Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Regarding Sonia Sotomayor

I'm always fascinated when people with no background in jurisprudence (the philosophy of law) take up questions like "How should judges judge?"

Judges themselves have considered this question in some detail, and there are several schools of thought on the matter. The two main schools are "legal positivism" (which, through John Austin, is based largely in utilitarianism) and "legal realism" (which follows the basic philosophy of the English common law, i.e., "what works"). Judge John Hutcheson famously gave judges the idea of the "judicial hunch": all other factors being equal, you finally come down on the side that simply "seems" right. That's not as arbitrary as it seems, but neither is judging merely a machine-like process. Judicial realism, indeed, takes into account the background and experience of the judge (and accepts those elements as valid). Judicial positivism is rooted in Thomas Hobbes, where the political sovereign has no limitations on his power whatsoever. If that begins to sound like Antonin Scalia or, more appropriately, Chief Justice John Roberts, it should. Funny nobody ever discusses the philosophy of judicial nominees in even these broad terms, isn't it?

When people with no knowledge of jurisprudence take up the subject and seriously ponder the qualifications of would-be Supreme Court Justices, they end up asking and answering stupid questions the equivalent of: "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?"

Which may be why so many public figures think Antonin Scalia is so "smart."

Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day 2009

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it is any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,
Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners, that we
may see and remark, and say Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child. . . .the produced babe of the vegetation.

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them;
It may be you are from old people and from women, and
from offspring taken soon out of their mother's laps,
And here you are the mother's laps.

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues!
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for nothing.

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon out of their laps.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
What do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprouts show there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceased the moment life appeared.

All goes onward and outward. . . .and nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.--Walt Whitman

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that "all men are created equal"

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of it, as a final resting place for those who died here, that the nation might live. This we may, in all propriety do. But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow, this ground -- The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have hallowed it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here; while it can never forget what they did here.

It is rather for us, the living, we here be dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that, from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here, gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people by the people for the people, shall not perish from the earth.--Abraham Lincoln


O Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy upon us.
Thou that sittest at the right hand of the Father, have mercy upon us.
Arise, O Christ, and help us,
And deliver us for thy Name's sake.


O Christ, when thou didst open thine eyes on this fair earth, the angels greeted thee as the Prince of Peace and besought us to be of good will one toward another; but thy triumph is delayed and we are weary of war.


O Christ, the very earth groans with pain as the feet of armed men march across her mangled form.


O Christ, may the Church, whom thou didst love into life, not fail thee in her witness for the things for which thou didst live and die.


O Christ, the people who are called by thy Name are separated from each other in thought and life; still our tumults, take away our vain imaginings, and grant to thy people at this time the courage to pro-claim the gospel of forgiveness, and faithfully to maintain the ministry of reconciliation.


O Christ, come to us in our sore need and save us; 0 God, plead thine own cause and give us help, for vain is the help of man.


O Christ of God, by thy birth in the stable, save us and help us;
By thy toil at the carpenter's bench, save us and help us;
By thy sinless life, save us and help us;
By thy cross and passion, save us and help us.


Then all shall join in the Lord's Prayer.

Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy Name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.

--The E&R Hymnal

Friday, May 22, 2009

Take Me To The River

Wade with me a moment:

“As long as one supposes, concesso non dato, that religion has the slightest relation to what we thus call God, it could pertain not only to the general history of nomination, but, more strictly here, under its name of religio, to a history of the sacramentum and of the testimonium. It would be this history, it would merge with it. On the boat that brought us from Naples to Capri, I told myself that I would begin by recalling this sort of too luminous evidence, but I did not dare. I also told myself, silently, that one would blind oneself to the phenomenon called 'of religion' or of the 'return of the religious' today if one continued to oppose so naively Reason and Religion, Critique or Society and Religion, technoscientific Modernity and Religion. Supposing that what was at stake was to understand, would one understand anything about 'what's-going-on-today-in-the-world-with-religion'...if one continues to believe in this opposition, even in this incompatibility, which is to say, if one remains within a Enlightenment, one of the many Enlightenments of the past three centuries (not of an Aufklärung, whose critical force is profoundly rooted in the Reformation), but yes, this light of Lights, of the Lumieres, which traverses like a single ray a certain critical and anti-religious vigilance, anti-Judaeo-Christian-Islamic, a certain filiation 'Voltaire-Feuerbach-Marx-Nietzsche-Freud-(and even)-Heidegger'? Beyond this opposition and its determinate heritage (no less represented on the other side, that of religious authority), perhaps we might be able to 'understand' how the imperturbably and interminable development of critical and technoscientific reason, far from opposing religion, bears, supports and supposes it. It would be necessary to demonstrate, which would not be simple, that religion and reason have the same source. (We associate here reason with philosophy and with science as technoscience, as critical history of the production of knowledge, of knowledge as production, know-how and intervention at a distance, teletechnoscience that is always high-performance and performative by essence etc.) Religion and reason develop in tandem, drawing from this common resource: the testimonial pledge of every performative, committing it to respond as much before the other as for the high-performance performativity of technoscience. The same unique source divides itself mechanically, automatically, and sets itself reactively in opposition to itself: whence the two sources in one. This reactivity is a process of sacrificial indemnification, it strives to restore the unscathed (heilig) that it itself threatens.

“In our ‘wars of religion’, violence has two ages. The one…appears ‘contemporary’, in sync or in step with the hypersophistication of military tele-technology—of ‘digital’ and cyberspaced culture. The other is a ‘new archaic violence’, if one can put it that way. It counters the first and everything ir represents. Revenge. Resorting, in fact, to the same sources of mediatic power, it reverts (according to the return, the resource, the repristination and the law of internal and auto-immune reactivity we are trying formalize here) as closely as possible to the body proper and to the premachinal living being. In any case, to its desire and to its phantasm. Revenge is taken against the decorporalizing and expropriating machine by resorting—reverting—to bare hands, to the sexual organs or to primitive tools, often to weapons other than firearms. What is referred to as ‘killings’ and ‘atrocities’—words never used in ‘clean’ or ‘proper’ wars, where, precisely, the dead are no longer counted (guided or ‘intelligent’ missiles directed at entire cities, for instance)—is here supplanted by tortures, beheadings, and mutilations of all sorts. What is involved is always avowed vengeance, often declared as sexual revenge: rapes, mutilated genitals or severed hands, corpses exhibited, heads paraded, as not so long ago in France, impaled on the end of stakes (phallic processions of ‘natural religions’). This is the case, for examples, but it only an example, in Algeria today, in the name of Islam, invoked by both belligerent parties, each in its own way. These are also symptoms of a reactive and negative recourse, the vengeance of the body proper against an expropriatory and delocalizing tele-technoscience, identified with the globality of the market, with military-capitalistic hegemony, with the globalatinization of the European democratic model, in its double form: secular and religious. When—another figure of double origin—the foreseeable alliance of the worst effects of fanaticism, dogmatism or irrationalist obscurantism with hypercritical acumen and incisive analysis of the hegemonies and the models of the adversary (globalatinization, religion that does not speak its name, ethnocentrism putting on, as always, a show of ‘universalism”, market-driven science and technology, democratic rhetoric, ‘humanitarian’ strategy or ‘keeping the peace’ by means of peace-keeping forces, while never counting the dead of Rwanda, for instance, in the same manner as those of the United States of America or of Europe). This archaic and ostensibly more savage radicalization of ‘religious’ violence claims, in the name of ‘religion’, to allow the living community to rediscover its roots, its place, its body and its idiom intact (unscathed, safe, pure, proper). It spreads death and unleashes self-destruction in a desperate (auto-immune) gesture that attacks the blood of its own body: as though thereby to eradicate uprootedness and reappropriate the sacredness of life safe and sound. Double root, double uprootedness, double eradication.”

