Thursday, February 28, 2013

Forces Antithetic

The title is completely useless, except I have reason to be in love with it, and no hope of ever releasing a record album.  So, I just like it, and I'm saving it for a better purpose.  Otherwise, it has nothing to do with Bultmann.

I've made the mistake of thinking too much about Bultmann, which I promised myself I wouldn't do.  So, to get back on track, let's start with the first words of Jesus Christ and Mythology (New York:  Charles Scribner's Sons, 1958.  All quotes below are from this version.) and rather than place them in the context of Kerygma and Mythos or The Gospel of John, treat them as a good formalist critic (or post-modernist critic, or even a New Criticism critic) and restrict ourselves to the text as a ding an sich.  Or something.

Bultmann begins with "The Message of Jesus and the Problem of Mythology."  The "message" is not to be confused with (or maybe it is to be confused with) the kerygma.  But let's get to the message first:

The heart of the preaching of Jesus Christ is the Kingdom of God.  During the nineteenth century exegesis and theology understood the Kingdom of God as a spiritual community consisting in men [sic] joined together by obedience to the will of God which ruled in their wills. By such obedience they sought to enlarge the sphere of His rule in the world.  They were building, it was said, the Kingdom of God as a realm which is spiritual but within the world, active and effective in this world, unfolding in the history of the world. p. 11

I can't help but not the emphasis (slight but clear) on "will" in that passage; it's almost a hallmark of 19th century thinking, as in Kierkegaard's assessment: ""Purity of heart is to will one thing."  By the time Bultmann wrote these words, will was already (thanks to two world wars and a worldwide economic depression) a rather suspect category, at best.  Still, we start from what we learn first, and don't easily deviate from those lessons.  So we are safe to see Bultmann, for all his genius and influence, as a 19th century thinker in a 20th century world (Heidegger isn't really that far removed from the concerns of Kierkegaard, either, and Kierkegaard is firmly rooted in 19th century Romanticism, un-Romantic though he seems).

Bultmann goes on to particularize his assessment, noting the impact of Johannes Weiss' The Preaching of Jesus about the Kingdom of God, a book probably as relevant to Biblical scholarship and theology today as William Barclay's work.  Sic transit gloria.  Nonetheless, Bultmann describes the profound impact of that work in the late 19th century:

This epoch-making book refuted the interpretation which was hitherto generally accepted.  Weiss showed that the Kingdom of God is not immanent in the world and does not grow as part of the world's history, but is rather eschatological; i.e., the Kingdom of God transcends the historical order.  It will come into being not through the moral endeavour of man, but solely through the supernatural action of God.  God will suddenly put an end to the world and to history, and He will bring in a new world of eternal blessedness. p. 12

How epoch making was this?  "I remember that Julius Kaftan, my teacher in dogmatics in Berlin, said:  'If Johannes Weiss is right and the conception of the Kingdom of God is an eschatological one, then it is impossible to make use of this conception in dogmatics.' "  But:

Today nobody doubts that Jesus' conception of the Kingdom of God is an eschatological one--at least in European theology and, as far as I can see, also among American New Testament scholars.  Indeed, it has become more and more clear that the eschatological expectation is at the core of the New Testament preaching throughout. p. 13
 So there we are, but where does this lead us?  Well, essentially, to modern theology and Biblical studies.  The core of modern Christian critical thinking is here:  from Fr. Brown on one end, to Dom Crossan on the other (and probably others; I'm covering my knowledge, not an exhaustive examination of the field).  Bultmann is laying out some fairly simple basic concepts here, with their attendant background.  But for Bultmann, this is where the problem of "mythology" (as he uses the term) arises:  with the fact that, clearly, the eschaton Jesus and his followers expected didn't happen (this was one of the first lessons we started with in New Testament studies in seminary), and that truth alone presents an almost insurmountable barrier to the modern listener, the modern audience for the kergyma (proclamation, to keep it simple for now; not quite message, but close enough) of the church.  Why is this such a problem, other than a matter of timing?

...the modern study of history...does not take into account any intervention of God or of the devil or of demons in the course of history.  Instead, the course of history is considered to be an unbroken whole, complete in itself, though differing from the course of nature because there are in history spiritual powers which influence the will of persons.  Granted that not all historical events are determined by physical necessity and that persons are responsible for their actions, nevertheless nothing happens without rational motivation. pp. 15-16

