Friday, August 28, 2009

Do You Know What It Means?

New Orleans is much in the news now. Something about anniversaries makes us pay a bit of attention; but not so much that anything gets done about it.

So it goes.

I'm no expert on the city, I have no special insight into the situation, other than having made a brief stop there a few weeks ago. It was the end of a long car trip, returning from Brooklyn, in fact, and we were all tired and anxious to be home. If I hadn't paid for the room already, I think we'd have all gladly added the extra hours to the day just to sleep in our own beds that night. So maybe that colored my impressions of the city. That, and I hadn't been there in more than 20 years. My last visit was long before my daughter was born, and I was younger and more feckless and my memories of the visit are both hazy and rose-colored. But the city seemed infinitely sad to me, broken in a way that almost couldn't be repaired, and certainly wasn't being mended.

We drove in from the east, and I was too busy paying attention to traffic to pay attention to the surroundings. I don't know that area from before Katrina, so I couldn't say that it had changed. I-10 doesn't exactly take you through the 9th Ward, either, so I didn't get an up-close view of the devastation. We drove into the French Quarter, and stayed the night there at a lovely hotel just off the square where the St. Louis Cathedral is, and walked around the block to Tujaques for dinner that night. Maybe it was because it was August; maybe it was because of Katrina; but even the Quarter seemed devastated, lost, broken, discarded. It's always been a fabulous invalid, a squalid and wonderful Grande Dame, as only Tennessee Williams could capture it. I remember it from decades ago, my last adult trip there, and even then, while it was seamy, it still seemed like an adult Disneyland. This time, it seemed like a Disneyland for adults that the owners had abandoned. The restaurants, the tourist attractions, were still trying to put a brave face on it, but it was like everyone knew: if this place isn't dead, it's dying.

The Quarter, from what I understand, was relatively untouched by the flooding of New Orleans. It was on higher ground; when the waters rose, they didn't rise that high, because much of the rest of the city was below sea level, but the Quarter wasn't. But the rest of the city fed the Quarter, fed it in ways both real and substantial, and without the rest of the city, the Quarter is very much an invalid, but no longer so fabulous. It was like a bell jar had been dropped over it, in an attempt to preserve what was no longer there. Before, it had seemed vital if decaying, alive if left behind, dazzling if seamy. Now, it just seemed sad; infinitely, terribly broken, and sad.

There were a lot of variations on this theme in the shops: on T-shirts, especially. But it was almost like no one was listening. There were people in one shop wearing UCC T-shirts advertising a clean up they'd helped in, a storm recovery. I don't know if it was current or ancient history, and they were back to see how things were, or in the Quarter taking a break from their labors. Either way, 4 years later, and still handfuls of volunteers doing what they could, or remembering what they did: what could be sadder, while at the same time so hopeful? That's how New Orleans struck me, the last time: an admixture of sorrow and hope, of memories of the glory days of the 19th century, and anticipation of what could still come. The anticipation is still there; but it's also still cleaning up the mud. 4 years later.

What have we learned? When will we ever learn? What have we become?

I still don't know.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

"My death, is it possible?"

Apparently the mere contemplation of that question with regard to healthcare is enough to send some people over the edge into gibbering madness. Or, at least, the opponents of any change to the American health care system hope so. "Death panels" fizzled out and has now been replaced with a VA "Death Book." The real issue, however, is not death; it's living wills; it's health care directives.

I noticed this when watching the televised version of Jon Stewart's interview with Betsy McCaughey. She really didn't coin the term "death panels" (that was Sarah Palin), and she really seemed less worried with government cutting off funding for the elderly at the end of their lives (though she insisted that was part of the law). Her fundamental, but unspoken, concern, was with the entire concept of a 'living will.' And really, that's not an insignificant issue.

We all imagine, when we are hale and healthy, that a lingering death would be the last thing we would choose. We also all imagine, when we are imagining our end of days, that we will be in complete control of the situation, and the end of life, like the end of a movie, will be clear, and we'll both know it is coming, and know when it will come. We imagine, in other words, that we will be in control until the end, and that we will "pull the plug" without fear or concern about what comes 'after.' If anything comes after. What we don't imagine, of course, is "after." Or we do, but we imagine it to be simply a continuation of what we've known since we became self-aware. Perhaps we imagine a bright light, or a long tunnel, or some kind of gauzy body lifting up out of this all too-material, all-too fleshy, one. Perhaps we imagine nothing at all, but what we don't imagine, is our annihilation. We imagine our pain, our suffering, and we imagine ending it. What we don't imagine is how permanent that ending is. We think a "living will" means control over our suffering, which we fear when we are healthy. We never imagine it means the end of all sensation, permanently. We don't imagine it because we can't imagine it.

I know many people who talk about what they want for their funerals. It's funny, and I seldom remind them, but they won't be there to care. We imagine our death, but we imagine observing our death, even observing our own funeral. But you won't be there; not so far as we know, anyway. We can't imagine death as just a transition to another state of being. We have to imagine death as it really is: the cessation of life. We have to face that squarely, even those of us who consider ourselves Christians, who think we have souls which are immortal. If death is not real, then the crucifixion is not real, and Christ never died, and the resurrection was just a puppet trick. No matter the theology, we have to face the reality. Death is the end. Death is when we leave, never to return. So an advanced directive, a "living will," should, ideally, be approached soberly and seriously. Because how you feel about death when you are healthy, may not at all be how you feel about death when you are dying.

I understand in medieval Europe death was often greeted as a friend, because death could bring relief from suffering. It's understandable, with modern medicine, that we've changed our thinking about that. But we still fear chronic pain, and rightly so. I know people living in pain today which modern science cannot alleviate. It is not pain enough to make them welcome death. But I've seen people die of cancer, where the only alleviation of pain was morphine, which is as close to the embrace of Morpheus as we can get on this side of the line between living and dead. I am not arguing against living wills here; but they are curious documents we examine all too lightly, that we sometimes don't consider at all. We just assume they will put us in control, and we move on.

But when it comes down to it, what if we aren't ready to die? What if we are not prepared? Ironically, that's the purpose of all the language in the law about counseling and consultation; it's a regard, a reverence, a protection of life. The real perversion of the discussion is not the fear that the living will want to discard the dying as an inconvenience; it is that we will do it in order to save money. It is, in other words, a perfectly American obsession, where "obsession" is a euphemism for "fear."

That fear has a root, and it's not entirely an irrational one. The root is in the very nature of our healthcare system:

Alone among advanced countries, we treat health care like a market commodity to be distributed according to the ability to pay, not like a social service to be distributed according to medical need.
Ay, there's the rub: we've reduced health care to a market commodity. Why not reduce patients to commodities, too? Why, we do!

For nearly two-thirds of Americans, we rely on hundreds of private insurance companies to set prices and benefits and pay providers. They profit by refusing to cover the sickest patients and limiting services to others. In fact, we have the only health system in the world based on avoiding sick people. Insurers cream 15 to 25 percent off the top of the premium dollar for profits and overhead (mainly underwriting) before paying providers.
And now, of course, we are afraid; we are very afraid. We are afraid that if we wake up and face the monster we have created, it will devour us. We are afraid that if we challenge the system that is killing us, it will abandon us. We are afraid that if we don't sacrifice the sick in order to save the healthy, we will all perish. And that is precisely what we fear most of all: that we will perish. Our death is not really possible; and yet we fear, we know, that it is. But it isn't death we fear; it is the living death. It is death-in-life; like suffering; or having to to go the emergency room, because you have no health insurance. And being hounded, ever after, by hospital bill collectors; because we all know emergency room care is not free. But where did we get the idea that money is more important than people? I can't imagine. Maybe Neil Cavuto could explain it:

He [Obama] has a moral obligation to protect our financial dignity. He has a moral obligation to protect our currency and our system. He has a moral obligation to protect our financial way of life.

