jesus did not exist, you would think his brother would know it.

Moreover, the claim that Jesus was simply made up falters on every ground. The alleged parallels between Jesus and the "pagan" savior-gods in most instances reside in the modern imagination: We do not have accounts of others who were born to virgin mothers and who died as an atonement for sin and then were raised from the dead (despite what the sensationalists claim ad nauseum in their propagandized versions).

Moreover, aspects of the Jesus story simply would not have been invented by anyone wanting to make up a new Savior. The earliest followers of Jesus declared that he was a crucified messiah. But prior to Christianity, there were no Jews at all, of any kind whatsoever, who thought that there would be a future crucified messiah. The messiah was to be a figure of grandeur and power who overthrew the enemy. Anyone who wanted to make up a messiah would make him like that. Why did the Christians not do so? Because they believed specifically that Jesus was the Messiah. And they knew full well that he was crucified. The Christians did not invent Jesus. They invented the idea that the messiah had to be crucified.
One of my favorites is missing from this catalog:  my NT professor, Steve Patterson, told of a seminar he took in graduate school.  The class spent a semester looking for any precedent or parallel in ancient texts or literature to "This is my body, broken for you; this is my blood, shed for you," and the rest of the eucharistic formula.  They couldn't find one.  It is completely unique to two letters of Paul and three of the gospels (John doesn't mention it).  Who would make up something like that, and why would four different groups (Paul, and the three gospel communities) invent it independently?

As Ehrman concludes:  "Whether we like it or not, Jesus certainly existed."

Funny none of this makes its way into that Alternet article, either.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Oops?

Why is this man smiling?

So here's the thing about the now infamous Rick Perry tweet:
 It was on a Twitter account controlled personally by Gov. Perry.  Yes, really.

So was it hacked?  Or did someone convince the Governor it wasn't funny?  Or good for his legal defense?

The man really is as stupid as people who've met him tell me he is.


5 Reasons to suspect Alternet doesn't really know much about Biblical scholarship


No one can bring the stupid (what else can I call it) like Alternet to Salon.  Three topics excite excess commentary at Salon:  Barack Obama; race (esp. "white privilege"), and Jesus.  Not religion; just Jesus.

Case in point:  proof that Jesus never existed and everybody agrees that's so*, based on a documentary by an atheist who has five points to make:

1. No first century secular evidence whatsoever exists to support the actuality of Yeshua ben Yosef.  In the words of Bart Ehrman: “What sorts of things do pagan authors from the time of Jesus have to say about him? Nothing. As odd as it may seem, there is no mention of Jesus at all by any of his pagan contemporaries. There are no birth records, no trial transcripts, no death certificates; there are no expressions of interest, no heated slanders, no passing references – nothing. In fact, if we broaden our field of concern to the years after his death – even if we include the entire first century of the Common Era – there is not so much as a solitary reference to Jesus in any non-Christian, non-Jewish source of any kind. I should stress that we do have a large number of documents from the time – the writings of poets, philosophers, historians, scientists, and government officials, for example, not to mention the large collection of surviving inscriptions on stone and private letters and legal documents on papyrus. In none of this vast array of surviving writings is Jesus’ name ever so much as mentioned.” (pp. 56-57)

2. The earliest New Testament writers seem ignorant of the details of Jesus’ life, which become more crystalized in later texts. Paul seems unaware of any virgin birth, for example. No wise men, no star in the east, no miracles. Historians have long puzzled over the “Silence of Paul” on the most basic biographical facts and teachings of Jesus. Paul fails to cite Jesus’ authority precisely when it would make his case. What’s more, he never calls the twelve apostles Jesus’ disciples; in fact, he never says Jesus HAD disciples –or a ministry, or did miracles, or gave teachings. He virtually refuses to disclose any other biographical detail, and the few cryptic hints he offers aren’t just vague, but contradict the gospels. The leaders of the early Christian movement in Jerusalem like Peter and James are supposedly Jesus’ own followers and family; but Paul dismisses them as nobodies and repeatedly opposes them for not being true Christians!

Liberal theologian Marcus Borg suggests that people read the books of the New Testament in chronological order to see how early Christianity unfolded. “Placing the Gospels after Paul makes it clear that as written documents they are not the source of early Christianity but its product. The Gospel — the good news — of and about Jesus existed before the Gospels. They are the products of early Christian communities several decades after Jesus’ historical life and tell us how those communities saw his significance in their historical context.”

