Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sunday Morning very bright...

So, here's the question: If your focus is the contemplation of God, what do you have to write about?

Even if it involves contemplating God through action in the world, in the concrete lives of concrete others (not the imagined lives of an unknown audience). What, then, do you have to say?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

God is still speaking...but who's listening?

When I posted this, I really shouldn't have forgotten about this, less than two years ago:

Despite their past willingness to air advocacy ads, CBS, UPN, and NBC have refused to run an advertisement for the United Church of Christ (UCC) that promoted inclusion of gays, racial minorities and people with disabilities because they consider it "too controversial" and "unacceptable for broadcast," according to a UCC press release. The ad depicts bouncers outside a church turning away gay, minority, and disabled parishioners, followed by the text: "Jesus didn't turn people away. Neither do we." Both CBS and NBC have aired advocacy advertising in the past -- including an ad put out by the George W. Bush administration and political infomercials by former presidential candidate H. Ross Perot.

According to UCC, CBS cited the current political controversy surrounding the issue of same-sex marriage -- noting in particular the Bush administration's endorsement of the Federal Marriage Amendment -- as justification for not airing the ad on CBS and UPN (both owned by Viacom).
Gosh, Mr. Savage, I wonder why the mainline churches don't speak up more, especially about issues like gay rights?

Why, oh why, would that be? (Yeah, that's the ad CBS and NBC thought was too controversial.)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

...and pass the ammunition!

Primarily, this story about gun sights offends me because it takes holy scripture completely out of context and wields it as if it were both universally and unitarily understood. Which is to say, it ignores the confessional and liturgical purpose of scripture, something even Muslims are averse to doing (which is ironic, in other words).

And it offends me because of the scriptures chosen (taken, again, out of context). Alternatives that wouldn't serve the manufacturer's stated purpose, but which would better serve the Word of God, would include (just for starters):

The maker of heaven and earth, the seas and all that is in them, Who keeps faith forever,
secures justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets prisoners free;
the LORD gives sight to the blind. The LORD raises up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous.
The LORD protects the stranger, sustains the orphan and the widow, but thwarts the way of the wicked.
The LORD shall reign forever, your God, Zion, through all generations! Hallelujah!

--Psalm 146:6-8

Of course, "wicked" there would depend on which end of the gunsight you were on, so maybe that entire passage isn't the ideal choice (but you begin to see the problem here!). So let's try, in their "coding," DT10:18:

He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing.
That would at least fit with what the military is doing in Haiti just now. And how about something from Psalm 10?

You hear, O LORD, the desire of the afflicted;
you encourage them, and you listen to their cry,

18 defending the fatherless and the oppressed,
in order that man, who is of the earth, may terrify no more.
Or PS72?

Give the king thy judgments, 0 God, and thy righteousness unto the king's son.

2. He shall judge thy people with righteousness, and thy poor with judgment.

3. The mountains shall bring peace to the people, and the little hills, by righteousness.

4. He shall judge the poor of the people, he shall save the children of the needy, and shall break in pieces the oppressor.
That tends to point back as much as forward, I think.

Or even this:

Help us, Lord,
for no one stays loyal,
the faithful have vanished.
People lie to each other,
no one speaks from the heart.
May the Lord silence
the smooth tongue
and boasting lips that say:
"Our words will triumph!
With weapons like these
who can master us?"

Then the Lord speaks out:
"I will act now,
for the poor are broken
and the needy groan.
When they call out,
I will protect them."

The Lord's word is pure,
like silver from the furnace,
seven times refined.

Lord, keep your promise,
always protect your own.
Guard them from this age
when wickedness abounds
and evil is prized above all.

No, it just doesn't work for any purpose related to military equipment. But there are reasons for that above and beyond "separation of church and state" or "He shall be called the Prince of Peace." Scriptures like these addle up the notion that peace comes from war, that violence leads to order, that might makes right. There are precious few scriptures which advocate violence as the way of God's law, but more than a few which advocate justice for the poor and the helpless as God's will in the world. If you need a pithy example of that, one that could easily make it onto a gun sight, how about "PS41:1?

Blessed is he that considereth the poor: the LORD will deliver him in time of trouble.

On the news of the death of Kate McGarrigle

Surely the most justifiable use of mixed metaphors ever committed to song.

Monday, January 18, 2010

"People are scared of the poor."

Yes, they are. "The rich are different," Scott Fitzgerald famously observed, and Hemingway was reported to have acerbically retorted: "Yeah, they have more money." But it's more than that, and it's connected to the value we place on possessions, because possessions = "life." We fear the poor because they have no possessions, or not enough possessions; so we fear they will take ours, and, what is worse, in their desperation to own, or their jealousy over what we have, they will take our lives. "They" don't hate us for our freedom; "they" hate us for our possessions.