"Rational," after two world wars, and a "Cold War" that followed, being a rather dubious term, perhaps, but I take Bultmann to mean "explainable in non-metaphysical terms", or at least motivations that could be justified by reasoning, however wrong.  So here's the problem for Christians: it possible that Jesus' preaching of the Kingdom of God still has any importance for modern men [sic] and the preaching of the New Testament as a whole is still important for modern men [sic]?  The preaching of the New Testament proclaiming Jesus Christ, not only his preaching of the Kingdom of God but first of all his person, which was mythologized from the very beginnings of earliest Christianity.  New Testament scholars are at variance as to whether Jesus himself claimed to be the Messiah, the King of the time of blessedness, whether he believed himself to be the Son of Man who would come on the clouds of heaven.  If so, Jesus understood himself in the light of mythology. p. 16
What does Bultmann mean by "mythology"?  The definition comes a bit later, but for now, let consider the one offered here.  There were several answers to the question "Who do you say that I am?" in "the very beginnings of earliest Christianity."  Paul and Peter alone sparred over whether Jesus was for the Jews only, who would then, according to one interpretation of Isaiah, be a light to the nations, and draw all people to Jerusalem (either spiritually or physically, it depends on how you read the prophets).  Peter wanted the Gentiles drawn to the redeemed nation; Paul wanted the message to go directly to the Gentiles, because in Christ there was no longer Jew nor Gentile.  History came down on Paul's side, but gave great credit (the shoes of the fisherman, and all) to Peter.  That resolution is much neater and simpler 2000 years on than it was in reality, but I use the example just to point out the complexity of the issue.  Was Jesus the redeemer?  And what redemption did he mean to bring, or think he brought (if he thought of himself as a redeemer?)  A redemption for the poor? That's Luke's vision.  A redemption for believers exclusively?  That's John's vision (at least in most interpretations).  Did he see himself as the Son of Man who would come down in human physical form on clouds of heaven?  Curiously, this is one of Bultmann's clearest anachronisms, as current Biblical scholarship understands "Son of Man" as an idiomatic Aramaic phrase, not a title claimed by Jesus for himself.  It is now understood to be better translated from Aramaic (just as the sayings of Jesus come from Aramaic through the koine Greek of the Gospels into English and other modern languages today) as "the Human One."  The best explanation/comparison of that I've ever come up with is the Irish English idiom "himself" as a third person singular pronoun, as in "And how is himself?" "Son of Man," or "The Human One," is a way, in other words, of not saying "me," while still referring to "me."  But that understanding is the result of modern scholarship, not of Bultmann's ignorance or willful failure to understand.  There is a constant problem of translation, especially where several language, cultures, and centuries are involved.

Did Jesus understand himself in the light of mythology?  It's an impossible question to answer completely.  No doubt the weltanschaaung of first-century Palestine would, to the modern mind, be "mythological."  We need to be careful not to consider that reality grounds for our own superiority, since many things we overlook today would make a medieval peasant wonder about our ignorance and foolishness.  That isn't quite what Bultmann means, however.  What he means is:  can we recast the kergyma of Jesus of Nazareth without using mythological terms; without, in other words, creating unnecessary stumbling blocks (there is a  vital stumbling block which Bultmann will get to later).  And at the idea of the "true" kergyma we are back to Jesus' question of identity:  what do we say the kergyma of the New Testament is?  Because even if it is the Kingdom of God, is that kingdom immanent, eschatological, or, in the terms of the Gospel of Thomas, among us now?  Your answer determines what the kergyma is; but then again, your kerygma determines what the answer is.  Just as the answer to "Who do you say that I am?" is determined by what doctrine of the Christ you accept as valid.

Notice, for example, that Bultmann speaks of the "Messiah" as "the King of the time of blessedness."  That's not a definition many Christians today would recognize, but their definition would be as anachronistic in first century Palestine as this definition is in the present day. And yet which definition is correct, and why?  And does either involve mythology?  Is the "time of blessedness" mythological, simply because it hasn't happened yet?  Or is it mythological because it is based on metaphysics?  And yet any discussion of God must presume metaphysics, or it is a bootless discussion.

Which brings us to Bultmann's definition of mythology:

It is often said that mythology is a primitive science, the intention of which is to explain phenomena and incidents which are strange, curious, surprising, or frightening, by attributing them to supernatural causes, to gods or to demons....

Mythology expresses a certain understanding of human existence.  It believes that the world and human life have their ground and their limits in a power which is beyond all that we can calculate or control.  Mythology speaks about this power inadequately and insufficiently because it speaks about is as if it were a worldly power.  It speaks of gods who represent the power beyond the visible, comprehensible world.  It speaks of gods as if they were men and of their actions as human actions, although it conceives of the gods as endowed with superhuman power and of their actions as incalculable, as capable of breaking the normal, ordinary order of events.  It may be said that myths give to the transcendent reality an immanent, this-worldly objectivity. pp. 18-19.
One can pick that apart; it is clearly a definition limited almost solely to Greek mythology, and such tales from other cultures as are congruent with that definition of Greek mythology.  But that's nit-picking, and besides, in Western culture Greek myths are the touchstone for understanding "mythology."  Bultmann goes on to apply this to the weltanschaaung which formed the books of the Bible:

According to mythological thinking, God has his domicile in heaven.  What is the meaning of this statement?  The meaning is quite clear.  In a crude manner it expresses the idea that God is beyond the world, that He is transcendent.  The thinking which is not yet capable of forming the abstract idea of transcendence expresses its intention in the category of space; the transcendent God is imagined as being at an immense spatial distance, far above the world: for above this world is the world of the stars, of the light which enlightens and makes glad the life of men.  p. 20.

