Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Shoes of the Fisherman's Wife are some Jive Ass Slippers

If I recall "The Shoes of the Fisherman" correctly (and I probably don't) Pope Zorba the Quinn reluctantly took up the trappings of Pope, and in what I always thought was far too Protestant a take on the role of the Holy Father, emphasized humility and simplicity and the awesomeness of God, not of a man in a white robe.

Anyway, it struck me at the time as more Protestant than Catholic, since I've never seen a groundswell movement in Catholicism to de-mystify and or even to greatly simplify the pomp and ceremony of the Papal office.  Pope Kiril was too close to a vaguely Protestant figure than a Roman Catholic who rose through the Roman Catholic church to its top position.  It made his appeal too easy, too comfortable, to a non-Roman Catholic audience.  And the idea of giving all the Church's wealth to pay for food for the poor in China (a pre-capitalist China)?  Good luck with that....

I won't go so far as to say Pope Francis is trying to be a revolutionary about such things, or even to increase the popularity of the Papacy, but this is interesting:

It might seem as if Pope Francis is in a bit of denial over his new job as leader of the world’s 1.2-billion Catholics. Or perhaps he’s simply changing the popular idea of what it means to be pope, keeping the no-frills style he cultivated as archbishop of Buenos Aires in ways that may have broad implications for the church.

The world has already seen how Francis has cast aside many trappings of the papacy, refusing to don the red velvet cape Benedict XVI wore for official occasions and keeping the simple, iron-plated pectoral cross he used as bishop and archbishop.

On Thursday, his belief that a pope’s job is to serve the world’s lowliest will be on display when he washes the feet of a dozen young inmates at a juvenile detention center in Rome. Previous popes have celebrated the Holy Thursday ritual, which re-enacts Christ’s washing of his disciples’ feet before his crucifixion, by washing the feet of priests in one of Rome’s most ornate basilicas.
As a fellow Christian who prefers to emphasize the humility of Christ and even the "preferential option for the poor," I cannot but applaud the Pope's actions, especially returning the ancient Good Friday practice to something closer to its historical roots (when kings washed the feet of peasants).  It can't go too far, however.  Pope Francis can't sell off the assets of Vatican City, or disdain the basilica of St. Peter's for a rustic chapel.  Even the steps he has taken have their limits, and if he tries to reduce "the awesomeness, the grandeur and majesty of the papacy" too much, he will face stiff resistance.  It would be resistance he would not overcome, or need to.  One of the problems of humility is that you can't assert it too strongly, or you start betraying your pride in it.

One doesn't, in other words, ascend to such a high position in such a massive institution, without recognizing the responsibilities of the office that have little to do with Christ-like simplicity, and more to do with what is expected of the role.  I hope Pope Francis can navigate these waters:  some are going to complain, eventually, that his humility is self-serving, just as others will complain he is still too grand and ceremonial for a proper representative of Christ.  

The More Things Change.....

First: seriously?
Obviously the big takeaway is holy crap I'm old (I was born 9 years after Please Please Me, but still), but I think there's a broader point about us olds not getting just how distant stuff is for The Kids Today. More than that, I also think there was a kind of continuity between people born, roughly, from the beginning of WWII until about 1993. The discontinuity here is the internet, a society transforming technology change.

First, let me say I grew up on the Bugs Bunny cartoons of the WWII era (and some much earlier than that).  World War II was as distant to me as the Crimean War (and I'd met my wife by the time Atrios was born).  Technology changed the world then, too.  It was TeeVee.  The internet was just another refinement of what that did to us all.  Before that it was radio, which arguably FDR used to actually make us a modern nation, not just an aggregate of disparate states (there were serious arguments during the Dust Bowl in the FDR administration to just let the middle of the country "go," to abandon it as uninhabitable and unfarmable.  Impossible to imagine that argument being seriously made today, but if you put it in the context of a "union" rather than a "nation," it begins to make more sense.  FDR, needless to say, rejected it).

Discontinuity?  I was born at the beginning of what came to be called the Civil Rights Movement.  I was born before Sputnik, before Mercury/Redstone, before Telstar, before the Atlantic cable that connected telephones between Europe and America.  I was born just after Univac and color TV.  Discontinuity?  Get off mah lawn, ya snot-nosed punk!

But this isn't a post about how the punk kids don't understand and need to get offa mah lawn.  I have a different point in mind.

To me, one of the points of historical research and criticism and to understanding the Scriptures as the work of human beings, not words divinely chosen by a deity to be Inscribed For All Time, is the understanding that no matter how much technology or culture may have changed (and technology is not culture, despite the premise of that post I linked to), human beings haven't changed all that much.

Well, that and the distance between "Please Please Me" and punk in '77, or the New Pornographers today, isn't even the musical distance between Bach and Mozart.  But that's another matter.

I used to think oldsters were old.  Now I know better.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

How do I turn this thing off?

I don't get it.  At all.

According to FoxNews and Bill O'Reilly, there is now a "War on Easter."  What I don't get is how what they complain of has anything to do with "Judeo-Christian traditions."  For example, this is O'Reilly's summation of the "War on Christmas":

More evidence that Judeo-Christian tradition is under attack in America....  A few years ago some American companies ordered their employees not to say "Merry Christmas." Remember that? We presented the facts to you, you told the stores you wouldn't buy there. The crazy edict was quickly rescinded. Power to the people.
Now, what does something said to people in stores in December have to do with religion, or "Judeo-Christian traditions"?  Yes, Virginia, there's nothing "Judeo" about Christmas, but move along.  What does "Merry Christmas" have to do with religion at all?  Or tradition, for that matter?  It was Irving Berlin who taught Bing Crosby to sing "Happy Holidays" on one of the most popular Christmas albums ever released,  Why didn't that offend "Judeo-Christian traditions"?

