Category Archives: Love

Letter to my Former Selves

 

Many of my friends and role models have, on particular occasions, done an exercise in fantasy time travel: going back to speak to earlier versions of themselves on a “if you only knew what I know now” basis. I’ve never actually tried such an exercise before, but as the calendar year 2015 draws to a close, with all of the various transitions and wild adventures that it has included, I think it’s time for me to give it a shot. I’ll take the tried and true format of speaking to my selves on the Christmases of each year of my life thus far ending in a 5.

Warning: this is bound to be very personal and perhaps somewhat self-indulgent. In some ways that’s the whole point of the exercise. If you don’t want to have TMI (too much information) shock about me perhaps you might want to consider skipping this blog entry. For those who have been close to me and shared particular aspects of my life, forgive me if I get a bit close to home on such things. I’ll try not to violate much of your privacy here, but I realize this could end up getting a bit uncomfortable.

And with that I take a deep breath and dive on in:

To David of 1965 –– Jackson, Michigan:

You are still too young to remember any of this Christmas, but it has been an idyllic one anyway. Your baby sister has started walking and talking and your young parents have done surprisingly well in getting ahold of their own little piece of the American dream. Having a college education paid for through their parents’ savings and their own hard work, your father being employed in the computer industry in what will come to be seen as its early days, and already having a respectable home of their own in the suburbs and two nice little kids while they’re still in their early twenties is quite the accomplishment –– something that was possible for no previous generation in their families, and in all likelihood will not be possible for any future generation of middle class Americans.

They’re good people. Always be thankful for their strong minds, their good hearts (in the figurative sense at least) and their strong but balanced sense of ambition in life. Even so, it would help for you to be aware of the fact that they got into this “rat race” far too young and they really don’t know what they’re doing at it. In the next few years, after moving to a different part of the country and giving you a couple of baby brothers to go with the package, they aren’t going to be able to hold it together any more. It’s going to be tough on all of you. Hang in there though; you’ll have some advantages that most kids from “broken families” can only dream of: your parents will never use you and your siblings as weapons against each other, and you’ll never have reason to doubt either of their love for you.

Your baby sister will be fine, even if she seems to follow you around and compete with you in bothersome ways at times. Try and avoid letting that get on your nerves. The little brother you’ve got coming next year will need more of your attention actually; not “leadership” but attention. Try to be there for him as much as possible. And be careful with all of the pressure to be “the man of the house” in your dad’s residential absence. Beyond that, be aware that believing that good things are coming in your life can be what we call a self-fulfilling prophecy.

 

To David of 1975 –– South Berwick, Maine:

In many ways you have already found your niche in life it seems. Your grandparents refer to the evangelical Christian religious community where your mother has taken you and your siblings to live as a “commune” and in some ways that’s not far from the truth. You sort of know that this lifestyle isn’t what people in “the world” consider normal, but you’re cool with that. There’s plenty of support and positive reinforcement from the ex-hippie Bible college students that you’re hanging around with, and that kind of atmosphere is helping you learn to think on a much higher level than is expected of kids your age. You can be thankful for that.

You can also be especially thankful for the opportunity to debate about these things with your father on a regular basis. Without that sort of strong contact with the outside world you could be in a rather risky place psychologically. Never doubt the sincerity of your father’s faith, even if he is far more “liberal” about it than your pastor is willing to accept. That doesn’t mean that his salvation should be in any doubt.

For all the good there is for you in this life though, there are still things you should try to understand. First of all you don’t really have to worry about Jesus coming back before you have a chance to experience adult life. You sort of know that already, and it wouldn’t do you much good to dispute this fact with those around you who are dogmatically convinced that the “Rapture” will occur before 1981, but just don’t worry about it. There are enough other stresses in life without worrying about that.

One source of stress for you to deal with more actively is your sexuality, but not in the way you might think. Don’t let the subject scare you, and don’t let the overall negativity towards the subject there “on campus” determine your perspective on the matter. There is nothing inherently evil about it, and it is not the devil trying to distract you from “your calling” or anything like that. Be aware of where the young people a decade or so older than yourself that you are hanging out with are coming from in this regard: they were part of a cultural experiment in stretching the boundaries of how public you could be about enjoying sex outside of marriage. They already have a variety of hindsight perspectives on that experience, and the main emphases in teachings from the pulpit on that subject are to get them to leave all that behind. Thus you may hear a lot about the role of the devil in sexuality and all that, and you need such messages with a grain of salt. You’ll want to find out more about the subject than what your community there wants you to know, and that would be a good thing. You’ll also want to work on learning to recognize when girls are or are not interested in you in a pre-sexual sort of way, and determining what you want to do with that information…

You will inevitably draw the wrong conclusions and learn the wrong lessons from your parents’ and your older peers’ experiences in this area. I wish I could tell you that everything will work out alright in that department, but it’s best to be honest about the fact that it will be tough for you. The best I can tell you is that knowing you are loved in non-sexual ways by so many important people will help you get through many of the frustrating and inevitably awkward times ahead. And beyond that, even though it is something cruelly joked about at times, there really is a certain value in sexual innocence, for guys as well as girls, even if it is largely involuntary.

 

To David of 1985 –– Helsinki, Finland

So you and Minna have decided to get engaged this Christmas. In some ways that was inevitable. It certainly provides you with a boost in hope and confidence levels. That doesn’t mean it is a wise or safe decision, but I’m not sure I should try to talk you out of it; there are important places for you to go and things for you to do that you probably can only reach by way of such a path.

Your efforts to help start a church in Wales, that you’re now about to call it quits with, will remain a sort of awkward footnote in your life, but the pain-to-lessons-learned ration on that one will make it one of the better learning experiences you will go through in adult life; no need for regrets over your misjudgments on that one.  And now you’re visiting Finland, seriously contemplating the idea of making it your home. That is a wild idea, but it can actually work for you.

The most important thing you should realize is that John Lennon was fundamentally wrong about the idea that “all you need is love”. Love is pretty thoroughly blind at times, but in hindsight you will realize the truth of something you are now actively trying to deny: Minna has deeper personal problems than what your love can fix for her. By making her part of your life you are setting yourself up to be blamed for those problems long-term. Eventually the truth will come out, but not before you’ve been through a horrible amount of wasted pain. Nor will this be the only time you make such a mis-judgement. The sooner you get over the idea that you can use love to repair dysfunctions in women who have that sort of interest in you, the better things will be for you.

Meanwhile Finland is about to start changing pretty radically, and you will have a great front row seat from which to watch history being made. Enjoy the show. Enjoy taking part in the process. If only you could do that without all the marriage messes you’ve got coming…

But here’s where your innocence is both part of the problem and part of how you will eventually get through it. Two virgins saving themselves for their wedding night is not actually a particularly good recipe for long-term sexual fulfilment in life. Eventually you will realize that. But coming into the relationship with that level of innocence also serves to protect you from feeling guilty for causing your own problems through your moral failures. You’re not wicked, just incredibly naïve. Realizing that when you face all sorts of accusations later on will be important for remaining at peace with yourself. It will also provide a starting point for rebuilding your relationship with God through this whole mess. Hang onto that. Don’t lose hope, regardless of what comes your way.

 

To David of 1995 –– Helsinki, Finland

Been quite a ride, hasn’t it! You’ve had some pretty serious ups and downs over the past decade. You’ve learned about the dangers of marriage, of recovery romances and at times of loneliness. After stints in different aspects of the Finnish food service industry you’ve discovered that teaching is what you are really especially good at. And in spite of all of your humiliation from association with crazy women and crazier church leaders, you’ve started to carve out a niche for yourself as a foreign scholar and a respectable theologian here.

Economically the worst is behind you already. You’re not about to become rich, but the days of not being able to visit with your sons because you can’t afford to provide meals for them during the visit are behind you now. The struggle to have your role as their father recognized and respected has a long way to go still, but don’t give up on it; they will remain the most important part of what makes you you.

Perhaps the best advice I can offer to you at this point, besides encouraging you never to give up, is to tell you to keep working on developing those writing skills. The worlds of e-mail, on-line communities and flexible electronic publishing systems are just beginning, and using them to get your ideas out into the world will be important for you. Try to stay focused on you writing projects, not letting them gather dust for months or years at a time. Every book you finish will be an important step towards gaining respect and justifying your existence to those who have doubts about the matter.

Beyond that be careful, but enjoy this time as a single university student now for all it’s worth. There will be plenty of good things to look back on from the turbulent decade.

 

To David of 2005 –– Espoo, Finland

At last it’s starting to feel like adult life is settling into a groove for you. At last you are officially qualified to do the sort of teaching work that you’ve been doing for the past eight years! Soon your efforts as a parent and spouse will also be (somewhat) vindicated. Your sons’ childhoods are effectively over already, so you won’t be able to have the sort of active role you spent so long hoping for, but it the vindication will be sort of satisfying regardless. The physical aging process is a bit of a bummer, but there’s some compensation to be had in having people start to take you seriously as an adult for a change. Both trends are set to increase as time goes on. Take it for what it is.

There are all sorts of little details in life that you need to beware of: pay attention to details of your dog Mac’s health. He will remain important in the process of trying to maintain your sanity for many years yet, and by staying alert to his little problems you can make his life a lot more carefree and painless. Likewise pay attention to your own health. Take the weight loss thing seriously and pay attention to issues of your circulatory system in particular.

What else can I suggest to you? Beware of letting anyone talk you into borrowing money to invest in real estate; you’ll see what I mean. There are plenty of new adventures and major disappointments coming in the next decade for you. Be careful about getting your hopes up on some things, but don’t let new adventures scare you off. It’s true what they say that you’ll regret more the things you didn’t dare to try than the things you tried at and failed. Keep investing your time and energy, and what little money you have at your disposal, in people rather than things. In the long run it will be worth it.

 

Sincerely, your older self

Leave a comment

Filed under Happiness, Love, Priorities, Purpose

Eternal Begetting

the only Son of God,

eternally begotten of the Father,

God from God, light from light,

true God from true God,

begotten, not made…

With Christmas coming up I have to admit that I’ve always found this passage from the Nicene Creed, defining the details of the Church’s teachings on the virgin birth, a bit troubling on a number of levels. What does it actually mean in literal, concrete terms? What is its authority based on? How does the authority of this creed compare with the authority of the Bible? Is it still possible to believe this in any literal sense? What does it say about someone’s faith if they don’t believe it? What does it say about their standing within the Church as an organization if they don’t believe it?

The process of fathering a son is something I know a little about in practice. As most parents have known for quite some time, it has to do with sufficiently well-timed intercourse culminating in male orgasm occurring within the vagina. Once that happens, biologically speaking, the father’s reproductive work is done. Any other contributions to the “begetting” process have to wait until next time. So what the heck is this “eternally begotten” process all about? I agree that the begetting process is at its best when it is not done too quickly, but stretching it out eternally? How is that possible, even for God?

Obviously a divine eternal erection was not what the delegates to the Council of Nicea 1680 years ago had in mind with this phrase. Painting a picture of God as the ultimate copulater would have been the furthest thing from their minds. Of all the fourth century church fathers St. Augustine had the most to say about the matter of sex, due primarily to his sense of guilt issues regarding his pre-conversion sexual hedonism, but he was far from the only one to consider sex to be “yucky” and inherently sin-producing, if not directly sinful. The image of God in the Christian Church of the fourth century was anything but sexy. Likewise their honorary titles as “church fathers” had nothing to do with their sex lives as such. So what were these stodgy old bishops on about with this eternal begetting shtick?

My own first-begotten son, chilling with the cat after a family dinner to celebrate Christmas.

My own first-begotten son, chilling with the cat after a family dinner to celebrate Christmas.

The only way to make sense of this attribute for Jesus is in the context of an antiquated understanding of reproductive biology, based on the teachings of Aristotle. In simple terms, Aristotle believed that the best analogy for what the sperm does to the bloody reproductive material found within the woman is what a signet ring does to hot wax, or what a branding iron does to a cow’s ass: it sets a distinct pattern on the material there, making it conform as much as possible to the father’s trademark design. Where the mother contributes the basic raw material; the father was believed to contribute the complete functional design for the new person. Using another analogy, the mother provides the clay; the father’s sperm “sculpts” it into a person.

Furthermore, according to this way of thinking, the male “imprint” brought about through copulation is never an entirely perfect one. The better the “begetting” goes, the more like the father the resulting child turns out to be, but human men never entirely get what they want in this regard. Since a man can’t actually see the target that he’s shooting at in there, sometimes his liquid branding iron misses its target entirely, and no baby at all results. Sometimes it hits the target indirectly, or not completely square on, resulting in a baby that less perfectly displays on the pattern that the father’s ejaculate was trying to imprint. Some little details end up missing sometimes. According to Aristotle (and Aquinas) that is actually where little girls come from: slight mishaps in the process of men trying to father sons.

But God being God, as the church fathers saw it, He was not limited in his pattern-setting to that one critical, passionate moment where the sperm hits the bloody stuff; God could keep on “re-branding” Jesus and re-establishing the fatherly pattern in him throughout his life. This process of producing the paternal image in the bloody material substance found in his mother would not be limited to just getting the girl pregnant; it would be an on-going from before the time of Mary’s birth until after the time of Jesus’ death. The virgin birth was just one incidental step along the way; God was and is continuously re-shaping Jesus to make him more completely typical of the divine.

Except that reproductive biology really doesn’t work that way. Aristotle and his students were fundamentally wrong about how sex works, and how light works and how souls works for that matter. We now know with a fair amount of certainty that the pattern for the baby comes in equal parts from mother and father, and as products of the begetting process, daughters are not somehow partially defective sons, but complete human beings unto themselves, demonstrating just as much begetting success as any son does. Both in pattern and in physical substance, children are a combination of their fathers and their mothers. Asserting otherwise is just factually, and in many respects morally, wrong.

So there’s really no getting around the fact that the Nicene Creed is based on a complete, and rather sexist, misunderstanding of reproductive biology. Mendel’s work in genetics in the late 19th century essentially proved this. So now what can we do about it?

To start with we have to deal with the issue of the presumption of authoritative flawlessness in ancient religious texts in general. Fundamentalists’ frequent favorite verse in the Bible, which I had to memorize at about 12 years old, is 2 Timothy 3:16: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction and for instruction in righteousness.” This verse is taken as proof that every word in the Bible must be taken as flawlessly straight from God. But there are more than a few problems with such an interpretation. Strictly speaking, the “scripture” that St. Paul was referring to here would be the Jewish Torah; so rather than emphasizing the flawlessness issue, what is really being addressed here, in context, is the matter of maintaining respect for the Jewish scriptures among the increasing Gentilized body of Christian believers. Beyond that there is one other reference in the Bible to something being “God-breathed” (as the better translations have it in 2 Timothy): Adam’s human soul (Genesis 2:7). If we don’t consider human souls to be inherently flawless, in terms of logical consistency we shouldn’t take the turn of the phrase in 2 Timothy to indicate that Biblical writings are inherently flawless either.

But setting aside the literal meanings and proper hermeneutics for the moment, according to church tradition, due in large part to religious people’s emotional need to feel “sure” about things, the idea of “God’s inspiration” giving authority to the official pronouncements of the church underpins the whole concept of “sound doctrine,” which provides the grounds on which systematic theologians and “canon lawyers” of various sorts professionally distinguish between “orthodoxy” and “heresy”. Acknowledging that the core assertion of the Nicene Creed is based on nothing but a scientific mistake that was broadly accepted as fact in fourth century culture fundamentally screws up this whole system! If you can’t trust divine inspiration to keep the teachings of the Nicene Creed flawless, how can you trust the flawlessness of the canon of the New Testament, which these same church fathers progressively adopted over the course of the generation following the Council of Nicea? If you can’t trust Nicea, what can you trust?

Even more fundamental than that though, how do we go about making sense of Christology and the doctrine of the trinity when our most foundational and authoritative statement on those subjects is based on a complete scientific misunderstanding? We’re talking about a much bigger conundrum here than just the early church’s flat earth assumptions and misunderstandings of the physical locations of heaven and hell; we’re talking about the core understanding of who/what we worship, and why!

It’s sort of like getting down to filling in the last ten numbers on a rather difficult sudoku, and then realizing that somehow you’ve ended up with two sixes in the third column; somewhere along the way you’ve made a basic mistake, and seeing how far back you have to go to undo that mistake can be a very frustrating and aggravating process. What we know for sure here is that the description of how the relationship between God the Father and Jesus, the Son, works in the Nicene Creed is based on a fundamental biological misunderstanding. How far back we have to go from there to straighten out this mess has yet to be properly determined.

I’m not going to offer my personal revised solution to this theological puzzle in this blog entry. I think it would be most fair to leave it open as a doctrinal question and allow leading members of each particular confessional tradition to offer their own dogmatic solutions. I thus ask each reader’s help in putting this matter forward to those they accept as theological leaders to see what they are able to do with it. Skeptics, meanwhile, can play with this consistency issue in the Christian tradition in whatever way they find most amusing.

