Monday, March 31, 2014

"Happy Birthday, Rene."--ntodd

And how better to honor Descartes  than with a poem by Beckett?

Whoroscope / Samuel Beckett

What's that?
An egg?
By the brothers Boot it stinks fresh.
Give it to Gillot.

Galileo how are you
and his consecutive thirds!
The vile old Copernican lead-swinging son of a
We're moving he said we're off--Porca
the way a boatswain would be, or a sack-of-
            potatoey charging Pretender.
That's not moving, that's moving.

What's that?
A little green fry or a mushroomy one?
Two lashed ovaries with prostisciutto?
How long did she womb it, the feathery one?
Three days and four nights?
Give it to Gillot.

Faulhaber, Beeckman and Peter the Red,
come now in the cloudy avalanche or Gassendi's
            sun-red crystally cloud
and I'll pebble you all your hen-and-a-half ones
or I'll pebble a lens under the quilt in the midst
            of day.

To think he was my own brother, Peter the
and not a syllogism out of him
no more than if Pa were still in it.
Hey! pass over those coppers,
sweet milled sweat of my burning liver!
Them were the days I sat in the hot-cupboard
            throwing Jesuits out of the skylight.

Who's that? Hals?
Let him wait.

My squinty doaty!
I hid and you sook.
And Francine my precious fruit of a house-and-
            parlour foetus!
What an exfoliation!
Her little grey flayed epidermis and scarlet
My one child
scourged by a fever to stagnant murky blood--
Oh Harvey beloved
how shall the red and white, the many in the
(dear boodswirling Harvey)
eddy through that crack beater?
And the fourth Henry came to the crypt of the

What's that?
How long?
Sit on it.

A wind of evil flung my despair of ease
against the sharp spires of the one
not one or twice but…
(Kip of Christ hatch it!)
in the one sun's drowning
(Jesuitasters please copy).
So on with the silk hose over the knitted, and
            the morbid leather--
what am I saying! the gentle canvas--
and away to Ancona on the bright Adriatic,
and farewell for a space to the yellow key of
            the Rosicrucians.
They don't know what the master of them that
            do did,
that the nose is touched by the kiss of all foul
            and sweet air,
and the drums, and the throne of the faecal
and the eyes by its zig-zags.

So we drink Him and eat Him
and the watery Beaune and the stale cubes of
because He can jig
as near or as far from His Jigging Self
and as sad or lively as the chalice or the tray asks.
How's that, Antonio?

In the name of Bacon will you chicken me up
            that egg.
Shall I swallow cave-phantoms?

Anna Maria!
She reads Moses and says her love is crucified.
Leider! Leider! she bloomed and withered,
a pale abusive parakeet in a mainstreet window.

No I believe every word of it I assure you.
Fallor, ergo sum!
The coy old froleur!
He tolle'd and legge'd
and he buttoned on his redemptorist waistcoat.
No matter, let it pass.
I'm a bold boy I know
so I'm not my son
(even if I were a concierge)
nor Joachim my father's
but the chip of a perfect block that's neither old
            nor new,
the lonely petal of a great high bright rose.

Are you ripe at last,
my slim pale double-breasted turd?
How rich she smells,
this abortion of a fledgling!
I will eat it with a fish fork.
White and yolk and feathers.
Then I will rise and move moving
toward Rahab of the snows,
the murdering matinal pope-confessed amazon,
Christina the ripper.
Oh Weulles spare the blood of a Frank
who has climbed the bitter steps,
(Rene' du Perron….!)
and grant me my second
starless inscrutable hour.

The poem came with notes, of which this is my favorite: 

1. Rene Descartes, Seigneur du Perron, liked his omelette made of eggs hatched from eight to ten days; shorter or longer under the hen and the result, he says, is disgusting. He kept his own birthday to himself so that no astrologer could cast his nativity. The Shuttle of a ripening egg combs the warp of his days.

"Social Justice Isn't a Gift It Is a Given"

I could write a disquisition just on the Rev. Wright's discussion of personality formation between Europe and Africa.  I think the notion of "I" became more prominent in Europe after the Romantics, not with Descartes, but that's a minor matter.  He makes powerful points here; not least in the anecdote that produces the title Thought Criminal gave when he posted this, and which I'm confiscating here along with the video he originally posted.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Let us now damn infamous events

I was right! There is a bigger world out there!

 You know, I sometimes think that if you can't get history right, how can you possibly understand the present?

The first episode of the new Cosmos graphically illustrates this with the story of Giordano Bruno, a 16th-century monk who argued that the sun was a star like all the rest, and that every star had its own planets and its own living beings. Bruno wasn’t a scientist, as the show makes clear: his cosmological views flowed from his mystical, pantheist theology, not from evidence. But that made no difference to the Inquisition, which imprisoned and tortured Bruno, and when he refused to recant, burned him at the stake. His statue still stands in the Campo dei Fiori where he was executed, facing the Vatican as if accusing those who murdered him.

Um:  no (Well, the statue is probably there, but the rest is not accurate at all).

There’s also Bruno’s contemporary, Galileo Galilei, the astronomer who discovered the moons of Jupiter and argued for the heliocentric solar system. As a reward for his revolutionary scientific work, he was judged suspect of heresy by the Inquisition and forced to abjure his own work under threat of torture; his books were banned and he was sentenced to house arrest for the remainder of his life. The story of Galileo’s persecution is so well-known that I’d hesitate to retell it yet again, if it weren’t for the fact that church apologists like Jay Wesley Richards are still defending and soft-pedaling it. 
That could be because Richards understands history better than you do.

In fact, even Bruno’s torture and execution still have their defenders, like the creationist site Evolution News and Views, or professional outrage-monger William Donohue of the Catholic League, who ludicrously claimed that the Spanish Inquisition was a good thing. A Catholic cardinal, Angelo Sodano, likewise said in 2000 that the inquisitors who condemned Bruno “had the desire to serve freedom and promote the common good and did everything possible to save his life.” 
Donohue is an idiot; I will gladly so stipulate; and creationist are by definition for shite.  As to the views of the Cardinal, perhaps you want to start by taking them seriously and considering whether they have any validity, rather than rejecting them because, well, he's a cardinal, and obviously a very ignorant man.  Right?

And from Carl Sagan’s original series, one more cautionary tale: the story of Hypatia of Alexandria, a philosopher, astronomer and mathematician who lived in fourth-century Egypt in the waning days of the Roman Empire. Christianity was on the rise and bent on stamping out pagan ideas, and Hypatia was despised by the local bishop, Cyril of Alexandria, who hated her for her friendship with the governor and the different worldview she represented. Despite the personal danger she was in, she continued to study and to teach until, one day, she was assaulted in the street by a mob of Christian fanatics who dragged her from her chariot and hacked her to death with tiles. Her works were destroyed, her books lost. Cyril was made a saint. (Hypatia’s life and death were dramatized in the 2009 film Agora, starring Rachel Weisz.) 
I'm sure, whatever quality the film is, it's also a font of historical accuracy and information, as so many historical films are.  As for the rest, as usual, it's a bit more complicated than that.  Here is an historical account, which I do not offer as the final word on the fate of Hypatia; but I do point out the sources I am confronted with here are Carl Sagan's TV show, and a movie starring Rachel Weisz.