I imagine Mr. Cavuto also complains about "death panels" and "death books," with no hint of irony or contradiction. But applied to the rest of us, I'm not being caustic when I say these things. I'm serious. We fear suffering, and we fear humiliation; and we fear being out of control. But, of course, we aren't in control now; the health insurers are. They tell us who go see, what to get treated for, what drugs we can take. And if we live long enough, we all hope to get on Medicare; as long as it promises not to kill us.

Or maybe we aren't that afraid. FoxNews and conservative pundits certainly think we are; but the polling doesn't support it. Charles Grassley has already started walking back his comments about "killing grandma," claiming the audience at the town hall meeting made him talk about it, and President Obama put the objectionable words in his mouth. "Death panels" didn't last long enough to start a prairie fire in a dry month, so it's already been replaced with a "death book." Yes, our discourse is stupid, but largely because cable TV needs something to fill 24 hours with when Congress is not in session. There's precious little evidence any of this is gaining any traction in the larger public debate, or is changing the votes of any Democrats (the votes of Republicans seems to be a foregone conclusion; all signs of change there have been false ones).

Still, there is an interesting revelation in the idea that the government would urge people to die (especially veterans; apparently if the gov't didn't kill them in battle, it wants to get rid of them in the VA health care system) simply to save money. This would be the same government that is wildly spendthrift when it comes to social programs (and never when the money is spent buying weapons systems). One can point out the inane inconsistencies all day. It is the common thread that is interesting: what most disturbs these critics is the fear that their worship of money will fully take hold, and devour them and their world; that we will all finally know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. That may not be the fear that drives them to go on TV or write blog posts, but it seems to have been the fear that sparked Betsy McCaughey; and certainly the fear you feel is easier to promote than the one you don't.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The enemy of my enemy....

The interesting thing about Pagels' thesis is that Satan is not the enemy who threatens us from without (a la Milton's Satan, in particular), but the enemy who threatens us from within. From within the community, that is, not within the psyche. Satan, in Pagels' explanation, is not some division of the soul into light and dark, but the fear that those closest to us are the ones capable of doing us the greatest harm, of being the gravest threat because they will betray us. In Pagels' account Satan is not the tempter (that's Milton), but the traitor, the one we trust when we shouldn't. It is this intimacy of the enemy that makes the idea of Satan particularly relevant just now.

First, let me step back and put this discussion in context. In seminary one doesn't really learn much about Satan; unless you study the book of Job, there really isn't much reason to pay attention to the character at all. Satan makes his longest "appearance" in the Gospel of Luke, and even there one could argue over a distinction between the tempter in the wilderness and the "powers of darkness" which Luke mentions later (Pagels easily conflates the two, and insists the latter is merely a metaphor for the former; I disagree). Most of the mentions of Satan in Matthew and Mark are also limited to the temptation in the wilderness. John makes no mention of Satan at all, (nor of the temptation sequence), but refers repeatedly to what is clearly a cosmic battle between Good and Evil, and also clearly identifies "evil" with "the Jews" (though whether he means dwellers in Judea, as the Romans did by the Greek word John uses, or the children of Abraham, is a bit harder to pin down). But there aren't that many refernces to Satan in the New Testament (most of the writings about Satan are non-canonical and more developed in the Middle Ages literature), so it's not a prime topic of seminary study.

Which means what I learned in seminary was pretty much what I'd heard before seminary, including the notion that Satan was brought into Christianity through contact with Zoroastrianism by some vague route at some indefinite time. Turns out that isn't true at all, though I know that more by Pagels' silence than by her treatment of the topic. Satan, that argument went, was a concept that violated the radical monotheism of Judaism. But that argument assumes the radical monotheism of Judaism dates back to the days of Moses, if not Abraham, and was strictly adhered to from the beginning. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth, especially since it was the Essenes who contributed the idea of an enemy to God and to God's people (i.e., the Essenes; the "enemy" were the Jews who were not Essenes; more on that in a moment), an enemy they called "satan," to the religious vocabulary eventually adopted by Christians. Which is not to say the Essenes were the sole source of ideas about Satan, but they were very observant Jews who conceived of a cosmic struggle between Good and Evil, a struggle in which they were foot-soldiers. Today we might insist, with Job, that if we accept good from God we must accept evil, too (a basic principle of radical monotheism; otherwise "God" does get split into dueling powers, even if one is not quite rival to the other [again, see Milton. Lucifer is powerful, but there's never any question who has the real power in Milton's cosmos]). But the Essenes declared God good, and those who followed God's requirements as strictly as they did, good; and that made other children of Abraham apostate, or "evil." It also meant the real enemy was not the Romans, or the Gentiles more generally; it was the members of the community whose beliefs and practices didn't measure up to Essene standards. The enemy was an intimate one, and that made the danger all the worse, because only those intimate to you, can betray you.

You can see almost immediately how Satan becomes, from this, the tempter, the seducer, the one who persuades you to act against your own best interests. Your enemy can't do that; but your friend can. Your enemy is opposed to you; your friend wants what's best for you. Until it turns out your friend is Iago, who declares in the opening of "Othello": "I am not what I am." A better reversal of the statement of identity to Moses by the Burning Bush is hard to imagine. And, of course, the relationship of Creator to created is (or should be) an intimate one; so the perversion of that relationship is equally so. And it is the one you trust who can lead you to your destruction; or to your salvation: "I am God Almighty. Live always in my presence and be blameless, so that I may make my covenant with you and give you many descendants." (Genesis 17:1b, REB). The covenant promises blessing, but requires righteousness. No one can lead Abraham astray (he is a patriarch!), and as Krister Stendahl would argue, before Augustine's confessions no one can really imagine themselves pitted against themselves. The temptation that betrays you, then, that leads you astray from the righteousness the covenant commands, must come from another source, and not necessarily a powerful source; simply a destructive one, an intimate one; an internal one. Internal to the group, if not to the individual.


It's telling that Satan is never personal in the Hebrew Scriptures. It is Abram who is afraid, on his travels, and always presents Sarai as his sister, not his wife. It is David who lust after Bathsheba, not she who lures him (or a demon out to beset David's throne). Satan never appears, anxious to undo what looks like a good thing. In Job Satan merely acts as a questioner, a challenger; an adversary in the sense of someone who merely raises questions, not one seeking to upset God's order and sew chaos in Creation (again, that's the Satan of Paradise Lost). That Satan merely asks the same question Ecclesiastes asks after the uplifting and almsot-bourgeois sentiments of Proverbs: but what about pain and suffering, and the role they play? People are the source of their problems in the Hebrew stories (even in Job; at least, according to his friends); just as they are in the Greek tragedies. "Othello" violates the most basic rule of Aristotle's theory of tragedy, because it employs an antagonist, an enemy, a person bent on the destruction of the title character, and that aim is the plot and purpose of the entire play. But it is the intimacy of the antagonist that marks the enemy from the "satan." It is the personal interest Satan takes in the Gospel stories, the temptation in the wilderness, that marks the change in the understanding of who the "tempter" is, and who is tempted. But, as Pagels shows, that change pre-dates the Gospel writers, and even Paul.