For my part, I will close here by offering a few related personal meditations, for what they’re worth, for you to ponder over the remaining days of the holiday season:

  • Certainty in matters of faith is over-rated. As good as certainty feels, there are always things about life that we can’t know for sure, and that apparently God doesn’t want us to know for sure. That doesn’t mean we should give up on further developing our understanding in theology any more than we should give up on physics or biology; but it does mean that in theology, as in natural sciences, we need to be careful how seriously we take the “laws” we discover or formulate, and we need to remain ready to have reality keep surprising us, in both positive and negative ways.
  • Humanity is a marvelous puzzle unto itself. In thinking about the core theological mystery of Christmas –– how God could become man and still remain God –– we inevitably need to come back to the question of why we are so occupied with “god questions” to begin with, and what makes each of us (potentially) valuable as individuals to begin with. We still haven’t got the concept of how God’s breath makes each of us a living soul figured out entirely. That’s something we need to work out in more detail before we can finalize our Christological dogmas it would seem.
  • Love doesn’t have to make sense to be valuable. In fact love hardly ever makes sense, but that doesn’t stop it from being the most valuable aspect of the human experience, and the strongest predictor of personal happiness in our lives regardless of our religious persuasions. The core message of Christmas, and Christianity in general, is that in spite of how screwed up we are, we are still loved, and that in turn should give us a capacity to love each other and live at peace with each other regardless of the other’s flaws. Granted, some people totally do not deserve to be loved. Since when is that a surprising realization? No, we will not be able to love everyone in the world without destroying ourselves in the process, because none of us have the capacity to make everyone else’s problems our own. The point is rather that we can at least get beyond issues of who deserves to be loved and who we can profit from lovingly connecting with. God’s love, shown through the life and death of Jesus, should give us a broader perspective than that.

And with those matters to mull over, I wish all of you a pleasant Christmas and a joyous start to the New Year.

Leave a comment

Filed under Epistemology, Holidays, Love, Religion, Sexuality

Love, War, Schizophrenia and Trinity: Toying with the Debate over God’s Nature

As part of my effort to gradually get myself back in an academic frame of mind for the coming autumn, among other reasons, for the past week I’ve been going through a bunch of old debates between Muslims and Christians over doctrines the former find disturbing. I don’t have any magic bullets by which either side can decisively win these debates, but I’ve actually been struck by the extent to which both sides actually miss what I consider to be the main point of the matter. Both sides seem to have been thoroughly preoccupied with justifying their attempts to build military empires loosely based on their concepts of what God is like. Whatever else can be said about the nature of God, one thing I consider to be most certain: the creator of the universe isn’t interested in putting his stamp of approval on any piss-ant human militarily empire.

1185679_10201871936464462_1708824034_nLet me give a partial disclaimer regarding my pacifist sympathies to start with: I have three siblings who have served in the US military, and a vast number of veterans in my extended family as well. I have no problem with that. None of them have been involved in combat so far this century, and if they had I might want to have a longer talk with them about the role they played in killing people they didn’t know for reasons they didn’t really understand, but for me that’s hypothetical. In principle I believe in the idea of each country at least maintaining a military deterrent against foreign invaders, and against domestic radicals who would want to start civil wars as well. I also believe that militarily taking part in the legitimate defense of the human rights of people in other nations, particularly in terms of international cooperative missions, can be quite justifiable under many circumstances. So with all that in mind I have no problem whatsoever with the fact that the older of my two adult sons currently has a career as a drill sergeant in Finland’s military. I’m quite proud of the work he does and its value for this country and the world.

What I can’t get behind is the idea that we can solve the world’s problems by bombing the hell out of people who don’t conform to our dictates of what sort of people should live where, or those who don’t readily enough hand over natural resources to corporations that want them. This implies some critique of the United States, of course, with its unjustifiable mega-spending on military hardware –– with some of the brass somehow having managed to convince their congressmen that American really needs to have more machinery for killing people than all the rest of the nations on earth put together, and that unilaterally taking on the role of policing the rest of the world is somehow the United States’ moral responsibility. But this month it must be said that both Russians and Israelis have been outdoing Americans even in terms of promoting crazy aggressive warmongering…

(image courtesy of malaysianreview.com)

(image courtesy of malaysianreview.com)

But that’s actually beside the point of what I wanted to talk about here, which is all the debates over the nature of God.

You see, if the point of having a religion for you is to get some sort of magical advantage in the process of “smiting your enemies” it doesn’t really make any difference which type of God you believe in. Whatever theological excuses you make for yourself in that process, what that sort of faith ultimately comes down to is playing some version of “Age of Mythology” inside your head: you try to build enough temples and do enough ritual offerings so that your demiurges fight harder and stronger than the next guy’s demiurges. In practice having that sort of faith can give you a powerful psychological advantage in warfare, or in sports even; but that does not mean that there really is some supernatural power out there, related to the powers that brought the universe into being, which for some reason has now become dedicated to helping your side kick ass.  Deluding yourself into thinking that you do have such a supernatural advantage is key to maintaining the psychological advantage, but that doesn’t mean that there is any transcendent truth to it.

games-like-age-of-empires-1So for those purposes the point is not to discover what is ultimately “out there” but to get your team unified in and excited about the idea that some great big something out there is going to ensure that you guys are going to win. If it helps build that kind of excitement for you to paint pictures of this big “something out there” as having claws or fangs or giant wings, or some exaggerated signs of human masculinity or femininity, or just to tell everyone that your god is too powerful to depicted in such fashions, that all ultimately comes down to psychological tactics, not spiritual sensitivity.

There is, however, a whole different approach to “doing religion”, which I far more strongly recommend: searching for some sort of evidence that we’re not alone in this vast universe, that our lives have some significance, and that we can be part of something bigger than just our isolated selves. The problem is that this ultimately runs into direct conflict with Age of Mythology style religion: Searching for that “something beyond ourselves” which can ultimately give our lives meaning inevitably entails recognizing, at some point, that connecting with the ultimate source of our life inevitably involves connecting with the source of everyone else’s life as well –– including those whose asses we’d so like to kick. And if we’re going to believe that this power is benevolent enough to take an active interest in our little lives, that automatically implies then that he/she/it would have the same benevolent interest in those who aren’t actually part of our tribe. Exploring that series of connections can really screw up the whole Age of Mythology thing, so many of those for whom religion is a means of tribalistic or nationalistic self-promotion would prefer not to take their theology quite that far.

If we’re interested enough in these ultimate cause and connection matters to set aside our tribal power interests though there are all sorts of interesting places that can take us. In some ways it can bring us right to the border of schizophrenia! Schizophrenia is basically the sort of brain malfunction where the sufferer can’t entirely tell what is part of him/her and what isn’t; what experiences are coming from inside the head and what is coming from the outside world; where exactly the border between “me” and “non-me” falls. So if your religion starts to blur the lines between who you are and all the rest of the world’s psychic experiences, that can lead to some serious malfunctions!

But on the other hand if we remain strictly and carefully isolated from any sense of connection with the “non-me” world out there, we live lives of miserable and meaningless isolation. However you set out defining such things, love remains THE key element of the human experience that makes it worthwhile. When you truly and deeply love someone then, you become willing to let down your border defenses; you let that person inside of you a bit. Their joys become your joys. Their pains become your pains.

The problem with love though is that it radically increases the risk of internal conflict within our minds. Many of us are prone to having all sorts of conflicts within ourselves even without getting other people involved. We find all sorts of different perspectives competing for control of our lives –– all of which ultimately come from the same genetic predispositions and collection of human experiences that make each of us who we are. So with that level of conflict already going on inside of our heads, how much worse could it get if we allow others to become part of who we are? Plenty! When, through loving others, we bring their conflicting perspectives into ourselves, coming from entirely different genetic predispositions and collections of life experiences, the conflicts can get A LOT nastier!

And actually that conflict potential is where both love and schizophrenia can become problematic. The trouble isn’t so much the confusion over what is part of you and what isn’t, but the huge powerful struggles waging war within one’s mind or soul. If we could have the interconnection of love without all the conflict potential that goes with it, that would really be perfect. So that really should be the ultimate goal of any and every religion which manages to transcend tribal contests as its reason for being. God, from this perspective, is the force that we can connect with which in turn enables us to connect with each other on a deeper sort of level without literally driving each other crazy. Or as the Apostle John put it, in much simpler terms: “God is love.”

So then we come to the question of what form this all-powerful force of love has to take in order for it to have relevance to life as we humans know it. How can this Ultimate Love from “out there” enable us, with our own human limitations, to connect with itself (or himself) and thereby with each other –– again, without driving each other crazy? This is the fundamental dilemma that every non-tribal-success-oriented religion has to work out.

Christianity’s way of doing that has to do with the cluster of doctrines that we refer to in short-hand as the Trinity; which has a unique ability to drive other monotheists, Muslims and Jews in particular, entirely crazy. “How can God be one and still somehow be three?” But puzzling over this matter, however, we easily get sidetracked from the real primary issue: how can pathetic little creatures like ourselves hope to meaningfully connect with the ultimate source of life, the universe and everything? How can we learn to transcend borders of our own selfhood through love in ways that give us a more satisfying understanding of who we really are and how we can relate to each other? If we’re going to have a faith which values both personal identity and transcendent connection, we have to base that on an understanding of divinity where God also has a clear form of personal identity but where he also transcends the limits of a simple fixed identity in the process of loving.  In short, because love inevitably makes distinctions in identity ambiguous, for God to be love inevitably means that there will necessarily be an element of ambiguity in the process of interconnection within God’s identity.

The relevant question from there is how we can get our heads around the idea of ambiguous personal identity through perfect loving interconnection without that entailing the sort of internalized conflict that always goes with the human experience of love? This relates back to our tendency still to picture gods as military support devices. To that way of thinking, each individual god has its own personal ambitions and tactical objectives. The only way to eliminate conflict between gods from this perspective is to have one god capable of dominating all the other ones entirely. But in slipping back into that warring mindset the purpose of believing in a loving God has already been forgotten.

www-St-Takla-org--the-prophet-jeremiah-when-jerusalem-was-takenThe prophets of ancient Israel and Judah, whose message was foundational to the teachings of Jesus, struggled with this issue on a number of levels. They were very much coming from a place of thinking according to the Age of Mythology paradigm: If you lose the war it’s either because you’ve got a weaker god or you didn’t do enough to keep that god satisfied with you. Leaving the possibility of their god’s strength being limited entirely aside, they set to work explaining what the people must have done wrong for their warrior god to have stopped fighting for them. Much of the time they did this with graphic verbal images of sexual infidelity: JHWH rejecting his chosen people because they spent too much time screwing around with other gods. But once in a while, just once in a while, they seemed to grasp that if they were really dealing with the creator of the universe, not just some little local tribal god, it was rather inappropriate to relate to him on the level of saying that his primary “job” is to help our army dominate the other one in battle. They also started to realize that there were limits with how far they should take that jealous boyfriend motif. They started recognizing that treating people, any people, as disposable commodities was at the root of many of their problems. They started to see that an addiction to violence as a means of dealing with things and cycles of vengeance just weren’t going to work out well for anyone in the long run. They started to preach that the point of religion should be recognizing “God’s heart of compassion”… for all nations. Those are the principles that Jesus in turn really drove home.

I could proof-text this out for you, but hopefully you get the idea without.

So yeah, once we get beyond playing supernatural war games with our faith –– once we learn to focus on compassion and connection that overcomes conflicts being the true core issue of faith –– the intellectual problems inherent in the doctrine of the trinity become far less critical. That doesn’t make it rationally comprehensible, but it can be argued that love never is logically comprehensible, and if love is going to be the point of our lives we’re just going to have to learn to deal with that.

Those are my meandering meditations for this week. I hope they hold deeper meaning for some of you. Cheers.

Leave a comment

Filed under Empathy, Human Rights, Love, Purpose, Religion, Warfare

Stevie’s Summertime Spirituality

Somewhat in contrast with my recent Kenya experiences –– but yet in a way in complete harmony with them –– this past week I allowed myself what for me is a major luxury expenditure; but one I can also write off as an important investment in my relationship with my younger son: I bought tickets for he and I to go to a concert by one of the great music icons of my generation: Stevie Wonder. Some would say it just goes with my ethnically Dutch heritage that I felt a certain pain in paying as much as I did for these tickets… just to be allowed to stand out under the afternoon sun on a dusty gravel sporting grounds, crowded together with a sweaty mob of mostly drunk people, to listen to music I’d actually heard hundreds of times before… but I still believe it was a necessary expenditure, and in the end well worth it.

029While I was off on my most recent African adventure I had missed my son’s birthday, as well as the celebration after he completed his required military service, so I felt I owed it to him to do something particularly special together this week. But in all honesty once again the present that I bought for him (like so many of his birthday toys from previous years) was something I probably bought at least as much for my enjoyment than for his. As a strongly professing fan of Motown music in general, and Stevie Wonder tunes in particular, I couldn’t really pass up the opportunity to witness his performance live. OK, so the promoter’s arrangements left something to be desired. It was still an experience that will rank among the most important lifetime memories I will share with my son. It was also a rather spiritual experience for me.

I actually got confused as to which Helsinki park the concert was in, somehow convincing myself that it would be in the grassier and shadier of the two where concerts are regularly held. With the more idyllic venue in mind I packed a small picnic for us and tossed that into a bag together with my digital camera of course, only to face significant disappointment when we arrived at the actual gate of the venue.  As I said, the concert site was actually a city sandlot on which kids’ soccer and baseball tournaments are held fairly regularly. There was no place to comfortably spread the picnic blanket and they had a policy of not allowing in any full sized cameras. (Hundreds of people were shooting video with their cell phones with seemingly nothing the promoters could do about it, but that was beside the point: Cameras like mine were not permitted.) So I was told I’d have to leave my belongings at the baggage check point they had set up outside the gate.

This gave rise to another minor problem in that I didn’t bring any cash with me to pay the fee for such an additional service, but in the end that problem was rather pleasantly worked out. As the first opening act took the stage my son and I just sat down on a grassy knoll just outside the concert venue and enjoyed our little picnic together. It was just as the second act was coming on that I went to check my bag. It was a slow moment for those working at the baggage check area and so when I explained my dilemma to one of the attendants there, Hannu, had a bit of spare time to negotiate with me. In the end he was willing to take 10 minutes of interesting conversation as “payment in kind” for keeping an eye on my bag for the rest of the show. He had noticed that I was carrying the printout of my on-line concert ticket tucked into a small paperback history of Kenya, and he was interested in hearing the whole background story about my trip, and how I also considered Stevie to be a positive role model in promoting justice and compassion for the poor of Africa.

021Hannu was further interested in hearing about my work as a religious education teacher and why I consider such work to also be important, but we didn’t explore that avenue of conversation too far. After the fact I had somewhat of a feeling that perhaps I should have. Many of my evangelical friends might fault me for missing a golden opportunity to steer the conversation around in the sort of way that I could have “led him to the lord”. Instead I merely answered his question about why such lessons are important by saying that it is important for children in this country to have a functional understanding of what different sorts of people believe in religious terms, and how all that relates to their own (official, nominal) beliefs and let it go at that. He proceeded to tell me how cool it had been a few hours earlier to listen to Stevie and his band play “Yesterday” and some other Beatles cover material in their sound check, and to talk about his own perspectives on the value of intercultural experiences.

That level of conversation actually gelled better with the rest of my summer’s spiritual experiences thus far –– including the Kenya trip as a whole, the background factors that led to me taking such a trip, and the significance of Stevie Wonder’s life and music for me as a person in relation to that context –– than an attempt at “personal evangelism” would have. That subject in turn is actually worth meditating on a bit here, so let me take some time to explain (to you and to myself) what I mean by that.

It was actually by way of former student of mine, Sandhja, who also happens to be an exceptionally talented singer and performer, that I first met the people from Bondoaid, whose work in Kenya I’ve taken the active interest in. The core group of active members in this organization are evangelical Christians of one stripe or another –– ranging from the Pentecostal to the more radical Baptist to the mainstream denominational Protestant branches of that spectrum. Sandhja is none of the above. Having been her religious education instructor throughout her teenage years I know something about her personal religious perspectives and how pressure to adjust them might feel to her.

047I know her to be highly sensitive in the most beautiful sense, and deeply interested in the sort of spirituality that goes with caring for others on many different levels; but prone to see that spirituality in part through the lens of her mother’s Hindu background and in part through a general secular humanist perspective. She was willing to give of her time and money to help Kenyan orphans, not because she saw it as a means of bringing them into some particular faith, but because she is genuinely prone to caring for others wants to help reduce human suffering when it is in her power to do so. That’s just the sort of person she is, and over the years she has consistently impressed me with her emotional depth in such matters. It was part of my job to make sure she understands the most basic concepts of what it means to be a Christian, and how that compares with other spiritual paths, including her own. It was never part of my job to try to convert her to my own way of thinking on such matters though, nor was it ever my inclination to try to do so. As I see it her life provides a closer reflection of the teachings of Jesus than most professing Christians that I know, so I’m not about to condemn her to hell for putting the wrong label on it.