3. Even the New Testament stories don’t claim to be first-hand accounts. We now know that the four gospels were assigned the names of the apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, not written by them. To make matter sketchier, the name designations happened sometime in second century, around 100 years or more after Christianity supposedly began. For a variety of reasons, the practice of pseudonymous writing was common at the time and many contemporary documents are “signed” by famous figures.  The same is true of the New Testament epistles except for a handful of letters from Paul (6 out of 13) which are broadly thought to be genuine.  But even the gospel stories don’t actually say, “I was there.” Rather, they claim the existence of other witnesses, a phenomenon familiar to anyone who has heard the phrase, my aunt knew someone who . . . .

4. The gospels, our only accounts of a historical Jesus, contradict each other. If you think you know the Jesus story pretty well, I suggest that you pause at this point to test yourself with the  20 question quiz at ExChristian.net.

The gospel of Mark is thought to be the earliest existing “life of Jesus,” and linguistic analysis suggests that Luke and Matthew both simply reworked Mark and added their own corrections and new material. But they contradict each other and, to an even greater degree contradict the much later gospel of John, because they were written with different objectives for different audiences. The incompatible Easter stories offer one example of how much the stories disagree.

5. Modern scholars who claim to have uncovered the real historical Jesus depict wildly different persons.  They include a cynic philosopher, charismatic Hasid, liberal Pharisee, conservative rabbi, Zealot revolutionary, nonviolent pacifist to borrow from a much longer list assembled by Price. In his words (pp. 15-16), “The historical Jesus (if there was one) might well have been a messianic king, or a progressive Pharisee, or a Galilean shaman, or a magus, or a Hellenistic sage.  But he cannot very well have been all of them at the same time.”  John Dominic Crossan of the Jesus Seminar grumbles that “the stunning diversity is an academic embarrassment.”
I wasn't going to include all of that, then I decided:  "What the heck?"  I would point out, to begin with, that last link to Crossan is a reference to his magisterial "The Historical Jesus."  Here the book is reduced to a quote taken out of context.  So much for the "scholarship" of this article or, by association, the film the article discusses.

In other words, it goes on like that.  Yes, there are wildly different versions of Jesus.  After 2000 years, and with so many blind men describing the elephant, what do you expect?  I can give you wildly divergent views on FDR, LBJ, JFK, Harry Truman, J. Edgar Hoover, Richard Nixon, or particularly Ronald Reagan.  What that proves is only that beauty and truth are in the eye of the beholder.

Back up to no. 4: yes, the gospel accounts contradict each other.  You cannot reconcile the two nativity stories in Matthew and Luke no matter how hard you try.  So what?  None of them are meant to be history in the Greek/Herodotus sense of the word, since that idea of history didn't take hold in the West for several centuries later.  Josephus, the great historian of the 1st century of Palestine, always knew the Romans buttered his bread, and always made sure his history reflected their preferences.  Today any change in the accepted narrative of Europeans Dominate the World and America is A Shining City on a Hill is despised as "revisionism" by one group or another.  Show me any time when histories didn't disagree, and I'll show you a history to prove you haven't read enough history.

Oh, and it isn't "linguistic analysis" that established the "Q" gospel; it was textual analysis and narrative analysis, and many other kinds of analysis.  Yes, the stories all disagree; as the article says, they were written for different communities.  Do we all have to be literalist fundamentalists in order to be Christians?

No. 3:  no, they don't.  So what?  I learned this in Sunday school.  And Josephus, to name one, says he was in Jerusalem during the sacking by Rome, and the streets were knee deep in blood.  "I was there" is his historical mantra.  But nobody believes Josephus literally waded through rivers of blood in the streets of Jerusalem.  Any lawyer will tell you, eye-witnesses are some of the most unreliable witnesses.