I say "even Paul" because we too easily forget that, without Paul, there might well be no Gospels. Without Paul, there might have been no gospels to collect, no communities of believers to produce them, no preservation of a record of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, because if the Christian church had not developed as primarily a Gentile organization, it might not have developed at all. And yet that development, as exemplified in the youngest of the Gospels, the Gospel of John, depended in part on demonizing the Jews by those Jews who converted to Christianity, much as the Essenes demonized their brothers in order to preserve their purity (and justify their belief system). As Pagels implies in her study of the social implications of creating an intimate enemy, there wasn't a great deal of support for a "Christian" church among Jews, and Paul was the great apostle to the Gentiles, so despite the shoes of the fisherman, it is more to the Pharisee that we owe the records of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. And it is to those records, as Dom Crossan pointed out a few years after Pagels' book, that we owe much of the anti-Semitism that has plagued Western civilization. But, as Pagels points out, that animosity burned because of the "intimate enemy" perceived to be present at the birth of what became the Christian church as it separated from the children of Abraham.

They didn't invent this enemy, however, so much as bring it with them. Pagels goes into greater detail than I can here, relating the pressures and stresses and communities among the Hebrews ("Jews" is a later appelation, and at the time of Jesus of Nazareth down to the writer of the Gospel of John (ca. 90-100 C.E.), was still a term more applicable to "dwellers in Judea" than to a people ("race" is an even later anachronism)) that led to group being pitted against group, much as Protestant denominations are to this day (some against other Protestants, some against the Roman Catholic church, some against everybody else at once!). The intimate enemy had deep roots by the time Christians began writing their gospels under Roman rule, and Roman rule played a large role in how those stories were told, especially the passion narratives. By and large they defer responsibility away from Pilate, or by Luke and John (the youngest gospels), put it almost entirely on the Jewish leadership, making Pilate what he most decidedly was not in reality: a helpless pawn. In fact, Pilate was finally removed from his governorship for ruling too harshly, for being too willing to use power over the populace, for executing with too free a hand. Unlike the picture painted by Luke, Pilate would have crucified Jesus of Nazareth without a second thought. But when you are a community caught between the established religious power of the Pharisees (after the Temple had been destroyed) and the Roman empire, it's wiser to blame the Pharisees for your problems, rather than the Romans. As the crucifixion of Jesus shows, Rome treated any complaints about its power with a rather heavy hand.

So once again, the enemy is intimate, since any knowledge of the teachings of Jesus would not only necessarily come from Hebrews, but also require knowledge of Hebrew history and religious practice to fully understand. To this day Christians don't have to practice circumcision or keep kosher to understand Christian doctrines, but they do need to be aware of what most call "the Old Testament." It was no different when all that existed were house churches, and people were just beginning to piece together a coherent narrative of this Nazarene in whose name they worshipped. But where Paul's starting point was the crucifixion, that had to be the ending point for the narratives; which meant that crucifixion had to be put into context, and it had to be explained as something more than a theological matter. There also had to be an explanation as to why Jesus taught solely the children of Abraham, while Gentiles seemed to be the ones most interested in adopting his teachings. Differences and divisions must be explained, and when the explanation involves concepts like "holiness", it's easy to see how the discussion quickly turns to "pure" and "impure." And when the distinction between you and me comes down only to a matter of doctrine, to a distinction between who we call "holy," and why, it's much easier to make that distinction stick if one choice is good, and the other choice is....bad.

It didn't have to go that way, of course, but it did go that way; and assessing fault is another game we have neither the space nor the expertise for. Suffice to say there was enough blame to go around (and the Christians, as I say, learned this kind of demonizing from the Essenes and other Judean groups; this as an intimate enemy, not a Persian one), and when the Christians finally got a chance to wield it as a club, to their discredit they did so willingly. Like Pagels, I'm more interested in the social issue here: it is the intimate enemy, the traitor in the group, the satan, who represents the most powerful force, the darkness that is always present even in the midst of the light, the danger that is the worst because it is the one you have let in, and the danger that is greatest not because it endangers you, but because it endangers the group as a whole.

Even in the gospels, when Satan enters into Judas to tempt him personally to betray Jesus, it is a betrayal that strikes at the heart of the community of believers: not just the twelve disciples, but all the followers of Jesus of Nazareth (the women were never deemed disciples, yet they are present at the tomb in all four narratives). When believers are tempted in the early chapters of Acts, it is the community that is threatened, not their individual souls. Satan is still not about leading invidual souls to hell; Satan is about danger to the group, to the community; danger from the most vulnerable place of all: within. It is the intimacy of the enemy that always makes the "satan" the greatest risk.

Which brings us, with a jerk, to the present. The Japanese were demonized in World War II on the fear they would be an intimate enemy. German speakers in America were demonized in World War I. But our enemies in the 20th century were almost always from outside, from across the oceans that had made "Fortress America." And then, in the Cold War, the enemy was within: within the State Department, within Hollywood, within our TV sets. After 9/11, we had an enemy again, and the enemy within was such a threat we rounded up thousands on no basis at all other than sheer fear. But today, what drives the "birthers" and the "deathers" and the "Obama is a Nazi!" screamers, is the same fear of the intimate enemy, the one within our borders, the one in the very seat of power. Because he is black? Probably. But certainly because he is other; and the other we fear most, is the one closest to us, and the one who endangers the largest number of "us." That one, that "other," we label: "satan."

It's why racism is so virulent in America, to this day. Long ago, we kidnapped and forced people to come to this country, and immediately became dependent on their labor. Without them, the South was nothing. We depended on them, just as we depended on wave up on wave of immigrants to continue to furnish the raw material for the "American experiment," the "American dream." And so we've always had a love/hate relationship with strangers, and with change. We have to let them in, we tell ourselves, so we can flourish. We cannot let them in, because they mean change. Today we simultaneously depend on "illegal aliens," even as we despise them. And when we crank the fear up high enough, we demonize them. It is the "intimate enemy" who is the most dangerous; the one you most depend on, who presents the greatest danger to you; and that great danger, is betrayal. But betrayal not of me, or you; betrayal of the society. The risk the "satan" presents is not personal; it is on the order of Greek tragedy. It is the risk to the society. Which is why demonization works best with an angry mob.

What we are talking about here is the heilige, the holy (somehow Derrida's use of the German word always seems more appropriate to me), though nobody quite wants to put it that way. But how else do you understand this, for example?

In this tradition there is no interest at all in the unity of the institutional church. What is of interest is the exact opposite: to clarify the distinction between true Christians and everybody else, and to ensure that one's own church is entirely governed by true Christians. It is this ecclesiology which responds to the fact that one of Anglicanism's 800 bishops is an open homosexual by treating it as urgent crisis needing to be resolved immediately.
Appropriate language in a discussion of ecclesiology, to be sure, although dangerous as nitroglycerin. In secular circles, we get comments like: "I want my country back!" Which is an almost peculiarly American plaint, given the current circumstances (i.e., we hardly verge on the collapse of government or civil order). America is an idea, not really a country. If we find we don't all agree about how, politically, America should be handled, then we are perpetually on the verge of "tearing the country apart." And if we are always about to tear the country apart, or take away someone's constitutional (it's never civil) rights, then the society is done for. And the threat that will do this is always: the intimate enemy. It's the people in power, in true power: Congress, the White House. And the distinction which must always be drawn is between "true Americans" and "everybody else," and only the "true Americans" can govern. So Obama was born in Kenya; or he was born in Hawaii, but 6% of Americans aren't sure Hawaii is a state in America. The enemy must never be one of us; he must only seem to be one of us; and the more so, the more dangerous he is, the more "other" he must remain.

