Wednesday, August 31, 2011

As Someone Important was (not) Saying....

I've been ruminating on this topic for a long time now. The NYT op-ed page brings it to mind again:

But ours is an era in which it’s believed that we can reinvent ourselves whenever we choose. So we recast the wisdom of the great thinkers in the shape of our illusions. Shorn of their complexities, their politics, their grasp of the sheer arduousness of change, they stand before us now. They are shiny from their makeovers, they are fabulous and gorgeous, and they want us to know that we can have it all.
There are other examples which have nothing to do with self-regard, such as Mark Twain's statement that the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco (he didn't say that), or the line often (now) attributed to Einstein: "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result." This is not a peculiar affliction of our age. These acts of misattribution are actually quite old in human culture, and they produce of a great deal of confusion and trouble.

Take the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures, for example. According to Martin Luther's German translation (one of the first into a common European tongue after Jerome's Vulgate), the titles of the books are "The ------ Book of Moses." Each book gets a ordinal ("First," "Second," etc.), to keep the order clear. They weren't, of course, written by Moses at all. Modern (well, since at least the early 19th century) Biblical scholarship has identified 5 different authors for these five books, some of the "authors" almost certainly being groups of scholars and scribes, not individuals; many hands over many centuries revising and rewriting what was passed on to them. Then there is the book of Isaiah, probably the work of 4 different authors; and Baruch, secretary to Jeremiah, probably wrote some of that prophet's book.

Except to really hard-core fundamentalist Christians, this is a pretty acceptable state of affairs in scriptural studies. Even conservative Christians are comfortable with some critical distancing from the Hebrew Scriptures; but when it comes to the New Testament, there is a different response altogether.

Paul's letters, for example, outrage many Christians and non-Christians, because he advises such anachronistic ideas as women being submissive to their husbands, and covering their heads in worship, etc. And yet if you point out Paul didn't write those words, that evidence is used to prove people in the first century were gullible, and people in the present century are equally credulous. We don't do that anymore, you see. We keep careful track of our authorities, and certainly after the Enlightenment we don't even speak of The Philosopher anymore (as Aquinas did, referring to Aristotle, in distinction to the previous ruling philosopher, Aristotle's teacher Plato), because we don't regard authority as authoritative just because it is, well...authority.

But we still like to ascribe pithy ideas to famous people, either because they sound wiser that way, or because it makes us feel better about what we want to think anyway. If you are old enough, you remember "Desiderata," which was purportedly "Found in Old St. Paul's Church in 1692", a sign of the soundness of its timeless wisdom. If you can't ascribe the words to someone famous, "Anonymous" is always second best. And "anonymous" is even better if the words are supposed to be old, because then they have the patina of wisdom from "the elders" on them. The problem is, "Desiderata" was written by Max Ehrmann in 1927.

Go placidly, and pay attention to who you're listening to.

So, was Paul, for example, such a chauvinist pig? No, according to Dom Crossan and some pretty sound archaeological as well as textual evidence. The historical Paul was actually quite radical; too radical for his contemporaries, some of whom took on his authority while softening the edges of what he said. Is it really credible that the man who said "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus," would turn around and berate women for being women?* It is more likely someone wrote in his name, assumed his authority to assert their own opinions, opinions more widely acceptable in the culture at the time. Why, rather like the examples Brian Morton comes up with.

The more things change....

There is a great deal of scriptural study along this line. I was re-reading the Jesus Seminar's work on the parables of Jesus. They categorized some versions that we have as "original," some as modified, some as the inventions of the gospel writers or other, later hands. Basically, the more conventional they were, the less likely they were the original work of Jesus of Nazareth. But, of course, there is tremendous power in giving the imprimatur of the Anointed One to the "common sense" wisdom of the day. The challenge to us, 2000 years later, is to discern the true wisdom from the merely comforting aphorism.

Maybe the recent adage should be revised: "If it feels good, it's probably not worth knowing."

*Similar examples have been found in the Hebrew Scriptures. In the Book of Exodus, after the Red Sea has closed over Pharoah's army, Moses offers a spontaneous song of praise to God for Israel's deliverance. Immediately after his song his sister Miriam also offers a doxology; but only one verse of it still exists. Scholars surmise the rest, rather like the fingers on the hand of Thecla in the fresco Crossan describes, were expunged by later scribes to reduce the importance of women in the culture. There is a rich scholarship pointing out how many women's stories persist in the Hebrew scriptures (some of the first Judges were women) despite clear efforts to redact and revise the historical record. There is, indeed, nothing new under the sun.

Lord, when did we see you, and we were not disappointed?

Lifted shamelessly from the Mad Priest (who has better music than me), because sometimes you just have to pass it on.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Still the view from Manhattan

My favorite line from the play "Greater Tuna" comes when the two radio announcers for the town are reading the national news, and note a nuclear power plant has leaked radiation (if I recall the situation correctly) that is affecting several surrounding states. They pause for a moment, then slap the page to the desk with finality and announce: "Texas NOT included!"

It's a great laugh line, especially among Texans. Sometimes I think New Yorkers, at least those with access to TV cameras, are not so self-aware:

Post-Tropical Cyclone Irene has killed 40 people in the US, and authorities warn that flooding could continue for up to three days in northern US states.

More than five million people remain without power, while Vermont is reeling from its worst floods in many decades.

Insurance claims could top $7bn (£4.3bn), the Consumer Federation of America estimated.
I've heard every city in the state of Connecticut suffered damages, from mild to severe. It may be weeks before Vermont can begin to recover. However:

It was raining in Manhattan on Sunday morning, and the dogged correspondents in their brightly colored windbreakers were getting wet.

But the apocalypse that cable television had been trumpeting had failed to materialize. And at 9 a.m., you could almost hear the air come out of the media’s hot-air balloon of constant coverage when Hurricane Irene was downgraded to a tropical storm.

“Florence Nightingale said, ‘Whatever you say about hospitals, they shouldn’t make their patients sicker,” [George Will] said. “And whatever else you want to say about journalism, it shouldn’t subtract from the nation’s understanding, and it certainly shouldn’t contribute to the manufactured, synthetic hysteria that is so much a part of modern life. And I think we may have done so with regard to this ‘tropical storm,’ as it now seems to be.”
Even The Washington Post thought Howard Kurtz scored a hit with this point:

The fact that New York, home to the nation’s top news outlets, was directly in the storm’s path clearly fed this story-on-steroids. Does anyone seriously believe the hurricane would have drawn the same level of coverage if it had been bearing down on, say, Ft. Lauderdale?
And I'll be honest, I sort of thought the same thing myself, briefly. Living on the Gulf Coast, which I've often described as America's sewer outfall, I get used to hurricanes and yet I don't really think they ever get over-hyped, even when they don't threaten major metropolitan areas or major media centers. Because despite Gulf Coast bravado, you never get used to hurricanes.

I mean, if you want hysterical reactions to hurricanes, this was true hysteria:

Fear of Rita right after the disaster of Katrina led to a mass exodus of the Texas Gulf coast just below Houston, and to a flight of people from Houston that created a traffic jam from Houston to Dallas (a distance of over 200 miles). That traffic jam led directly to the deaths of several elderly people when the bus they were evacuating in caught fire because it had idled too long in the Texas heat. And that hysteria was prompted because of government ineptitude which created the horror of New Orleans after Katrina. There was a certain sense of hype and media/government sponsored hysteria (the Mayor of Houston made matters worse by telling everyone in Houston to evacuate in the face of Rita) in the wake of that storm, but Rita still did serious damage to Beaumont and east to Lake Charles, Louisiana. Like I say, you never get used to hurricanes.

Still, the notable connection between George Will and Howard Kurtz and the other critics of the "hype" of Irene is that they live in Manhattan, and since NYC wasn't appreciably affected by the storm, what was all the worry about? You have to especially appreciate the way Kurtz closes his column:

As the storm weakened, a tone of reality crept into the live reports. After heading to Battery Park, on the low-lying southern tip of Manhattan, CNN’s Anderson Cooper said: “There has been some flooding—not a huge amount of flooding, and some of the water is already starting to recede … It’s actually not bad at all.”

But there is always the prospect that something bad might happen soon. “Is Wall Street going to open tomorrow?” business correspondent Bob Pisani asked on MSNBC, the towers of the financial district behind him.