No. 2:  Paul barely mentions the life of Jesus because there's no evidence he knows it.  By his own account Paul becomes a prosecutor of Christians, and then on the road to Damascus has a powerful conversion experience.  This story is re-told long after Paul's death by Luke in Acts.  Paul's conversion makes him a proselytizer of the gospel as he knows it, and what he knows is the soteriology of Jesus and the theology of the Messiah.  What he doesn't know is anything beyond the most rudimentary story of the first eucharist, which he tells more than once (most famously to the Corinthians).  It's no surprised he doesn't know the nativity stories; Matthew and Luke seem to have tacked them on for literary and proselytizing purposes; Mark and John don't bother with them.  Unless you think the wise men and the shepherds (two different gospel accounts) must have been historically true or else the stories fail (and if you do, I pity you), what is the problem that Paul doesn't know them?  No other gospel but Luke tells the story of the woman who washed Jesus' feet with her tears, and the crucifixion stories vary widely in what happened at Golgotha (or that it happened at Golgotha).  THIS IS NOT NEWS!  It has been known for centuries, millennia even.  If some idle reader of Salon/Alternet doesn't know this, it doesn't prove a new insight into world history is born.

It just proves there's a sucker born every minute.  But we knew that, too.

No. 1:  well, that's why you should read Crossan's work instead of just looking at one page on a website:

If no Christian had written anything about Jesus for the first hundred years after his death, we would still have two succinct accounts from those not counted among his followers. One account dates from the last decade of the first century and comes from the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus in hisJewish Antiquities 18.63:

"About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man. . . . For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. . . . When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the firstplace come to love him did not give up their affection for him. . . . And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared."

His description is carefully neutral or, at most, mildly critical. The text was both preserved and interpolated by Christian editors, but I cite it without their proposed improvements.

The next account dates from the first decades of the sec-ond century and comes from the pagan historian Cornelius Tacitus. Having told how a rumor blamed Nero for the disastrous fire that swept Rome in 64 C.E., he continues inAnnals 15-44:

"Therefore to scotch the rumour, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for the moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the wor1d collect and find a vogue."

Despite the differences between the studied impartiality of Josephus and the sneering partiality of Tacitus, they agree on three rather basic facts. First, there was some sort of a movement connected with Jesus. Second, he was executed by official authority presumably to stop the movement. Third, rather than being stopped, the movement continued to spread.

There remain, therefore, these three: movement, execution, continuation. But the greatest of these is continuation.

John Dominic Crossan, The Essential Jesus (HarperSanFrancisco 1994, pp. vi-vii).

Crossan's The Historical Jesus points out how perfectly ordinary a personage Yeshua ben Yosef would have been; a peasant, a complete unknown.  What is remarkable is not that no contemporary made a record of his existence (this presumes, among other things, a level and reach  literacy which simply didn't exist.  Paul was rare in that he could read, but he could not write more than his own name.  This was not an unusual combination); what is remarkable is that, against all odds, we know of the existence of Jesus at all.

Ehrman, who is quoted in No. 1 above, is right; but do you think in all the records of the world any mention of you is going to exist?  But, you object, you aren't a notable person.  True; but who is?  Name the winner of the Academy Award for Best Actor in 2000.  In 2012.  In 1973, without using Google.  All fame, as George C. Scott Patton says at the end of the film, is fleeting, and that which we find important today (the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh, for example) are unremarkable during the individual's lifetime.  We have records of Van Gogh because people save such records now; but we only know Samuel Pepys lived because we happened to find his diary.  What of all the people who lived when he did?  Why did no one make a record of them?  As Brueghel pointed out, the world probably went on with its business the night of the birth, too.  Does that prove it didn't happen?


There is a longer discussion to be had on each of these points, but the fact is:  none of them are news. It might shock your sainted grandmother (but probably not) or upset a true-blue fundamentalist, but then the presumption of such critiques is that the only true Xians are the fundies, and if they are wrong, the rest of us are destroyed in our faith, as well.  I learned far more challenging things than this in seminary, and they were trying to prepare me to do ministry, not to turn me into an atheist.

I don't really understand what these points have to do with denying the historical reality of Jesus of Nazareth.  They are critical of simplistic, "Sunday School" version of Jesus, more than anything else. There is serious scholarship on the historicity of Jesus, and it is more than 100 years old.  None of that gets mentioned in the article at all.  Most scholars, Christian or atheist (the worst slander of the article is the idea that Christian scholars are blinded by faith and can't recognize any scholarship that proves Jesus never lived), are as interested in the question "Did Jesus exist" as literary scholars are interested in the question "Who wrote Shakespeare's plays?"  In other words, the only people asking such questions are people who don't know what they're talking about.  These are also the people who think their ignorance gives them greater expertise than anyone else.

And they will always be with you, too; though you don't have an obligation toward them that you have toward the poor.