Transferring this "argument" to the political realm raises the question: how, then, should we respond? Obama's much maligned response has been to seek reconciliation even as his offers are rebuffed. For this he has been much derided, much despised. But it's an interesting response to demonization and vilification, and it raises the question: what is the better response? To react to the demonizers with a show of raw power? To do all within your ability to squash them, prove to them you are an enemy not to be f*cked with? Or do you prove to them, over and over again, even as they don't evidently learn the lesson, or even recognize the lesson, that you are not an enemy, not a "satan"?

I'm not sure, but it's an interesting response; and equally interesting has been the response to the response, and not just from Obama's political enemies.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Alas, poor Yorick!

So, I read this, and my first thought was to wonder why C.S. Lewis and his ilk were/are so determined to find God's fingerprints somewhere in the world, to find some evidence of the "works" of the "god" which will, once and for all, establish the "god's" existence. We've been down this road once or twice before, right? And I thought I might be inspired to beat that dead horse one more time.

But I read further, and Wright continues to beat his tin drum for the idea that evolution=progress, and progress=improvement, and improvement=people with Really Big Brains or who are capable of Pure Reason or who otherwise fit one of the cliches of 1960's science fiction in which we finally evolve into pure, almost indifferent energy, like the Organians from Star Trek, or something. Anyway, the arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice because of evolutionary pressures; or some such twaddle. ("Justice," as Mr. Wright would know if he bothered to spend any time reading the Hebrew prophets, is not just an issue of rightly ordered human social systems, or even of communications technology rendering us a "global village." Indeed, I can only imagine what Jacques Derrida would make of Mr. Wright's hegemonic and Anglo-centric assumptions about the virtues of such a village. One wonders what planet Mr. Wright has been living on since 2001.)

I mean, really. This is why scientists and linguists (yes, I'm including Stephen Pinker now; he gets an honorable mention in Wright's column) shouldn't "do" philosophy or theology. They think science is a speculation free zone, and then when they escape it they think they have a "solid" foundation upon which to speculate, so....wheee!!!!!!!!


Mr. Pinker’s atheism shows that thinking in these cosmic terms doesn’t lead you inexorably to God. Indeed, the theo-biological scenario outlined above — God initiating natural selection with some confidence that it would lead to a morally rich and reflective species — has some pretty speculative links in its chain.
First, and please everyone say it with me: there is no thinking that leads you inexorably to "God." I put it in quotes, because Mr. Wright obviously means some version of the Abrahamic God when he uses the term, but he has no real idea what he means, nor does he really care, since he considers the subject "speculative." Buddhism, Hinduism, Janeism and Zoroastrianism, and all the other world religions, have no application here. The only explanation for humanity by humanity is the narrative approved by Anglo-American culture; no other need apply.

Aside from the obvious candidates like Huston Smith, I can think of half a dozen French anthropologists and structuralists, not to mention more than a few deconstructionists and simply Continental philosophers, who would take Mr. Wright's Western-centric assumptions apart like the set of intellectual Tinker-Toys they are. "Speculative links," indeed!

Mr. Wright does reach a better conclusion than this, but he does so by reinventing the wheel and proclaiming himself its discoverer. He outlines, briefly and weakly, a reconciliation of science and theology, one that was worked out several hundred years ago. This, however, is news to Mr. Wright, who rediscovers it and declares himself a pioneer. It's a moment akin to the first European standing on land in the Americas and seeing the Pacific Ocean, thinking he'd found something no one else knew about. Except, of course, the only people who didn't know about it where the people he lived with; which, in reality, made those people remarkably ignorant and uninformed, rather than brilliant and prescient. But then, it's all a matter of perspective, isn't it, and who gets to tell the story.

Today the story is told by either "fundamentalists" who are proud of their ignorance, or "atheists" who are equally proud of theirs (Wright gently points out that even Richard Dawkins misunderstands Paley's 18th century metaphor of the "blind watchmaker.")*. As we should learn (but won't) from the town hall meetings this August, those who scream loudest are not always those in front of the parade, or speaking from the heart of the community. But the truly spiritual among us know there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in Mr. Wright's philosophy; just as there are more human experiences of existence than are contained or even imagined in the history of Western culture (which is, after all, only a small part of a greater whole of human history). Some understand, from experience which follows upon reason (Mr. Wright still seems to assume reason leads the way for experience), that spirituality is more than a sense of justice or fairness or even simple kindness to others; that those are simply manifestations of a much, much deeper reality which Mr. Wright's speculations don't even begin to touch on.

*Speaking of story, Wright begins his essay assuming all those who don't think science and religion are at war with each other until the end of time, simply don't care that much about the discussion. He posits that this groupe, both "religious" and "scientists" alike (the classification system leaves more than a little to be desired; apparently "religious scientists" are like "jumbo shrimp" or "square circles" in Mr. Wright's world, I'd like to introduce him to Georges Lemaitre, the Jesuit priest responsible for the Big Bang theory), have simply chosen to "sit this one out" from tolerance or indifference. But again Mr. Wright conveniently ignores that fact that other people think, too, and may have reconciled the claims of science and religion long before the Vatican decided to apologize to Galileo (which, indeed, is what happened). Mr. Wright's ignorance of the subject he professes to know something about, far outweighs whatever knowledge he brings to the debate.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The handwriting on the wall?

Well, no, not really.

What the linked document will tell you (it's a PDF summary of the law in Texas, and opinions by the Attorney General of Texas regarding that law), is that schools now have to offer a course on the Bible as part of a curriculum, with a focus on the cultural influence/impact of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Which would be extremely interesting if taught from a Jewish perspective, especially; or a Muslim one. Although, as the law recognizes, it would also be controversial. I can't think of a school district in Texas where I wouldn't arouse controversy simply for teaching the Bible as Literature (which I've done, in college courses), instead of as sacred text. The latter, of course, is verboten, and the law and the Texas AG recognize that, so it can't be done. But this is not the indoctrination plan Keith takes it for. Maybe it was meant to be; but I don't think it will work out that way.

I can tell you, as a teacher of high school as well as college level students, that I've encountered students every year with no background in Judaeo-Christian stories; the kind of thing I grew up taking for granted as part of the culture as much as Mother Goose and Looney Tunes. I've taught students who'd never heard of Noah, Moses, Abraham, Isaac, David, Goliath, Jonah, the whale, the Good Samaritan, much less Paul on the road to Damascus or even Balaam's ass. Try teaching English literature before 1960 to students who have no common touchpoint with those stories. It's rather surprising how many references there are to stories once common currency but now as dead as the Dodo because the common lore is now what was on TV when they were children. Students who don't know the Creation stories from Genesis, for whom Sodom and Gomorrah mean nothing (not even opprobrium), for whom "Lot's wife" is an empty phrase. These ideas are shot through English literature down to the near-present, but if you don't know them, you don't hear them. So teaching the Bible as literature is simply teaching it alongside Greek stories of Olympus, or the epic of Gilgamesh. It's hard enough teaching "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" without having to stop and explain what John the Baptist's head is doing on a platter, or who Lazarus is and why he's returning from the dead. But I have to do it every time I teach that poem.

So I'm not shot through with dread at this news, even though I am staunchly in favor of the separation of church and state, even though I know the Texas State Board of Education, which has to approve any curriculum for teaching under this new law that any school may come up with, is full of religious zealots. They are constrained by the U.S Constitution, and they are constrained by Texas law. It may well be more religion slips into some classrooms than should, but if it does, it's there anyway. If any student learns anything that contributes to their knowledge of Western culture, then it won't be an entirely bad thing. Maybe it's not what Texas schools need (and lorry nose, Texas schools need a lot they aren't getting), but it's not the first shot fired in a war for theocracy, either.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Who mourns for language games?

