"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, February 27, 2015

The blue and the black

So, is it blue and black, or is it white and gold?

The way I arranged that question should tell you what I see.  My preference is initial, not secondary.  (Yes, I could be more fatuous about this, but how far dare I go?)

What's interesting is the number of comments on this from people convinced only one set of colors is possible, and people who claim to see the others are obviously liars and fools and just trying to fool with their haids!   (Second best are the people relying on Photoshop to analyze the colors and tell them what they are seeing.  I do wonder how many people could actually identify "cyan" or "magenta" without a labeled color card).

Well, that's what's going on at Slate, anyway.  According to that article Buzzed settled the issue with a poll that determined almost 75% of people see white and gold.  Which is objective proof, along with your lyin' eyes.

So who you gonna believe?  Me?  Or your lyin' eyes?

There may be an explanation for this.  Wired (again, per Slate) insists it's all because of how we are...wired.  Which seems a little obvious, and quite a bit obtuse, at the same time.  Maybe it's the quality of the photograph.  But if we can't believe a photograph, what can we believe about our world?

And if you can't believe your lyin' eyes.....

I don't want to make too much of this, but it is an interesting object lesson in ambiguity and certainty. There is so much jabber on the internet treating ambiguity as if it were an intellectual weakness, and certainty as if it were proof one is aligned with the cosmos, or at least in touch with the Platonic Good.  How much certainty do we have if people don't see the colors we see?  Isn't color objective and immutable?  Is this some kind of fight between Kantians and empiricists, where perception is one thing, "fact" another?  Are there facts which we literally cannot perceive?  How does that work?

Is one group of observers of this photo just trolling the other group?  I mean, if we can't trust the products of our technology (photography, digital reproduction), what can we trust?

Aye, theres' the rub.....

Update:  I'm too lazy to chase down all the theories being proposed as to why people don't see the same dress here (when everything says they should).  Just as I'm too lazy to spend the years of in-depth research such a project would probably require (as opposed to reaching for some on-the-shelf answer which isn't really an answer but will please the non-scientists/non-rigorous empiricists).

But this compendium of theories satisfies me as to one thing:  no one has a clue, and all the answers are simply proof Male Answer Syndrome (in the face of ignorance, make up something at least semi-plausible) is alive and well.  Sadly, this also proves the internet is still mostly run by men.


Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Richard Dawkins is just trolling us now

Are we supposed to take this seriously? 

“There is a balancing act and you have to balance the rights of parents and the rights of children and I think the balance has swung too far towards parents,” [Richard Dawkins] said. “Children do need to be protected so that they can have a proper education and not be indoctrinated in whatever religion their parents happen to have been brought up in.” 
I gotta think even the Anglo-American philosophers at Oxford are embarrassed this guy is on their faculty.  Although Lawrence Krauss is sillier:

“Parents, of course, have concerns and ‘say’ but they don’t have the right to shield their children from knowledge. That is not a right, any more than they have the right to shield their children from healthcare or medicine.”

There is, of course quite a bit of knowledge I prefer to shield my child from, especially when she was young.  That may not be the knowledge Mr. Krauss has in mind, but neither am I going to set him over my child as the arbiter of what she knows or should know.

A few years ago we'd have called this "performance art," just as an attempt to explain it.  I don't know why these guys think they sound rational, or why anyone treats them as if they were.

Indeed, if anything bothers me about what they say, it's that the answer to my question is "Some do."

Back among the Houyhnhnms

Courtesy of Charlie Pierce and Henrik Van Loon:

Again land was sighted. A group of lonely islands. Magellan called them the Philippines, after Philip, the son of his master Charles V, the Philip II of unpleasant historical memory. At first Magellan was well received, but when he used the guns of his ships to make Christian converts he was killed by the aborigines, together with a number of his captains and sailors.
It made me laugh; not because Gulliver espoused his morals to the horses, but because they were so appalled at his tales of European warfare, and this sounds so much like one of those tales.

Pulping Fiction

This article in Slate makes several excellent points.  It also has something to do with FoxNews, though the connection is not an obvious one.  First, the article:

Given this context, ISIS’s insistence on an all-or-nothing caliphate isn’t “medieval” at all. It is a thoroughly modern group. It is executing a new and updated version of the early medieval Arab conquests. (In fact, good cases can be made for thinking of ISIS as shaped by Western political thought.)

As long as there have been conflicts among humans, there have been violent, often public, atrocities: the Roman conquest of Dacia (itself storyboarded on the famous Trajan’s Column in Rome), the Crusades, and the Holocaust. ISIS is part of a long tradition of demeaning one’s enemies through decapitation, incineration, disembowelment, and other reprehensible corporal punishments. But ISIS is better at it than almost any group that has come before it because its fighters are master propagandists, videographers, and photographers. They know how to thrust their violence into the mainstream. So, no, ISIS is not medieval. It is viciously modern.

And especially this:

The danger of calling ISIS “medieval” is not that it hurts medievalists’ feelings; it is that it tempts us to define the group’s special barbarism as something from the past that should be eradicated because, by God, we’ve progressed and are therefore advanced as a people. This, as medieval historian and journalist David Perry has recently pointed out, is dangerous thinking induced by the assumption that the Enlightenment fixed everything. (It didn’t.)

I wouldn't so much blame the Enlightenment directly (though it's certainly a contributing factor), I'd say this is a tendency of human nature.  The period after the collapse of Rome and the Renaissance, after all, was named "medieval" and "the Dark Ages" by the Renaissance, in order to make them feel superior in their return to the ideals of the Greeks and Romans (and not all those ideals were worth returning to).  Especially in America, we tend to think the past is a monolithic bloc of fail from which primordial ooze we finally arose about the time the current generation was born.  Our ignorance of the past is vast.  There was a comment at Salon recently averring that the Bible was written at a time when "intelligence" and "literacy" were both punishable by death.  I have no doubt the person who wrote that sincerely believed that to be true.  I also have no doubt their knowledge of history beyond their own personal memories is zilch.  I'd say that was an aberration, an outlier, but I've come across similar ignorance among my students who don't even know the recent history of America (i.e., with my lifetime), or what conditions prevailed here with regard to race, or equality, or even the status of the law (Brown v. Board, Gideon, Miranda, etc.)  The things they fill in those blanks with is little better than that comment about intelligence and literacy.  The hardest part about education is learning the world is not as simple as you think it is.

Back to the Slate article, we find this conclusion:

Revisionist history is a great equalizer of human experiences. That’s part of why it is a grave error to pretend ISIS’s barbarism is somehow foreign, medieval, or special. It is none of those things. It is modern and pressing. ISIS should be held accountable for slaughtering Yazidis, Muslims, Christians, and other so-called apostates. In the meantime, we must become more reflective, more willing to interrogate our shared history. If we do not—if we refuse to confront our own nostalgia—we run the risk of harboring dangerous thinking about our policies toward groups like this and turning every struggle into one between Good (us) and Evil (them).

All this said, Wood’s essay draws out a crucial point: We have to understand ISIS’s rationality in order to deal with it. Its members are rational people. They are shaping the world they consider themselves destined to live (and die) in. This is where apocalyptic thought is important to understand.
I want to add, at this point, this post by my friend Rick.  Not on the topic of the medieval era per se, but relevant to the idea that ISIS is thoroughly modern rather than medieval.  As always in any discussion of history, anachronisms abound.  Rick's post is another example a lucid, informed analysis that the national discourse needs.  More such writing needs to be found on this modern miracle of the internet.  However, the internet hasn't changed the old adage that you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him think.

I started this post there.  Then I found this article, via NTodd.  It's a succinct analysis of why we don't need to be very afraid of Muslim terrorism.  We are in fact, the article concludes, at greater risk of dying from a falling refrigerator than at the hands of a Muslim terrorist.  The article even points out the number of terrorist acts perpetrated by non-Muslims, thought no one ever labels those actors by their religion (Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, are the examples provided)   But the comments to the article prove that the message has already been received, and if we aren't afraid, then the terrorists have won.

We need to move past this kind of thinking and start attacking Islam directly. The issue is that Islamic people believe that the Koran is the word of god and they believe some of the ideas in the Koran (most but who is counting)..