I've surely mentioned before the grocery store that opened near me, but on the "wrong" side of the freeway. On the south side of the interstate is one of the richest neighborhoods in the country; on the north side, not the poorest areas of Houston, but a very mixed area, economically and ethnically/racially. The grocery store attracted shoppers from south of the freeway, but almost immediately an e-mail flew around (and it's amazing how e-mails can become so localized) detailing a woman whose car was broken into (she'd left her purse in plain sight, of course) and another woman whose purse was snatched as she stood by her car. I suspect both stories were apocryphal, but the grocery store responded with security cameras in conspicuous places, and uniformed security guards and off-duty policemen in uniforms, a show of force that reassured the shoppers from the 'other' side of the freeway that the psychological barrier of that highway still protected them if they ventured to just the other side of it and not only stopped their cars, but got out of them.

Similarly, when I lived at the parsonage of my church, not far from where I live now, many people feared for me and my family because so many people around us were poor, and occasionally a poor person came to my door looking for help. I never felt afraid, though, and I never questioned someone's story of need. I made a determined effort not to judge people based on the size of their pocketbook, or the number and quality of their possessions. But it's a valuation and a measure that goes back to first century Palestine, which means it goes back as far as there has been any society where some had more than others. It also means it is not a "peculiarly American" problem, nor a problem of the wealthy, industrialized world. This morning NPR reported gunshots have been heard in Port-au-Prince, but all of them coming from Haitian police officers, most times because they are fearful of looters (although in a situation where people are starving and everything is rubble, "looting" seems a dubious concern, at best.)

Would this be solved by understanding, by grasping the sociological and anthropological factors at play? It's a nice idea, but I doubt it; and not just because I carry a religious hammer and see everything as a spiritual nail. If reason and knowledge were all that was needed, I'd never get into arguments with anybody about religion, and all but the most cloth-headed people would be either tolerantly religious, or tolerantly agnostic.

Reading Dr. King's comments again, I realize the lesson here is in Jesus' last parable in Matthew, the parable of the sheep and the goats:

Matthew 25:31-46
25:31 "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.

25:32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,

25:33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.

25:34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;

25:35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,

25:36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.'

25:37 Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?

25:38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?

25:39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?'

25:40 And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'

25:41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels;

25:42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,

25:43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.'

25:44 Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?'

25:45 Then he will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.'

25:46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
And one thing I want us to keep in mind: that these are not words of condemnation; not when they come from God:

Nobody can come to grips with the drama of history unless he recognizes that most of the evil in this world is done by people who do it for good purposes. Evil is not that popular. If one gathered together a lot of people and said, "Let us be evil together," it would not go over very well. Thanks be to God!....

Thus the question is not to balance judgment and mercy. Whenever one reads the Bible or theology, what I would call the "who-is-who" question always arises. Who speaks to whom and for whom? The mighty message of God was often heard in a wrong way because one listened in on the wrong message. There are many examples of this. Jesus did say, "Man does not live by bread alone," but he never said that to a hungry person. When he was faced with hungry persons he fed them--4000 or 5000. And he mass produced wine in Cana just to prevent the wedding feast from turning into a fiasco. It was to Satan that he said "Man does not live by bread alone," speaking for and to himself. The church, however, often quoted Jesus in the wrong direction--to the hungry, in defense of the well-fed.

Who speaks to whom? For whom is judgment mercy? That is the question, and unless one understands it, even the most glorious dialectical understanding of theology becomes not only counterproductive but evil.
Krister Stendahl, Paul Among Jews and Gentiles (Philadelphia: Fortress Press 1976), p. 105-06.

Who is who here? In our "good purposes," we fear the poor. We honor law and order above human need, and so we easily look to the failure of Haitian society, to stories of looting, to stories of violence. And those stories too easily turn us in the wrong direction, in defense of the well-fed against the hungry. But consider the parable again: when Jesus said you fed me, sheltered me, clothed me, visited me, he was not emphasizing the damnation of those who failed to help, he was assuring those who were scared of the poor that he, Jesus, was the poor, and by helping them, they helped him. Imagine the strangeness of a God who says helping the poor is serving the Creator of the Universe. In seminary we considered the strangeness of eating the body and blood, not as an act of power, but as an act of remembrance. That act, of course, became a sacrament. I had a seminary professor who liked to talk about the foot-washing scene in John's gospel, the one that replaces the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the wine in the synoptic gospels. He called it "the sacrament that wasn't," and what a beautiful sacrament it would be. Kings of England used to practice it, but it was too humbling, too intimate, too disturbing between strangers, too humbling between friends. This parable was never close to being a sacrament, but how much closer has it ever been to being our practice? And yet it could be; it so easily could be. We all want to do good; we all want to help; we all want to do what we can. Maybe if we consider who we are doing it for, if we consider we don't offer to share with a stranger, but with someone we know: maybe that would make it easier. Maybe fearless helping could truly be a new definition of "greatness."

After all, we really have no reason to be afraid of the poor.