Jacques Derrida, “Faith and Knowledge,” Religion, ed. Jacques Derrida and Gianni Vattimo, tr. Samuel Weber (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1996), pp. 27-28; 52-53.

First, I bring this up because the prescience of the second passage is interesting, given events that began 7 years after Derrida delivered those words to a colloquium on the Isle of Capri. “No one could have foreseen,” indeed. Second, I bring it up because I want to mine these two passages both for vocabulary and for ideas relevant to the present day, and to the situation of religion, specifically of Christianity, in the present day and among believers (and, to some extent, non-believers).

There are several things to mention here, all of them relevant to a central theme. One is the idea of the “machine,” an idea much with us since the Industrial Revolution and it’s double rooted, double uprooted, doubly eradicated, twin, Romanticism. Before the Industrial Revolution, the machine was not a metaphor for the human, nor for much of anything else in life. The machine was simply a tool, nothing more. It was as relevant to the position of the human, as the condition of the slave was to the master: i.e., not at all, except as it served the master (the inhumanity of slaver is another issue; but you look in vain for evidence that slavery is inhumane, in writings much before the 19th century. The machine and the slave were, for much of European history, on the same level). When the machine “arose” (and the mysterium tremendum of the Industrial Revolution continues, as evidenced by films as disparate as the first “Alien” movie, through now four “Terminator” films, and “Blade Runner,” on into “The Matrix.” We fear our machines precisely in relation to how much we depend on them. It’s not even an inverse relation. “Double root, double uprootedness, double eradication.”), it quickly became a metaphor for the human condition, and even today we have a hard time speaking of brain or mind or consciousness, without resort to metaphors drawn from computers. The machine long ago stopped being a tool, and became a reflection of who we are. More than occasionally, reflection and reality merge. Derrida says:

As long as one supposes, concesso non dato, that religion has the slightest relation to what we thus call God, it could pertain not only to the general history of nomination, but, more strictly here, under its name of religio, to a history of the sacramentum and of the testimonium. It would be this history, it would merge with it.
He means that religion would, properly considered, be not only a name (“nomination”, to “denominate” is simply to name; but what’s in a name?) but the history of sacrament and testimony itself; would be itself sacrament and testimony, both in time and beyond time, as the theologians understand it. We can comfortably, by now, say the same thing of the machine and our relationship to it It has merged with us, it has become the human. The frisson of the Terminator films is that the machines reflect the demons of our nature, unleashed and sanctified by technoscience, perfect examples indeed ot tele-technoscience, of:

[the] history of the production of knowledge, of knowledge as production, know-how and intervention at a distance, teletechnoscience that is always high-performance and performative by essence etc.)
The “essence” of the machines in the Terminator stories is an essence we recognize, even praise when it is used by “our” side: the “perfect” killing machine. So perfect that in the last two movies, it has taken another machine to defeat it. They embody the “history of the production of knowledge, of knowledge as production,” and most especially “know-how and intervention at a distance,” distance being measured in both time and space; a technology not only from “the future” but one step beyond remote-control: autonomous. It is teletechnoscience that is always high performance (each machine dazzles more than the one before) and performative by essence (its essence is entirely that of the machine: doing the job it was designed to do, without fear or favor or prejudice or any human consideration. The Terminator robots will destroy life with as much indifference as any machine will crush a limb or smash a body. Or a “smart bomb” will level a village, or smash the mud huts of Afghans to rubble and kill civilians and those labeled “Taliban”, together. It is all one, from a distance; and to a machine. Thus does science improve our humanity by increasing, augmenting, amplifying the importance and the power of the performative.

The performative and the concept of the performative is the key that turns the lock in this discussion, and that lock unlocked opens a door into a very interesting world, indeed; or at least an interesting weltanschaaung. Indeed, the performative is the thing:

Religion and reason develop in tandem, drawing from this common resource: the testimonial pledge of every performative, committing it to respond as much before the other as for the high-performance performativity of technoscience.
But before we plunge too far ahead and make the leap of faith to the conclusion that the performative is the root of all evil because it is only visible and efficacious in the material world, because it is only a semeia, a sign, that doesn’t point just one way, that may conceal as much as it reveals, that may leave us thinking we know what the actions of Jesus meant but, if we have to ask, as John’s gospel makes clear, then we will never understand, we will never have the gnosis: if we get, in other words, too far ahead of the double root, and the double uprootedness, we will find ourselves past the point of the double eradication, and fail completely in our understanding. So the root of performativity is not in reason or science alone; it is also in faith:

What good is it, my friends, for someone to say he has faith when his actions do nothing to show it? Can that faith save him? Suppose a fellow-Christian, whether man or woman, is in rags with not enough food for the day, and one of you says “Goodbye, keep warm, and have a good meal,’ but does nothing to supply their bodily needs, what good is that? So with faith; if it does not lead to action, it is by itself a lifeless thing…..As the body is dead when there is no breath left in it, so faith divorced from action is dead. James 2:14-17, 26 (REB)
It is not the performativity that is evil, then; it is not the expectation of performance that is wrong. A dualism that leads to a denial of the value of this life in this flesh, is a pernicious dualism that elevates form over substance. Faith commits us to respond before the other as much as for our faith. It is not the action that matters; it is the end, the telos, the purpose behind the actions. Just as science that does not serve humanity is the paradigm of peril and even evil in the “mad scientist” and the scientific experiment gone awry which endangers humankind, the staple of special effects movies, so too faith that does not serve humanity is zeal and madness and imperils what it would save, as in “Angels and Demons;” or a former Vice President who, in order to save the national village, must destroy everything it is built on. The blind act of faith and the blind pursuit of reason are simply two conditions that often appear alike. Or, to repeat where we started from:

The same unique source divides itself mechanically, automatically, and sets itself reactively in opposition to itself: whence the two sources in one. This reactivity is a process of sacrificial indemnification, it strives to restore the unscathed (heilig) that it itself threatens.
If there is a consistent, clear and present danger here, it is in acting “mechanically, automatically,” rather than mindfully; rather than heartfully; rather than thoughtfully and compassionately. And we are back to the metaphor provided us by science, by “Enlightenment;” but we are not back to a new idea, one unknown to the dialogues of faith.

If we take “Angels and Demons” as our framework for a moment, we can transition to the second long quote from Derrida. The “hypersophistication of military tele-technology—of ‘digital’ and cyberspaced culture” is represented in the film, but only mildly. Mostly the violence of the film is the “‘new archaic violence’” that counters the first and everything ir represents.” But that latter violence is meant to expose the dangers of the former, a form of violence present not in military technology, but in modernity (although it is technology which provides the threat that drives the plot, and technology that provides the opportunity for both salvation, confession, and justice). It is not too much to say that the heroes of the film represent modern society with its roots deep in history, and the villains of the film represent marginalized forces reacting to the hegemony of society and responding to it with the only means at hand: ‘new archaic violence.’ In other words, it’s a reflection of recent modern history.