No, I don't get frustrated by claims that Obama wants to establish "death panels" to rid us of costly seniors (whose real concern is that they live for decades after retirement, and fear they are useless and unwanted), or of claims Obama is not an American citizen (where did that one go, anyway? Buried under it's own incredibility, I suppose). As Rick Perlstein points out, crazy has always been with us, at least in American politics. Rather, I get frustrated by the reigning question of religious belief, the one that has been imposed on us since at least the 19th century:

One of the five leaders is Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. Of his belief in God he says:

“I think I’d prefer to talk about being confident that God exists, or trusting that God exists.

“It’s not knowing as you know a state of affairs in the world, it’s much more of a sense that you’re in the presence of something greater than you can conceive. I suppose from my teens I have just been aware of that something greater than I can put words to in whose presence I live.”
It's actually a good answer, because faith is nothing more than trust. "Faith" is another term that has been warped into something akin to blind credulity or, as Williams James described it, "Believin' what ain't so" (although, as James tried to point out, that is not the only definition of "faith" at all). The assumption behind the question put to the Archbishop is that existence is a thing that can be known, just as any object can be known. But even David Hume had trouble with that claim. His analysis of the self taking in all the sensory input which, he claimed, is all we know and all we can know, was that there was no self, since he (himself!) couldn't observe one. So all those observations just--"and then a miracle occurs!"--added up to an illusion of a self. Which doesn't go very far to explain how those stimuli add up to perceptions, much less how those perceptions add up to the illusion of selfhood. But since existence itself is not subject to empirical analysis, it's generally not deemed worthy of empirical study, either.

After all, what is the science of being? Indeed, Western philosophy has split on this very issue. Anglo-American philosophers by and large eschew the subjects of interest to "Continental" philosophers, and continue their pursuit of empiricism and pragmatism (empiricism's cousin). Continental philosophy is much more interested in questions of phenomenology, which have to do with the almost undecidable (and sometimes indecipherable) questions of "being." While the question "Does God exist?" assumes a simple definition for the word "exist," Martin Heidegger spent a lifetime trying to define the word and explain just what "being" is.

Kierkegaard tackled this subject head on, pointing out we can never prove the existence of Napoleon, except by establishing an historical record of events connected to someone identified as Napoleon (and S.K. fits into the Continental/phenomenological branch of Western philosophy). As Johannes Climacus puts it:

If one wanted to demonstrate Napoleon's existence from Napoleon's works, would it not be most curious, since his existence certainly explains the works but the works do not demonstrate his existence unless I have already in advance interpreted the word "his" in such a way as to have assumed he exists.
The works of Napoleon, in other words, don't establish Napoleon's existence unless I have already concluded that Napoleon does, indeed, exist. And as for the existence of God? Well, first, you have to posit that God is possible.

But then, what are the god's works? The works from which I want to demonstrate his existence do not immediately and directly exist, not at all. Or are the wisdom in nature and the goodness or wisdom in Governance right in front of our noses? Do we not encounter the most terrible spiritual trials here, and is it ever possible to be finished with all these trials? But I still do not demonstrate God's existence from such an order of things, and even if I began, I would never finish and also would be obliged continually to live in suspenso lest something so terrible happen that my fragments of demonstration would be ruined. Therefore, from what works do I demonstrate it? From the works regarded ideally--that is, as they do not appear directly and immediately. But then I do not demonstrate it from the works, after all, but only develop the ideality I have presupposed; trusting in that, I even dare to defy all objections, even those that have not yet arisen. By beginning, then, I have presupposed the ideality, have presupposed that I will succeed in accomplishing it, but what else is that but presupposing that the god exists and actually beginning with trust in him.
The question, you see, makes a category error. Does a platypus exist? Well, if you mean by that is a platypus an animal that can be identified, an object that can be classified as "animal" and sub-catetogorized down through the Linnean system, then, yes, it "exists." But if you ask "Do you (your humble host) exist?", you mean something quite different, although you've used the same word in seemingly the same way. Except you haven't, of course. When you ask "Does a platypus exist?", you are asking whether the animal identified as "platypus" is or has been alive in the world. When you ask "Do I exist?," you are asking "Do I have being?" And to ask that is to assume the answer in the question; or at least to assume a definition of "being" that includes a definition of me so that I can have being.

There are really two problems here: one is empirical, one phenomenological. Empirically, an animal identifed as a platypus can be located in the world. Phenomenologically, whether the platypus has being is a matter of definition, for both being and the platypus. As Kierkegaard explains it:

For example, I do not demonstrate that a stone exists but that something which exists is a stone. The court of law does not demonstrate that a criminal exists but that the accused, who indeed does exist, is a criminal. Whether one wants to call existence an accessorium or the eternal prius, it can never be demonstrated.
The thing in my hand can be identified (labelled, if you prefer) as a stone. That does not prove its existence, it simply gives an object a name. Neither do I prove the existence of a person; I simply identify them by name or by societal placement (a "criminal"). How do I ever demonstrate the being of the platypus, or the criminal? And how do I define "being" so that it doesn't include the stone, but also excludes a corpse? Indeed, how can you be sure I'm not simply a clever Turing test? Or that my name doesn't identify the writer of these posts? One might as validly assert that my social security card, or my diplomas, assert my existence. But all they prove is that pieces of paper with a common name are objects in the world that can be known empirically. When I die (i.e., cease to exist), they will still be objects in the world. But if they exist, how can I not exist? Easily, of course; but clearly those pieces of paper don't establish my existence.

If I am the Invisible Man of the Silverberg story, do I exist? Well, yes, and no; and what a pitiable state that would be. If I proclaim my existence and no one acknowledges it, do I cease to exist, like Apollo on Star Trek? Well, if you posit that to be the god's existence, yes. But if you don't....

The problem is not Rowan Williams' answer to the question, it's the question. The best response, actually, would be to ask the interlocuter: "Do you exist?", and when they said yes, ask them to prove it.

The result would be quite diverting.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Memento Mori

I read this book in seminary, and frankly haven't given much thought to it since. It may be that the current debate of "death panels" is going to return us to an infantile state as a nation of hiding under the covers when the thunder rumbles, although I really don't think the situation is that dire. I seem to recall only a week or so ago the "birthers" were going to undermine Obama's presidency if he didn't do something, and he didn't. I'm still not convinced the "deathers" have any more credibility, and the only response to them seems to be either to punch the tar baby (because no matter what you say, they'll say (a) you're a liar or (b) make up a new lie), or effectively ignore it, publish the truth, and wait for the opposition to collapse under its lies.

Or we can talk about death. Funny that death is a favorite subject of entertainment (the latest "Final Destination" movie is advertised everytime I turn the TV on), but we can't talk about it. Or maybe not so funny; we clearly feel the same way about sex. I remember seeing a nude model advertising suntan lotion on sidewalk kiosks in Paris 33 years ago, and this week topless pictures of Sharon Stone on the cover of Paris Match created quite a buzz. A woman nearly spilling out of her dress is okay; a woman actually spilling out of her dress, ist verboten! We like sex in America, but we like to not like it, except when we do like it. Or something. Thinking about it too hard will make your head hurt. Everyone, especially at those town meetings, where the "sleeping giant" is being awakened, would probably also agree there is too much sex and violence in movies and on TV. Funny thing, though: Hollywood keeps turning to it, and we keep pumping money into Hollywood's coffers.

So if all those people at the town meetings expressed their outrage over the sex and violence, who would they be speaking for?

We can't talk about death, but we must talk about death. Dr. Nuland meant to spark that conversation with his excellent book. Too bad that didn't happen.