The quote, by the way, is from Retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, who led relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Day--2010

Reposted from last year:

The Drum Major Instinct

But this is why we are drifting. And we are drifting there because nations are caught up with the drum major instinct. "I must be first." "I must be supreme." "Our nation must rule the world." (Preach it) And I am sad to say that the nation in which we live is the supreme culprit. And I'm going to continue to say it to America, because I love this country too much to see the drift that it has taken.

God didn't call America to do what she's doing in the world now. (Preach it, preach it) God didn't call America to engage in a senseless, unjust war as the war in Vietnam. And we are criminals in that war. We’ve committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world, and I'm going to continue to say it. And we won't stop it because of our pride and our arrogance as a nation.

But God has a way of even putting nations in their place. (Amen) The God that I worship has a way of saying, "Don't play with me." (Yes) He has a way of saying, as the God of the Old Testament used to say to the Hebrews, "Don’t play with me, Israel. Don't play with me, Babylon. (Yes) Be still and know that I'm God. And if you don't stop your reckless course, I'll rise up and break the backbone of your power." (Yes) And that can happen to America. (Yes) Every now and then I go back and read Gibbons' Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. And when I come and look at America, I say to myself, the parallels are frightening. And we have perverted the drum major instinct.

But let me rush on to my conclusion, because I want you to see what Jesus was really saying. What was the answer that Jesus gave these men? It's very interesting. One would have thought that Jesus would have condemned them. One would have thought that Jesus would have said, "You are out of your place. You are selfish. Why would you raise such a question?"

But that isn't what Jesus did; he did something altogether different. He said in substance, "Oh, I see, you want to be first. You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well, you ought to be. If you're going to be my disciple, you must be." But he reordered priorities. And he said, "Yes, don't give up this instinct. It's a good instinct if you use it right. (Yes) It's a good instinct if you don't distort it and pervert it. Don't give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. (Amen) I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do."

And he transformed the situation by giving a new definition of greatness. And you know how he said it? He said, "Now brethren, I can't give you greatness. And really, I can't make you first." This is what Jesus said to James and John. "You must earn it. True greatness comes not by favoritism, but by fitness. And the right hand and the left are not mine to give, they belong to those who are prepared." (Amen)

And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. (Amen) That's a new definition of greatness.

And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, (Everybody) because everybody can serve. (Amen) You don't have to have a college degree to serve. (All right) You don't have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don't have to know Einstein's theory of relativity to serve. You don't have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. (Amen) You only need a heart full of grace, (Yes, sir, Amen) a soul generated by love. (Yes) And you can be that servant.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau!

On the one hand, I know about books like this (though I honestly don't take the time to read them anymore. Life is short, and the bookshelf is long.)

Twenty-three philosophers examine the doctrine of materialism find it wanting. The case against materialism comprises arguments from conscious experience, from the unity and identity of the person, from intentionality, mental causation, and knowledge. The contributors include leaders in the fields of philosophy of mind, metaphysics, ontology, and epistemology, who respond ably to the most recent versions and defenses of materialism. The modal arguments of Kripke and Chalmers, Jackson's knowledge argument, Kim's exclusion problem, and Burge's anti-individualism all play a part in the building of a powerful cumulative case against the materialist research program. Several papers address the implications of contemporary brain and cognitive research (the psychophysics of color perception, blindsight, and the effects of commissurotomies), adding a posteriori arguments to the classical a priori critique of reductionism. All of the current versions of materialism--reductive and non-reductive, functionalist, eliminativist, and new wave materialism--come under sustained and trenchant attack. In addition, a wide variety of alternatives to the materialist conception of the person receive new and illuminating attention, including anti-materialist versions of naturalism, property dualism, Aristotelian and Thomistic hylomorphism, and non-Cartesian accounts of substance dualism.
This interests me not only as a subject itself, but because I read a review like this:

According to Wright's theory, although religion may seem otherworldly—a realm of revelation and spirituality—its history has, like that of much else, been driven by mundane "facts on the ground." Religion, that is, changes through time primarily because it responds to changing circumstances in the real world: economics, politics, and war. Wright thus offers what he emphasizes is a materialist account of religion. As he further emphasizes, the ways in which religion responds to the world make sense. Like organisms, religions respond adaptively to the world.
Not, of course, that the materialism being considered by the former is precisely the materialism being employed by the latter; but then, there's the rub, innit? As Hamlet would say. I mean, is a detailed critique of the position of materialism even appropriate for a book like Wright's? It could be the case that the death of a school of thought has been announced prematurely. On the other hand, it could be that Wright has simply failed to notice that the corpse is beginning to molder. Given my opinion of Wright's latest opus, one would assume I adopt the latter position. But that aside, I'm interested in what this review has to offer; which means I have my own critique of it, too. Let me start at the end of the essay, and work my way backwards:

Despite these reservations, I find that I do agree with another, and important, point that Wright touches on in the course of these discussions. Man's sense of the divine has, it seems clear, generally grown more sophisticated and abstract through time. The Logos of Philo is miles beyond the nearly demonic gods feared by primitive man. And as Wright emphasizes, there's every reason to expect this trajectory to continue. Certainly, few thoughtful people, now or in the future, can be expected to take literally the poetic evocations of the divine found in Western scriptures.
This, of course, is the basic misunderstanding of the theory of evolution, the one that leads to complete perversions of the theory, such as Social Darwinism. If there is any trait that sets humankind apart from the other animals on the planet, I would submit it is the passion for finding not just patterns but purpose in the patterns. It's a tendency we can't seem to shake off, even as we try to shake it off. Consider the paragraph slightly earlier than the one just quoted, where the reviewer takes Wright's argument to task:

Although Wright offers these ideas tentatively, it's hard to see how they're supposed to work. He has offered a materialist account of moral progress. If that account succeeds (and he thinks it does), it provides evidence neither for nor against anything transcendent. Indeed Wright's use of the word "transcendent" seems gratuitous. Consider an analogy that has little or nothing to do with morality. Economists argue that the non-zero-sum game of trade—i.e., exchange in which both sides benefit—gives rise to a direction in history: the expansion of trade and the growth of wealth. But no one is tempted to conclude that this directionality suggests a higher purpose. The invisible hand is a metaphor, not a transcendent appendage. Conversely, if Wright's materialist account of moral progress fails, this also provides evidence neither for nor against anything transcendent: maybe God drives moral progress or maybe a different materialist account could explain the facts.
I especially like that line about the "invisible hand." It seems almost impossible to abandon the traditional language of "purpose," even as we critique, especially from a purely materialist vantage point, any idea of "purpose." I'm fine with denying purpose in the world (I think it's a grossly abused notion, even in a theological context); but if we're going to do it, let's be consistent about it.

So if God, as Bokonon tells his followers in Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, has left it to us to find a purpose for all of this, perhaps the materialists are right, and we are just looking for reflections of our own desires in what we see around us. If we lay down that burden, where does that leave us? It's at least a worthy thought-experiment; but apparently, it's almost as impossible to imagine as our own death. Worse still, though, is cultural arrogance, and the masked idea that human civilization has "progressed" to the point of our current state of "enlightenment," an idea that requires the existence of "primitive man" fearing "demonic gods." A brief review of human history, coupled with my own personal experience among churches and people in general, has given me more than a mild taste for the "demonic," enough to be convinced that if the concept is flawed, the reality is unchanged after so many millenia. As for "primitive man," it just won't do: the very phrase conjures up so much cultural chauvinism and Western hegemony I'm almost surprised it was allowed into the New York Review of Books; but at that point I start sounding like Bill O'Reilly, so let me say my critique is meant seriously. Anyone still speaking of "primitive civilizations" is either not speaking in the proper terms of evolutionary psychology, or they are revealing that it is a field that has very little to do with science, indeed. I have my suspicions about "evolutionary psychology" anyway, but I'm not studied in the field, so I'll leave my observations there and move on.

And where we come to is something like this:

The symbols that run through this poetry [i.e., the "poetry" of scriptures] may or may not point beyond themselves to anything real, but surely the ideas that they purport to point to are more significant than the symbols themselves. Wright is right to remind us of this, however obliquely. And he is right to note that peaceful coexistence among cultures, and perhaps even our survival as a species, could rest upon wider recognition of this point. After all, few people presumably want to kill or die over differences among symbols that might represent, at least approximately, the same thing. These are important points and they are worth making. But I don't see how it takes game theory or evolutionary psychology to reach them.
Leave the Romantic/post-Romantic views of "scriptures=poetry", a tangled set of assumptions as easy to unsnarl as a ball of long-legged spiders, and consider instead a response that takes such a comment at face value: "Fine, everyone can reference Eliade (as the reviewer does, establishing the basis for Wright's thesis early in the review), even if they don't seem to have read him; but has everyone already forgotten Ricouer and his work on narrative? Is Derrida's deconstructionism so soon dispatched to the dustbin of discourse simply because it is not deemed sufficiently "scientific"? Does no one still recognize the consequences of Godel's theorem of incompleteness?"