The villain of “Angels and Demons” is revealed to be something of a neo-con, trying to use violence to prompt a reformation, a purification, this time not of society or nations, but of the Roman Catholic church. The real goal, of course, is not reformation: that’s why Luther left the church when it wouldn’t accept him, and instead started his own. The lesson of the neo-con is not to accept defeat, but to seek power, to overthrow the institution, society, nation, for the good of the institution, society, nation. The villain of “Angels and Demons” truly is trying “to restore the unscathed (heilig) that it itself threatens.” When Derrida’s words are understood in that light, it’s easy to transfer his example of Algeria to Iraq, and see in words written in 1996 almost a prediction of what would happen in 2003 and beyond, something done in the name of both reason and religion. Revenge has become the model on both sides, and the justification for continuing the battle. Soldiers want to return to war to defend their fellow soldiers. Politicians justify the ongoing slaughter on the grounds that ending now would only mean the deaths so far were pointless, that those deaths would go unavenged without victory. The “expropriatory and delocalizing tele-technoscience, identified with the globality of the market, with military-capitalistic hegemony, with the globalatinization of the European democratic model” is the justification for continuing the battle, even as it is the reason the battle is waged at all. And the toll is taken on both sides: it is a two edged sword that cuts the assailant as well as the assailed, with every stroke. Battle is always an inhuman and de-humanizing affair. And it works against us as ferociously as it works for us: “It spreads death and unleashes self-destruction in a desperate (auto-immune) gesture that attacks the blood of its own body….” We are still compelled to endanger, if not absolutely destroy, our society, in order to save it. Former Vice President Dick Cheney would have us abandon everything unique about America in order to insure merely our survival. President Barack Obama, faced with prisoners who cannot be brought to any court, perhaps because no evidence that proves their complicity in killing, and their willingness to kill again, would be admissible in any court, perhaps because of the policies Vice President Cheney still champions. So in the name of defending our values, the President must change our values, although he will do it within the legal and Constitutional system, not in spite of it. We are set to attacking the blood of our own body, whether we want to pursue that assault, or not.

No one could have foreseen…..

Derrida describes more than prescribes, but at Verbis et Operibus the signs of an exit, of an option, of an alternative, begins to appear.

The liberal must “save” the poor from poverty. The conservative must keep the poor from indolence. Both pity the poor as something less desirable. Neither attempts to challenge the basic idea that the poor are ultimately disprivileged.

[...] True Christian charity, therefore, is something more than our common definition of pity. White guilt is pity. Condescension is pity. Even inaction might be pity, for some conservatives. And what pity obscures is the paradoxical realization that the poor are, by certain biblical definition, worthy of higher honor. They own something we do not. And the means by which we might participate in that honor with them is charity.
12.2 Ultimately, Henreckson is arguing that empathy — specific Christian empathy — should replace pity. I agree.
So do I. Empathy is the key; because empathy requires something of us. Empathy is faith bound to works. Empathy is grace incarnated. Empathy is the reason for the incarnation. Empathy is the product of the change of heart that must be accomplished before any salvation is possible. And that change of heart does not spring from either reason or religion. It may be channeled through them, guided through them, explained or exploited through them, but it is not produced by them. The change of heart is what religion supports, succors, and encourages; it is what reason uses, promotes, idealizes: but it is not produced by either of them. And yet it still comes from the heart: from the flesh.

Dom Crossan engages this discussion in the prologue to his study The Birth of Christianity. He notes the distinction between Jewish and Christian traditions, drawing the line along the contours of Platonic dualism, of the person as flesh and the ‘ghost in the machine.’ Paul would argue we are now neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, but:

…no rabbinic Jew could do so, because people are bodies, not spirits, and precisely bodies are marked as male or female, and also marked through bodily practices and techniques such as circumcision and food taboos, as Jew or Greek as well. Daniel Boyarin, Carnal Israel, quoted in Crossan, p. xx.
Which observation leads Crossan to consider that:

The “Word”—Logos, in Greek—is the intelligibility of the world, the rationality of the universe, the meaning of life, as revelation of the Divine Mind. And John says that Word became not just body but flesh, not just the special –effects body of standard Greco-Roman divine visitations, but the one and only flesh and blood of full and normal human existence. The Word became flesh; that is to say, the divine meaning of life is incarnated in a certain human way of living.
But that divine meaning of life must be incarnated in a certain human way of living, and that incarnation requires not just empathy, but precisely what empathy requires: a change of heart.

And where does that come from? That’s the next question.

"Prolonged Detention"

This issue got Rachel Maddow quite exercised last night:

Like many in left blogistan, Rachel wants Obama to be the anti-Bush, much as the Bush Administration seemed driven, at one time, to be the anti-Clinton: if Clinton did it, the Bush Administration wouldn't. And while the idea of "prolonged detention" struck me as a dubious one, too, I tried to think first of the justification for such an idea. And then it occurred to me: the idea of closing Gitmo is to release the detainees there. But the sticking point has been: release them where?

Some, like the Uighurs, are innocent and wholly deserving of repatriation, but returning them to China would be returning them to danger; so that door is closed, yet another stubbornly refuses to open. Now, what about people the international community deems dangerous, and we do, too? But we cannot hold them, we have no evidence (presumably) sufficient to convict them, even in a military tribunal. If we release them, where do we do it? To wander the base at Guantanamo? No country will admit them; do we then drop them in Haiti, or Somalia, or some other country with a weak central government, one almost incapable of denying us the disposition of these persons? Where, in fact, do they go, if they have nowhere to go, if no country will grant them entry? This is not an issue of due process. We cannot sue other governments under "universal jurisdiction" or complain under the terms of the Geneva Convention, for there are not terms for this. Countries have a right to deny entry to anyone they want or even, in the case of North Korea, almost anyone at all. Aa Condi Rice said in 2007:

"One of the things that would help a lot is, in the discussions that we have with the states of which they (detainees) are nationals, if we could get some of those countries to take them back," Rice said in a Dec. 12, 2007 , interview with the British Broadcasting Corp. "So we need help in closing Guantanamo ."
Help we are still not getting. What, then, is the alternative?

It may be Obama is simply trying to make legal what is now almost patently illegal, and he is trying to bring "prolonged detention" into line with our Constitution and our laws by engaging, as Robert Gibbs told NPR, the Congress and the Courts, so that the tripartite system of the government works on this "mess" (the President's words) that was left by the former Administration. If we can't release these "detainees," we need a legal framework to justify holding them, not merely the dictate of the Presidency. Until we can release them somewhere besides Anarctica, until we can release them in accordance with our obligations to international law, it may be we have an obligation to our legal system to at least attempt to make their prolonged detention legal.

We are stuck with is the result of Dick Cheney's "unitary Presidency" and American exceptionalism, and George W. Bush's agreement or at least acquiescence to those ideas.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Angelic v. Demonic

I read this yesterday. I'll first admit, I didn't get this out of it:
Theological debates are meaningless to me because I'm agnostic and have no interest in any particular faith tradition, and tedious because participants are too often convinced that they've got a handle on The One True Religion while often failing to perceive a rather important implication of that: it's a pretty lonely religion.
I mean, I understand if you don't have a dog in the fight, debates about ideas are pretty boring. I often feel that way about political discussions, when I step back and realize (based on the traffic here, if nothing else) that absolutely no one of consequence is listening to what I say, and I'm having absolutely no influence on policy or politics. Besides, it's almost always as abstract as how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Which was a mean-spirited joke in the Renaissance about the unimportant obsessions of the medievalists, not a description of an actual debate. But I digress....

There is a point when religious and theological discussions have to answer basic questions like the one put to Robert Langdon in Angels and Demons: "Do you believe in God?" Turns out it was an ironic question from the interlocutor, because Langdon, a non-believer, gave the priest the right (and also honest, though it wasn't right for that reason alone) answer. Which is a lesson about such questions, one of many I thought the film raised: never assume you know what the questioner means.