They believe in something without evidence and do not feel the need to justify its teachings (its the word of God). Even if these Muslims play nice - they are powerless to really condemn the other Muslims who follow the Koran more closely and act more violently. This is because they too are acting on a belief with no evidence and are not justifying these beliefs.

This leads us to our current mess in which all the continents on the planet are battling Islamic aggression. Basically rather then bitching that hey most Islamic people are basically nice - stop attacking us. We need to tell the Muslims - hey stop believing in the stupid rants of a warlord from 100's of years ago..

The only way to put the brakes on radical Islam is to put the brakes on Islam. We should be creating support groups for the people that leave Islam in the US. Leftists should be treating Islam like way they treat homophobic parents not encouraging the spread of violent nonsense.

This is pretty typical of the level of expertise one finds on the internet, in comments or in articles (such as the one that prompted NTodd's post*).  And typical of the understanding of Islam:  it breeds mindless violence, and there's nothing we can do about it except to declare war on Islam.  The moment you say that, though, the comments will scream that no one ever said that and where did you get such a ludicrous idea?  It's a universe as hermetically sealed as the FoxNews bubble, but it seems to contain a larger population than the viewership of FoxNews.

Or maybe it's just that there really aren't that many people on the internet, after all.  At least no more than actually watch FoxNews.

I was actually told, in comments at Salon, that if I put up a blog with cartoons of Mohammed, I would be killed by angry Muslims.  This despite the fact that only a handful of people have actually been killed in the West by terrorists for publishing depictions of the Prophet deemed offensive by someone somewhere, and those people died in one incident after publishing such cartoons for years.  Nevertheless, we are now all in danger because of "Charlie Hebdo."  It's sheer nonsense, of course.  But now because someone is in danger somewhere, we are all in danger everywhere.  Although, of course, we aren't.  I sympathized with the victims of 9/11, and even the entire city of New York; but I never for a moment thought this meant I was going to be next on the hit list.  I'd be more reasonable to be afraid of my refrigerator.

None of the comments at the Slate article, as best I can tell, grapple with anything said in the quoted paragraphs here, any more than the comments at the Daily Beast grapple with the information there.  The reaction is purely reactionary.  The very topic sets off alarm bells, and all the monkeys come out flinging poo.  There is a lot of screaming at a lot of shibboleths that seem to infect the mind of the internet populace at large.  In comments to the Slate article there is an insistence that ISIS is "medieval," with little or no attention paid to the idea that we all revise history to suit our own ends, and do so at our peril; and especially no recognition that ISIS is actually quite rational, which is part of the problem (far easier to define them as irrational and barbaric, keeping a bright line between Us and Them).  And the only thing to understand about apocalyptic thought is that it must be stopped:  with an apocalypse.

I especially like the line about "progress:"  the us v. them argument is fueled by the idea that "we" have "progressed," while "they" remain benighted and backward.  As I've said before, the difference in cruelty between  death from a drone launched missile (which may merely bring the roof down on you, rather than end your existence in the wink of an eye) and a beheading is a minor one.  The real difference is that we don't use violence for recruiting purposes; well, not directly, anyway.  But we both, ISIS and its opponents, use violence to achieve our ends.

But "they" are medieval, and "we" are not.

I agree we will do better to understand apocalyptic thought than to just damn it; just as I think we're better of understanding fundamentalism than just railing against it.  But frankly, most people hear what they want to hear, and understand what they want to understand.  And it isn't that FoxNews is all that popular or powerful in its own right; it is that we all secretly like the narrative FoxNews deals in.

*Salon, to its credit, has put up a post by a Biblical scholar, a direct response to one of Jeffrey Tayler's unhinged screeds.  It was received as pearls before swine, and far from spurring 900+ comments over several days, disappeared on the day it was posted..  There is actually a lot of wisdom in that casual remark by Jesus; education and even literacy are not enough to make us wise.  It takes a community; and the one brewing on the internet, at least in some small corners, is as ignorant and benighted as any "medieval" society was supposed to be.  Maybe that one goes back to the splinter in your brother's eye that is a reflection of the log in your own.  Which, of course, is a warning to comments like mine.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015


I want to start here:

And so we come to our last question. Is it possible to control man's mental evolution so as to make him proof against the psychosis of hate and destructiveness? Here I am thinking by no means only of the so-called uncultured masses. Experience proves that it is rather the so-called "intelligentsia" that is most apt to yield to these disastrous collective suggestions, since the intellectual has no direct contact with life in the raw but encounters it in its easiest, synthetic form--upon the printed page.--Albert Einstein in a letter to Sigmund Freud
And I want to end here:

And let no one be afraid to seek him or find him for fear of the loss of good company; faith is no sullen thing, it is not a melancholy, there is not so sociable a thing as the love of Christ Jesus.--John Donne 

Understanding all along that these are notes, a first draft at best, hardly a polished composition fit for publication and the ages.  So let's see what happens.

My actual starting point is here:

By common definition, prayer entails someone sitting for a quiet moment and beseeching his or her Lord for intervention in matters of grave import – that it rain on the crops or souls be saved, that gays be “healed” or atheists “see the light,” and so on. In objective terms, however, the supplicant is demanding improbable favors from an imaginary despot, and most likely doing so with lowered head and genuflections and other toadying gestures of obeisance — behavior that without faith’s halo would be classified as symptoms of mental derangement. (And all the more so if the petitioner claims to receive answers to the muttered incantations.) This debasing ritual, fruitless and foolish though it may be, is at least usually peaceful, but in some cases (notably in certain corners of the Middle East), rioting and rampaging follow, especially on Friday afternoons, when imams may deliver sermons exciting crowds to fury and frenzy. What’s not to like?
That is about the stupidest definition of prayer I've ever come across; but it is the very stupidity of the definition that I want to start with.   There are categories of prayer, beloved of those who are comfortable with pigeonholes and boxes (I type at a desk that would have pleased Dickens, or the narrator of the story of Bartleby.  It's a roll-top desk designed to hold a computer, and my pigeonholes are a mess, a nest of papers and stuff I either need to do or can't let go of.  It's an anti-filing system.).  I don't much care about them, because prayer is not poetry:  one does not compose prayer as one does a sonnet or a villanelle.  Prayer isn't even free verse, or prose:  prayer is words, but prayer may be deeper than words, deeper even than sighs.

So what is prayer?  Perhaps better to start with what prayer is for, and it is not for the deity addressed.  The God of Abraham is a much more active and engaged God than the Good of Plato or the Unmoved Mover of Aristotle.  The God of Abraham is a God seeking to be be engaged with humanity, a god who can even be moved to action by humanity; a god with a heart for humanity.  But that is not to say a God with a whim for humanity; or a capricious nature swayed by the pleas of any member of humanity.  Tayler touches on the crucial point when he describes prayer as "[t]his debasing ritual...."  That's what really bothers him about prayer:  the notion of humility.

Prayer is about addressing God.  I think everyone can agree on that.  I speak, of course, of prayer in the Judeo-Christian context.  Tibetan Buddhist prayer wheels are another matter, and an interesting one.  I await the day when the Senate Chaplain stands in the Senate to open a session and spins a prayer wheel silently.  That doesn't fit any definition of prayer Tayler has in mind, even though it is still prayer.  Still, prayer is address; to whom it may concern, is a matter of personal preference.

Why pray?  Because the deity addressed will accede and deign to notice, perhaps even change conditions?  That's an old and venerable concept.  "Oedipus Rex" opens with the people of Thebes gathered in public prayer before the palace, beseeching the gods to end the drought and famine and plague of stillbirths that afflict the kingdom.  Oedipus commits his first act of hamartia by telling the chorus to pray to him for salvation, since he is their king, and he will save the kingdom (as he did from the Sphinx).  But is that the only possible concept of prayer?  In "Oedipus at Colonus," the blind exile returns to the environs of Thebes to pour out a libation at a shrine, and offer a prayer to the gods, this time to honor them, not to ask something of them.  This prayer is telling:  it is not for the gods so much as it is for Oedipus.  Humbled by his exile, by the tragedy which has ruined and reversed his life, he now recognizes his place before the gods.  Is this a debasing ritual?  Or an acknowledgment of humility and humanity?