There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia, daughter of the  philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and  science, as to far surpass all the  philosophers  of her own time. Having succeeded to the  school of Plato and Plotinus, she explained the principles of philosophy to her auditors, many of whom came from a distance to receive her instructions. On account of the self-possession and ease of manner, which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not unfrequently appeared in public in presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in coming to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more. Yet even she fell a victim to the political jealousy which at that time prevailed. For as she had frequent interviews with Orestes, it was calumniously reported among the Christian populace, that it was she who prevented Orestes from being reconciled to the bishop [i.e., Cyril]. Some of them therefore, hurried away by a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a reader named Peter waylaid her returning home, and dragging her from her carriage, they took her to the church called Cæsareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her with tiles. After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them. This affair brought not the least opprobrium, not only upon Cyril but also upon the whole Alexandrian church. And surely nothing can be farther from the spirit of Christianity than the allowance of massacres, fights, and transactions of that sort. This happened in the month of March during Lent, in the fourth year of Cyril's episcopate, under the tenth consulate of Honorius, and the sixth of Theodosius

This is from the Church History of Socrates Scholasticus, a man who was not a fan of Cyril's, as you'll note from some of the passages there.  He doesn't praise Cyril, and in fact holds him accountable for the conditions that led to Hypatia's death.  I won't praise Cyril, or defend his actions in Alexandria (the Jews were driven out, for one thing; kind of hard to justify that, even by the standards of the 4th century).  But the death of Hypatia came from the mob, not Cyril (how much he did to quell, or encourage, the mob violence is another matter).  And it came in the midst of a power struggle over who would control Alexandria (did I mention the Jews were driven out?  Does that give you a clue as to what was going on?)  The history is that Hypatia was killed by a mob based on a groundless rumor, and the church history accepted by the Roman Catholic church clearly states this was an undeserved death, and makes no mention of hostility towards Hypatia's views on philosophy, mathematics, or astronomy.  You might still say that's a biased account.  Fine; got anything besides a TV show and a movie to base that on?

But this kind of persecution isn’t just a relic of ancient history. While we’re thankfully past the days when scientists could be stoned in the streets or imprisoned by church tribunals, the anti-science spirit is alive and virulent in the world today,  waving away facts that disagree with its ideology and seeking to silence or intimidate those who speak inconvenient truths.

 Uh, you might want to remove that log from your own eye, before complaining about the speck in theirs. Just saying'....  Because unless there are mobs rioting in the streets of American cities and church leaders driving out Jews or other groups from those cities (the "sundown cities" are not so far back in our rearview mirror of history), or murdering people because of wild rumors, then yes, this kind of persecution is precisely a relic of ancient history.  Nobody is put to death for perceived heresies anymore (Bruno) or locked up in order to control the dissemination of their views (Galileo), by the church or the state, and no one is going to be.  Even in thoroughly insane (in many ways) Texas, members of the State Board of Education were so extreme they lost their races to be re-elected in a GOP primary.  Granted, the Board is still extreme to my way of thinking, but persecution?


Just stop, please; you look as silly as the fundies who claim acceptance of homosexuals comes from Satan and God is going to punish us for respecting each other.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Still too much to say about too little....

I told you I had too much to say about this.  I left some of what is below with NTodd, then decided to post it here, too (with further emendations and elaboration because, why not?).

From what I can tell, no court has ever ruled on the validity of Hobby Lobby's opinion about the contraceptives in question: that is, does the sincerity of their belief depend on the validity of their factual claim (that IUD's, Plan B, and Ella are abortifacients?). Or is sincerity of belief a magic shield that stops further inquiry?

The 10th Circuit remanded to the trial court on issues related to a preliminary injunction, which means no final determination of Hobby Lobby's position on the facts was made by a trial court. So all the Supremes are deciding right now is whether or not Hobby Lobby can take this case to trial; or, more accurately, I think all they are really ruling on is whether or not Hobby Lobby has standing on these facts to seek injunctive relief.

I don't think, IOW, there are enough facts here for the Supremes to grant relief. All they can do is remand to the trial court in accordance with the 10th Cir. opinion, which remanded for more work on the injunction issue consistent with the appellate opinion; or overrule the 10th Cir. and say Hobby Lobby can't sue under RFRA, and is barred by the 1st Amendment from bringing a claim; or that the 10th Cir. erred in part, and remand to them for further consideration (this is the least likely outcome, I have to say).

I don't see the Court granting Hobby Lobby the relief they seek, in other words, because the facts are not all in, and no court has yet ruled on whether Hobby Lobby's sincere belief outweighs their mistaken opinion about contraceptives (Kennedy's bewilderment notwithstanding).

Anyway, it explains why the case is before the Supremes on what seems to be a strange set of facts (or, rather, non-facts). And, ultimately, I think that's where the decision really has to turn: is a sincerely held religious belief that is contrary to scientific fact still to be held superior to the science when the determination affects third parties adversely? I mean, it's fine if the Green family wants to declare the earth flat based on sincerely held religious beliefs; but if that clearly erroneous factual belief affects their employees adversely, are they still entitled to impose it on them?

Hobby Lobby included the contraceptives it now objects to in its insurance coverage until the ACA mandate came along.  So there is a factual question of the sincerity of their beliefs that has yet to be tried in the court.  The government at the trial level accepted the validity of Hobby Lobby's beliefs because it was seeking to have the case thrown out on other grounds.  It can still go back and challenge the validity of those beliefs by challenging their factual validity.  After all, if it is my sincere religious belief that prayer will heal my child, am I guilty of child abuse when my child dies from lack of proper health care?  And if I have a sincerely held religious belief but it doesn't affect my conduct until I decide later that, you know what, it really should; just how sincerely held is that belief?

As Michael Dorf pointed out, the question before the Court now is whether RFRA provides corporations like Hobby Lobby (hence the objection of Sotomayor and Kagen) an exemption from the contraception requirements of the ACA.  That determination has broad implications (which is what everyone is exercised about) but it is really a very narrow legal question.  Yes, there are plenty of amicus briefs that want to make this decision about the free exercise of religion in all its manifestations, but that doesn't mean the Court is considering so fundamental an issue as that.  It is also, however, a legal question that doesn't turn on the particular facts of this case.  And there's the rub:  there are, as yet, no particular facts in this case.  There is no statement of facts from the trial court for the 10th Circuit or the Supreme Court to consider.  There are some large legal principles; but those principles will not determine the final outcome of this case; the facts of the case will finally determine what legal principles must apply, and why.