It's an old legal trick, which may be why a dilettante philosopher cum theologian like myself is/was also a dilettante attorney. But one thing studying the law makes you do is look at things with a relentless logic matched, so far as I know, only by Zen Buddhist priests, some rabbis, and (by reputation, at least), the Jesuits. Funny, huh? Even mathematicians tend to assume the world is essentially Platonic, a leap of faith no true priest, imam, rabbi, or pastor would ever make. Indeed, the central conceit of "Angels and Demons" is that the villain is not a true priest, although he is a true believer. And he certainly makes a leap no one else follows.

Maybe that's what prompts Ron Douthat's harsh reaction to the film, one I don't think is warranted. Maybe he's upset because the rigid assurance of the villain of the piece looks too familiar. (I don't know Douthat's politics, but the villain of "Angels and Demons" is pretty easily understood as an all too familiar figure in America today: the neocon.) Or maybe he just means what he says, and he prefers a more traditional reading of Church history and doctrine. But I didn't read Douthat's comment (nor can I, now) as a declaration that there is only one true religion, or even one true Christianity. Every declaration of belief, every confession of faith, is by definition a statement that other confessions and declarations are wrong, at least for the professor or confessor. That's as unavoidable as declaring your allegiance for a political party or simply a political candidate. And it that's "lonely," then we are all existentialists now, and Sartreans to boot. Douthat and I would probably disagree on what the one "historically plausible Jesus" would look like; but we can both agree the stories of Dan Brown are not historically plausible in any sense of the word.

It is a dividing line question, though: "Do you believe in God?" It can't be other than a dividing line question, because it puts you in one category, or the other. Today many people are quite happy, almost anxious, to tell you that they don't believe, or that they do. And they do it with a clear eye to dividing the world into two groups: those who are with them, and those who are against them. Thrillers like Dan Brown writes, of course, need those two groups: the "good guys" and the "bad guys." Maybe Rod Douthat needs them, too; I don't know. Still, there are such questions; and sooner or later, you have to insist upon them, if only to know where another person, a person who (ideally) matters to you, stands (the only point of finding out where a person who doesn't matter to you stands, is to use the issue as a cudgel, rather than as a way of understanding them).

In fact, to the extent Douthat is arguing that Brown is too accomodationist to modern sensibilities, that he re-casts the kerygma of the Gospels in modern American "love me, love my life!" terms, I agree with him. To me, this is the heart of Douthat's argument:

In the Brownian worldview, all religions — even Roman Catholicism — have the potential to be wonderful, so long as we can get over the idea that any one of them might be particularly true. It’s a message perfectly tailored for 21st-century America, where the most important religious trend is neither swelling unbelief nor rising fundamentalism, but the emergence of a generalized “religiousness” detached from the claims of any specific faith tradition.

The polls that show more Americans abandoning organized religion don’t suggest a dramatic uptick in atheism: They reveal the growth of do-it-yourself spirituality, with traditional religion’s dogmas and moral requirements shorn away. The same trend is at work within organized faiths as well, where both liberal and conservative believers often encounter a God who’s too busy validating their particular version of the American Dream to raise a peep about, say, how much money they’re making or how many times they’ve been married.

These are Dan Brown’s kind of readers. Piggybacking on the fascination with lost gospels and alternative Christianities, he serves up a Jesus who’s a thoroughly modern sort of messiah — sexy, worldly, and Goddess-worshiping, with a wife and kids, a house in the Galilean suburbs, and no delusions about his own divinity.

But the success of this message — which also shows up in the work of Brown’s many thriller-writing imitators — can’t be separated from its dishonesty. The “secret” history of Christendom that unspools in “The Da Vinci Code” is false from start to finish. The lost gospels are real enough, but they neither confirm the portrait of Christ that Brown is peddling — they’re far, far weirder than that — nor provide a persuasive alternative to the New Testament account. The Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — jealous, demanding, apocalyptic — may not be congenial to contemporary sensibilities, but he’s the only historically-plausible Jesus there is.
The historically plausible Jesus said demanding things like:

Don't get the idea that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. After all, I have come

to pit a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.

A man's enemies will be the members of his own household. Matthew 10:34-36, SV
A sentiment that is certainly true in "Angels and Demons."

Jesus also said welcoming things like this:

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, "I'll follow you wherever you go."

"And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have dens, and birds of the sky have nests, but the sone of Adam has nowhere to rest his head."
To another he said, "Follow me."
But he said, "First, let me go and bury my father."
Jesus said to him, "Leave it to the dead to bury their own dead; but you, go out and announce God's imperial rule."
Another said, "I'll follow you, Sir; but let me first say good-by to my people at home."
Jesus said to him, "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is qualified for God's imperial rule." Luke 9:60-62, SV
Or this bit of comfort:

Some who were there at the time told him about the Galileans, about how Pilate had mixed their blood with their sacrifices. He answered them, "Do you suppose that these Galileans were the worst sinners in Galilee, because they suffered this? Hardly. However, let me tell you, if you don't have a change of heart, you'll all meet your doom in the same way. Or how about those eighteen in Siloam, who were killed when the tower fell on them. Do you suppose that they were any guiltier than the whole population of Jerusalem? Hardly. However, let me tell you, if you don't have a change of heart, all of you will meet your doom in a similar fashion." Luke 13:1-5, SV.
A distorted picture of Jesus in the gospels only because I have picked a few specific examples to make a point, one I think Douthat has in mind. There isn't really much about the Jesus of the gospels in "Angels and Demons," which is just fine for the story; but unless you think the Roman church doesn't have much to do with the teachings of Jesus either, Brown's is a very distorted view of Christianity. Douthat is right about that: Jesus was not all about you, and what makes you feel better.

Atrios picks up the tail end of that Douthat quote in his objection (and he's welcome to it; I'm not trying to start an argument of Douthat here). But in context, I find little to disagree with. If something is not particularly true, what's the point of it? If my politics are not particularly true, how do I blog about them? If my religious beliefs are not particularly true, how do I hold to them? If my love for my wife, my daughter, my friends, my family, is not particularly true, what good am I?

And the fact is, "The 'secret' history of Christendom that unspools in 'The Da Vinci Code' is false from start to finish." There's really no argument about that. The argument Douthat makes about "lost gospels" and "persuasive alternative[s] to the New Testament account" is an unremarkable one. Perhaps it's the exclusion of the religious community Atrios objects to, but every community inevitably means some are included, some excluded. As Dom Crossan points out, it is the community that decides whether an experience is even religious, or not.

Hopes and fears, dreams and nightmares, visions and apparitions are not the same as delusions and hallucinations. If you wake up screaming because a giant figure is ready to attack you, that is a nightmarish dream. You spouse reassures you, saying it is just a bad dream, urging you to go back to sleep. And you do. Buf if you call 9-1-1 that night to report an intruder and summond ADT the next day to put in a security system, you are moving from dream to delusion. It is part of reality to know which is which. If you come down from the mountaintop and report a revelation from Archangel Micheal, you have seen an apparition. If you keep insisting that Bigfoot-with-Wings is up there and that everyone should go see it, you are beyond vision and into hallucination. If is part of reality to know which is which....Trance and ecstasy, vision and apparition are perfectly normal and natural phenomena. Altered states of consciousness, such as dreams and visions, are something common to our humanity, something hard-wired into our brains, something as normal as language itself...And only when their human normalcy is accepted can a proper response be offered. That response should not be, We deny the fact of your vision. It should be, Tell us the content of your vision. And then we will judge, nother whether you had it or not, but whether we should follow it or not.
John Dominic Crossan, The Birth of Christianity (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999), ix-x.