Hurricanes are unpredictable, and it’s a great relief that the prophets of doom were wrong about Hurricane Irene. But don’t expect the cable networks to downgrade their coverage the next time a tropical storm gathers strength.
No flooding in NYC equated to no flooding anywhere. But it was only a "tropical storm" that left Vermont in this condition:

Vermont Emergency Management officials say they'll use helicopters to airlift food, water and supplies to towns cut off by flooding from the remnants of Hurricane Irene.

Emergency Management spokesman Mark Bosma said Tuesday that Vermont National Guard helicopters will head Tuesday to about a dozen towns where roads and bridges washed out lifelines
And as for the forty people dead and the millions still without power, well...that's why they should live in NYC, I guess.

A minor update:

Hurricane Irene will most likely prove to be one of the 10 costliest catastrophes in the nation’s history, and analysts said that much of the damage might not be covered by insurance because it was caused not by winds but by flooding, which is excluded from many standard policies.
I suppose at this point I'm just piling on, especially to point out "an unusually wide area of the East Coast" barely includes New York City:

Industry estimates put the cost of the storm at $7 billion to $10 billion, largely because the hurricane pummeled an unusually wide area of the East Coast. Beyond deadly flooding that caused havoc in upstate New York and Vermont, the hurricane flooded cotton and tobacco crops in North Carolina, temporarily halted shellfish harvesting in Chesapeake Bay, sapped power and kept commuters from their jobs in the New York metropolitan area and pushed tourists off Atlantic beaches in the peak of summer.
This description makes it clear the least damage occurred in the New York City area. I'm happy for them, but for the rest of the East Coast, they have my sympathy and my prayers.

Here, too, is the church....

Sherri said...

I keep seeing that study headlined 'Less-educated & poor abandon religion.' Seems like to me it should be 'Religion abandons less-educated & poor.'
I am NOT picking on Sherri to repeat her comment here; but I just heard about this, and while I'm probably no fan of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary's theology, this sounds like a very good thing to me:

Forty Texas prison inmates make up the state's first class of seminarians studying to become ministers under a new program operating totally behind prison walls.

The inmates all are serving lengthy sentences at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Darrington Unit in Brazoria County south of Houston. They're beginning Monday four years of training leading to a bachelor's degree in Biblical studies and eventual assignment to other Texas prisons where they'll minister to the spiritual needs of fellow inmates.

The nondenominational program is modeled after a similar project in Louisiana that's credited with reducing inmate violence by 70 percent since beginning in 1995.
Certainly better than abandoning the uneducated and poor, eh?

Monday, August 29, 2011


There are better and worse responses to the poor (not to "poverty." That is an abstraction, a concept, an idea. "The poor" are human beings.). Walter Russell Mead has one, Dean French another. I still think most people are afraid of the poor, and our response to them now is more evidence of that.

I am reading (Simone Weil's) essays as a part of my Lenten reading...She says that we "...must experience every day, both in the spirit and the flesh, the pains and humiliations of poverty...and further we must do something which is harder than enduring in poverty, we must renounce all compensations: in our contacts with the people around us we must sincerely practice the humility of a naturalized citizen in the country which has received us."

I keep reminding the young people who come to work with us that they are not naturalized citizens...They are not really poor. We are always foreigners to the poor. So we have to make up for it by "renouncing all compensations..."
Dorothy Day, from The Dorothy Day Book, p. 11.

If we are foreigners to the poor, we have to treat them with respect. That, or denounce them as inferior, because they don't do things in their country the way we do "at home." And the only way to respect them is, as Dorothy Day said, to renounce all compensations. Which gets is perilously close to Derrida's concept of the gift, and of the circle, and of "economy."

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. Sorry, but you had to see that to understand what I'm saying. The only way to truly be with the poor, to give them the gift of your attention and your compassion, is to step out of the economy of exchange that we all participate in and that we all, by definition, as much as possible exclude the poor from. But Dorothy Day's response requires a goodness beyond all calculation. And the problem of a Dorothy Day is this:

On what condition does goodness exist beyond all calculation? On the condition that goodness forget itself, that the movement be a movement of the gift that renounces itself, hence a movement of infinite love. Only infinite love can renounce itself and, in order to become finite, become incarnated in order to love the other, to love the other as a finite other. This gift of infinite love comes from someone and is addressed to someone; responsibility demands irreplaceable singularity.
Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, tr. David Wills (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), pp. 50-51.

And this:

These conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your own cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it, so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. Adulterers! Do you now know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you suppose that it is for nothing that the scripture says, "God yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us"? But he gives all the more grace; therefore it says, "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble."
James 4:1-6

Which, if it isn't the task of the Church, is certainly the task of believers.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Vulture Theology

Sherri said...

I keep seeing that study headlined 'Less-educated & poor abandon religion.' Seems like to me it should be 'Religion abandons less-educated & poor.'

I actually meant to start this discussion here:

The study also shows that Americans who make more money attend religious services more frequently, and that Americans who have been unemployed at any point in the past 10 years attend services less frequently. The study found that people who are married, who do not approve of premarital sex and those who lost their virginity later than their peers also attend services more often.

“While we recognize that not everyone wishes to worship, and that religious diversity can be valuable, we also think that the existence of a large group of less educated Americans that is increasingly disconnected from religious institutions is troubling for our society,” says Andrew Cherlin, co-author of the study and a professor of sociology and public policy at the Johns Hopkins University. “This development reinforces the social marginalization of less educated Americans who are also increasingly disconnected from the institutions of marriage and work.”
And then Dean French and Walter Russell Meade intervened in ways comical and grossly ignorant. Events changed, too, so where I meant to start is no longer the place I would start from. But I can't toss that aside either, because it is prologue to what I have to say now. So let's begin with prologue and see where we end up.

Probably this problem is a matter of economics, not just individual finances: in a 24/7 economy, Sunday has been squeezed out as the "day of rest" (whether it ever should have been a day the stores were closed is another matter, but it ain't that day anymore!). And if you are working a minimum wage job, especially (which I assume is the best you can do these days, with just a high school diploma), you're probably working more than one job just to pay for the gasoline to get you to work. Doesn't leave much time for Sunday morning services, which is still the preferred hour of worship for most Protestant Christians.

And why is that? There's a curious cultural vestigial practice right there. Why must church be open for worship between the hours of 9 and noon on Sundays? Frankly, Sunday morning is the only morning I can even THINK about sleeping in (past 6 a.m.) or having time to make breakfast something other than what comes out of a box ready to eat (more and more I think of the foods of my convenience foods childhood as MRE's). My sympathies lie with people who would rather be elsewhere on Sunday morning. Of course, my sympathies lie more strongly with people who understand worship as a discipline, not just a social duty. But those sympathies are more befitting of the monastery than the modern world, so I'm left wondering why Protestantism is so determined to "market" itself, and yet also so determined to cling to practices that are long outworn.

Or maybe they aren't so outworn; I prefer the calm silence of Sunday morning for worship, to the dull quiet of Saturday evening in church, when everyone else in the world is heading out for Saturday night. I can see where that kind of discipline for worship is as hard as the discipline of the monastics. But that's a memory from childhood, when the world was calm on Sunday morning. Today it is still calmer than the rest of the week, especially in the city; but it isn't exactly calm. But there is a discipline involved in worship, a "Du muss gehen!"* that has to be maintained, since worship has stopped involving families in their homes sometime shortly after Paul died. Instilling that discipline, or overcoming that inertia, has been a problem plaguing pastors since at least the incoming tide of the post-war church boom began receding.

One answer to the problem prominent among pastors when I used to hang out with them was what I came to label "vulture theology." Nobody really liked the sound of it (the idea, not my label), but they were also rather comforted by it. The idea was that children came to church as a captive audience, and parents brought them because they felt compelled to do so, so the children would learn good lessons about life (and maybe discipline. Whether any of that is true or not is another matter. Certainly they learn about power and how many people like to wield it, no matter how small the arena.). When those children reached the age of consent (which varies in Christian churches, but usually the age of confirmation) parents generally gave up forcing them to attend, and the children usually stopped. (The blessing/curse of the church. In Protestant denominations, confirmed children became voting members of the congregation. I liked it; the one place I was an adult, like my father, although I was still young in the world. But most confirmands vanish after the confirmation service, glad to be able to choose not to stay.) They would return, vulture theology theorized, when they had kids, or when the chips were down and they needed the church for comfort and support.