Even prayer for intercession is ultimately an act for us, the ones who pray.  We pray for ourselves.  No, not that the deity addressed will give us something; we pray for ourselves.  We are why we pray.  To limit this to a Christian context (the one I know best), we do not pray for God's sake, not even to ask God not to strike us.  We have no such concept of a relationship with God akin to the one assumed by the Greek audience of "Oedipus Rex."  Ab initio our idea of our relationship to God is one of a caring relationship, even if we understand God to be Wholly Other.  We do not understand God to be hostile to our interests.  We don't imagine we must appease God (although some of us imagine God is angry with others, God is never angry with us.  "Gott Mit Uns," the Nazi slogan famously had it, applies to us all in our groups and communities.  It is those "others" God wants to smite for "their" apostasy.  But that's another matter.).  We only imagine we need to invoke God's interests on our behalf, even if that behalf is for the health of a friend or family member.  When we pray "for" someone, we are better off understanding that prayer is for us.  Ideally, it puts us in a position of greater compassion and understanding for the person prayed for.  At least it makes us thing we have done something, in a situation where we can't really do anything.

The most frustrating thing about ministry, and the hardest, is learning that there is little you can do for others.  You can pray for them, and with them; and they can imagine your prayer is more efficacious because you are somehow more holy, closer to God, than the average person.  But prayer is not direct action; it isn't really action at all.  You want to be effective, but you don't have the tools of modern medicine, or psychology; you don't wield the instruments of law to protect someone with legal barriers, or punish the guilty and avenge the innocent with the police power of the state.  You have words.  You have prayer.

And what is "prayer"?

It is for the pray-er.  It is for the person who prays.  Perhaps it makes you spend a moment truly thinking of another instead of yourself.  Perhaps it allows you to experience a deep sense of the ineffable which you may label "God."  I have discovered in my itinerant prayer life (the discipline of a Jesuit, or even a Franciscan, I just do not have) a real sense of the presence of God which, once opened, I find I can access with some regularity.  It is not, thanks be to God, the overwhelming sense that Mother Teresa sought for the rest of her life after she moved to Bombay; it is not the sense that Doris Grumbach felt once, and never again.  It is not the mystical union of the great Christian mystics, or the vision of Julian or Margery Kempe.  But I find it only when I engage in prayer.  I try to humble myself before it, so it will reshape me.  So far it hasn't; which may mean it is a false sense of God; or I'm too far gone, too old to change my ways.  Or it may be my prayer life is still too itinerant, that I use it too little to let myself be changed by it, and the fault is mine.  But if prayer is about us, and about changing us, then it is a dangerous and difficult thing indeed; and no surprise that people like Jeffery Tayler want to denigrate it as severely as they can.  That kind of self-examination is something the Taylers and Dawkins and Harrises of this modern age seem to despise more than anything.  Their self contentment would be disturbed by such examination, and that is something up with which they will not put!

Consider, briefly, the example of the Our Father, the Lord's Prayer:

Our Father in heaven,
your name be revered.
Impose your imperial rule,
enact your will on earth as you have in heaven.
Provide us with the bread we need for the day
Forgive our debts
to the extent that we have forgiven those in debt to us.
And please don't subject us to test after test,
but rescue us from the evil one.  (Matthew 6: 9b-13, SV)

Nothing in it is directed to God; it is all directed at the one who prays.  Who can revere God's name, if not us?  God can impose God's imperial rule and enact God's will on earth as in heaven; but we are directed to ask for that, to seek that, to work to make that happen by directing our prayers toward it.  We ask only that God the Creator, the source of life and blessing, take care of us for today; tomorrow is another day.  And we ask God to forgive us, only so far as we are willing to forgive others.  And the only compassion we ask from God is that we not be tested again and again, but that we be rescued from the evil one.  Nothing there about a Mercedes-Benz, or a color TV, or a night on the town; nothing about a miracle, or a cure, or salvation, or happiness.  This prayer doesn't ask from God, it directs us toward God.  It realigns our thinking.  It redirects our attention, away from us and toward the world, through God.

This brings us, abruptly I think, to Einstein's observation about the intellectual who has no contact with life "in the raw," but knows it only from the printed page.  It's easy to dismiss Tayler's description of prayer as a straw man argument, but it's worse than that.  It's a description based on no understanding at all, which is the same place Richard Dawkins starts from:  he doesn't understand religion because he declares it nonsense ab initio, and he has no need to learn nonsense.  I don't actually find virulence of opinion among most people I know.  They don't care who is a Christian or an atheist, even who is gay or straight or lesbian.  The Gov. and Attorney General of Texas just now insist state law cannot recognize even the court ordered marriage of a lesbian couple; but I don't think the majority of Texans really care.  I suspect they are like my parents, and far more tolerant of the issue than once they were; or, if they know friends and family who are homosexual, they are even more inclined to allow them to live and let live.  I recall, vaguely, a story from D/FW airport where a man in a terminal accosted another man for wearing a pink shirt (!; apparently it meant the shirt-wearer was gay), and a man in cowboy boots and hat, with a Texas drawl, was the first to confront the belligerent and tell him to stop.  I can't imagine a Texas public official doing that, or even a prominent Texas preacher; but the people who live life "in the raw" are far more aware of our humanity than the people who think of us in groups and blocs and affiliations.

I know atheists I consider more Christian than Christians.  I know church going Christians who are models of humility and hospitality.  They are, as Einstein observed, far less easily swayed by "disastrous collective suggestions" than their political and social and religious leaders are.  They are far more inclined to see people as individuals rather than as things.  And that, I think it can be fairly said, is what Donne was getting at:  "there is not so sociable a thing as the love of Christ Jesus."

Yes, plenty of people who profess Christianity seem to do it for the sake of distinguishing themselves from everybody else, or at least from those who are not "true" believers in what they believe.  But Christianity teaches tolerance and even love for others; it's central teaching, according to Paul (often denigrated by know-nothings as the failure of Christianity), is love of one's enemies.  If you can do that, you can love all of humankind, just as God loves all of humankind.   I think Jeffrey Tayler's ideas are foolish, but I would not on that account brand him as outcast.  He might scream in my face, either rhetorically or literally; I would be failing in my confession of Christ as Lord to scream back at him.  Mind you, I might do it; but the failing would be mine, not Christianity's.  I would urge Messrs. Tayler and Dawkins and Harris to self-examination; but I would not condemn them for refusing to engage in it.  I am not superior to someone else because of what I believe; if anything, my proper belief makes me even more humble.  If that brings out someone's inner Nietzsche, I don't get to enjoy some schadenfreude at their expense.  Because religion, like prayer, is for me; it is directed at me examining myself, improving myself, tailoring myself, placing myself not at the center, but in the lives of the other.  I am called by Christ to see him in others; I don't get to choose who those others are.  The moment I start choosing, I am at the center again.

It's an act of great humility, and I'm not very good at it.  But that is why religion and religious faith is about changing me, not changing thee.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Two conditions that often appear alike

So now the question is:  is President Obama really a Christian?

And the answer is:  how do you know?

For one thing, is Jeremiah Wright really a Christian?  Some of us would say yes.  Some would say no.  Who is right?   Of course, the answer depends on what you mean by "Christian," and that definition depends on what confession of faith you accept as validly Christian.

Sam Harris has his answer.  Others have theirs.  Gov. Scott Walker, walking in the footsteps of Rudolph Giuliani (f/k/a "America's Mayor"), raises a different question:  is Obama really a Christian, or does he just say he is?

How do you get out of that one?

There is, of course, no escape from it:  whatever you say, your opponents merely nod and say "Yes, but does he really mean it?"  (You can do the same about Obama's patriotism, and Giuliani did).  We could chase this down pretty hard, because ultimately the answer is the same as "How do I know you love your wife?"