But it’s not my job to decide her eternal destiny anyway. It’s ultimately up to a source of justice way beyond what I can access or administer to do the final evaluation Sandhja’s life. So when it comes to that call, I’m happy to treat it the same as I did the predictions I was asked for regard World Cup Soccer this summer: Here’s how it looks to me, but it’s beyond my expertise to say anything for sure in advance, so I’m ready just to step aside and watch and see what happens. Meanwhile I have my own job to do –– what I believe God requires of me as a believer –– which is to “pay forward” the blessings I’ve received, in particular towards the poor, the outcasts, the prisoners and other disadvantaged people.

I happened to bump into Sandhja last week at a beachfront coffee shop, and we ended up sitting together for a bit discussing my trip, the Kenya project in general and the values behind it. She basically said that in her experience the evangelical Christians she had been working with on the project are truly warm and wonderful people, but there has been a continuous underlying tension over their expectations that at some point she would also become a “born-again Christian”. I could relate to what she was talking about not only from knowing the “born-again mind” intimately from the inside, but also from the similarities between what she was talking about and my experiences among the Cape Malay Muslims of South Africa during the year I spent there. Those folks too were generally very warm and hospitable, and accepting of my religious and cultural difference as a matter of respect for the most part; but not far below the surface was something between a hope and an expectation that someday, if I was honest enough and “my heart was open enough,” I would let go of my preconceptions about my own heritage and religiously become one of them. That wasn’t about to happen though, and from where I sat it wasn’t a matter of my having an insufficiently open heart or mind.

So Sandhja’s awkward situation was more than familiar to me. I couldn’t really apologize for the others’ expectations, but I could well appreciate the difficulties involved for her. I know how deeply ingrained the urge to win converts is in such circles, and how, for them, pursuing the objective of converting as many others as possible is considered to be the most virtuous behavior any person can possibly take part in. I know how thoroughly many have convinced themselves that the best way for them to truly love others is to coerce conversions and extract confessions of faith out of them by any means possible. I also know how –– even if one accepts such a premise regarding “the need to evangelize” –– the most sincere efforts to reach out to help others (both materially and spiritually) can easily morph into systems by means of which to gain and maintain abusive control over those being “helped”.  I have seen many times how there is actually no form of religion –– or secular ideology for that matter –– which is completely immune to being corrupted by the thrill of having power over the beliefs of others, and that when it comes right down to it Evangelical Christians are probably the worst by this disease (with Muslims coming in a close second). So I’m pretty sure that those with a powerful urge to “lead this girl to the Lord” were quite blind to their own motivations in wanting to do so. So in the end Sandhja and I agreed that it’s not always easy but we do what we can to overlook other people’s cultural blind spots in the process of attempting to do good together with them.

And that brings me back to the Stevie Wonder show. When it was finally his turn Stevie came out onto stage to the tune of one of the few songs in the set which were not of his own composition: “How Sweet It Is (To be Loved by You)”. This provided a glorious opportunity for an audience sing-along right from the start, and Stevie was continuously working us throughout the show to try to turn us into a sweeter sounding choir –– including drilling us on the harmony parts to be sung. But more to the point, after the third chorus and some harmony suggestions on this number, Stevie offered a bit of explanation for its choice as the opener: for him it also contains an element of prayer. He’s not on the road this time promoting a new album or anything like that; he’s just out thankfully enjoying the experience of doing the work he loves and feeling the love of the international audiences in the process. And as part and parcel of that motivation he wanted to publicly thank God for the opportunities he has had in life and career, and to encourage others to join him in appreciating God’s great love.

helsinkiclassic2014-11The appreciation for this perspective seemed to be somewhat limited among those in the highly secularized and fairly drunk Finnish audience, but Stevie didn’t let that discourage him. He qualified it right away by saying that he wasn’t promoting any particular religion. Like Pope Francis, Stevie is perfectly fine with people of good will being of other religions, or even being atheists. But still he wanted to stress the message that there is something greater than all of us to which we owe a certain awe, respect and thankfulness, and on the basis of which we need to learn to love each other. From there this implicit prayer of thanksgiving was a running theme throughout the rest of the show.

The one classic song of his included in the show that seemed to least harmonize with this principle of respect for the divine and loving each other on that basis, was “Part-Time Lover,” a tale of appreciation for a forbidden and conflict-laden relationship. His way of setting up that number with the audience had its own interesting humor to it. He asked the audience, “How many of you are in love?” A moderate number of hands showed murmured positive responses arose. “How many of you are in love with just one person?” Some giggles, but otherwise pretty close to the same level of response as for the previous question. “OK, now be honest: How many of you guys would really like to be in love with more than one lady?” While the audience was still chewing on that one the band started playing the intro. After the first verse then Stevie gave the audience their harmony parts for the song: guys scatting “bum, bum, badada-bum…” and women singing, “no, no, no, no, no…” Overall Stevie gave the impression that the experience this song talks about were as distant from his personal experiences as the unspoken eye-contact of unrequited love that he sings about in “My Cherie Amour”.

When it came to a song being intensely personal for him and intimately tied to his own life experience, on the other hand, the high water mark came with “Isn’t She Lovely,” which he wrote for his newborn daughter back in the seventies. She has since made a grandfather out of him and she was on the road with him as one of his backup singers –– the tall one on the far right. Savoring, appreciating and thanking God for that sort of love is where Stevie was clearly most in his element.

After that the next priority in his message to the audience was to pray and work together to eliminate the sort of suffering and social injustice described in the most pessimistic song in the set: “Living for the City”. How much more specific than that does the “gospel” message need to be in a pop concert? How much more specific than that can it be without the added detail getting in the way of the core message of peace and love?

If I were to analyze Stevie’s perspective on organized religion further I would have to turn to a song not included in his recent concerts, from his 1985 “In Square Circle” album: “Spiritual Walkers”. It is a somewhat cryptic musical comment on evangelical practices in general, and perhaps on Stevie’s fellow Motown veteran Michael Jackson’s propensity at the time to keep promoting his Jehovah’s Witnesses’ belief:

They knock on your door
You laugh in their face…
Walking places they should not be
But they will walk their lives
With a never ending light
They will walk their lives
’til they shine the light
Of truth into your life…
You run from their sight
Not to hear the holy word…
They have no defense
Except inner sense
And knowing the Almighty Friend

Stevie doesn’t actually come out for or against such people; he merely respectfully reports on what he “sees” and rhetorically asks others what they think.

In terms of his own core message though, Stevie remains focused on things that should be central concerns to people of faith, but which too many conspicuously religious folks remain silent about: fighting against such tragic injustices as racism, extreme poverty, various forms of segregation, handgun violence and “stand your ground laws”. Promoting particular religious dogmas just isn’t his thing. Nor is lecturing on ethics for that matter. He didn’t come to Helsinki to preach morality; he came to help people to feel good by getting them to sing along and share the love. If anyone else is interested in spreading the love in the same sorts of ways Stevie seems perfectly happy to have them on his side, regardless of their religious perspectives.

The only way I can remotely compare myself with Stevie is in saying that he and I are very much on the same page when it comes to understanding that the basic point of religion, when it’s done right, is building a genuine capacity for love and caring about others. As I said, he and I are on the same page with that one, though Stevie’s been reading from that page a lot longer than I have. I don’t have his same creative genius as a means of sharing that message with others, so I have to rely on being able to get just a bit closer to those in serious need than he can. At the same time I need to follow his example in limiting myself a bit in picking the causes I fight for carefully and sticking with the ones I choose.

No, I don’t think that religion can or should be reduced to nothing more than neutral “warm and fuzzy feelings” between “people of good will.” There really has to be something bigger “out there” to hold the whole system together for any religious teaching to have distinct value as such. My point here isn’t to redefine or defend my beliefs in ways that disregard the transcendent. My point –– and Stevie Wonder’s point as well, I believe –– is that what God has called each of us to do is to express the sort of love and mercy that he has given to each of us in turn to each other; not to bring everyone under the control of our favored style of religious system or to attempt to become the instruments of God’s vengeance and judgment upon the earth, the way so many religious folks seem to be longing to try their hand at. If we can remember what our basic task before God is in this regard, and if we can stick to working on that task rather than letting ourselves get distracted with religious power struggles, that is how I believe we can really bring the greatest glory and honor to God –– far more than by amassing huge numbers of new members or suitably preparing ourselves for an extended siege leading up to the battle of Armageddon.

Daring to care for others is the truest expression of true faith. Thus I would far rather work together with those with whom I have major philosophical and theological disagreements in the process of caring for those whom I believe God has instructed us to care for than to casually sit and endlessly discuss theories of the Second Coming with those who happen to theoretically agree with me on the mechanics of the redemption available in Christ. Furthermore, I honestly believe that those who genuinely care for others who are made in God’s image will stand in better stead before divine judgment than those who expect to pass through on the basis of having said the right evangelical magic words and participated in the proper rituals. But again, speculating over who God will judge how harshly, and on what basis, is really not our job as believers.

So regardless of how similar to or different from my own Stevie’s and Sandhja’s spiritual perspectives happen to be, I draw strength from the aesthetic satisfaction I get from their performances and I join together with them in doing what all believers properly should be doing: spreading the love, increasing the peace and treating the world around us (and all the people I share it with) with respect. Feel free to join us if in that effort if you’re so inclined.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Aesthetics, Empathy, Ethics, Love, Pop culture, Purpose, Racism, Religion, Spirituality

Moderately Radical Christianity

While indulging in my usual Facebook distractions while finishing up my last entry on Aristotle’s concept of the soul, I found myself in a minor dispute with an old acquaintance of mine who was passing around a blog link for an essay which presented the New Testament book of Ephesians as an antidote to “radical Christianity”. I pointed out that I found such material offensive and briefly tried to explain why. He didn’t really get it, and others jumped in to say it was my problem, not his. I don’t expect to change their minds on that matter, but as a matter of respect I decided to spend some time this weekend explicating my perspective on the matter anyway. The rest of you can take this for what it’s worth.

The blog in question never actually laid out what sort of “radical Christianity” the author is specifically opposed to. It speaks generally about “radicals” as those who feel a need to “do something more” or “do amazing things for Jesus”. The author clearly has no problem, however, with Christians attempt amazing levels of self-control, self-denial or social ostracism. So in practice what form of radicalism does he really consider to be so problematic?

Between the lines is an implication that it would be those who wish to change the socio-economic status quo in the interest of the poor and the outcast. Rather than bothering with social issues, the implication says, we should keep ourselves occupied with “doing an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay”, avoiding anything that might be construed as sexual immorality, maintaining patriarchal authority structures within the home, etc. If believers keep up with all of those moral requirements to the full extent of the law they won’t have time for, in Robert George‘s words,  “making utter nuisances of themselves like Old Testament prophets”.

I find this sort of perspective to be morally offensive on a number of different levels. To start with, in theological terms this anti-radical approach commits a sin that is especially common among right-wing evangelicals: using isolated teachings of St. Paul as an excuse for ignoring the most fundamental teachings of Jesus himself. “The Jesus Way,” as my virtual friend Brian Zahnd calls it, is all about putting love and compassion ahead of social and religious respectability; about stretching ourselves to love those who are considered too dangerous to love, and questioning the authority of those who attempt to put themselves in the position of saying who is acceptable to God and who isn’t. This isn’t just a matter of maintaining moral self-control and certainly not a matter of promoting status quo respectability. Yes, Paul has a point in telling believers exercise particular forms of self-restraint and to continue to function as responsible members of society, but using that as an excuse for ignoring Jesus’ core teachings and reconstructing the message of Christianity so as to make it one of sexual moralizing and unquestioned support for status quo economic power structures is just sloppy theological thinking!

Jean-Léon Gérôme's "Jerusalem"

Jean-Léon Gérôme’s “Jerusalem”

Somewhat in conjunction with the above problem, the anti-radical message here mirrors the problematic implications of Pope John Paul II’s famous transitional encyclical letter, Veritatis Splendor –– basically saying that since it is easier to formulate negative moral requirements than positive ones in absolute terms, and since absolute moral requirements should always trump relative moral requirements, keeping all of the “thou shalt nots” should therefore be the primary focus of Christian life in general and Catholic life in particular. Over the past couple of decades since this encyclical was written its teaching has led to a gross neglect of the underlying core principle of Christian ethics, which the late pope in fact strongly acknowledges in the letter itself: the ultimate purpose of any Christian moral action is to express absolute love for God, and selflessly reciprocal love for those around us –– what is commonly known as the twin commandment of love. All other commands are merely means to those ends. By implying from there that the best way to love God is to absolutely follow the negative commands given by the church in his name –– or to otherwise make the keeping of negative moral imperatives the priority of one’s life –– the old pope and his followers have overlooked the core essence of Jesus’ dispute with the Pharisees, which set the tone for so much of his teaching –– not to mention the core moral teachings given in the books of James and 1 John in particular:

If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as law-breakers (James 2:8-9).

Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? (James 2:15-16)

Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. […] The wages you failed to pay to the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. […]  You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you (James 5:1, 4, 6).

This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another (1 John 3:11).

Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love (1 John 4:8).

Anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this commandment: Whoever loves God must also love his brother (1 John 4:20-21).

If we get beyond the sort of screwed up moral priority system which John Paul II inadvertently (perhaps) implemented –– ­one of putting respectable rule-keeping ahead of compassion –– and if instead we follow Pope Francis’ example of setting rules aside and reaching out the outcast, we will inevitably end up being somewhat radical. Of course this in turn will be a major source of offense to Glen Beck fans, but that’s just something we should take as an added bonus.

That in fact brings me to the third issue I take with those who see an anti-radical agenda as essential to Christian morality and politics: I hate seeing the privileges of those who get rich by abusing the weak –– the ultimate antithesis of everything Jesus ever taught –– being justified through the cynical manipulation of believers’ sincere faith and sincere desire to love God. Jesus did not die as a means of helping to reinforce the abusers’ ungodly grip on power! I’m sorry, but that is totally NOT what being recipients of God’s mercy should be motivating us to stand up for!

Let me give you some background for the bug I have in my bonnet on this one: As part of my research for my dissertation I’ve been been reading some of the books Ralph Reed wrote when he was at the peak of his political influence within the religious right. There he speaks of what he saw among those who were working to maintain conservative Christians’ support for Ronald Reagan before he became actively involved in that particular aspect of Republican politics himself: To manipulate conservative Christians into continuing to vote for Reagan, Republican strategists carefully chose a theatrical political battle for the White House to fight on behalf of the religious right –– an initiative that strategists could be sure in advance would have no chance of passing into law, and which would be sure to have no practical impact on what sort of laws would get passed: a constitutional amendment providing a right to have prayer in public schools. Reed says that, in his pre-Christian days, he watched up close and personal as all this happened, and thought, “It was all rather sad and poignant. Much blood and treasure had been spilled in a futile effort that served to solidify Reagan’s evangelical base but did little to advance [their] agenda. The religious conservatives had been rolled by the White House and didn’t even know it.” He goes on to freely admit that, starting in 1980, Republicans kept trying to use such issues “as a wedge to drive Catholics and evangelicals away from the Democratic party [sic].”  (Reed, Ralph (1996) Active Faith. New York: Free Press — pp. 116-118)

Of course he never admits playing an active role in that process himself, but it takes a pretty intense amount of naiveté to believe in Reed’s personal innocence in such processes. The point here is that we have one of the most strategically connected people within the religious right, with the strongest possible interest in making the movement look good, freely admitting that the little men behind the curtain, controlling the movements of their movement’s greatest hero, cynically used them as political pawns; and that this sort of manipulation became a more or less continuous thing thereafter.

In the generation since the “Reagan Revolution” evangelical Christians involved in politics, far from learning from these mistakes, seem to have developed a certain fondness for “getting rolled” by Republicans. Those who question the value of rolling over for Republicans as an expression of one’s faith –– who insist on paying attention to the needs of the poor and the importance of limiting environmental destruction in the political process –– tend to be labeled as “radicals”. In that regard it’s hard for me to respect any Christian who is not at least a bit “radical”!

But while standing firm on everything I have stated above, I will now attempt to “balance it out” a  bit in an Aristotelian sort of way, and in doing so hold out an olive branch to my less “radical” brothers here. I realize that, like many other virtues, the “radicalism” I espouse would ceases to be a virtue if it is taken to the extreme of blinding its enthusiast to all other aspects of life. Thus Aristotle’s recommendation to exercise moderation in every virtue is applicable even with reference to what is being called “radicalism” here. In this context then the oxymoron of “moderate radicalism” makes quite a bit of sense.