Yeah, I ramble a bit; but the ignorance of Ricouer (like the reviewer's ignorance of cultural anthropology), and more importantly the work of Ricouer, is directly on point here. Maybe people shouldn't be willing to kill over symbols which are so closely related to each other, but have you been in a small group lately? What the "tea party" groups are doing right now, imploding and exploding much like Ross Perot's Reform Party, is the same battle over similar insights that all groups engage in. Indeed, the more nearly the groups are related, the more narrowly they draw their differences. Is this evolutionary? Or just human perversity? Sociology explains it better than evolutionary theory does, for my money; Occam's Razor, and all that. Churches, those tiny test tubes of group interaction and engagement, will break up over the symbolism of how money is spent: on new carpet for the sanctuary, or saved for another purpose, perhaps even given to another charitable end. Symbolism can attach to church furnishings (and not the peculiarly religious ones, like crosses and crucifixes and pews). I was once roundly reviled for suggesting the church I pastored remove a huge commercial stove which had long ago outlived its purpose, and which the fire marshal was now requiring be disconnected, or surmounted by an exhaust/fire suppression system which would have cost half the church's annual budget. That stove had acquired great symbolism for certain church members, and no argument about the similarity of interests we had in not wasting so much money on an unused object was going to be heard. No one fights like family, which is why the Christians and Muslims and Jews battle each other more fiercely in the name of God, Allah, or Yahweh, than they battle with the Buddhists or the Hindus (who battle with Muslims in India and Pakistan because of proximity, not because their gods cause them to war with each other). Protestants and Catholics in Ireland fought with each other for generations precisely over the similarity of their symbols, both religious and national. The fight is usually to preserve those differences, because the symbols are so similar. Really, I'm surprised I have to explain this to anyone; but there we are.

This, however, is where it gets interesting:

Things grow more serious with Wright's second requirement:

"Depending on the exact circumstances, responding wisely to non-zero-sum opportunities can call for more than just seeing the non-zero-sumness. Sometimes it calls for a kind of "sight" that goes deeper. It can call for an apprehension not just of the pragmatic truth about human interaction, but of a kind of moral truth."

This comes as something of a surprise. We've been told that the "pragmatic truth about human interaction" generally accounts for the waxing and waning of religious ideas. And now we're told that something further is needed, a sight that is deeper than pragmatic.

As Wright tries to explain this deeper sight, matters get murky. The key, he says, is something called the moral imagination, the mental ability to put oneself in another's shoes. This ability, he assures us, was "'designed' by natural selection to help us exploit non-zero-sum opportunities, to help us cement fruitfully peaceful relations when they're available." So the argument is that an evolutionary psychological construct, the moral imagination, lets us see game-theoretic situations that are non-zero-sum. And the result, often enough, is economic or political cooperation as well as the expansion of the moral circle.
A "kind of sight"? Blake was talking about, perhaps? Somehow, I rather doubt it. But it is a dubious proposal of scientific reasoning, isn't it? And "moral circles"? What, pray tell, are those? "The motif of the circle will obsess us through this cycle of lectures."--Jacques Derrida, introducing his lectures published as Given Time I: Counterfeit Money, a series of lectures concluded with The Gift of Death. Somehow I don't think Wright is trying to go there, although he should, as Derrida's lectures are about religion, although they go unnoticed by either Wright or Allen Orr, the reviewer. Pity, that; it would have made things so much more interesting. Viz:

"Now the gift, if there is any, would no doubt be related to economy. One cannot treat the gift, this goes without saying, without treating this relation to economy, even to the money economy. But is not the gift, if there is any, also that which interrupts economy? That which, in suspending economic calculation, no longer gives rise to exchange? That which opens the circle so as to defy reciprocity or symmetry, the common measure, and so as to turn aside the return in view of the no-return? If there is gift, the given of the gift (that which one gives, that which is given, the gift as given thing or as act of donation) must not come back to the giving (let us not already say to the subject, to the donor). It must not circulate, it must not be exchanged, it must not in any case be exhausted, as a gift, by the process of exchange, by the movement of circulation, of the circle in the form of return to the point of departure. If the figure of the circle is essential to economics the gift must remain aneconomic. Not that it remains foreign to the circle, but it must keep a relation of foreignness to the circle, a relation without relation of familiar foreignness. It is perhaps in this sense that the gift is the impossible.

"Not impossible but the impossible. The very figure of the impossible. It announces itself, gives itself to be thought as the impossible. It is proposed that we begin by this."
Jacques Derrida, Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money, tr. Peggy Kamuf (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1994), 7.

I mention this because Wright and Orr make much of economics in their analysis (game theory is central to most modern economic theories), yet unafraid as they both are to "think big thoughts," neither entertains the conjectures of a contemporary French philosopher on precisely the subject they are writing about. Neither gives any thought to the impossible, even though that is a standard feature of all discussions in philosophy of religion since, oh, since Kierkegaard gained notoriety at the beginning of the last century. Ah...c'est la vie. Nor do they, materialists to the core, consider the importance of the paradox, especially when trying to speak of "transcendence" in purely materialist terms. I mean, it can be done, I suppose; but it's like trying to speak of a sphere in terms of only two dimensions:

But one must not think ill of the paradox, for the paradox is the passion of thought, and the thinker without the paradox is like the lover without passion: a mediocre fellow. But the ultimate potentiation of ever passion is always to will its own downfall, and so it is also the ultimate passion of the understanding to will the collision, in one way or another the collision must cause its downfall. This, then, is the ultimate paradox of thought: to want to discover something that thought itself cannot think.
Johannes Climacus, Philosophical Fragments, ed. Soren Kierkegaard, tr. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1985), 37.