So the Court's opinion will not determine Hobby Lobby's burdens under the ACA once and for all.  If the Court rules Hobby Lobby can bring a RFRA claim, and sets out the legal framework in which it can do so, the case still needs to establish a set of facts in the trial court on the claim that what Hobby Lobby is being required to do is a violation of their sincere religious beliefs because the contraceptives in question are in fact abortifacients.  I think the far more interesting question lies there:  does my sincere religious belief trump clearly valid scientific findings, in a situation where that belief will significantly impact others who don't necessarily share it?

Because in every court case, if you change the facts, you change the outcome.  Even STARK (Scalia, Thomas, Roberts, Alito, Kennedy) can't change that fundamental principle of law.  And so far, legally speaking anyway, this case doesn't have any facts.

Having nothing to say about Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby, I manage to say too much

I'm not as exercised by the oral arguments in the Hobby Lobby/Conestoga cases before the Supreme Court yesterday as most of the internet seems to be.  Predicting outcomes from oral arguments is a mug's game.  Scalia will have to distinguish these cases from Smith, especially after what Justice Kagan did to him yesterday.  Roberts can't really be expected to vote to allow something that pretty much obliterates the corporate veil, although I can see him coming up with some meaningless distinction between closely held corporations and public ones; but I don't really expect that (the 10th Cir. opinion rests in part on that distinction, but I don't think their opinion is all that persuasive overall, especially on the question of "person" under RFRA, and how a secular corporation can have sincere religious beliefs).  Scalia's argument in Smith is still too cogent for this set of facts, RFRA notwithstanding.  But basically, news reports that boil down 90 minutes of oral argument to a few quotes from each justice (except silent Clarence; maybe a lacuna should be included in each report to represent him) inevitably leaves out bits like the discussion of the Dictionary Act (whether or not a corporation is a "person" within the meaning of RFRA.)  Dahlia Lithwick gives the only account I've found of any reference in the arguments to this, but she doesn't linger on it, either.  That could be because justices didn't, but on such issues the Court could determine this entire case.  As Sotomayor asked in response to that reference:  "Who determines the corporate religion?  The majority of the shareholders?  The corporate officers?  Is it 51 percent?"

This question goes to the "closely held corporation" analysis I found at Volokh Conspiracy (which has the virtue of attempting to be a legal analysis rather than an  "OMIGAWD SCALIA!" and "What the hell is wrong with Kennedy?" analysis).

Still there are, as you might have expected, some problems.  I'm not sure this one actually is present before the Court, but we'll address it anyway:

The moral obligations of human beings, the argument goes — correctly, at that level of generality — do not stop when the legal fiction of the corporation intervenes. Corporate owners can’t say, “Hey, it wasn’t me who created these social harms, it was the corporation that I own.” The same, I think, applies when we analyze the religious burden on owners when a law prevents them from doing what they see as part of their religious social and moral responsibility.
Well, yes, but moral obligations and legal obligations are two distinctly different things.  The closest the law comes to imposing moral obligation is in cases of fraud or where equity applies.  Otherwise morality doesn't really enter into the legal analysis, at least not fundamentally.  And besides, corporate owners say all the time "Hey, you can't hold us accountable!  The corporation did it!"  After all, who paid the fines for the BP oil well blowout in the Gulf?  BP?  Or the executives and shareholders, personally?  Corporations create all manner of social harm which they either don't get held accountable for, or for which the corporation pays the fine.  The Occupy movement was the last attempt to shift that responsibility to actual persons; and most people still deride the "Occupiers" naiveté.

Now, to that question of the closely held corporation.  It's my understanding Hobby Lobby is owned by a trust which in turn is controlled by a family; so "closely held" pretty much applies here.
 The matter may also be more complicated when only a minority of shareholders believes that having the corporation obey a particular law causes them to violate their religious beliefs, though of course that problem arises not only for corporations but also for common-law partnerships. I’m inclined to say that the application of the law could indeed burden the minority shareholders’ religious views. (The majority shareholders’ voluntary decision to do the same thing, uncoerced by the law, would not constitute such a burden — the corporate bylaws or partnership agreement will likely constitute an agreement by the minority shareholders to let the majority shareholders take actions in the corporation’s or partnership’s interests.) But often, as in Hobby Lobby, the religious objections will be shared by all the shareholders in a closely held corporation, or at least by the majority shareholders.
But now we are back to Sotomayor's question, one based in no small part on the Smith decision that caused Congress to pass RFRA in the first place.  It is a question of sincerity of belief, and validity of belief.  Is the Hobby Lobby owners belief that Plan B and Ellas and IUD's are abortifacients valid?  Scientifically, no, it isn't valid at all.  All three forms of contraception work the way contraceptives they find acceptable work.  Neither induces an abortion by expelling an implanted fetus.  That the owners of Hobby Lobby believe otherwise is no more relevant than if they believe the earth is flat.  They are free to believe it, in other words, but they cannot use that belief as the basis for deciding they get a free pass on any law they don't like.

You'll notice in that analysis that "belief" has nothing to do with "religious belief."  Already we enter dark waters, because what is a "sincerely held religious belief"?  Is it accepting as true something you know isn't true?  Is it adherence to a traditional doctrine ascribed to by generations of believers across space and time?  Is it belief in the efficacy of "E-Meters"?  Which one do you want the courts to declare invalid, which valid, and why?  That you should be careful how you answer should be obvious to anyone.

So the courts do not answer these questions; that even attempting an answer would violate the 1st Amendment is clear.  It is, in fact, the refusal to answer this question that led Scalia to write the Smith decision, and which outraged Congress into passing RFRA.  We don't want this question answered; but we don't want this question ignored, either.  Congress determined that by refusing to answer it, the Court in Smith did in fact answer it; and Congress didn't like the answer.  And so now we have to decide if RFRA applies to corporations, and if so, which "sincere religious beliefs" are corporations entitled to?

At this point I'm reminded of the old joke Bill Moyers loves to tell:

One of my favorite stories is of the fellow who was about to jump off a bridge, when another fellow ran up to him crying, “Stop, stop, don’t do it.”

The man on the bridge looks down and asks, “Why not?”

“Well, there’s much to live for.”

“What for?”

“Well, your faith. Your religion.”


“Are you religious?”


“Me, too. Christian or Buddhist?”


“Me, too. Are you Catholic or Protestant?”


“Me, too. Methodist, Baptist or Presbyterian?”


“Me, too. Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Savior?”

“Baptist Church of God.”

“Me, too. Are you Original Baptist Church of God or Reformed Baptist Church of God?”

“Reformed Baptist Church of God.”

“Me, too. Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God Reformation of 1879, or Reform Baptist Church of God Reformation of 1917?”