More specifically in relation to the radical virtue of loving others in a Christian sense here –– and in fighting to make the world more just and more sustainable place accordingly –– one must also maintain a sense of personal equilibrium and grounding in one’s personal moral convictions in order for that love to be properly manifested in the world. Still more specifically, as radical as I am in terms of not accepting the idea of certain people deserving to be abused or of Christianity having a proper role to play in reinforcing the abuse being heaped on less “respectable” sorts, I still acknowledge the wisdom of living according to many of the principles from the second half of the book of Ephesians that my old acquaintances are promoting as a cure for such “radicalism”:

Being a radical certainly does not stop me from believing that I should keep working to overcome divisions within Christianity (4:3-5). Being radical does not stop me from seeking intellectual maturity and a stable, coherent theological and moral perspective in life; which is both consistent with the message of Jesus himself and based on a humble awareness of the grace that I have been given, and which I am therefore duty bound to express with patience to those who really don’t get it yet (4:13-15). My radicalism also includes a belief in the inherent value in honest communication, particularly among those who are “on the same side” (4:25).  Creative and/or strategic telling of half-truths and out and out lies in order to manipulate others is always an un-brotherly act of aggression to be avoided, including in the sort of political talking points that we pass around between ourselves.

Being the sort of radical that I am does not stop me from attempting to use what skills I have for the benefit of others, whether or not there’s something in it for me (4:28). As the sort of radical that I am I still recognize the dangers of operating on testosterone-fueled rage, and that as the aphorism goes, “Getting enraged at someone is like swallowing poison in order to make someone else sick” (4:26, 31). Being the sort of radical I am, I strongly object to impersonally objectifying and/or using of other people, either sexually or economically (issues Paul clearly addresses in parallel: 5:3-5). Furthermore, as the sort of radical that I am, I strongly believe in exposing evil processes, especially those which justify greed and abuse in Jesus’ name (5:11).

I must, however, confess that, more in spite of my radicalism than because of it, there are some standards which Paul preaches that I fail to live up to. In particular I confess my failure in not making music as important a part of my life as Paul recommends (5:19). I accept that order to better express my radical perspective I really should try to be more musical. (Right Juuso?)  As a moderately radical Christian I deeply respect and appreciate all those who use music to bring people together, bring about emotional healing and create a sense of interpersonal connection; who are in this way able to be far more radical than I am, yet still in a balanced sort of way. That is part of what made me so thankful and thrilled to be able to attend the debut album release concert by my former student Sandhja this weekend!

Like musicality, I must also confess that thankfulness (5:20) is something I need to work on more. My life includes plenty to complain about, but also plenty I can be thankful for. I appreciate the truth in what A.J. Jacobs says about a habit of thankfulness being one of the most beneficial things he took away from his year of living biblically. I recognize that being more thankful would be a happier and healthier way for me to live, and together with losing a bit of weight, it is one of the main self-improvement projects I am currently working on.

I must further confess, however, that some parts of Paul’s teaching in the end of Ephesians just don’t work for me. In particular, though I’ve always treated each of my wives and slaves with the utmost Christian respect, none of them ever submitted to me the ways Paul says they should have! Some of them said that if I had been more like Christ they could have been able to respect me more, but the underlying suggestion there was for me to allow myself to be crucified and to take things from there. That just didn’t work for me. Some folks on the other hand say that I should have dealt with their problems a bit more directly, giving them a good beating every now and again. But though I never tried it, I’m pretty sure such a tactic would have caused more problems than it would have solved for me. Whatever the case, keeping wives and slaves in their proper place these days is one of those projects that by-and-large I’ve just given up on. The way cultures have changed in the past 2000 years, slaves just don’t recognize their proper place in life any more; wives even less so. When I’m tempted to complain about this I just have to remember the importance of being thankful in life regardless.

Yes, I must further confess that some aspects of my current “radicalism” are the indirect result of my shortcomings both as a slaveholder and as a husband. Not being able to exercise my authority properly in those sorts of relationships has led me to a deeper consideration of ways in which to love God and love those around me in spite of all the ways that the cultural norms governing such relationships have changed in the past couple of millennia. Consequently there are some areas in which I no longer consider Paul’s teaching to be the final word on the subject of how we must go about loving God and each other. I recognize that this puts me at odds with Fundamentalists –– those who need to believe that everything in the Bible is perfectly true for all time and in every sense in order to be able believe that God is real and in to have some absolute source of certainty by means of which to make sense of their lives. What can I say? Turning back the clock to restore patriarchal authority structures just isn’t going to work for me, no matter how I might try. I realize that others remain more optimistic about this project and that they find my pessimism in these matters offensive. The best I can offer them is to say that as long as they aren’t too aggressive in their attempts to restore biblical systems of slavery, I can be just as patient and loving with them as they are with me.

All in all then, yes, I continue to self-identify as a radical Christian, albeit in a moderate sort of way. I find this consistent with most if not all of the teachings in the last chapters of the book of Ephesians, which have been posed as an antidote for such radicalism. Yes, I do tend to have problems with those who have problems with “radicalism” in general, but in that respect I can live by Paul’s guidelines for healthy and respectful interaction between believers if my opponents can. If some chose to anathematize me for my “radicalism”, however, I can live with that too. Jesus had the same type of experience with the religious people of his day, and if I can identify with him on that level at least, I can be thankful for the privilege.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Ethics, Love, Politics, Religion, Respectability, Spirituality

The God Abstraction

Like most who claim to be theists, an important part of my religious experience is my sense of a “personal relationship with God”. I have a sense of personal security in the idea that there is “someone listening to my prayers,” in being cared about by forces bigger than my human community, etc. In talking about meta-ethics, however, I readily recognize that this sort of faith does not in itself entail objective evidence of a shared foundation for debating practical moral issues with those who do not share my faith. For purposes of discussing that matter we need to turn, not to personal experiences as such, but to consideration of abstract principles which work for a broader spectrum of individuals prone to think in terms of abstract principles.

Old Man PraysIn fact there are probably far more people in this world who can personally relate to my “believer’s testimony” than who can relate to my meta-ethical arguments as such. The global community of those who share this latter hobby is actually painfully small –– a tiny academic priesthood dutifully preaching to their own choirs with very vague hopes of their message spilling out into the broader world. Even so, while the process of “doing ethics” based on debate over abstract principles will never be a matter of consensus with the broader spectrum of society, there is good reason to believe that many of those who are paid to figure out basic principles of human cooperation at least –– diplomats, constitutional lawyers, bishops, social service administrators, etc. –– tend to take such rational processes seriously, providing such arguments with greater practical value than the number of participants in such would otherwise imply.

Thus, though it is rather abstract from the meaning faith in the divine has to those who share it, I recognize the importance of being ready to discuss God, or the spiritual realm, as an abstract concept for ethical purposes. Doing so has the same sort of utility and limitations as speaking of “marriage” in very general terms. In practice every marriage is unique, involving its own dynamics of competition and cooperation between the partners in question, with varying levels of legal, logistical, cultural and hormonal ties binding the couple together.  When we speak of “marriage equality” or “the defense of marriage”, underneath all of the abstractly simplified polemics we basically recognize that we’re speaking in very generalized terms about constantly evolving cultural standards in terms of which to relate to literally billions of very different and very complex personal relationships. The same qualification applies to ethical discussions of “religion” as such.  The point isn’t to capture the essence of each individual spiritual experience, or even spiritual experiences in general, but rather to find a way of categorically defining these experiences as some sort of collective phenomenon, and to see how this phenomenon relates to our cultural processes of understanding what we are entitled to expect from ourselves and each other in moral terms.

So setting aside personal experiences of faith I wish to now fulfill a promise I made last month in on-line dialog and consider, in rather abstract terms, why I consider it to be useful to include concepts of God in meta-ethical debates. There are, I believe, effectively three arguments to be considered here: the Platonic tradition in deontology, Dostoevsky’s dilemma, and what I will call the Challenge of Connectivity. In considering these arguments, let me one more time remind you of the marriage analogy: I do not claim that these capture the most essential aspects of any given religion, or that they prove that all religions are right or even valuable; any more than speaking of the need to preserve the institution of marriage in some form or another implies that all traditional marriages involve healthy interpersonal dynamics. These are merely abstract reasons why I believe that the debate over defining moral absolutes is most constructive when religious perspectives are respected within the process. So with no further disclaimers, let’s move into the arguments themselves:

The Platonic Tradition

Jean-François-Pierre_Peyron_-_The_Death_of_Socrates_-_WGA17398Nowhere is Whitehead’s playful claim about Western philosophy being nothing more than a footnote on the works of Plato more true than in the field of meta-ethics. The questions of what it means to be morally good and why bother with such a project are the core issues debated in Plato’s best known work: The Republic. His perspective in approaching these questions is clearly colored by one intensive practical consideration: true moral goodness cannot be left as a matter of rational self-interest, or as a matter of personal taste, and especially not as a matter of social agreement within society. We need to find some “higher standard” for moral goodness than the sort of social contract mechanism that ended up condemning Socrates to death. In Plato’s mind this more or less automatically implied looking for standards “outside of the cave”, particularly in the realm of the gods. That is by no means to be taken as an endorsement of his own polytheistic culture as such, or of any other given religious system, but in looking for answers to the question of a basis morality beyond the material advantage, existential preference and social contract levels, Plato’s reasoning has more or less continuously been interpreted as pointing to an other-worldly basis for ethics. From there, painting in very broad brush strokes, it can be claimed that St. Augustine “Christianized” Plato’s perspective, Kant “rationalized” Augustine’s perspective, and the rest of the deontological tradition since then has been attempting to “enlighten” Kant’s perspective by looking for ways around the other-worldly premises it is built on… with rather limited success.

Basically, if you’re going to keep “writing footnotes on Plato” you sort of have to confront the issue of how he relates virtue to something greater than human experience, and it’s hard to do that without stumbling into religious territory. Deontology –– defining principles of right and wrong as important objects unto themselves rather than means of getting other stuff you want –– can be pretty abstract stuff under any circumstances, but it becomes ever more so when you try to deliver it without the religious element. It gets to be like decaffeinated energy drink, or alcohol-free vodka; you start to wonder what the point is. It intuitively makes more sense to more people if you postulate that there is some spiritual principle involved –– some god who is pleased when you do things the right way, or some mechanism like karma that rewards those who respect the rights of others.

Dostoevsky’s dilemma

“If God does not exist, then everything is permitted.”

This famous quote from The Brothers Karamazov is frequently used by those on all sides of the issue outside of its narrative context. The novel in question is the third of the three great work by this hero of Russian literature, following Crime and Punishment and The Idiot. All of these are epic tragedies with mildly consoling endings. Crime and Punishment is the tragedy of anarchistic idealism, The Idiot is the tragedy of religious idealism (sometimes referred to as agapism), and The Brothers is the tragedy of hedonism and the idealism of following one’s passions. Within this context the most intellectual of the Karamazov brothers had written philosophical articles largely to the same effect of the advertising campaign that British atheists put onto London busses a few years back: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

theres-probably-no-godw500h283A personal adaptation of this advice, however, leads directly to his illegitimate brother murdering their father, with his other half-brother ending up taking the fall for it. As in Crime and Punishment and less directly in The Idiot as well, we’re left with the questions of “What’s wrong with murder, if it’s done for noble reasons?” and “Are there principles which are more important than the sacredness of human life as such?” The famous quote above is then essentially used, in functional terms, as a means of contemplating the various justifications for murder in just these terms. If “enjoying life” requires the elimination of someone else’s life, someone who has a direct role in limiting your own enjoyment of life, what’s to stop you from doing so? The norms of a rather dysfunctional society and its semi-functional legal system? Perhaps in some cases, but certainly not in others. Evolutionary pressures of some sort? Highly unlikely. Without the restraint of believing in some higher power which enforces rules against such, killing becomes a lot more excusable in such cases.

I am not trying to set aside all of the horrible deeds, including murder, which have been carried out in the name of various god-concepts over the centuries. I am merely saying that Dostoevsky has a very legitimate point in saying, through his characters and plot lines, that by removing the “fear of God” from those who are struggling with passionate desires to do what is not socially acceptable, risks become substantially increased. From there we can come back to considering the potential literal truth value of Ivan Karamazov’s dictum. On one level he is obviously wrong: There will be many things that any sustainable society will forbid as matters of expedience, regardless of whether there is a God there to enforce them or not. Thus, in the strictest sense, some things will certainly not be permitted, at least in terms of societal norms, regardless of whether or not there is a God involved. Is that enough in terms of providing us with principles to live by though? Like Plato, most philosophers these days would tend to think not. The question is whether they can do any better than that without postulating some “higher” source of justice beyond the material realm, a.k.a. (in the vast majority of cases) “God”.

The Challenge of Connectivity

Somewhat, though not entirely, interrelated with the above arguments is what might be called the non-forensic aspect of spirituality and spiritual experience: the sense that, regardless of legal and moral justification factors, on some level we are all (or we all want to be) part of something significant, virtuous and bigger than ourselves. This has been conceptualized in thousands of different ways, in both religious and secular terms, none of which are completely flawless regardless of what their fundamentalist defenders have to say about the matter. Yet regardless of the formulation challenges involved, I would propose that the most viable basic premise and source of motivation for ethics must stem from this drive to be part of something greater than ourselves.

community-e1287223431337There are two major challenges involved in this search for connectivity that we are hard-wired to participate in: the problem of maintaining personal integrity and thus avoiding schizophrenia, and the problem of avoiding things we see as evil. We need to have some functional sense of the borders between “self” and “other” on many different practical levels; and we want to avoid connecting ourselves too directly with genocidal dictators, mass-murdering psychopaths and child abusers of various sorts. In short, we need to find ways of not only conceptualizing our “star dust” connection with things beyond ourselves; we also need to find ways of conceptualizing limits in our associations with things we would choose not to be part of. Religion in general is a collection of systems progressively being worked out to meet that dual need. “God”, in abstract analytical terms here, is a personalized form associated with the ultimate power(s) that connect(s) the virtues, circles of empathy and harmonious elements of life we feel the need to connect with, while excluding the evils we wish to distance ourselves from. There are good reasons to question the ways in which particular religions draw these lines, but there are also good reasons for respecting the process of considering these broader connectivity questions in religious terms. Ultimately happiness and misery, reward and punishment, heaven and hell, have a lot more to do with these factors than with naïvely conceptualized matters of hedonistic calculus.

————————————————————————-

I present these perspectives not as a means of attempting to prove that those who do not share my faith must necessarily be irrational, dishonest or morally corrupt. I believe that many who reject religious beliefs do so because they have “issues” with matters of connectivity in general, but I also believe that many religious people also struggle with similar “issues”. If I can help some on either side learn to relate constructively to those on the other side I find that personally gratifying, but I’ve no illusions of being able to solve all such problems. Likewise I see belief in a purely subjective or genetically and socially conditioned set of moral principles, for all their foibles, as the best we can do, as a fundamentally honest and consistent approach on the matter, and something that can lead to many practical moral principles that I can strongly align myself with, regardless of my differences in premises. I am with the majority of professional thinkers on these matters, however, in daring to believe in and pursue an understanding of something greater than that. Yet unlike the slight majority of those who take part in such a pursuit, I dare to continue to conceptualize this “something greater” in non-materialistic, spiritual terms. I find that efforts to do “moral realism” on any substitutionary basis –– replacing the supernatural realm, in one form or another, as the primary locus for moral absolutes as they have been primarily conceptualized since the time of Plato, with some vague concept intended to harmonize better with a reductionist materialist world popularized by the natural sciences –– tend to lack persuasive power in terms of finding viable alternative foundations to point to. I’m not writing them off as stupid, but I do question the thoroughness with which they have thought things through in this regard. And if they wish to challenge the thoroughness of my own thought in turn, I’m entirely cool with that.

So let the dialog continue from here.

7 Comments

Filed under Ethics, Love, Philosophy, Religion, Social identity, Spirituality

Open Letter to Daisy, Addendum

Dear Daisy,

I wrote to you here a few months ago to encourage you to reconsider the ways in which your crisis had rocked your faith in God and in society. I don’t know if you ever had a chance to read it through. It was sort of a long and dense text. Apparently a lot of people who care about you did read it anyway (some who strongly agreed, some who strongly disagreed), but that’s not the important thing right now. The important thing is that you find the sort of hope and faith that enables you to move forward.

Hearing about your recent setbacks and hospitalization really breaks my heart. I really wish I could find a way of comforting you and convincing you not to further increase the damage that’s been done to you. Setting all other issues of belief aside for the time being, I really hope that you, Daisy, start believing in Daisy again. I hope you stop in practice agreeing with all of the Maryville idiots who would like you to believe that your life is worthless. Thus I’m writing to you again. Humor me here as I take a shot at trying to convince you, without, I must confess, even really knowing you that well, that your life is important and worth somethingI would prefer to present my case in more personal and individually caring terms, but given how far I am from your situation I have to make my case rather philosophically instead. Forgive me for not having better to offer. I’m doing what I can with what I’ve got.

Daisy hospitalizedAnyway, in philosophical terms we have to start out with the whole question of what makes anything or anyone valuable to begin with. The obvious answer that springs to mind for such things is how much someone is willing to pay, and how much competition there is to “get” that person or thing. That’s what we call “market value” and some would tell you that all other forms of value are just variations or sub-categories of that. Bovine excrement!

