Adventus

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Saturday, November 29, 2014

December 29--Meditation in a minor key


I have time for this much original thought, and no more.  This is from an essay by Richard Rorty, "Anticlericalism and Atheism."  Rorty says:

The point of such a reformulation [more on that later] would be to take account of our conviction that if a belief is true, everybody ought to share it.  

Which leads him to this conclusion:

I can summarize the line of thought that Vattimo and I are pursuing as follows: The battle between religion and science conducted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was a contest between institutions, both of which claimed cultural supremacy.  It was a good thing for both religion and science that science won that battle.  For truths and knowledge are a matter of social cooperation, and science gives us the means to carry out better cooperative social projects than before.  If social cooperation is what you want, the conjunction of the sciences and the common sense of your day is all you need.  But if you want something else, then a religion that has been taken out of the epistemic arena [i.e., away from making any claim in "reality" at all], a religion that finds the question of theism v. antitheism uninteresting, may be just what suits your solitude.
I'll come back to that essay, but in light of the quotes from Dorothy Day, above, or from Archbishop Romero, coming on Tuesday, I find this description of "social cooperation" both dubious and, frankly, hegemonic.

And typical; oh, so typical.  Another signpost demarcating the line between "them" and "us," between "inside" and "outside."  "Religion is responsibility, or it is nothing at all."  And responsibility begins and insists on self-reflection, and self-awareness, and self-examination.

Dorothy Day November 29


A brother said to an old man:  There are two brothers.  One of them stays in his cell quietly, fasting for six days at a time, and imposing on himself a good deal of discipline, and the other serves the sick.  Which one of them is more acceptable to God?  The old man replied:  Even if the brother who fasts six days were to hang himself by the nose, he could not equal the one who serves the sick.

--Desert Wisdom

"ALICE Paul, the suffragist leader, had gold pins made, depicting prison bars, to give to those who went to jail with her in the second decade of this century. Dorothy Day was given one of those pins; but I would bet she did not have it when she died this week. She was not good at owning things. She was good at giving things away, including her-self. It is the only way, finally, to own oneself.

"In her own and this century's teens she was an ardent defender of other people's rights. She continued to speak up for the unprotected when no one else would do that. During World War II, her protests at the internment without due process of Japanese-Americans caused j. Edgar Hoover to open his extensive file on her. Without her, how much bleaker would be our record. She fed the poor, which may not be the Christian's final task, but should normally be the first one.

"She was the long-distance runner of protest in our time, because her agitation was built on serenity, her activism on contemplation, her earthly indignation on unearthly trust. This or that cause, with its noisy followers, came and went, butshe was always there. "Rest in peace," one prays over the dead; but she reposed in restlessness, so long as there was no peace-and her moral discontent should be continued. Let her rest in our disquietude.

"Dorothy Day showed us . . . that people who stand with and for others cannot act from a calculus of individual advantage. They must act as they do from a higher urgency, a love beyond what most of us think of as loving. So far from distracting them from earth's injustice, as Marx claimed religion did, Dorothy Day's faith made effective radicalism not only possible, for many people, but imperative. We may not even be able to possess the earth unless we aspire to heaven-like our sister, who is dead and lives. "

--Gary Wills

In each of our lives Jesus comes as the bread of life--to be eaten, to be consumed by us.  This is how he loves us.  Then Jesus comes in our human life as the hungry one, the other, hoping to be fed with the bread of our life, our hearts loving, and our hands serving.  In loving and serving, we prove that we have been created in the likeness of God, for God is love and when we love we are like God.  This is what Jesus meant when he said, "Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect."

--Mother Teresa of Calcutta

This morning to ward off the noise I have my radio on---Berlioz, Schubert, Chopin, etc.  It is not a distraction, it is a pacifier.  As St. Teresa of Avila said as she grabbed her castanets and started to dance during the hour of recreation in her unheated convent, "One must do something to make life bearable!"

I feel that all families should have the conveniences and comforts which modern living brings and which do simplify life, and give time to read, to study, to think, and to pray.  And to work in the apostolate, too.  But poverty is my vocation, to live as simply and poorly as I can, and never to cease talking and writing of poverty and destitution.  Here and everywhere.  "While there are poor, I am of them.  While men are in prison, I am not free," as Debs said and as we often quote.

--Dorothy Day

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving 2014


Deuteronomy 26:1-11
26:1 When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it,

26:2 you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name.

26:3 You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, "Today I declare to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us."

26:4 When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God,

26:5 you shall make this response before the LORD your God: "A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.

26:6 When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us,

26:7 we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.

26:8 The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders;

26:9 and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.

26:10 So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me." You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God.

26:11 Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.

Psalm 100
100:1 Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth.

100:2 Worship the LORD with gladness; come into his presence with singing.

100:3 Know that the LORD is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.

100:4 Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name.

100:5 For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.

PRAISE AND HARVEST

Almighty God, our Heavenly Father, from whom cometh every good and pefect gift, we call to remembrance thy loving-kindness and the tender mercies which have been ever of old, and with grateful hearts we would lift up to thee the voice of our thanksgiving,

For all the gifts which thou hast bestowed upon us; for the life thou hast given us, and the world in which we live,
WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD.

For the work we are enabled to do, and the truth we are permitted to learn; for whatever of good there has been in our past lives, and for all the hopes and aspirations which lead us on toward better things,
WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD.

For the order and constancy of nature; for the beauty and bounty of the world; for day and night, summer and winter, seed-time and harvest; for the varied gifts of loveliness and use which every season brings,
WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD.

For all the comforts and gladness of life; for our homes and all our home-blessings; for our friends and all pure pleasure; for the love, sympathy, and good will of men,
WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD.

For all the blessings of civilization, wise government and legislation; for education, and all the privileges we enjoy through literature, science, and art; for the help and counsel of those who are wiser and better than ourselves,
WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD.

For all true knowledge of thee and the world in which we live, and the life of truth and righteousness and divine communion to which thou hast called us; for prophets and apostles, and all earnest seekers after truth; for all lovers and helpers of mankind, and all godly and gifted men and women,
WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD.

For the gift of thy Son Jesus Christ, and all the helps and hopes which are ours as his disciples; for the presence and inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, for all the ministries of thy truth and grace,
WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD.

For communion with thee, the Father of our spirits; for the light and peace that are gained through trust and obedience, and the darkness and disquietude which befall us when we disobey thy laws and follow our lower desires and selfish passions,
WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD.

For the desire and power to help others; for every opportunity of serving our generation according to thy will, and manifesting the grace of Christ to men,
WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD.

For all the discipline of life; for the tasks and trials by which we are trained to patience, self-knowledge and self-conquest, and brought into closer sympathy with our suffering brethren; for troubles which have lifted us nearer to thee and drawn us into deeper fellowship with Jesus Christ,
WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD.

For the sacred and tender ties which bind us to the unseen world; for the faith which dispels the shadows of earth, and fills the saddest and the last moments of life with the light of an immortal hope.
WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD.

God of all grace and love, we have praised thee with our lips; grant that we may praise thee also in consecrated and faithful lives. And may the words of our mouth and the meditations of our heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.
AMEN.

THANKSGIVING

Almighty God, our Heavenly Father, from whom cometh every good and perfect gift, we call to remembrance they loving-kindness and they tender mercies which have ever been od old, and with grateful hearts we would lift up to the the voice of our thanksgiving.

For all the gifts which thou has bestowed upon us; for the life that thou hast given us, and the world in which we life,
WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD.

For the work we are enabled to do, and the truth we are permitted to learn; for whatever of good there has been in our past lives, and for all the hopes and aspirations which lead us on to better things,
WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD.

For the order and constancy of nature; for the beauty and bounty of the world; for day and night, summer and winter, seed-time and harvest; for the varied gifts of loveliness and use which every season brings,
WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD.