And now?  Now it's because public schools aren't holding Easter egg hunts.  No, seriously:

In 10 days it will be Easter Sunday. But in some schools you are not allowed to say the word "Easter." On Long Island, the East Meadow school district, holding a Spring egg hunt -- not Easter eggs, Spring eggs. Same thing in Prospect Heights, Illinois. Manhattan Beach, California. Flat Rock Elementary School in South Carolina, and a school district in New Cumberland, Pennsylvania. No Easter. They are having Spring egg events. Moderated by a Spring bunny, at least in San Diego. I know it's stupid. You know it's stupid. But it's happening, and there is a reason why it's happening. Secular progressives are running wild with President Obama in the White House. They feel unchained, liberated and they are trying to diminish any form of religion. The goal is to marginalize religious opposition to secular programs. 
Um, no, it's stupid because the Easter bunny and Easter eggs have bugger all to do with Christianity or the observance of Easter.  Yes, many a Christian church will have an Easter egg hunt for the children on Easter Sunday morning.  But no, no Christian church that I know of will have an Easter Bunny parade down the aisles of the nave during the worship service distributing eggs, chicken or chocolate, to the children.  At least, I hope not.  It certainly isn't a "Judeo-Christian tradition."  And yes, again, there's nothing remotely Jewish about Easter.

How is removing "Easter" as a modifier for "eggs" or "bunny" in any way diminishing any form of religion, except the American secular religion of commercialism?  I mean really, I just....


By the way, "Easter" is not taken from a "pagan" ritual, holiday, or anything else.  The term, according to the Venerable Bede, comes into English from  "Estre, a Teutonic goddess of the rising light of day and spring."  However, there is no other attribution of "Estre" in any Teutonic literature or other sources; we only have Bede's word for it.  The Greek word for the day, after all, is pasch, which relates to the Aramaic form of the Hebrew word for "passover."  Once again, just because it's a word in English doesn't mean it's the only term possible, or that the entire Christian church spoke English, beginning with Peter and Paul.  Easter eggs and bunnies have a rather obvious connection to spring time and new beginnings (both symbols of fecundity, if nothing else), but they aren't religious symbols.  I've seen more than a few commenters around the web try to link these secular images to Christianity and thus to trying to "win pagan converts."

Bunk.  Really.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Occam stropping his blade

I'm going to finish Bultmann before Easter, I promise (or at least, I intend to).  But let's have a discussion of "racism" right quick, starting with Roger Ailes.  Ailes told Howard Kurtz that he does, in fact, think Obama is lazy.  When Van Jones pointed out those comments were racist, Ailes called Jones a "Communist," apparently the filthiest word still in Aile's vocabulary, and an adequate response to a charge of racism.  Is Ailes a "racist"?  Yeah, I think so.  You call a black man "lazy" and then say "Just kidding!," or, as Ailes tells Kurtz:  "Anybody who knows me knows that half the time I’m saying things with a somewhat humorous overtone."  And besides, he had his fingers crossed, too; also; as well.

But racism is such a charged allegation.  It's so rude!  It's so undeserving, except for people like David Duke, or skinheads, or white supremacists.  And it certainly can't be applied to an entire political party!

This conversation always requires getting straight on definitions. Does this mean the GOP is ‘racist’? No. What it means is that our politics is significantly framed around the politics of race and, on balance, it’s been a winning issue for the GOP. Certainly for the 40 or 50 odd years since white Southerners moved into the Republican party and created a powerful electoral anchor for the party. For decades, you got more white votes through this kind of politics than you lost in minority votes. But as the racial composition of the electorate changed, you reached a tipping point that became very visible in 2012.
Racism, you see, is evil!  Framing your political party around "the politics of race" is not, especially when, "on balance, it's been a winning issue for the GOP."  Now if they keep it up after it stops being a winning issue, they still aren't racist!  They're just stupid; or something.

The interesting bit that came out of the CPAC racism kerfluffle, the one you never heard about except on a few websites (or maybe MSNBC, briefly) was that the guy who started that asserted that the entire Tea Party agreed with his grotesquely racist attitudes.  And from the reactions of the people in that room, he seemed to be right.  But racism is still the hate that dare not speak its name, so we have to pass over that as quickly as possible, and excuse it as either the fringe of the fringe of the fringe, or just as the "politics of race."

When asked by ThinkProgress if he’d accept a society where African-Americans were permanently subservient to whites, he said “I’d be fine with that.” He also claimed that African-Americans “should be allowed to vote in Africa,” and that “all the Tea Parties” were concerned with the same racial problems that he was.

And maybe they aren't; and maybe they are.  Seems to me we could have a discussion of that point; but apparently that would be racist of me; or something.

And, of course, we can get into arguments about who is, and who isn't, racist:

 “I tell people about the racist origins of the Democratic Party, that emancipation was the founding principle of the Republican Party, and they look at me like I’m crazy,” he said. “The conservative movement is about making it better so that everyone can do better with their lives. True racists are the people trying to hold others down by giving them handouts or restricting their rights.”
I do not rise to accuse the GOP of racism, or to point a finger at anyone and call them a racist.  I rise to ask the question:  when do we finally acknowledge racism?  Josh Marshall says: 

But racial divisions — which is different from ‘racism’ per se — is just more deeply rooted in our politics than most people care to admit.
And that sounds a lot like the genteel distinction between "racism" and "prejudice" from my childhood, as in:  "but would you want your daughter to marry one?"  Roger Ailes calls the first black President in American history "lazy."  A man stands up in a public meeting and asks "Why can't we just have segregation?" A political party uses the "politics of race."  If one of these things is not like the other, can somebody please explain to me how that is?

I was going to leave all of this alone, having ranted in private, and realized I've ranted about Josh Marshall's attitudes (and blinders) on race before.  But then he published this:

But a big chunk of the barrier is the mindset through which Higgins tried to understand what I was saying. The idea that policies might be an issue didn’t strike him as having any necessary connection to the conversation. So whites support the GOP by solid majorities — and older white men by overwhelming majorities — because of ‘conservative’ policies. Meanwhile minority voters are moving toward little short of unanimous opposition to the GOP just … just because, apparently. Happenstance or a misunderstanding or … something. So how does politics become de-racialized? It just happens.

