Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ash Wednesday 2009

ASHES, ashes, all fall down. How could I have forgotten? Didn't I see the heavens wiped shut just yesterday, on the road walking? Didn't I fall from the dark of the stars to these senselit and noisome days? The great ridged granite millstone of time is illusion, for only the good is real; the great ridged granite millstone of space is illusion, for God is spirit and worlds his flimsiest dreams: but the illusions are almost perfect, are apparently perfect for generations on end, and the pain is also, and undeniably, real. The pain within the mill-stones' pitiless turning is real, for our love for each other-for the world and all the products of extension-is real, vaulting, insofar as it is love, beyond the plane of the stones' sickening churn and arcing to the realm of spirit bare. And you can get caught holding one end of a love, when your father drops, and your mother; when a land is lost, or a time, and your friend blotted out, gone, your brother's body spoiled, and cold, your infant dead, and you dying: you reel out love's long line alone, stripped like a live wire loosing its sparks to a cloud, like a live wire loosed in space to longing and grief everlasting.--Annie Dillard
Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem revertis.
Remember, human, that you are dust, and to dust you will return.--Genesis 3:19

Upon the Image of Death
By Robert Southwell

Before my face the picture hangs
That daily should put me in mind
Of those cold names and bitter pangs
That shortly I am like to find ;
But yet, alas, full little I
Do think hereon that I must die.

I often look upon a face
Most ugly, grisly, bare, and thin ;
I often view the hollow place
Where eyes and nose had sometimes been ;
I see the bones across that lie,
Yet little think that I must die.

I read the label underneath,
That telleth me whereto I must ;
I see the sentence eke that saith
Remember, man, that thou art dust!
But yet, alas, but seldom I
Do think indeed that I must die.

Continually at my bed's head
A hearse doth hang, which doth me tell
That I ere morning may be dead,
Though now I feel myself full well ;
But yet, alas, for all this, I
Have little mind that I must die.

The gown which I do use to wear,
The knife wherewith I cut my meat,
And eke that old and ancient chair
Which is my only usual seat,—
All these do tell me I must die,
And yet my life amend not I.

My ancestors are turned to clay,
And many of my mates are gone ;
My youngers daily drop away,
And can I think to 'scape alone?
No, no, I know that I must die,
And yet my life amend not I.

Not Solomon for all his wit,
Nor Samson, though he were so strong,
No king nor person ever yet
Could 'scape but death laid him along ;
Wherefore I know that I must die,
And yet my life amend not I.

Though all the East did quake to hear
Of Alexander's dreadful name,
And all the West did likewise fear
To hear of Julius Cæsar's fame,
Yet both by death in dust now lie ;
Who then can 'scape but he must die?

If none can 'scape death's dreadful dart,
If rich and poor his beck obey,
If strong, if wise, if all do smart,
Then I to 'scape shall have no way.
Oh, grant me grace, O God, that I
My life may mend, sith I must die.

On Death:

Historian Philippe Ariès reminds us that death was a part of life. Medieval and early modern romances, chronicles and memoirs speak with one voice: when death knocked, the door was opened and the visitor was welcomed in remarkably similar ways.

Organization was essential. The dying person was responsible for the proper execution of his final exit. The doctor's principal task was not to delay death, but to guarantee that it was welcomed properly. And, indeed, the doctor wasn't alone. Family and friends gathered for the ceremony and the doctor was simply a face in the crowd. One and all understood their roles and the lesson that was imparted: they, too, would eventually be called.

The intimate relationship between life and death unfolded in unexpected places. The medieval and early modern cemetery was no less public place than the deathbed. For centuries, the activities we associate with the marketplace commonly took place in cemeteries, amongst the tombs and charnel houses. Merchants and scribes, musicians and dancers, jugglers and actors and, gamblers and the like sought to make a living in the company of the dead. When Hamlet clowns about with Yorick's skull, he's exceptional only in the fluency of his language.

By the late eighteenth century, language and attitudes began to change. Public authorities tried to stop profane activities in the newly redefined sacred spaces like the cemetery. At the same time, doctors began to sound the way they do today: the crowd of family and friends around the deathbed, they complained, complicated the job of attending to their patients.

Death thus got away from the dying person; it became the responsibility of others. It is only recently, with the rise of the hospice movement, that we're reminded of the ways in which we formerly responded to death. The recognition of death's finality, the planning for its arrival, the gathering of family and the redefinition of the physician's task: rather than confronting a brave new world, we seem to be returning to a simpler and older world. Ariès called this older understanding "tamed death." According to him,

the old attitude in which death was both familiar and near, evoking no great fear or awe, [is in] marked a contrast to ours, where death is so frightful that we dare not utter its name. I do not mean that death had once been wild and [is no longer], I mean, on the contrary, that today it has become wild.
And death has, in part, grown wild through the very tools with which medical science tries to domesticate it: an irony that would not be lost on Hamlet's creator.
The church year is meant to recognize all aspects of life. Why should we not also recognize death?

DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell'st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.--John Donne

THE cross, with which the ashes are traced upon us, is the sign of Christ's victory over death. The words "Remember that thou art dust and that to dust thou shall return" are not to be taken as the quasi-form of a kind of "sacrament of death" (as if such a thing were possible). It might be good stoicism to receive a mere reminder of our condemnation to die, but it is not Christianity.--Thomas Merton

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Shrove Tuesday in the Test Kitchen

The day my daughter was born (which no, was not Mardi Gras), I left my Lovely Wife in the bliss of an epidural and, with her blessing, went out for breakfast (we'd arrive at the hospital in the middle of the night, and it was now breakfast time). I went down the street to the Kerbey Lane Cafe in Austin and had my favorite dish there, gingerbread pancakes.

Today, thinking about that, I want looking for the recipe and, lo and behold! found it. Tonight I made a batch; and they were just like I remembered.

I'd have put this up earlier, but I had to be sure they were good. I cannot recommend them highly enough.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Here We Go Again

PeWi sends me this link in comments below. My response is that ignorance is not a defense:

Blakemore establishes straw men (the important issues of religion are the "existence" of God; without ever addressing the phenomenological questions of how 'existence' is defined. Or establishing that the only concern of the religious is whether or not God exists. How long, O Lord, how long? Oh, and religion "explains" the world, except now science does. Which is crap on so many levels I want to send him back to pre-war Cambridge and set him down in Wittgenstein's lectures for a few more lessons on philosophy, epistemology, and hermeneutics. I don't know where else to start with such nonsense. Or such ignorance.)

He presents empiricism and positivism that would embarass Hume and Russell, and yet he thinks he's got "religion" (as he poorly and ignorantly defines it) on the ropes. Feh. Sez Blakemore:

I'm dubious about those "why" questions: why are we here? Why do we have a sense of right and wrong? Either they make no sense or they can be recast as the kind of "how" questions that science answers so well.
Well, of course they can. They're called reductio ad absurdum, and it's considered a logical fallacy.