For all the comforts and gladness of life; for our homes and all our home-blessings; for our friends and all pure pleasure; for the love, sympathy, and good will of men,
WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD.

For all the blessings of civilization, wise government and legislation; for education, and all the privileges we enjoy through literature, science, and art; for the help and counsel oj those who are wiser and better than ourselves,
WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD.

For all true knowledge of thee and the world in which we live, and the life of truth and righteousness and divine communion to which thou hast called us; for prophets and apostles, and all earnest seekers after truth; for all lovers and helpers of mankind, and all godly and gifted men and women,
WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD.

For the gift of thy Son Jesus Christ, and all the helps and hopes which are ours as his disciples; for the presence and inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, for all the ministries of thy truth and grace,
WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD.

For communion with thee, the Father of our spirits; for the light and peace that are gained through trust and obedience, and the darkness and disquietude which befall us when we disobey thy laws and follow our lower desires and selfish passions,
WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD.

For the desire and power to help others; for every opportunity of serving our generation according to thy will, and manifesting the face of Christ to men,
WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD.

For all the discipline of life; for the tasks and trials by which we are ained to patience, self-knowledge and self-conquest, and brought into closer sympathy with our suffering brethren; for troubles which have lifted us nearer to thee and drawn us into deeper fellowship with Jesus Christ,
WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD.

For the sacred and tender ties which bind us to the unseen world; for the faith which dispels the shadows of earth, and fills the saddest and the last moments of life with the light of an immortal hope,
WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD.

God all all grace and love, we have praised thee with our lips; grant that we may praise thee with also in consecrated and faithful lives. And may the words of our mouth and the meditations of our heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.

AMEN.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Rev. Dr. King, March 14, 1968

And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.

All credit to NTodd; but I had to highlight this paragraph in particular.

Advent Approaches: It Is About Time


Abba John the Little said:  We have abandoned a light burden, namely self-criticism, and taken up a heavy burden, namely self-justification.

--Desert Wisdom

Time, that anticipates eternities
And has an art to resurrect the rose;
Time, whose last siren song at evening blows
With sun-flushed cloud shoreward on toppling seas;
Time, arched by planets lonely in the vast
Sadness that darkens with the fall of day;
Time, unexplored elysium; and grey
Death-shadow'd pyramid that we have named the past--
   Magnanimous Time, patient with man's vain glory;
  Ambitious road; Lethe's awaited guest
  Time, hearkener to they stumbling passionate story
  Of human failure humanly confessed;
  Time, on whose stair we dream our hopes of heaven,
  Help us to judge ourselves, and so be shriven.

--Sigfried Sassoon

How sweet sour music is
When time is broke and no proportion kept!
So is it in the music of men's lives.
And here have I the daintiness of ear
To check time broke in a disorder'd string:
But, for the concord of my state and time,
Had not an ear to hear my true time broke.
I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.

--William Shakespeare

What happened to marriage and family that it should have become a travail and a sadness?...God may be good, family and marriage and children and home may be good, grandma and grandpa may act wise, the Thanksgiving table may be groaning with God's goodness and bounty, all the folks healthy and happy, but something is missing...What is missing? Where did it go? I won't have it! I won't have it! Why this sadness here? Don't stand for it! Get up! Leave! Let the boat people sit down! Go live in a cave until you've found the thief who is robbing you. But at least protest! Stop, thief! What is missing? God? Find him!

--Walker Percy

Abba Poeman said about Abba Pior that every single day he made a fresh beginning.

--Desert Wisdom

Monday, November 24, 2014

Advent Approaches



There is an appointed time for everything,
and a time for every affair under the heavens.
A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant.
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance.

--Ecclesiastes 3:1-2, 4

Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
Old men ought to be explorers
Here and there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise.  In my end is my
   beginning.

--T.S. Eliot

Behold, now is the acceptable time spoken of by the Spirit, the day of salvation, peace and reconciliation:  the great season of Advent.  This is the time eagerly awaited by the patriarchs and prophets, the time that holy Simeon rejoiced to see.  This is the season that the church has always celebrated with special solemnity.  We too should always observe it with faith and love, offering peace and thanksgiving to the Father for the mercy and love he has shown us in this mystery.

--Charles Borromeo

Advent is the time for rousing.  We are shaken to the very depths, so that we may walk up to the truth of ourselves.  The primary condition for a fruitful and rewarding Advent is renunciation, surrender.  We must let go of all our mistaken dreams, our conceited poses and arrogant gestures, all the pretenses with which we hope to deceive ourselves and others.  If we fail to do this, stark reality may take hold of us and rouse us so forcibly in a way that will entail both anxiety and suffering.

--Alfred Delp

The reign of God, the eschatological liberation of the world, is already in process. is already being established.  It takes place in concrete modifications of actual life.

--Leonardo Boff

The day after Thanksgiving the New York Times told of a 33-year-old local cab driver whose shoulder-length hair was tied in a ponytail.  (Don't get distracted by the ponytail!)  About five years ago, this cabby "prayed to God for guidance on how to help the forgotten people of the streets who exist in life's shadows."  As he recalls it, God replied:  "Make eight pounds of spaghetti, throw it in a pot, give it out on 103rd Street and Broadway with no conditions, and people will come."  He did, they came, and now he goes from door to door giving people food to eat.

I am not asking you to stuff the Big Apple with spaghetti.  But a New York cabby can bring light into your Advent night.  He prayed to a God who was there; he listened; he gave the simple gift God asked of him; he gave "with no conditions"; and people responded.  Here is your Advent:  Make the Christ who has come a reality, a living light, in your life and in some other life.  Give of yourself...to one dark soul...with no conditions.

--Walter J. Burghardt

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Is this a fair argument, or not?

If he wore overalls instead of a sweater, would Cosby be more sympathetic?

I should go back to what I was doing....

Rudy Giuliani says this:

"But the fact is, I find it very disappointing that you're not discussing the fact that 93 percent of blacks in America are killed by other blacks. We're talking about the exception here," Giuliani said on NBC's "Meet the Press" while discussing whether police forces reflect the demographics of the communities they serve.

Later in the argument Giuliani argued that while police officers are only present in certain communities because black people are committing crimes. "It is the reason for the heavy police presence in the black community," he said. "White police officers won't be there if you weren't killing each other 70 percent of the time."
Which is, frankly, racist and disgusting.  Sixteen women, most (if not all) of them white, now say Bill Cosby sexually assaulted and/or raped them.

Which isn't racist, because.....well, I'm not sure why.  The idea that black men are slavering after white women goes so far back in American history it might as well be the original racist trope.  I remember seeing a KKK pamphlet showing a drawing of a google-eyed black man drooling at the thought of raping a fair young white woman, when I was much younger, and I'm still a lot younger than Harper Lee.

I'm not saying there's a racial animus against Bill Cosby; but I'm intrigued by the idea nobody seems to think there could be.  16 white women (or the majority are white, if not all) claim this black man raped them.  And tout le mond is as ready to believe them as the jury was ready to believe Mayella Ewell.

Why doesn't this sound like a case for Atticus Finch?  Is it because the generation so happy to despise Cosby for this, doesn't remember the racism that Harper Lee knew?

Really; I'm wondering.

Sunday morning very bright.....

Philosophers are finger puppets, or they are nothing at all.

Some choice words from Karen Armstrong for a Sunday morning meditation:

The religiously articulated state would persecute heretics. They were usually protesting against the social order rather than arguing about theology, and they were seen as a danger to the social order that had to be eliminated. That’s been replaced. Now we persecute our ethnic minorities or fail to give them the same rights.
The middle sentence there encapsulates modern Biblical scholarship on the reason for the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.  Dom Crossan does a brilliant job, in Excavating Jesus, of pointing out the deification of Caesar and how the preaching of the basilea tou theou, especially at the Passover, presented a threat to the Pax Romana that Pilate could not abide.