In other words, at a time of spiritual crisis, or spiritual (or real) death. Vulture theology. We pastors were like undertakers; all we had to do was be patient; sooner or later you'll come to us.

Funny, that isn't happening: "The study also shows that Americans who make more money attend religious services more frequently, and that Americans who have been unemployed at any point in the past 10 years attend services less frequently." I would first compare this to the theories that Islamic terrorism was bred in ghettos and poverty and powerlessness, because who else would become a suicide bomber except someone with no material prospects to look forward to? And it turned out the most likely terrorist was a child of wealthy parents. To speculate why it was them, and not the poor, whom Al Qaeda and others were more likely to recruit, one cannot ask the first question without making presumptions that exclude other possibilities. Were they, for example, driven by a lack of direction in their lives? By the emptiness of material possession? By a need for meaning that property ownership couldn't provide? Such questions presume conditions which may, or may not, exist. Such questions presume there is a spiritual dimension to human existence and frankly, I don't hear too many people talking that way anymore.

I don't hear people making those presumptions unless I read old books that already sound like they come from a pre-Enlightenment era, books like Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Ultimate Meaning. No one today considers humanity in the "Old World" way Frankl does, and his language is so pre-21st century empiricism (which borders on logical positivism, another irony), it almost seems pre-Cambrian. But if there is an explanation for things like wealthy children becoming suicide bombers, and for riots across England, for the decline of the unemployed in worship in America (and the rise of the well-off, who obviously feel more comfortable in church, or have more time to take some comfort there), then perhaps the explanation is not in simple terms of a hierarchy of needs. Maybe we have needs that don't arise only at the top of that hierarchy. Maybe what keeps mankind alive isn't bestial acts alone, after all.

And maybe the vulture is not our best selection from the ancient Christian bestiary.

Before you say that the decline in worship of the poor is clearly an affirmation of Maslow's hierarchy, let me point out the church started among the poor ("Foxes have holes, and birds their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head...") and stayed there almost up until the time of Constantine. And the concern of the church is always supposed to be the poor, although the eye strays from that goal from time to time:

"My church comforts the sick and the dying. My church feeds the hungry. What does your church do? Oh, that's right, you don't have a church!"
And certainly the church can do that without too much affliction to the comfortable (affliction which would make the feeding of the hungry and the poor almost impossible, if carried too far, so let's be reasonable), but should the church itself be so comforting a place the poor should feel uncomfortable there? That's a problem as old as Protestantism itself, and one reason new churches, like the Pentecostal movement, spring up from time to time. They begin in marginal communities and can promise dramatic changes (Harvey Cox has pointed out, over and over, that the Pentecostal movement was one of the first truly interracial churches in America). Then, of course, the institution becomes established, and has to look to its own concerns, and the pastors become personalities, and they need TV cameras to "spread the message," and soon the message is them, and then....

Well, that's one way it happens. The other is that the poor and marginalized move up the economic ladder and take their church with them, and pretty soon the church is as much an institution of society as any "mainstream" denomination. And that brings blessings and curses, too.

But the results reported in this study are interesting and sad. The church, respondents say, is a place of judgment, especially about sexual matters ("The study found that people who are married, who do not approve of premarital sex and those who lost their virginity later than their peers also attend services more often."), and it is a place associated with monied interests. That should comfort Dean French, but it is cold comfort to the rest of us who take the parable of the sheep and the goats at least somewhat seriously. Given the few mentions of the Temple in the Gospels are about the iniquitous influence of money (the cleansing of the Temple; the widow's mite; even the impermanence of the seemingly permanent structure), you'd think the institution would have gone a different route, attracted a different crowd. Then again, what would it be if it had? Would it even be, at all?

We prefer either/or answers. We prefer solutions which eliminate problems or, at worst, create new problems. We like, in other words, Hegel; but we get Derrida:

“In our ‘wars of religion’, violence has two ages. The one…appears ‘contemporary’, in sync or in step with the hypersophistication of military tele-technology—of ‘digital’ and cyberspaced culture. The other is a ‘new archaic violence’, if one can put it that way. It counters the first and everything ir represents. Revenge. Resorting, in fact, to the same sources of mediatic power, it reverts (according to the return, the resource, the repristination and the law of internal and auto-immune reactivity we are trying formalize here) as closely as possible to the body proper and to the premachinal living being. In any case, to its desire and to its phantasm. Revenge is taken against the decorporalizing and expropriating machine by resorting—reverting—to bare hands, to the sexual organs or to primitive tools, often to weapons other than firearms. What is referred to as ‘killings’ and ‘atrocities’—words never used in ‘clean’ or ‘proper’ wars, where, precisely, the dead are no longer counted (guided or ‘intelligent’ missiles directed at entire cities, for instance)—is here supplanted by tortures, beheadings, and mutilations of all sorts. What is involved is always avowed vengeance, often declared as sexual revenge: rapes, mutilated genitals or severed hands, corpses exhibited, heads paraded, as not so long ago in France, impaled on the end of stakes (phallic processions of ‘natural religions’). This is the case, for examples, but it only an example, in Algeria today, in the name of Islam, invoked by both belligerent parties, each in its own way. These are also symptoms of a reactive and negative recourse, the vengeance of the body proper against an expropriatory and delocalizing tele-technoscience, identified with the globality of the market, with military-capitalistic hegemony, with the globalatinization of the European democratic model, in its double form: secular and religious. When—another figure of double origin—the foreseeable alliance of the worst effects of fanaticism, dogmatism or irrationalist obscurantism with hypercritical acumen and incisive analysis of the hegemonies and the models of the adversary (globalatinization, religion that does not speak its name, ethnocentrism putting on, as always, a show of ‘universalism”, market-driven science and technology, democratic rhetoric, ‘humanitarian’ strategy or ‘keeping the peace’ by means of peace-keeping forces, while never counting the dead of Rwanda, for instance, in the same manner as those of the United States of America or of Europe). This archaic and ostensibly more savage radicalization of ‘religious’ violence claims, in the name of ‘religion’, to allow the living community to rediscover its roots, its place, its body and its idiom intact (unscathed, safe, pure, proper). It spreads death and unleashes self-destruction in a desperate (auto-immune) gesture that attacks the blood of its own body: as though thereby to eradicate uprootedness and reappropriate the sacredness of life safe and sound. Double root, double uprootedness, double eradication.
Jacques Derrida, “Faith and Knowledge,” Religion, ed. Jacques Derrida and Gianni Vattimo, tr. Samuel Weber (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1996), pp. 52-53.

I've highlighted the bits that are of most interest to me, but to begin with Derrida identifies a double origin which struggles with its "twin" (let us say) but cannot destroy it; not without destroying itself. It can't synthesize it, either. They are too much alike, too much different, and irreconcilable without the destruction of both. There is no "third way" here. There is only the struggle.

Israel, the scholars tell us, means "struggles with God."

It is notable, of course, that this study doesn't highlight a violent response to the situation, but something more akin to a resigned shrug. Life, after all, is supposed to be hard (Puritanism, at least as remembered in modern America) and only the blessed are supposed to be rich (Calvinism, again as vaguely remembered in modern America), and if the church is so concerned with either why I should be rich (Joel Osteen) or social justice for some other group besides mine (liberal mainstream churches), then where do I go?

I honestly don't know how quickly the mainstream churches have turned on this dime, but my experience is they are more like aircraft carriers than small and agile boats. Reinhold Niebuhr tells a wonderful story from his days as a Detroit minister. He took the pulpit one morning to rail against the heartlessness of the automakers who were laying off workers in the Depression at a record rate. Niebuhr spoke passionately for the unemployed, and furiously about the companies who would discard them so callously. After the service, a church member approached him to say he, the member, was in management at an auto worker, and was suffering great torments calling in employees to hand them their last paychecks. Niebuhr realized then that no problem is a matter of the abstract "they," but is always about "us." And when you have to rail against "us," it's suddenly a much harder thing to do.