Bultmann goes on to distinguish this thinking from modern thinking, to distinguish mythological thinking from metaphorical thinking.  If I have a point of disagreement with Bultmann here, it's a minor one.  My problem with this kind of distinction is that it leads too easily to a sense of superiority of present thought over older, "primitive" thought.  I would point out, for example, that it isn't at all clear Socrates clung tightly to the notion that the gods lived in mortal form but with supernatural powers and immortal life spans clustered on the peak of Olympus.  It is not that Socrates was "demythologizing" the Greek gods, but that the abstract concept of transcendence is not a cultural attribute, but an individual one.  Just as Bultmann insists we distinguish between metaphorical and mythological thinking today, even as Pat Robertson insists used clothing can be infested with demons (a question brought to him by another person, not an opinion he offered sui generis).  I don't hesitate to call Mr. Robertson's thinking mythological, but we are 55 years past the publication of Bultmann's little book, which prompts me to wonder who this "we" is that he's talking about.  I'm a little more comfortable understanding that people have different world views, and that even "educated" people in the 20th century (the era of my anecdotal evidence) can insist that "symbols" have "demonic powers," as one mother of a high school acquaintance declared over some sandals I once wore with leather "peace sign" emblems attached to them.  Of course, that symbol is not quite as old as I am, and was invented from a British anti-nukes group; it isn't not an ancient Satanic emblem, but she had heard it was, and feared for her daughter's immortal soul (and mine, a little) if such symbols were in her daughter's presence too long.  Yes, it's mythological thinking; but then, "transcendence" is itself a concept that invites the rebuke that it is simply more sophisticated mythology to remove the idea of "heaven" from the concept.

We swim, in other words, in rather unfathomed waters; and Bultmann ends this chapter asking "What is the meaning of eschatology in general?," which itself could be a mythological construct.  But that's chapter 2.....

Guns are f*ckin' dangerous, mkay?

Good thing this kind of accident can't possibly happen in the classroom, with kids around:

At the conclusion of the CHL training on February 27, 2013, one certified person stayed for private instruction with the instructor and had a mechanical malfunction with his weapon. With the assistance of the instructor, the malfunction was addressed, but the gun misfired and the bullet ricocheted coming back to strike the VISD employee in the left leg. The VISD employee was attended to at the scene and transferred to Tyler for further treatment. The injury is not life threatening or disabling. Because of privacy and security issues we cannot make any further statement.

VISD=Van Independent School District.  It's a small town outside Tyler, Texas. A VISD school board member said this did not change his mind about guns in the classroom.  That would be because he is an idiot.  The VISD employee is in fair condition in a Tyler hospital.  Imagine if it were a student, instead.

This is precisely why guns don't belong in schools.  I've yet to hear of a knife going off and ricocheting around the room, coming back to strike a bystander.  And, as I recall high school life, the solution to the danger of knives in the classroom was to ban them, not to require the teachers to carry bigger knives and learn how to throw them.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

People don't matter

only ideas matter.

"My 24-year-old son Alex was murdered in a movie theater in Colorado," Caren Teves said, according to KTVK. "These assault rifles allow the shooter to fire many rounds without having to reload. These weapons do not belong on our streets."

McCain responded: “I can tell you right now you need some straight talk. That assault weapons ban will not pass the Congress of the United States." McCain added that he is working on legislation that would keep guns out of the wrong hands while preserving the Second Amendment.
Please to notice there not even the acknowledgement of the grieving mother, or the death of a human being.

Bultmann is almost ready for presentation.  We can't change the subject too soon.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Prologue to getting underway....

I want to start this discussion, not with Bultmann, but with the Second Vatican Council.  Granted, that's not the safest place for me to start, because I know so little about "Vatican II," and what I know from Wikipedia (not a fount of scholarship, admittedly) is absolutely fascinating (though I have no way of knowing how accurate it is ):

Throughout the 1950s, theological and biblical studies of the Catholic Church had begun to sway away from the neo-scholasticism and biblical literalism that the reaction to Catholic modernism had enforced since the First Vatican Council.  This shift could be seen in theologians such as Karl Rahner, S.J., Michael Herbert, and John Courtney Murray, SJ who looked to integrate modern human experience with church principles based on Jesus Christ, as well as others such as Yves Congar, Joseph Ratzinger and Henri de Lubac who looked to an accurate understanding of scripture and the early Church Fathers as a source of renewal (or ressourcement).