I’m glad you brought that up, because nationalism is hardly rational. But you know, we need mythology in our lives, because that’s what we are. I agree, we should be as rational as we possibly can, especially when we’re dealing with the fates of our own populations and the fates of other peoples. But we don’t, ever. There are always the stories, the myths we tell ourselves, that enable us to inject some kind of ultimate significance, however hard we try to be rational.

 Communism was said to be a more rational way to organize a society, and yet it was based on a complete myth that became psychotic. Similarly, the French revolutionaries were imbued with the spirit of the Enlightenment and erected the goddess of reason on the altar of Notre Dame. But in that same year they started the Reign of Terror, where they publicly beheaded 17,000 men, women and children.

 We’re haunted by terrible fears and paranoias. We’re frightened beings. When people are afraid, fear takes over and brings out all kind of irrationality. So, yes, we’re constantly striving to be rational, but we’re not wholly rational beings. Purging isn’t an answer, I think. When you say “purging,” I have visions of some of the catastrophes of the 20th century in which we tried to purge people, and I don’t like that kind of language.
And yet the comments at Salon fail, even refuse, to recognize this simple truth.   You don't have to call what you believe a "mythology."  Ricouer treats them as narratives.  "Mythology," though, has acquired a pejorative cast; it is the favorite word of those who would disparage others, while leaving their myths wholly unexamined and even hidden under a cloth.


Yes. The suicide bomber has been analyzed by Robert Tate of the University of Chicago, who has made a study of every single suicide bombing from 1980 to 2004. He has found that it’s always a response to the invasion of the homeland by a militarily superior power. People feel their space is invaded, and they resort to this kind of action because they can’t compete with the invaders. [Suicide bombing] was a ploy [first] used by the Tamil Tigers, who had no time for religion. Of the many Lebanese bombings [in the 1980s], only seven of them were committed by Muslims, three by Christians. The rest, some 17 or so, were committed by secularists and socialists coming in from Syria.

 I think a sense of hopelessness is particularly evident in the suicide bombings of Hamas, where these young people live in refugee camps in Gaza, with really very little hope or very little to look forward to. People who talk to survivors of these actions found that the desire to die a heroic death, to go out in a blaze of glory and at least have some meaning in their lives and be venerated and remembered after their death, was the driving factor.

Even the suicide bomber, in other words, doesn't embrace death.  Rather, they imagine a state in which they will be remembered, a state which they, somehow, will be able to enjoy.  How many of us have such a definite sense of death that we can imagine our own death, or own non-existence?  If we could, would we embrace death so readily, be it as a terrorist, or by self-inflicted suicide?  Is it any coincidence old people aren't as interested in being suicide bombers as young people are?

I think — and I speak as a British person — when I saw the towers fall on September 11, one of the many, many thoughts that went through my head was, “We helped to do this.” The way we split up these states, created these nation-states that ISIS is pulling asunder, showed absolutely no regard for the people concerned. Nationalism was completely alien to the region; they had no understanding of it. The borders were cobbled together with astonishing insouciance and self-interest on the part of the British.

Plus, a major cause of unrest and alienation has always been humiliation. Islam was, before the colonial period, the great world power, rather like the United States today. It was reduced overnight to a dependent bloc and treated by the colonialists with frank disdain. That humiliation has rankled, and it would rankle, I think, here in the States. Supposing in a few decades you are demoted by China, it may not be so pretty here.

Every fundamentalist movement that I’ve studied, in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, is rooted in a profound fear of annihilation.
"Every fundamentalist movement....is rooted in a profound fear of annihilation."  As far as I'm concerned, that's the money quote of the interview.

And this a statement very interesting, in the light of 9/11:

Without a sense of independence and a driving force for innovation, however many skyscrapers and fighter jets you may possess, and computers and technological gadgets, without these qualities you don’t really have the modern spirit. That modern spirit is almost impossible to acquire in countries where modernity has been imposed from outside.

One can see how much easier it is to imagine planes flying into buildings as weapons, when one considers how all encompassing "modernity" is, but only to those who have the "modern spirit."  If you stand outside modernity and see it's products as imposition, as weapons even when they are benign (airliners), it isn't hard to treat them as weapons, even as it amazes the "modern" that you would be so heretical as to do so.  Or, as Wendell Berry put it 13 years ago:

VI. The paramount doctrine of the economic and technological euphoria of recent decades has been that everything depends on innovation. It was understood as desirable, and even necessary, that we should go on and on from one technological innovation to the next, which would cause the economy to "grow" and make everything better and better. This of course implied at every point a hatred of the past, of all things inherited and free. All things superceded in our progress of innovations, whatever their value might have been, were discounted as of no value at all.

VII. We did not anticipate anything like what has now happened. We did not foresee that all our sequence of innovations might be at once overridden by a greater one: the invention of a new kind of war that would turn our previous innovations against us, discovering and exploiting the debits and the dangers that we had ignored. We never considered the possibility that we might be trapped in the webwork of communication and transport that was supposed to make us free.

VIII. Nor did we foresee that the weaponry and the war science that we marketed and taught to the world would become available, not just to recognized national governments, which possess so uncannily the power to legitimate large-scale violence, but also to "rogue nations," dissident or fanatical groups and individuals--whose violence, though never worse than that of nations, is judged by the nations to be illegitimate.

IX. We had accepted uncritically the belief that technology is only good; that it cannot serve evil as well as good; that it cannot serve our enemies as well as ourselves; that it cannot be used to destroy what is good, including our homeland and our lives.

Wendell Berry, In the Presence of Fear: Three Essays for a Changed World, The Orion Society, Great Barrington, MA, 2001, pp. 1-3.

Kierkegaard's critique of Hegel's weltanschaaung suddenly seems even more pertinent to me.  Why?  This, in part:

There has always been this hard edge in modernity. John Locke, apostle of toleration, said the liberal state could under no circumstances tolerate the presence of either Catholics or Muslims. Locke also said that a master had absolute and despotical power over a slave, which included the right to kill him at any time. That was the attitude that we British and French colonists took to the colonies, that these people didn’t have the same rights as us. I hear that same disdain in Sam Harris, and it fills me with a sense of dread and despair.
The insistence, in other words, that what is normative for one society is normative for all, and what is normative for society overrides the interests, and the value, of the individual.  Romanticism, it turns out, still has something to teach us.

And this:

Oh, it is. We do it with all our foundation texts — you’re always arguing about the Constitution, for example. It’s what we do. Previously, before the modern period, the Quran was never read in isolation. It was always read from the viewpoint of a long tradition of complicated, medieval exegesis which actually reined in simplistic interpretation. That doesn’t apply to these freelancers who read “Islam for Dummies” …
I could as validly say this against the fundamentalists who give Dawkins and Harris such dyspepsia.  The Holy Scriptures of Christians and Jews were never read as literal and ahistorical (i.e., detached from history and floating free in a bubble of the "now," however "now" is defined) until the fundamentalists decided the historical and literary critical readings of the German scholars was a heresy which required a response more than an edict would allow.  The power I find in modern scriptural exegesis is the web of tradition in which it enmeshes me.  Read Bultmann's The Gospel of John, where the footnotes sometimes take over the page.  It is as close to midrash as Christianity gets, and while it isn't for everyone, it shouldn't be tossed out with the baby and the bathwater, as fools like Mike Huckabee do.

Argument is what we do.  But withdrawing into isolation, where only true believers (atheists, or fundamentalists) are allowed to speak and gain credence, is a failure.  It isn't the great failure of the age (fundamentalists, be they religious or atheist, are in the end not that important).  But it is a failure, nonetheless.