I always wonder what level of cynicism, denial and obliviousness is involved in this kind of thinking. It varies greatly from person to person. But there’s clearly a long way to go.

Occam's razor, dude.  It's racism: pure and simple.  Whites support the GOP in solid majorities because Nixon used the "Southern strategy" that LBJ knew would be used when he signed the Civil Rights Act.  Nothing has really changed.  Maybe someday it will just be "racial."  Someday after Roger Ailes doesn't call the first black president "lazy" simply because Obama isn't Clarence Thomas and after we have truly healed the nation's "hidden wound."  But we won't do that by electing a black man to the White House, or by running a black man in the GOP primaries, or even by putting black man on the Supreme Court at the nomination of a white GOP President.  Gonna take a bit more than all that.   My daughter's generation is closer to race unconsciousness than my generational cohort ever thought of being, and in case no one has noticed, they aren't in charge yet.

Oddly enough, it was the "racist, bigoted" "Greatest Generation" (racist and bigoted only because they came before the Civil Rights Movement enlighted us Boomers) who changed hearts and minds and laws on this:  Kennedy, LBJ, Dr. King, etc.  It's been the Boomers (and Gen Xer's?) who have settled into complacency or, worse, raised holy hell about "preferences" and made "affirmative action" a dirty word, and who now can't see racism, institutional or individual, when it stares them in the face.

I'm not sure yet what that means, but it means something.....

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Innocent until proven a mass shooter

In this scenario there were at least three likely outcomes:

1)  a slaughter of students in the dark as they exited the building for a "fire drill" or the false alarm the shooter planned

2) a hail of bullets between the shooter and the police as students ran panicked in the dark and the police tried to figure out which window the bullets were coming out of

3)  a regular gunfight at the OK Corral as armed students fled the building and began returning fire in the dark, shooting blindly and in panicked response to the gunfire around them, and several students became "shooters" until the firing stopped and the smoke cleared and the whole mess was sorted out.  This, of course, is the preferred NRA "2nd amendment solution."

Fortunately the would-be shooter brandished a gun, alarming a student who warned the police, and when the fire alarm came in a few minutes later they were already evacuating the building and looking for a gun nut, so there was a fourth, rather unlikely outcome which prevailed.  This man's possession of firearms had nothing to do with Heller, in that he wasn't entitled to defend himself in a college dorm room to which he had no legal right in the first place, and in the second he was not given a Constitutional right to arm himself in that building (absent state law which said he could, and after all, this is in  Florida, so who knows; but that's still not a Constitutional right).  And if he hadn't been upset by the early arrival of the police, it might yet have been a bloodbath.

It is notable that, as the NRA apologists love to point out, there is no evidence to suppose this man would have been barred from buying a gun based on a background check, universal or otherwise.  That's cold comfort, however, had he been a bit more fortunate in his planning, or more steely in his resolve.  The question is not:  was he disqualified from having a gun?  The question is:  why did he have access to guns in the first place?  Because he has a 2nd Amendment right to be able to slaughter people unless society is fortunate enough to stop him just before he pulls the trigger?

And in other news, a drunk 16 year old stumbles into the wrong little box on the hillside and is shot for his troubles.  He died.  But, you know, freedumb and self-defense and 2nd Amendment and freedumb.  Or something.

Or maybe it's the developer's fault:

“They have the exact same staircase as us, the exact same carpet. Caleb clearly thought he was in his own house,” said his father, Shawn Gordley, who provided the account of his son’s night. “He probably stumbled around and was just trying to go to his room.”

Twitter blew up over the Steubenville rape trial, I'm told, blaming the 16 year old victim for being drunk in the first place.  I suppose fair is fair, and we should blame Caleb, too.  Certainly can't blame the gun; after all, guns don't kill people.  Can't blame the homeowner, either; he has 2nd Amendment rights to defend himself.

Oh, and while I'm at it:

Deputies say the eighteen year old Carson City man, along with a twenty-three year old Carson City man, were disassembling their weapons in a Crystal Township home Saturday evening. That's when the twenty-three year old thought he unloaded his handgun and while attempting to disassemble the weapon it discharged shooting the victim in the leg.
An "accident" is what, in law we call "negligence."  "Accident" means a meteor fell from the sky, or lightning struck, or a tornado blew through town.  "Negligence" means somebody is responsible, even if they didn't mean any harm.  Somehow the cliche for an "accidental firing" of a firearm is that the weapon "discharged."  Passive voice hides a multitude of sins, and also removes any responsibility for the gun going off.  Guns don't kill people; but they do "go off," kind of like old milk.  So here the weapon "discharged."  Not because the 23 year old was a negligent ass who mishandled a gun and violated basic gun safety (I have never owned a gun and even I know you handle it as if it were loaded, even if you really have just unloaded it), but because the weapon "discharged."

And the next time I sneeze in public, I'll say I didn't do it, my nose just discharged.

This is madness.

Bang, you're dead

In a decent and orderly world, I would return to continue the discussion about Bultmann; but goddammit!

Witnesses later told the police that Mr. Dye, 42, tried to drag her into his truck. When she fought back, Mr. Dye brandished a .357 revolver and shot her in the leg. She fell to the ground. Mr. Dye fired several more shots into her, saying, "I love you, I love you," according to the police report. He then shot himself in the chest with a different gun, a .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol, and collapsed, dead, onto his wife. "We kept telling them, ‘He's got all of these weapons,' " said Ms. Dye's mother, Barbara Burk, a local official who has fought unsuccessfully in Oklahoma for a measure that would give judges issuing protective orders the power to order sheriffs to confiscate weapons and hold them for a "cooling off" period. "Is there nothing you can do?"
"I can recall moments during the previous administration in which people's First Amendment rights were curtailed when they wore the wrong T-shirt to an appearance by the president. I can remember Bong Hits 4 Jesus, too. But an estranged spouse has a right to a deadly weapon up until the point when he actually shoots it at the person who has sought legal refuge? Where do you go in a country where madmen have all the best lobbyists?"