If you haven't chosen to follow it, the visions, even the distinctions, may seem odd; but if you do follow them, they make sense. Either way, while I may disagree with Douthat's conclusions, it's hardly accurate to say he's strictly arguing for a "true religion" of "One." More accurately, he just doesn't like the picture of Christianity painted by Dan Brown. But even a "liberal" Biblical scholar like Dom Crossan doesn't care for Dan Brown's version of history; and I doubt Rod Douthat and Dom Crossan would agree on much else.

Indeed, the picture Douthat paints in his critique of Brown's presentation of religion is a theology little distinguishable from the "Gospel of Wealth" of Joel Osteen. The archives of the Vatican, for example, as envisioned by the film, would be the envy of any museum in the world (not least for its holdings, but also for the facilities that hold them). There's something bizarrely bourgeois and materialist about the Vatican the film imagines, right down to the superlative security gear that would be the envy of the White House (Nixon had nothing on the Pope!). But hey, it's a thriller! And Hollywood can never imagine how real people live. Even "Roseanne" lived in materialistic splendor compared to most working class families I've ever known. It's not a documentary; it wasn't meant to be. Still, Douthat makes a good point: the kerygma of the Gospel is not about wealth and health and happiness in this life, right here, right now, hallelujah! But to critique the film on that basis overlooks one of the best lines in the film, said to the agnostic Langdon by the religious head of the Swiss Guard:

"My church comforts the sick and the dying. My church feeds the hungry. What does your church do? Oh, that's right, you don't have a church!"
It's not Joyce, but it's not meant to be (talk about a guy who hated the Church!). Now, that's exclusionary, too; and yet it's not an assertion of "one true religion."

I do think the fascination with the "lost gospels" and the "Gnostic gospels" is largely a matter of ignorance. But, by the same token, there's a lot of ignorance swirling around the canonical gospels; indeed, just as much. Ironically, I've been looking at a Catholic university for my daughter, and this morning I noticed their words on their college seal: "Sapientia et Doctrina." Wisdom and doctrine: two poles of understanding that I would agree to myself. Wisdom arises from knowledge, but it is something much more than that alone. Doctrine arises from the community, but it alone is not enough to guide a life by. Of course, my doctrina might well not be the doctrina of this university. Does this make either of us exclusionary? I suppose it could, but it doesn't have to. It doesn't mean we are so open minded as to accept everything as equally valid but then, who is? As for Douthat, people who cling to the "truth" of the canonical gospels without any understanding of the culture they came from, or of history for the past 2000 years, are living in glass houses and throwing stones at people who find any value or interest in the Nag Hammadi and other documents; and to that extent, I part company with Douthat. But only to that degree. I suppose he's trying to proclaim the One True Religion, and yes, that is a lonely profession in the best of circumstances. But it's not necessarily the wrong confession.

Who among us doesn't believe in the One Truth Thing? And who among us is angelic enough, or demonic enough, to keep from making our confession sound exclusionary, if we are pushed to acknowledge it?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

If you can remember....

It has struck me, more than once, that if you want to know what the '60's in America were like, listen to Barack Obama. In the weeks before the speech, a critic of President Obama speaking at Notre Dame University paid what he meant to be a back-handed compliment. President Obama, he said, gives a good speech.

Yes, yes he does:

Nowhere do these questions come up more powerfully than on the issue of abortion.

As I considered the controversy surrounding my visit here, I was reminded of an encounter I had during my Senate campaign, one that I describe in a book I wrote called The Audacity of Hope. A few days after I won the Democratic nomination, I received an email from a doctor who told me that while he voted for me in the primary, he had a serious concern that might prevent him from voting for me in the general election. He described himself as a Christian who was strongly pro-life, but that's not what was preventing him from voting for me.

What bothered the doctor was an entry that my campaign staff had posted on my website - an entry that said I would fight "right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman's right to choose." The doctor said that he had assumed I was a reasonable person, but that if I truly believed that every pro-life individual was simply an ideologue who wanted to inflict suffering on women, then I was not very reasonable. He wrote, "I do not ask at this point that you oppose abortion, only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words."

Fair-minded words.

After I read the doctor's letter, I wrote back to him and thanked him. I didn't change my position, but I did tell my staff to change the words on my website. And I said a prayer that night that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me. Because when we do that - when we open our hearts and our minds to those who may not think like we do or believe what we do - that's when we discover at least the possibility of common ground.

That's when we begin to say, "Maybe we won't agree on abortion, but we can still agree that this is a heart-wrenching decision for any woman to make, with both moral and spiritual dimensions.

So let's work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions by reducing unintended pregnancies, and making adoption more available, and providing care and support for women who do carry their child to term. Let's honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded in clear ethics and sound science, as well as respect for the equality of women."

Understand - I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. No matter how much we may want to fudge it - indeed, while we know that the views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory - the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable. Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature.

Open hearts. Open minds. Fair-minded words.
So did Robert Kennedy, who gave this speech extemporaneously (his police escort refused to enter the "black part" of town this night, and the car with his speech followed the police, not RFK, to the appointment):

Ladies and Gentlemen - I'm only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening. Because...

I have some very sad news for all of you, and I think sad news for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.

Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it's perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in.

For those of you who are black - considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible - you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.

We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization - black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion and love.

For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.

But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond these rather difficult times.

My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote: "Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

(Interrupted by applause)

So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, yeah that's true, but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love - a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke. We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We've had difficult times in the past. And we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it's not the end of disorder.

But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land.

(Interrupted by applause)

Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.

Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people. Thank you very much. (Applause)
I suppose we can come up with reasons to be angry or concerned or worried about the very abstract topic of abortion (so few talking about it are actually involved in it). But none would be as compelling as the reasons why people that night in April, 1968, should have been upset by the news Robert Kennedy brought. Yet he spoke of reconciliation and peace and understanding and common purpose. The kind of things we still insist can only be talked about once "our side" holds the reins of power, and shows the other side, decisively and conclusively, they know just what to do with them.

I remember the '60's in America: not fondly and as "history," when we knew how it would all turn out: but as visceral, real, and frankly scary, when I wasn't foolishly complacent in my white, East Texas enclave far from the troubles of the country. I remember people like Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy; and I remember the far more strident voices, the ones that demanded power first, reconciliation second.

I welcome the chance to hear the better message again, and to try it, again.

Dining beneath the poisonous tree

Every healthy tree produces choice fruit, but the diseased tree produces rotten fruit. A sound tree cannot produce rotten fruit, any more than a rotten tree can produce choice fruit. Every tree that does not produce choice fruit gets cut down and tossed on the fire.--Matthew 7:17-20, SV

I appeared, once, in Federal court, defending a criminal charge. I was assigned to the case as part of my license in Federal Court (you have to be "licensed" to practice in Federal court. There's no examination required, but it's the court's way of controlling who gets to stand before it, and who doesn't.) The charge was possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, and he was guilty, no question about it. "Possession" is one of those "legal concepts" that most people (including my client) think means "in your hands at the time the officer saw you." Actually, it was lying in the package tray in the back of the car. So it was in full view, when my client got pulled over. A quick records check revealed his felony record and the rest, as they say, is history.