Tötenfest 2014


In the German E & R church calendar, this prayer would probably come today, the Last Sunday of Pentecost, the day of the observance of the Tötenfest.  The oldest members of my last church remembered something about the service, involving lighting candles and reciting the names of those who had died in the past year.  If there was a proper service in the Evanglical book of worship that church had, I couldn't decipher it from the German. So I lit candles, read names, and we prayed:
Almighty and everlasting God, before whom stand the spirits of the living and the dead; Light of lights, Fountain of wisdom and goodness, who livest in all pure and humble and gracious souls.

For all who witnessed a good confession for thy glory and the welfare of the world; for patriarchs, prophets, and apostles; for the wise of every land and nation, and all teachers of mankind,

WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD, AND BLESS THY NAME.

For the martyrs of our holy faith, the faithful witnesses of Christ of whome the world was not worthy, and for all who have resisted falsehood and wrong unto suffering or death,

WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD, AND BLESS THY NAME.

For all who have labored and suffered for freedom, good government, just laws, and they sanctity of the home; and for all who have given their lives for their country,

WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD, AND BLESS THY NAME.

For all who have sought to bless men by their service and life, and to lighten the dark places of the earth,

WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD, AND BLESS THY NAME.

For those who have been tender and true and brave in all times and places, and for all who have been one with thee in the communion of Christ's spirit and in the strength of his love,

WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD, AND BLESS THY NAME.

For the dear friends and kindred, ministering in the spiritual world, whose faces we see no more, but whose love is with us for ever,

WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD, AND BLESS THY NAME.

For the teachers and companions of our childhood and youth, and for the members of our household of faith who worship thee in heaven,

WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD, AND BLESS THY NAME.

For the grace which was given to all these, and for the trust and hope in which they lived and died,

WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD, AND BLESS THY NAME.

And that we may hold them in continual remembrance, that the sanctity of their wisdom and goodness may rest upon our earthly days, and that we may prepare ourselves to follow them in their upward way,

WE BESEECH THEE TO HEAR US, O GOD.

That we may ever think of them as with thee, and be sure that where they are, there we may be also,

WE BESEECH THEE TO HEAR US, O GOD.

That we may have a hope beyond this world for all the children, even for wanderers who must be sought and brought home; that we may be comforted and sustained by the promise of a time when none shall be a stranger and an exile from thy kingdom and household;

WE BESEECH THEE TO HEAR US, O GOD.

In the communion of the Holy Spirit, with the faithful and the saints in heaven, with the redeemed in all ages, with our beloved who dwell in thy presence and peace, we, who still serve and suffer on earth, unite in ascribing:

THANKSGIVING, GLORY, HONOR, AND POWER UNTO THEE, O LORD OUR GOD.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit,

AS IT WAS IN THE BEGINNING, IS NOW, AND EVER SHALL BE, WORLD WITHOUT END. AMEN.

For the ones we know:  your friends and families,  that we may have a hope beyond this world for all the children, even for wanderers who must be sought and brought home; that we may be comforted and sustained by the promise of a time when none shall be a stranger and an exile from God's kingdom and household.

Amen.

Friday, November 21, 2014

The art (and necessity) of cross-examination


I was involved in a kangaroo court once.

Does my telling you that make it true?

I was involved as a lawyer, not as a party.

Even if I include enough details to make the story convincing, does that prove it happened?

I've told stories about conference ministers I've known in the UCC; the kangaroo court I'm speaking of is part of one of those stories.

Are those stories true?  I could tell you stories of very strange behavior, vicious animosity directed toward me, other pastors investigated for various allegations of sexual impropriety (it is the most volatile claim you can make against a pastor, to allege improper sexual relations.  One of the strongest memories of my ministry is how many times I was warned by concerned pastors to never be alone with a woman, a church member or a perfect stranger, and to never close my office door, even if I did so to preserve confidentiality with a church member.)

Is any of this true?  How do you know?  Because you trust me?

But what if I'm making all of this up?  How would you know?

I've actually had experience with people making up stories about me.  It happened to me in seminary, in a very minor way.   It happened when I was a pastor, with effect that was more important.  One story was so divergent from what actually happened, what I would actually ever do, it was like an evil opposite version of me, the kind of thing you get from bad TV shows.  I won't bother with the details, but trust me, it's true.

Then again, how would you know?

There is a way to verify allegations of criminal behavior:  it's cross examination in a court of law.  Most of the women named as "Jane Doe" in the lawsuit against Bill Cosby in 2006 have now come forward; probably the rest of them will.  Probably they are the witnesses in that suit (but how do we verify that?).  Assume they were.  Their stories go back to 1967 now.   Almost 50 years ago.  What evidence were they going to present in 2006, except their own testimony?  Are they credible? Do their stories hold up to scrutiny, to even casual inquiry? Can Mr. Cosby be placed with them, or in the same hotel, city, state, on the date of the event?  Is there anything to back their claims, other than their willingness to be interviewed now?

What do they gain from speaking now?  Satisfaction, probably.  Who knows? I had church members decide their goal in life was to destroy my career.  Why?  What did I do to deserve that?  Rape someone?  Argue with them?  Gossip about them?  Denounce them to the assembled congregation?  Spit on the ground every time their name was mentioned?

I did none of those things.  It didn't matter.  I'm not sure what did.  I've had to fall back on Bruce Springsteen:  "Well sir I guess there's just a meanness in this world."

I guess there is.

I no longer expect people to behave like the people I grew up with.  I've learned people can be strange, cruel, vicious, vindictive, and nasty; and none of it for any reason you'll ever understand.  I haven't learned why they act this way, not in all cases; but I have learned never to underestimate the desire to destroy someone, especially when the blood is in the water.  I'm told chickens will viciously attack a bird with a spot of blood on it; that the whole flock will attack until there is little left of the victim.

I've seen people act like chickens; more than once. I still can't explain why.

I was involved in a kangaroo court once.  The people running it were quite sure they were good people, and they were doing the right thing, and that all my legal training and desire for some semblance of order and even to be able to question witnesses on behalf of my client, were not only unnecessary but actually counterproductive to the purpose of getting at the truth.  Which truth they had pretty much settled on before the process began.

They didn't want me involved because they didn't want me to slow down the execution.  A professional, not a physical, execution; but all they wanted was a record to justify their decision.

So I've seen this movie.  I know how it comes out.  The only difference now is, it is aided and abetted by this brave new world we have created on-line.  Those people running that kangaroo court were as certain of their moral righteousness as all the commenters and writers are now.  Just as certain, and just as wrong, because they can't be bothered with justice; they already know what justice is.  Their moral righteousness tells them so.

That is not a good thing.  This is not the improvement in society we've been looking for.

On the President's Remarks Regarding Immigration

When an alien resides with you in your land, you must not oppress him. He is to be treated as a native born among you. Love him as yourself, because you were aliens from Egypt. I am the Lord your God.

Leviticus 19:33 (REB)

After you come into the land which the Lord your God is giving you to occupy as your holding and settle in it, you are to take some of the firstfruits of all the produce of the soil, which you harvest from the land the Lord your God is giving you, and, having put them in a basket, go to the place which the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. When you come to the priest, whoever he is at the time, say to him, "I acknowledge this day to the Lord your God that I have entered the land which the Lord swore to our forefathers to give us." The priest will receive the basket from your hand and set it down before the altar of the Lord your God. Then you must solemnly recite before the Lord your God: "My father was a homeless Aramean who went down to Egypt and lived there with a small band of people, but there it became a great, powerful and large nation. The Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us; they imposed cruel slavery on us.  We cried out to the Lord the God of our fathers for help, and he listened to us, and when he saw our misery and hardship and oppression, the Lord led us out of Egypt with a strong hand and outstretched arm, with terrifying deeds and signs and portents.  He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.  Now I have brought here the first fruits of the soil which you, Lord, have given me."  You are then to set the basket before the Lord your God and bow in worship before him.  You are to rejoice, you and the Levites and the aliens living among you, in all the good things which the Lord your God has bestowed on you and your household.