At the same time the world's bishops faced tremendous challenges driven by political, social, economic, and technological change. Some of these bishops sought new ways of addressing those challenges. The First Vatican Council had been held nearly a century before but had been cut short when the Italian Army entered the city of Rome at the end of Italian unification. As a result, only deliberations on the role of the Papacy and the congruent relationship of faith and reason were completed, with examination of pastoral issues concerning the direction of the Church left unaddressed.

 First things first:  yes, that Joseph Ratzinger, then present as a "theological expert:"

All in all, we may say that Ratzinger belonged to the inner circle of theologians whose thinking prevailed at Vatican II.
I don't know if that would shock Ross Douthat, or confirm his deepest fears:

 The fact that the Second Vatican Council had left the church internally divided limited Catholic influence in some ways but magnified it in others.
In any discussion of the Roman church, it's a common bugaboo, at least among American conservatives, that with Vatican II, there the troubles began.  Douthat is more circumspect than most; he doesn't connect the dots so much as leave them in a clearly recognizable pattern, because Vatican II crops up in a discussion of recent history that leads to this conclusion:

 If this era is now passing, and Catholic ideas are becoming more marginal to our politics, it’s partially because institutional Christianity is weaker over all than a generation ago, and partially because Catholicism’s leaders have done their part, and then some, to hasten that de-Christianization.
Because any change from the way we did it when I was a kid (and I've seen this pattern repeat itself over and over and over again) is the path to ruination and damnation and destruction.  And when you are looking for the headwaters of "de-Christianization," you usually wind up, not with the German Biblical scholars who began treating Scripture as folktales and mythology and finding new insights in them thanks to the then new practices of philology (now splintered into linquistics, anthropology, and several other sciences), but with one German Biblical scholar in the mid-20th century:  Rudolf Bultmann.

I first heard of Bultmann critically, as the symbol and source of all that was wrong with "theologians" and "Biblical scholars" and the reason Biblical literalists and fundamentalists had to set things right.  It's amusing to think about it now, but the reason Bultmann gained this reputation is because he tried to step out of the rarified atmosphere of Biblical scholarship (quick:  name three major Biblical scholars.  I'll wait.  And "The Jesus Seminar" doesn't count.  They were serious scholars, but their Seminar was a publicity stunt.  If you can name them, tell me what they said.  Googling is cheating.) and actually published a book, taken from lectures he was giving about the time I was born (mid-20th century), in which he tried to explain his hermeneutic in plain language.  He even gave it a name, which soon became anathema (well, until Christianity became more concerned with the "Gospel of Getting Rich and Feeling Good" than with scriptural studies).  He called it "de-mythologizing."  And though he explained very carefully what he meant, and though he really meant little more than "integrate modern human experience with church principles based on Jesus Christ," as well as an accurate understanding of scripture [if not the early Church Fathers; Bultmann was a Lutheran] as a source of renewal," still he became the favorite chew toy of Francis Schaeffer and others who never really understood what he was about.

And understanding, mind, does not mean "agreeing with."

Anyway, I want to start there, and with this; rather than writing a really long-winded post that makes you lose track of the beginning by the time you get to the end.  Bultmann, we have to start with understanding, was not a theologian; nor (although he worked alongside Heidegger and makes much of existentialism in Jesus Christ and Mythology) was he a philosopher.  He was a Biblical scholar, and, despite the brickbats from the peanut gallery, a Christian believer.  And he pretty much set the tone for modern theological discussions, even among "conservatives" like Pope Benedict, soon to be Joseph Ratzinger again.  Oddly, that "tone" may still be more radical than most Christians would consider "conservative;" which is something else we'll need to consider.

Discussion of the book itself starts (hopefully) momentarily.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Hat tip to Thought Criminal....

Bultmann is coming, but life keeps intervening.

In the meantime....

They would do well to remember the words of Andrew Carnegie, the capitalist who gave away his vast fortune. Carnegie was born in a single-room weaver’s cottage in Scotland, and saw the British class system at its worst before he moved to America.  “There is no class so pitiably wretched,” he concluded late in life, “as that which possesses money and nothing else.”
This discussion of the popularity of Downton Abbey at that link is interesting but, as is common, misplaced.  Americans aren't really so fascinated with a "world in which a tuxedoed toiler’s main job in life is to dress a grown man and wipe the dandruff from his collar...."  I think, actually, the interest is more in the characters, and the castles of England (Downton Abbey is, technically, a castle) provide the opportunity to put a lot of characters together under one roof, the easier to tell a coherent story with so many moving parts.  There's also this:

On “Downton,” upstairs and downstairs are in close, albeit strictly defined, contact.  Rich and poor seldom encounter each other in the United States., is part of the archaic draw of “Downton Abbey.”
It reflects, in other words, a world that doesn't exist in America at all.  One brief example:  I live on one side of the I-10 Freeway in Houston; on the other side is some of the most expensive residential real estate in town.  On my side:  one of the most ethnically diverse (and economically diverse) neighborhoods in the nation's fourth largest city.  Obama talks of a shooting a mile from his Chicago home.  There was a shooting not two blocks from where I now sit, about 2 years ago.  It's not a dangerous part of town, but people don't get shot in the neighborhoods immediately across the highway from me.