As my Crim. Law professor told us, from experience: "They don't catch the smart ones."

But we imagine, especially after the era of the Warren Court and after seeing Victoria Hamel play a public prosecutor on "Hill Street Blues," and after seeing what prosecutors go through on "Law & Order" (where they are always concerned with good public order and work on only one case at a time), that the system is resolutely fair and balanced and aimed at getting the truth. No, the system isn't interested in the truth, unless a defense attorney works relentlessly to produce it. What the system is interested in, is convictions. Convictions, after all, produce "law and order." So this shouldn't be the disappointment and/or surprise that it is:

The filing was part of a package of materials provided to the military judges at Guantánamo asking them to suspend cases until Sept. 17. The documents indicated that the administration had concluded that to win convictions it might need to retain the advantages the commissions were intended to give military prosecutors.

One proposed change dealt with limiting hearsay evidence against prisoners, a type of evidence that is often limited in American courts partly to ensure that defendants can confront witnesses against them.

But officials say hearsay is important to many cases at Guantánamo that are based on accusations of other detainees or foreign intelligence agents who might not be able to appear to testify.

Mr. Obama’s statement on Friday said that “the use of hearsay will be limited.” But the filing showed that military prosecutors would continue to rely extensively on hearsay evidence that might be barred in federal court. A memorandum describing the administration’s changes that was filed with the military judges said that such “hearsay admissibility remains much broader than in domestic courts” in the United States.

One of the senior administration officials said that although federal courts bar many kinds of hearsay evidence, “the hearsay rule is not one of those things that is rooted in American values.”
No more than habeas corpus, or the 4th amendment, or Miranda, or Gideon, or....oh, I give up.

Convictions; convictions are rooted in "American values." On the other hand, there is an argument to be made for "military commissions":

One official spoke anonymously on the situation confronted by the administration because he was not authorized to discuss its thinking.

He noted that detainees were captured in settings that did not permit the careful procedures familiar to American law enforcement officers, like search warrants and warnings that any statements they made could be used against them.

The official asked, “How do you translate that into a case that is even possible in a U.S. federal court?” And then he answered his own question: “Very difficult.”
And it's not an idle one. The problem is, by now, I'm not sure what credibility the nation has left on this issue. After "black prisons" and Abu Ghraib and Gitmo and torture....what justice can we be seen to do now? There is a legal concept called "Fruit of the Poisonous Tree," upon which grounds a court will reject a criminal prosecution if it is so fatally flawed that conviction would mean trampling certain constitutional rights and due process guarantees. Maybe, instead of finding a way to gain convictions by now, we should consider the poisonous fruit we are being made to eat; made to eat by our own hand, no less.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Angels and Demons

I stumbled across this from Stanley Fish today*:

The key event in that life is not the fashioning of some proof of God’s existence but a conversion, like St. Paul’s on the road to Damascus, in which the scales fall from one’s eyes, everything visible becomes a sign of God’s love, and a new man (or woman), eager to tell and live out the good news, is born. “To experience personal transformation that in turn can truly move and shake this world, we must believe in something outside of ourselves” (Judith Quinton).”The kind of religion that moves me,” says Shannon . . . is the story of hope and love . . . not the idea that any particular story describes concrete historical ‘truth.’” “It isn’t about moral superiority,” says Richard. “It’s about humbly living an examined life held up to the mirror of a higher truth. It certainly does not seem to be about comfort.”

So to sum up, the epistemological critique of religion — it is an inferior way of knowing — is the flip side of a naïve and untenable positivism. And the critique of religion’s content — it’s cotton-candy fluff — is the product of incredible ignorance.
Nothing I haven't said myself, but credit where it is due: Fish says it better. Frankly, I never knew Fish was religious, though from this column and the one that preceded it, I'm beginning to think he is. He ends the column that began this, a review of Terry Eagleton's Religion, Faith and Revolution, with these words:

One more point. The book starts out witty and then gets angrier and angrier. (There is the possibility, of course, that the later chapters were written first; I’m just talking about the temporal experience of reading it.) I spent some time trying to figure out why the anger was there and I came up with two explanations.

One is given by Eagleton, and it is personal. Christianity may or may not be the faith he holds to (he doesn’t tell us), but he speaks, he says, “partly in defense of my own forbearers, against the charge that the creed to which they dedicated their lives is worthless and void.”

The other source of his anger is implied but never quite made explicit. He is angry, I think, at having to expend so much mental and emotional energy refuting the shallow arguments of school-yard atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins. I know just how he feels.
So do I.

*And besides, it ties into what we've been talking about.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

How Can I Keep from Singing?

Getting away from the topic I can't do anything about (but be outraged) and back to the topic I also can't do anything about (but I actually know something about it): The church.

This is where I have to pause and confess that I get tired of left blogistan. We can't really do anything about anything, but we can by Gawd! get outraged about topics we have no control over. Obama decides not to release some photos, and we all have an opinion on how much like Bush this is (which is bad! It's bad! Except, of course, whenever Bush decided not to do something because Clinton would have done it, that was bad! It was bad!). And we get upset about what some group somewhere is saying about somebody else somewhere (I won't name names. It's pointless, and the examples so numerous you just have to think of one to know what I mean. They're everywhere.) And we tell ourselves our desperately important concerns are desperately important to everyone, and our opinions will change the world!.

And I'm as bad as anybody on the web, and I've complained about this once or twice before (and if I had a secretary and time to set up a system of tags I could mine the archives for the links; but I don't....), and I've just posted three different posts on torture, but that's different because.....well, because.

No, actually; it's not different at all. I really do need to get out more.

But, man! is it tedious. I'm so tired of the outrage I'm into faux outrage over the outrage. How PoMo of me, huh? How meta! How deconstructionist! (well, no, but nobody really knows that what means anyway, so why not misuse it?) So, I'm just going to respond to these comments from the earlier post, the one on something I actually know a (very) little about, and see if I can get my mind right, again.

When the churches were full, I wonder if a goodly portion of the folks were present more for cultural than religious reasons. Could it be that, in fact, not that many people are drawn to the practice of the faith, unless the pressure from the surrounding culture is high?

Grandmère Mimi
Yeah, I think so. It's certainly that, in a very large degree. Although the Catholic church was the culture for Europe for centuries, when the Protestant Reformation forced a split, the RC managed to maintain a culture which kept it in the world but not of the world far better (at least from the outside looking in) than the Protestants did. I understand the complaints against liturgical worship, but I've never seen the saving grace of the "revivalist" culture and the mega-churches and "Gospel of Wealth" it spawned. There was a virtue in the old German E&R "Du muss gehen!" (sorry, I can' muster the German double "s") that is sadly lacking today. Of course, it failed due to the rise of individualism as much as anything else; which is the worm in the heart of the rose of Protestantism, but that discussion ends up with us linking Blake to Derrida, so I won't go there.

But, as Kierkegaard diagnosed in 19th century Denmark, the world was too much with the church, late and soon. The problem, of course, has always been: how do you separate the world from the church? And the answer is: unless you insist the church resemble a monastery, you don't. They are inseparably bound, and the issue is: how do we make the best of this? For while God doesn't need the Church, the Church certainly needs God. But, as Pound said to Browning: "There can be but on 'Sordello;!/But 'Sordello', and my 'Sordello'?" So while we have to insist, we have to be careful what we insist on; because we just might get it.