I have a friend who has been in ministry most of his adult life. When there were attempts to boycott Taco Bell because of the labor practices used to harvest the tomatoes the corporation used, attention fell on an employer in his town. A representative from the national church came to town to "educate" the pastors in town about the issue. When they tried to point out they had church members who worked for the company Taco Bell bought produce from, their words fell on deaf ears. The matter was one of ideas, not people, and the pastors were failing to hold up their end for the good of the goal.

Churches have a hard time avoiding such conclusions. Institutions have a hard time with nuance, and the church is, by and large, an institution. So if the churches are not tackling the problem of unemployment in a coherent or even useful manner, I won't be surprised. There is precious little they can do besides rail against the system, perhaps in the manner of Jesus cleansing the temple of merchants. But the church is not Jesus, and the free market is not the Temple; so there's that. There's also the obvious problem: wealthy people support the church, unemployed people don't. The first rule any pastor learns in a modern church is: don't bite the hand that feeds you; not if you want to eat.

I don't think those hands need to be bitten anyway, but any discussion of money from the pulpit makes people squirm; and any discussion that goes against the grain of modern understandings of poverty might well make those who aren't poor or about to be poor due to job loss, more than a bit uncomfortable. And I don't know how it would make the poor and unemployed any more comfortable, either. So we're back at the pastor's problem: what do to, and how to do it.

One problem is the language we feel compelled to use. I still remember speaking up in a meeting of clergy and interested laity on a church response to a scientific subject. When I pointed out the statement being crafted made precious little reference to God, I was berated by a lay person for "beating up" on science. I was doing no such thing, but no one in the room, laity and clergy alike, supported my position, so I learned when to shut up (basically, always) and when to speak up (basically, never) and thus got through the rest of the process without incident. We don't like talking about spiritual matters, at least not as Protestants, because we sound too much like religious know-nothings. Or we are religious know-nothings who understand science only as it makes us materially comfortable, and abandon it to pursue rather silly spiritual ideas that are really no more sound than triskadekaphobia and other superstitions, so as to keep our science and our religion comfortably separated. I've seen many examples of both. Until we can find or appropriate a language that expresses our confessions of faith without expressing our credulity about the physical universe, we'll have quite a struggle with this issue. That language is available; but we have yet to do the hard work of appropriating it to our use.

Another problem (although almost all our problems, thanks to Hume, come down to problems of language), is our problem of identity. After Freud and the Viennese school of psychology, we all assume human beings are primarily sexual creatures. After menarche and puberty, we are all driven by sexual desire, so much so that we must be identified, first and foremost, as heterosexual or homosexual, or even bisexual and transgendered. Again, the modern liberal church has nobly taken up this cause, reinforcing the idea that we are not first creatures of spirit, but creatures of our genitalia and what we want to do with them. What would happen, though, if we thought of ourselves first as spiritual beings, and secondarily as material beings? We might try to disappear into the ether, I suppose, trying to become as diaphanous and "pure" as possible. But I don't think so; I don't think we'd have to abandon the world to be spiritual beings in the world, though we might have to stop thinking Maslow's hierarchy (which I first encountered in seminary; three college degrees, and I had no use for that pyramid until I was training to be a minister of the gospel) is the baseline for human needs, and spirituality comes in fourth or fifth or sixth in line. What if we simply turned that around? What seismic shifts in human consideration might arise?

Yet another problem is the problem of the holy.

This archaic and ostensibly more savage radicalization of ‘religious’ violence claims, in the name of ‘religion’, to allow the living community to rediscover its roots, its place, its body and its idiom intact (unscathed, safe, pure, proper). It spreads death and unleashes self-destruction in a desperate (auto-immune) gesture that attacks the blood of its own body: as though thereby to eradicate uprootedness and reappropriate the sacredness of life safe and sound. Double root, double uprootedness, double eradication.”
Derrida is concerned with violence, but we need not follow him there to appropriate his language and understand it correctly. What about the claim, in the name of 'religion,' to rediscover the roots, the place, the body and idiom, of 'religion.' Isn't that what Dean French is doing, and to a lesser extent Walter Russell Meade? They come closer to speaking the language of violence on the subject of poverty than anyone else I'm hearing. And that is an interesting thing about the discussion of poverty: the very discussion of it usually makes us very nervous.

In Ursula LeGuin's Omelas, even a kind word to the child in the basement is enough to end the perfection of the too-true-to-be-good city. I find that whenever a kind word is spoken about the poor, almost-violent reactions often ensue. I knew a kind and good man, a church member (not of my church) who insisted that panhandlers on the streets of Houston, obviously destitute and broken people, in fact made $30,000 a year (apparently a princely sum; I think his age was showing in that calculation) by begging, which proved, PROVED!, they were not, indeed, worthy of our compassion. He meant well, but while the poor may always be with us, it seems to most people that we don't always have to care for them. Meade and French stand in a long line that I remember from my childhood, when anecdotes about color TV's in tar paper shacks proved that the poor weren't really victims of a system, but simply profligate and poor managers of their admittedly meager incomes. We seem to feel, somehow, that the poor indict us in our comfort, and any kind word delivered to them or even about them, that isn't tempered with some kind of rebuke for the group as a whole, is enough to afflict what makes us comfortable. Speaking harshly of the poor is our own way of trying to "eradicate uprootedness and reappropriate the sacredness of life safe and sound." But, of course, what we end up with is: "Double root, double uprootedness, double eradication."

We always have the poor with us because we are always committed to systems that make sure some one else is poor, that someone lives in the basement so we can enjoy the sunshine and festivals of Omelas. That is the double root we always strive to uproot and eradicate. But we uproot and eradicate ourselves, in the effort, as well. Is it any surprise that: “This development reinforces the social marginalization of less educated Americans who are also increasingly disconnected from the institutions of marriage and work.” Disconnecting people from institutions we don't really want them to be a part of is the primary work of an institution.

So, do we abandon the institution? If we do, where do we go? And after all, is the Church really Omelas? Do we really have no alternative but to accept it, or walk away?

Who is the church, anyway? The priests, the bishops, the pastors and judicatory of whatever form and function? Or is the church the people in the pews? Is the church you? Which is not to say that you are the Body of Christ, but is the Church so apart from you that it, too, is an abstraction, a thing to which you have nothing but an unfortunate connection? If pastors are waiting like vultures for parishioners to come along in the end, in the last resort, are you waiting for the church to act like the church you imagine, in the end, in the last resort? Maybe it is time, again, to ask the passionate questions (on another subject, but again, we can disregard that) of that passionate Roman Catholic, Walker Percy:

What happened to marriage and family that it should have become a travail and a sadness?...God may be good, family and marriage and children and home may be good, grandma and grandpa may act wise, the Thanksgiving table may be groaning with God's goodness and bounty, all the folks healthy and happy, but something is missing...What is missing? Where did it go? I won't have it! I won't have it! Why this sadness here? Don't stand for it! Get up! Leave! Let the boat people sit down! Go live in a cave until you've found the thief who is robbing you. But at least protest! Stop, thief! What is missing? God? Find him!
Maybe that's what we should do. It is clear Meade and French and their ilk are wrong, and worse, dangerous. But knowing that doesn't tell us what to do, only what not to do. So what do we do? We get up. That's right, nothing more than that. Get up! Protest! What is missing? Who is robbing us? God? A thief? Find him! Find the thief! Find God!!!!

Sorry, no answers here at the end of the book. Just more questions:

If you're looking for an answer,
If you're looking for a way,
If you're looking for directions,
Or a lesson how to pray,
Then there's nothing for you here,
You'd better go.

"Song for Maybe Christians," as best I can remember it 40 years later. Something I learned in high school. Some things stick with you longer than they should.

UPDATE: There is, by the way, a response to poverty in this country from major religious organizations. The membership of this group is really quite impressive. On the other hand, they are not the Tea Party (or Tea Parties), and they don't attract the attention of the DC media crowd. There is also the distinction between poverty (a concept) and the poor (people). But it is a response. A candle in the darkness, as it were.

*(try as I might, I can't find the German double "S" on my computer. Apologies!)

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Chain of Being Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones

David French acknowledges the obvious now: he's what he thinks a Calvinist should be.

Earlier this week, Walter Russell Mead highlighted disturbing research showing that the poor — far more than the rich — are disconnected from church and religion. While church attendance is dropping among all social classes, it’s falling off a cliff for the poorest and least-educated Americans. In other words, the deeper a person slides into poverty, the more they’re disconnected from the very values that can save them and their families.