And when they come over here, to the new large grocery store built with them in mind (sushi bar attended by sushi makers, huge fresh fish counter, a deli where the meats and cheeses are sliced to order, etc., etc., etc.), the store has to put security guards out front to reassure the customers from the "other side" that they won't be robbed or raped in the parking lot because they crossed the imaginary line between security and the jungle.  No, rich and poor don't encounter each other in the United States, and they like it that way.

But my point, and I do have one, was to get to Carnegie's quote.  Arguments for and against God are all bosh, especially since such arguments have historical roots which no longer apply (the arguments for God's existence in Anselm's day presume an understanding of both "argument" and its uses, and "existence" and its meaning, which no longer have current purchase).  So I hesitate to join the current discussion over what is lost in losing God from the public sphere, or the misbegotten Neitzschean argument about God as the source of morality; but still, Carnegie's insight is interesting, if only because it seems so archaic now.

I think he's right:  there is nothing more pitiably wretched than someone who possesses money and nothing else.  But I also think that's a completely wasted argument today; if only because we have expunged God, or gods, or spirituality of any sort, from the common discussion.  Even God is now more commonly invoked as a source of money rather than an alternative to it.  How does one convince a child of this age (and I know many of them, from my teaching experience) that what Carnegie says is true?  Even the emphasis on college education now is solely an emphasis on whether the college provides a return on the investment, i.e., does the degree result in a remunerative job?

How do we persuade people that that's not all there is, if all we can say is:  that is all there is?

Adding:  Charles Pierce makes a salient point about government being a common concern of all those governed, v. an oligarchy to preserve the wealthy.  But I'm left with the same question:  aside from a national identity (which isn't really a unifier in American history), on what basis do we claim a common commitment to "a political commonwealth wherein takes place the ongoing creative act of self-government"?  We've pretty much whittled it down to "It's money that matters!"  What other basis of commonality can we now build on?

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

So much for Lenten resolutions

Remington 750 semiautomatic hunting rifle. Remington's marketing material promises "super-fast cycling.... Rapid follow-ups are its specialty, but famed Remington one-shot accuracy comes standard."
I made myself a private promise to put down the gun cudgel, at least until after Easter.  I do declare, publicly, this will be my last word on the subject until then (unless something this good comes along and tempts me.  I can resist anything but temptation....).

Charlie Pierce has the goods:

In a statement read afterward by his attorney, Niederhauser acknowledged he shouldn't have fired his weapon when he did. "Despite all of the education and training I have received, I was not prepared for the effects of emotion and adrenaline, and how that interfered with my ability to act in accordance with my training," the statement said. "I cannot be sure where the bullets I fired hit." He told other homeowners they have a right to protect themselves, but he cautioned them to fire their weapons only within the parameters of the law. "Please know that you cannot shoot at a fleeing felon unless somebody's life is in immediate danger," the statement said. "Remember, we value life more than property."
Yes, let us remember that. Or not.

The shooter, Mr. Niederhauser, is contrite.  But those who hear of the removal of his gun from his hands, for what would surely have constituted a criminal act if someone had been hit (and should be a criminal act regardless) is tyranny to others:
The Utah resident's supporters are declaring his arrest unfair, stating that he is being wrongly punished for protecting his home. Many are calling this arrest an unnerving warning of a precedent that will disallow other residents from taking similar actions in self defense.     

Charlie has the link to the reasonable opposing view, which is pretty much my response, now, to these idiots. I'm sick of them.  Keeping that anger in check, will be my Lenten duty.

Ash Wednesday 2013

Ash Wednesday just seems to be one of those days on which fresh words are a stain on silence; and old words can be a source of revelation, if only because they remind us we are old, too; and our problems are old; and there is nothing new under the sun.

Which is a kind of blessing.