I'm guessing logic wasn't really a course in med school, though. And ignorance of the subject makes you an expert in it. Well, after all, his only authority in the whole column is Richard Dawkins. With that kind of scholarship, what else can you expect?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Lost Among the Stars

The concept of interpretation is all here: there is no experience of truth that is not interpretative. I do not know anything that does not interest me. If it does interest me, it is evident that I do not look at it in an uninterested way.
Gianni Vattimo, "Toward a Nonreligious Christianity," After the Death of God, ed. Jeffrey W. Robbins (New York: Columbia University Press 2007)

I've been pondering this post for too long, now. I'm putting it out in what may well be an only partially-edited form; so I may come back to it, or just start over again with more thoughts as I find time to write them. Initially I started out simply responding to some of Rorty's essay, which is still the main thesis here. Later, I began to put it in a larger and larger context, including some thoughts on philosophy of religion by Tillich, and in the more or less contemporary debate on Christianity (not really religion) v. atheism. I had one purpose for the Vattimo quote, above, originally. I meant to place it in relationship to the Rorty quote, and explication of that quote, just below. But more and more I look at the Vattimo quote in light of my thoughts on atheism, and the argument that atheism needs Christianity (not religion more generally) in order to exist; that atheism as it is broadly practiced (by Dawkins, or Hitchens, or Harris, or even Pharyngula) is merely and solely anti-Christianity, especially Christianity as they choose to define it. But I'm not interested in debating and identifying still more straw-man arguments; as the Vattimo quote directs me, it's more a question of interpretation. Atheists, it seems to me, are consumed with interpretations of Christianity which they may then denigrate with their "objective" examination. But, of course, if I am not interested in a subject, I have no interpretation of it (I, for example, have no interpretation of fields of science which are probably critical to, at least, my technological existence); and if I am, how can I say my interpretation is objective, and yours is not?

Perhaps I am getting ahead of myself, though. This began with reading Rorty in an essay about religious belief (as he defines it), and atheism, and interpretatation (heremeneutics) and knowledge (epistemology):

I can summarize the line of thought that Vattimo and I are pursuing as follows: The battle between religion and science conducted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was a contest between institutions, both of which claimed cultural supremacy. It was a good thing for both religion and science that science won that battle. For truth and knowledge are a matter of social cooperation, and science gives us the means to carry out better cooperative social projects than before. If social cooperation is what you want, the conjunction of science and the common sense of your day is all you need. But if you want something else, then a religion that has been taken out of the epistemic arena, a religion that finds the question of theism versus atheism uninteresting, may be just what suits your solitude.
--Richard Rorty, "Anticlericalism and Atheism," The Future of Religion, ed. Santiago Zabala (New York: Columbia University Press 2005), 39.

Rorty is not referring to that particular passage quote from Vattimo; but the quote summarizes nicely Vattimo's hermeneutic, and hermeneutics, or the principle of interpretation, will ultimately be the topic here. This is a concept that sparks no little debate, since while Vattimo's observation ties in with Rorty's pragmatism (as we'll see), and both seem to tie into Kuhn's idea of paradigms, many philosophers of science still insist Kuhn doesn't mean what Vattimo and Rorty mean. And I come to insist neither of them are right about religion or theology, either.

Are we having fun yet?

First, to put the Vattimo quote in context, it's preceded by this:
Heidegger also realized that the scientific claim of inspired from a determined interest: for example, to describe a natural phenomenon in a way that others could also speak of it in the same way and develop this self-same knowledge of the world does not function as a mirror. Instead, there is a world and someone who is "in the world," which means someone who orients himself in and to the world, someone who uses his own capacities of knowledge, hence someone who chooses, reorganizes, replaces, represents, etc.
Vattimo takes this insight about objectivity back to Heidegger, but I would take it back to Kierkegaard, as regards our relationship to truth (the broader point) and point out Kierkegaard learned the truth of subjectivity from Augustine. Not exactly Godel-Escher-Bach, but another eternal golden braid anyway. And the connection to Rorty? One of his most famous books critiquing the generally accepted notion of objectivity is: Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. There may or may not be a spoon in the Matrix, but Rorty is quite sure there is no mirror of humanity in nature.

But both Rorty and Vattimo are addressing issues in philosophy of religion: Vattimo is addressing certainty and interpretation, Rorty (in the essay quoted) the existence of God and the existence of religion. The problem with philosophy of religion is that all philosophers imagine they can be philosophers of religion, too. After all, in Western culture, we're all experts on religion, right? The other problem is that none of them imagine theology has anything to contribute to the conversation, nor that they have any need to know what theologians think. In other words: where to start with how wrong this is? Well, let's start at the end and work our way backwards.

Fundamentalists still get mightily exercised about atheism, which itself seems to get mightily exercised about the question of the existence of God. Rorty, an atheist himself, distinguishes this commonly understood defining attribute of atheism from what he preferred to think of as his own position, which he called "anticlericalism:"

...anticlericalism is a political view [!], not an epistemological one or metaphysical one. It is the view that ecclesiastical institutions, despite all the good they do--despite all the comfort they provide to those in need or despair--are dangerous to the health of democratic societies.* Whereas the philosophers who claim that atheism, unlike theism, is backed up by evidence would say that religious belief is irrational, contemporary secularists like myself are content to say that it is politically dangerous. On our view, religion is unobjectionable as long as it is privatized--as long as ecclesiastical institutions do not attempt to rally the faithful behind political proposals and as long as believers and unbelievers agree to follow a policy of live and let live. (p. 33
*Rorty provides a footnote at this point which reads (without the citations):

Of course, we anticlericalists who are also leftists in politics have a further reason for hoping that institutionalized religion will eventually disappear. We think otherworldliness dangerous because, as John Dewey puts it, "Men have never fully used the powers they possess to advance the good life, because they have waited upon some power external to themselves and to nature to do the work they are responsible for doing." (p. 41).
Yeah, that sums up Reinhold Niebuhr and Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King in a nutshell, don't it? Should I point out the example of Cotton Mather, whose slave taught him about smallpox vaccinations long before Pasteur? Should I mention the Congregationalists who helped the slaves on the Amistad win their freedom, and sparked the Abolitionist movement? Sure, there are a lot of errors laid on religious believers entering the political sphere, with our without institutional support; but the very idea that religion in politics is bad is, well....a bad idea. A foolish one, at best. An ignorant one, even. One expects better of someone like Rorty.

As I say, fundamentalists get very worked up about the issue of God's existence, but I know of few other religious thinkers, theologians, pastors, or Christian laypeople who do. It's just not a "live option," as William James (another American pragmatist) would say. So if that's the kind of religion you value, well: don't bother to send in the clowns, they're here.

The fundamental problem here is identifying the subject by the margins, the fringes, the boundaries: by discerning what you don't know, and considering that positive knowledge of the ding an sich. The via negativa may work well in theology where the nature of God is actually considered (and where percipi is neither esse nor nature existence), but it applies because it posits subject which is but which cannot, by definition, be known. Rather like a human being in that way, if we were wholly honest about our relationships and how "other" even the most intimate people in our lives remain to us. But the via negativa doesn't work as a way of discerning what can be known. And that's the problem with philosophy of religion, and with those who think philosophy of religion only requires a few opinions about a few public topics such as atheism, fundamentalism, and religion.