Charlie Pierce notes that "what happened in Newtown, Connecticut was not much of a point — tipping or turning — nor much of a 'teachable moment,' unless we're all trying to learn how to be dumber than we were before the massacre happened."  And he's right.  The fact is, outside of Newtown or the media bubble, most people in the country don't care what happened in Newtown.  They don't care about a woman in Oklahoma.  Hell, the people in Oklahoma don't care about that woman, or their neighbors, or they'd have stopped sending Tom Coburn to the Senate years ago.  Did you know that approximately 8 children die every day in America from gunfire?  You'll have to scroll down to the 10:29 timestamp to find that statistic, but no one on the panel disputed it.  8 children.  Every day.  We don't even care enough to notice.

Anybody remember the little girl shot in Chicago a few weeks after appearing in Obama's second inauguration celebration?  Anybody even remember her name?  Yet I can name, without trying or wanting to, almost every member of the Kardashian family.

To call this insanity is to insult insanity.  To call it humanity is to insult humanity; yet what else is it?  What is more distinctly human than mindless slaughter of our own species?  Is there any other distinctive characteristic that truly sets us apart from the other living things on this planet?  Rob Portman learns his son is gay and decides same-sex marriage is not worth opposing after all. If Rob Portman's son was shot to death, would he decide gun violence was epidemic, an evil that must be confronted?  Would anybody care?

The New York Times article Mr. Pierce links to starts with a chilling story of a woman assaulted by her ex-husband.  She was only armed with a cellphone which, it turned out, saved her life (spoiler alert).  I suppose the NRA would argue she'd have been safer with a gun in her purse.  It's hard to imagine how.

Nor does this make me feel better:

“NRA leadership worries about two things above all else: perpetuating controversy to stimulate fundraising from individual members and protecting its right flank from the real crazies,” says Richard Feldman, author of a feisty 2007 memoir, Ricochet: Confessions of a Gun Lobbyist. Feldman has worked in various capacities for both the NRA and the industry. “The idea that the NRA follows orders from the gun companies is a joke,” he says. “If anything, it’s the other way around.”
The "real crazies" don't need to be held in check by the NRA.  They need to be locked up, their guns confiscated, and not allowed anything sharper than a rubber ball.

And while a scene like this should make me feel some measure of empathy, it doesn't:

 The two-story red brick {O.F.] Mossberg [and sons shotgun and rifle] factory in North Haven [Connecticut] stands behind barbed-wire-topped fencing just 25 miles east of Newtown, where the Sandy Hook children died, along with six educators. On the fatal morning, dazed company workers ran the production line with tears in their eyes. “They’re neighbors,” [Mossberg Senior V.P. Joseph] Bartozzi says. “Something like that, 20 little kids dead—what’s the answer?”

Obviously, continue with production because demand is so high:
 Alarms about imminent gun confiscation—an NRA staple, despite its implausibility—reliably send firearm owners back to retail counters. Sales are booming. Mossberg is running three shifts a day. “Demand,” Bartozzi says, “is very strong.”
And never EVER make a connection between that busy production line and those weeping employees and the slaughtered children dismembered by the kinds of weapons you can't make enough of.  It's a free market, after all.

Mr. Bartozzi isn't concerned, by the way, that Congress will ban assault rifles or large capacity bullet magazines.  He's quite sure the NRA, which after all is protecting us from the real crazies, will see that never happens.  His primary worry is that Connecticut will ban such weapons, and then he may have to move all of their production to Eagle Pass, Texas, because what's legal in Texas won't be allowed in Connecticut.  Our response to Newtown in Texas, by the way?  Arming teachers and pushing laws to allow college students to carry guns on campus.  And yeah, we know that's worked out well.

This is not "gun culture" or any kind of "culture" at all.  It is the "paranoid style in American politics."  It is just another demonstration of "how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority."  As Richard Hofstadter said:  " I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind."  "Gun nuts" don't cling to their guns because it is their Constitutional right to do so; they do it because they are insane.

But where do you go when the madmen have all the best lobbyists, and the inmates are in charge of the asylum?

Monday, March 04, 2013

"The Christian Message and the Modern World-View"

We should start, of course, by identifying the "modern world view."  There is not, I suspect, such a clean cleavage between "mythological" and "non-mythological" thinking as Bultmann presumes.  Perhaps the cleavage is cleaner in Europe; but Europe is not "the world."  And if it is, it was "mythological" America which taught Europe to emphasize human rights, for gays, for women, for minorities.  But if we start there, we chase down rabbit trails, because Bultmann restricts his hermeneutic to the weltanschaaung of Scripture, not the the message(s) of Scripture.  And here I think the "historicist" view is actually quite helpful in exegesis (perhaps because it's what I was trained to do):

An objection often heard against the attempt to de-mythologize is that it takes the modern world-view as the criterion of the interpretation of the Scripture and the Christian message and that Scripture and Christian message are not allowed to say anything that is in contradiction to the modern world-view.