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

Upon the Image of Death
By Robert Southwell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Death:

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

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

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

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

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

the old attitude in which death was both familiar and near, evoking no great fear or awe, [is in] marked a contrast to ours, where death is so frightful that we dare not utter its name. I do not mean that death had once been wild and [is no longer], I mean, on the contrary, that today it has become wild.
And death has, in part, grown wild through the very tools with which medical science tries to domesticate it: an irony that would not be lost on Hamlet's creator.
DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell'st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.--John Donne

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

Historic Christianity rose into a high and strange coup de théatre of morality -- things that are to virtue what the crimes of Nero are to vice. The spirits of indignation and of charity took terrible and attractive forms, ranging from that monkish fierceness that scourged like a dog the first and greatest of the Plantagenets, to the sublime pity of St. Catherine, who, in the official shambles, kissed the bloody head of the criminal. Poetry could be acted as well as composed. This heroic and monumental manner in ethics has entirely vanished with supernatural religion. They, being humble, could parade themselves: but we are too proud to be prominent. Our ethical teachers write reasonably for prison reform; but we are not likely to see Mr. Cadbury, or any eminent philanthropist, go into Reading Gaol and embrace the strangled corpse before it is cast into the quicklime. Our ethical teachers write mildly against the power of millionaires; but we are not likely to see Mr. Rockefeller, or any modern tyrant, publicly whipped in Westminster Abbey.
Which, again, gives me the excuse to mention this:

If the leper was removed from the world, and from the community of the Church visible, his existence was yet a constant manifestation of God, since it was a sign both of His anger and His grace: "My friend," says the ritual of the Church of Vienne, "it pleaseth Our Lord that thou shouldst be infected with this malady, and thou hast great grace at the hands of Our Lord that he desireth to punish thee for they iniquities in this world." And at the very moment when the priest and his assistants drag him out of the church with backward step, the leper is assured that he still bears witness for God: "And howsoever thou mayest be apart from the Church and the company of the Sound, yet art thou not apart from the grace of God." Brueghel's lepers attend at a distance, but forever, that climb to Calvary on which the entire people accompanies Christ. Hierarchic witnesses of evil, they accomplish their salvation in and by their very exclusion: in a strange reversibility that is the opposite of good works and prayer, they are saved by the hand that is not stretched out. The sinner who abandons the leper at his door opens his way to heaven. "for which have patience in thy malady; for Our Lord hateth thee not because of it, keepeth thee not from his company; but if thou has patience thou wilt be saved, as was the leper who died before the gate of the rich man and was carried straight to paradise." Abandonment is his salvation; his exclusion offers him another form of communion.
Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, tr. Richard Howard (New York: Vintage Books 1988, p. 6-7).

Ritual served many purposes in communal life. Sometimes I think it even served to create community, however flawed that community was.  But what life have we, if we have not life together?

Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Hammer time!

NPR reports the startling news that people who train their attention on a search for something, will often overlook other objects in the search process!

In other words, what we're thinking about — what we're focused on — filters the world around us so aggressively that it literally shapes what we see. And so, Drew says, we need to think carefully about the instructions we give to professional searchers like radiologists or people looking for terrorist activity, because what we tell them to look for will in part determine what they see and don't see.
Which is a classic statement of the "No shit, Sherlock!" variety.  And the fact that it comes from a scientist makes it even funnier.  Not because science is immediately suspect or once again, by this tiny example, proven flawed and broken.  But really: this is an insight?  We needed a carefully controlled scientific study to tell us that you find what you're looking for, and overlook evidence hiding in plain sight?  I mean, we even have phrases for that, like:  "Hiding in plain sight."

Anyone with a passing knowledge of detective stories, or even a literary education,  could have told these guys you see what you are looking for, and overlook whatever doesn't fit your expectations.  There's yet another saying for the related problem of a narrow vision that sees only what it allows itself to see:  "To the man with a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail."

Science marches on!

Friday, February 08, 2013

Giving Caesar what is....

So apparently this is a thing:

More than 200 houses of worship damaged in Superstorm Sandy have applied for aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But given the separation of church and state, it's unclear whether federal funds are available to them.

Low interest loans are, and have previously been, available, but not grants.  And why should grants be available?

"'The wind and waves did not discriminate when it came to destroying property,'" Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of the Catholic Diocese of New York, told the WSJ. "'The houses of worship are the very bedrock of the neighborhoods now trying to rebuild. To not offer natural disaster assistance grants to rebuild a house of worship just doesn't make any sense.'"

Not so fast:

"The Supreme Court's drawn a pretty clear line about giving certain kinds of assistance to churches, but not allowing them to be paid to buy brick and mortar to construct or reconstruct their properties," he says. "I still think it's a good law, and I think it ought to be respected, even after the devastation of Sandy."

The argument for not using government money to rebuild houses of worship is, I think, quite sound:

“To rebuild houses of worship is a form of compelled support for religion, which is exactly what the First Amendment is designed to protect against,” Dena Sher, legislative counsel for the ACLU, told the Times. “We understand and identify with the serious difficulties everyone is facing, but we can’t let this misfortune be used as a premise to erode these bedrock principles.”