Rather hard to think ill of the paradox, when you don't think of it at all. But then again, materialism cannot allow that "something that thought itself cannot think" can be discovered. After all, if you don't think it can be found, why go looking for it?

I would go after Wright more deliberately on this point, but Mr. Orr has done it ably for both of us:

Wright's reliance on game theory and evolutionary psychology is troubling for another reason. These theories, particularly when taken together, are so pliant that they can explain almost anything. One consequence is that Wright's readings of the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, or Koran sometimes degenerate into clever attempts to explain each passage as a response to specific local circumstances. Take his explanation of why Paul was so big on brotherly love. Paul, usually absent from any given church, needed to encourage harmony within and among his many fractious congregations; hence his epistles extolling brotherly love (what Wright calls "a form of remote control"). But Wright's hypothesis doesn't work. While Paul clearly suffered organizational headaches, the notion that he preached brotherly love because he was always on the road begs the question of why he was always on the road, reaching out to Gentiles in Antioch, Corinth, Galatia, Thessalonica, and elsewhere. Surely the more plausible answer is that Paul traveled tirelessly because he believed in brotherly love, not that he preached brotherly love because he traveled tirelessly.
When a theory means whatever you want it to mean, are you brilliantly exploiting it? Or playing Humpty-Dumpty to the world's Alice? And when your analysis is turned inside out so easily, is it really any virtue that you aren't afraid to "think big thoughts"?

You know, sometimes I just despair over the standards for intellectual endeavor in this country; at least, the standards for public intellectualism.

Monday, January 11, 2010

"Hear the voice of the Bard!"

I have not been a big fan of William Blake,knowing him only for "Songs of Innocence and Experience" and the English hymn "Jerusalem", and his illustrations for the book of Job.

That's an ignorance I need to correct:

Error is Created. Truth is Eternal. Error, or Creation, will be Burned up, & then, & not till Then, Truth or Eternity will appear. It is Burnt up the Moment Men cease to behold it. I assert for My Self that I do not behold the outward Creation & that to me it is hindrance & not Action; it is as the Dirt upon my feet, No part of Me. "What," it will be Question'd, "When the Sun rises, do you not see a round disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea?" Oh no, no, I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying, 'Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God Almighty.' I question not my Corporeal or Vegetative Eye any more than I would Question a Window concerning Sight. I look thro' it & not with it."


Dear mother, dear mother, the church is cold,
But the ale-house is healthy and pleasant and warm;
Besides I can tell where I am used well,
Such usage in Heaven will never do well.

But if at the church they would give us some ale,
And a pleasant fire our souls to regale,
We'd sing and we'd pray all the live-long day,
Nor ever once wish from the church to stray.

Then the parson might preach, and drink, and sing,
And we'd be as happy as birds in the spring;
And modest Dame Lurch, who is always at church,
Would not have bandy children, nor fasting, nor birch.

And God, like a father rejoicing to see
His children as pleasant and happy as he,
Would have no more quarrel with the Devil or the barrel,
But kiss him, and give him both drink and apparel.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Not with a bang, but a whimper

Speaking of epiphanies....

Media Matters flagged this because:

"The print headline of a January 7 New York Times article reads "Many Ex-Detainees Return To Terror, Pentagon Says" [emphasis added] -- a claim not supported by the article itself, which does not assert that the detainees in question had previously engaged in terrorist acts but only that a Pentagon report finds that "about one in five" of former Guantánamo detainees that have been released subsequently "has engaged in, or is suspected of engaging in, terrorism or militant activity."
The article now online reads:

Administration officials said Wednesday that a classified Pentagon report concludes that of some 560 detainees transferred abroad from the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, about one in five has engaged in, or is suspected of engaging in, terrorism or militant activity.

The finding comes amid reports that one former Guantánamo detainee released in 2007 under the administration of President George W. Bush is now involved with a branch of Al Qaeda based in Yemen, a group that President Obama has said sponsored the attempt to bomb an American airliner on Christmas Day.

Mr. Obama announced Tuesday that he was suspending the transfers of additional detainees from Guantánamo to Yemen, even though he said he remained committed to his plan, now delayed, to close the prison.
And online carries a headline: "Many Ex-Detainees Said to Be Engaged in Terror." The clear lesson is: we have created more enemies than we started with. Which isn't really a surprise. As Auden said 7 decades ago:

I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
This poses an interesting problem, aside from the moral concerns (which, as Niebuhr would point out, cannot be the final consideration of a government charged with protecting its citizens): now that we have created terrorists, or possibly created them, what do we do? The legal and moral questions about establishing a prison for "enemy combatants" at Gitmo are long past. The fathers have eaten the sour grapes, and set their children's teeth on edge. The only question left is: now what? Do the moral and legal thing, and shut down Gitmo? How, then, do you answer to the families of the victims of terror who will surely come to you in the future? Tell them their family members died to resolve a legal qualm, a moral failing that was finally set right?