It is, of course, true that de-mythologizing takes the modern world-view as criterion.  To de-mythologize is not to reject Scripture or the Christian message as a whole, but the world-view of Scripture, which is the world-view of a past epoch, which all too often is retained in Christian dogmatics and in the preaching of the Church.  To de-mythologize is to deny that the message of Scripture and of the Church is bound to an ancient world-view which is obsolete. pp. 35-36.
I have seen comments on the internet (supposedly insightful) complaining of adhering to a set of books espousing a Bronze Age mentality; and I've heard preachers declare even slavery had its uses, relying on the book of Philemon as their text.  Clearly, in the broadest sense, any interpretation of Scripture today necessarily entails de-mythologizing, simply because we don't think as Paul did, nor as the original authors of Genesis or Deuteronomy did, and it would be a mistake to insist we had to in order to understand Scripture.  In that sense Bultmann stands against fundamentalists and literalists, who aren't nearly as literal as they think they are (get one to explain why Jesus was born in Bethlehem, for example.  Was it because of the census, or because Joseph and Mary lived there?  And why was he raised in Nazareth?  Again, because the Holy Family lived there, or because of Herod and the flight to Egypt.  These stories are absolutely irreconcilable as "literal truth."  Yet it can be done, I'm sure; by fudging "literal truth.").  There can be great value in such analyses, especially when lessons of history and archaeology are honestly applied.  But we'll return to that; for now, Bultmann.  He says something here I absolutely agree with, without reservation:

The nature of man [sic] is to be seen in modern literature as, for instance, in the novels of Thomas Mann, Ernst Junger, Thornton Wilder, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Graham Greene and Albert Camus, or in the plays of Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Anouilh, Jean Girardoux, etc.  Or let us think simply of the news papers.  Have you read anywhere in them that political or social or economic events are performed by supernatural powers such as God, angels or demons?  Such events are always ascribed to natural power, or to good or bad will on the part of men [sic], or to human wisdom of stupidity. p. 37.
Well, the first part I agree with; the second part?  Not quite so much.  There is a valid distinction to be drawn between the believing community and the non-believing community, and one cannot expect the former to speak always and only in the vocabulary and understanding of the latter, else there is no distinction between them, and all believe dissolves.  This is not a new problem; it is as old as scriptures themselves.  The Hebrews are better than anyone at questioning God's presence or even God's actions in the world.  "Oh, that you would come down as in days of old!," the prophet rages, demanding a sign for an unbelieving age, the age that saw the Babylonian Exile, an exile credited to Hebraic apostasy.  How much of that exile was attributed to God's anger, and how much to Israel's actions?  A close reading of the prophets leads me to believe it is the latter, rather than the former, especially if you take account of the visions of Ezekiel or the warnings of Jeremiah or Amos, of even Habakkuk.  Even Israel was inclined to attribute to God what it wanted God to be responsible for, and to attribute to themselves (especially in the time of Solomon) the wisdom of human efforts.  And Israel was created as a believing community.  In the present day, with the church a part of social order but almost not even a pillar anymore (admittedly past Bultmann's day, but have things changed so much since Eliot wrote the Choruses for the Rock even earlier?), it's only an issue for fundamentalists, it seems to me.  Still, Bultmann is just laying the groundwork for an argument; it's unfair to pick at a sentence here or there along the way.

Bultmann's point, as he says almost immediately, is that: "modern man [sic] acknowledges as reality only such phenomena or events as are comprehensible within the framework of the rational order of the universe.  He [sic] does not acknowledge miracles because they do not fit into this lawful order."  There is a very valid point being made here.  I have encountered more than a few Christians who use such disparities between the Biblical text and their own experience to excuse religious practice in their daily lives as something no longer required, just as we no longer need to believe the sun moves around the earth, or that there is a "seventh heaven" because the planets are all held in place by crystalline spheres (creating the "levels" of heaven).  It's a lazy dodge for people who would find a dodge anyway, so eliminating it won't make them better Christians or more moral persons.  But it is far too easy to dismiss much of scripture, even by believers, as having no real bearing on modern life because it is so foreign to our experiences.  Finding the connections between the story of the Assumption in Luke, or even the healings in they synoptics, and modern life can be a very valuable undertaking; and it has to start with understanding how we think now, and how they thought then, and what differences are minor, and what differences aren't.  To dismiss scripture as a product of a "Bronze Age" people, is to dismiss our connection to the rest of humanity on the planet now, or that ever preceded us.  It's a stupid rejection; but we can't just connect with them without a major effort at understanding them, either.  You wouldn't treat your grandparents that way, after all, simply because they don't understand how to send text messages.

Interestingly, Bultmann slides rather easily into a preacherly mode, sounding a bit more like Kierkegaard than even Kierkegaard meant to sound:

Thus modern man is in danger of forgetting two things:  first, that his plans and undertakings should be guided not by his own desires for happiness and security, usefulness and profit, but rather by obedient response to the challenge of goodness, truth and love, by obedience to the commandment of God which man forgets in his selfishness and presumption; and, secondly, that it is an illusion to suppose that real security can be gained by men [sic] organizing their own personal and community life. p. 39.
 It's actually a point Reinhold Niebuhr might argue, but that's beside the point.  Bultmann is trying now to fit de-mythologizing into the Christian message, and to do that, he's got to define what he means by the latter.  He borders on poetry, though he sounds like an ancient Greek trying to explain the Christian mystery:

There are encounters and destinies which man cannot master.  He cannot secure endurance for his works.  His life is fleeting and its end is death.  History goes on and pulls down all the towers of Babel again and again.  There is no real, definitive security, and it is precisely this illusion to which mean are prone to succumb in their yearning for security. pp. 39-40.
Miserable creatures that we are, what is there to save us from this death?

It is the word of God which calls man away from his selfishness and from the illusory security which he has built up for himself.  It calls him to God, who is beyond the world and beyond scientific thinking.  At the same time, it calls man to his true self.  For the self of man, his inner life, his personal existence is also beyond the visible world and beyond rational thinking.  The Word of God addresses man in his personal existence and thereby it gives him freedom from the world and from the sorrow and anxiety which overwhelm him when he forgets the beyond.....To believe in the Word of God means to abandon all merely human security and thus to overcome the despair which arises from the attempt to find security, an attempt which is always in vain. p. 40.

Did I say the former quote sounded like S.K.?  This is more like S.K. almost pure and unadulterated.