Whereupon, the second fellow turned red in the face and yelled, “Die, you heretic scum,” and pushed him off the bridge.
It's funny 'cause it's true.  Do we really want the courts entering into that arena?
 And even if the courts conclude otherwise, and say that the corporation cannot itself bring the religious exemption claim, the owners should be free to raise their own claims. If we see through the legal fiction of the corporation in concluding that corporations lack RFRA rights, then we should likewise see how obligations imposed on a closely-held corporation can oblige its owners to be complicit in what they see as sinful behavior.

The problem with this argument is that it doesn't get past the objections raised by Smith.  This argument means the employer can refuse to pay or hire employees who don't pledge to be teetotallers or fundamentalist Xians of the right denomination.  Because if requiring a corporation to provide certain coverage is an undue burden on the owners' religious beliefs, then so is forcing an employer to pay money to an employee who will spend that money in ways not in accordance with the owners' religious beliefs.  Employee provided insurance is compensation, not something provided by the employer as a gift.  It is earned as a matter of employment, just like payments to a 401(k) or just a paycheck.  If the owner is complicit in sinful  behavior by providing coverage for IUD's, he/she/they is/are equally complicit by hiring an employee in a store 50 states away who is an atheist or an alcoholic.

There are other issues here, issues I'm quite sure a corporate lawyer like Chief Justice Roberts is quite aware of.  If the religious opinions/beliefs of shareholders are attached to the corporation, then the corporation ceases to be a separate legal entity shielding the individual owners from direct liability for corporate actions:

As a a brief filed by corporate law scholars explains, “[t]he first principle of corporate law is that for-profit corporations are entities that possess legal interests and a legal identity of their own—one separate and distinct from their shareholders.”  In fact, as recounted in  the brief, this legal separateness is “the corporation’s most precious characteristic,” according to one early American treatise writer, because it creates “limited liability” for business founders and investors, shielding their personal assets.  If the Court were to accept attempts by Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood to blur the distinction between a corporation and its owners, it could  undermine key features of corporate law
That's a rather technical (sorry!) description of the "piercing the corporate veil" argument that's making the rounds.  Volokh's argument is that you can set aside that corporate distinction when it is convenient to the owners/shareholders.  The problem is, as Sotomayor and Kagan pointed out, to do so you also have to set the corporation distinctiveness aside when it isn't convenient.  That, or put the Court in the position of deciding who has legitimate and sincere religious beliefs, and who doesn't.  And to underline the importance of that distinction, and the weakness of Volokh's argument about the corporate entity:

But what about the individuals who own Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wood?  To be sure, the current owners of these companies have their own personal free exercise rights, but those rights are not implicated by the contraception coverage requirement because federal law does not require the individuals who own a company to  personally  provide health care coverage or to satisfy any other legal obligation of the corporation.  The law places requirements only on the corporate entities.  The individual corporate owners retain their rights under the First Amendment and RFRA, but those rights simply aren’t available when the claimed burden is placed on the corporation itself – just as Randy Braswell retained his personal right against self-incrimination, but could not use that right to shield his business when a subpoena was issued against the corporation he owned.  Individual business owners should not be given a green light to move freely between corporate and individual status to gain the advantages and avoid the disadvantages of the respective forms whenever it suits their purposes.
Funny how we keep coming back to the reasoning of the Smith opinion.  And that may or may not be a good thing.  According to Michael Dorf of the Cornell University School of Law, the Smith opinion may be ripe for reversal.  I didn't hear any indication of that in arguments yesterday, although to support the Hobby Lobby and Conestoga claims Smith has to be distinguished if not rejected (and overturned de facto if not de jure).  That would be a lot to pin on this case:  rejecting Smith, upholding completely RFRA, and deciding the Court should plunge wholesale into the balancing not just of legitimate government interests against legitimate individual interests, but the sincerity and validity of religious beliefs as proclaimed by the owners of a legal entity, and how and when those beliefs get to trump the laws.  Dorf doesn't address that issue, or how the courts would "balance" the issue of whose religious beliefs get to be declared "legitimate" as well as "sincere" (will the courts recognize Pastafarians?  And why not?).  I just don't think the Court is looking to make legal history on this set of facts or legal arguments.

But, of course, I could be wrong.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Let us now praise weird TeeVee

I don't do this often, but having just finished watching season 1 of "Les Revenants" on Netflix, I cannot praise the series strongly enough.

Wikipedia will give you a good rundown of the show, and even an episode synopsis, which you don't want to read if you have any chance of watching this at all.  It is, as Forbes says, far superior to anything on American TV.  Like "The Prisoner" (the original, not the awful AMC remake) it is bizarre and wholly self-contained.  I'm a bit concerned with what the second season will bring, because the first season answered all questions without the usual American heavy-handed answer.  In the end, it isn't a dream, and the government isn't doing something with aliens in the French Alps.

But the government is the ultimate heavy.  Oop, there I go, giving something away already.

If you want to avoid the Wiki re-cap, let me give you suggestions of what happens.  But let me first say, yes, this is like "Twin Peaks," but the first season, and not afterwards.  In fact, if "Twin Peaks" had stopped with the first season, it would have been better.  Perhaps I'll be saying that about "Les Revenants" one day, but I don't think so.

So, small French village in the Alps, complete with lake created by a dam that also provides electricity to the village, and with an "American Diner" (really, this kind of stuff is worth watching first to see how the French live (cafe au lait bowls!  They aren't just tourist kitsch!) and for what they think an "American diner" would look like. ) The French take on American kitsch is always entertaining.

Anyway, a young girl comes back to life, walking into town from the gorge where she died when the school bus she was on plunged over the mountain road into the ravine below.  More dead return, just a few, and the first problem is:  how do the living accommodate the dead?  The dead want to pick up where they've left off, but they left off 4, 7, even (it turns out) 35 years ago.  Why are they here?  What do they want?  Why are they so hungry, and why don't they sleep?

Some of these questions are answered, some are not (but you can make reasonable conjectures, especially about the inability to sleep.  Well, then they do, so....).  The story moves back and forth between the present and the past, carefully filling in the back stories of the many families affected by this event, showing us sometimes, and sometimes not, how the dead, well...died.  Nothing is really explained, until the end of the season.  And still some things are left open:  was it Camille who died, or her twin Lena?  I still think....but I can't say. 

The explanations are up to you; there is no narrator to string this together, no single point of view to guide you to the conclusion, nothing whatsoever that clubs you over the head.  Are the dead dangerous?  No; except when they are.  Why do some people not die after the dead return, but some do?  What was death like?  Why only one girl from the school bus, and not the rest?  And what's with the goats floating in the lake?

The lake level is dropping mysteriously.  Where is the water going?  Power goes off, then comes on, then goes off again.  The dead are corporeal, but they disappear and enter closed rooms (echoing the resurrection stories of the Gospels!).  Is it a general resurrection of the dead before the End?  Is it an apocalypse (a revelation; apocalypse is, more or less, the French title of that final book of the Christian scriptures)?  Do they mean no harm?  Or do they mean great harm?