Even Rorty's distinction between atheism and anticlericalism is a distinction without a difference. Atheism, at least as he defines it, is aimed at eradicating religion by denying the basic tenet of that religion. Anticlericalsm aims at being more tolerant, but this is merely intolerance in the name of tolerance: I will tolerate your religious beliefs, so long as you go away and take them with you, and never let me hear of them again, because they bother me! Rorty justifies this by following (ironically!) the dualism of Augustine (in which the world is neatly divided into either/or), and dividing the world into the realm of the polis (where everyone must agree with everyone else on what is important, and we must all use the same basis for that agreement) and the private (where you are free to believe any damn fool notion you like!). Apparently the public gathering of believers which constitutes the ecclesia of Christianity (to limit ourselves to only one religion out of the world's religions) is either private within Rorty's sense, or is public but can be treated as private so long as it minds its place and stays out of the realm of the polis altogether. The polis seems to be the only proper public sphere (no surprise there!) in Rorty's scheme. All other public institutions are merely subservient to it (schools, government, etc.) or irrelevant to it (social institutions, charities, religious institutions, to name a few).

In other words, Rorty's ideal polis is quite happy to tolerate the other, so long as that other is not too wholly other, because then the polis brings on the righteous smackdown and drives the other into seclusion, where all un-like minded beings belong. Can't have people being unmutual, you know, especially over something so irrational, or, in Rorty's terms, unmusical. Religion, Rorty argues, is like philosophy: not everybody "gets it." So just as we wouldn't foist music on those with no talent for it, or philosophy on those who find it pointless, neither can we allow religion to have a hallowed place in the polis; or a place at all. We can't all be religious, but we can all be reasonable (which is neither a philosophy nor a philosophical stance, so don't get smart with me! Er, with Rorty, I mean.). As long, of course, as we are all reasonable in the same way. Because the minute you aren't reasonable with me, well, then you're unreasonable, and then you are outta here, buddy!

Which still doesn't explain what we do with Reinhold Niebuhr, or Dorothy Day, or the Rev. Dr. King; but it takes care of James Dobson (who isn't part of any institutional religion) or Pat Robertson (ditto), or Rick Warren (finally, someone in an "institution"!), so it's all for the best. Right? Nor does it explain why only one definition of "reasonable" gets to hold sway for all of humanity. I suppose the answer is the same as to why there is only one definition of "religion" in the world, and that is Rorty's, derived from some understanding of Western culture and some of the religious beliefs which have constituted it.

In this essay Rorty references Derrida, but does so to his detriment. Derrida acknowledged the multiplicity of religions in the world. He understood Christianity was only one among many, and Western Christianity only a part of world-wide Christianity, and all the American variants only sects among those, and all those variants not wholly United State of American (there is Central and South America, with even more variants there). But let's take Rorty seriously a moment, and see precisely where science has allowed us to carry out "better cooperative social projects than before." Certainly technology has advanced human comfort as never before, at least in certain countries. Turns out other countries have to sacrifice in order for some countries to advance. The colonialization of Africa, Asia, and the Americas by Europe didn't lead only to unstable and fractious nations on all three continents, and to the current turmoil in the Middle East. The exploitation of those countries continues unabated to this day. Our "better cooperative social projects" come at "their" expense, but that's better...for us, at least.

And that brings us back to Derrida, who spoke of the West's globalatinization, with all the Roman hegemony the word implies. As Derrida notes, to speak of "religion," of religio, is already to speak Latin, to force the world into one tongue and hammer human existence across the globe into one mold. Derrida links globalatinization to what he labels tele-technoscience, by which me means the use of scientia and technos via tele-technology such as television and, now, the Internet. Derrida was writing in the late '90s', but he proves oddly prescient a decade later:

Prominent British Muslims are being recruited to star in a government-backed advertising campaign aimed at preventing people in Pakistan from engaging in extremist activity, the Guardian has learned.

The three-month public relations offensive, called I Am the West, consists of television commercials and high-profile events in regions such as Peshawar and Mirpur. It is being funded by the Foreign Office which is paying up to £400,000 for a pilot project.
The idea here, of course, is to approach Muslims and try to "reason" with them. But it is also to get them to accept the hegemony of the West, if only because it asks the Muslims, not the "West," to change. Which is not to critique the effort so much as to point out that, as the French say: the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Derrida at least recognizes the world; Rorty seems uaware of religion in America except as he sees it in passing, or on television. And yet, steeped in the culture, he is an expert, no?

Keeping the church out of politics can cut both ways, too.

Truth and knowledge are, indeed, matters of social cooperation, but societies are not merely closed circles with no connection to or interaction with other societies; and science is not the only source of truth, knowledge, or social cooperation. There is also the question of ethics (at least), which is why a philosophical system like utilitarianism, which is usually associated with the "dismal science" of economics, or merely with the "scientific" evaluation of value based on what works best for the majority, is actually first and foremost an ethical system. (And because it is an ethical system, Rawls's critique of it tries to correct it on largely ethical grounds.) Ethics determines truth and knowledge, too, because it determines value. Hume's distinction between synthetic and analytic knowledge divided what we can know into the obvious ("This stone is heavy") but unimportant, and the debatable ("This goal is good"), Hume concluded we can't say anything useful (well, philosophically useful) about either category, but we still need those categories, even if neither leads us to truth. We may abandon metaphysics, and so abandon any notion of "eternal" truth; but there are still truths valued by a society, truths which we must acknowledge in order to have any social cooperation at all, then those truths will not arise solely from a scientific context. Otherwise Oliver Wendell Holmes is right, and "Three generations of imbeciles is enough!" Holmes' sentiment is not offensive simply because it is scientifically unsound. After all, despite The Mismeasure of Man, and other re-considerations of "IQ" and how we measure intelligence in animals or humans, despite removing "Idiot" and "Imbecile" from our legal lexicon (Holmes was speaking technically, not pejoratively), we still cling to ideas that are unsound or unappealing, and their lack of appeal or soundness is not solely because of social cooperation or how science regards them. Holmes’ opinion, rather, is offensive because it offends our moral sense (if not our ethical one). What has changed between Holmes’ day and our own could be said to be our sense of ethics about the treatment of the class of persons concerned in that case; but that reconsideration of the value of the individual is more arguably a moral, rather than an ethical, shift. And a moral shift presupposes precisely the metaphysics that both Rorty and Vattimo start out by rejecting (i.e., we should all be treated equally; and what is the source of that equality? I don't believe it is the "original position," which is only an intellectual exercise, anyway).*

Which is less an argument for the validity of metaphysics, than it is an object lesson in trying to throw out the bathwater without tossing the baby with it. It may seem sound theory to reject metaphysics once and for all, but just as Heidegger can't talk about Being in concrete terms and becomes more apparently metaphysical as he tries to be less so, neither can Rorty or Vattimo reject metaphysics or even institutional religion, without presuming a remnant of both to serve other purposes they cannot do without. Anymore than Rorty’s refinement of atheism (“anticlericalism”) can do without institutional Christianity.