And so we see that demythologizing is not succumbing to rationalism, but using it to "wound from behind" as S.K. would say, and even as a pole to vault over science into a still more human realm.  Or, as Bultmann puts it:

Thus it follows that the objection is raised by a mistake, namely, the objection that de-mythologizing means rationalizing the Christian message, that de-mythologizing dissolves the message into a product of human rational thinking, and that the mystery of God is destroyed by de-mythologizing.  Not at all!  One the contrary, de-mythologizing makes clear the true meaning of God's mystery.  The incomprehensibility of God lies not in the sphere of theoretical thought but in the sphere of personal existence.  Not what God is in Himself, but how he [sic] acts with men [sic], is the mystery in which faith is interested.*  This is a mystery not to theoretical thought, but to the natural wills and desires of men. p. 43
 Good Calvinist that I was raised to be, I'm not sure how Augustinian I want to be any more about the "natural wills and desires of men;" on the other hand, the asterisk I gratuitously tossed in there is to allow me to insert that the mystery is also what theology is interested in; not to solve the puzzle, but to examine and appreciate the mystery for what it is.  That usually leads me to negative theology, but I don't think that's such a bad place to wind up.  Or to stop before we begin an examination of Bultmann's understanding of existentialist philosophy and hermeneutics.

"My death; is it possible?"

As usual, I start these things with high hopes and fully meaning to write a well-developed, carefully thought out, essy. And what I end up with is a blog post; which is to say, random jottings more or less around a topic, usually in the form of notes and a hurried first draft.

This is no exception.  It is an interlude to, but directly associated with, the discussion of Bultmann and mythology.  It is a slight divergence through the ideas of Karl Rahner, as represented by Thomas Sheehan.  The connection is Heidegger.  The rest, is just me blathering.

To really understand what I have to say, you need to at least read this 30 year old review by Sheehan.  Yes, I am in some sense that far behind the times.  Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.


Doing away with metaphysics, especially in religion, strikes me as the same effort as trying to imagine your own death.  Hard as you might try to do it, as much as you might accept your own mortality, you still can easily imagine your funeral, and who will be there, and what it will be like.  When, of course, you won't be there at all.

Especially if you've abandoned metaphysics.

In other words you can, on one hand, abandon metaphysics entirely, as Thomas Sheehan says Karl Rahner has done (and I'm embarrassed to say I'm more familiar with the work of Jacques Derrida, another student of Heidegger (his thought, though, not as an attendant at lectures), in philosophy of religion, than with Rahner's work.  Then again, seminaries aren't exactly focused solely on teaching theology, so my education there is more personal than institutional.  Still, I'll be catching up soon enough, but if this review is any indication, what Rahner discards with one hand, he hangs onto fiercely with the other.  It may be that Kant is right and metaphysics is "an illusory hope for 'news from nowhere,' " but it strikes me as a matter of how you define "metaphysics."  After all, any notion of God whatsoever is metaphysical and if the mind "cannot take a peek over its own shoulder at some higher spiritual realm" then it can't discuss God at all, without dealing in pure illusion.

If you aren't going to throw out the baby with the bathwater, what good does it do you to only keep the bathwater?

Part of my complaint with this kind of reasoning is that it always comes back to a critique of Plato (primarily a critique of the Phaedo, actually), but that critique never considers the topic of the Symposium.  What, after all, is love?  If it is physical, surely  we can learn to control it simply by altering brain chemistry.  And perhaps we can; it's as likely as never having learned enough about Rahner that I don't know enough about neurology to understand where "love" exists in the brain, and what chemicals create it.  Can we manipulate this in human beings the way we can evoke memories or even smells and tastes that aren't in the nose or on the tongue?  Can we even see love?  Is it only physical?

If so, why does it persist?  Why do I love my wife after knowing her for over 40 years?  Why do I love my child?  Selfish genes, even if it misrepresented in the popular press, is still a reductio ad absurdum argument that no more defines "love" in physical terms than it defines consciousness.  The greatest empiricist, David Hume, was still only able to explain consciousness as an illusion created by sensory impressions which somehow create the idea of a "knower" out of the clash of those impressions somewhere in the brain (or the mind, which isn't the brain at all, but a kind of metaphysical metaphor for the self, itself a construct of memory and...what else?),  It isn't an onion so much as turtles all the way down in these discussions, and the anchor is always thrown into the metaphysical realm because "consciousness" is finally just what meat does; or something.  And love is just what people "feel," although we don't mean the same kind of "feel" as fingertips do, or the tongue, or the teeth, or just the skin.

It all falls into quandary and metaphor rather rapidly, and while none of this establishes a metaphysical realm, neither does it make it impossible, either.  If love is simply a matter of chemistry, where is the test for it?  So far we prove love by acceptance:  if two people love each other, we accept that, even if we see no evidence for it.  What evidence would we look for?  Even an abusive relationship can be a kind of love; although we rightly call that misguided, but at one time we said the same for same-sex relationships.  We don't know, and it's a good thing; but only because we say so.  Which is not to equate the latter with the former, but at one time the former were widely accepted, the latter widely rejected.  It's not a question of social standards here, but of evidence.  What is the evidence for love?

It is the most widely discussed idea in human history.  At least, in Western cultural history; but where is the evidence for it?  Plato's Symposium can no more agree on what love is than philosophers of aesthetics can agree on what beauty is.  We still only know it when we see it, and while I saw an exhibition of Picasso's works, many of which were beautiful, I have no doubt my father would not find them beautiful at all.  Which of us is right?  On what evidence do we decide what beauty is?  And yet is it not as important as determining "true love," or even true belief in Christian teachings? (I limit myself because of my field of knowledge, not because of some exclusionary doctrine about "truth".)  And if I can't discuss this without looking over my shoulder at some higher spiritual realm, am I merely practicing illusion?  Is my love for my wife, my child, my family, my friends, mere illusion?

Well, perhaps it is if I am a Buddhist; but I'm not.  I am not, of course, proving the "truth" of the metaphysical realm; but neither am I confirming the validity of the limitations of the empirical one.  I may know everything only through my senses, but I don't know love simply because of sight, taste, smell, touch, and hearing.  I know it with those things, but not solely because of those things.