It's eerie; it's in French (subtitles will not hurt you!); it has lesbians and nekkid wimmen (it's France!) and even a full-frontal nekkid dude (the French don't cover their corpses in the morgue.  Makes you wonder why we bother....).  And it includes butterflies and dead animals which aren't dead yet.  Or were; maybe.

I'm telling you, this stuff is great! Intelligent, emotional, substantial, so close to real you're afraid it could be, with a satisfying conclusion that suggests rather than declares (always the most satisfying way to handle this kind of idea).

And little French child actors can scare the bejesus outta ya, without doing a thing but not blinking.  I swear, this one kid could stare down a cat.

The New Fabulous Invalid

Woolgathering, mostly, and apropos of nothing except this article at Salon pricked this flow of words out of me.  I don't take it very seriously, but this bit is my favorite:

Anthropologists have often stated that religion evolved to help early man cope with anxiety and insecurity. Barber contends that supernatural belief is in decline everywhere for the fact that ordinary people enjoy a decent standard of living and are secure in their health and finances. “The market for formal religion is also being squeezed by modern substitutes such as sports and entertainment. Even Facebook is killing religion because it provides answers for peculiarly modern narcissistic anxieties for which religion has no answer,” observes Barber.

Yeah?  Name two; from within the past 100 years, and exclude any like Fraser who aren't really widely esteemed anymore.

Honestly, when are atheists going to get out of the 19th century and catch up with the rest of the world?  And religious belief is in decline because of the Industrial Revolution?  No, what's in decline is superstition.  Even in the era of "biblical Israel," the idea that God was responsible for all your comforts and conveniences was never a central teaching of the Torah.  "What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?"  What in that question speaks to worshipping God so you will be profitable, prosperous, and never know want for all of your days?  Does anybody even read the story of Job anymore?  The story is not just about the problem of evil, it's about the relationship of prosperity to piety.  The Hebrew scriptures are shot through with such stories.  When the widow feeds the prophet, she doesn't do so because God has spoken to her and reassured her she'll survive the drought; she does it because of simply human decency, because of the value and importance of hospitality; because she is a good person.  She doesn't become rich from it, either; she simply survives. Which reminds me the greatest blessing offered in the Christian scriptures is "life into the ages."

If few of us today want to take a lesson from a story that involves surviving on oil and flour until the drought is over, it isn't because we no longer need to cope with anxiety and insecurity.  I'll accept that the "market for formal religion" is being squeezed by sports and entertainment, but I'd also ask when it was every any different?  Theater in Europe was recovered, not by a Greek revival (of which the Renaissance was the first of many) but by the Church.  And you can draw a straight line from theater to movies to TV today, without any real effort.  Did the church wither in the Elizabethan age, when the theater was a rising power?  No, it withered more because it was attached to the state, and as the state stopped letting the church tend to the poor with it's help (Oliver Twist asks for more in an orphanage run by the parish council) and started doing the thing directly, Europeans who associated the church with such charity (as they had associated the church with the law.  There's a reason British barristers wear robes in court, and US judges wear robes as well.  It's the same reason the common law adopted from Britain has a side of equity included.  Equity came from the ecclesiastical courts, where standards of justice were more tempered with mercy than the common law was wont to do.) soon associated the church with things they didn't really need.  Was this the triumph of the Enlightenment?  Or the failure of the Church?

Probably both and a little bit of neither.  It isn't true, though we largely take it as gospel today, that the Church opposed the advance of science via Galileo or Bruno or others, because it superstitiously feared the advance of empirical knowledge.  The Church was much more involved in the politics of the age(s) than it is today, and was more concerned perhaps than it should have been with social stability (on that criticism I will stand with the critics, especially since I never say my ministry as one of upholding the status quo either in society or in the ecclesia).  It sought to control ideas in order to assure stability just as 19th century British intellectuals (at least) sought to tamp down the idea of the "death of God" (they agreed with Nietzsche, so to speak; they were just afraid to say so) for fear the populace would lose their fear of the controlling powers (if the Great Chain of Being is not topped by God keeping all in order, what might the masses think of the monarch and the landed gentry supported by and in turn supporting the monarchy?).  Mendel, after all, was a monk; and a Jesuit priest (as I've said over and over again) formulated the Big Bang theory.  The conflict between Christianity and science is not what it is said to be.

If the Church went wrong in its position on ideas we accept today, we have to acknowledge it didn't try too effectively to suppress genetics or modern cosmology.  And if people have taken a basically heathen position towards Christianity, an idea that God is a cosmic slot machine who is supposed to pay off when they put enough spiritual coins in and pull the lever often enough, is that the fault of religion, or the Church at large?  I think there are better explanations, and I've found most people have rather intractable beliefs about what the Church should do for them, or what God is supposed to be for them.  It lets individuals rather lightly off the hook to say the Church has simply failed or people have simply "outgrown" religion.

And as for anxieties and insecurity being quelled by this modern age, tell that to the families still mourning their losses from 9/11.  Or the Malaysian flight lost at sea; or the mudslide in Washington state.  Or the school shootings, mall shootings, theater shootings of recent memory.  Or the poor living in poverty and inner city squalor or invisibility in the rural areas of just this country.

Have people "given up" on religion?  True, they've taken to mega-churches which preach a very light form of Christianity, if Christianity it is at all.  Other mega-churches thrive, though,  on that "old-time religion," even if it isn't the church of Jerry Falwell anymore, even if they aren't proclaiming their moral majority but just their conviction in some strange new form of Calvinism.  As I've said before, I've heard this refrain before.  In the 1970's, just as I was getting old enough to decide for myself whether to go to church in college or, toward the end of the decade, in my married life, the predictions were coming hard and fast again that young people were leaving the churches and organized religion was doomed.

And perhaps as a social organization it is, but the fault is not in religious belief nor in acceptance of evolution as a scientific theory (Oh, yeah, that's a reason, too:  "With an increasingly majority of younger Americans accepting evolution as fact, Christianity for many under 35 is becoming a watered-down hybrid of eastern philosophy and biblical teachings."  This assumes, of course, that prior generation, mine included, rejected evolution, and so kept our Christianity.  It's a stupid assertion with no basis in anything except knee-jerk atheism.  But I digress....); it is in sociology and even in the Industrial Revolution.  Sociologists have identified reasons for the decline in church attendance, even as they identify reasons for church attendance; and the primary factor has more to do with how we see ourselves as individuals in society now, than it does with our scientific beliefs, or lack of them.  Church is first and foremost a community, but that is increasingly an odd thing in a society that values "bowling alone."  And communities are hard to maintain in a world where people don't live where they grew up, and don't stay long where they are living.