I’m still not sure what to make of these attempts to remove something that cannot be removed, especially when without it, the position you espouse would be eradicated as well. As Tillich writes:

Both the theological and the scientific critics of the belief that religion is an aspect of the human spirit define religion as man’s relation to divine beings, whose existence the theological critics assert and the scientific critics deny. But it is just this idea of religion which makes any understanding of religion impossible. If you start with the question whether God does or does not exist, you can never reach Him; and if you assert that He does not exist, you can reach Him even less than if you assert that He does not exist. A God about whose existence or non-existence you can argue is a thing beside others within the universe of existing things. And the question is justified whether such a thing does exist, and the answer is equally justified that it does not exist. It is regrettable that scientists believe that they have refuted religion when they rightly have shown that there is no evidence whatsoever for the assumption that such a being exists. Actually, they have not only not refuted religion, but they have done it a considerable service. They have forced it to reconsider and to restate the meaning of the tremendous word “God.” Unfortunately, many theologians make the same mistake. They begin their message with the assertion that there is a highest being called God, whose authoritative revelations they have received. They are more dangerous for religion than the so-called atheistic scientists. They take the first step on the road which inescapably leads to what is called atheism. Theologians who make of God a highest being who has given some people information about Himself, provoke inescapably the resistance of those who are told they must subject themselves to the authority of this information.
Paul Tillich, Theology of Culture, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959), pp. 4-5.

Precisely so.

Wait a minute! Maybe I should be thanking Rorty for his service, instead of criticizing him. Hmmmm…..

*on the other hand, there is nothing essentially metaphysical in the ethic proposed by Jesus in the gospels: make the first last, and the last first, and make the highest goal to be last of all and servant of all. It's a very practical, very "this-worldly" ethic, and it's only appeal to God is for model, not authority ("God makes the rain fall on the just and the unjust alike.") So it isn't even that an appeal to metaphysics is necessary in Christian ethics. The issue of discarding it, in the context of a discussion of religion, is aimed at discarding the deity; which is the aim of atheism: to discard Christianity. Which is less a problem for Christianity, than it is for atheism. Once you catch that car, what are you gonna do with it?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

How Long, O Lord, How Long?

Scott Horton says:

[The] account [of what Army Private Brandon Neely, who served as a prison guard at Guantánamo in the first years the facility was in operation, saw and did there] demonstrates once more how much the Bush team kept secret and how little we still know about their comprehensive program of official cruelty and torture.
Actually, we know quite a bit about it.

The question is: when are are we going to believe it?

Friday, February 13, 2009

"If there when Grace dances, I should dance. "--W.H.Auden

What's good about this is not the story itself, but the backstory around it:

In what legislators are calling a first, one-fifth of the Oklahoma House voted Feb. 11 to strike from the record a prayer offered on the chamber floor by the Rev. Scott H. Jones, pastor of Cathedral of Hope UCC-Oklahoma City. Jones had been invited to deliver the prayer and serve as chaplain for the day by Rep. Al McAffrey, D-Oklahoma City.
If, like me, you were a member of the South Central Conference of the UCC, the name "Cathedral of Hope" would be the tip-off to what is to come, or at least make you wonder: "Is there a connection...?"

And it turns out, there is:

Cathedral of Hope UCC-Oklahoma City began in 2000 as a church plant of Cathedral of Hope UCC in Dallas. In January 2007, they became a fully autonomous congregation within the United Church of Christ.
Cathedral of Hope in Dallas is actively seeking to start new congregations wherever it can. As an "Open and Affirming" Church (i.e., one that doesn't just passively tolerate gays and lesbians, but openly accepts and embraces them in all areas of church life), that's the kind of church they want to establish.

Now, the funny part is, the first "Cathedral of Hope" is in Dallas. Not only is it liturgical in practice (a great plus in the eyes of yours truly), it's thriving in one of the most conservative Christian towns in Texas. Dallas was home to the church of W.A. Criswell, the man who inspired Rick Warren to enter the ministry. It was home to Robert Tilton when he was still shilling for the Lord. It was as conservative and anti-gay as any town could publicly be.

And now it is home to one of the healthiest and most openly-gay, and most liberal, churches in Texas. And that church has "planted" a church in Oklahoma. Now, OKCity ain't exactly Tulsa (home to Oral Roberts University), and I imagine, being the capitol city, it's probably regarded by some Oklahoma legislators the way Austin is by some Texas legislators: as a hotbed of pointy-heads and dreaded "libruls." So this legislative vote is neither here nor there to me; it's simply to be expected.

What's wonderful is that, in places where you'd least expect it, among people where you'd least expect it, you see glimpses of the basileia tou theou, of the open table where all are welcome to eat and drink and enjoy the bread and wine. Komm, Schopfer Geist!

Dance ye all.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

In Which I Take A Lovely, Simple Parable...

...and beat it into the ground.

I'm stealing from Street Prophets again, but at least I'm giving them credit.

Start here:

Stories abound of the gender imbalance at the various Sojourner/Call to Renewal and Tikkun conferences. Boys play with boys to audiences that are overwhelming female. They just don’t get it. They put a few token women on the program at the last moment but keeping the planning close to the leader’s vest. Endlessly long male keynote sermons promoting each other, and excessive pruning and posturing by the alpha males is the new liturgy. It is a wonder women don’t get up, rip off our clothes, and streak down the aisle.

A Match Made in Heaven

And then we get to 2004. Democrats need religion. Progressive religionists need a party. A match made in heaven. But where were the women? Not nonexistent, but few and far between—and not in leadership. Press conferences with four or five men. Sometimes one woman snuck in, usually a nun (less threatening). Yes, a few women broke through—very good women, like Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite and Joan Chittister. They are carefully selected for their geniality, their good humor—because women, unlike men, can’t be too ambitious; they can’t have an agenda.

And there is little evidence that the agenda of the religious center left has been influenced these past five years by religious feminism. If anything, it has moved further and further from feminism as it has gotten greater recognition within the Democratic Party, as it has become, in effect, the state religion. The issue list for center-left religion is anti-Modern: nothing about violence against women, personal freedom, civil liberties—and certainly nothing about reproduction. It treats contraception as the same controversial issue as does the right and its starting point on abortion is that it is sinful and wrong. In fact, it is based on outmoded religious thinking about good and evil. Moreover, one mustn’t offend the Catholic Church or the evangelicals—but nobody gives a hoot about offending women.
Now, I'm familiar with these sentiments, and sympathetic to them, because I learned them, and of them, in seminary. If I never raise them here it's because, well, it's not my bailiwick. I could no more raise and argue feminist theology and biblical interpretation than I could raise issue of black liberation theology. I can agree with them, but it's presumptuous (at least) for me to engage them as if they were my own.