The only honest answer to that is:  "You don't.  You have to take my word for it."  Ordinarily, of course, that's good enough.  No one else has an interest in whether or not I love my wife but me.  The profession is a social convention for the world, a matter of importance only to the two of us.  Ideally no one would have any interest in whether or not the sitting President is of a particular faith, or of no faith at all.  It doesn't really matter to the country.

Except now, apparently, it does.  And here is the real problem with a religious test for public office:  how do you know?

I knew many a fine Southern Baptist in the East Texas town where I grew up, and members of other denominations, who always voted to ban liquor sales in the county, and always kept a fully stocked liquor cabinet.  One of the oldest jokes in my hometown is that you always take two Baptists to go fishing, because if you only have one, he'll drink all your beer.  Are such people real Christians?  Or do they just make the right noises at the right times?

And what about you?  From what privileged position do you judge?  Which is the real problem with Scott Walker's non-position, as Dana Milbank points out:

There will always be people on the fringe who say outrageous things (and Giuliani, once a respected public servant, has sadly joined the nutters as he questioned the president’s patriotism even while claiming he was doing no such thing). But to have a civilized debate, it’s necessary for public officials to disown such beyond-the-pale rhetoric. And Walker failed that fundamental test of leadership.
I will pause here to say, I considered not posting this at all.  Then this morning I read Charlie Pierce's round-up of the Sunday political blatherfest, and oh my good and heavenly Lord, they pulled me back in!

BARBOUR: Well, it's about how you can match up the opportunities. And I remember Jeremiah Wright, who is very unpopular among the people who would be voting in the Republican primary. Now, if someone were asking me about that question, that's the way, if wanted to be political, I wanted to take the question. I think Scott Walker's probably just being truthful, you know. He is a son of a preacher. He is a Christian. And he may have taken that question the way I did the first time I heard about it, do you believe he's really a Christian, or do you believe he just professes to be a Christian? But I don't know the answer to that, either.
First, that "son of a preacher" line.  That's like the tee-totalling Baptist who drinks all your beer in the fishing boat.  Seminary was rife with stories about "PK's" ("Preacher's Kids") who usually are the ones the girls lose their virginity to in the choir loft (yes, presumptively the boys; and no, I don't really imagine this was true for Scott Walker, but anyway).  Preacher's kids are not given special dispensation to read the hearts of others.  Second:  is Scott Walker a Christian?  He says he is, but I just don't know.  Maybe I believe he just professes to be a Christian.  After all, he's shown little or no concern for the poor, for the widow and the orphan, for the marginalized and the powerless.  He's shown a great deal of ability to take care of Scott Walker by preying on the gullibility of others.  So maybe he is a preacher's kid after all....

But who am I to judge?

And Barbour admits the issue is purely political; it's just red meat for the GOP primaries.  On the other hand, he says Walker is just being truthful.  Well, not as truthful as Jeremiah Wright's namesake:

The heart is devious above all else;
it is perverse--
who can understand it?
I the LORD test the mind
and search the heart,
to give to all according to their ways,
according to the fruit of their doings.

Jeremiah 17:9-10

The heart is devious; it cannot be understood, even by God.  But the nature of politics is to exploit that ambiguity.

There is a philosophical bent to this (of course!):

In the Cartesian Meditations, Husserl pointed out that the intentional acts that make up the flow of the other's conscious stream are inaccessible to me; they cannot be known to me without becoming mine, without destroying the alterity of the other.
And I cannot really destroy the otherness, the "alterity," of the other.  I may think I can, but I delude myself; the other remains other; beyond my grasp, and more sealed of from my understanding the more I attempt to destroy that otherness in order to gain understanding.

Haley Barbour, of course, is not interested in destroying the otherness of Barack Obama, but increasing it.  I suppose it's only coincidence nobody ever raised this issue about Bill Clinton.  Yeah, that's it....

NTodd has pointed out this isn't new in American History, so I don't take this as the latest sign of the apocalypse and the end of civilization as we know it (two favorite tropes of commenters on the intertoobs).  But it is tiresome; and there's still (as ever) that question of the splinter and the log; maybe the preacher's kid and now Gov. of Wisconsin knows that story.....

Sunday, February 22, 2015

A Voyage to the Land of the Houyhnhnms on the First Sunday of Lent

This is why you never argue with fools (something I need to learn over and over again, especially when "some one on the internet is wrong!"):

This is not a fatal flaw in the book, but speaks to its contested place as at once an academic survey as well as an intervention in an ongoing but oversimplified and disheartening “debate.” Armstrong wants to examine, in all its complexity, the relationship of religion and violence, and often does so with great success and insight. She also wants to exonerate “religion,” but that tends to muddy the waters of the first, and more important, goal of this book.
That is the concluding paragraph of a brief review of Karen Armstrong's new book, at Religion Dispatches.   It's a good review, I commend it to your reading.  The "debate" is the one raging among on-line atheists and neo-atheists like Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher about whether or not religion is the source of all evil in the world.  It is a pitifully uninformed debate carried out by people proud of their ignorance of the subject (Dawkins) or simply trying to get attention for their cable TV show (Maher).  This is typical of the debate, and if it sounds almost exactly like Rush Limbaugh excusing his racism or his disdain for "liberals," that's because the form of argument is exactly the same:

“Can’t we at least say there are a number of factors that are involved and the religion is certainly one of them? (Obama) presented this idea that, well, it’s poverty and education. It is poverty and education also — but why are they impoverished and uneducated? It’s mostly because of the religion.”
Religion is one of the problems; religion is mostly the problem.  And if you say Maher said religion is the main problem, or THE problem, his supporters will deny with their last breath that he said anything so blinkered and ignorant.  But religion is certainly a problem; in fact, it's mostly the problem.

Along with despotic governments, irresponsible Western leadership since at least the 19th century, and a rapidly changing world which has thrown everybody into what Alvin Toffler rather charmingly, now, called "future shock."

But mostly, the problem is religion:  because a comedian said so.

There is a relationship between violence and religion, and it does not good to ignore it.  I understand the Bhagavad Gita is presented as a vision that comes in the midst of an epic battle.  The Hebrew and Christian scriptures include many descriptions of violence, both real and imaginary, between Genesis and the Apocalypse to John. And the Koran admits violence as well as peace.  Quelle surprise?  Is human history bereft of violence where religious practices do not exist?  And where, pray tell, is that?

But to even ask that question is to engage in the debate; and I don't want to do that.  It is a pointless debate, going nowhere and meant to go nowhere; because it isn't a debate.  It is an accusation, an insult hurled out in hopes of getting a response to prove, "A-HA!  You see!  They ARE violent!  See how violently they respond?!"

Which was, of course, precisely why Dr. King trained his followers in non-violence.  Funny nobody ever brings up the Civil Rights movement in this context, or the liberation of India by Gandhi.  Dr. King's pastorate is ignored, and we are all told what Gandhi accomplished was only because the British were not Stalin.  Both dismissals are racists and hegemonic in their nature:  no one observes that the Russians are not the Indians (who suffered a great deal for their liberation, and who knows might have suffered more?  They proved no government can govern those who will not cooperate.), because the latter are not deemed European.  And any acknowledgment of the church and the SCLC (the Southern Christian Leadership Conference) in the Civil Rights movement is usually allowed only if you emphasize the community structure the black churches provided to the movement; the spirituality that undergirded that community cannot be acknowledged at all.

Gandhi's fight was spiritual; as was King's.  In the modern world especially, we can only understand the spiritual as the miraculous ("Heaven is real!"), and the miraculous we dismiss out of hand.  But that makes us weaker and simpler than the "medieval" peasants we deems ourselves so superior to.  The problem, for the world, with spiritual movements, is that they rest on humility, and the awesome power of powerlessness:  the one power that truly succeeds in this world.

Which is why the world knows it not; and doesn't want to.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Neuroscience considered as an examination of free will: Another Lenten Meditation

Ecce homo

Seeing as I'm turning this into a commonplace book, I rather like this bit, too:

“Think of those experiments where a subject is instructed to twitch a wrist or push a button whenever he feels moved to do so, and then to report when he consciously made the choice to do it. Then electrodes on the scalp or an MRI can show that a neural impulse precedes the conscious choice by anywhere from one to ten seconds, and the researcher can predict when the subject will perform the action about 70 percent of the time. So the scientist concludes that the real decision is just some autonomic electrical flicker in the brain, while the apparent conscious ‘decision’ is just a posterior accretion, a kind of proprioceptive hallucination. One scientist, that Haynes fellow, even said this renders the existence of free will an ‘implausible’ hypothesis.”