I pastored a church which was built around a farm community that left vestiges of its existence despite the fact the area around the church was now urban/suburban, and plants existed only between the streets and the buildings and the parking lots, rather than the buildings among the plants.  That community was one homogeneously white and largely German; by the time I got there the community was black, Hispanic, Vietnamese, Korean; and "Hispanic" is just an umbrella term for people from many countries in Central and South America.  Whites were a minority, and many who grew up in that church now lived so far away, or were so old, they couldn't attend anymore.  But even those who hadn't darkened the church door in decades were still "members," and even though the community of that church had decayed to a bare remnant, that community still determined who was, and who was not, permitted there.  I see a lot of churches around me now comprised of small groups of common ethnicity:  Korean, Vietnamese, "Hispanic."  Are they in decline, too?  I wonder if they are even counted, yet.

Are mainline denominations in decline?  Yes.  The world they were once a part of is gone.  Is that a failure of religion, or a failure of the institution to adapt?  The Roman Catholics seem to have adapted better than the Protestants, or at least seem to be more adaptable.  Protestantism was always an expression of the culture more than of the institution; the former gave rise to the latter.  Now that culture is changing away, and the old orders will not prevail against the change.  There is even, in the wisdom of the church, an expectation of this:

Grant that thy Church may be delivered from traditions which have lost their life, from usage which has lost its spirit, from institutions which no longer give life and power to their generation; that the Church may ever shine as a light in the world and be as a city set on a hill.
Will the Church withdraw into a remnant of what it once was?  Only to the extent it stops serving the people.  This may be what Bonhoeffer meant by a "religionless" religion; not because the culture had become atheistic, but because the Church no longer served the needs of modern existence.  There's a great deal of effort going into responding to those needs, and a great deal of it is being accepted.  It may be the reports of the death of Christianity have been greatly exaggerated.  It may be, as Evelyn Waugh (IIRC) predicted, that European-American Christianity will be saved by African missionaries.

In any case, it is far too soon to be triumphantly driving nails into Christianity's coffin.  It may be Christianity just needs a new Reformation; that the "end of Christendom" has finally come, and it is a necessary one to move the Church into the third millennia.

And ain't it funny, again, how nobody ever mentions Judaism in these discussions?  I wonder why that is.....*

*don't tell me it's because of percentage of the population.  The article mentions (and I accept the statistic arguendo) that 1% of the US population is Muslim.  What percentage is observant (v. ethnic) Jewish?  And why isn't that ever raised to make one point or another?

Monday, March 24, 2014

Nothing new under the sun

There's nothing really new in this excerpt from Bart Ehrman's newest book. In fact, a quick look in my archives revealed he's just plowing ground already plowed by Reza Aslan about a year ago.  I don't want to repost that post, but I do want to highlight something from it by my New Testament professor in seminary:

The intellectual challenge of the Enlightenment was really about the ability and authority to name what is true and what is not.  Insofar as the Bible is finally about ultimate reality, that is, ultimate truth, the question of the historicity of the Bible, and with it the question of the historical Jesus, has always been bound up closely with the search for Truth.  The quest for the historical Jesus has, from its very beginning, also been about the search for God.  
The God of Jesus:  The Historical Jesus and the Search for Meaning (Harrisburg, Pennsyvlania.  Trinity Press International, 1998). p. 28.

I mention that because the comments at Salon are filled mostly by people denying the historical Jesus based on a great deal of ignorance and hot air.  What's interesting is not their insistence that Jesus of Nazareth is a fictional character, but the vociferousness with which they insist it.  And if I dropped this quote in that discussion, it would be like tossing a water balloon into the monkey house:  the flinging of poo would go on for hours.

For example, the idea that Jesus is a fictional character, and that only a few truly wise are now aware of this vast historical conspiracy, is laughable on its face.  But to put a bit of history and scholarship into the conversation:

"And so with the experience of Jesus, the experience (later) of the Resurrection:  it is decisive, even if today it is derided.  Denounce it, but it cannot be destroyed.  Why not?  Augustus Caesar was a "son of God," as was Tiberius after him.  Augustus was even thought to have been resurrected; so Jesus' resurrection was not unique in world history (although I've spoken of it here as if it was).  But why did Jesus' resurrection, and his life, have such an impact, while Augustus' didn't?  Jesus was an itinerant peasant from a Roman backwater who died a shaming and mostly overlooked death.  But Augustus?

Now, there was a religion.  All over the Mediterranean world one can find its legacy still today in grand temples and arches, dedicated to the gods "Roma and Augustus."  Rome was very clear about what it believed in.  It believed in power.  No one embodied that more than Augustus.  He conquered lands far and wide, from which great treasures were extracted.  He subjugated cultures, gave them a new language and new institutions.  He quashed rebellions.  His life was one great manifestation of power.  The imperial cult was about power.  And the great thing about a religion of power is that it provides its own authentication:  victory reveals the favor of the gods.  Resurrection became the ultimate symbol of that religion:  the final victory.  The ultimate bestowal of power was to rise beyond the limits of this world to join the great pantheon of the gods in heaven.

"Patterson. p. 51.

"Look on my works, ye mighty; and despair."  Some echo of the institutions of Augustus remain in Europe and, through Britain particularly, around the world.  But even the language Augustus imposed on others is dead.  And where is the religion he embodied?  It was a religion of power, of the lessons of the world.  Why did it vanish?  Maybe because "victory reveals the favor of the gods," and Rome eventually ran out of victories."

The power of powerlessness; or, perhaps, the limitations of power.  And the basis of an interesting question:  if the worship of Jesus of Nazareth is based solely on illusion and some massive 2 millennia old conspiracy, how has it lasted so much longer than the cult of Augustus, which once ruled the civilized world?  Because of Constantine?  Aside from the movie of the same name starring Keanu Reaves, how many people today have heard of Constantine?

The assertion that what Ehrman is peddling is "new" is equally laughable, and equally a lesson in power.  Salon advertises that way to draw readers; but nothing Ehrman says is any newer than when Reza Aslan said it last year.  And nothing Aslan said was new when I learned it in seminary over 15 years ago; most of it is readily available in paperback from real scholars like Patterson and Crossan, and has been for almost 2 decades now.  The arguments about the historical Jesus go back to...well, practically to the time of the historical Jesus.  What's still interesting is not the arguments, but that some people feel the need to  so strenuously maintain the arguments.  I think Patterson is right:  the quest of the historical Jesus has also been about the quest for God.

And, for the past couple of centuries, about the ability and authority to name what is true and what is not.  Which is yet another struggle for power; the lure being that power will finally pay off on its promise, and yield true power to the one who uses power to the end of the pursuit.  But the only purpose of power is to exert power; it has no other goal.  Power cannot, in the end, yield any insight, any telos, any final purpose or understanding.  Even the authority to name what is true and what is not is not in the hands of the powerful.

That authority is only in the hands of the community.  And even then, which community?  Yours?  or mine?