I’m not denying that market value is one very real form of value, but I’m very firmly convinced that it is not the only form of value, or even the most important kind. In fact I am firmly convinced that placing too much emphasis on market value, at the expense of all other sorts of values, is the fundamental reason why so many things are screwed up in our world today. I want to help you step back and look at the question of values from a somewhat broader perspective.

I propose that, to get an overview of all the different sorts of value in the world, we start with four general categories: material/instrumental value, personal/existential value, social/cultural value and spiritual/transcendent value. While I want to try to make this a bit less wordy and dense than my last letter to you, I still want to try to show you what I mean by each of those categories, and then show you how your crisis has probably rocked your believe in your own value in each of those four categories but how you –– as a human being, a young person, a lady and for many a symbol of courage –– continue to have value in each of those sorts of ways. Let’s see how I do.

Material/instrumental: Whatever else can be said about you, you are certainly a material, physical being. You may be more than that, but at the very minimum we can be pretty sure that you are a biological organism: You have a body, which happens to have been badly abused in the past few years. The important thing here is that, while I would encourage you to think of yourself as more than just a body, I want to remind you that your body is still a beautiful thing. Just because there’s an idiot who treated your body as a disposable form of amusement and pretty much got away with it does not mean that your body is without value. Nor is your body’s value based on its ability to stimulate male hormones. Every human body, like every snowflake, but infinitely more so, is an intricate marvel of design, deserving of respect and admiration for its own awesomeness. Not to “shove the Bible down your throat,” but this point is made as well in the Hebrew poetry of the Old Testament as anywhere: “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139:14)

I don’t want to minimize the pain and complication of this matter, but I strongly encourage you: please respect your body again; it really is a wonderful thing. Get comfortable in your own skin. There’s nothing wrong with who you are physically. You remain beautiful. Your body remains suitable and capable of performing all sorts of amazing tasks and experiencing all sorts of positive sensations, besides being a work of art unto itself. And again let me stress, your body’s capacity to get boys or men excited is not what makes it valuable. Probably best if I leave off on this one here, but I hope you get the point.

Personal/existential: In addition to your basic physical form, one of the beauties of who you are is your mind or soul: the part of you which is capable of experiencing sensations of meaning and purpose in life. This part of you too has been brutally belittled in Maryville, but don’t let the bastards there have the final word on the subject. I know it’s rather cheap and superficial, and perhaps even factually wrong at this point, to say that you can decide for yourself what your life is worth. At this point I recognize that in your young mind things might feel pretty hopeless and out of control. But they will and do get better. The mind is an amazing thing in terms of its resilience. You will find yourself capable of making good on your promise not to let the events of the past couple years define who you are. As long as you don’t give up at this difficult point you will be able to decide what it is that makes you important, and you will be able to build a sense of purpose from there.

If there is any aspect of your life that your trauma will have a lasting effect on in fact, I’d predict that it will be the extent to which it has forced you to look deeper into yourself. You might not like all of what you see there –– there’s a lot of broken and ugly bits inside of all of us, even the best of us –– but I hope and expect that you can also see the brave, poetic, tender parts of yourself that are worth developing. These are things that others can encourage you to love about yourself, but ultimately it’s up to you to recognize this beauty within. It’s up to you to, without shame, accept and celebrate who you are as a person, and to love yourself as such. Please, please, please… do not let anyone take that away from you.

Social/cultural: Perhaps the worst part of your experience has been discovering that the kids at school sided with your abusers rather than sympathizing with you as the victim. Teenagers can be vicious creatures at times. I know something about this from working with school anti-bullying campaigns.  So this makes it more difficult to recognize another key factor in what makes you valuable: Besides being comfortable within your skin, you can be confident in having importance beyond the limits of your skin. There really are people around you that love you and care about you as a person –– thousands of us actually.  No one can belittle your personal value without directly insulting all of us who care about you at the same time. Don’t ever forget that.

There’s an important word in African philosophy that perhaps you heard regarding the funeral celebrations for Nelson Mandela this winter: “Ubuntu”. Roughly translated, this is the principle that “I am what I am because we are what we are” –– that identity is never a completely individual matter. Or to quote the classic line from the English poet/theologian John Donne, “No man is an island.” This does not mean that you have to let the social environment of Maryville determine who you are, but it does mean that you cannot forget about the impact your life has on others. If you let the idiots belittle you, you let them belittle all of us.  If you let them insult you, you let them insult all of us.  I hope this gives you courage to stand up to your detractors, with and for all of us.

Spiritual/transcendent: There is always the question of what makes those who are on your side in this matter “better people” than the vicious little bastards that have used the “s-word” and the “w-word” at you at school. This is no easy matter to sort out philosophically. Suffice to say, most of us tend to believe that, to quote the opening sequence of the X-Files, “THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE” when it comes to these things. There is something that goes beyond social and cultural norms that makes sexual abuse bad and compassion good. There are values that we should subscribe to that are more than just material expedients or means of personal meaning making, or cultural conventions. Again, without trying to “cram any religion down your throat,” believing that there are moral principles like this “out there” is, for me, part and parcel of believing in God. That is not to say that I believe that any particular religion has God’s message entirely right, but that is to say that I believe that the “something” out there which makes rape inherently wrong and compassion inherently good is best understood as a “someone”, and that that someone is on the side of those who suffer injustices, who want peace and who care about others. So from this perspective, Daisy, I am confident in saying that another reason for you to keep going is because God is on your side.

There’s a famous anecdote that might be applicable here, telling of the Nobel Prize winning physicist Niels Bohr, who was said to keep a good luck horseshoe hung over the door of his home in the countryside. Someone asked him about this: How could such an intelligent man with such a scientific world view believe in a horseshoe over the door bringing better luck? His response was to say, with a twinkle in his eye, “Of course I don’t believe in it, but they say it works even if you don’t believe.”

Even if you don’t share my belief in God at this point, I hope you can still find means of accepting the basic principle that those who are on your side are part of something “better” and “more important” than those who would belittle your value. Please don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.

All of this is strictly a matter of “for what it’s worth” but I sincerely hope that this provides some sort of additional motivation for believing in yourself and moving forward in confronting the challenges you still face. We’re here hoping for you and praying for you, and we’re doing what we can to encourage you never to give up. Hang in there for us, but more importantly, hang in there for yourself!

2 Comments

Filed under Control, Education, Ethics, Happiness, Human Rights, Love, Philosophy, Social identity, Spirituality

Hallelujahs

A passing thought in as the second or third day of Christmas (depending on how you count) draws to a close here: I have to wonder how Leonard Cohen feels about the Cloverton cover of his classic, “Hallelujah”.  I mean on the one hand I imagine that the increase in his royalty check from this version of his song going viral will be many times more than my annual salary, so I can’t imagine him complaining about it too loudly, but on the other hand it is an out and out rape of the original meaning of the song in question. Cloverton effectively offers those who are incapable of appreciating the poignant and sublime message of the original lyrics an opportunity to sing along with the beautiful melody of the chorus without having any farting idea of what it was meant to be about. How does that really make an artist feel?

cohen hat offOther than the one-word chorus, the only part of the cover that quotes directly from the original lyrics at any length the is the middle of the first verse: “It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift…” but the follow-through from there loses all poignancy. Rather than noting King David’s confused and desperate pursuit of the transcendent (“the baffled king composing Hallelujah”) it becomes an evangelical cliché (“with every breath I’m singing Hallelujah”). It almost completely fulfills the prophecy of the second line of the original version’s first verse: “but you don’t really care for music, do ya?”

The core message of Cohen’s original lyrics is found in the song’s third verse: “It’s not some pilgrim who claims to have seen the light. No, it’s a cold and it’s a very broken Hallelujah.” The Cloverton version, by contrast, is all about a group of young “pilgrims who claim to have seen the light.”

The cover version goes through all the essential core elements of the western Christmas hymn tradition: the failed search for the inn, the shepherds hearing from the angels, the “wise men three” and finally a summary of the passion of the Christ, which contains the most historically and theologically problematic lyric of all: “That rugged cross was my cross too. Still every breath you drew was Hallelujah.” Forgetting about the rife pronoun confusion throughout this verse (you really can’t tell from one second to the next whether “you” is being used to refer to Jesus or fellow believers), the one thing believers really shouldn’t be claiming is to have shared in the process of making Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross. This is the essential meaning of “Pelagian” as a label for a particular heresy. Beyond that, in the tale of his very real suffering, Jesus’ words on the cross were not “Hallelujahs” but rather “why have you forsaken me?” and “it is finished.” But the cover version is crafted carefully enough to keep too many people from actually listening to the lyrics in anything like a rational or critical manner it would seem.

It’s not just the complete castration of the song’s original message and the details of the new lyrics that I find mildly disturbing about this cover version; there’s also the video setting, made to look like a pseudo-Irish pub, just stripped of all offensive references to alcohol. You have a crowd of adults of roughly pub-going age sitting around chatting calmly in a sparsely furnished wood paneled room with steamy windows and wall-to-wall shelves that look as though they were meant to hold bottles, but completely empty. On careful examination of the audience shots you discover some people drinking from cans that could contain pretty much anything, and others drinking from ceramic vessels that fall somewhere between coffee mugs and beer steins. But if you take this investigation to the next level you notice that there’s a donut box that intermittently appears on one of the front tables, and in a couple shots they accidentally capture the name “Varsity Donuts” on the windows and pub-style etched mirrors.

This in turn reveals something fascinating about the band in question. Running a web search for “Varsity Donuts” got me nowhere, so I went to the band’s home page to see where in the US they were from, so as to get to the bottom of this mystery. It says there that they are “Manhattan based”. Fine, so what kind of place is Manhattan’s Varsity Donuts? Plug that into a search engine and you find this. Pictures of the shop there leave little doubt that this is where the band shot their video, and that in turn leads to one obvious conclusion: the “Manhattan” that these boys come from is not the most densely commercialized part of New York City, but a little town west of Topeka, Kansas! Not that you’d ever realize this from their poses in generic hipster outfits in front of generic urban concrete walls, but…

Photo by "William H." of Manhattan's Varsity Donuts

Photo by “William H.” of Manhattan’s Varsity Donuts

So rather than normally being a setting for getting people drunk, the video was shot in a place where people go to get an intense junk food sugar buzzes. And rather than being part of some major city’s music scene, we’re talking about about a band from the wind-swept prairie that Dorothy left to go to Oz. From there it’s no big surprise then that the “pub crowd” consists of mostly over-weight and exclusively white people. It seems we have a number of factors pointing towards rather pretentious image building. No out-and-out lies, just images being projected that have little to do what is actually happening. All this focused on marketing a sanitized, white bread version of a song that they clearly “don’t get”. This doesn’t speak very highly of the critical faculties of those who have been writing rave reviews for the video.

But perhaps I’m being a bit too cruel. Musically the cover is actually quite tastefully done. A somewhat imaginative quartet arrangement, going for a predominantly acoustic sound (though the guitarist still needs his wa-wa pedals), featuring a cello in place of bass and a variety of classical percussion instruments in place of a standard drum kit, really works quite nicely with Cohen’s sweet melody, perhaps better than Cohen’s tour band arrangement even. The technique of building musical complexity as the song progresses, from a lone vocalist on an old upright piano at the beginning to an impressively orchestral sounding quartet with everyone in the “pub” singing along at the end, achieves the overall effect they’re aiming for quite resoundingly. Setting aside the inconsistencies between audio and video in building this mini-narrative, it is clear that these young men are talented musicians who are quite capable of drawing in an audience. The lead singer sounds for all the world like a young Cat Stevens, and the band jells behind that vocal style magnificently. All that’s missing is integrity.

The “about” section of Cloverton’s web site starts out trying to build an image of stylistic independence and solid integrity –– a radically indy and radically Christian band fighting to make it without major label support. All I can say is that if such values are important to them, as opposed to being nothing more than cheap, cliché advertising copy, based on this single it would seem they are going at it pretty seriously bass ackwards.

Not that there is anything particularly new or unique about this case in some regards. It actually brings me back to parts of my childhood among “Jesus freaks” who routinely “borrowed” songs like Carol King’s You’ve Got a Friend and Paul Simon’s Bridge over Troubled Water, with the lyrics ever so slightly modified to slip Jesus’ name in every now and again. I remember, on such a basis, being able to relate quite thoroughly to an article I read in some Christian youth magazine in the early 80s complaining about the widespread phenomenon of “Jesus is my girlfriend” songs. Modifying generic love songs so as to speak about “loving God” really isn’t that much of a stretch; in many cases it’s just a matter of trading one disposable cliché for another quite similar one. In American English in particular it’s real easy, in so many ways, to go from singing, “I’m yours, Lord,” to “I’m yours, love,” and back again without terribly many evangelicals noticing the difference.

To break free of such clichés and to build integrity into the Christian/Christmas message in music, you have to start with ceasing to pretend to be something you’re not –– in this case pub-going urban hipsters who are really into what Leonard Cohen has to say with his music –– and it can’t end there. As the pope has pointed out so powerfully in his various messages this year, and as evangelicals should broadly be able to agree, the point of Jesus’ message is to go beyond religious clichés and dig into the messy business of relating to the non-utopian lived experiences of “the poor in spirit” –– those who need to know they’re loved in spite of their misfortunes and failures, and those who cry out for justice in a world where sometimes justice is hard to find. A good second step for Cloverton in finding such integrity then, after dropping the pretenses, would be to actually listen to what Leonard Cohen has to say in his original version of “Hallelujah”.

The first verse there tells of the composer’s struggle to touch something transcendent in his music, much like what we see with Kind David in the psalms. From there the second verse comes to consider the transcendent quality that King David, and many since, have found in erotic connection. For those whose religion is based more or less exclusively on a message of erotic restraint, Cohen’s message here may be rather hard to listen to, but there is still truth to it. Painting the scene of David’s first tryst with Bathsheba, Cohen brilliantly mixes biblical and contemporary motifs to explain the effect this had on the king: “She tied you to her kitchen chair, she broke your throne and she cut your hair, and from your lips she drew the ‘Hallelujah’.” If you want to break out of the standard mold of gospel music, guys, dare to talk about the spirituality inherent in sex, even the sort of sex that the religious establishment fails to properly control. I dare you!

The third verse, as I said above, comes to the central point of the song. After confessing to religious agnosticism and to love having become an area of violent conflict for him (“…all I ever learned from love is how to shoot at someone who out-drew you”), Cohen tells of the “hallelujah” being a cry of anguished searching. And folks, if you can’t honestly accept to the experience of such anguish, and relate without condescension to those who are stuck in it, you have no business trying to present any form of spiritual message to the world, especially the Christian message!

The fourth verse further reinforces this honest message, talking about his familiarity with loneliness and reminding us that the “Hallelujah” experience is not about arches of triumph or victory marches, but rather a very cold and lonely place at times. The fifth verse goes from there into a prayer of sorts: looking back on spiritual experiences of the writer’s youth, crying over the loss of the epiphanies he used to have, but in prayer fondly remembering “how I moved in you, and the holy dove, she was moving too, and every breath we drew was Hallelujah!” (the source of a the problematic lyrical adaptation in the Cloverton version which I pointed out above). From there, in the sixth verse, comes Cohen’s plea for divine mercy of sorts. He stresses that he has given his best efforts, though mostly without success, and that there’s no point in pretending otherwise. This leads to the song’s final sentence, leading into the concluding chorus, of, “even though it all went wrong I’ll stand before the Lord of Song with nothing on my tongue but ‘Hallelujah!’”

Yes, amen, hallelujah! Let us come to the Lord ––  in whatever form we are able to relate to his lordship –– confessing our weaknesses in understanding both God and each other, and in the brokenness to which this brings us let us cry out asking for the connection with what lies beyond us that we haven’t been able to earn. Let’s ditch the kitsch and dare to move towards the heart of the broken human experience in this matter, for it’s only in relating honestly to that that we can find the salvation we long for –– that Jesus came to bring us.

Pussy willows coming out at a grey and rainy Christmas time this year...

Pussy willows coming out at a grey and rainy Christmas time this year…

I write this in the middle of the night after finishing the last of the Christmas celebrating I had scheduled for this year, with nothing resembling the generally dependable “white Christmas” in this part of the world, no presents properly exchanged and overall a very broken Hallelujah to be sung. Yet a “Hallelujah” I still sing, because in spite of my failures, and circumstances the sort I would not normally choose for myself, I still have a sense of being connected with people and things well beyond myself. That is ultimately what I want and need to keep building on in my own broken way in the year to come.

Here’s hoping that this post-Christmas message touches your hearts, and brings you to an honest place of looking at your own world not as you would like to fantasize it to be but how it really is; yet with the hope of not being stuck within the limits of your own skin but being able to be lovingly part of something far greater than yourself. In spite of my limits as a saint and/or a poet I selfishly wish to share that with you. Please pass this general message forward then, for the greater joy of all of us.

057So as part of the same wish, for what remains of them, Happy Holidays.