Still, seems to me this is the money quote:

None of this disturbs the Democratic Party, whose leaders have no real commitment to advancing democracy in religion. Religion is another interest group, and centrist interest groups are best for the party. The kind of religion that feminists are trying to build does not help get votes. The Democratic Party and every candidate that wants a religious leader standing next to them wants a religious leader that comes out of central casting: male, preferable with a collar (even if it cuts off oxygen to the brain). No feminist theologians or gay rabbis need apply. No one who is giving the power structure a hard time. Instead we have mutual sanctification of the status quo. Women are shoved out of the bully pulpit just as we began our climb up the steps to the altar.
Pardon me, but: duh! Politics is relentlessly political, which means it is unfailingly amoral (the point, I'll say again, of Niebuhr's assault on the Social Gospel in Moral Man and Immoral Society, and the reason his brother Richard despaired of the thesis of that book. Richard, needless to say, saw it from the point of view of a Christian ethicist; and Richard was right.) And I think, honestly, that Frances Kissling understands this:

Perhaps there is something to be learned from the transition of the Obama campaign to the Obama presidency. The campaign talked about fundamental change, change many read as social transformation. The presidency now demonstrates the difficulty of making change from the center, from the position of power. Obama will do good; many aspects of justice-seeking will be better. But social transformation, real change in power and privilege, never happens at the center; it occurs at the margins. It is the prophet crying in the wilderness, the troublemakers, the noisy annoying widows who bring about social transformation—not the Cardinal Richelieus.
Which is not to say she understands it the way I do. But she is right; change comes from the margins precisely because the margins are where the 'other' is encountered. Permit me a metaphor from bread baking.

When my bread dough is being scrapped around the bowl while wrapped around the dough hook, as I add flour the dough first seems to reject the flour, then absorbs it, dries on the surface, then becomes wet again. Where does the moisture come from? The inside. The dry flour is drawn in, the moisture is displaced out, more flour is added, and the cycle continues until you reach the point you want to reach. Same thing works with dry bread dough: add water, it's absorbed, and soon the surface is dry again. Keep adding, until you reach the status you want.

What is at the center is stabilized; what is at the margins brings change. Social groups, unlike bread dough, of course never reach stasis. But change clearly comes from outside, from the boundary where the mass encounters the new condition, and adjusts to it; and that change moves inward, until the whole batch of dough is renewed, is moved closer to the telos.

Kind of like the yeast of the kingdom that leavens the whole dough. And never forget, in that parable, that the yeast mentioned there is seen as a source of decay, of rot, of impurity. Quite a shocking parable about the basiliea tou ouranon when unleavened bread is pure, untainted by the gaseous decay of yeast that yields the risen, but impure, but daily, loaf.

The yeast makes better bread; but it does so by always and ever being yeast. By being the minority, not the majority (that'd be the flour), not the power (yeast alone will never make bread, but plenty of bread is made without yeast), but still the reason it's better, and best served fresh, daily.

Of course, those who give the power structure a hard time are never going to be welcomed by those who are the power structure. Just as the image of the woman doing the daily work of making the family's yeast-risen bread is never going to be the accepted image of the basiliea tou ouranon. It's just too common a picture of something we are sure should be uncommon, special, even, well..exclusive and, dare we say, elite? Because otherwise it's just quotidian; and it might even involve, well...everyone! Sort of like the people invited to come to the table and share the wine and the bread.....

Have I beaten that metaphor into the ground, yet?

Monday, February 09, 2009

Blessed are...

Here's an interesting problem:

“As hard as it is to believe, bankers who are living on the Upper East Side making $2 or $3 million a year have set up a life for themselves in which they are also at zero at the end of the year with credit cards and mortgage bills that are inescapable,” said Holly Peterson, the author of an Upper East Side novel of manners, “The Manny,” and the daughter of Peter G. Peterson, a founder of the equity firm the Blackstone Group. “Five hundred thousand dollars means taking their kids out of private school and selling their home in a fire sale.”
You can read the rest of the article to find out just why this happens; how all the average expenditures add up to more than one brings in. It seems familiar to anyone trying to maintain a middle class life style, even if it takes 123,000 in Manhattan to buy what $50,000 buys in Houston. But what explains this? Fortunately, Candace Bushnell explains it all for you:

“People inherently understand that if they are going to get ahead in whatever corporate culture they are involved in, they need to take on the appurtenances of what defines that culture,” she said. “So if you are in a culture where spending a lot of money is a sign of success, it’s like the same thing that goes back to high school peer pressure. It’s about fitting in.”
So you need those appurtenances whether you can afford them or not. How sad is it that, even at the top of the world's economic ladder, nothing changes? Not that one really expects it to, sad, anyway.

This is why Jesus didn't speak of the poor, he spoke of the ptochoi, the destitute, those without anything, or any hope of having anything. The beggars, the prostitutes, the devastated and stepped on. this is why he ended the parable of the unjust servant talking about making friends of the children of this world, so they can welcome you into the eternal homes. Isn't that what money and power and status are supposed to buy? Not the appurtenances, but the reality itself? And if that fails, what replaces it? And just how real are those appurtenances, anyway?

Just like a preacher, makin' an object lesson out of everything, ain't it?

Friday, February 06, 2009

Down by the riverside

Pastor Dan, the Minister most Sinister, points me to this:

But what he misses in his plea for hard-edged debate is what I take to be the real purpose of this exercise, at least so far as some of the engaged progressives are concerned. With Thomas Frank, they see the culture wars as a massive means of distracting conservative church-goers from voting in their economic self-interest, and believe that if they can just create enough of a DMZ between the two sides, then there will be no problem getting the rest of the progressive agenda through. And the religious right sees it the same way, which is why it's so resistant to left-deviationism (cf. Rich Cizik). So if Pastordan would just agree to sell his abortion-and-GLBT-loving soul for a mess of Third Way pottage, we'd be all set, right? How about it, Dan?
I'm not interested in the ideological wrestling match, or in whether Dan or Mark Silk are wearing the light or, silks. No, what I picked up on was the "DMZ" reference; for here my troubles began.

Not to reiterate that tedious post that, once it was up, I realized no one would want to read (I didn't, either!), but to get on to this issue of metaphors again. I'm not arguing with Silk or his use of metaphor; I come to praise it, not to bury it. Because this is the real problem, IMHO, with these discussions:

We're still arguing about who's gonna be in charge.

Wassup with that?

I mean, I see signs of denominational decline everywhere. Every mainline denomination is fighting some kind of fight over what it means and what it stands for, and more and more the fights seem irrelevant both to those in the pews, and to those who've never sat in a pew or even sung a religious song. People are losing jobs at a rate faster than anytime in 34 years (or within the lifetime of many alive and aware enough today to be reading these words), part of an economic realignment that could well be as massive and fundamental as the global warming we seem incapable of stopping. Petrodollars are destroying countries like Nigeria, just as petroleum destroys the global environment, and the threat of starvation and drought and famine looms larger as the Green Revolution plays out and climate change threatens all that economic change doesn't. And yet here we are in the American Christian community still arguing (basically) over a mess of pottage.

Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton and Dr. King would be so proud.