Aye, there's the rub.  And another reason for all the screaming, at least on the newest outlet of opinions, the intertubes.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Propping up the agit

Andrew O'Hehir:
The reassuring message about the value of not being “normal,” delivered by the most normal-looking, generic character imaginable, works on both. When we convince ourselves that “Divergent” or “The Hunger Games” contains any sort of lesson about resisting authority or speaking truth to power, we have already accepted their central premise that personal liberty, as defined by contemporary capitalism, is a precious virtue and that it might someday be under threat from somebody, somewhere. The villainous daddy-state presided over by Donald Sutherland (in “Hunger Games”) and Kate Winslet (in “Divergent”) is as much a paper tiger as the corrupt old regime of landlords and kulaks seen in Soviet boy-girl-tractor romances of the 1930s. The model of individualism presented as so noble and so embattled in these oxygen-propaganda movies is in fact the authoritarian ideology of our time, the instrument used by the 1 percent to drive down wages, dominate and distort the political process and make all attempts at collective action by those below look stodgy, embarrassing and futile.

I haven't read the novel the movie "Divergent" is based on, and I don't plan to.  I have read the Hunger Games Trilogy, and found it serviceable until the ending, which was weak, but explainably so.  Think of it in terms of the vocabulary of "The Matrix," when Neo starts talking about "systems of control," and how the Messiah he is supposed to be, is just one more of those systems.  He's right.  When we expect Messiah to save us from ourselves, we're always going to be disappointed.  We're not looking for a savior if we expect one to save us from evil; we're looking for a new system to control our lives, and do a more pleasing job.

Interestingly, at the end of Hunger Games, Katniss is not a happy messiah.  She figures out the war between the city of Donald Sutherland and the science zone (it's been a while since I read the books, so I'm a bit vague) is just another battle for control; and, of course, if there's anything teenagers (especially) suspect, it's control, especially from adults.  Which kind of deflates O'Hehir's analysis, here.  It's not that "The Hunger Games" is a frame that fools us into accepting the conditions imposed by the 1percent; it is that all systems of control, all quests for power, lead back to this same situation: be careful what you ask for, you might get it.  You want to depose the powers that are in control and making your lives miserable; but whose lives, then, do you make miserable so you can be benevolently in control?

I think the critique, in other words, can go deeper and be far more salient than O'Hehir imagines.  He who would be first of all must be last and servant of all.  Which is not even the goal Katness pursues; she just wants to be left alone; not even, like Candide, to tend her own garden; just to be a teenaged girl, without any real responsibilities to anyone else.

It's that model of individualism that has been sold to us since at least my childhood:  that what you do matters only to and for you; that this Bud's for you!  That you can live the independent life and be unique, just like everybody else who buys this product!  What a story like "The Hunger Games" recognizes is that attempts at collective action are themselves not necessarily collective.  And that, for better or worse, is the new reality.  We may long for the halcyon days of the labor battles and the rallying cries of workers united, or of any collective action we nostalgically remember.  What we can't do is recover it.  What we have to do, is try something radically different.  Even YA novels understand that; which is why they look ahead and see dystopias.

Maybe collective action needs to be based on what you do for someone else; not what any group of people does on behalf of any idea of what the collective is; or wants.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Of doves and ravens

So now what Bill Maher says about the movie "Noah" is a thing; and he uses the movie (which, from the poster, looks silly to me.  Noah with a very sharp, vicious looking hand axe, looking all Russell Crowe as Gladiator ready to swing that thing at my head?  No thanks....) to malign the story from Genesis.  If I were smart I'd shrug and say,  "whatever," because a) I haven't seen the movie and I probably won't, and b) it's Bill Maher.

And mostly, I do.  Bill Maher's attacks on religion are even less sensible than Richard Dawkins', if such a thing is imaginable.  Still, it prompts me to reconsider the tale of the Flood and the Ark.

Not that I take any of it literally.  Even in my conservative (not radically so, but hardly theologically liberal) Presbyterian Sunday School upbringing, the story of Noah was never presented as an historical event.  Nobody ever made me believe the earth and all the fills it was covered with water for 40 days and 40 nights.  It always seemed more likely this was a "myth" in the way I was taught about myths:  stories invented to explain natural phenomena like lightning.  Although I've yet to hear a myth about what it rains, or doesn't; or why it snows; or doesn't.

And really, most myths we know anything about, including the so-called "Greek myths," have precious little to do with explanations of natural phenomena.  I can't remember any at the moment from Bulfinch; and Ovid was concerned with sex and lust, and except for something highly expurgated, like the story of Pygmalion (which I only heard about in connection with "My Fair Lady"), I never encountered those until I went looking as an adult.  Still I was raised to think myths were stories that couldn't possibly be true, and that people who used to believe them were just, well, unenlightened.

The shadow of the Enlightenment (which, as Dom Crossan mentions in his book on the Lord's Prayer, is a metaphor, not just a noun) is long.  So long, we imagine people before the Enlightenment were stupid and backwards, while we are wise and smart.  After all, we make things go.   But does anyone really think the original audience for Beowulf or Gilgamesh believed literally that Beowulf fought sea monsters for days, ripped the arm from the monster Grendel, stayed beneath a lake for hours while defeating Grendel's mother, and died slaying a dragon?  Was the story of Beowulf told to explain why dragon's hoard gold (it's where Tolkien got the idea)?  Is that anymore likely than that we think Martin Freeman is talking to a giant flying fire-breathing lizard who sounds suspiciously like Sherlock Holmes?

Or do we take Smaug as an entertaining fiction?  And does Bilbo's bravery and cleverness mirror the attributes the audience for Beowulf admired in their hero, whether he was real or just imagined?  We don't really think Superman is a alien from Krypton, that Tony Stark fashioned an Iron Man suit that could fly in the caves of Afghanistan, or that Bruce Banner didn't contract cancer from a radiation overdose but instead transformed against all known biological principles into a giant green man of impossible strength.  But we spend a lot of money watching movies about it all.  Are we really any different from the audience who first heard the exploits of Beowulf?  Or the tale of Noah?

So it doesn't matter if the story of Noah is supposed to be history or not (and, to settle the matter:  no, it's not.  Does it tell the story of the flooding of the basin that became the Mediterranean?  Maybe.  There are flood stories from that area of the world; perhaps they have basis in an experience; or perhaps cultures just liked the story and claimed it as their own.  What does it matter now?)?  No.  Far more interesting is what this story tells us about the nature of God, and there Mr. Maher is mickle in his wroth:

"What kind of tyrant punishes everyone just to get back at the few he's mad at? I mean, besides Chris Christie."

"Hey, God, you know you're kind of a dick when you're in a movie with Russell Crowe and you're the one with anger issues."

"You know conservatives are always going on about how Americans are losing their values and their morality, well maybe it's because you worship a guy who drowns babies."

"If we were a dog and God owned us, the cops would come and take us away."

Now you could say, after this, that after all the story of Noah is just a myth, nobody really takes it seriously, and so Maher's critiques of it are wildly misplaced.  But the story of Noah is as much a party of holy scripture as the Beatitudes or Micah's famous answer to his question "What does the Lord require of you?"  So we might as well take it seriously and put away our Jeffersonian scissors.  This is a confessional matter, not just a literary or textual one.