And how do we assess blame for this, now and in the future? Do we tell those future victims to blame George W. Bush? Dick Cheney? Barack Obama? Rahm Emmanuel? And what good will that do?

Alone, alone, about a dreadful wood
Of conscious evil runs a lost mankind,
Dreading to find its Father lest it find
The Goodness it has dreaded is not good:
Alone, alone, about our dreadful wood.

Where is that Law for which we broke our own,
Where now that Justice for which Flesh resigned
Her hereditary right to passion, Mind
His will to absolute power? Gone. Gone.
Where is that Law for which we broke our own?

The Pilgrim Way has led to the Abyss.
Was it to meet such grinning evidence
We left our richly odoured ignorance?
Was the triumphant answer to be this?
The Pilgrim Way has led to the Abyss.

We who must die demand a miracle.
How could the Eternal do a temporal act,
The Infinite become a finite fact?
Nothing can save us that is possible:
We who must die demand a miracle.

--W.H. Auden

Epiphany Begins

Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes --
Some have got broken -- and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week --
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted -- quite unsuccessfully --
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.
The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off. But, for the time being, here we all are,
Back in the moderate Aristotelian city
Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid's geometry
And Newton's mechanics would account for our experience,
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.
It seems to have shrunk during the holidays. The streets
Are much narrower than we remembered; we had forgotten
The office was as depressing as this. To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
For the innocent children who whispered so excitedly
Outside the locked door where they knew the presents to be
Grew up when it opened. Now, recollecting that moment
We can repress the joy, but the guilt remains conscious;
Remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It.
And craving the sensation but ignoring the cause,
We look round for something, no matter what, to inhibit
Our self-reflection, and the obvious thing for that purpose
Would be some great suffering. So, once we have met the Son,
We are tempted ever after to pray to the Father;
"Lead us into temptation and evil for our sake."
They will come, all right, don't worry; probably in a form
That we do not expect, and certainly with a force
More dreadful than we can imagine. In the meantime
There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair,
Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem
From insignificance. The happy morning is over,
The night of agony still to come; the time is noon:
When the Spirit must practice his scales of rejoicing
Without even a hostile audience, and the Soul endure
A silence that is neither for nor against her faith
That God's Will will be done, That, in spite of her prayers,
God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph.

--W.H. Auden

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Epiphany of the Lord 2010

O beautiful star of Bethlehem
Shining far through shadows dim
Giving the light for those who long have gone
Guiding the wise men on their way
Unto the place where Jesus lay
O beautiful star of Bethlehem
Shine on

O beautiful star the hope of life
Guiding the pilgrims through the night
Over the mountains 'til the break of dawn
Into the land of perfect day
It will give out a lovely ray
O beautiful star of Bethlehem
Shine on

O beautiful star of Bethlehem
Shine upon us until the glory dawns
Give us a lamp to light the way
Unto the land of perfect day
O beautiful star of Bethlehem
Shine on

O beautiful star the hope of grace
For the redeemed, the good and the blessed
Yonder in glory when the crown is won
Jesus is now the star divine
Brighter and brighter He will shine
O beautiful star of Bethlehem
Shine on

O beautiful star of Bethlehem
Shine upon us until the glory dawns
Give us a lamp to light the way
Unto the land of perfect day
O beautiful star of Bethlehem
Shine on

O beautiful star of Bethlehem
Shine on

"We Need Some English Majors/Right This Very Minute..."

My day starts this way: first, I receive this in my inbox, an article telling me (as if I haven't been living that "dream" since 2001) that humanities graduate students should quit while they're behind, before they get even further behind.

Then I hear this on NPR. I hadn't planned to see "Avatar" anyway (I was sure it's simply another special effects extravaganza, and nowadays I reserve those delights for Marvel Comics movies. Iron Man 2! Whoo-hoo!), but this run-down of the movie convinced me to avoid it, not least because the "white man" (well, they are blue creatures!) with his superior technology manages to become "king" of the "primitive natives" ("Avatar" may crib from Disney's "Pocahontas," but at least the latter movie managed to avoid that dreadful colonialist cliche). What do these two things have to do with one another? "Only connect," as E.M. Forster advised.

I don't know much about "Avatar," but I do know something about colonialist literature. Rudyard Kipling, that icon of British Empire, wrote a wonderful story about "white men" who presumed they would be kings in a "simpler" culture, a "native" one (funny how we are never "natives," but "they" are, huh?). "The Man Who Would Be King" doesn't end all that well for the protagonists who presume they will lead (although it made a smashing movie. Odd James Camerocn didn't crib from that one, isn't it?*) Then there's H.G. Wells' wonderful fable on the old adage "In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king." Turns out the stranger to another culture is just that: a stranger to the culture. He is not superior, more capable, or even the Messiah the people have been waiting for (which is a curious twist on the Messiah myth: Jesus was Jewish, nothing more or less. He wasn't an "outsider" in Palestine, he was a homeboy. But I digress...). We never regard the immigrants to our shores as the ones who understand our culture better than we do. Many right now don't even want to accept Barack Obama, and complain about everything from his supposed birthplace to the fact he grew up in "exotic" Hawaii. But when we go "abroad," or enter another culture, well, of course....superiority proves out, doesn't it? We may deny a belief in the "divine right of kings" and show allegiance to "bloodlines," but we've yet to really stray far from the idea that there are superior and inferior races, and the former are simply destined, in all places and situations, to rise to lead the latter.