The bottom line is that we need more free enterprise, and we need more virtue. Sadly, the Great Society and the sexual revolution have deprived us of both.
The causal analysis of that final statement is laughable, but the interesting issue is the assumption that church attendance is associated with virtue, or even that it is proof of one's election to salvation and eternal life. Ask any honest pastor, or church member, about that assumption, and see if they agree only the virtuous go to church. His presumption is, again, laughable.

Walter Russell Meade's analysis, by the way, comes down to this observation:

By what we teach and what we don’t teach, what we talk about and where the silences are, we convey clear messages to young children. We have been broadcasting a clear message to two generations of young people that religion doesn’t matter.
Which undercuts both Meade's observation that the poor are suffering from our societal neglect of religion (why are the wealthy more likely to go to church? Are they not listening to what we've been broadcasting?) as it undercuts French's opinion. If we are telling everyone in America that religion doesn't matter, then the problem is not the weakness of the poor. If, on the other hand, we are telling the rich they are God's chosen.... For French's argument, though, if the poor don't go to church because they are shiftless and immoral and damned anyway (clearly not among the Elect), then Meade's analysis is not only inapposite, it's wrong.

The other problem with French's argument,though, is that it's not based on the sociological research:

The study also shows that Americans who make more money attend religious services more frequently, and that Americans who have been unemployed at any point in the past 10 years attend services less frequently. The study found that people who are married, who do not approve of premarital sex and those who lost their virginity later than their peers also attend services more often.

“While we recognize that not everyone wishes to worship, and that religious diversity can be valuable, we also think that the existence of a large group of less educated Americans that is increasingly disconnected from religious institutions is troubling for our society,” says Andrew Cherlin, co-author of the study and a professor of sociology and public policy at the Johns Hopkins University. “This development reinforces the social marginalization of less educated Americans who are also increasingly disconnected from the institutions of marriage and work.”
The root of the problem, as Meade understood, is in society, not in the character of the poor. French is pulling that supposed cause out of thin air. He may think he's started a discussion, but he's started one based on a fiction, which means it is not an argument that will ever reach a valid conclusion.

Basing arguments on fictions, however, doesn't seem to be a problem for someone who can write a sentence like this:

Christ laid down his life to save a lost and sinful people. When we fail to follow His example, we have only our own depravity to blame.
I have no idea what sacrifices Mr. French has made, but unless he is already dead, he cannot begin to raise such a standard as the only possible one for a believing Christian. I honestly don't think it is my own depravity which has kept me alive all these years.

And striving after emptiness....

"Who sinned, this man,or his parents?"

It is simply a fact that our social problems are increasingly connected to the depravity of the poor. If an American works hard, completes their education, gets married, and stays married, then they will rarely — very rarely — be poor. At the same time, poverty is the handmaiden of illegitimacy, divorce, ignorance, and addiction. As we have poured money into welfare, we’ve done nothing to address the behaviors that lead to poverty while doing all we can to make that poverty more comfortable and sustainable.
David French

There is, indeed, nothing new under the sun.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Moral Man v. Immoral Society

Whether you can read this or not may render the following slightly problematic (it's an NYTimes link, which may prove a firewall if you don't subscribe, as I don't, or if you use up your allotted pages as a visitor on more interesting topics). It's particularly the kind of thing to catch my attention, partly because it is so poorly thought out (no, really, it is), and partly because it is such a transparent attempt to establish an amoral morality, to argue that there isn't any standard except that of the self, and so selfishness can be a kind of virtue.

No, he doesn't go the Ayn Rand route at all, but really it's so close to Sartre, one could simply say Sartre said it better.

Here's the heart of the matter, following on what he calls an "anti-epiphany" (whatever that is!):

For instance, I used to think that animal agriculture was wrong. Now I will call a spade a spade and declare simply that I very much dislike it and want it to stop. Has this lessened my commitment to ending it? I do not find that to be the case at all. Does this lessen my ability to bring others around to sharing my desires, and hence diminish the prospects of ending animal agriculture? On the contrary, I find myself in a far better position than before to change minds – and, what is more important, hearts. For to argue that people who use animals for food and other purposes are doing something terribly wrong is hardly the way to win them over. That is more likely to elicit their defensive resistance.

Instead I now focus on conveying information: about the state of affairs on factory farms and elsewhere, the environmental devastation that results and, especially, the sentient, intelligent, gentle and noble natures of the animals who are being brutalized and slaughtered. It is also important to spread knowledge of alternatives, like how to adopt a healthy and appetizing vegan diet. If such efforts will not cause people to alter their eating and buying habits, support the passage of various laws and so forth, I don’t know what will.

So nothing has changed, and everything has changed. For while my desires are the same, my manner of trying to implement them has altered radically. I now acknowledge that I cannot count on either God or morality to back up my personal preferences or clinch the case in any argument. I am simply no longer in the business of trying to derive an ought from an is. I must accept that other people sometimes have opposed preferences, even when we are agreed on all the relevant facts and are reasoning correctly.

My outlook has therefore become more practical: I desire to influence the world in such a way that my desires have a greater likelihood of being realized. This implies being an active citizen. But there is still plenty of room for the sorts of activities and engagements that characterize the life of a philosophical ethicist. For one thing, I retain my strong preference for honest dialectical dealings in a context of mutual respect. It’s just that I am no longer giving premises in moral arguments; rather, I am offering considerations to help us figure out what to do. I am not attempting to justify anything; I am trying to motivate informed and reflective choices.
Emphasis supplied.

What you have here, of course, is morality as a set of rules everyone must follow, else there is no morality. Joel Marks has gone from the error that morality can only come from a god (or "God," as he puts it, by which he seems to mean the God of Abraham; but he's so indiscriminate in his use of the term, and apparently so unlettered in philosophy of religion or theology, I will not presume for him what he doesn't seem to understand) to the error that morality is all about imposing your will on others. A universal standard is, for him, not a universal standard unless everyone actually follows it. Unless everyone, in other words, does as Joel Mark does, there is no common morality and no single source for it. But the moral imperative (or perhaps the categorical one, since he doesn't seem to have abandoned his deontological ethics), is still the same: everyone must act as I do, or must be persuaded to act as I would.

And frankly, what's moral about that? It's the cartoon morality of Puritanism; it's Pecksniffian in the extreme. Even Sartre understood that if there is no common source for what is right and wrong, then the choice made by the individual is a terrible burden which is the price we pay for being Godless. Marks thinks we pay no price and have only the burden of persuading others to think as we do so they won't, ultimately, be immoral. He tries to hide the ball on that, but clearly his morality impels him to persuade you to believe as he does and if you won't, well, you can't say he didn't try to make you see the light. Oh, you aren't condemned; but you aren't right, either. He is; even if he can't convince you that he is.

What morality is this? It asks nothing of me except I do what I like, and demands nothing of me except I persuade you to do as I like, too. And if that fails, well, I'm alright with that, too:

In the process my own desires are likely to undergo further change as well, in the direction of greater compassion and respect, I would anticipate – and not only for the victims of the attitudes, behaviors and policies I don’t like, but also for their perpetrators. But this won’t be because a god, a supernatural law or even my conscience told me I must, I ought, I have an obligation. Instead I will be moved by my head and my heart. Morality has nothing to do with it.
To some degree, we all must act as our understanding of morality (or ethics; I still argue the two terms are distinguishable, not merely synonyms) bids us. But morality should be a common bond, not another source of solipsism. Marks presents his anti-epiphany as the result of a process he has worked through, when the fact is he's barely worked through anything at all. At one point he says of God:

A friend had been explaining to me the nature of her belief in God. At one point she likened divinity to the beauty of a sunset: the quality lay not in the sunset but in her relation to the sunset. I thought to myself: “Ah, if that is what she means, then I could believe in that kind of God. For when I think about the universe, I am filled with awe and wonder; if that feeling is God, then I am a believer.”
A concept I suppose could be terribly appealing, especially to a layperson; but it is a concept of God without reference to any religious community, or doctrine, or tradition of faith. It isn't animism, or shamanism, or even atheism. It is simply a convenience for the individual, a way of declaring oneself the source and the end of a revelation which really is a non-revelation. Indeed, one of the problems with modern concepts of God is that such knowledge comes from a revelation, yet that revelation is not a Wordsworthian epiphany captured in reflections on one's own childhood. The Child may be Father to the Man, but neither the Child nor the Man is Father to the God.