Leave a comment

Filed under Love, Music, Pop culture, Religion, Risk taking, Sexuality, Spirituality

“What Does the Pope Say?” Part 3

Continuing on where I left off last week regarding Pope Francis’ instant classic, Evangelii Gaudium, we were considering his exhortation to meditate on the many scripture texts which speak of “the inseparable bond” between the message of salvation and loving our neighbor. In short, Francis is saying in no uncertain terms that those who have a genuine urge to connect with and help those who are in need find this sort of activity to be one of their deepest sources of satisfaction in life, and those who do not feel such an urge are unlikely to be saved –– to be numbered among God’s people to begin with. He makes a strong biblical case for this being a core element of the Christian message, the rest being details.

Papal audience, St. Peter's Square, Vatican City, Rome, Italy - 06 Nov 2013So from there the question of “What must I do to be saved?” shows up in a rather different light. When Jesus was confronted by the “rich young ruler” (Luke 18:18-27) who originally asked such a question, he instructed him to “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” It is broadly understood that this injunction was a matter of council for this particular individual, not a precondition for salvation for all would-be believers. But how close should rich people in particular be expected to come to this exhortation in order to gain “treasure in heaven” and the status of living as one of God’s children here on earth?

When it comes to final judgment on such matters, the pope is willing to leave the ultimate determination up to God. He seems to consider this to be part of the spirit of the principle of subsidiarity. But the core issue of the faith remains prioritizing the sharing of God’s compassion ahead of all personal safety and comfort concerns. It is the details of how one goes about fulfilling this mission that are left to be settled between the believer and God. “[N]either the Pope nor the Church have a monopoly on the interpretation of social realities or the proposal of solutions to contemporary problems.” (EG 184) Yet unlike his predecessors, Francis refuses to let these matters of social responsibility be reduced to vague generalities that can readily be swept under the rug: “The Church’s teachings concerning contingent situations are subject to new and further developments and can be open to discussion, yet we cannot help but be concrete – without presuming to enter into details – lest the great social principles remain mere generalities which challenge no one. There is a need to draw practical conclusions, so that they ‘will have greater impact on the complexities of current situations’.” (EG 182)

The issue here is the message of God’s Kingdom being revealed on earth. This cannot be reduced to a matter of personal mystical experience. “Nor should our loving response to God be seen simply as an accumulation of small personal gestures to individuals in need, a kind of ‘charity à la carte’, or a series of acts aimed solely at easing our conscience. […] To the extent that [God] reigns within us, the life of society will be a setting for universal fraternity, justice, peace and dignity.” (EG 180)

“It is no longer possible to claim that religion should be restricted to the private sphere and that it exists only to prepare souls for heaven. […] Christian conversion demands reviewing especially those areas and aspects of life ‘related to the social order and the pursuit of the common good.’” (EG 182)

“Jesus’ command to his disciples: ‘You yourselves give them something to eat!’ (Mk 6:37)… means working to eliminate the structural causes of poverty and to promote the integral development of the poor, as well as small daily acts of solidarity in meeting the real needs which we encounter. The word “solidarity” is a little worn and at times poorly understood, but it refers to something more than a few sporadic acts of generosity. It presumes the creation of a new mindset which thinks in terms of community and the priority of the life of all over the appropriation of goods by a few.

“Solidarity is a spontaneous reaction by those who recognize that the social function of property and the universal destination of goods are realities which come before private property. The private ownership of goods is justified by the need to protect and increase them, so that they can better serve the common good; for this reason, solidarity must be lived as the decision to restore to the poor what belongs to them.” (EG 188-9)

This means education, access to health care, and above all employment” offering “a just wage [which] enables them to have adequate access to all the other goods which are destined for our common use.” (EG 192)

Or to put this message in concrete political terms, one can be anti-socialist or one can be a follower of Jesus, but one cannot be both! This message is so clear and direct, so simple and eloquent, that no ecclesial interpretation has the right to relativize it.” (EG 194)

Francis goes on to point out that when St. Paul speaks of avoiding “disqualification” for rewards in heaven for his efforts at spreading the gospel, in Galatians 2, the basic qualification that he holds up as the legitimizing factor for his mission (in verse 10) is that he had eagerly continued to “remember the poor.” If you don’t want to be disqualified before God then, do like Paul did and never let caring for the poor slip from your priorities.

Jesus himself grew up poor, as evidenced by the fact that when he was presented as an infant at the temple, his parents offered doves rather than a sheep. Whatever their social status then, Christians are called to identify with this same sense of poverty. “This is why I want a Church which is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us. Not only do they share in the sensus fidei, but in their difficulties they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them.” (EG 198)

So to be true to the message of the Gospel, believers must continuously identify with the interests of the poor. This does not exclude participation in professions involving wealth and power, but it sets conditions on how we relate to such positions:

“Business is a vocation, and a noble vocation, provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by a greater meaning in life; this will enable them truly to serve the common good by striving to increase the goods of this world and to make them more accessible to all.” (EG 203)

Politics, though often denigrated, remains a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity, inasmuch as it seeks the common good. […] I beg the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor! It is vital that government leaders and financial leaders take heed and broaden their horizons, working to ensure that all citizens have dignified work, education and healthcare.” (EG 205)

Notice that he makes no mention here of politicians preventing pornography, homosexuality or birth control –– the favorite issues of those fighting for “morality” in the name of the Church. In fact those issues are not raised in the entire document. The repeated issues which believing academics, businessmen and politicians should be addressing, as Francis sees it, are to care for the needs of the poor, particularly in terms of ensuring that they have access to quality education and health care regardless of their economic status, and ensuring that their labor is duly compensated –– that corporations are no longer allowed to pay their employees slave wages.

Francis does somewhat apologetically maintain the traditional Catholic position on abortion, but with some significant liberal caveats attached: “Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenseless and innocent among us. […] Yet this defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right. It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development. […] Precisely because this involves the internal consistency of our message about the value of the human person, the Church cannot be expected to change her position on this question. I want to be completely honest in this regard. […] On the other hand, it is also true that we have done little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations, where abortion appears as a quick solution to their profound anguish, especially when the life developing within them is the result of rape or a situation of extreme poverty. Who can remain unmoved before such painful situations?” (EG 213-214)

This statement rather conveniently, though somewhat necessarily, skirts around the uncertainty factor regarding the presence of an eternal soul in the fetus “from the moment of conception” which John Paul II acknowledged in his anti-abortion opus Evangelium Vitae: “Even if the presence of a spiritual soul cannot be ascertained by empirical data… what is at stake is so important that, from the standpoint of moral obligation, the mere probability that a human person is involved would suffice to justify an absolutely clear prohibition of any intervention aimed at killing a human embryo. Precisely for this reason, over and above all scientific debates and those philosophical affirmations to which the Magisterium has not expressly committed itself, the Church has always taught and continues to teach that the result of human procreation, from the first moment of its existence.” (EV 60) In other words we’re not really talking about certainty regarding the existence of an eternal soul in the embryo here; we’re talking about a combination of probabilities and emphatic dogmatic traditions being maintained for their own sake. But even the most strident liberal can probably see that it would open up all sorts of counter-productive cans of worms for Francis to dig any deeper in reforming church teaching on this question. If he can continue to prioritize care for those in the sort of “profound anguish” that in extreme cases leads to abortion over further legislation to regulate abortion, that has to be seen as a positive step.

Francis’ take on scientific matters in general here is not without its problems. He doesn’t really have anything new to say about this matter, but in enthusiastically reinforcing the traditions of the past couple of generations at least he claims, “The Church has no wish to hold back the marvelous progress of science. On the contrary, she rejoices and even delights in acknowledging the enormous potential that God has given to the human mind. Whenever the sciences – rigorously focused on their specific field of inquiry – arrive at a conclusion which reason cannot refute, faith does not contradict it. Neither can believers claim that a scientific opinion which is attractive but not sufficiently verified has the same weight as a dogma of faith.” (EG 243)

In other words we have three essential categories here: absolute scientific facts, dogmas of faith and scientific opinions. Francis is saying that they must be prioritized in precisely that order: Dogmas of faith always take precedence over “scientific opinions”, but “conclusions which reason cannot refute,” also known as scientific facts, take precedence over statements of faith –– presumably even dogmas of faith. This could turn into a really messy debate if we pursue it to its logical conclusions. But given that this is an “exhortation” rather than a formal doctrinal statement, it’s probably best just to leave this as an expression of good will to keep channels of communication open between the Catholic Church and the “scientific community” –– an effort to keep ideologies from blocking the path to “authentic, serene and productive dialogue.” (ibid.)

In addition to dialogue with science as such, Francis also takes the time to promote dialogue with Protestants, Orthodox Church members, Jews, Muslims and agnostic seekers in particular. He stresses that other churches, Muslims and Jews really do worship the same God that Catholics do, and agnostics are often sincerely searching for the sort of spiritual truth that comes from the God of the monotheistic faiths. The point is for “believers and non-believers to engage in dialogue about fundamental issues of ethics, art and science, and about the search for transcendence.” If there wasn’t enough here to make fundamentalists’ heads explode already, that should certainly do it.

But Francis is also acknowledging the need for reconciliation with those theoretically within his own camp –– those claiming to do “God’s work” through various forms of right-wing political action. To them he says, “If anyone feels offended by my words, I would respond that I speak them with affection and with the best of intentions, quite apart from any personal interest or political ideology. My words are not those of a foe or an opponent. I am interested only in helping those who are in thrall to an individualistic, indifferent and self-centred mentality to be freed from those unworthy chains and to attain a way of living and thinking which is more humane, noble and fruitful, and which will bring dignity to their presence on this earth.” (EG 208)

What a wonderfully eloquent way of saying, “as your friend I’m trying to help you overcome your current problem of being a complete waste of space on this planet”! Let’s hope they are able to receive this message entirely in the spirit in which it was written.

Francis closes this epistle with a reverent tribute to Jesus’ mother, tying her persona quite directly into his central message: “Contemplating Mary, we realize that she who praised God for ‘bringing down the mighty from their thrones’ and ‘sending the rich away empty’ (Lk 1:52-53) is also the one who brings a homely warmth to our pursuit of justice.” (EG 288)

I must confess though, my “low church” up-bringing has not provided me with this sort of appreciation for the liturgy of the sacred feminine. I don’t reject this form of spirituality; I just don’t strongly identify with this particular appeal. So I’ll close here with a quote from part 274 that all of the “others” which the pope hopes to build a dialogue with could agree on:

We achieve fulfillment when we break down walls and our heart is filled with faces and names!”

May each of you find your hearts so filled this holiday season!

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Empathy, Ethics, Happiness, Love, Politics, Religion, Social identity, Spirituality

“What Does the Pope Say?” Part 2

Following through with the historical and ideological background to Evangelii Gaudium which I wrote about here last time, I’d now like to carefully consider what the document itself has to say. As I said before, the main point is the matter of getting Catholics to evangelize more –– to spread the message about how wonderful their church is, to get as many new people to join as possible, and to convince those who have been baptized into it to take that identity a bit more seriously.

francis photo op

The irony, however, is that Francis comes across as honestly not being concerned about defending or popularizing the institutional structure of the church as such. The institutional self-preservation instinct is what he’d ideally like to escape from: “I dream of… a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs… and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.” (27) He goes on to seriously slam the “spiritual worldliness” of those who put institutional concerns ahead of human needs in the Church. Dealing with this matter, he acknowledges, will require some significant changes in the status quo culture of Catholicism –– a major new counter-reformation of sorts. “When preaching is faithful to the Gospel… it becomes clear that Christian morality is not a form of stoicism, or self-denial, or merely a practical philosophy or catalogue of sins and faults. Before all else, the Gospel invites us… to see God in others… and to seek the good of others. Under no circumstances can this invitation be obscured!” (39)  “Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators. But the Church is not a tollhouse; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems.” (47)

The primary issue Francis raises with regard to missions is for this to be a matter of “flow,” for believers; for Catholics to be “in their element,” as Ken Robinson  would say, spreading the Gospel. Everything else is details. The more in need of compassion someone is, the greater the sense of flow in reaching out to them should be. This shouldn’t be a burden or a tiresome responsibility that goes with the job for priests and church workers; this should be their primary motivation for being in the business to begin with. This must never be forgotten: “Sometimes we lose our enthusiasm for mission because we forget that the Gospel responds to our deepest needs, since we were created for what the Gospel offers us: friendship with Jesus and love of our brothers and sisters” (265). This gets messy, but that’s part of the thrill of it. “Jesus wants us to touch human misery…. He hopes that we will stop looking for those personal and communal niches which shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune and instead enter into the reality of other people’s lives and know the power of tenderness. Whenever we do so, our lives become wonderfully complicated and we experience intensely what it is to be a people, to be part of a people.” (270)

If someone doesn’t “get this,” she/he shouldn’t be involved in missionary matters. “Only the person who feels happiness in seeking the good of others, in desiring their happiness, can be a missionary. This openness of heart is a source of joy.” Francis clearly doesn’t think very highly of those who lack his enthusiasm in this area, however. He has serious doubts about whether they can even be considered Christian believers to begin with. “Loving others is a spiritual force drawing us to union with God; indeed, one who does not love others ‘walks in the darkness’ (1 Jn 2:11), ‘remains in death (1 Jn 3:14) and ‘does not know God’ (1 Jn 4:8).” Summarizing this biblical teaching in his own words, Francis says, “We do not live better when we flee, hide, refuse to share, stop giving and lock ourselves up in our own comforts. Such a life is nothing less than slow suicide.” (272)

This is infinitely more important to Francis than having power or influence as such. “My mission of being in the heart of the people is not just a part of my life or a badge I can take off; it is not an ‘extra’ or just another moment in life. Instead, it is something I cannot uproot from my being without destroying my very self. I am a mission on this earth; that is the reason why I am here in this world.” (273)

This doesn’t mean it always comes easy and effortlessly to him either. Since the extent to which he succeeds in his mission of expressing God’s love to people cannot be measured reliably in terms of quantitative effects, the process of maintaining motivation can be a challenge at times. “Sometimes it seems that our work is fruitless, but mission is not like a business transaction or investment, or even a humanitarian activity. It is not a show where we count how many people come as a result of our publicity; it is something much deeper, which escapes all measurement. […] It is true that this trust in the unseen can cause us to feel disoriented… I myself have frequently experienced this. Yet there is no greater freedom than that of allowing oneself to be guided by the Holy Spirit, renouncing the attempt to plan and control everything.”(279-280)

So helping his flock find or rediscover this joy of loving others, especially those who are not “safe” to love, especially when it gets messy, is the essential point of this exhortation. The rest is a matter addressing details of maintaining missionary motivation, not allowing the message of compassion to get lost under the rubble of moralizing, adjusting the preaching and liturgical processes to serve this purpose, keeping doors open for anyone who wishes to come in, and maintaining dialog with those who chose not to identify with the Catholic Church –– especially those who chose to “be part of a people” and to “love their neighbors as themselves” on the basis of some other spiritual or ideological understanding. That is what it takes him approximately 50,000 words to say here.

Which of those details are most worth pointing out is going to be a matter of editorial taste for any of us who attempt to review this document, but with all standard disclaimers in place, here’s my take on details I find particularly interesting and important. One particular issue I must raise at this point though: I don’t believe that this document can be done justice without some serious consideration of the mystical religious perspective it comes from. Thus it will not really work to take this as an ecclesiastical statement in support of the “Occupy” movement, as some have done.  The crimson thread tying this whole document together is what we Protestants tend to refer to as “The Great Commission” . It is not my intention to preach at anyone, but it would be absurd to try to sanitize the sermon elements out of my analysis of this important moral/political/devotional document. So if you have any sort of allergy to that sort of promotion of the Christian message, you might want to stop reading here. And now, on with the show.

First of all, in the section which has been the most thoroughly picked up on in the international news media, one passage in particular stands out with regard to the theological context I was talking about last time:

“Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? […] Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.” (53)

Without stating so explicitly, Francis is here taking a direct stab at the principle from Veritatis Splendor that has been used for the past twenty years to justify Catholics distancing themselves from social justice issues. Positive requirements of love can no longer be a lower priority in terms of absolute ethics than negative requirements of God’s law. He’s telling his flock that they can no longer hide behind excuses of “cultural relativity” while supporting unjust social systems based on laissez-faire capitalism that are literally killing people. Unjust exclusionary and marginalizing practices designed to enable the rich to keep getting richer must no longer be considered acceptable! They must be considered to be absolutely evil, and any excuse for saying otherwise is contrary to the Christian Gospel. A good Catholic cannot support trickle-down economics in good conscience, for “Behind this attitude lurks a rejection of ethics and a rejection of God.” (57) You can’t get much stronger language without a direct declaration of interdict!

Another thing that caught my attention about the section where he was going on about the rights of the poor and the evils of gross inequality was the extent to which the pope’s rhetoric sounded familiar from my Zygmunt Bauman readings from last summer. The second paragraph of part 54 could easily have come directly from Bauman’s Wasted Lives:

 “Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. […] The excluded are not the ‘exploited’ but the outcast, the ‘leftovers’.”