But, as Howland Owl said of nuclear physics, this situation ain't so new, and it ain't so clear:

The ban on FEMA grants for houses of worship is not total: churches and synagogues may apply for reimbursement for social services they provided, including homeless shelters, preschools or feeding programs. Houses of worship can also qualify for low-interest Small Business Administration loans.
Of course, the same Bishop Dolan who wants free government money, wants the freedom to spend his church's money precisely as he pleases, when it comes to hiring employees and providing them with health insurance:

He listed three key areas of concern: the narrow understanding of a religious ministry; compelling church ministries to fund and facilitate services such as contraceptives, including abortion-inducing drugs, and sterilization that violate Catholic teaching; and disregard of the conscience rights of for-profit business owners. These are the same concerns articulated by the USCCB Administrative Committee in its March 2012 statement, United for Religious Freedom.
Which presents more than a bit of a problem with logical consistency.  Because if the Bishops cannot in any fashion allow their money to, no matter the number of removes it reaches from their coffers, be used to purchase contraceptives, then why should US taxpayers allow their money to be used to purchase houses of worship?

There is a lot of murky information about what Congress and FEMA have done in the past.  The two most popular stories are about the Oklahoma City bombing, where Congress apparently (I haven't found any support for this, nor any reason to deny it), authorized $6 million in aid to churches affected by that blast, and to the 2002 earthquake in Seattle, where, again, religious organizations were given aid by FEMA, that time because the Justice Department said so.  The problem, however, is with how one defines a "religious organization."

I use the terms used in the respective articles I linked to, in part because there is a valid distinction between "churches" (which are Christian) and "religious institutions" (which aren't necessarily Christian).  There is also a distinction between houses of worship, and eleemosynary institutions supported by religious organizations.  It's an important distinction because the prime mover on this issue with regard to Hurricane Sandy relief are Jewish synagogues.  And it was Jewish "religious organizations" which were aided in Seattle in 2002, specifically; but more specifically, it was the Seattle Hebrew Academy, "a private nonprofit educational facility for Jewish students."  That is, it was not a house of worship.  As the New York Times article quoted above notes, these are the kinds of groups who may apply for FEMA grants.  Congress can specifically aid houses of worship, and may have done so in Oklahoma City.  They haven't done so now, however, and I'm not sure they should.  (I do wonder about the howls of protest if any such places were Muslim; or even not Jewish or Christian.)

And if they do, Bp. Dolan needs to shut up about the problem of being forced to provide healthcare coverage he doesn't approve of.  Of course, he needs to shut up about that anyway, but his position gets more untenable the more he speaks about church/state relations.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Rule Britannia

The news is that Great Britain has (or almost has) approved of same sex marriages.  When I heard, I immediately wondered what the C of E and it's new A of C thought about it.

I figured:

When Justin Welby formally began his tenure as Archbishop of Canterbury yesterday, he managed to pique the ire of lesbian and gay Anglicans and their allies in the UK by highlighting his opposition to marriage equality on the grounds that the matter is off-putting to the balance of the Anglican Communion outside of the UK, who remain forcefully committed to the notion that marriage is “between one man and one woman.”

Much as I agree that this is a matter of "the prophetic calling of an engaged Christianity," my sympathies are with the new Archbishop.  Archbishops, like pastors everywhere, aren't really called to be prophets.  Prophets marry prostitutes and name their children for symbolic purposes ("Blue Ivy" and "Moon Unit" are boring by comparison), or, they have trances and visions, and unlike foxes and birds, have no where to lay their heads.  It's not a life for someone with a family, someone who is, like everyone else in the church, just trying to make a living.

I'm also not all that sympathetic with the people in the church hierarchy who take "prophetic stances" with the Church, as they are seldom the ones who have to work out the messy details down in the local congregations.  It's a pastoral thing, but I sympathize with the pastors and with those whose primary job is to keep the whole communion together, which is rather what pastors are called to do.  Partisan as we may be on the subject of same-sex marriage, who wants a new pastor to take the pulpit and declare to one group "Screw you!  They win, 'cause I agree with 'em!  We're doin' it their way now!"  Especially if that group is not your group.

So I appreciate the A of C's bind.  But I also approve of the PM's action.

Go and please the world.

Meanwhile, back in the stacks....

Lent unofficially begins next Wednesday (I take as my authority Thomas Merton).  I have often posted on Ash Wednesday , and I may do so this year.  But I've decided to do something different; and it may not necessarily work.