AMA President J. James Rohack put it this way: "These are important discussions everyone should have so they are fully informed and can make their wishes known. That's not controversial, it's plain, old-fashioned patient-centered care."
Yup. It's pretty simple. The kind of thing people do every day. Usually when they have to, not when they need to.

It's another boundaries issue, which is one reason it is never discussed easily. Boundaries define us, especially in America. Boundaries between "us" and "the politicians in Washington," for example. Boundaries between class, race, social status; even between the living and the dead. It's no accident graveyards are no longer around churches, or that hospitals are places we only visit on special occasions, or that funeral homes are special buildings we never enter until we have to. Nobody ever put a funeral parlor or a hospital in a shopping mall. Healthcare and the end of life are not matters that we incorporate into our everyday existence anymore.

It used to be that a loved one died at home, and as kept there until the burial. This was largely a matter of economy, I suspect. Who could afford an undertaker and all those fees? But it was also a matter of respect. Who would join the deceased in the "preparation room" of a funeral home? You probably wouldn't be allowed to, and I know many people who shudder at the idea of an open casket at a funeral service. I even know people who don't want the service at the church they've attended all their life, because of the sad memories it would cause. It's a mistake to generalize about such things, but it says something about our unwillingness to make death a part of life. It was once the norm for someone to "sit up" with the deceased, until the funeral. It was indecent and unkind to leave the loved one alone. Now we can't wait for the undertaker to whisk away the "corpse," and sometimes we aren't sure we want to see it ever again. Gone are the days when family members lovingly washed the body, and dressed it, and truly paid their "last respects."

I don't know what happened. You can trace the modern attitude toward death back to Tolstoy's "Death of Ivan Ilyich," to some degree. Some of it is simply affluence, the ability to pay someone to provide services, as we pay someone to do our suburban lawns and fix our cars and repair our houses. This is not a harangue against the funeral industry, but more of a question:

What is it that so many people are so scared of? And why? Again, being a pastor, I see this as a spiritual problem, but I don't think I'm wrong to ask: what does it say about us, that we are so collectively so afraid, and so profoundly afraid of death? When and how did we convince our seniors, our elders, our friends and family, that they were so completely useless, that they should be the first to die in order to save society some money?

Are we truly that utilitarian? Are we secretly convinced the pleasures of Omelas depend on our early death? Have we devalued human life this much?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


And all of you
have seen the dance
That God has kept
from me.--Leonard Cohen
The Archbishop of Canterbury roiled the waters in the Anglican Communion recently, an event that would have meant more to me a year or so ago than it does now. If you are curious about how Anglicans are reacting to it, you could do worse than follow the conversation at The Wounded Bird, which is where I take note of it. It's simply a hunt I don't have a dog in now, and a hunt I don't ever want to have a dog in again. And my feelings on this have to do with Pennsylvania and Simone Weil. Let me explain.

Part of the recent travels were spent in the home of a friend from seminary. She's been at the same church since leaving seminary, a feat I am openly and shamelessly envious of. Clearly she has the gifts needed for the pastorate, and she has been blessed with a good congregation. Several years ago, her congregation decided to leave the UCC, a denomination she was ordained in (as am I), and which the church had been a member of since the denomination started in 1957 (it's a very old German church, though whether it started as E or German "R" I don't know). The decision to leave was a carefully considered one, and a painful one, but it wasn't a defiant one. Or at least, not from their point of view.

Here I should explain that my friend and I are great, good friends; but we disagree on almost all points of theology. We went to the same seminary, studied under the same teachers in the same classes, but came to different conclusions about all the issues now dividing churches, issues like Biblical authority and homosexuality (should gays and lesbians be allowed in the pulpit?), etc. We differ strongly on these issues, though we agree on others (like the basic tenets of Biblical interpretation. She's far more "conservative" than I am, but she learned the same exegesis and hermeneutics I did.). We differ, but we simply agree to disagree. It's really no great matter between us; we can discuss our disgreements freely, but I really don't care that she differs from me. She's my friend. She's a good person, a fine pastor, an admirable Christian. What are issues of theology in such a situation?

But it mattered to the UCC in her area. As she tells the story (let's be fair here, I know only one side of the story), she didn't leave the UCC, they left her. Ah, you say, we've heard that before! And especially if you come to this from the context of the troubles in the Anglican Communion and The Episcopal Church, you will think you have. I invite you to think again. My friend told me of events she might have told me about before, at the time they happened; but I'd forgotten them. She reminded me that, before she and her church broke with the UCC, the pastors in her area, her colleagues in the UCC, broke with her. They treated her as a pariah, as "invisible" in the terms of that new Twilight Zone series, "To See the Invisible Man." At meetings of the local UCC, pastors would shun her, would avoid her table, would openly turn away from sitting with her at meals.

You will say this is very human conduct, and it is. It is also very shameful conduct, especially for a religion which bases its primary sacrament on an open table to which all are welcome. The very heart of Paul's eucharisto was a table that welcomed everyone, but especially believers. Was my friend less of a Christian because her theology was not the theology of the denomination? Because she did not agree with the other pastors on one or two points? I will not call those points major or minor, because my interest is in the boundaries question: when do we get to draw them, and against whom, and on what basis? When do we get to decide, as followers of a God who taught us hospitality was important above all things, that someone is undeserving of welcome? How can we live with ourselves when we do such a thing?

As I say, I disagree with my friend on the issue of homosexuals in the pulpit (we have no bishops in the UCC, so that can't be the issue here). But I respect her, love her, and find room in my church for her church, even if they find no room for me. I'm not sure they would reject me, ultimately. I'm not sure they'd reject me if I didn't reject them, but that would be their choice, their decision. That's the paradoxical dark/light heart of Protestantism: the matter of choice. But I would not force that choice on them by demanding adherence to a protocol on how to treat homosexuals. Perhaps they would insist on it; I don't know. But I am ashamed of my colleagues in Pennsylvania who insisted on it against my friend.*

Which brings me to Simone Weil. She was, as Verbis et Operibus says, a paradox:

She came from a secular Jewish home and was never baptized, but she considered herself a Christian — a non-committed Catholic, to be more precise. She was a pacifist, but fought in the Spanish Civil War. She was an intellectual, but was known for her anti-intellectualism. She was a member of the bourgeoisie, but worked on a French assembly line for a year. She loved life, but yearned for her death.
What I know of her I know from the introduction to the book I picked up, Waiting for God. Leslie Fiedler says of her there:

Since her death, Simone Weil has come to seem more and more a special exemplar of sanctity for our time--the Outsider as Saint in an age of alienation, our kind of saint. In eight scant years, this young French woman, whom scarcely anyone had heard of before her sacrificial death in exile at the age of 34, has come to possess the imagination of many in the Western world. Catholic and Protestant, Christian and Jew, agnostic, devout, we have all turned to her with profound conviction that the meaning of her experience is our meaning, that she really is ours....

She speaks of the problems of belief in the vocabulary of the unbeliever, of the doctrines of the Church in the words of the unchurched. The askesis, the "dark night of the soul," through which she passed to certitude, is the modern intellectual's familiar pattern of attraction toward and disillusionment with Marxism, the disciple of contemporary politics.