And the only Baumanesque touch missing from the cultural description at the beginning of part 62 is the use of Bauman’s trademark term “liquid modern”:

“In the prevailing culture priority is given to the outward, the immediate, the visible, the quick, the superficial and the provisional. What is real gives way to appearances. In many countries globalization has meant a hastened deterioration of their own cultural roots and the invasion of ways of thinking and acting proper to other cultures which are economically advanced but ethically debilitated.”

Yet Francis’ take on the media generation is not entirely borrowed from other social theorists of his age and older. Rather than longing for a less liquid and connected world, the pope is reaching out and asking for help in finding ways to build genuinely spiritual, interpersonal elements into our virtual communities.

“Today, when the networks and means of human communication have made unprecedented advances, we sense the challenge of finding and sharing a ‘mystique’ of living together, of mingling and encounter, of embracing and supporting one another, of stepping into this flood tide which, while chaotic, can become a genuine experience of fraternity, a caravan of solidarity, a sacred pilgrimage. Greater possibilities for communication thus turn into greater possibilities for encounter and solidarity for everyone. If we were able to take this route, it would be so good, so soothing, so liberating and hope-filled!” (87)

Yet the ways in which the ‘disembodied’ aspects of virtual communications provide a ‘safe distance’ from true intimacy are also a problem for this form of virtual pilgrimage.

“[S]ome people want… their interpersonal relationships provided by sophisticated equipment, by screens and systems which can be turned on and off on command. Meanwhile the Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction… The Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness.” (88)

People these days are thirsty for a sense of transcendent connection, and the challenge, Francis claims, is not so much to convince them of the value of this sort of spiritual experience, but to find fully adequate ways to satisfy their spiritual desires –– using the new opportunities of the age yet not allowing these cultural innovations to create a superficial, disembodied, further alienating pseudo-spiritual experience for them.

One of the major risk factors Francis points out in this regard is what he calls “spiritual worldliness” within the church: “seeking not the Lord’s glory but human glory and personal well-being.” This has two interrelated causes: gnosticism –– reducing the faith to a subjective sense of spiritual enlightenment, and promethean neopelagianism –– a superiority complex based on remaining “intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past.” (94) This leads to a preoccupation with formalities, ceremonies, prestige factors and political influence, among other things. But whenever the principle beneficiary “is not God’s people but the Church as an institution,” this is a sign of a loss of the missionary spirit that should be the focus of the Church’s identity.

Under a heading of “Other ecclesial challenges” then, Francis briefly takes up the topic of women’s role in the church. The conservative statement that will get the feminist ink on this one is, “The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion.” (104) Thus there’s some idea of a sort of semi-erotic symbolism to be found in high church rituals which would be lost if they were to be served up androgynously. Interesting. But his more liberal olive branch to those with paired x-chromosomes is to say that “sacramental power” must not be “too closely identified with power in general.” Francis is acutely aware of the power of women in general in the Church; the power of Italian mothers in particular. Anyway…

One of the more surprising aspects of the letter overall is the level of faith the pope puts in “popular piety” with all of its local pilgrimage sites, syncretic traditions and superstitious rituals (such as kissing the toe of St. Peter’s statue in the Vatican). Quoting from one of the latest letters by John Paul II, Francis claims that “The history of the Church shows that Christianity does not have simply one cultural expression, but rather, ‘remaining completely true to itself, with unswerving fidelity to the proclamation of the Gospel and the tradition of the Church, it will also reflect the different faces of the cultures and peoples in which it is received and takes root’.” (116)

But beyond denying the swerves in fidelity we can easily see in any semi-objective analysis of church history, Francis takes this trust in the common folk a step further: “The people of God is holy thanks to [the power of the Holy Spirit], which makes it infallible in credendo. This means that it does not err in faith, even though it may not find words to explain that faith. […] As part of his mysterious love for humanity, God furnishes the totality of the faithful with an instinct of faith –– sensus fidei –– which helps them to discern what is truly of God.” (119)

The underlying intent of these statements, in context, is to reduce the dominance of a Eurocentric culture of piety within the Catholic Church –– a noble goal in itself. But to claim any form of infallibility for any folk spiritual tradition would have to make this the most absurdly over-optimistic section in the whole document.

Francis then goes on at some length about the proper way to deliver a homily, or sermon. In one of the funniest lines in the letter, he comments about the role of the homily in the religious experience of the people, “We know that the faithful attach great importance to it, and that both they and their ordained ministers suffer because of homilies: the laity from having to listen to them and the clergy from having to preach them!” (135) He then reminds preachers to bear in mind the role of the homily as a lead-up to the Eucharist, so it should be kept brief, if for no other reason, as a matter of remembering its liturgical place in life. But the homily should still have something to say about the biblical text at hand, providing some form of useful synthesis between the scripture and the hearts of the preacher and the audience.

One part of this section has an odd reflective implication to it. Referring to the need for preachers to be aware of the original intent of the passage they are preaching about, Francis says, quite rightly, “If a text was written to console, it should not be used to correct errors; if it was written as an exhortation, it should not be used to teach doctrine; if it was written to teach something about God, it should not be used to expound various theological opinions…” (147) But then of course we must ask, first of all, do “theological opinions” have any actual value –– any reason to exist to begin with –– if they do not enable greater clarity and deeper understanding in the process of “teaching about God”? And then, given that the text making these statements has officially been labeled as an “apostolic exhortation”, does that exclude the possibility of drawing doctrinal conclusions from it? Things which make us theologians go “hmmm…”

But then his practical advice about preaching brings back the honest and refreshing tone, as when he recommends against political editorializing from the pulpit: “Nor is it fitting to talk about the latest news in order to awaken people’s interest; we have television programs for that.” (155) Or then there is the practical advice that all us bloggers as well should take to heart: “Simplicity and clarity are two different things. Our language may be simple but our preaching not very clear. It can end up being incomprehensible because it is disorganized, lacks logical progression or tries to deal with too many things at one time.” (158) Ouch!

There is also a touching exhortation to stay on the via pulchritudinis –– to keep beauty as part of the Christian message, bringing my virtual friend Brian Zahnd to mind:

“Proclaiming Christ means showing that to believe in and to follow him is not only something right and true, but also something beautiful, capable of filling life with new splendor and profound joy, even in the midst of difficulties. Every expression of true beauty can thus be acknowledged as a path leading to an encounter with the Lord Jesus.” (167)

Taken as a dogma, that last bit could be a bit problematic in both directions: If everything beautiful is co-opted as Gospel that could lead to some strange interpretations of art at times; and if “leading to an encounter” becomes the standard for “true beauty” (and stranger things have happened) that could seriously skew one’s aesthetic sense in many cases. But as this is merely an exhortation we probably shouldn’t worry about such doctrinal matters here too much.

But the core of this beautiful message always comes back to loving our neighbor. “The inseparable bond between our acceptance of the message of salvation and genuine fraternal love appears in several scriptural texts which we would do well to meditate upon, in order to fully appreciate all their consequences.” (179)

But as this is getting to be too long for a tasteful homily already, I should probably give Francis’ meditations here on how the Gospel of salvation and the charitable message of “good news to the poor” need to coincide –– together with his various personal disclaimers on the matter –– an entry unto themselves. So I’ll leave off here for now.

Let us pray…

Leave a comment

Filed under Ethics, Love, Politics, Religion, Spirituality

95 Theses for Evangelical Churches of the 21st Century

Thinking about the meaning of Halloween, there is the playfully superstitious side of things, and then there is the historical factor: It was on this day, in 1517, that a particular German monk got terminally ticked off with the corruption he saw within the institutional church, and thus perhaps inadvertently started the Protestant Reformation. Luther has a mixed record historically as a moral and spiritual leader. The one thing that he can be given unqualified credit for, however, is seeing corruption and having the courage to speak out.

luther_wittenberg_1517-21

Though my own moral record is far from spotless, and some might anathematize me on this basis, I too see some major problems and disgusting forms of corruption in the church of my age –– in the evangelical Protestant tradition in which I was raised in particular. So in honor of Luther’s historical courage, I will hereby follow his historic example on this day. I claim no great originality in doing so, and for me this requires nowhere near the same level of courage as it did for Luther, but I believe challenging others to consider the essential message of Jesus and the Gospel is as worthy a way to celebrate this Holiday as any this year.

So think of this site as my cathedral door: Out of love for the truth and the desire to bring it to light, the following propositions will be discussed here under the supervision of yours truly. Those who are unable to debate orally with us may do so by letter.

In the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ, Amen.

  1. The essence of Christian life and identity is not to be determined by whom we hate, but how we love.
  2. Our Lord defined the essence of the law he came to fulfill as being to love God completely and to unreservedly love our neighbor (the Twin Commandment of Love).
  3. Our Lord also made it clear that our neighbor is not to be designated in ethnic, geographical or religious terms.
  4. As “a friend of publicans and sinners,” Jesus had a further reputation for not basing a person’s worthiness of love on sexual purity or social respectability.
  5. Those who construe the Gospel to be primarily a message of ethnic, cultural or moralistic control and border-setting thus miss its most fundamental point.
  6. Loving God with one’s whole being is not demonstrated by outstanding morality so much as by moral humility.
  7. Moral humility is demonstrated through a recognition of the gap in moral worthiness between each of us and God as being infinitely greater than that between the best of humans and the worst of humans.
  8. To love God with all one’s being is therefor to see no other person as being personally repulsive to us. This is the high standard to which Christians are called to strive towards attaining.
  9. Sexual sin as a preoccupation of the church is entirely alien to the message of Jesus.
  10. As Jesus stated that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” this same principle should be applied to all aspects of Christian moral teaching.
  11. Jesus did not reject the Mosaic Law –– which prohibited all forms of sexual expression that could not lead to legitimate procreation (prostitution, adultery, masturbation, homosexuality, intercourse during menstruation, etc.) –– but he rather expanded it to include prohibiting any form of sexual objectification of women: “I tell you anyone who looks at a woman lustfully…”
  12. By expanding on the essence of the Mosaic Law, Jesus demonstrated to his hearers that preaching moralistic sexual restraint was a lost cause, because none could honestly claim to live up to an ideal of having no forbidden desires.
  13. Beyond demonstrating the need for moral humility, Jesus’ teachings on sexuality emphasize the importance of not using other people as disposable means of physical or material gratification.
  14. While heterosexual monogamy is strongly recommendable as a means of naturally enabling procreation and socialization of children born as the result of such a union, this is not an exclusively sanctioned norm within the Bible.
  15. The ideal of lifelong committed romantic love between a man and a woman is worth aspiring to and socially supporting as a norm for child raising (in other words it should be the norm for a child to be raised by his/her own biological parents, who remain partners, at least in that task, whenever possible), but should not be used as a basis for punishing those who are unable to conform to such a standard.
  16. Seeking to control a person’s entire life by seeking to control her or his sexuality does not conform to the essence of the message of Jesus.
  17. Early and medieval church teaching on sexuality was based on the premise that the basic form or soul of the child was contained entirely within the father’s sperm. Genetic research has since proven this to be untrue.
  18. Knowing now that the “pattern” for the infant is established at the moment of conception rather than at the moment of ejaculation does not provide us with any greater certainty than the medieval church had as to when the embryo or fetus obtains an “eternal soul”.
  19. The absence of any absolutely definitive transition points within the course of pregnancy from “non-ensouled” to “ensouled” does not prove that a soul must be present from the moment of conception.
  20. In pouring a drink into a glass there are no definitive transition points between the wetting of the bottom of the glass and an acceptably full portion having been rendered. Yet at some undetermined point before the liquid stops flowing into the glass we could already say, “The drink has now been poured.” This does not prove that the drink was already poured when the bottom of the glass first became wet.
  21. While the moral uncertainty regarding when a fetus should be given human rights should give pause to those contemplating abortion, our Christian duty to love our neighbors should be particularly focused on loving those who already draw breath (the original basis for the idea of a soul in Genesis 2:7).
  22. There is a special absurdity to the political action of those who work harder to protect fetuses than to protect children suffering from malnutrition and inadequate medical attention.
  23. This absurdity is quite apparently related to the desire to have greater control over the perspective mother’s sexuality as a goal unto itself.
  24. All women and all men are worthy of being loved and cared about as having precious souls. Respect for this principle must be the basis for all Christian ethics, especially sexual ethics.
  25. The priority of sexual ethics, beyond providing the strongest possibilities we can for children to be adequately raised by their biological parents, should be to discourage or prevent people from using others as disposable means of sensual gratification.
  26. Under no circumstances should it be socially acceptable to use the bodies of those who are unwilling, or unable to express willingness, for sexual gratification (the most basic definition of rape). This moral standard goes beyond those given in sacred texts, but it should nevertheless remain as a binding principle for all believing Christians.
  27. For the good of all children raised in our societies, both men and women should be respected and treated with dignity both as workers outside of the home and as nurturers within the home. Neither sex’s dignity nor value should be belittled or denied in either context.
  28. Provisions for the care of fatherless children should be of far greater concern to Christians than the matter of how they became fatherless to begin with.
  29. Especially in the all too common situation where a child cannot be raised by his/her biological parents, one’s value as a nurturer should not be determined on the basis of one’s sexuality, or lack thereof.
  30. To prevent fatherlessness happening to children in our societies, our first step should be to ensure that poor workers are not placed in the hopeless position of not being able to safely and adequately provide for their children no matter how hard they work.
  31. Promoting regional economic growth at the expense of just treatment of laborers does infinitely more damage to family stability than uncontrolled sexual immorality does.
  32. Thus, rather than focusing on condemning the behavior of those whose sexuality is outside of ecclesiastical control, to be faithful to the message of Jesus churches should be condemning those who fail to pay their workers a livable wage, or who support businesses which do so.
  33. When the apostle said not to “love the world” he was speaking of not accepting moral compromises for purposes of social or economic advancement. In that respect his exhortation remains more relevant than ever.
  34. Nowhere in Jesus’ teachings is the pursuit of wealth idealized or justified, particularly when it is obtained at the expense of meeting the basic needs of the poor.
  35. To the extent that Jesus’ followers were participants in systems of government, he instructed them to make justice for the poor the priority of their work.
  36. Thus any participation in government which provides dishonest advantages to the rich and refuses to tax the rich adequately to meet the basic needs of the poor is a direct violation of Jesus’ teachings on civil matters.
  37. Christian humility is not about accepting a condition of de facto slavery for yourself and your peers, but about rejecting the ambition of rising to the position of slave master yourself someday.
  38. The additional rewards given to those who are most fortunate and who work the hardest in our societies must not extend beyond the point at which those attaining the higher status cease to recognize their shared human condition with those who have the least.
  39. This may require laws which prevent the sort of extreme income disparity which we have today.
  40. It is not “playing God” to develop technologies that prevent people from suffering and dying.
  41. It is “playing God” to insist that only those who obey our commands can have access to means of preventing suffering and early death for themselves and their children.
  42. Like rape, enslaving others and slave trading are practices not directly forbidden in the scriptures, but which Christians must recognize as violating the basic underlying principles of Jesus’ teachings.
  43. Limiting the amount of stress placed on those who earn their living by manual or semi-skilled labor, and restricting the number of hours of labor required of them to earn enough to meet the laborer’s and his/her family’s basic needs, is part of the meaning of preventing slavery.
  44. Means of keeping oneself and one’s family alive, which are not in short supply within the society, should be considered as basic rights for all, especially if we consider the lives of others as sacred on account of their being formed in the image of God.
  45. This maintenance of life for all members of society should include access to nutritious food and to regular maintenance health care, not only emergency services.
  46. Restricting access to means of maintaining life out of greed to obtain higher profits through the sale of such means effectively amounts to murder, and it is a disgrace for Christians to condone such practices.
  47. Preventing theft and the spread of contagious diseases were considered valid grounds for border protection in biblical times; preventing an influx of cheap labor was not.
  48. Allowing the price of labor to be set strictly according to principles of supply and demand, without considering the importance of the laborer as a fellow human being who is entitled to certain rights as such, is a gross violation of the Twin Commandment of Love.
  49. Though the commandment not to kill (generally considered the sixth) has been traditionally granted certain exceptions, a generalized fear of the other person’s skin color or ethnic origin is not an acceptable excuse for killing him.
  50. Having a right to keep oneself equipped to kill those one considers to be a threat to one’s lifestyle (which Americans refer to as the Second Amendment) is not a principle of Christian teaching; quite the opposite.
  51. As we advance technologies beyond what the apostles, prophets and church fathers could have imagined, we are responsible to find ways of regulating these technologies so that neither their intended nor their unintended consequences harm people in ways that are contrary to the spirit of the teachings of the Gospel.
  52. Technology which serves to enslave people by restricting their access to necessities of life if they do not pay tribute to given authorities must therefore not be permitted.
  53. The process of justifying genocides, mass enslavement, monopolization of vital natural resources, and destruction of living environments in the name of promoting Christianity or “Christian nations” has been a historical disgrace to our faith, and is something which all true believers must fight against in the current generation.
  54. For Christians to offer collective restitution to (the descendants of) those who have been exploited and abused in the name of our faith is “fruit worthy of repentance.”
  55. For Christians to assist the Jews and the people of Israel in establishing a secure life for themselves can be seen as an act of making just restitution.
  56. Supporting the state of Israel should not, however, be seen as a means of bringing about Christ’s Second Coming.
  57. It is not Christians’ moral responsibility to try to bring about what they see as future predictions made in the Bible.
  58. This is particularly true regarding their expectations of the end of the world and a final climactic battle for all of humanity over the Middle East.
  59. Furthermore, in strictly genetic terms there is no reason to believe that contemporary Israelites are any more the “seed of Abraham” than the Palestinians, the Jordanians or any of the other traditional peoples of that land.
  60. Abraham was said to be a pretty potent guy in his old age, and over the millennia all of these populations have become genetically mixed to a considerable extent.
  61. Supporting the abuse of and ignoring the basic human rights of those being pushed aside by the on-going expansion of the state of Israel falls well outside of Christians’ moral duty as believers.
  62. History is littered with movements initiated by crazy people who started various sorts of fights or projects believing that Jesus would come and finish them for them. He didn’t.
  63. Reading the book of Revelation as “a future history lesson for our times” is one of the worst forms of hermeneutical abuse that the scriptures have ever been put to.
  64. Recognizing the abuse that the Roman emperors heaped on the early church, and the hopes that this persecuted church held to in order to endure such persecution, should be the starting point for the study of biblical eschatology.
  65. Preventing ourselves from becoming complicit in the same sort of abuses that the Roman Empire heaped on the early church should be our first moral and political priority when looking at apocalyptic literature.
  66. Believing in the return of Jesus does not justify failures to act responsibly in terms of preserving the life and blessings God has given us.
  67. Claiming that one particular political leader or another is “The Anti-Christ” based on speculation regarding “coded messages in the Bible” and hype generated by lying hate-mongers does a gross disservice to the Gospel.
  68. This is especially the case when the political leader in question is a professing Christian, working sincerely to promote a culture of respect for the Christian principle of loving one’s neighbor.
  69. The sincerity of a person’s faith, or lack thereof, cannot be determined by artificially assigning numerical values to the letters in his name.
  70. Nor can the sincerity of a person’s faith be judged by the religious background of either of his parents.
  71. Nor can the sincerity of a person’s faith be judged on the basis of what abstract categories of people he refuses to hate.
  72. The ultimate test of a person’s faith must be left up to God, the only true judge.
  73. The provisional, earthly understanding of who is a sincere believer and who is a hypocrite should be based on “the fruits of the spirit”, the first of which is a manifestation of love based on God’s compassion for all mankind.
  74. Pluralistic representative democracy, with universal suffrage regardless of sex, religion or status within the social hierarchy, is a relatively new form of government, not anticipated in the writings of the Bible or any other religious text more than 500 years old.
  75. Rather than taking this new democratic condition as a threat, believing Christians should be embracing this structure as an opportunity to return to the roots of their faith.
  76. One of the primary differences between Christianity and the related monotheistic religions of Judaism and Islam is that Christianity has no built-in norm of its believers being in political control of the societies in which they live.
  77. Having a secure position within society without being connected with the authority structures of the empire was the primary political goal of the writers of the New Testament.
  78. Traditions of interaction between empires officially sanctioned by the church and churches officially sanctioned by the empire are the basis of much of modern Western culture, but this is has been based very loosely on the teachings of Jesus, if at all.
  79. It is the acceptance of, and accommodation to, the political power of the Roman Empire (and subsequent empires) which the book of Revelation was warning the church against.
  80. Lust for political power, in this sense, represents the greatest threat to the original essence of Christianity. (Luther himself was too close to the medieval tradition to see this.)
  81. Thus the current international norm of secular, pluralistic democracy, not based on any official connection between religious and political powers, pioneered in the modern era by the United States, while breaking with long established European tradition, is in many ways idea for enabling Christianity to break free of these chains.
  82. Thus rather than fighting against the secularization of the state and the social diversity this allows for, Christians should be embracing this opportunity to draw closer to the roots of their faith.
  83. Efforts by Christian groups to reserve the right to sanction the legitimacy of governments and to be sanctioned as legitimate by governments run counter to this purpose.
  84. To say that Christian ethical standards take precedence over national laws is only true in those cases where the laws in question are intended to prevent us from loving our neighbors as ourselves.
  85. As a fundamental aspect of the Twin Commandment, the rejection of slavery and the maintenance of functional democracies, all young people should be given an education adequate for enabling independent thought and active participation in the processes of government.
  86. As a matter of ensuring the freedom of all, such education must be publicly provided, without disadvantage to the poor in terms of enabling independent thought and active participation.
  87. As a function of enabling the maintenance of pluralistic democratic societies (as the most promising environment in which Christians can strive to follow the teachings of Jesus), schools should not be used as means of reinforcing our identity in faith.
  88. As a matter of instilling the broadest sense of neighbor-hood possible, so as to optimally equip young people to fulfill Jesus’ command to love our neighbor, schools should not become segregated on the basis of religion, class, gender or perceived race.
  89. The failure of Christians to pursue these goals within their school systems, particularly in the United States, has been a disgrace to the cause of promoting the Gospel.
  90. Jesus’ greatest moral outrage was over the dishonest use of religious observances as a source of material gain, reflected especially in his cleansing of the temple.
  91. The acquisition of wealth and political power for their own sake, using the “Christian brand” as a means in the process, is the most painful on-going example of everything Jesus rejected in his teaching.
  92. “Mega-churches” can have moral legitimacy only in so far as they use their acquired wealth and power to meet the needs of those Jesus referred to as “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine.”
  93. If the leaders of the “Tea Party” and other organizations of the “Religious Right” were truly interested in following the teachings of Jesus they would start by ceasing to work to free the rich of the burden of helping to care for the poor.
  94. We must remember that, not being gods ourselves, the only moral requirements we are justified in placing on those who do not share our faith are those needed to protect the innocent from suffering within this (mutually acknowledged) lifetime.
  95. We must remember that the only evidence we have to offer to non-believers of the legitimacy of our faith is the extent to which it enables us to be compassionate to those outside of our own tribes.