Consider the situation of the two American political parties as a case study, and a metaphor: one thrives because it has a vision; it is lead by a leader both visionary and pragmatic, and so balanced, he succeeds (the great Christian mystics and church leaders have always achieved a similar balance, from Paul to the present day). The opposition party flounders because it is driven by purity and the need to ostracize all who are not of the body. Jesus famously said: "Those who are not against us are with us." Turn that phrase around, turn it to its usual meaning, and you have the very definition of the circular firing squad. One purifies the group; the other calls the group's very existence into question. When groups prefer the former, they begin to die. When they pursue the latter, they live always with the mysterium tremendums.

But this is what it means to recognize that the Church needs God. It is, indeed, a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

Part of it has to do with location. All of the urban churches I have attended have been very gray. However, Emmaus UCC in Vienna Virginia has many young parents and has a vibrant youth ministry.

Yes, yes it does; and we are right back to that question of culture and accomadation again, aren't we? Recognizing this reality, we are also condemned to live in it, to accept the tacit segregation of society by generations, to segregate our congregations by location and who lives where. But the newest developments are not always full of "young people", and the established neighborhoods are not always dominated by the elderly. Yet our churches are. And, as a new comment (at the end) notes, this may not long last. Are we doomed to this condition forever? To some degree, yes, human nature being what it is, the "laws" of sociology being what they are. To some degree, of course: no. We are free agents, not victims of fate or location, not prey to instincts immutable and unalterable. We preach a life-changing Gospel! Why don't we use it directly, to change our own lives? What would a church look like then, that did that?

one of the magic things about Facebook for me was finding members of my church youth group (midwestern suburban SBC) 20 years on, a sizable majority of which are still "churched" in some fashion, including me, the lesbian. Oddly enough though, those that I consider the most spiritual (as opposed to religious, if I can make that distinction) are those not particularly invested in a particular congregation, even as they reconnected to the old peers.

My particular cohort was pretty active in softball, choirs, councils, summer mission trips; intensely socialized, with a lot of individual tolerance and support.

As entwined as protestantism and dominant american culture have become, it may be interesting to think about that time when christianity was viewed as a threat to the dominant culture, primarily because it provided support and encouragement for the oppressed in that society.

Does christianity seem to be adrift for lack of vocabulary, or lack of moral focus? If church means softball games and centuries-old songs, when what you need is a community where you can share baby-sitting and learn how to live on a monthly budget that's half of what you expected, where are you going to go?

Cowboy Diva
Vocabulary is very much an issue in this for me. One of the more spastic efforts of this blog is to establish a functional vocabulary of Christianity which can be used in public (i.e., among non-believers and non-church goers) as easily as the language of the evangelicals and fundamentalists is used (hint: there are many, many more forms of "salvation" and "grace" than are preached of by Pat Robertson or the late Jerry Falwell, or Joel Osteen.). Christianity once was the vocabulary of the public square: see, e.g., the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. Of course that was then, this is now, but it was well into the 19th century that theology was the mother of all the sciences. This was no coincidence: Augustine as well as Aquinas, to name two of the greatest pillars, borrowed their language from the world (mostly the Hellenes) consciously and deliberately, much as Paul mixed his Hebraisms with ideas Gentiles were more familiar with (it's noteworthy that the "Letter to the Hebrews" is the only one addressed directly to the community Jesus was born, lived, and died in). Theology has always been a mixed enterprise, taking its language to best convey its ideas to its target audience. In that sense, it is itself the very product of Pentecost.

Is that flame dying now? If so, why? Is there nothing we can do to fan it? Can we not even try, and perhaps do a bit better job than accepting the vocabulary of the world as foundational, accepting the Enlightenment argument that this discussion of "spirit" and "metaphysics" is mostly bunk? The current enterprise in philosophy of religion circles is to craft a religion without metaphysics, perhaps without religion at all. Do we really need to accept the failed experiment of the "God is Dead" movement? Can't we do better than that?

When wilt thou save the people
O God of mercy when?
The people, Lord, the people
Not thrones and crowns but men?
Flowers of thy heart, O God, are they
Let them not pass like weeds away
Their heritage, a sunless day
God save the people

Shall crime bring crime forever
Strength aiding still the strong?
Is it thy will, oh Father
That men shall toil for wrong?
No say thy mountains, no say thy skies
Men's clouded sun shall brightly rise
And songs be heard instead of sighs
God save the people

When wilt thou save the people...
God save the people, for thine they are
Thy children as thy angels fair
God save the people from despair
God save the people - Oh, God save the people (4x)

When wilt thou save the people...
God save the people - save us! - for thine they are - thine they are
Thy children as thy angels fair - Oh, God save the people
God save the people - God save the people - from despair - God save the people
God save the people - Oh, God save the people (3x)

God save the people (3x)

Cowboy Diva, as I see it, if the churches are doing their jobs, they should always be a threat to the dominant culture. Until we look around and see no one trampled underfoot, no one with not enough, no one excluded or oppressed, then the church must be counter-cultural.

Grandmère Mimi
Yes, yes, yes! I would only say: depends entirely on who we are threatening, and with what. The kergyma of the Church should be the Gospel, and the kerygma of the Gospel is the basileia tou theou. That, to my mind, is the only kerygma and source of salvation and purpose of the Church. And that's breathtakingly counter-cultural and affirming, all at once.

I wrote this before reading the thread, other people had some similar ideas.

You are right, that the emptying of the mainline churches is not due, entirely, to the virtual black listing of them and, even more so, their ideas, in the mass media. Like may complex phenomena there is no one cause. But to overlook the potency of the mass media on the minds it increasingly forms isn’t going to get you farther. When I say that the mass media forms the minds of young people now, it’s a continuing and horrifying lesson the extent to which that is true. I see it in my nieces who have been studiously sheltered from most of it. Mass media is inseparable from mass marketing and the experimentally manipulative methods it buys in order to manipulate. Though saturation marketing could explain most of that success.

And if the younger cohort won't attend church because they see nothing in it for them (for any number of reasons), how does the church continue?

As a congregation large enough to support a building and a pastor, it’s a really big problem. I don’t know if a lot of them can without becoming show biz venues, which is what a lot of them become. From what I’ve seen, whoever they serve, it’s not the gospel that Jesus taught or the line of Jewish prophets and teachers who he relied on so heavily.

The protestant churches I respect the most, whose disappearance would be a cultural disaster are those who do what the gospels say they should, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, visit the prisoner, love God with all their heart, soul, strength and mind and their neighbor as themselves. Those who follow the line of advice from Hillel onward to not do to another that which is hateful to themselves. Those who forgive their enemies and pray for them. Those who help individuals form their characters and lives towards those ends.

Those practices aren’t without an effect in the turbulence of society, politics and commerce. You do those things and they’ll try to kill you or to ignore you. In Chris Hedges book “I Don’t Believe in Atheists” he points out that in Aldous Huxley’s dystopia, the control wasn’t through book burning, it was through making it increasingly less desired to read books. It was through pleasuring people out of being human. I’m increasingly impressed with that Huxley’s insights as an important warning.

In the popular and academic cultures, where some see the death of God, I see a concurrent death of the human. As developed in a long blog brawl I had last week, it is the increasing and casually held view of people as objects without any inner light, soul or anything. I do think a large part of that is in the mistaken notion that science, which I never have to stop reminding some people was ever only intended to study the material world, has found out that there is nothing but a large mass of chemical reactions and the physical structures that contain them. Without any more than that to people, there isn’t any obligation to consider them as anything else. Certainly not those that any individual chooses to consider in that way. Without the moral restriction on seeing and considering other people as possessing inherent rights, people will tend to become their own god. A mono-theistic god, who can cast privileges to subject beings at their whim and to withhold their concern on a blanket or selective basis. Many of the people I’ve seen who are the product of the culture we have today are these kinds of ignorant gods, sitting at the center of a wired universe.