 Deuteronomy 26:1-11 (REB)

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Public, Hating


I've spent more time than was good for me reading about the controversy now swirling around Bill Cosby, almost all at Salon.  The stories there reached their nadir with the revelation that in 1969 one of his albums included a story about looking for "Spanish Fly" in Spain, with Robert Culp.  The outrage was that he joked about putting drugs in women's drinks; the story was about how naive he and Culp were, looking for a mythical aphrodisiac.  But somehow it proved Cosby was a serial rapist.

My problem with the Salon stories was not that I believe Bill Cosby is incapable of the acts alleged against him; it is that the allegations go back to events allegedly occurring as much as 45 years ago, and there is no proof of them except the stories of a few women (the number, like almost everything else in this tempest in a teapot, is in dispute.).  It could be the stories are all similar because they reflect the pattern of a rapist; it could be the stories are all so similar because each story-teller is familiar with the other stories.

How can we tell?

This is the best timeline on the controversy I know of.  Most of the details are of the allegations by Andrea Constand, the only woman to have ever sued Cosby for alleged assault.  This suit is the source of the "14 women" number, women who have allegedly made similar charges.  13 are listed in court papers as Jane Doe witnesses.  One woman, Beth Ferrier, claims to be Jane Doe 5, and tells her story in a news interview.  Barbara Bowman is another witness; she also tells her story to the press.  I mention this because these are named witnesses, not anonymous ones.  Much has been made of the fact so many women tell the same story, but the stories of Green and Bowman are two attached to names, and with details behind them.  I haven't found anything about the other witnesses, but the commonly accepted "fact" is that they all tell the same story.  As far as I can tell, those women never told their stories at all.

The Constand case was filed in 2005, settled in 2006.  None of the Jane Doe witnesses testified; at least not in court.  I can't tell whether Green and Bowman were ever deposed, which would qualify as testimony.  All information about their stories comes from news accounts, not from deposition transcripts.

That ends it until 2014.  Joan Tarshis accuses Cosby of rape in November, a rape she says occurred in 1969.  Janice Dickinson accuses him of rape a few days later.  She says her rape occurred in 1982.

So four women have made accusations; one sued.  11 more allegedly made accusations, but we don't know the content of their stories, or what their names are.  It seems pretty ugly; it also seems pretty amorphous.  And today, like Bill O'Reilly screeching about "Merry Christmas!" v. "Happy Holidays," the pack of hounds got its prize:  Bill Cosby won't develop a new sitcom for NBC.

The Republic is saved.  Justice is done.  We can all sleep better tonight.  A major entertainment corporation, like major retailers last December, has proven to have knees of jelly.  They don't want to displease people with their choice of star for a sitcom, or displease Fox News viewers with the greeting they offer customers after Thanksgiving.

And then, of course, there is the controversy over the shirt.

I read a story once, long ago, by Steve Allen.  It was called "The Public Hating."  I think I still have half the paperback book it was reprinted in, the half with the story in it.  I found it tonight on-line, here.  It's an interesting story, and while Allen never imagined modern communications or the internet, he did imagine a world much like the one we seem determined to make on-line.

At least in some corner of it.

Monday, November 17, 2014

All others pay cash


The details of the argument aren't worth worrying about.  But since I saw it at Salon, and it prompts the need to respond, I'll respond here, but only to the titles, not to the idiotic content:

"1. Religion promotes tribalism. Infidel, heathen, heretic."

Unlike nationalism, politics, or the internet.  Do you really need examples?

2. Religion anchors believers to the Iron Age.

Apparently all religion is Christianity or Judaism?  And what is this obsession with the "Iron Age"?  On-line atheists love that line, like it's the one irrefutable argument against "religion" (which, again, is apparently always Christianity and Judaism.  Although somehow these critiques are not anti-Semitic.  Criticizing Israel's foreign policy is anti-Semitic; declaring the foundational beliefs of Judaism a relic of the Iron Age is not.  Go figure.)

First, I want to hear these atheists decry the basic insights of Aristotle and Plato, not to mention the other foundational ideas of ancient Greece.

Yeah, that's what I thought.

One another note, one thing I learned in seminary is how similar life today is to the nomadic life of the time of Abraham.  The concerns of Moses are the concerns of anyone taking responsibility for a community today.  The tears of the prophets are my tears.  Despite huge cultural and technological differences, people across time and space remain much the same.  That is an insight of wisdom and history, not a dead weight keeping me trapped in the "Iron Age."

Well, no more than Western culture, which is still largely a footnote to Plato, is anyway.

3. Religion makes a virtue out of faith.

I assume by "faith" she means "Believing what you know ain't true."  If so:  hogwash.  Faith is not about believing despite your experience, but believing because of it.  As for "belief," it is only trust (i.e., faith) that makes me take seriously the claims of quantum mechanics, claims based more on mathematics than observation, more on ideas than experiences.  I can barely understand the terms of the theory of relativity, but I accept it as valid.  I cannot begin to prove true any of it's claims, and even the experiments I am told prove it true I have to accept as valid.  I have to trust the reports of them, in other words.  If I don't, does my computer stop working?  If I do, does my computer work any better than it does now?  I've been told quantum mechanics is involved in computer design.  Is this true?  How will I ever know, unless I trust the source of that information?

As Shakespeare understood in "Othello," everything we do is a matter of trust:  whether we trust each other (even Iago, whom we shouldn't), or trust the scientists.  I see some examples of their claims (my computer, for example), but they make far more claims than I can ever see the proof of.  Just as we just trust each other (and to erode that trust, as the story of Othello proves, is to destroy society entirely), we must trust some of what we are told.

Religion doesn't make a virtue of faith.  Faith is a virtue without which our societies cannot function.

Of course, to quote her at length just this once, this is just generalized bullsgeschicte (as we used to say in seminary):

Trust and obey for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus. So sing children in Sunday schools across America. The Lord works in mysterious ways, pastors tell believers who have been shaken by horrors like brain cancer or a tsunami. Faith is a virtue. As science eats away at territory once held by religion, traditional religious beliefs require greater and greater mental defenses against threatening information. To stay strong, religion trains believers to practice self-deception, shut out contradictory evidence, and trust authorities rather than their own capacity to think. This approach seeps into other parts of life. Government, in particular, becomes a fight between competing ideologies rather than a quest to figure out practical, evidence-based solutions that promote wellbeing.
So now the normal functioning of democracy has gone awry because of something that existed at the time of the American revolution, and was in fact a reason for the founding of some of the colonies?

Good to know.

 4. Religion diverts generous impulses and good intentions.

I don't know where to start with this one.  Apparently churches suck up money that would better go to the United Way or the Red Cross or some charity that doesn't "work... tax free [and] gobble up financial and human capital."  At this point she's just ranting, really.

5. Religion teaches helplessness.

Or, as Jacques Derrida observed:  "Religion is responsibility, or it is nothing at all."  At this point I'm tired of even arguing with the titles.  Res ipsa loquitor; the thing speaks for itself.