I understand here that I'm arguing with Sheehan, not Rahner; and that the understanding of "metaphysics" here is not the possibility of the metaphysical (words and ideas are certainly not physical, but their power and importance in human history cannot be overstated), but the reality of the metaphysical (what is the reality of words and ideas, for example).  I don't consider it an accident that all of this speculation about discarding the metaphysical either comes after the 18th century empiricists, or flows from, in the case of Bultmann, Rahner, and Derrida, the work of Heidegger.  What is interesting is that it leads Rahner to replace metaphysics (if Sheehan is accurate), or at least try to; and it leads Derrida to what he called a "negative atheology."

Negative theology is a concept that traces back to Martin Luther.  It is the idea that we can more accurately describe God by what God is not, than by what God is.  The limitation is on our ability to know, a limitation admirably enforced by the observations of David Hume, but where that lack of knowledge might be seen as a negative, negative theology regards it as a positive. A negative atheology would be a theology without theology; which sounds oddly like fundamentalism to me, but that's not what Derrida means.  It isn't, actually, clear at all what Derrida means; but he does an interesting job of hanging on to religion, something the Continental philosophers don't really want to throw out (anymore than they want to throw out the baby or the bathwater; they are still interested in their possibilities).  But that's a digression that takes us away from the Germans like Heidegger and Rahner (or Nietzsche, for that matter; digressions within digressions; where do the turtles stop?).  Still, the limitations of our ability to know are an interesting place to explore; even to begin.  Many would say this is, in fact, the beginning of wisdom, and that philosophers are supposed to be lovers of wisdom, or they are nothing at all.

Again, I digress.

There is, finally, the idea that all human experiences are shared, are corporate, or they are invalid. This is a philosophical notion, but it is so widely shared a one as to seem as obvious as we need air and to walk upright.  We all presumably see the same color yellow; or at least we would all point to the same color designated "yellow" if we were asked to (and weren't color blind).  But do we all experience the same feelings of love?  When young you might ask "How will I know when it's love?", and get the answer "When it's love, you'll know."  Hardly a more satisfactory answer than "How will I know what 'beautiful' is?", and yet we are all acculturated to agree, at least generally, on beauty:  from an Impressionist painting to Jennifer Aniston, we all understand the culturally accepted standards (even if we don't quite agree with it).  But love is personal; love is individual.  Back when Bill Clinton was in office and his marriage the subject of much discussion, Gene Lyons said:  "Other people's marriages are a country where I don't speak the language."  Who among us hasn't wondered about a friend, a family member, or a public figure, and how they could love their beloved?  But is love falsified because we don't love as another individual loves?  Because we don't love the person they love?  No more than beauty is falsified because what I find beautiful you find tedious, plain, or even ugly.  It isn't just a matter of personal opinion, it's a matter of personal experience.  Yet it is a curious thing:  my experience of beauty or love is not generally derided by public figures like Richard Dawkins or the late Christopher Hitchens.  But my experience of God is.  It is a delusion, an illusion, a mistake, a brain abnormality, a flaw in my reasoning or my conceptualizing, a mistaken reliance on outdated and unfounded metaphysics, it is in error.  But my love for my wife, no less individual and interior an experience, is no one else's business, and no more metaphysical than biochemistry.  Indeed, someone may reduce it to biochemistry,and tell me I "love" her only because she bore my child.  Which is odd, because I loved her for decades before that, and two decades after my daughter's birth, love my wife still.  And not only is my profession of love acceptable, but whole industries, from entertainment to flowers and candies, are based on it.  What madness is this?

No one else in society shares my love for my wife, but no one else questions it, either.  Imagine a society where they did, where every romantic relationship was regarded as madness and foolishness because it could not be empirically verified.  Who would want to live in such a world?

Must I de-mythologize love?  Would that make it more widely acceptable?  Except, of course, love is not part of a world-view we no longer share.  If anything, love as we imagine it today would be incomprehensible to the world of 1st century Palestine, or Bronze Age Israel.  I dare say, our limits on what we know are as much determined by culture as they are by our five senses.  Because most of what we know is actually in the realm of ideas; it is not limited to what sense our brains can make of stimuli, or of what we can know about the world.  As Wittgenstein concluded: 

What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.
 It at least has the virtue of making us not sound stupid.

Friday, March 01, 2013

"The Interpretation of Mythological Eschatology"

With Chapter 2 we plunge directly into the problem of time (which Rick certainly understand better in terms of Heidegger than I do).  I mention Heidegger because he and Bultmann were teachers at the same university at one point (before WWII, IIRC), and the influence of the former on the latter is generally acknowledged.  Still, we immediately wade into a subject which is at the heart of Kierkegaard's Absolute Paradox, his philosophical (it comes from his pseudonym Johannes de Silentio) attempt to explain in rational (rather than religious, but that distinction if unfair in both directions) terms, the Incarnation (it involves much more the presence of the infinite in the finite than it does the incommensurably transcendent in the undeniably eminent).  I want to remain fair to Bultmann, though, and not load this discussion down with extraneous details, so let's plunge into chapter 2:

In the language of traditional theology eschatology is the doctrine of the last things, and "last" means last in the course of time, that is, the end of the world which is imminent as the future is to our present. p. 22
So time is our concern now, not just space; and God is transcendent of both:

God is never present as a familiar phenomenon but always the coming God, who is veiled by the unknown future.  Eschatological preaching views the present time in the light of the future and it says to men that this present world, the world of nature and history, the world in which we live our lives and make our plans is not the only world; that this world is temporal and transitory, yes, ultimately empty and unreal in the face of eternity. pp. 22-23.