George Orwell could tell us a thing or two about how that works out in reality. Kipling and Wells, who were both as familiar as Orwell with the efforts and effects of colonialism, could teach us a thing or two, too. And even if we can't expect those lessons to appear in multi-million dollar movies that are, after all, simply excuses for newer special effects; can't we at least expect them to be regarded when the question is, say: What do we do about Afghanistan?

Maybe a few English majors hanging about, if only to whisper in the ears of the victors that all fame is fleeting, wouldn't be such a bad idea.

*I take it back. Cameron actually says he did. But unless his protagonist learns humility and finds he is not superior to the culture he joins technologically, I still have to say Cameron learned the wrong lesson from the film.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Say what?

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Let me start by saying I wanted to keep the context of Dan Savage's statement (toward the end, there), rather than focus on Brit Hume's bizarre assertion. Dan's summation is about right: Hume is offering a "Get out of Adultery Free" card. And I'm not picking on Dan Savage hereafter, but his comment is one I've run across before, and it really bugs me. I mean, I agree with him; I'd like to hear "moderate" Christians speak up, too. But if they did, who would listen?

Why haven't "moderate" Christians taken back the conversation from fundamentalist Christians? Well, part of the reason is that "moderate" Christians don't make news by being reasonable. Fred Phelps gets on the news by being outrageous and belligerent. Gary Bauer was/is closely allied with conservative, not to say radically right wing, political figures. Pat Robertson owns a TV network (one that has fallen from it's pinnacle of a few decades back, however). Joel Osteen runs the largest church in the world (reportedly), and gets lots of TV time. Rick Warren doesn't do much TV, but he pastors a mega-church and is a best-selling author who garnered enough power to get Barack Obama's attendance on Warren's stage. Jeremiah Wright is hardly a "moderate," but neither is he a bomb-thrower like James Dobson (who isn't a pastor at all), but Dobson has a popular radio show and runs a small industry devoted to the "Focus on the Family." Jeremiah Wright pastored the largest congregation in the United Church of Christ, a church with historical roots going back to Germany and to the Congregationalists of New England. He also made significant contributions to liberation theology, and his church did (and does) a world of good in Chicago. Ever heard of it, though? Ever heard of him, before he became known as Obama's former pastor? And why not?

Probably because Rev. Wright doesn't own a TV studio, run a radio program, operate from a city-state, or publish best-selling books; nor does the UCC. Nor do the Methodists, Lutherans, or Episcopalians (quick: who knows the name of the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church? And would you know if the TEC wasn't engaged in a struggle with the Anglican Communion over the ordination of gay and lesbian bishops?). There's a reason, in other words, that Dan Savage is not hearing from "moderate" Christians, and it's because the very news shows like he was on, don't interview them.

The UCC issues press releases constantly out of Cleveland (where it is headquartered). Ever hear of them? Not on Keith or Rachel, not even on Democracy Now! (where I often get news no one else is reporting). Not on BBC World Service (another excellent news source). Nowhere. I never see them reported, except by the UCC newsletter, and who outside the UCC (or inside, it, for that matter) reads that?. The same is true for the Lutherans, the Methodists, the Episcopalians: if they bother to issue press releases, who republishes them? As Arianna Huffington pointed out on Countdown last night, Dick Cheney only issues a press release condemning Obama's efforts in the "war on terror," and Politico published it and over a week later, Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow were still talking about it. But a press release from a mainline denomination?


So it goes, actually. That's the nature of the world. Or at least of a Jeffersonian culture where we have always valued the separation of church and state (even the "liberal" Guardian of Lond regularly publishes columns, opinion, and information, about religion, and especially about the Church of England). But it's one of the qualities of "news" that what is published, broadcast, bandied about, even discussed on the internet, is only "news" if someone somewhere says it is. And for all the interest in "religion" I see even on the internets, there's precious little real interest in the subject or in the nature of the mainline churches. Everyone prefers either the self-promotional caricatures of Joel Osteen or Rick Warren or James Dobson or Pat Robertson (all of whom have something, or sometimes many things, to sell) or their own desultory (and uninformed) opinions over the actions and statements of Geoffrey Black or Katherine Jefferts Schori.

And frankly, I'd rather the latter do the ministries of the gospel, to vying for public approval in the marketplace of ideas. You want to write a best-seller, may God bless you. But I prefer the advice of St. Francis of Assisi as guidance for Christians: "Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words."