6. Religions seek power.

Again, unlike nations, or groups on the internet, or people interested in or involved in politics.   This assertion, in fact, is downright laughable:

In fact, unbeknown to religious practitioners, harming society may actually be part of religion’s survival strategy. In the words of sociologist Phil Zuckerman and researcher Gregory Paul, “Not a single advanced democracy that enjoys benign, progressive socio-economic conditions retains a high level of popular religiosity.” When people feel prosperous and secure the hold of religion weakens.
The usual critique of the church is that it is too wed to the society of which it is a part.  Now we find it is actually parasitic, and destructive of that society!  Damned if you do, or if you don't!  And it explains why Jews are successful in the world!  Because they aren't religious!

Or something.  Yes, I know that kind of joke borders on libel and racist, but Tarico's observation falls over the edge of the absurd.  The charges she makes against "religion" (by which she seems to mean Christianity and/or Islam, in this context) are the arguments used against Jews in Europe for centuries:  their very survival rests on destroying society as we know it.  I don't want to invoke Godwin's Law, but still....

The observation of a sociologist and a researched does not a firm conclusion make; unless, of course, you take their assertions on faith.  As for that last line, it's quite true:  unless you're talking about promoters of the "gospel of wealth" like Joel Osteen and Rick Warren; or the many Pentecostal variants in Central and South America, which are proving more popular than the Roman church at the moment.*

Of course, just what Zuckerman means by "popular religiosity" might also need to come under some scrutiny.  My guess is, it isn't what Ms. Tarico thinks it means.

But "religion" is only in America, isn't it?  And it only refers to Christianity in America; and then only to the caricature that Valerie Tarico is able to imagine, and regard as "real."

*This is the article Ms. Tarico is quoting.   It has found its conclusion, and races to find material to support it (rather than consider alternatives).  Mostly it documents a decline in religious affiliation, which is undeniable, and connects that decline to a rise in atheism (because everything is either/or.  Right?)   It's not a very well-grounded argument and it isn't interested in nuance, only in acceptable conclusions.  It uses the term "popular religiosity" without definition or explanation, except as a club to batter its point across.  And the fact the article is not published in an academic journal tells me a great deal about how carefully the subject is handled.  It is, in other words, worth the paper it is printed on.

Friday, November 14, 2014

We are smart! The internet told us so!


The internet is killing religion with nollij!  It's true!  I read it on the Internet!

In recent months, this sense that the Internet is the key for atheist outreach has started to move from “hunch” to actual, evidence-based theory. Earlier this year, Allen Downey of the Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts examined the spike in people declaring they had no religion that started in the ’90s and found that while there are many factors contributing to it–dropping familial pressure, increased levels of college education–increased Internet usage was likely a huge part of it, accounting for up to 25 percent of the decline in religious belief. While cautioning that correlation does not mean causation, Downey did go on to point out that since so many other factors were controlled for, it’s a safe bet to conclude that the access to varied thought and debate the Internet provides is persuading people to drop their religions.

That quote skips my favorite line from the piece:  "Above all else, it’s private. An online search on atheism is much easier to hide than, say, a copy of The God Delusion on your nightstand."

Because nothing says "nollij" like that steaming pile of crap!  Unless it's that quote, which literally makes a leap of faith, or certainly of logic, from "cautioning that correlation does not mean causation" to "conclude that the access to varied thought and debate the Internet provides is persuading people to drop their religions."  Because why let matters of causal analysis stand in the way of a good conclusion?  Amirite?

The irony here is that, in the name of information and "varied thought" and "debate," this article presents none of those things.  The information is woefully wrong and baseless; the thought is the same Johnny One-Note that religious people don't think and atheists alone have the power of ratiocination; and that comments and posts on the internet constitute "debate."  Consider this comment, from the article:

I know! In 1718, Pope Gregory XV established a committee of cardinals to handle missionary work (and we all know how important missionary work is to the church of the LAtter Day Saints, do we not?). It was called a "congregation for propagating the faith", or in the original Latin, Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, later shortened to the third word. Just a single word one can use in place of over a dozen!

What? You don't like it? But it's perfect! Why should such a catchy word not be used?

Which prompted this enlightened (and, as far as I can tell, thoroughly un-ironic) response:

Thanks for the history lesson!! I never knew that's where "Propaganda" came from!

We are smart!  We make  things go!

Adding:  for those interested, this article links to the study mentioned in the quote above, and also gives good reason not to put nearly as much stock in it as Marcotte does.  But, again, even in the "reality-based community," reasoning is hard; ranting is easy.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

"Winter is icummen in"


The low tonight is predicted to be 28F.

The record low for this area for this date is:  28F

Lhude sing goddam!

The War on Christmas started early this year....


The Montgomery County school board voted Tuesday to eliminate all references to religious holidays on school calendars, beginning in the 2015-16 school year. That includes Christmas and Easter, as well as Jewish holidays like Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah.

The vote came after a recommendation by schools Superintendent Joshua Starr that the board consider removing the names of religious holidays from the calendar in response to a request from Muslim community leaders to give equal billing to their holy day of Eid al-Adha. Starr told MyFoxDC that the county's public schools would still be closed on Christian and Jewish holidays due to the significant number of staff and student absences on those days, but technically not due to any religious observance.

 ....

 Future school calendars will now list the students' Christmas vacation as "winter break", the Easter vacation as "spring break." Days like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur would simply be marked "no school for students and teachers."

Well, after all, it only stands to reason.  I mean, the next step would have been Sharia law...

What is "religion"?


I ask the question because atheists from Richard Dawkins to the commenters at Salon are quite sure they know the answer; so sure, they never bother to raise the question.  And if you do raise the question, it will be dismissed with a glib rejoinder, or a simplistic definition, a stereotype that usually involves Christianity, right-wing politics, and outright fiction.  Then you scrape down to the handful who dismiss all such examinations of thought as "mental masturbation."  Of the latter the less said, the better.

One attack on Christianity that was quite popular for awhile was the complaint that Christianity was what people said and did, not what other people said Christianity was supposed to be.  So Christianity is the ravings of Pat Robertson, or the bourgeois morality of Rick Warren, or the snake-oil of Joel Osteen.  How could  it not be?  Theory is grand, but lived reality is determinative.

So what is religion?  What people aspire to?  Or what they actually achieve?

What if we classified religion, at least for public policy purposes, as "official religion,"  "governed religion," and "lived religion"?  I don't know precisely what those categories include, but Elizabeth Shakman Hurd has a good idea.  I can venture a reasonable guess from the labels themselves.  "Official religion" is one recognized by government:  that can be the state church (as in Germany and England); or simply churches acknowledged to be eleemosynary institutions by the federal government of the United States:  the "mainline" denominations of Christianity; Islamic mosques; Jewish synagogues; Buddhist temples; etc.  "Governed religion" is, I suspect, the much maligned "organized religion," despised for a multitude of sins by people who, without organized religion, would have no religious feelings at all.  "Governed religion" is either the organizing principle that keeps religious beliefs active, or the dead hand of authority that all but destroys true religious belief; or something in the middle of those two extremes.  It's a good designation, because it's a useful one, even I misuse Ms. Hurd's original intent.

"Lived religion" is the most interesting.  That covers everything from the devout churchgoer who strives to implement the teachings of her/his religion in daily life, to the occasional attendee who is little moved by exhortations from the "governed religion" yet still considers themselves a follower, however faithful or faithless, of that governed belief system (assuming arguendo that religion is a belief system).   "Lived religion" can be the person who quietly but stubbornly insists on how the sanctuary is decorated at Christmas and Easter, to the person who insists the Bible needn't be read so often in worship (I've met that person) to the person who is practically a "religious" in the Catholic sense of the word (i.e., a monk, a nun, an oblate).

Which of these is "religion"?

