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

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

"Why worry about clothes?"



I picked up a copy of The Atlantic in an airport, based solely on the cover.  I used to subscribe to The Atlantic, and it's really not what it once was (what magazine is?  Even Harper's is a shade of what it was under Lapham, and Lapham's Quarterly is equal parts tendentious and insightful), but the cover article intrigued me.  Time in airports being what it is, I didn't get around to reading it, however; and then I found this:

“I voted for him, and he’s the one who’s doing this,” Minton told Mazzei. “I thought he was going to do good things. He’s not hurting the people he needs to be hurting.”
Vox is surprised by that quote; but I'm not.  I've been a lawyer, a pastor, worked for lawyers before law school, and now end my days (presumably, unless something else changes in the decades to come) a part-time English teacher.  I've seen to much of life and experienced too many people to be surprised by innate evil, or what I still think of as the original sin of selfishness (try as I might I just can't quite get rid of that bit of Christian doctrine).  Why are we so angry?  Because we can't hurt the people we need to be hurting.  Were we always like this?  What do you think the slaughter of the Native Americans and the cruelty of slavery were based on?  Christian ideals of brotherhood and sisterhood?

Get real.

On the other hand, is this everybody in America?  No, of course not.  Trump is supported by those who don't identify with Republicans so much as they identify against Democrats.  He speaks to his base when he says federal government employees are mostly Democrats (so screw them).  But, to quote James Kirk in the best of the Star Trek films, like a poor marksman he keeps missing the target.  And there's supposed to be a target, and he's supposed to be a marksman, and somebody is supposed to be hurt.  That's the only purpose of having power; at least as far as those people are concerned.

It's a rawer distillation of the notion of power than we might like, but that's just like saying 2 year old whiskey is rawer than 4 year old whiskey (I tasted the difference in Denver; trust me on the analogy, it fits).  It's still whiskey, however smoothly it goes down.  We like our power smoother.  Re-watching "Avengers:  Infinity War" (I'm on vacation for another week, I give myself a day of complete leisure), I notice how much Thanos feels burdened with power, and the need to wield it.  He convinces himself he's pursing a worthy cause, even as a spokesperson tells his victims they should rejoice that they are going to die to better the universe at large.  It's a ridiculous kind of selflessness, because it's selfishness wrapped up in a guise of altruism.  As Sally Brown (Charlie Brown's little sister) wisely noted decades ago, everybody talks (then, anyway) about overpopulation, but no one wants to leave.  Thanos gains our sympathies because, like us, he identifies a fundamental problem, but he doesn't want to be part of the solution.  He wants to stand outside the problem, and fix it without himself being truly affected (he smiles, at the end, with what he has done, even as he tells his daughter it cost him everything.  Well, not everything, because it didn't cost him the only thing that mattered to him:  his own life).  It's the same villainy as in "Watchmen" (Netflix just put it back in rotation), only in that setting the end of the world comes through nuclear holocaust (we stopped worrying about that sometime after Vietnam, and started worrying about evil corporations running the future; now we worry about climate change.  We don't do anything about any of these evils, but we are champion worriers.).  The villain of the piece contrives a Pax Romana by slaughtering millions, not quite as Thanos does, but like Thanos he makes sure he's around to enjoy the outcome.  These villains don't necessarily hurt the people who need to be hurting, but they do hurt a lot of people and paper over the pain of the survivors (when Thanos' adopted daughter points out he slaughtered half the people on her planet, he avers that they were starving and now are nourished, because resources can support the population.  He ignores her pain as inconsequential to that material fact.).

So where are we with this, if not back to the theology of scarcity?  In the world imagined by "Watchmen" (a world not that old, considering the story is set in an "alternative" 1985), nuclear war was imminent and implacable.  Much is made in the film of the clock set to nearly midnight by scientists concerned with the end of humanity.  I remember that clock from my childhood, when the threat of nuclear war was as real and implacable as Thanos.  It was pretty much as useless a metaphor as it is declared to be by a character in the movie.  We seriously feared we would destroy ourselves by atomic war; some were sure it was inevitable, that having a weapon we couldn't not use it.  So far we haven't, and the fear of such destruction has faded (except in the "Terminator" movies, where the machines turn them on us.  We've outsourced even our self-destructive impulses.). Overpopulation didn't destroy us (yet); nuclear war didn't do it (yet); now global warming will; or so it seems.

Each of these scenarios has a common thread:  we can't live with it, and we can't live without it.  The cause, I mean.  And each shares the other common thread, of scarcity.  The arms race is obviously based on scarcity.  Trump brings it up every time he brags about how much better the military is under him, with more money (he lies that it was decimated by Obama, the better to underline the theme of scarcity).  Overpopulation was built on scarcity, too; and climate change is built on the scarcity of alternatives to fossil fuels, without which our modern industrial world collapses.  Damned if we do, damned if we don't.  Everybody wants to fix the problem, nobody wants to be part of the solution.

There isn't enough to go around; you must sacrifice.  This hurts me more than it does you, but it's for your own good.  That's practically what Thanos told his daughter, just before he threw her down to her doom so he could gain ultimate power over life (it's always about destruction; nobody ever gains the power to create; that's a theological issue, too).  We are each our own Thanos, in our way; or maybe that's just me.  Original sin is a tricky concept when you try to generalize it to others; you end up trying to leave yourself out of it.

The theology of scarcity teaches us that there isn't enough, and that we must try to do something about that.  It's the fundamental basis of villainy in movies.  As the villains gain greater power the better to entertain us with the spectacle, we never imagine heroes or villains having the power to create ab initio, which is to say, the power of life.  Dr. Manhattan in "Watchmen" touched on that when he tells his ex-girlfriend that her existence is a miracle, that the causal chain that led to her existence, her particular existence, is miraculous, because he has earlier pointed out there is not a particle of difference (in the exact sense) between a living body and a corpse.  But there is, of course, and while that difference is as everyday as sunrise, it is still unexplained an inexplicable and while we may give fictional heroes the power to reverse time, we never imagine the power to create ex nihilo.  Villains can destroy, heroes can repair, or even reverse, destruction; but they cannot create life.  Even Dr. Manhattan can only manipulate matter, nothing more.  He is as destructive as the villain of the piece.  But he is not creative; not even in the generative sense.

So it's understandable we think in terms of scarcity; but what if we try to go beyond that?  If scarcity is all there is, then we are the most miserable of creatures, because no other living being seems aware of the terror of want on a scale that will affect even us (we don't fear want for others who face it every day).  But even if the only options open to us are manipulation of matter or destruction of life (reproduction is just continuing life, and even that we think we have polluted, if only because we cannot imagine our "good life" continuing for our children), does that mean we are doomed to scarcity?

Or is there another way to see it all?

Take a look at the birds of the sky; they don't plant or harvest, or gather into barns.  Yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  You're worth more than they are, aren't you?....Notice how the wild lilies grow; they don't slave and they never spin.  Yet let me tell you, even Solomon at the height of his glory was never decked out like one of them.  If God dresses up the grass in the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into an oven, won't {God care for} you even more, you who don't take anything for granted?

Matthew 6:26-30, SV

(That Atlantic article?  Yeah, I'll get back to that.  It ties in with this, so it will come up again.)

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