I want to do a book study (or book club, if anyone participates) on Rudolf Bultmann's Jesus Christ and Mythology.  I started re-reading it recently, and was surprised at how much I agreed with it, and even where I disagreed with it, the conversation between me and the book was inspiring.  My first encounter with Bultmann was actually in college, through the good offices of Francis Schaeffer, who did his best to convince me Bultmann was a source of theological error in the world.  I found out later what a fundamentalist Schaeffer was; but his approach was so familiar to me, so similar to the hermeneutic of William Barclay, the only source of scriptural studies I knew (I think every Protestant church in America had a "church library" with a copy of Barclay's works on all the books of the Bible), that I took Schaeffer as a legitimate source, even as I didn't quite reject Bultmann out of hand as he did.

I finally read Bultmann, without such blinders, in seminary.  I read his seminal work on the Gospel of John, and his work on the synoptics (he favored John, so the synoptics were slighted, IMHO.  I still prefer Luke over the others, but that's me.).  I got my copy of Jesus Christ and Mythology sometime in seminary, but I recognized it as the less scholarly effort than his magnum opus, and I never took it very seriously.  I also knew, from some experience by then, that Biblical scholars did not make the best theologians, and JCM is a stab at theology, not a simplified version of Bultmann's scriptural studies.

Picking it up again recently, though, I realized I had done it a disservice.  It is not a truly challenging little book, like The Gospel of John, but it is a much more approachable book.  Bultmann comes out of that long line of German scholarship, where knowledge is a substantial thing and a deep well, and fluency in several languages as well as having a library of articles and books at one's fingertips (some of the pages of the Johannine study are taken over by the footnotes, and each footnote has practically its own bibliography) are common coin.  This doesn't appear on the surface of  JCM like it does in Gospel,  but as he warms to his subject Bultmann drops the facade of Herr Doktor Professor and exposes himself as a confessing Christian.  It is not a picture I'd have gotten from Schaeffer's criticisms, and it is clearly this book that outraged Schaeffer the most (I'm not sure he was capable of critiquing Bultmann's scriptural work on its own terms.  I'm not sure anybody is, however.)  Let me say The Gospel of John is a mountain range; you practically need guides and special equipment to approach it.   JCM is a pleasant hike in the foothills.  You can spend a few pleasant afternoons with it.

Whether that experience can be found in a blog reading of the book is what I hope to find out.....

Monday, February 04, 2013

Gonna have to explain it to me....

Jimmie Lee Dykes had guns and, by all accounts, was acting "crazy" for some time before he kidnapped a 5 year old boy and hid in his bunker for 7 days.

It was an acceptable, even proper, government function to shoot Mr. Dyke for his "crazy" behavior.  It was not an acceptable, or apparently proper, government function to take Mr. Dyke's guns away because he was acting "crazy" before the kidnapping.

For the life of me, I don't understand why this is, except 2nd Amendment and this is what the Founding Fathers intended and we are not allowed to change it ever, or the heavens will fall, and tyranny will rule the land.

The tyranny of the crazy is not tyranny, however.  Somehow.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Don't you think?

Remington 750 semiautomatic hunting rifle. Remington's marketing material promises "super-fast cycling.... Rapid follow-ups are its specialty, but famed Remington one-shot accuracy comes standard."
Josh Marshall notes fears of the apocalypse is bread 'n' butter for the NRA.  Sen. Lindsey Graham opined at the recent Senate hearings that, while he didn't think we needed guns to oppose the inevitable tyranny of an out of control Federal government (Mr. LaPierre did bring it up), the Senator did think that an assault weapons ban would leave us all defenseless against the marauding mobs after the next natural disaster.

You know, like the mobs that burned New Orleans to the ground and rendered the SuperDome a hollow shell of Mad Max anarchy.  Or the gangs roving the streets of Houston for the month-plus it took to clear all the downed trees and fully restore power after Hurricane Ike.  Or the on-going apocalyptic horror that is now the Jersey shore.

Yeah, like when that happened.

I would say I don't know where they get these ideas, except I do.  They get them from movies.  From books, too, to some extent, but primarily from movies.  Almost every movie scenario with a post-industrial nightmare for a setting, involves anarchy and tribal groups run by men with guns and cars (and how they run the cars without refineries or all the industrial infrastructure necessary to produce oil and gas is never explained).  Men who are brutal, vicious, avaricious, power-hungry, and have an endless supply of bullets and weapons to fire them from (even though, as I said, there is no industrial base to supply, much less transport, these things).  Society is gone along with the machines, and all that remains is brute force and coercion and evil; except, of course, for the one true hero.  Who usually also has an endless supply of guns and bullets; except he's also usually bulletproof, and the bad guys never are.

It is from movies that Mr. LaPierre and Sen. Graham, et al.,  get their paranoid fantasies about the anarchy waiting just below the surface to break forth and consume us all.  It has to be.  Because when such things actually do happen, it usually involves fear of such anarchy, or it almost always involves one person, and unfortunately involves the rest of us.  At least, that's what I learn from the news.

It's not the kind of story they make movies out of, though.  Ironic, no?