...To those who consider themselves on the safe side of belief, she teaches the uncomfortable truth that the unbelief of many atheists is closer to a true love of God and a true sense of his nature, than that kind of easy faith which, never having experienced God, hangs a label bearing his name on some childish fantasy or projection of the ego. Like Kierkegaard, she preached the paradox of it being easier for a non-Christian to become a Christian than for a "Christian," to become one....For those to whom religion means comfort and peace of mind, she brings the terrible reminder that Christ promised not peace but the sword, and that his own last words were a cry of absolute despair, the "Eli, Eli, lama sabacthani!" which is the true glory of Christianity.
Obviously at that point I swerve away, since I think hospitality is the true glory of Christianity, because then it isn't about me, but about the other. However, the idea of alienation is a powerful and alluring one, even though it leads, in this post-Romantic era and interregnum between the end of the Romanticism and the start of whatever will finally replace it, rather quickly and easily to navel-gazing. Weil, from Fiedler's introduction, would simply flagellate herself to avoid that, but we needn't be sidetracked by that. It is the sense of being required to be perpetually outside as an insider, that interests me.

Weil, it seems, tried to play a balancing act, which much of this book reflects in the letters she wrote to the Reverend Father Perrin. One of her prime concerns appears to have been whether or not to accept baptism; her reasons for always lingering at the baptismal font, but never stepping through it into the realm of those accepted for the eucharist, are complex and convoluted. For many reasons she felt compelled to remain always at the threshold, and never to cross over or step back.

I have a similar feeling about my call to ministry. I am not devoted to my denomination, although as a pastor I'm expected to be. My friend got in trouble, even with old friends of hers (who were also ordained), because she displayed insufficient devotion to the generally accepted tenets of other UCC ministers. She says today that one reason her church left the UCC is that she and her congregation believe in the authority of scripture; sola scriptura, as Luther famously put it. I think that's a bit of a dodge, and an attempt to assert some higher ground for their congregation against the larger church. I don't think the UCC has abandoned the authority of scripture, but that they understand it differently than my friend and her congregation. That should be fundamental, in a tectonic plates kind of way, but it isn't, for me. I don't interpret scripture in the same way as the larger UCC on many topics. I certainly don't interpret scripture as giving me an excuse, or even a duty, to shun people at meals, or otherwise. "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, diversity; in all things, charity" is apparently a nice thing to say, but really too much trouble to live up to. But if I give authority to scripture, I think I have to live up to it, because I think scripture teaches what those words say. You see the problem with scriptural authority, or any authority: there can be, Robert Browning, but one "Sordello." But "Sordello," and my "Sordello"?

Which does not leave me on the outside, throwing rocks at everyone. I'm an ordained minister, I gave up any pretense to "outside" status when I knelt down and let hands be laid upon me. I gave up any allegiance to "outside/inside" when I first professed Christianity. That's why I put hospitality at the center of my understanding of Christianity: without the radical understanding that we are all strangers who should welcome each other as strangers, even as we are all hosts who are obligated to welcome the stranger, what is the point of professing a faith? If that faith is simply faith in and of the world, then what need is there for God at all? If it isn't, then what confession is it without God? And if a confession of faith in God doesn't radically relocate my life, what need is there for God or confession? In other words, if religious practice cannot lead a group beyond ordinary sociological practices, of what difference is a religious community?

Elaine Pagels makes an interesting point in The Origin of Satan:

Mark does not see himself as separate from Israel, but depicts Jesus' followers as what Isaiah calls God's "remnant" within Israel (Isaiah 10:22-23). Even the images that Mark invokes to characterize the majority--images of Satan, Beelzebub, and the devil--paradoxically express the intimacy of Mark's relationship with the Jewish community as a whole, for...the figure of Satan, as it emerged over the centuries in Jewish tradition, is not a hostile power assailing Israel from without, but the source and representation of conflict within the community.
Aye, there's the rub. It strikes me as an answer, too, to people who challenge the very idea of the God of Abraham because that God fails to save us from ourselves, or reveal the absolute truth to us which none of us can deny. Even in communities where that revelation is claimed, even in communities built on that asserted revelation and a claimed special relationship to the deity, even there, falls the Shadow. We imagine perfection, and then we imagine the perfection is one that suits us best; which means we just need to cast out enough strangers to make everything perfect. If we can just remove them, then we can end the conflict within the community. And if that doesn't work, well, obviously, we just need to remove a few more. Which is the very opposite of hospitality; but we're sure we can make this hospitality thing work, just as soon as we've got the blessed community in order; and then we can determine who we need to be hospitable to.

As Melissa Harris-Lacewell's father reminded her: the struggle continues.

It's an interesting thing that theology does matter in the world. Sadly, it matters for all the wrong reasons. Like anything else given to us by God, theology is supposed to be a tool to guide us, a light on our path, a resource and repository of wisdom for abundant life. Instead, we use it as a club, as denominator, as a chalk spreader for making lines in the grass, marking off what is mine and what is not mine, and who is mine and not mine.

Where does that leave me? Right alongside everyone else trying to make the ethical decisions of how to live in this world. But contrary to the teachings of Aristotle and Robert Wright, I don't think the world has the answers to those questions. "How should we then live?" Every person, unfortunately, has to answer that question for themselves. To that extent, Sartre was right. Whether we are all existentialists now is a more dubious proposition. The main difference between me and everybody else is that I've made a public commitment to a religious confession, made it in a way that is literally life-altering, as measured by the world, not just by theology. Simone Weil-like, I feel outside even as I am inside; but it would be a mistake to make too much of this. It gives me less comfort than I deserve (I've tried wearing hair-shirts; they aren't my style), but certainly no position of privilege, either. If I look upon the divisions in the Anglican Communion and The Episcopal Church, I do so in sorrow and recognition: all God's children need shoes.

Unfortunately there is something about us that does not love to share, or even to admit how many unimportant differences we have. We need distinctions (somebody has to be the pastor!), but we can't make them without making too much of them. I claim no distinction as either Outsider or Saint, but only that of a teacher about the virtues (if not the practice!) of humility, which makes it easier for the struggle that continues.

*There is an important distinction to be drawn on this point, between the UCC and The Episcopal Church. The polity of the UCC makes it far easier for the denomination to accommodate differing points of view, since the basis of the denomination is the congregation, not the bishopric. This means the larger church cannot speak for the local congregation, and the local congregation can only speak for the larger church when it chooses to ordain a pastor. However, no church can be forced to accept a pastor it thinks should be ordained (which would be foolish anyway, in any polity), so the ties that bind are loose enough, conceptually, anyway, to allow a wide diversity in a larger church that proclaims its purpose to be: "That they may all be one." "One" what, as ever, is the sticking point.

"The Struggle Continues"

What she said:

And many a truth is told in jest:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Reform Madness - White Minority
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorSpinal Tap Performance

Monday, August 10, 2009

That's the signpost up ahead, your next stop....!

So I spent my spare time during the 10 days out of town re-reading Kierkegaard's Works of Love. I happened upon the Strand bookstore in Manhattan, where I picked up Simone Weil's Waiting for God, someone I'd never read before.

I had no internet access at the time, which made it all the more relaxing. Now I think I was being haunted.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Of Jefferson and Wright

I have been traveling, so I find myself returned full of piss and vinegar, as the saying goes; or perhaps it should be I'm relaxed and thoughtful. Either way, this post by digby on Matt Taibbi put me in mind of the second most famous Frank Lloyd Wright building: the Guggenheim in New York.

We wanted to go there simply because I'd never been in it, and the building fascinates me. But the one day we got near it it was near closing time and the tiny museum (well, compared to the Met or MOMA or even the Whitney) was packed, and the line to get tickets alone would have taken 30 minutes to clear. So we just looked around for a moment and left. But I left wondering: what are all these people doing here? There was no "King Tut" level exhibition there. The Guggenheim isn't known for having the collection of the Met or the Whitney, both nearby. It doesn't have the design collection or even some of the more famous pieces of the MOMA. But it was jammed, and I understand it's almost always jammed on the weekends.