So you're in charge. Or I'm in charge. Or they're in charge. And this matters very, very, very much. To whom? To the children of this world, who will welcome us all into the eternal homes? To the members of the basileia tou theou, where the first are last and the last first? I know I'm just howling in the wilderness here, but wasn't this precisely the genius of the Reformation? That where we couldn't all agree, some of us could agree, and we could then go our separate ways by agreement? Which didn't solve the problem of unity ("That they may all be one," as the UCC slogan has it, from John 17:21), but then maybe the unity is in Christ, not in agreement on what Christ meant, or is, or even taught and did.

This urge for unity is not ecumenical or even ecclesial; it is purely political. Which means it is of the polis; but not of the ecclesia. Sort of like "DMZ." And "enemies." And other metaphors drawn from warfare.

Maybe I should just withdraw to a cloister. Or a pulpit would be nice; a nice, quiet pulpit. Sure ain't gonna study war no more....

Not even Kaiser Soze?

Maybe it's an incomplete list. Maybe it's intentional, an attempt to show no favoritism toward the President's former (?) denomination. But what struck me about this list is that the UCC isn't represented on it.

Of course, as the comments point out, a lot of representatives are missing from it: no Hindus, Buddhists, shamans, Native American shamans, witches, atheists, etc. There are more than a few problems with this idea, not least of which are the Constitutional issues; but those aren't the only ones, either.

But why not even a bone to the UCC, the denomination that nurtured the President's conversion from non-belief to Christianity? As Pastor Dan points out, these are the usual suspects:

So in part because it's near and dear to his heart, and in part as a reward to his moderate Evangelicals pals, whom he credits for helping him to win the White House, he keeps Bush's basic framework to keep things rolling.
Which isn't surprising: this group is about people of power, or people who want to have power. It's about denominationalism, too (the Southern Baptists are still the largest Protestant denomination in land, so far as I know). But the Southern Baptists are represented; the National Baptist Convention; Olivet Institutional Baptist Church. And yet, or rather as yet, no Methodists, Lutherans of any water, TEC Episcopalians, Presbyterians of any variety, or UCC. At least no such identified ministers, or representatives of the denominations.

Which points to many things, but points me to one in particular: the looming end of denominationalism in America. Once upon a time in this country, denominations mattered (for better or worse). But now the handwriting couldn't be clearer on the wall: it's political clout that matters, and almost absolutely nothing else.

Don't it always seem to go....?

Lord 'elp us.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

And then I'll change my elf name to "Blisters"

I promised myself I wouldn't do this, but, hey, what's a blog for?

I got into this discussion over at Street Prophets, starting here:

Skimming suggests that you're looking at the proposed DMZ and objecting to... what? The idea that some group is trying to help define the DMZ?
That was from "ogre" (I'll try to keep these straight; copying from SP's comments section ain't easy!). My response went, or meant to go, to the metaphor; but there, of course, my troubles began:


Really? You mean a "no-man's land" where angels fear to tread? My memory of the term goes back to Vietnam, where the DMZ was more likely a free-fire zone than a truly "de-militarized" zone. And either way, it assumes the rightness of bristling military weapons on either side of a very arbitrary line.

But my reaction is not to you; it is to the metaphor. Is this really the best language for such discussions? Is there really a "culture war", for that matter? Again, my memory goes back to the question: "What if they gave a war and nobody came?"

Maybe the search for "common ground" is better found not in "laying down arms" or even saying "Come, let us reason together." Maybe it's found, since this document seems to be largely in a Christian context (I don't mean to be non-ecumenical here), in living the gospel, which means treating no one as enemy; not even your enemy. Maybe the transformation this kind of document seeks, begins with the congregation, the pastor, the people. Maybe it begins by embracing the kergyma of the gospels as the leitourgia.

I know, I know, I'm a hopeless idealist. But most congregations have enough "politics" in them without seeking out more.
"Ogre" replied:

My model wasn't the Vietnam "DMZ"

(a farce), but the Korean one, where people only go under defined circumstances--but within them, it's sort of safe.

And yes, there's a culture war. It's been declared repeatedly from the right. Alas, I heard a first person account of an effort at a shared-ground effort in S. Florida (on abortion, on trying to diminish the need and care for those who decided to carry their pregnancies through...). Instigated from the religious left, some of the right joined in the effort. Three years later, they had demonized those on the left, driven out the faith groups from the left, and converted it to a "pro-life" organization.

Don't make the mistake of failing to insist on protective measures and trust building processes.

Politics is the work, the activity, the life-blood of the polis, the city--or in our case, the nation state. Staying clear of it to "remain pure" is, in the end, a fool's game.

Which kinda missed the point, I thought; and I said so:


You mean the mistake of letting someone else set my agenda, determine who my "enemies" are, and making me see them only as "other"?

That mistake?

Or the mistake of loving my enemies, turning the other cheek, and doing good to those who hate me? Is that the mistake I shouldn't make?

And where did I say one should stay clear of politics in order to remain "pure"? OTOH, which would you prefer to live in? The basiliea tou theou? Or Calvin's Geneva?

Yes, yes, I know; by the world's standards, my viewpoint is hopelessly naive. Can't imagine where I get these ideas.....
And then it went to hell in a handbasket:

You're free to choose sides ...

or to be "lukewarm" ... as you see fit

Just don't make a practice forgiving other people's enemies for them ... (and seeking public praise for having done so)

Just don't YOU go "doing good" for those who hate ME -- and expecting me to thank you for it.

by AdamSelene

I don't.

And I wasn't.

The problem with public discussions is taking them personally. As I said originally, assuming a Christian context for the idea that prompted the post, I make my reply to it accordingly.

YMMV, of course. But my comments are in the context of employing metaphors of warfare within the context of Christian ministry. They are not intended as a blanket statement applicable to all and sundry, or to any situation.

I certainly don't expect politicians to all be Christians. But I think there are distinct problems in mixing Christianity into politics, problems above and beyond those that concerned Thomas Jefferson.

by Rmj

Lesseee ....

Ogre said "Don't make the mistake of failing to insist on protective measures and trust building processes." Which, in regard to Third Way and Robert Jones, makes a good deal of sense

Then you were all like: "You mean the mistake of letting someone else set my agenda, determine who my "enemies" are, and making me see them only as "other"?
Or the mistake of loving my enemies, turning the other cheek, and doing good to those who hate me? Is that the mistake I shouldn't make?"

So when I say : "Just don't make a practice forgiving other people's enemies for them ... (and seeking public praise for having done so.)"
You feel I’M "personalizing ??

OK ... I’ll be honest ... I haven’t a CLUE as to the point you’re making or the context you want to put it in. Are you saying that "this" ... the Third Way thread ... the "Reason Together" Governing Agenda ... is an issue for Protestant Pastors only, Believers only -- everyone else Butt Out ? Nothing (political) to see here ... move along ??

Or are you just re-affirming the value of Cheek Turning as way of getting to Heaven ?

Help! What point ARE you making ?

by AdamSelene


I'm a Unitarian Universalist. I live in a home (as it were) which is full of "other" and doors open to more.