“Never heard of him.”

“But it gets sillier,” Roland continued, more emphatically. “There’s absolutely no logical connection between that experiment and that conclusion. It’s an eisegetical non sequitur. It just shows that a scientist’s interests frequently dictate what he thinks he’s observed. He looks for a mechanical transaction, artificially extracts his data from their actual context, and then miraculously discovers what he has predestined his experiment to disclose. The far more sensible conclusion would have been just the opposite: that these results confirm the reality of rational freedom. My only hesitancy is that, if the subject were absolutely free, one should be able to predict his actions in that situation with 100-percent accuracy.”

I did not want to admit that I was not following his argument, but after several seconds had to: “Why, exactly?”

Roland gazed at me indulgently and shook his head. “Because the subject did exactly what he had freely undertaken to do. He was asked, of his own volition, to act whenever he felt the impulse, and that’s what he did. He wouldn’t have been twitching a wrist or pushing a button otherwise. But the researchers’ bizarre fiction is that they are witnessing an isolated mechanical process without any prior conditions, rather than a premeditated act prosecuted intentionally, so they produce the monstrous fantasy that they have proved that the whole act is reducible to a spontaneous physical urge. I mean, the experiment they imagine they’ve run isn’t even logically possible, because there’s no visible intentional content in any given electrical impulse that identifies it with any particular act. You have to know what’s freely intended beforehand in order to know what the discrete neural event portends. You have to know that the subject chose in advance to translate the impulse into an action. The urge doesn’t go directly to its goal without crossing the interval of consciousness. So what’s the point? That we often feel an urge before we freely decide whether to act on it? Well, you don’t need electrodes on the scalp to prove that. But the urge is never isolated, because at both ends there’s a decision of the conscious mind: undertaking to act in accord with a prompting, then choosing to submit to that prompting. In between there’s some raw physiological agitation, which those free intentions have shaped into an accomplished deed. Let’s just say that that’s the material substrate, and that the intellect that makes the choices is a kind of formal cause: It’s always shaping impulse into intentional action—prospectively, retrospectively . . . synoptically.”

“Yes, all right,” I said.

“I mean, there’s always some prior and final act of the mind, some more capacious realm of intention for any impulse that’s embodied and enacted. Yes? So you can’t ever arrive at a deeper foundation. The researcher can never retreat to a more original moment, some discrete instant when a physical urge exists wholly outside that free movement of the mind. That object just isn’t found in nature. Just you try to find it and you’ll see.”
Hume argued that, since he couldn't perceive his "self" empirically, since the "consciousness" was not available to empirical perception, it couldn't exist, and therefore all sensory data was just creating a sense of perception by an "I" which was the product of the illusion of perception.  I've often thought of this as the TV playing in the empty room, but the room is somehow aware of what is on TV.  If the subject in the above experiment is acting of their own volition, on what basis do we say the act is actually a product of determinism rather than free will?  Because we cannot "see" any other explanation?

Or because we cannot allow it?

As I've often thought, the problem here is not the reality, or lack thereof, of free will; it's the definition of "free."  But then that involves philosophers, and there things get complicated and perhaps messy, and a mechanistic universe hates a mess, so it just sweeps it aside?

That you cannot arrive at a deeper foundation, a "more original moment," reminds me of Kierkegaard's story of the man who became so abstracted from his own existence he awoke one day to find he no longer existed!  It is a search for something that cannot be:  a privileged position from which to observe the universe without being of the universe.

Ancient wisdom calls it seeking to be God.  Modern secularism does away with that possibility, but not with the error itself.  Which is what makes this yet another subject for a Lenten meditation.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

A Lenten Meditation

Well, as long as I'm just sitting here....

I've said it before, or attempted to, but when someone else says it again, and so eloquently and clearly, I want to pass it on.

Via Thought Criminal, David Bentley Hunt reviewing Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell:

For one thing, it does not logically follow that, simply because religion as such is a natural phenomenon, it cannot become the vehicle of divine truth, or that it is not in some sense oriented toward a transcendent reality. To imagine that it does so follow is to fall prey to a version of the genetic fallacy, the belief that one need only determine the causal sequence by which something comes into being in order to understand its nature, meaning, content, uses, or value. For another thing, no one believes in religion. Christians, for instance, believe that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead and is now, by the power of the Holy Spirit, present to his Church as its Lord. This claim is at once historical and spiritual, and has given rise to an immense diversity of natural expressions: moral, artistic, philosophical, social, legal, and (of course) religious. Regarding “religion” as such, though, it is in keeping with theological tradition to see it as something common to all societies, many of whose manifestations are violent, idiotic, despotic, superstitious, amoral, degrading, and false. The most one can say about religion in the abstract is that it gives ambiguous expression to what Christian tradition calls the “natural desire for God,” and to a human openness to spiritual truth, revelation, or grace.

A number of on-line atheists think they destroy the power of scripture by pointing out it is either old ("Bronze Age" is the favorite label now; it is all a matter of faddishness, these labels) or all too human (all the violence!), or not as damning of slavery as we are today, or just too ignorant of modern cosmology.  Because apparently scripture must be wholly Other, or it is only wholly human.

And human is not good enough to believe in, except as humans "reason," and reason in ways approved of.  Hunt touches on that, pointing out the idea of "memes" which Dennett relies on (via Dawkins)  is a reliance on something that simply cannot be established by empiricism or scientific study.  He describes Dennett's conclusions this way:

It is as if [Dennett] imagines that by imitating the outward forms of scientific method, and by applying an assortment of superficially empirical theories to nonempirical realities, and by tirelessly gathering information, and by asserting the validity of his methods with an incantatory repetitiveness, and by invoking invisible agencies such as memes, and by fiercely believing in the efficacy of all that he is doing, he can summon forth actual hard clinical results, as from the treasure houses of the gods.
It's an attempt I've seen over and over again.  The virtue of the Continental philosophers I read, even the lapsed Catholics like Vattimo, is that they understand there is something about religion which is not dreamt of in such a crabbed and ill-informed philosophy as Dennett's; and that there is nothing wrong with religion being "natural" (indeed, the argument that it can't be is largely the argument of the Christian fundamentalists, whom most on-line atheists, as well as Dennett and Dawkins, take for the majority of Christianity).  As Hunt, the theologian, point out:

Certainly the Christian should be undismayed by the notion that religion is natural “all the way down.” Indeed, it should not matter whether religion is the result of evolutionary imperatives, or of an inclination toward belief inscribed in our genes and in the structure of our brains, or even (more fantastically) of memes that have impressed themselves on our minds and cultures and languages. All things are natural. But nature itself is created toward an end”its consummation in God”and is informed by a more eminent causality”the creative will of God”and is sustained in existence by its participation in the being that flows from God, who is the infinite wellspring of all actuality. And religion, as a part of nature, possesses an innate entelechy and is oriented like everything else toward the union of God and his creatures. Nor should the Christian expect to find any lacunae in the fabric of nature, needing to be repaired by the periodic interventions of a cosmic maintenance technician. God’s transcendence is absolute: He is cause of all things by giving existence to the whole, but nowhere need he act as a rival to any of the contingent, finite, secondary causes by which the universe lives, moves, and has its being in him.
And that is a fine Lenten Meditation.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A meditation for Ash Wednesday

This is how Socrates came to be considered an almost proto-Jesus (for better or worse).  It's an idea not much in vogue anymore, but Whitehead's observation is as true in this century as it was in the last.