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

John Dominic Crossan, The Birth of Christianity (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999), ix-x.

Yes, it does come back to the individual experience; but that experience (or experience of morality, if you prefer) is judged by the community; and if it is rejected, perhaps it is your concept of morality that is in question, and not your powers of persuasion, or the recalcitrance of the others.

Sunday, August 21, 2011


Reading stuff like this:
NYU Professor Nouriel Roubini has moved beyond predicting catastrophic economic downturns. Now, he's saying that capitalism itself is threatened.

He also thinks the uprisings that have roiled countries from Asia to the Middle East to Europe will soon spread.
Roubini went on to say that capitalism is undergoing a crisis that Karl Marx predicted a century ago, driven by an ongoing transfer of wealth and power from labor to capital (in other words, from poor and middle-class people to rich people.)
Incendiary stuff, indeed. Unfortunately, this turns it into rather a kettle of cold cod:

So Karl Marx, it seems, was partly right in arguing that globalization, financial intermediation run amok, and redistribution of income and wealth from labor to capital could lead capitalism to self-destruct (though his view that socialism would be better has proven wrong). Firms are cutting jobs because there is not enough final demand. But cutting jobs reduces labor income, increases inequality and reduces final demand.

Recent popular demonstrations, from the Middle East to Israel to the UK, and rising popular anger in China – and soon enough in other advanced economies and emerging markets – are all driven by the same issues and tensions: growing inequality, poverty, unemployment, and hopelessness. Even the world’s middle classes are feeling the squeeze of falling incomes and opportunities.

To enable market-oriented economies to operate as they should and can, we need to return to the right balance between markets and provision of public goods. That means moving away from both the Anglo-Saxon model of laissez-faire and voodoo economics and the continental European model of deficit-driven welfare states. Both are broken.

The right balance today requires creating jobs partly through additional fiscal stimulus aimed at productive infrastructure investment. It also requires more progressive taxation; more short-term fiscal stimulus with medium- and long-term fiscal discipline; lender-of-last-resort support by monetary authorities to prevent ruinous runs on banks; reduction of the debt burden for insolvent households and other distressed economic agents; and stricter supervision and regulation of a financial system run amok; breaking up too-big-to-fail banks and oligopolistic trusts.
And even after the much more reasonable analysis pushes Cassandra from the stage, I'm still left thinking I'd love to change the world, but no one seems to know what to do. After all, those are hardly new solutions "Dr. Doom" proposes. So we keep doing this:

Because really, the first account doesn't represent correctly what the second said, but the second....doesn't really say anything. As they say in the military, hope is not a plan.

"Time it was and what a time it was, it was....Preserve your memories, they're all that's left you."

I dunno. Maybe we all talk too much. Maybe this internet thing is turning into too much of a good thing.

Or just too much of a thing. Period.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Rattling the Chains

There are many ways to read this. What follows, is just another:

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."
If you focus on the central issue here, it is that Jesus (God) identifies with the poor, the prisoners, the stranger; the naked, the sick. That can be a revelation: "Truly I tell you, just as you did/did did/did me." But there is another revelation hidden in it, one completely in keeping with the words of the Hebrew Prophets:

Woe to him who says,
"I shall build myself a spacious palace
with airy roof chambers and
windows set in it.
It will be paneled with cedar
and painted with vermilion."
Though your cedar is so splendid,
does that prove you a king?
Think of your father: he ate and drank,
dealt justly and fairly; all went well with him.
He upheld the cause of the lowly and poor;
then all was well.
Did not this show he knew me? says the Lord.

But your eyes and your heart are set on naught but gain, set only on the innocent blood you can shed,
on the cruel acts of tyranny you perpetrate.
Jeremiah 22: 14-17 (REB), emphasis added.

The lesson of Jeremiah is bit clearer, but it is the lesson of the parable: when a society (in Jeremiah's day represented by the king; in our day, by you and me) upholds the cause of the lowly and poor, then all is well with that society, and it knows the Lord (the Creator, the Source. I will not apologize for applying this religious lesson in a contemporary secular context. Feel the barbs as and where you will.) When you care for the sick, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, you do it not for the lowest alone, but for the highest as well. To misunderstand this parable and think it only means God is present in the outcast, and so you should do it to curry God's favor, or to show God you care about God, is to reinforce the ladder of the Great Chain of Being.

The Great Chain ran from the lowest creature up to God at it's pinnacle, and it reinforced a hierarchy as surely as cries of "Class Warfare" in American politics today reinforces the position of the rich and powerful over the poor and powerless:

'Tis ours to trace him only in our own.
He, who thro' vast immensity can pierce,
See worlds on worlds compose one universe,
Observe how system into system runs,
What other planets circle other suns,
What vary'd being peoples every star,
May tell why heav'n has made us as we are.
But of this frame the bearings and the ties,
The strong connections, nice dependencies,
Gradations just, has thy pervading soul
Look'd thro'? or can a part contain the whole?

Is the great chain, that draws all to agree,
And drawn support, upheld by God, or thee?
Presumptuous man! the reason wouldst thou find,
Why form'd so weak, so little, and so blind?
First, if thou canst, the harder reason guess,
Why form'd no weaker, blinder, and no less?
Ask of thy mother earth, why oaks are made
Taller or stronger than the weeds they shade?
Or ask of yonder argent fields above,
Why Jove's Satellites are less than Jove?

Of systems possible, if 'tis confest
That wisdom infinite must form the best,
Where all must full or not coherent be,
And all that rises, rise in due degree;
Then, in the scale of reas'ning life, 'tis plain,
There must be, somewhere, such a rank as man:
And all the question (wrangle e'er so long)
Is only this, if God has plac'd him wrong?

Respecting man whatever wrong we call,
May, must be right, as relative to all.
In human works, tho' labour'd on with pain,
A thousand movements scarce one purpose gain;
In God's, one single can its end produce;
Yet serves to second too some other use.
So man, who here seems principal alone,
Perhaps acts second to some sphere unknown,
Touches some wheel, or verges to some goal;
'Tis but a part we see, and not a whole.

When the proud steed shall know why man restrains
His fiery course, or drives him o'er the plains;
When the dull ox, why now he breaks the clod,
Is now a victim, and now an Egypt's god:
Then shall man's pride and dullness comprehend
His actions', passions', being's, use and end;
Why doing, suff'ring, check'd, impell'd; and why
This hour a slave, the next a deity.

The Chain, said Pope, is part of God's plan, part of God's purpose. That chain remains in the teachings of the Gospel of Wealth, where God's purpose now is not to make any of us slaves, but all of us deities. It is, in any conception, a pernicious goal.

But if we read the parable as merely God identifying with the poor, or God being present among the poor, so that we may entertain angels unaware if we are not careful, we still sidestep an important lesson of the parable, and forge another link in the Great Chain (which needs no more links, but needs to be disassembled). The purpose of the parable is not to make us realize God is always with us, at bottom while still at "top" (for God is still and always God), but that a society is just only in how it treats the least favored; that we can only do right for all, when we do right for the least among us.

This sounds somewhat akin to Rawls' theory of justice (a bone I have picked before), and the principle, if not the purpose, is much the same. This parable calls us to challenge not our assumptions about justice (as Rawls does), but the very basis for our society. If we oppress the poor, do we not oppress the mighty? And not in the sense of the oppressor being burdened by his oppression (a lovely idea, but it never seems to stop despots from their despotism), but in the sense that when life is wrong for the poorest and the least able, life is wrong for all. And if we don't see that, we don't see that what we are doing wrong is being done as wrong to everyone, even up to the Creator.

Aye, even up to the Creator. Fathom that, if you will. This is beyond Jeremiah: the king does justice to his people, and all is well with the society. But those affected by justice and injustice are the people; the parable in Matthew says the justice and the injustice affects God as well.

Or, you can look at it the way the world does: the poor are takers, and the rich are makers.