The brilliance of much of modern Christian theology, the poetry of a lot of it, hasn’t worked to convince people, it hasn’t kept the families of those who used to come. Maybe it would work better to remember what motivated it all in the first place. Just one observation, it won’t be welcomed by a lot of those who will be inconvenienced by it. There were a few warnings of where the really hard cases would be in the gospels.

I don’t know if it would break through the crust of consumer distraction or to re-spark the deadened tinder in their damaged minds but if the churches made their purpose that of fulfilling the gospels they exist to make manifest in the world, it might work better than adopting the trappings of the very culture that is killing them. It might not work but they’d die doing what they are supposed to be living for. They might find it easier to do if they didn’t have a building to maintain, though some of those would certainly be a useful place to do it from. Jesus wasn’t a building based minister, it was when he came into contact with that big one that real trouble started.

Anthony McCarthy
Some of these need no further comment from me; especially as we move down the comments, and they begin to reflect, like the Bible itself (a collection of books, after all; not a single volume. "Bible" simply means "Books." It's a title we gave it, not God or some prophet. How soon we forget that.) The whole purpose of comments on a blog is summed up in observations like these:

Grandmère Mimi,
You are absolutely right; the kingdom of god is meant to be countercultural. Without that focus on justice and mercy, the church becomes just so much background noise.
Cowboy Diva
And this one comes in just as I am preparing this post, and perfectly captures what I was trying to say:

This post really hit home. We are returning to the US this summer after 4 years in the UK where we attend the local C of E church. In our early 40's we are frequently the youngest at the service, and our kids were the only ones in the Sunday school. I sing in the choir where I am age of the children of the other singers. I finally stopped forcing my oldest two to attend Sunday school, they complained at there being no one else and having to discuss religion with people the age of their grandparents. Once a month we get a family crowd at a "family" service where the readings, prayers, etc. are all conducted by the youth of the congregation. Otherwise the youth and their parents don't exist. If we return in 10 years it would be very hard to beleive there will be any congregation at all. This church actually has 3 members that have joined the ministry after retiring from other professions, and the last two pastors joined the ministry in their 50's. Yes it is good that people can join the ministry with a lifetime of experience to bring to the task, but also sad that we have the same age group talking to only the sage age group.

Our ELCA church in the US has had a different path. Sunday attendance has been flat for over 10 years, but our Sunday school has almost tripled. A steady trickle of families with children has replaced the aging congregation. But it points out the missing group, those between high school and their first children. People come back to church when their kids hit 4 or 5. Otherwise if single or childless, they don't exist. Those returning are returning, they were raised going to church. The unchurched are not attracted. The other smaller group that have joined are older couples moving closer to their grandkids. In a few cases, joining our church because that is where their children and grandchildren attend. I like to think we had some great program that worked, but the ability to stay constant in attendance and add to our Sunday school appears to be mere chance. (We also got a few members back when we decided to write and speak with every member on the rolls, they started attending again because they felt invited back.)

My apologies for the length, but the short point is the mainline churches are not reaching those between 18-35, the childless, and the unchurched. Fewer and fewer are attending for their own religious experience and growth but to provide that for their children or grandchildren.

Peace be with you.

Expat in UK
And also with you; and with you all. This goes to my original impetus which is also, as D2 wisely reminded us at the outset, is the weakness of any one vision: we know only what we know. I am concerned about the "unchurched" and the ability of the church to reach out to those who don't know it and don't need it. But then, we've been there before, haven't we? It may be we all, especially those of us ordained and called into the particular ministry that follows in the footsteps of Peter and Paul, have to take up the mantle of such itineracy again. I am very concerned at the costs a full-time pastor imposes on a church; and the sense of identity a "proper" church gives people. The history of the church, even the recent history, is littered with small groups and small churches that couldn't buck the trend, the expectations, the assumptions of both the culture and the society (and even sociology). But I also know, from my own experience, of exceptions to the rule. There are always exceptions to the rule, and they prove that God is working in the church, as opposed to the church working to do the work of God. (We too easily get that equation backwards.) Certainly the trend seems to be what expat identifies. Some congregations, as D2 reminds us, are reaching the young, the 18-35. But what can the Church do about it? What should the Church do about it?

That is the ecclesiological question today.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Just because you're paranoid

doesn't mean they're not out to get you:

The former Vice President characterized the Iranian goal in negotiations on ending that country's nuclear program as mere stalling for time, and the Europeans as trying to "restrain the U.S." from military action.

"Everybody's in a giant conspiracy to achieve a different objective than the one we want to achieve," Cheney said.
Because, you know, we need to start a third war, the other two are going so well. And then there's this conspiracy! The rest of the world hates us for our freedom! They want to tie down the mighty Gulliver of our military with their Lilliputian webs of deceit!

OTOH, I spent part of the day in a public place, a government agency no less, crowded with people trying to get something they each needed.

I didn't get the sense a one of them cared a wet snap about 40 photographs showing abuse of prisoners by US military personnel, and whether or not they'd ever get to see them.

I really need to get out more. So does Dick Cheney, apparently.

While We're On the Subject this morning....

By the way, pay attention to what Liz Cheney says here. The argument is not just the "ticking time bomb" scenario, but that torture is illegal, so what was done was not torture. This is not accidental. This is, as Lawrence Wilkerson point out, blind panic.

Notice Mr. Robinson is frustrated because Ms. Cheney's argument begs the very question it raises. If we can assume a perfect scenario where we know the outcome before taking the action, then, hey, presto! It's okay!

Real life, of course, doesn't work like that. And Ms. Cheney never mentions how many times we waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, or what information we got from him. This is the level of the argument now, though: bluster. Small wonder Mr. Robinson soon realized he was arguing with a fool, and how pointless that is.

How Torture Works

Yes, it is disgusting that we have to talk about torture in terms of efficacy rather than as the amoral and unconscionable practice it is. But that's the way the debate is being framed, so we might as well get good at it. And since the Framer-in-Chief of this argument is Dick Cheney and his Nebulous Claims of Security, we really should keep this story in mind when listening to him:

In their book "Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War," Michael Isikoff and David Corn said Libi made up the story about Iraqi training after he was beaten and subjected to a "mock burial" by his Egyptian interrogators, who put him in a cramped box for 17 hours. Libi recanted the story after being returned to CIA custody in 2004.
And just in case that name isn't familiar:
Libi was captured fleeing Afghanistan in late 2001, and he vanished into the secret detention system run by the Bush administration. He became the unnamed source, according to Senate investigators, behind Bush administration claims in 2002 and 2003 that Iraq had provided training in chemical and biological weapons to al-Qaeda operatives. The claim was most famously delivered by then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell in his address to the United Nations in February 2003.
Cheney, of course, still insists the invasion of Iraq was an unalloyed good, and has never admitted any intelligence justifying that war was in error. So his evaluations of the value of torture need to be seen in the light of what we know about him, and his opinions.

I wrote this yesterday, then last night heard Lawrence Wilkerson on Rachel:

And heard about this comment by Jesse Ventura:

(I do love the way Jesse makes Larry uncomfortable with his critique of Bush.)

What can I say? When I agree with Jesse Ventura and a retired colonel who's still in the GOP...well, it's gotta at least be worthy of publication on a blog.