The speaker is Alcibiades:

But when we listen to [Socrates], or to someone else repeating what [Socrates has] said, even if he puts it ever so badly....we're absolutely staggered and bewitched....Yes, I've heard Pericles and all the other great orators, and very eloquent I thought they were, but they never....turned my whole soul upside down and left me feeling as if I were the lowest of the low.  But this latter-day Marsyas, here, has often left me in such a state of mind that I've felt I simply couldn't go on living the way I did....He makes me admit that while I'm spending my time on politics [!] I am neglecting the things that are crying for attention in myself.  So I just refuse to listen to him....I've been bitten by something much more poisonous than a snake; in fact, mine is the most painful kind of bite there is.  I've been bitten in the heart, or the mind, or whatever you like to call it, by Socrates' philosophy....He talks about pack asses and blacksmiths and shoemakers and tanners, and he always seems to be saying the same old thing in just the same old way.....But if you open up his arguments, and really get into the skin of them, you'll find that....nobody else's are so godlike, so rich in images of virtue, or so...entirely pertinent to those inquiries that help the seeker on his way to the goal of true nobility.

--Symposium, 215d-216a, 218a, 221c-222a

One note:  a common complaint against the gospels is that they weren't written by Jesus, perhaps not even by people who knew Jesus.  We are sure Plato knew Socrates; we're also just as sure there is an "historical" Socrates somewhere in some of the dialogues, and in others (such as The Republic), Socrates is merely Plato's sock puppet (to use the modern idiom).  And yet, Whitehead is right:  all of Western philosophy is just a footnote to Plato; and all of Western philosophy undergirds what we think is valuable, right, good, proper, worthwhile, noble, execrable, etc., etc.  To escape it is to try to escape one's own skin; you simply can't do it.   And yet no one complains about the veracity of Plato's dialogues.

Probably because so much emphasis is placed on the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth, and on whether the Jesus in the gospels is the Jesus who lived in first century Palestine.  But to focus on that is to ignore what the gospels tell us Jesus said.  Perhaps those reports are no more reliable than Plato's reports about Socrates; however, does that mean we can dismiss what Socrates says?  Which matters more: who said it, or what was said?

Surely, in this post-enlightment era, the appeal to authority is dead.  And after all, even if you don't admit the deity of the speaker, does that mean the arguments presented in his words are not "entirely pertinent to those inquiries that help the seeker on his, or her, way to the goal of true nobility?  At least?

Even Lutherans observe Ash Wednesday

"A man who truly buys an indulgence (ie believes it is to be what it is) 
is as rare as someone who truly repents all sin ie very rare."

According to Slate, "demand for theology-themed toys is hot hot hot."

Who knew?

Because Playmobil came out with a "cute" Martin Luther figurine which sold out almost immediately.  Mostly this presents us with an excuse for pictures, like this one contrasting the usual visage of Luther with his much more appealing figurine:

Or this one, which gets at the historical Luther:

Well, the Nazis didn't exactly invent anti-Semitism out of whole cloth.

Still, I can understand why this version of Luther wasn't as popular:

Now, if I'd just posed Luther next to a beer stein, instead of Godzilla:

Ash Wednesday 2015


Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

Because I do not hope to know again
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again

Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And I pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do hot hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.


Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.

--T.S. Eliot, "Ash Wednesday," The Complete Poems and Plays 1909-1950 (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1971), pp. 60-61, 67)

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

"An incarnation is not the sort of reality available to recollection." An unmusical reflection

The face, the enigma, and the paradox

This is what has been in the oven for so long.  I had to let it proof, and then I had to let it bake and then I had to let it cool.  I don't know how much of this I will have to quote before it makes sense; or even if it will make sense.  It's a rather technical argument analyzing the relationship between the thought of Kierkegaard and Levinas, so already we're in a rarified atmosphere.  But reading it over last night made me laugh with joy, so:

Like Climacus's [in Philosophical Fragments] pursuit of the Paradox, Levinas's engagement with enigma is a form of critique directed, like the earlier critiques of Augustine and Kant, against the hubris of a human reason that would be autonomous and self-sufficient.
I pause to note reason is being used here to critique reason.  One of the major weaknesses of the "New Atheists" is their insistence that reason is a unitary "thing" which stands alone, contains and embodies truth, and has no need nor ability to self-critique or to be used to examine the very limits of reason itself.  There's something weirdly Platonic in it, as if reason itself were the Good which, once obtained, was also self-contained and self-complete and incapable of being used to, well, deconstruct what reasoning has wrought.  And maybe that's the helpful distinction:  reason is not a thing, and reasoning is not the action of reason as a thing, or even the discovery of what reason has to tell.  Then again, that's where this argument is headed, by distinguishing "logocentric Reason" from other forms of Reason:

It is motivated in part by the sense that logocentric Reason is dogmatically atheistic, that it arbitrarily excludes God from its world or, what is worse, domesticates God by transforming the divine into a (visible or intelligible) phenomenon, a process in which "the divinity of God dissipates"[cit. omitted].  "Phenomena, apparition in the full light, the relationship with being, ensure immanence as a totality and philosophy as atheism."

It is also motivated by the sense that the transcendence thus reduced to immanence properly belongs to philosophy.  In pursuit of enigma he takes as his guide "the notion of God, which a thought called faith succeeds in getting expressed and introduces into philosophical discourse."  To affirm this thought requires that one "endure the contradiction between the existence included in the essence of God and the scandalous absence of this God....[and] to suffer an initiation trial into religious life which separates philosophers from believers.

Right there I would pause and insert a discussion of Gould's "magisteria" and Rorty's metaphor (which he ascribes to Max Weber:  "One can be tone-deaf when it comes to religion just as one can be oblivious to the charms of music.") that religious belief is akin to being "unmusical:"  a useless and harmless ability that excludes from the experience of some an otherwise meaningless aspect of human life, and one wholly unrelated to anything covered by Reason, especially logocentric Reason.  But maybe another day.  There are more important considerations to get to:

But this thought that faith manages to introduce into philosophical discourse is not entirely eccentric to the latter.  [pace Rorty and Gould!].  In the first place it is a thought, not simply an image or a feeling.  There is no hint that what distinguishes this thought from the thoughts of logocentric ontology or phenomenology is that it is an undergraduate mythos that has not yet learned the doctoral level language of the logos, a miner league Vorstellung not yet good enough to join the Big Show and its superstar Begrime.  The distinguishing mark of this thought is simply that it radically disturbs the thoughts by which we construct the worlds of nature and history.

A mysterium tremendum, in other words.  Continuing:

In Philosophical Fragments, Climacus's critique has the same dual motivation [as that of Levinas, explained in a paragraph omitted here].  On the one hand, it is directed against what is perceived to be a dogmatic and arbitrary exclusion without which human understanding could not absolutize itself as Reason.  In his case the God whom the world cannot accommodate is the specifically Christian God become human in Jesus of Nazareth.  What his thought experiment is designed to show is that the Socratic assumption that knowledge is recollection excludes this possibility a priori (as Lessing clearly saw).  An incarnation is not the sort of reality available to recollection.

And now we enter fully into an epistemological discourse, setting up a third way of knowing apart from Socratic recollection and empirical discovery.

At the same time, Climacus thinks human understanding has a built-in desire for an absolute will that will relativize it.  He says that "the thinker without a paradox is like a lover with passion," and that "the ultimate paradox of thought [is] to want to discover something that thought itself cannot think."

Which still puts me in mind of Godel's theorem, and the result that any system can generate a question it cannot answer.  That doesn't invalidate the question, it just points to the limits of the system.

The human understanding, when not deluding itself into thinking it is Reason, has a "paradoxical passion that wills the collision...and, without really understanding itself, wills its own downfall."  Concretely speaking, God incarnate is "this unknown against which the understanding in its paradoxical passion collides and which even disturbs man and his self-knowledge."

Which could explain the passion of the atheist to snuff out the belief of the theist.

Abstractly speaking, the unknown against which human understanding in its paradoxical passion continuously collides is "the absolutely different...Defined as the absolutely different, it seems to be at the point of being disclosed, but not so, because the understanding cannot even think the absolutely different."

Pay attention now; this is where it gets interesting.  The subject of Levinas's concern is "a theory of enigma as semantic alterity."  For our purposes, "enigma" and "paradox" will be interchangeable terms.