And those last sentiments have been echoed by Sen. Tom Coburn:

Obama’s “intent isn’t to destroy,” Coburn said, according to a transcript of the senator’s remarks that the Tulsa World reporter, Randy Krehbiel, provided to the Plum Line, a Washington Post blog, and said in an e-mail was accurately reproduced there. “It’s to create dependency because it worked so well for him,” the senator added.

“As an African-American male, coming through the progress of everything he experienced, he got tremendous benefit through a lot of these programs. So he believes in them,” Coburn said.
The poor, you see, can't help it. They've been misled. They're just misguided, think they're important, too. And compassion for them is simply misplaced.

You can hear, in such criticisms, the Chain of Being rattling so loudly it almost drowns out all other sounds (yes, racism is based in the Chain of Being as well). It certainly drowns out the voice of God, whose only power, apparently, is to get the last word.

The moral of the Matthean parable is not just that God identifies with the poor, but that God is affected by how we treat the poor; that God remains God just as Jesus remains human, and yet God is affected by how we treat the poor. This is even beyond a social justice lesson that we should treat the poor well if we want to be just. This is beyond Omelas, where the pact (with who? Who holds the enforcement clause on this covenant?) requires only that one child be miserable, and that all of Omelas accept those terms by knowing all about it. Omelas posits a perfection that is somehow created out of misery, but Jeremiah and Jesus posit a justice that simply is. And that justice is not just a condition of existence, it is a condition that affects the Creator. It is not merely a matter of right and wrong, it is a question of being. We are beyond "How should we then live?", we are facing squarely: "How should we then be?" Justice rises from the bottom, it doesn't trickle down from the top. Omelas challenges us to walk away because of this simple truth: how can it be perfect with such a horror as the basis for its happiness? How can anyone accept such a nightmare? And yet if we don't, what then? If we walk away from happiness, where do we go?

Toward God?

That is too much. That is too harsh. This is not a simple either/or. The terms are existential, not Hegelian. God is not waiting when we have rejected human happiness as intermingled too much with human misery. God is affected by the treatment of the child in the Omelas basement just as if God were the child, but God remains God: and there is the paradox. How we are affects God, but God remains God, just as Jesus is divine, but remains human. It is irreconcilable, but it is the confession of Christian faith. And it disassembles the Great Chain, because when the treatment of the lowest affects the source of all existence, then the Chain itself trembles and falls apart.

As do human societies which think all is well when the best are well-served, when the poor are kept silent and invisible.

Scarcity is the peculiar province of economics, the "dismal science." How much is available to go around, how fairly can it be distributed? This is the assumption of utilitarianism, this is the assumption of John Rawls' "Theory of Justice," this is the assumption of economists: scarcity is the nature of the world, now how do we adjust our desires to meet this wholly reasonable and undeniable conclusion? The economic pie can only be so large. Full employment, for example, would be disastrous: without a scarcity of jobs, what bargaining power would the employer have, what incentive would drive the worker to labor rather than laziness? With every niche filled, there would be nowhere to go, and little reason to worry about being asked to go. Scarcity is not only reality, we deem it necessity. The desert is our model for the world, it is the spur of our incentives: we are not creatures driven and derided by lust, because lust we can market. Lust is another model of scarcity, as you can never have enough things, look good enough, have enough sex or be attractive, knowledgeable, witty, intelligent, enough. You must always lack and desire what you do not have. It is not lust we are driven by now, but fear. Fear for our security, but also fear for our want, fear that the world, indeed, is not enough and that we must always have more. Our fear is that the world is actually the desert we are afraid it might be, and that enough will never be afforded us.
Scarcity rests on the idea that some deserve less, while some deserve more; because there is never enough for everyone.

O, we of little faith! We believe! Help thou our unbelief!

Unbelief? Unbelief in scarcity? Or unbelief in poverty?

We believe in poverty; that is our curse. We believe in scarcity; that is our affliction. We believe in the poor, and we don't want to be among them! We believe that God is unaffected and inscrutable and immovable and eternal, and we long to be like that. But we do not understand God, and so we do not understand ourselves. We want God to be the maker, and we will be takers. We the deserving; and damn the undeserving.

"Truly I tell you, just as you did/did did/did me." That is not a revelation; that is a scream in the night.

We affect God when we affect each other; we affect God in how we treat each other. There is no hierarchy if the Creator is simultaneously at the bottom and at the top. There is no them; there is only us.

If we start to understand that, perhaps we can go and start to sin no more.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Somebody please take the microphones away....

Just a note, really, on Rick Perry (my bete noir), only because he keeps grabbing headlines, and people keep losing track of the narrative. Let's start with Rick Santorum's comment (and no, it doesn't really matter what subject Santorum was reproaching Perry for; go with me here):

It’s out of place, and hopefully Gov. Perry will step back and recognize that we’re not in Texas anymore.
Texas is full of rednecks and yahoos; but, as Lloyd Doggett notes, we really don't like to admit it.

"He's arrogant, he's full of himself, he just fits the stereotype that is sometimes misapplied to our state," Doggett told TPM in an interview. "We all are really proud to be Texans, but we're not proud of what he's done to our state."
Let me say Texas is the home of snark, of the ironic distance between proposed image and reality. ("Don't Mess with Texas" was a state anti-litter campaign slogan. We keep it around because people think we're serious. If you get too upset, we'll let you in on the joke.) We aren't really boastful braggarts and neanderthal knuckle draggers (well, some of us are) and we aren't at all proud of that image being presented as representative of the state by our politicians. We consider the image a good joke, rather like a tall tale that suckers the listener into believing the preposterous. We think it's funny, but we also think so because it's a joke. Name a U.S. Senator from Texas who does or has walked around in cowboy boots and boasted and talked tough in public like Rick Perry. Even John Cornyn only dons a cowboy hat and boots for campaign ads. He never dresses that way in D.C. Nor would we want him to.

So the Texas stereotype is one we enjoy as a bit of fun, even if it is at our expense. We don't enjoy it when our public representatives (politicians especially) take it seriously, and make us look foolish.

And as for Gov. Goodhair, it is true that he appointed a "young earth creationist" to chair the State Board of Education. But when that appointment had to be renewed, even the Texas Senate balked, and McLeroy lost his bid to be reelected to the Board in the GOP primary. Not in the regular election, in the primary. This was after the publicity the Board garnered (all of it bad) about textbook selection. Once again, Texans may be yahoos, but we don't like it when our officials act like yahoos in public.

It's complicated.

Of course, the really stupid thing (and this is where Perry is stupid, not crafty) is Perry denying any knowledge of geology (the age of the earth) in a state whose major industry since Spindletop has been built on understanding geology. Again, we might elect him governor, but that's because we know the Governor of Texas can't do much; we figure he's harmless.

On a similar point, as recently as a month ago, the Texas Board of Education rejected creationist materials in textbooks, so I don't know what Perry is talking about when he says Texas teaches both evolution and creationism. My daughter certainly only learned evolution in science classes. Which is another lesson: don't take what Gov. Goodhair says at face value. He really is a male Sarah Palin.

So would even Texans elect him President? Well, the boys in the Petroleum Club might be for him, but the rest of us would think twice about that. Pretty sure the country will, too.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Change of Heart

Grandmere Mimi asks a rational question:

Russ, I don't get it. I really don't. How can so many people demand policies that are not in their own self-interest?
I mean no disrespect when I say it doesn't really matter what the subject was originally, because it's a question that applies almost universally to almost any discourse. And one explanation of it is Wittgenstein's theory of language games: i.e., that we all use what seems like a common language, but we use it in particular ways, and what I interpret your use of language to mean, may not be what you intended to say. Perhaps Robert McCloskey said it best (Wittgenstein's explanation tends to get a bit technical): "“I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”

That's one way of putting it, and perhaps not, as the poet said, entirely satisfactory. More to the point, I've observed, especially after a brief stint in the pulpit, supposedly in a position of power over people's self-interests, that what I mean by your self-interest, and what you mean by your self-interest, are often two very different things. Which goes a long way to explaining why other people are neither rational nor sensible; at least not when they seem so clearly to be acting against their own self-interests. Especially when I can clearly see what their self-interests are, even if they can't.