So, confessionally, why is this story here.  Because God is a cosmic murderer, a slaughterer of souls on the order of all the Hitlers and Stalins and Pol Pots combined times 1000?  Well, first, of course:  no.  As Job says (if memory serves),  the Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.  If God can take back what God has given, then God cannot commit murder.  But should God take back the lives that God has given (and how many were alive at the time of the Flood?  Does the number matter?  Or not?)?

Aye, there's the rub.

The cut to the chase here (since I am not Dom Crossan defending a point with scholarly precision) is that the story of Noah underlines the fact that God is wholly Other to us.  God is not us; not just an extension of our desires, wants, needs, fears, lusts, capacities.  That divinity-as-superhuman is the pantheon of the Greek gods, or the Norse gods currently showing up at the cineplex and on TV in multiple tales.  The God of Abraham is the God who is not us; and as the Creator and giver of life, is uniquely positioned to take life away again.  So Maher's objection that the God of Abraham is "a guy who drowns babies" its just stupid on its face.  But that doesn't mean it isn't a sound critique:  how do we worship a God so wholly other to us as that?  If God is transcendent and yet not at all imminent, what does such a God have to do with us, or us with such a God?

I am not, here, about to go on a rant about Jesus making God immanent, and so dividing Christians from Jews.  I don't mean that at all.  When Christians make Jesus the immanent version of God, they usually make him a more comfortable God, too.  And that, as Fr. Martin observes, brings its own problems.  No, let's keep the tension alive.  The story of Noah demands no less of us.

So the story of Noah is not that God is a bastard; it is that apocalypse happens, and then what?  I take my cue for that from the poster for the movie, which notes (rightly, I think) that the situation of the Flood is an apocalyptic one.  But "apocalypse" doesn't mean catastrophe; it means "revelation."  So the story of the Flood is a revelation; but a revelation of what?

First, consider the position of the people telling this story.  If it arises from an historical event, it was certainly a catastrophic one.  In a world where disaster can come upon the world on the order of a major flood, a real landscape changing event, what does that say about the place of human beings in the universe?  That the universe is capricious, uncaring, and human life is no more important than the life of a bug?  Or that gods are in control, and there is a purpose behind the disaster?  One way lies naturalism, the indifferent universe.

“If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the bottom of everything there were only a wild ferment, a power that twisting in dark passions produced everything great or inconsequential; if an unfathomable, insatiable emptiness lay hid beneath everything, what would life be but despair?”
Johannes de Silentio

Which is where Mr. Maher would prefer to be, although he clearly doesn't think his opinions lead to that; probably because he hasn't really considered the matter.  They are his opinions, they are right; 'nuff said!  But the rest of us prefer a slightly friendlier cosmos in which to dwell, so we ask:  if disaster strikes, why does it happen?  And one answer is:  because the god(s) is (are) in control.  If the god(s) is (are) in control, why does disaster happen?

The old, old question of theodicy.  So if the God of Abraham is just, and disaster strikes, disaster on a world-changing scale, there must be a reason, a connection between creation and the Creator.  That is the confession of Genesis 1 and 2:  that God is Creator, with a relationship to the Creation.  The confession of the entire Hebrew Scriptures (as well as the Christian gospels and letters) is that God is just, and will do justice in the world.  What could such a world-changing event as the Flood be, then, but an act of divine justice?  Divine because what else could it be: an indifferent universe as unconcerned with human life as a drought is to plants?

And that's better?

This is not an argument for the validity of the "religious" reasoning; it's more an explanation that we, in the West, since the "Enlightenment," divide "religion" from everything else, and while we now assume that is the default setting of humanity (and so atheists can claim their atheism is valid, and the rest of humanity across time and the globe is insane, and think their position reasonable on that basis alone), it isn't.  The Enlightenment, after all, is only 300 years on; human history goes so much further back than the last two millennia of Christianity even Christianity is a blip.  So this isn't an explanation in the post-Enligthenment sense; it is a confessional statement.  The story of Noah is, among other things, a story about the nature of God, and the nature of creation.  Creation is not chaotic, and God is not us.  The Creator gets to wipe the board when it seems wise to do so.  If that's what the story says, it doesn't also mean the story says "Go now, and understand fully."  It means "Go now and understand this is the nature of the God of Abraham, who is God and not you."  And the world is not chaos; and if that doesn't bring you comfort and security and the sense you are first among equals and every life is precious and should never, never die, then....

Well, then I can't help you.  Death is not to be celebrated; and yet we do it every day.  TV shows open with murders; characters die on screens large and small, as often as anyone cues up a movie or tunes in a TV drama or demands something via computer.  We don't celebrate death, but we make it an essential part of our entertainment.  And then we criticize people for worshipping God because God drowns babies?

There is a great line at the end of the third Matrix movie, when the Architect closes the film talking to the Oracle.  The Architect has agreed to free those humans who want to be free of the Matrix, who want to live in Zion.  The Oracle asks if she has his word; and he is insulted:  "What do you think I am?  Human?"  The Architect is not great and worthy of worship; nor is the Architect the Creator, the giver of life.  But the Architect is other; is not at all human.

The story of Noah is not a story for children.  It is also not a story summing up the divine nature of the Creator.  It is a story about God's otherness, and how that otherness is God's nature, too.  It is a story of God's transcendence; but of God's immanence and justice, too.  It is a story of God's relationship to the Creation.  Not the whole story, but an emblematic one, and, if taken seriously, a troubling one.  It is, indeed, a frightful thing to find oneself in the hands of the living God.  It always has been.  That is the apocalypse.

Welcome to the Monkey House

This, by the way, is an excellent article.

I might have wished for a hint of a discussion of Descartes, father of modern skepticism ("Cogito, ergo sum" is the end of one line of thought, the beginning of another.  Descartes went as far down as he could in order to having something to build on.  Modern day "skeptics" would do well to pay heed to Descartes example; and he only consider it a method, not a conclusion).  It's so good, I simply commend it to your reading.

Self-examination is hard.  Socrates supposedly said "The unexamined life is not worth living."  I've certainly agreed, if by nature rather than by design; my inclination has been to question everything.  At some point, however, as Descartes understood, you have to avoid irony before everything dissolves into mist and formlessness.  You have to decide for yourself what your opinions are, and why, and "because I like them" is the refuge of the coward.

But as the wise philosopher Dirty Harry said:  "Man got to know his limitations."  This is, indeed, the beginning of wisdom (no, seriously!).  Read the article, then consider how many of the comments refuse to take the argument of the article seriously; and how many consider their own American positivism to be perfectly sound thinking, because it is theirs, and anything that isn't positivism, to be dangerous and unsound.

Because a knife only cuts what you want it to cut, and never anything else....