And how do they apply to the question of government and religion.  Ms. Hurd's article focusses on the question of religious freedom, a freedom presumably allowed by governments, or which should be allowed (the Jeffersonian debate on that point is another matter; already we seem largely to allow that our freedom comes from our military power, not our military power from our freedom.  It's a short step from there to religious freedom being allowed by government, rather than government allowed around religious freedom.  That's yet another philosophical issue.).  But the question of religious freedom is, as she points out, bound up with the definition of "religion," and the rather recent (really since the 1960's Supreme Court decisions on the "wall of separation") argument that religion and politics (i.e., conduct in the polis) must never overlap.

It's a concept of religion that is not only unexamined, but unwarranted; and probably unsustainable.

But that conclusion depends on what you mean by "religion."

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

"Yet for the powerful to pretend to interpret God's will qualifies as presumptuous."


At the root of Niebuhr's thinking lies an appreciation of original sin, which he views as indelible and omnipresent. In a fallen world, power is necessary, otherwise we lie open to the assaults of the predatory. Yet since we too number among the fallen, our own professions of innocence and altruism are necessarily suspect. Power, wrote Niebuhr, "cannot be wielded without guilt, since it is never transcendent over interest." Therefore, any nation wielding great power but lacking self-awareness - never an American strong suit - poses an imminent risk not only to others but to itself. Here lies the statesman's dilemma: You're damned if you do and damned if you don't. To refrain from resisting evil for fear of violating God's laws is irresponsible. Yet for the powerful to pretend to interpret God's will qualifies as presumptuous. To avert evil, action is imperative; so too is self-restraint. Even worthy causes pursued blindly yield morally problematic results.

--Andrew Bacevich

The Brits do this better than we do.  Niebuhr was thoroughly American, and thoroughly Midwestern, but American literature doesn't do moral ambiguity and the problems of power and guilt and self-awareness of the national character nearly as well as the British do.

Maybe it's that legacy of Shakespeare; sometimes I seriously think it is.  That and the legacy of power, stretching back to the Tudors and through Cromwell and the Restoration and the rise and fall of the largest empire the world has ever seen.  We embrace Roman thinking without realizing our historical debt at all; the British still understand they are an Anglo-Saxon society shaped, down to their Piccadilly Circus and their legal system, by being a far-flung outpost of Rome.

John LeCarre got at this first; the moral ambiguity of spies telling lies in order to serve a greater good.  Reality eventually outran LeCarre's moral imagination.  The Constant Gardener imagined a scandal among multi-national corporations that would erupt if it was revealed how they were treating the sick in Africa, a scandal so worrisome they would kill to keep it quiet; when in reality the truth of such malfeasance was plain for all to see; but the world simply didn't care.

Consider that we are coming up on the 34th anniversary of the deaths of Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel, Jean Donovan, and Maura Clark. (Corrected per a comment below; I should have had that right the first time!)  I mention it because I heard a promo for a story about it on NPR.  Now that we are nearly 35 years away from the foul deed, it is safe to probe it and consider the outrage of it; safe because nothing can be done about it, no one prosecuted for it, no public figure called to account over it.  Not that anyone has been called to account for it in nearly 35 years, anyway.  A sign of American innocence and wielding power without guilt or self-awareness?  Or just another indication that what happens can always be overlooked, ignored, disregarded, if it suits us to do so?  Especially since, as Marlowe observed, "that was in a foreign country and, besides, the wench is dead."

We don't do moral imagination in our literature, or our TV shows.  The quintessential response to 9/11 was "24," the show that made torture not only palatable but necessary to our security.  The quintessential response of the British, a show that ran for 10 seasons (take that, "24"!), was "MI-5."

I've been binge-watching it on Netflix, running through all 10 seasons, roughly 100 episodes.  The plots are often better than Daniel Craig's "Casino Royale" (still the best Bond movie ever made, for my money), and make you wish the writers of "Skyfall" had instead hired the writers from "MI-5," at least as consultants.  "Casino Royale" made Bond deal with the human cost of being a professional spy/assassin ("licensed to kill"); "MI-5" made its characters deal with the moral cost of telling lies for a living, and manipulating people with lies.  When the wife of a villain has been killed in Bond's hotel room in "Casino," he is entirely indifferent to her fate, even though his use of her led both to Bond finding the villain, and her death.  In "MI-5" agents struggle with their willingness to use innocents as resources, and more often than not the people they "handle" wind up dead, or losing a great deal, while the spies retire to their world of government protection of their identities and government sanction of their lies and manipulations.  They do not go gentle into that good night, however.  The strain of the job makes them neurotic; or they quit; or they are forcibly retired.  The human costs are a constant theme of the show.  Indeed, in the final two season, two of the major characters are revealed to have lead mirror lives of lies and indiscretions, one set far worse than the other so that the latter is just an echo of the former.  Still, in a profession of lies and manipulation, the spies on the same side manipulate each other because sometimes three can only keep a secret if two of them are dead; or never knew there was a secret.

It's a British show, so not surprisingly the British come off better than any other nationality.  The Americans, though, come in for special condemnation.  The series started in 2001, so the CIA represents America as cowboys astride the planet backed by money and arrogance, and getting what they want through torture and extraordinary rendition (illegal and immoral acts, in other words).  More than once the operational head of MI-5 has to remind a CIA agent that the latter is on British soil, and subject to British law, that working for the American government does not make one a law unto oneself.  But the agents run contrary to their own government, a government of politicians willing to make deals or shirk promises made to "assets" (the innocents I mentioned above) as it suits them, or as they (more often than note) feel the need, like all politicians, to be liked and to avoid conflict (conflict, as in any action show, often being the best way to resolve a situation).  But the strongest theme in the show is the question of morality, of the ethics of spying and lying and manipulation for Queen and Country.

The last season is the best encapsulation:  the head of MI-5 was, in the past, in Berlin before the wall came down.  He "turned" a Russian, a woman he loved, and with whom he fathered a child.  The plot for the season, the running plot for the entire season, is convoluted and complicated, but in the end our British hero who has blamed himself for what he has done, who has sacrificed almost everything, including his own morality, for the sake of national security, finally unravels the truth.  And the truth is, the woman he loved in Germany, the Russian, was herself a spy, not for him, but for the KGB.  Her husband is a former KGB agent, her son is an FSB (successor to the KGB) agent, who has killed to protect her without knowing she was a triple agent.  It turns out she's working, not for Moscow but for a consortium of former KGB agents.  She has lied to her husband about her status (he thinks she was recruited by MI-5 as a spy; it turns out she was a KGB spy before that, pretending to spy for MI-5, but he never knew).  It is a long untangling of skeins regarding who lies to whom, for what reason, and at what cost.  Ultimately, of course, the British agent is exonerated for his decisions; but his decisions have a cost, not unlike the cost to Bond at the end of "Casino Royale."  But for Bond those costs reflect decisions and actions taken during the course of the movie; for "MI-5," the costs echo down through three decades.

"Make one mistake, you pay for it the rest of your life."  Not in terms of eternal cosmic punishment; but in terms of responsibility; of guilt; of regrets.  No character on "MI-5" wields power:  by lying to manipulate someone; or to protect them; or even using a gun to do either of those, even the power is wielded in the interests of national security or anti-terrorism or simply arresting criminals; without paying a price for that power.  "Power, wrote Niebuhr, 'cannot be wielded without guilt, since it is never transcendent over interest.' "  The British, at least, understand that.  It doesn't make them superior, or wiser, or more authorized to wield power; but it does make them more self-aware.

It's a trait singularly lacking in the CIA agents portrayed in the series.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

"It's about commemoration and it's about the beauty of human life and the fragility of human life."

"The ceremony of innocence is drowned...."


"The blood swept lands and seas of red...."

Kurt Vonnegut, b. November 11, 1922, d. April 11, 2007.

I will come to a time in my backwards trip when November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy, and when Dwayne Hoover was a boy, all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.

"The sudden silence was the Voice of God."

 Precisely so.