I'm not looking for the kingdom (nor particularly interested--monarchy...); I'm far more interested in helping build and bring about the kindom, the Beloved Community. Calvin's Geneva, where they burn heretics? No interest, at all.

Doing good to those who hate me--sure. Have. But there are any number of scriptures and other wisdom literature that counsels "Trust in God, but hobble your camel."

Don't make the mistake of thinking that because you're trying to be good and pure and wholesome that those "enemies" won't take ruthless advantage. It's one thing when it's putting yourself alone into their hands. It's another when you're putting others--many others.

The light is at home in the darkness. -- Parmenides

by ogre
Okay, my point, and I do have one:

1) why do you want to be defined by who declares themselves your enemy? Whether you are UU or Roman Catholic or an agnostic, that just seems like a sad basis for your personal identity. There is a great deal of wisdom in the teaching "love your enemy" and "turn the other cheek" and "do good to those who hate you," and it's not necessarily (although I put it that way originally) limited to devout Christians. Not to be forced on them, either, but rejecting it outright? Wow. You might want to rethink the value of that position.

2) Adam Selene's confusion arises from the category mistake of assuming those who are not explicitly with you, are against you. This is the error of the playground, of the assumption that all the world is like you, and whatever portion of the world isn't, is "enemy." Odd position for a discussion about the problems of reasoning together (which I still think is largely "Let's you and me agree with me!"). Or maybe a perverse object lesson in the fundamental problem.

3) It's curious how threatening my position apparently is, though I didn't think it threatening at all, just an obvious response to very militarized language. "Enemy," after all, especially in the context of a metaphor like "DMZ," means "Fight to the death." As I noted, "DMZ" describes an area bordered by bristling weapons and people ready to use them at a moment's notice. It's a "no-man's land," and an odd metaphor for any discussion about what should be civil disagreements. But that point was discarded early on, and the discussion quickly devolved into defending personal boundaries, with the "other" not only attacking "us," but defining "us," too.

Don't make the mistake of thinking that because you're trying to be good and pure and wholesome that those "enemies" won't take ruthless advantage. It's one thing when it's putting yourself alone into their hands. It's another when you're putting others--many others.
This is Niebuhr's argument in Moral Man and Immoral Society. Two problems with raising it here, though: none of us in this discussion are civic or national leaders. We are not accountable to untold others for our decisions. Nor is the topic under discussion a matter of national or even personal security. No one is going to threaten my life or liberty by subscribing to the ideas of CLURT. So let's get a bit of perspective here (and this, btw, is what I meant by people taking things on the web personally. My point was about metaphors and imagery, and before you know it, I'm endangering the country with my naivete. Yikes!) I may disagree with CLURT (and I do), but I can do so without putting lives at risk.

I mean, I don't think anyone is going to arrest me because I decline to employ the workbook CLURT plans to issue. And it's not like I opened a jar of mosquitoes at a conference, or something.

This entire contretemps points up a problem I have in the larger context of discussions in left blogistan. Since the election of Barack Obama, there has been quite a clamor for him to do to the GOP what the GOP was perceived to have done to the Democrats for the past 8 years. There is a great desire, in other words, for "all or nothing" solutions, and for people to take sides and line up with the right powers and get on the team. Which is understandable, and even very human (blogs could be the source of sociology dissertations for decades to come!). But it's not very enlightening; or really all that enlightened. So maybe we should reconsider our telos; or at least, how we attain it. Because from what I get here, the "kindom" of God looks a lot like the "reasoning together" community of CLURT; just with radically exclusive memberships on either side.

Of course, I could be wrong....(somebody cue up "Lola," would you?)

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Carne val

These recent postings are all of a piece, though it's difficult to see that clearly until enough of them are up; and perhaps it isn't even clear then. The central theme is morality; or should be. And Vattimo has some interesting thoughts on the resurrection and certainty and metaphysics that I want to return to. In the meantime, I'm just going to point to Wounded Bird's post about Updike's poem "Seven Stanzas at Easter" (which I have to admit I didn't know). I point to it because I find the discussion fascinating, and I want to add a comment on it. I want to add a comment without stomping on it like Godzilla on Bambi with my huge and scaly theological foot. Whether I can do that or not remains to be seen.

First, there is the central thesis of this poem:

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.
One commenter at WB notes:

Well, it may be that the man-made church will fall if the Incarnation and the Resurrection aren't literal events.
But God won't fall with it. He's bigger than all our words and man-made ideas.

I just, sometimes, wish there was a little more humility from those who claim to know all the truth.
Which is probably true, but what is that to us? I'm Protestant enough to still flinch at the capitalization of "the Church", but more and more I realize the sheer practicality of the institution. Without it, what do we Christians have? Jews can at least came an ancestral connection to the God of Abraham, but we Gentiles? What do we have except our common confession, and what keeps that confession alive except an historic and history-spanning institution, one we can, however imperfectly, trace back to Paul and Peter and the original disciples.

And that takes us directly to the story of the Resurrection. It's an interesting story in the Gospels. Mark originally didn't include it at all; he ends with an empty tomb and terrified disciples. Matthew works it in almost as a coda to his gospel. Mary of Magdala and Mary touch his feet, but that's mentioned only in passing. It is up to the Roman guards to verify the body is missing, and they give the explanation that it was stolen (one they don't seem to believe). Jesus appears to his disciples and gives them the "Great Commandment," but, as Matthew says, despite standing there and listening to him, "some were dubious." (Matthew 28:17b, SV). Luke has Jesus appear to some otherwise unknown followers on the road to Emmaus and then, in a scene that echoes John's later gospel, shows them his wounds and eats a piece of grilled fish (to prove he's corporeal, not merely ethereal). John's gospel includes this "sign" from Luke's version (although scholars don't include these in the "Signs Gospel." That's another discussion, huh?), and adds a meal by the seashore, so Jesus can eat and give Peter further instructions. It's only in Luke's Gospel (a scene repeated in Acts, Luke's "Volume 2") that the corporeal Jesus ascends into heaven. All the versions, in other words, are different in significant ways. And yet Updike is right: this is the central kerygma of the gospels. This is the basis of Peter's sermon at Pentecost (and the rest of his preaching in Acts), and the central claim to the authority of Jesus that Paul relies on in his letters (where no mention of Jesus' teachings, aside from the institution of the Eucharist, is ever mentioned).