It's the building, obviously. That much admired, much maligned circular ramp that defines and some say, defeats the museum. Critics castigate the place, or admire it; 50 years later it's still a controversial structure. But not with the people; the people love it, they are drawn to it, they can't seem to resist it. They want to be inside such a work of art, such a fantastic piece of architecture. Why?

I can only guess, but maybe for the same reason people read Matt Taibbi, and still read Hunter Thompson, and mourned his death in ways nobody thought to mourn Walter Cronkite's. Maybe, just maybe, because there's some authenticity to Wright's buildings (some of them, anyway. I've been in the Price Tower in Bartlesville, OK, and it's just weird!). Taibbi may be opinionated and even a bit challenged in choosing his metaphors (a vampire squid attached to the face of America? Really? Hunter Thompson he isn't.), but like Wright's building, he has a vision, and he sticks to it. And while the critics may tut-tut, the demos, the polis, loves it.

Maybe they know something....

You say you want an evolution, well you know, we all want to change the world....

To the praises of this book, let me add: "Utter crap."

Wright's thesis is plain first from the title: "Evolution" equals, not biological change in species over time, but "progress," "improvement," "advancement." And "progress" comes not from some metaphysical deity, but from "enlightened" human beings. In a nutshell, Jesus and Mohammed were tribalists who fiercely defended their own groups and didn't give a wet snap for charity or egalitarianism or most of the other finer attributes ascribed to Christianity and Islam (one wonders if they were, instead, responsible for all the violence done in the name of the religions they founded, while all the good is the result of anonymous human beings with no touch of divinity in them at all). Let me take one example, which Wright deals with in a single paragraph: the parable of the Good Samaritan.

According to Wright, it isn't authentic at all, because it isn't found in either the Gospel of Mark or Q. True enough; the parable is part of what Biblical scholars call "Special Luke," as it is found on ly in Luke. But most scholars, including the highly skeptical Jesus Seminar, agree it is original to Jesus of Nazareth, because it is such a striking tale of a morality that transcends tribe and social group and all the silly designations we use to decide who we must care for, and who we can ignore. Wright, however, is not fooled by such things, because he has already decided, using Mark's gospel as his Rosetta Stone, that Jesus of Nazareth was actually a rather nasty and narrow-minded tribalist who cared only for the sons and daughters of Abraham, and probably didn't care much for them. So all that "love your neighbor" stuff was added by unknown human beings long after the supposed Son of God was dead. In Luke's case, almost a century after. See? "Evolution" is a moral function, and it works in people but not because of "gods." So the evolution of "God" is actually the "evolution" of people, who get better and living together and getting along with each other because it's a biological imperative, or simply because we learn over time and have insights that are utterly human, and this is all true because the Gospel of Mark is the oldest gospel and therefore the truest, and it reveals, upon careful Wrightian examination, a picture of Jesus of Nazareth that actually makes him quite a wanker.

Yes, that's it. I'm not making it up. The passage dismissing the parable of the Good Samaritan as the work of Jesus of Nazareth runs for about three sentences, no more. A parable that has provoked volumes of analysis and been subjected to scrutiny by skeptical Biblical scholars for almost 200 years now, is dealt with by Mr. Wright in about three sentences, maybe four. And he settles the matter once and for all.

These things that pass for knowledge I don't understand.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Noticing "Hirsohima Day"

A few days late, but still:

Most Americans ever since have seen the destruction of the populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as necessary and effective—as constituting just means, in effect just terrorism, under the supposed circumstances—thus legitimating, in their eyes, the second and third largest single-day massacres in history. (The largest, also by the U.S. Army Air Corps, was the firebombing of Tokyo five months before on the night of March 9, which burned alive or suffocated 80,000 to 120,000 civilians. Most of the very few Americans who are aware of this event at all accept it, too, as appropriate in wartime.)

To regard those acts as definitely other than criminal and immoral—as most Americans do—is to believe that anything—anything—can be legitimate means: at worst, a necessary, lesser, evil. At least, if done by Americans, on the order of a president, during wartime. Indeed, we are the only country in the world that believes it won a war by bombing—specifically by bombing cities with weapons of mass destruction—and believes that it was fully rightful in doing so. It is a dangerous state of mind.
There is a direct line between that event, and its justifications, and "shock and awe" and the continued fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. Technology won the "Good War." As Ellsberg points out, "progress" meant, and still mostly means, changes in technology; not in society (although we apply the term loosely to "evolution" now). Technology, however, did not, shortly after the "Good War," defeat the "little brown men in black pajamas," but we have convenient excuses for that, too.

Our faith in technology continues unabated; including the faith that technology, in the guise of computers and the internet, will finally usher in the millenia of peace, prosperity, and democracy. It was supposed to destroy Chinese totalitarianism; it will finally allow progressives to control U.S. politics; and it's supposed to lead to products being "free." Can food without price and wine bought without money be far behind?

Somehow I'm quite sure human culture will continue to lag behind our technology. "O machine! O machine!"

Not that anyone will notice my asking, but...

Is America a country, or an idea?

But as this escalates we should continually be stepping back and thinking retrospectively from the vantage point of the future about where this all seems to be heading.
August, not April, is the cruelest month; in politics, anyway. I have to note, first, that Josh Marshall has no memory of 1968, a year I was later astonished to learn almost meant the death of the republic, according to wise grey heads like Eric Sevareid (no one remembers him anymore, oddly enough; all fame truly is fleeting). There were street riots in those days, actual riots where people were shot, killed, beaten, bloodied; where buildings burned and civic life was actually disrupted. Civil rights marchers were murdered in the '60's (NPR did a retrospective, briefly, on what they called the "Mississippi Burning" case [interestingly they named the case for the movie, which came decades later]). FBI agents were openly threatened (as mentioned in the report). Innocent people were shot to death at Kent State in 1970. And now the republic is threatened because of disruptions at town meetings and threatening phone calls?

Huh. I guess Henry Ford was right, and history really is bunk.

The republic survived the Civil War, as I recall. It survived the Great Depression, a situation actually made worse by the government before FDR started to make it better (and war, always a government enterprise, finally brought it completely to an end; ironically, just as it did for Germany). But we are threatened by a bunch of kooks and excitable people in a few closed rooms around the country? When Phineas Fogg visited America in his whirlwind trip around the globe, he ran into a riot in a frontier town, that turned out to be an election for dog catcher. Jules Verne was only slightly exaggerating the passions brought out in American politics. I read recently that no less a luminary than Ben Franklin despaired for the nascent republic because German immigrants in Pennsylvania were enjoying their liberty so much (and abusing it, in Franklin's eyes) that they were firing pastors whenever the pastor said or did something they didn't like (there's a complex tale behind that of the restrictions on releasing pastors that existed under German law; separation of church and state in America has always meant the courts won't interfere here in ecclesiastical matters which are state matters in Europe).

It's like Tommy Lee Jones tells Will Smith in "Men in Black": the planet is ALWAYS about to end. Deal with it.

So is America a country? Or is it just an idea? Such events don't threaten the social fabric of Germany, or France, or England, where multiple parties exist, some avowedly Marxist or Communist, some neanderthal in their conservatism. America has Tweedledum and Tweedledumber, and any variant shade toward either end of the political spectrum is dangerous and disastrous and means the end of the polis as we know it. I don't like the "tea baggers" and I despise the fear-mongers Rachel Maddow (especially) has exposed this week; but is this really the end of the Republic? Really?

I mean, in historical context, this isn't even a very interesting August....