On the coming 10th anniversary: A Common Place Reader; selections from past Novembers



"The Lord has plucked up proud men by their roots, and planted the lowly peoples." "He hath put down the mighty." - from the daily office in May, 1965.

If I were more fully attentive to the word of God I would be much less troubled and disturbed by the events of our time; not that I would be indifferent or passive, but I could gain strength of union with the deepest currents of history, the sacred currents, which run opposite to those on the surface a great deal of the time!

--Thomas Merton

The Roman Empire was based on the common principle of peace through victory, or, more fully, on a faith in the sequence of piety, war, victory, and peace. Paul was a Jewish visionary following in Jesus' footsteps, and they both claimed that the Kingdom of God was already present and operative in this world. He opposed the mantras of Roman normalcy with a vision of peace through justice, or, more fully, with a faith in the sequence of covenant, nonviolence, justice, and peace. 

In Search of Paul, John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed, (New York: HarperCollins 2004), xi. 

World War I ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, yet an irresistible current of nihilism had been set loose. Fought in the name of democracy, that war was in fact a triumph of militarism and imperialism - on all sides. It led to the punitive imposition of artificial borders in Europe, which were the immediate cause of World War II; in the Middle East, the remote cause of today's most dangerous conflicts; and in Africa, where consequent genocide has found its niche. Perhaps most damaging was the 1914 legitimizing of mass violence, with the trenches anticipating both gas chambers and the unleashed atom. Hitler and Stalin were empowered by the so-called Great War, which is why both World War II and the Cold War should always be considered in its context. To regard all three conflicts as a single War of the 20th Century obliterates any notion that categories of "just war" apply.

What are we to make of these three anniversaries? First, while honoring the memory of veterans tomorrow, we should also acknowledge that the Great War was a mistake. America should never have joined. Second, in properly recalling the demonic Hitler's antisemitism, we can also reckon with the complicity of a larger culture. What crimes make us bystanders today? And third, trumping the horrors of the 20th century, its most important event was the nonviolent resolution of the nuclear-armed Cold War. "Power to the people" proved true, and what they used their power for was peace. Three anniversaries, with emphasis given to hope.
--James Carroll
At the root of Niebuhr's thinking lies an appreciation of original sin, which he views as indelible and omnipresent. In a fallen world, power is necessary, otherwise we lie open to the assaults of the predatory. Yet since we too number among the fallen, our own professions of innocence and altruism are necessarily suspect. Power, wrote Niebuhr, "cannot be wielded without guilt, since it is never transcendent over interest." Therefore, any nation wielding great power but lacking self-awareness - never an American strong suit - poses an imminent risk not only to others but to itself. Here lies the statesman's dilemma: You're damned if you do and damned if you don't. To refrain from resisting evil for fear of violating God's laws is irresponsible. Yet for the powerful to pretend to interpret God's will qualifies as presumptuous. To avert evil, action is imperative; so too is self-restraint. Even worthy causes pursued blindly yield morally problematic results.

--Andrew Bacevich



Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock! You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth

before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh. Stir up your might, and come to save us!

Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

O LORD God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people's prayers?

You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure.

You make us the scorn of our neighbors; our enemies laugh among themselves.

Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself.

Then we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name.

Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Monday, November 10, 2014

You are, of course, free to ignore this....


I'm not sure what free will has to do with the urge to urinate, except that bladder control is an exertion of free will.*

Sure, you may not be able to choose when you need to pee; but you can control how you pee.  It's training, going back to your childhood, reinforced on a daily basis all those days and years after.  The fact that you don't pee wherever you are sitting or standing, that you feel a discomfort you need to relieve but don't without an act of will to do so, is the very definition, it seems to me, of "free will."  Absent medical conditions, you choose when and where you urinate.

More interesting is this idea of "embodied cognition," which is supposedly new.  I first learned about it in Walter Kauffman's Irrational Man, his study of existentialism.  Kauffman drew a distinction between the dualism of Hellenism and the embodiment of self of Hebraism.  Per Kauffman, the Greeks saw the self as a soul incarnate (even Plato understood the importance of the physical world to the soul as it moved toward rejoining the Good); but the Hebrews drew no distinction between soul and body, because they didn't really believe in the soul the Greeks did.  It's a little hard to grasp in this post-Augustinian era without thinking the body somehow corrupts the soul, but for the Hebrews there was no mind/body split because there was no mind v. body:  it was all a unity, we were ourselves down to our fingertips.  They couldn't conceive of a disembodied pilot embodied only by accident, somewhere behind the eyes peering out through those "windows" upon a world accessible only through the flesh.  We were our flesh as we were ourselves.

And now we call that "embodied cognition," and declare it a new thing.

Of course, we used to say it was soul that animated body ("An aged man is but a paltry thing,/A tattered coat upon a stick, /unless Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing/ For every tatter in its mortal dress") until soul was replaced by mind, and now it is a computer wrapped in meat.

Thus is progress made......

*Besides I'm not sure what people think they experience as "free will" is quite the same issue as what philosophers debate is the concept of "free will."  What, after all, do they think they are experiencing?  How do they define the concept?  Aye, there's the rub.....

Friday, November 07, 2014

Nobody know the trouble I've seen, nobody knows but the fleaflies!


Because now everyday feels like Ash Wednesday.  I mean, why not?


So, the Supreme Court wants another chance to gut Obamacare.

I don't care anymore.  If Obamacare dies, it might mean I get some work back.  A little, but even a little is good.  Otherwise, Obamacare did nothing for me, and it's such a Rube Goldberg machine I'd almost be glad to see it dissolved.  And while the GOP will dance on its bones and howl at the moon in victory, I don't care about that, either.  Will the vast majority who don't bother to vote decide this is the issue upon which they will stand up and be counted?

Nope.  And unlike the characters in The Stars My Destination, I've never felt compelled to lead those people, and I don't feel compelled to feel anything for their refusal to take up the challenge of democracy and lead themselves.

I'm tired.  And I'm tired of politics.

Oh, I say that every two or four years, but I'm beginning to feel like I mean it.  Dispirited Democrats stayed home because Democrats across the nation decided their best recourse was to be GOP-lite, in the mold of their President whom nobody loves anymore.  It was a stroke of political genius.  Battleground Texas came to the state and apparently decided Wendy Davis should campaign like Ann Richards did:  i.e., hiding the very thing that made her famous and popular.  Ann Richards won the governorship once, because she was fortunate in her opponent the first time around.  She won in spite of hiding the character that made her a media darling at the Democratic convention when she skewered Bush pere, left him pinned and wriggling on the wall.  She never tried that again, not in her campaign, not as Governor.

But mostly never in her campaigns.  So I'm tired of political consultants who only know how to advise candidates to lose, and the money that backs them wanting only a choice between Tweeldedum and Tweedledumber.  That's the real scandal of money on politics; that we get a choice between McDonald's and Burger King, because that's the only choice the money will allow.

This is not because I've been writing about death lately.  I have not death wish, myself; none that I am aware of.  My death is just as unimaginable as it has ever been.  I despair of the glibness that responds to the Catholic church on the issues with jeers and raspberries and outright anti-Papist statements that would have shamed hard-core Protestants in 19th century America.  I despair of the shallowness that treats the question of death and suicide as simple issues best left to individuals to sort out.  It's the same kind of materialist thinking that makes Christmas a season when the poorest among us must go shopping in Thanksgiving because unless the tree is piled with stuff taller than the oldest child in the house, the holiday is ruined, its only point being to reinforce how important stuff is to human existence (and how important suicide is to how "I" keep my "mind" (dualism runs deep) in "my" control).

Advent is coming.  Xmas decorations are already out around town.  I expect to hear non-stop carols soon.  Maybe that'll life my spirits.

Yeah; right.