Bultmann goes on to anchor this idea, not in the thought of Jesus of Nazareth, nor even in the culture of first-century Palestine, but in Greco-Roman culture, with quotes from both Pindar and Sophocles.  But this only illustrates, as he points out, "that the general human understanding of the insecurity of the present in the face of the future has found expression in eschatological thought" (among other places, we should probably add, lest we take Bultmann too far out of context).  But what distinguishes the Greek version from the Biblical version, he asks.  The simple answer is:  the Greeks eschaton was rooted in destiny, the Biblical eschaton in the acts of God.  One of those is still with us, or could be; the other is quite too foreign:

It is possible that the Biblical eschatology may rise again.  It will not rise in its old mythological form but from the terrifying vision that modern technology, especially atomic science, may bring about the destruction of our earth through the abuse of human science and technology.  When we ponder this possibility, we can feel the terror  and the anxiety which were evoked by the eschatological preaching of the imminent end of the world.  To be sure, that preaching was developed in conceptions which are no longer intelligible today, but they do express the knowledge of the finiteness of the world, and of the end which is imminent to us all because we are beings of this finite world.  p. 25
 Here I do have to pause and say, without taking a swipe at Bultmann, it is a bit too broad to say such "conceptions...are no longer intelligible today."  You reading this may agree with Bultmann, but you also have to know of people who consider the end of the world imminent and sometimes act as if it were so.  What, indeed, was the "Y2K" scare if not "the terrifying vision that modern technology...may bring [our] destruction"?  And there are plenty of groups convinced, at one time or another, that the world is coming to an end in accordance with one prophecy or another.  Some two decades after Bultmann wrote these lectures my adolescence was dominated (in small part) by Hal Lindsey making a career out of "Biblical prophecy" which he was certain indicated the Apocalypse would come after Armageddon, which was to be nuclear war between the US and the USSR.


So it isn't that such "concepts...are no longer intelligible today," but rather that certain groups hold to them while others don't and never will.  The irony is how many of those groups consider themselves Christian, because Bultmann is, in no small part, presuming a uniform Christian message spoken to a uniform populace for whom certain concepts are "no longer intelligible."  And frankly, with no disrespect to Herr Doktor Professor Bultmann, that populace doesn't really exist; nor does that Christian message.

But perhaps that's only a pastoral, or even a homiletical, point....

This, on the other hand, is a statement I could use in a blog comment right now:

It is precisely the intensity of this insight [i.e., the quote immediately above]  which explains why Jesus, like the Old Testament prophets, expected the end of the world to occur in the immediate future.  The majesty of God and the inescapability of His judgment, and over against these the emptiness of the world and of men [sic] were felt with such an intensity that it seemed that the world was at an end, and that the hour of crisis was present. pp. 25-26

All I would have to do is replace that language about God's majesty with some terrifying vision of modern technology bringing about our destruction due pollution, global warming, resource scarcity, etc.  In a comment below RKC said of the gun control debate that:  "We talk of this as a political issue, but I can't but help see it as also a spiritual issue."  Turning to guns for security, insisting on their primacy is, RKC points out, a kind of idolatry, an idolatry certainly prompted by the "emptiness of the world and of [people], felt with such an intensity that it [seems] that the world is at an end."  Bultmann also points out (and it's worth nothing here), that "the finiteness of the world and of man [sic] over and against the transcendent power of God contains not only warning, but also consolation."  And that is another significant difference between Greek eschatology (symbolized by Greek tragedy) and Biblical eschatology ("Behold, I am making all things new!" God tells both Isaiah, and later John of Patmos.  Bultmann doesn't include that example; it's mine).

Bultmann turns this difference, though, not on competing visions of who or what is in charge, but on the fundamental difference between Greek and Biblical (now read "Christian," if not clearly before) visions of human life:

In Christian thinking freedom is not freedom of a spirit who is satisfied with perceiving the truth; it is the freedom of man to be himself.  Freedom is freedom from sin, from wickedness, or as St. Paul says, from the flesh, from the old self., because God is Holy.  p. 29

Here, I have to say, Bultmann is being a good Lutheran, and taking up his Augustine with a touch of Kierkegaard.  The very idea of "the freedom of a man[/woman] to be him[/her]self," is one virtually unthinkable before the Romantics, at least for ordinary persons whose task, as recently as the end of the Enlightenment, was to fulfill their place in the Great Chain of Being, not fulfill their personal destiny or ability at self-fulfillment.  That's Wordsworth and later Byron, and Goethe and finally S.K.'s "individual" (although for S.K. that was, in no small part, over against Hegel's Romanticized vision of human history, which still had more of Pope than Thomas Gray about it).  If existentialism begins with Kierkegaard, it's roots are in Romanticism; and if Bultmann is championing self-fulfillment as the highest and best purpose of Christian practice, he owes it first and foremost to the melancholy Dane (a point Bultmann makes all but explicitly in a long footnote in The Gospel of John, where he applies a passage from Philosophical Fragments to support his discussion in the text.  p. 70, fn. 3 begins:  "The matter was most clearly seen by Kierkegaard who developed it above all in the 'Philosophical Fragments'...."  I won't digress to put that quote fully in context, but Bultmann in that passage is discussing the historical event of the incarnation, where the kerygma does not pass on a timeless idea but transmits an historical event," and this fact, he says, is the "offence" of Christianity.  Bultmann's note discusses Kierkegaard's insights at some length here, and gives us as clearly as possible the roots for Bultmann's Christian existentialism.  The quote is from The Gospel of John, tr. G.R. Beasley-Murray, Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1971, p. 70).  Kierkegaard, himself a Lutheran pastor who never took a pulpit, is equally steeped in Augustinian thought, which simultaneously gives us the liberating vision of a Christianity meant for "the individual," and a Christianity still held to Augustine's excess of conscience (for a non-Augustinian reading of Paul, I recommend Krister Stendhal, another good  Lutheran (!).)  All of which is to say, I accept freely the first sentence of that quote, and withhold approval of the second.

Bultmann concludes the chapter by placing the origins of de-mythologizing in Paul:  "...taken when Paul declared  that the turning point from the old world to the new was not a matter of the future but did take place in the coming of Jesus Christ," and then John, for whom "the coming and departing of Jesus is the eschatological event":

For John the resurrection of Jesus, Pentecost, and the parousia of Jesus are one and the same event, and those who believe have already eternal life.p. 33
Bultmann's heremenuetic, then, is not radical; it's Biblical.