Now if this is what we proclaim, that Christ was raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection, then Christ was not raised; and if Christ was not raised, then our gospel is null and void, and so too is your faith; and we turn out to have given false evidence about God, because we bore witness that he raised Christ to life, whereas, if the dead are not raised, he did not raise him. For if the dead are not raised, it follows that Christ was not raised; and if Christ was not raised, your faith has nothing to is and you are still in your old state of sin. 1 Corinthians 15:12-19, REB)
Which is not the end of the conversation, but just the beginning of it. Nor is it an assertion of fact; it is a confession of faith, a statement of belief. And already we are in trouble again, because at least since the Enlightenment, and certainly since the empiricism of Locke, Berkley, and Hume, and despite the death of Logical Positivism (the corpse that won't stay buried!), we still popularly insist that "faith" and "belief" are synonyms, and both mean "when you believe something that you know ain't true." Except, of course, as William James was at pains to point out, they don't:

The freedom to ' believe what we will ' you apply to the case of some patent superstition; and the faith you think of is the faith defined by the schoolboy when he said, " Faith is when you believe something that you know ain't true." I can only repeat that this is misapprehension. In concreto, the freedom to believe can only cover living options which the intellect of the individual cannot by itself resolve; and living options never seem absurdities to him who has them to consider.
Perhaps we should approach this in Jamesian terms, then, and be pragmatic about it (which is almost to say, agnostic). Is the resurrection a living option for Christians? Or is it, in Bultmann's infamous phrase, merely a "primitive mythology"? Is it something we know ain't true? Or is it our confession as Christians?

The "modern" tendency is to skirt the issue. After all, if we proclaim the Resurrection a reality, not merely a contingency, we are professing an impossibility. True enough, but no less so than it was for Mark, whose gospel ends:

And when the sabbath day was over, Mary of Magdala and Mary the mother of James and Salome bought spices so they could go and embalm him. And very early on the first day of the week they got to the tomb just as the sun was coming up. And they had been asking themselves, "Who will help us roll the stone away from the opening of the tomb?" Then they look up and discover that the stone has been rolled away! (For in fact the stone was very large.)And when they went into the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right, wearing a white robe, and they grew apprehensive.He says to them, "Don't be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene who was crucified. He was raised, he is not here! Look at the spot where they put him! But go and tell his disciples, including 'Rock,' he is going ahead of you to Galilee! There you will see him, just as he told you."And once they got outside, they ran away from the tomb, because great fear and excitement got the better of them. And they didn't breathe a word of it to anyone: talk about terrified. . .(Mark 16:1-8, SV)
Mark didn't even know how to talk about it. Each gospel after Mark adds its own version, and no two are exactly alike. Why do we make of this that they believed absolutely and perhaps even ignorantly, what we cannot possibly accept, our "enlightened" age, as true? Are we so superior to them? What is the source of our certainty, in the face of their evident uncertainty? Mark has no walking corpse at all, no body, no person of Christ. Matthew's risen Lord speaks, but no more. In Luke's he appears first as a stranger who is revealed (the reversal of Matthew's epiphany, at the end, not the beginning) at a meal, and then vanishes. Both Luke and John's risen Jesus has a body that can be examined, can be proven to be the one that hung on the cross, but John's Jesus appears in a crowded room behind unopened doors. What certainty is this? But if we still consider ourselves superior to the ancient witness, if only because we are contemporary and they are the past, let me suggest Borges' "The Gospel according to Mark" as a corrective.

In that story the illiterate Gutries, gauchos on an Argentinian ranch, are not educated by the college trained and bilingual Espinosa, who translates the English version of the gospel into Spanish for them. They are not enlightened by his superior European culture (he is from Buenos Aires, but as Borges makes clear, European through and through, as the Gutries are almost wholly South American Indian). They learn from his reading, but not the lesson he expects them to take. Our knowledge does not make us superior to others; it simply makes us different from them.

So it isn't that Mark was ignorant and superstitious, or people of the first century benighted and primitive. It is not a primitive mythology we have to discard. It is, rather, the idea of the primitive.

Which may, or may not, get us in the vicinity again of Vattimo's comments on metaphysics. We shall see what we shall see. Nor should we ignore the irony of bringing this up in the season of Epiphany. Which is not to say there is a better or a worse time to raise such subjects, but some times are just funnier than others. Funnier still is that I lost a whole development of this topic by figuring it out in the shower and not having a waterproof surface to scribble it on. So next we'll have to take up what prayer is for; unless lightning strikes twice, and we return to this topic first.

Eternal Distractions of the Jackdaw Mind

I have the oddest things on my bookshelf:

Lyotard and other theoreticians of postmodernism have neither noticed nor stated, however, that Nietzsche and Heidgegger speak not only from within the modern process of dissolution of the metanarratives but above all from within the biblical tradition. It is not so very absurd to assert that the death of God announced by Nietzsche is, in many ways, the death of Christ on the cross told by the Gospels. Elswhere I have stressed the significance of Dilthey's reconstruction of the history of metaphysics in his Introduction to the Human Sciences (1883). According to Dilthey, it is the advent of Christianity that makes possible the progressive dissolution of metaphysics that, from this perspective, culminates in Kant but that is also Nietzsche's nihilism and Heidegger's end of metaphysics. Christianity introduces into the world the principle of interiority on the basis of which 'objective' reality gradually loses its preponderant weight. What Nietzsche's statement that 'there are no facts, only interpretations' and Heidegger's hermeneutic ontology actually do is to draw the extreme consequences from this principle. So the relationship between modern hermeneutics and the history of Christianity is not limited to the fact that reflections on interpretation has an essential nexus with the reading of biblical texts, as has often been observed. Rather, what I am suggesting here is that hermeneutics--expressed in its most radical form in Nietzsche's statement an in Heidegger's ontology--is the development and maturation of the Christian message.
Gianni Vattimo, "The Age of Interpretation," The Future of Religion, Santiago Zabala, ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).

This puts me more in mind of Kierkegaard and, because of Kierkegaard, Augustine; and that connection (through the "principle of interiority") links both postmodernism and church history more directly than Vattimo does. But still, it's an intriquing thesis:

What is the relationship between hermeneutics as a technique and discipline of interpretation (from Luther's sola scriptura to Schleiermacher and Dilthey) and hermeneutics as a radically 'nihilst' ontology in the sense conveyed by Nietzsche's and Heidegger's assertions? More concretely: What does hermeneutic ontology tell us about the reading and interpretation of biblical texts, about their presence and meaning in the existence of our societies? Can we really argue, as I believe we must, that postmodern nihilism constitutes the actual truth of Christianity?
I'm thinking, too, the soundtrack for this is found over at OCICBW, especially the Kinks link under the blog anthems. It's a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world; and apparently, Christians are responsible for it.

Maybe the Romantics were right; maybe we do always carry the seeds of our own destruction. Or at least what we create is never quite what we intended. No small part of my interest is the place of this in European intellectual history, but also in the fact this essay is from 2005, and Dilthey's work was in the late 19th century, and Nietzsche and Kierkegaard were contemporaries, and it all reaches back to Augustine, and....

At any rate, I've got to read this, and get back with more.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant....

Entirely as a thumbnail (and, not coincidentally as a post, a placeholder), and partially as a codicil to what I was trying to get at here, let's posit this distinction between "ethics" and "morality."

Ethics, from Aristotle through utilitarianism, is aimed at "me" and my class; that is, my place in society, my peers, the sociological group I identify myself as a member of; what have you.

Morality is directed toward the "other," and so directs me (if we must start with "me"; not as necessary a given as is often presumed) toward the other.

So we can say that "ethics" is about changing me to suit the world, and "morality" is about changing the world.

It's not a perfect distinction, but it may prove a useful one.