The semantic disturbance Levinas has in mind is "the entry into a given order of another order which does not accommodate itself with the first.  Thus we exclude from disturbance the simple parallelism of the two orders that would be in a relationship of sign to signified, of appearance to thing in itself, and between which, as we have said, a relationship would reestablish the simultaneity of one single order."

Since the other cannot appear "without renouncing his radical alterity, without entering into an order," only that which will be transcendent (and thus disturbing) which can show itself without appearing.  It cannot allow itself to be tied down to the "unbreakable chain of significations" that make up the "triumphant, that is, primary truths" of a given cultural order if it would signify as enigma rather than phenomenon.  It must "tear itself" free from "the public order of the disclosed and triumphant significations of nature and history."

It would seem to follow that the gods who are the keystones of these humanly created orders of intelligibility, say the God of Aquinas in relation to the structures of nature and the Geist of Hegel in relation to the structures of history, are phenomenal and not enigmatic, onto theological and not truly transcendent.  This is why a God like Kierkegaard's who is quite thoroughly enigmatic, is "essential in a world which can no longer believe that the books about God attest to transcendence as a phenomenon and to the Ab-solute as an apparition.  And without the good reasons atheism brings forth, there would have been no enigma."

In other words the "atheism" of Hume and Kant in relation to the God of Aquinas and the atheism of Feuerbach and Marx in relation to the Hegelian Geist need to be seen not as the vindication of dogmatic secularism but can be construed as a kind of prophetic protest against every project of domesticating the divine.  They can be read as opening the question whether the absence of God from self-evidence and the "scandalous absence" of God from "the mortal conduct of the world" points to the abyss or to revelation as disturbance.

Which point to an interesting connection between belief and atheism, a connection deeper than the surface similarities between neo-atheists and fundamentalists.  And here we also reach the problem of the sign:

The problem of the sign, according to Levinas, is its re-presentational character.  It assumes that the signified has been present, has appeared, and serves to recall that appearance to mind.  By definition, the enigma cannot be such a signified.  "But how to refer to an irreversible past, that is, a past which this very reference would not bring back, like memory which retrieves the past, like signs which recapture the signified?....But in a face before signifying as a sign it is the emptiness of an irrecuperable absence.  The gaping open of emptiness is not only the sign of an absence...but the very emptiness of a passage.  And what has withdrawn is not evoked, does not return to presence, not even to an indicated presence."

"In place of the sign," Levinas would put the trace, a reference to "the past of the other which must never have been present."

This notion of a past that has never been present is by not means an easy one.  But one thing is clear--it precludes, as it is intended to preclude, the notion that knowledge is recollection....Recollection presupposes the essential kinship or likeness of subject and object."  And so knowledge makes available to us only immanence and totality.  "It is this immanence ant totality that Kierkegaard and Levinas seek to deconstruct with their notions of divine transcendence and infinity."  Levinas says of the ontological tradition:  "Philosophy is atheism, or rather unreligion, negation of a God that reveals himself and puts truth into us."  The God Levinas has in mind is precisely the God whom Climacus presents in the Fragments as giving to the learner not just the truth, but the very condition for recognizing the truth.....This is the God whose self revelation is the antithesis to the situation where "self-knowledge is God-knowledge."

This would seem to leave us with no pathway to God, since God is wholly Other, and there is no kinship or likeness of subject and object.  However, Climacus reveals the understanding of Kierkegaard, the seminary student, the would be pastor:  only connect to human beings. his view it is not "all thought" or "all cognition" that are cut off from the presence of God, but sinful thought and sinful cognition.  Radical alterity is not to be found in an ontological interpretation of finitude  vis-a-vis infinity, but in a more interpretation of evil vis-a-vis goodness.
Climacus might put his critique of speculation this way.  Ontology is the option moment of human thought, the longing for salvation.  The trouble with ontology, from Plato to Hegel, is that by insisting prematurely on replacing faith with sight it converts utopia into ideology, claiming to possess now a presence for which we have only the right to hope.  But the critique of ontology that responds by eliminating even the hope of sight, thereby reducing ontological utopianism to political utopianism, is a counsel of despair.  Is not this despair, that is to say, political utopianism devoid of both the sense of sin and the hope of divine salvation, the major source of the violence of our most recent history?
...Just as for Climacus it is sin that generates absolute difference, in this context what makes the other absolutely other is fault, not the conditions of "all thought" or "all cognition."  Most immediately this fault is in relation to my neighbor.  But if the human race has its moral appeal "only if it engimatically comes from the infinite and its immemorial past," if the absolute He "solicits across a human face," then injustice towards my neighbor is sin against God as well.
I think Levinas is precisely right: philosophy is unreligion, negation of a God that revealed God's self and puts truth into us.  Much of this depends, of course, upon what you consider "truth."  But this discussion, obtuse and technical as it may be,  takes place entirely within the terms of the discussion in Western civilization.  There are other ways to discuss it, but those ways either end up comforting the already convinced (not that there's anything wrong with that!) or straining at gnats and swallowing camels.

I just like to present alternatives when I can.  And while the discussion as quoted is decidedly arcane, it ends in favor of Kierkegaard and does so, in ways I can't fully capture here without even more extensive quoting, by illustrating (intentionally or not) Kierkegaard's fundamentally pastoral concern, which I think is the real point of view of the authorship, and surprisingly the basis of modern existentialism (and undoubtedly why I find so much value in Sartre and Camus, though still not so much in Heidegger.  I consider this a failing I may overcome one day).

All quoted material, except Rorty, from Merold Westphal, "The Transparent Shadow:  Kierkegaard and Levinas in Dialogue."  Kierkegaard in Post/Modernity, ed.  Martin J. Matustik and Merold Westphal. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1995.  pp. 265-278.  Rorty quoted from:  Richard Rorty, "Anticlericalism and Atheism."  The Future of Religion, ed. Santiago Zabala.  New York:  Columbia University Press, 2005, p. 30.

Sauce for the Goose

Via Charlie Pierce, who is rightly concerned for the state of mind of Clio, Muse of History, we learn that:

“Socrates trained Plato in on a rock and then Plato trained in Aristotle roughly speaking on a rock. So, huge funding is not necessary to achieve the greatest minds and the greatest intellects in history.”

That is a pronouncement by a presumably educated white man who sits on the House Education and Workforce Committee, and so has the power to make his stupidity the law of the land.

I am waiting for all educated white men in America to rise up en masse and denounce this stupidity and make it stop.  Until that happens, they are all to be held accountable for this kind of clap-trap resounding in the halls of our Congress.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Bonfire of the Inanities

Can you spot the exotic person in this picture?

I have something else in the oven, but oh, what the hell?

Worse, the Prayer Breakfast’s past keynote speakers have included a roster of obscurantist scoundrels, among them Mother Teresa (once denounced by Christopher Hitchens as a “thieving, fanatical Albanian dwarf” for the multifarious, entirely non-beatific controversies bespattering her long career); the evolution-denying, gay-marriage naysayer Dr. Ben Carson, who may seek the Republican nomination for 2016; and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the sanctimonious “poodle” enabler of Bush’s Iraq War. Actually, not all breakfasters are scoundrels: the Dalai Lama was there this time, and even Jordan’s King Abdullah has visited, thus reminding us that the plague of religion in American public life can be exotic and multi-confessionary.
Hadn't seen that description of Mother Teresa before; but as we will learn, Mr. Tayler has a First Amendment right to be obnoxious and juvenile.   Nice to see even the Dalai Lama is a reminder of "the plague of religion in American public life," and that he's exotic, too!  Edward Said would have had a field day with such "orientalism."  But Tayler would probably consider Said "exotic," too. And I'm not sure I'd consider Buddhism a confessional faith, but never mind.  That's the mildest part of this idiocy.