Now let me start over again: this is a sound and reasonable position, to wonder why people don't see that their self-interests would dictate an outcome, or an opinion, or even a position on an issue, other than the one they want to take. Why, for example, would one of the few states in the Union with a Spanish word for a name ("Colorado") be associated at all with someone so virulently anti-Mexican and anti-Spanish (Tom Tancredo)? How is it possibly in the self-interest of a non-border state like Colorado to support, in any way, even if briefly, someone so opposed to Mexican and Hispanic immigration (especially since the issue affects Texas more profoundly, and even Gov. Perry is considered "soft" on immigration by some in the GOP because he has to be aware there really isn't much animosity toward Mexicans along the long Texas-Mexico border. Down there, Mexicans are family members, not "others".) But maybe that's a poor example of "self-interest," so perhaps we need to shift examples.

Except as the examples pile up, the bone of contention remains lodged in the throat of rhetoric: why don't you see your situation the way I see your situation? And if the outcome of this analysis is that your situation is unalterably solipsistic, then what hope is there for a rational discourse or a civil society? Whither community?

Well, that's the question of the day, isn't it? Rick Perry enters the race for President (and no, this post ISN'T about Rick Perry, but bear with me) declaring the President may or may not love his country, that the Chairman of the Federal Reserve may soon commit treason, that Obama is unfit to the Commander in Chief and the military troops are disinclined to follow his command (imputing treason to them). Now, on one hand; this is bad; on the other hand, is it really as bad as Joseph McCarthy, accusing everyone from Eisenhower down to the entire State Dept., of being Communists (he finally came a cropper when he included the military in his charges)? Hard to make a distinction, but matters do seem to be as contentious as when Dr. King led marches where people were beaten, attacked with dogs and water cannons, where billboards went up urging the impeachment of Earl Warren and labeling King a Communist (the House Un-American Affairs Committee was still active until 1975), where Mayor Daley unleashed a police riot on protesters in the streets of Chicago, where students died because the National Guard opened fire at an anti-war protest (a situation where it isn't clear why the Guard had live ammunition in the first place).

Wait, what was I trying to prove? That things are worse now than they were then? Or that nothing much has changed? Oh, that's right; we were talking about your self-interest, and why you are so often wrong about it.

Perhaps you see the problem already: first, it's a matter of definition. If I define these as perilously contentious times, with incivility and partisanship dominating the halls of Congress as never before, I first have to ignore history within my lifetime. I have to leave facts out, in order to create a simpler picture of the past, v. the present. The former is always simple, no matter how carefully I try to consider all that was happening; the latter is always complicated, because we are always right in the middle of it, and there is always more happening than we can keep track of. But surely reason can show us a way out....

Surely. Except reason fails, because I can clearly see what your self-interest should be, and you can't seem to see it at all. What is reasonable about that? Why are you so irrational? Why can't we start with the same definition, since it is eminently a reasonable one?

Penn Gillette was on my TeeVee the other night, partly to peddle his newest book (it even creeps into the news shows I watch. I'm surprised he didn't have a guest shot squeezed in by CGI into one of the movies I watched later.) about how he's an atheist because he doesn't know whether God is real or not (let's set aside the tired canard about God's existence. Please?). That was the major thesis of his argument: he doesn't know, so he's an atheist.


I don't know, either, but I'm a religious person. Knowing is overrated, but Penn Gillette (among others) would certainly doubt my understanding of my own self-interest if I insisted (as I do) that I am a religious person who doesn't know any more than he does. He might think I'm being irrational to insist that knowing is overrated; but then we would have to discuss how we define our terms. He might still insist that I'm being irrational, when I would counter that I'm being perfectly rational. And who is right? Well, let's have an argument about it.

Fine. But that presupposes there are agreed upon grounds for the discussion, that a true discourse, a true "meeting of minds," will occur, and from the clash will come enlightenment. Thesis meets antithesis and gives rise to synthesis. Except that only really works in Hegel's theory. When thesis and antithesis both contain aspects of the other, synthesis can occur. But when thesis is chalk, and antithesis is cheese? What synthesis then? And while Hegel might well deny the foundation of my analysis, that is precisely the foundation Kierkegaard insisted on, as the foundation of life as it is lived, rather than existence as it is reasoned about.

There is, in that distinction, a dramatic difference. It's the same distinction I'd draw between myself and Penn Gillette. He insists his "not knowing" is solid ground for atheism, as no alternative is left. I would insist he only describes the "via negativa" of negative theology, a path forged by Martin Luther, among others, and long since recognized by philosophers of religion. But that distinction obscures as much as it reveals, and it is the revelation which is finally important. Kierkegaard's body of work is, among other things, precisely against the Enlightenment baseline that knowledge is all:

Christian faith, for Kierkegaard, is not a matter of learning dogma by rote. It is a matter of the individual repeatedly renewing h/er passionate subjective relationship to an object which can never be known, but only believed in. This belief is offensive to reason, since it only exists in the face of the absurd (the paradox of the eternal, immortal, infinite God being incarnated in time as a finite mortal).
Indeed, for Kierkegaard, knowledge of faith is the true absurdity. As Kierkegaard would argue, we need Jesus, not Socrates.

Which brings me to Walter Brueggemann. In The Prophetic Imagination, Brueggemann argues against the idea of Israel's culture springing entirely from strands of the cultures that surrounded it.

That is to say, the shaping of Israel took place from inside its own experience and confession of faith and not through external appropriation from somewhere else....we are on sound ground if we take as our beginning point Moses as the paradigmatic prophet who sought to evoke in Israel an alternative consciousness.
This insight has profound impacts, one of which is that:

It is clear that the emergence of Israel by the hand of Moses cannot be extrapolated from an earlier reality. Obviously nothing like the Kenite hypothesis or the monotheism of the eighteenth dynasty in Egypt will help us at all. While there are some hings that the God of Israel is known to be the God of the fathers (cf Exod. 15:2), that evidence is at best obscure. In any case, the overriding experience of Exodus is decisive and not some memory now only hinted at in the tradition. However these antecedents are finally understood, the appearance of a new social reality is unprecedented. Israel in the thirteen century is indeed ex nihilo. And that new reality drives us to the category of revelation.
My New Testament professor was led to a similar insight when he studied the language of the Last Supper in graduate school. Where, he was asked, is the precedent for the words "This is my body" and "This is my blood"? Try as they might, the class could not find them anywhere outside the texts of the New Testament. They were, indeed, a wholly new thing.

It happens.

It also puts me in mind of Wittgenstein's comment:

Christianity is not a doctrine, not, I mean, a theory about what has happened and will happen to the human soul, but a description of something that actually takes place in human life. For 'consciousness of sin' is a real event and so are despair and salvation through faith. Those who speak of such things (Bunyan for instance) are simply describing what has happened to them, whatever gloss anyone may want to put on it.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, "Ethics, Life and Faith," The Wittgenstein Reader, ed. Anthony Kenny (Oxford, Blackwell Press 1994).

Do we know these things? In what sense? In the sense that I know 2+2=4? In the sense that I know the sky is blue? In the sense that I know I love my wife and daughter? Wittgenstein says Christianity is not known, it is something which actually takes place (he was careful enough with his words not to say "is experienced").* But there, I digress again; back to Brueggemann.

For him, it is primarily about newness:

Egypt was without energy precisely because it did not believe anything was promised and about to be given. Egypt, like every other imperial and eternal now, believed everything was already given, contained, and possessed. If there is any point at which most of us are manifestly co-opted, it is in this way. We do not believe that there will be newness but only that there will be merely a moving of the pieces into new patterns.
Brueggemann, p. 23.

Apply that to the current economic crisis, and those who say we are being punished or that this will "purge" the body civic of contaminants, and those who say we must resurrect the old system with stimuli, are saying the same thing. Everything is already given, contained, and possessed; we just need to move the pieces into new patterns.

At this point I begin to sound like "every man and woman his/her own prophet." I have to avoid that pitfall. What I am arguing for is not the necessity of the prophetic passion, but the view of the prophetic imagination. I am arguing for "new styles of architecture/a change of heart." It's an argument I will only start in this post. I'll have to finish it later.

*Gillette, like the rest of the "modern atheists (Dawkins, Dennet, Harris, Hitchens) are all still making 19th century arguments in a 21st century world. It's kind of like arguing against Impressionism because it isn't as formal as the Academy painters. Maybe the world still prefers the stiff figures of Jacques-Louis David, but the subject of discussion has moved on some time ago.