What, some might ask, could be wrong with prayer? By common definition, prayer entails someone sitting for a quiet moment and beseeching his or her Lord for intervention in matters of grave import – that it rain on the crops or souls be saved, that gays be “healed” or atheists “see the light,” and so on. In objective terms, however, the supplicant is demanding improbable favors from an imaginary despot, and most likely doing so with lowered head and genuflections and other toadying gestures of obeisance — behavior that without faith’s halo would be classified as symptoms of mental derangement. (And all the more so if the petitioner claims to receive answers to the muttered incantations.) This debasing ritual, fruitless and foolish though it may be, is at least usually peaceful, but in some cases (notably in certain corners of the Middle East), rioting and rampaging follow, especially on Friday afternoons, when imams may deliver sermons exciting crowds to fury and frenzy. What’s not to like?

Res ipsa loquitor, as the lawyers say.  And I'm not really sure that identifies either the practice of Christian prayer, or the use of Tibetan Buddhist prayer wheels, just to name two.

Do I really have to explain how benighted this kind of ranting is?  But it turns out the real problem with religion is it's "inutility."  No, I didn't make that word up:  Tayler did.  And still there are comments at Salon that consider this article "eloquent."  The mind reels, and not from the staggering power of Tayler's ideas; but from the sheer emptiness of thought on display:

So, Obama spoke at the Prayer Breakfast, which was bad enough, but what’s worse, not after some visiting head of state or other luminary, but a NASCAR driver, Darrell Waltrip. Subsequent to salutations offering “all praise and honor to God,” Obama paid homage to this driver, wondering if “Darrell has had the same thought as many of us have in our own lives — Jesus, take the wheel. . . . Although I hope that you kept your hands on the wheel when you were thinking that.” (Was this tacit recognition of religion’s inutility?) He voiced gratitude that the assembled could “come together in humility before the Almighty and to be reminded of what it is that we share as children of God.” He confessed that he had “sought His guidance not just in my own life but in the life of our nation.”
From there Tayler rings in the Charlie Hebdo controversy, manages to swipe at multiculturalism (the shibboleth of the right in, what was it, the '90's?), and argues that thanks to the Enlightenment we can be as rude as we wanna be ("The First Amendment contains no proviso regarding insults, let alone excluding them from its protection"; which makes no sense in context, or as an assertion about Constitutional law), and no President can tell us otherwise!  Such heights of peroration are truly inspiring; or just stupid, two conditions that often appear alike on the internet.  But remember, Tayler tells us, ya gotta respect people!

Hallowed ideologies, which is all religions are, do not deserve respect. People do. 

Unless those people are Mother Teresa; or the Dalai Lama; or Muslims, evangelicals, or anybody else Tayler thinks deserve to be insulted.  Or maybe insults are a form of respect; it's hard to tell just what Tayler means at this point.  Apparently only certain people deserve respect; the rest deserve only to go away and quit doing whatever it is Tayler doesn't like.

But it's the ending that makes raises it almost to art:

There resides a sad irony in these words. [that we should stand up for the dignity and value of every man, woman, and child]  The best first step toward a future of light and love would be for rationalists to freely espouse their nonbelief and object to locutions that further irrationality. 

And if that doesn't work, ban religion!  Because the only way to freedom is oppression of those you think dangerous in their thinking!

We might start, for example, by stating that we are not “children of God” but of the fact of evolution. (Ask any biologist if evolution is “just a theory.”) Poverty and hunger have generally been the concomitants of the God creeds that have done so much to retard human progress.

Realizing the “dignity and value of every woman, and man, and child” is impossible while cringing, cowering and murmuring superstitious gobbledygook in the hope that an invisible — let’s just say forthrightly, inexistent — being will take pity on us and toss us a scrap. 
I'll mention that to Dr. King, shall I?  And "inexistent"?  What, "non-existent" was on vacation?

President Obama, your faith is your business. You have every right to practice it, talk of it and advocate it. 

Well, apparently, it isn't, is it?  And he doesn't, does he?

But please understand: Speaking as you did at the National Prayer Breakfast, with the eyes of the country and the world upon you, does nothing more than lend credence to faith-fueled forces of reaction, both at home and abroad. With ISIS on the rampage in Iraq and Syria, Islamist violence striking the heart of Europe, and, of course, evangelicals funding much of your political opposition in the United States, the secular, Enlightenment-era civilization from which we all, believers and nonbelievers, benefit, is under threat. We’re on a slippery slope. 
Violence done in the name of responding to 9/11 or finding weapons of mass destruction had nothing to do with it?  And because faith is all about fueling violence?  Again:  seriously?

To get off it, we can start by doing one thing: telling the truth.   
Do you think Tayler would know the truth if it shook his hand?

As Charlie Pierce might say:  this is your national discourse via the Internet, America.

Cherish it.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

What We Mean When We Mean To Say Something

Judge Roy Moore as he will be portrayed in the movie....

Do I quote myself? Very well, then, I quote myself (I am small, I can barely contain a glass marble in my hand):
But I don't think that insight gives me a privileged position from which to judge other religions; or other philosophies, for that matter. I can adjudge their weaknesses for me; I cannot stand in judgment over them and declare them too infirm until they rise to the level of my preference. Yes, extremist opinions, like those of Christian white supremacists, can be rejected as inimical to human society. But from what position do I judge Islam, and it doesn't call into judgment my own Christianity?
This is kind of what I was getting at: 

The Constitution, [the Constitutional Party] claim[s], is a divine document designed only to protect the rights conferred by God, not to create “new” rights by way of jurisprudence. For all you law school graduates shaking your head as you read this, Peroutka, Moore, and their followers claim that the law schools are teaching it all wrong—that’s why they’ve created their own law schools.
Which "rights" God has conferred, and on whom, is a bit unclear to me; but that's a quibble.  This entire idea is simply nuts, especially because it is based on the argument that "everybody else is wrong!"

The latter is supposed to be the compelling argument of Christian evangelism.  It isn't: compelling, or the heart of Christian evangelism.  Indeed, I'd go so far as to argue it isn't even Christian.  That would take a bit of explanation on my part, but the argument is perfectly sound both theologically and historically.  And it isn't an argument that forces me to sit in judgment on the adherents to the ideas of the Constitutional Party.

Of course, I also don't think there's any such thing as a "divine document."  It comes from studying the scriptures too carefully, I guess.  What I read there is a document of humanity's encounter with the divine; but that doesn't make the account itself divine; only human.  All too human.

But that is as it should be, it seems to me.  Were it otherwise I would despair even more of ever hoping to understand it correctly, and learn from it wisely.

Now, I don't care for what Roy Moore has done.  If I don't judge him, I also don't approve of him.  His ideas are wrong, and his actions are wrong.  But there is no simple either/or:  he is wrong, so I am right (how many times do have I to run into that simplistic logic lately?).  But just as you aren't entitled to your own facts (well, at least until you get into a court of law, where the trier of fact decides, on behalf of the judicial system, what the facts of a case are), you also aren't entitled to your own law; or to a hare-brained interpretation of the law.

Even Roy Moore understands that:

“Effective immediately, no probate judge of the State of Alabama nor any agent or employee of any Alabama probate judge shall issue or recognize a marriage license that is inconsistent” with the Alabama Constitution or state law, the chief justice wrote in his order.
But then he said it wasn't an order, just advice:

“I think I’ve done what I can do: advise the state court probate judges that they’re not bound by any ruling of the Federal District Court,” he said.
See how quickly that "shall" turned into "just my opinion"?  It's something I've noticed about people who say they can defy the law.  Yes, there are pockets of people who declare the state has no authority over them, even as the bailiffs take them away to jail.  But the oldest defense to murder is the claim that the alleged had no sense of right and wrong at the time of the crime, and in fact thought he acted lawfully (and in self-defense).  If you know you aren't acting lawfully, however, you make excuses like Judge Moore did in that interview.  He's just rendering his legal opinion; he's not actually responsible for it!

Which, yes, sounds kind of like the Bush Administration saying they relied on legal opinions so they can't be guilty of torture, and the lawyers were only giving legal advice, so they can't be guilty of condoning torture.  And the passive voice wonders what work there is left for it anymore.....

So I don't have to judge Roy Moore to point out his legal opinions and his actions based on them are inimical to a democratic republic.  It is the weakness of his thought, the paucity of his reasoning, I examine.

Or maybe I'm just justifying my opinion, when there are far more important things in life to focus on. That's another possibility....