I’m perfectly willing to change my mind on any of these… as long as someone can provide me with good reason why I should. But like my man Marty says,

luther1(1)

2 Comments

Filed under Education, Empathy, Ethics, History, Holidays, Love, Politics, Racism, Religion, Respectability, Sexuality, Social identity, Travel

Open letter to Daisy

For those of you not familiar with the case, going on two years ago now, one cold winter night two young teenage girls snuck out of the house to go to a party with some older boys from school, and ended up getting raped. One was dumped, undressed and obliviously drunk, in the snow outside her house. She lived to tell of it and to seek justice, but so far the only result of this quest has been that her (widowed) mother was fired from her job, her siblings have been threatened with violence, her family was driven out of town and local terrorists on the side of her rapist(s) burned her family’s house down. Last week she took the trouble to tell her story on line, mentioning how it has, among other things, made her stop believing in God . This is my response back to this deeply wounded girl.  

daisy

Dear Daisy,

First let me say that I’m sincerely sorry for your pain and all of the suffering you and your family have been through. I don’t pretend to know how it feels not only to be raped and treated as disposable, but then to have those who care about you terrorized for caring about you. I have my own problems in life, but I’m not going to pretend that they match up with yours.

By way of introduction all you really need to know about me is that I’m a man roughly three times your age, a school teacher to kids your age in Europe, and I’m currently working on my doctorate in philosophy of religion. What that basically means is that I’m supposed to be some sort of an expert in helping kids work through the question you asked (yourself) repeatedly in your blog about your recent trauma: “Why would a God even allow this to happen?”

Don’t take this as someone trying to defend the idea of God to you. You certainly don’t need that, and if there really is a God (probably best if we leave that question open for the time being) he wouldn’t need someone like me to organize his defense team for him. Think of me rather as one more well-meaning expert of sorts, who in the abstract knows something about what you’ve been through, and in his own particular area of specialization really wants to help if he can. The doctor who treated your vaginal injuries probably didn’t know what it felt like for you, but she/he knew something about how to prevent infection and help your organs to heal. Likewise (I would hope) you’ve had a social worker who probably doesn’t know how it feels to be you still trying to help you to return to something like a normal social life. The same would go the lawyers you’ve talked to, counselors you’ve been sent to and many others. Think of what I have to say as analogous to what they might try to say to help. I know you have been “spiritually wounded” in this series of events and that has left you with some deep and troubling questions. As that’s supposed to be my area of specialty, and as your blog caught my attention, please humor me as I try to offer what little help I can.

First let me say, as you probably know quite well already, your questions are nothing new. In fact they reflect what is probably the oldest and most important questions in the whole Judeo-Christian tradition. There’s an old running joke, with hundreds of variations on line, which sets out to explain world religions in terms of the old adage, “Shit happens.” They always start out by saying that the basic message of Taoism is simply that shit happens, and always end with the basic message of Rastafarianism being “Let’s smoke this shit!” In between, among others, the basic teaching of Judaism is always summarized as, “Why does this shit always happen to US?” There’s quite a bit of truth to that summary. Rather than the existence of unjust suffering being the death of their religion –– and consequently all of the other monotheistic religions in the world –– this question has become the most basic starting point and foundational consideration for their religion, and mine/ours. (I self-identify as a Christian. I know you don’t believe in any God at the moment, but I would assume it is some variation of the Christian God that you have recently decided not to believe in. Am I off by much?)

As you may know, the books of the Bible as we now have them are not arranged between the leather covers in the chronological order in which they were written. It’s a long story that I won’t bother to go into right now, but it is commonly believed among those who make a living investigating such matters that the oldest book in the Bible is the one we call Job, about why this guy who hasn’t done anything wrong goes through all sorts of hell anyway. I’ll come back to that later, but for now suffice to say, historically speaking at least, the problem of unjust suffering is just the starting point for belief in God, not the inevitable ending point for such belief.

But before getting into that, let me say that there are definitely a couple sorts of God beliefs that, based on your experience, you certainly should trash –– two common sorts of ideas about what God is that you should no longer give any credibility to.

First there is the idea of the tribal God: the sort of god who “is on our side” and helps us to “smite our enemies.” As a matter of building social solidarity and getting large groups of people to work together on major projects, almost all major human societies throughout history have had one sort of god or another, or some collection of local gods that they could call on, for this basic purpose. But in spite of how useful such beliefs can be as a team building shtick, and in spite of how much of this sort of belief has worked its way into various forms of American Christendom in particular, the sort of god that people make up to help them distinguish between their own tribe –– “the righteous” –– and everyone else –– “the heathens” –– is more useful to socially powerful jerks like Matt than to those like you who need protection and justice. Don’t be surprised if the sort of God that people make up to reinforce their tribal identities is of no use to you then, and don’t be surprised when some people claim that the Christian God is like that.  I could try to prove that such people are idiots, but rather than bothering with that let me just say that, as a Christian, that’s not the sort of God that I worship.

The other sort of God that you should not bother believing in any more is the sort of magical helper “upstairs” who takes all of the risks, uncertainties and unpredictability out of life. There are a lot of people who become religious because they have a hard time dealing with things being unpredictable and out of their control. For them religion doesn’t really work any differently than superstitious practices like rubbing lucky rabbits’ feet or nailing up horseshoes over doorways and the like. (Two sorts of people who are said to particularly depend on religion for superstitious luck improvement in this sort of way are competitive athletes and sailors.) But it doesn’t really work like that. As the Bible says, the rain falls on the just and the unjust. Good people too can have random bad things happen to them. For instance a preacher friend of mine has a grandson who has been battling with cancer for most of his preschool-aged life. If God were in the business of showing favor to his favorite people and keeping them from experiencing random suffering, why doesn’t he start there? No, life will always involve risky situations. You can limit those risks somewhat by following certain sorts of safety rules and by taking advantage of different forms of technology we have these days, but those things too can only go so far in stopping bad things from happening to good people.

So tossing those sorts of religious habits aside, what is left for you to believe in? Plenty actually.

You used an interesting turn of the phrase: “I lost all faith in religion and humanity.” I think I know what you mean there, but if we were talking face-to-face I’d still ask. I mean, if you were to say that you lost faith in God that might mean that you know longer believe that God exists, but when you say that you’ve lost faith in humanity you obviously know that humanity still exists. Likewise for religion. So maybe you’re saying that you just believe that, even if those things exist, you can’t trust them to “be on your side” any more. Part of that could be that you had rather unrealistic expectations about what humans in general are like. Might the same be said of your expectations regarding religion and God?

If this were a proper dialog I’d wait for your response on that and frame my comments based on how you actually feel about such things. Since we’re not in direct contact I have to sort of make up the next part not knowing if you can relate to what I’m saying or not.

Anyway, your blog has this (old?) picture of you holding a puppy. I’m glad to see you have such a friend. I hope you still have her/him. (A boxer?) My own dog is a Springer Spaniel, and without him I swear I’d be in a mental hospital today! Dogs are far more dependable as friends than people, beyond doubt. But dogs too have ways in which they can’t be entirely trusted. My dog, for instance, knows that he’s not allowed to have pizza, among other things, but if I were to leave him alone in the house with a pizza in a box on the kitchen table, even long enough to go take the laundry out of the washing machine, I could not be sure that he would behave himself and leave my pizza alone. That doesn’t make me love him any less; it just makes me more careful about was sort of chances I give him to do things we’ve agreed that he shouldn’t do.

Perhaps your experiences have, in some analogous way, taught you to be more careful in how you relate to people in general, and in what ways you need to avoid risks with them. Hopefully, as with our dogs, seeing the limits in how much people can be trusted doesn’t stop you from appreciating their value in other ways. The same might even be said of religion for you, but from here I can’t say; that may be pushing it a bit.

But whether through religion or through purely secular therapeutic perspectives on things, in terms of wishing the best for you I hope that you come to believe in two basic principles that are in some ways very, but not exclusively, religious: love and justice. Finding ways of learning to believe in both of these again is key to regaining a sense of your own beauty and of joy in life for the long term. These may sound impossible to believe in at this point, but please hear me out on this.

Justice would be the tougher one for you to believe in just now I’d imagine, so let me just say I believe in justice to the same extent that I believe in biology, and maybe you can too. In my first couple years in high school I had a syrupy sweet lady as a biology teacher; not the kind that any boys had crushes on, but the sort of kindly middle-aged woman that many kids wished could be their mother. As part of her personality she taught the subject in a rather fuzzy sort of way that sort of bothered my rational mind. We’d do an experiment with the different variables in growing pea plants for instance. We saw the difference that varying amounts of sun light, water, soil types, etc. made, but in any given sample group of plants you could never tell which ones would turn out tallest or have the most flowers, and she never tried to explain that to us beyond a sort of naïve assumption that “some things are up to God.”

Physics and chemistry didn’t have that sort of unaccounted variability to them it seemed. Once you knew what the input parameters were and how the system worked, you could predict pretty exactly how each experiment was going to turn out. Those sciences didn’t seem to have the same “slop” to them that biology did. Later I learned that it’s not that simple. If you get down to the microscopic and atomic level –– if you see the exact composition of every molecule within the seed or cell –– you can tell very exactly how it will behave or how big it will grow under given conditions. Biology isn’t actually as “sloppy” a science as it looks from a simple high school level. Likewise physics, when you get down to the sub-atomic level, gets a lot more random, requiring things like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and “Schrödinger’s cat” to make sense of it all. But that’s not important right now.

The point is that when it comes to justice, seeing that in individual cases it doesn’t seem to work the way it should on the surface of things doesn’t prove that there’s nothing to it. Problems of accounting for the slop in the system not withstanding, there really is something to the principles of justice, ethics and morality.

Of course this is not to say that you deserved to be raped or that your family deserved to have their house burned down! Anyone who tries to write off those tragedies as something you “had coming to you” cannot be properly described in vocabulary that teachers are allowed to use. The point is that there is a complex set of dynamics behind such events and a complex set of results that progress from such events, but dismissing it all as totally random doesn’t really help anyone.

Obviously you know in hindsight that you could have reduced your risks by not secretly experimenting with alcohol and not bypassing your older brother’s judgment in this case. No need to beat yourself up any further emotionally over those matters. The more constructive perspective on the justice of the matter at this point is in looking forward. The point now is that Matt in particular, and Maryville and Missouri collectively, cannot escape from “paying for this” on some level. Besides the different variations on the mystical idea that “karma is a bitch” and it’s bound to get them, if not within this life then thereafter (and those shouldn’t be entirely written off), there is the factor that by in practice denying your value as a human being and treating you as disposable, they have seriously discounted their own value as human beings as well, and effectively categorized themselves as disposable. That inevitably will have effects that cannot be ignored. Just as slavery and racist abuse throughout American history have seriously messed up not only the abused peoples but the abusers themselves, for Maryville to accept the treatment of teenage girls as disposable sexual objects cannot help but seriously mess up the individuals involved and the society there as a whole. Ultimately it has the effect of seriously reducing, if not eliminating, their capacity to love and to be loved, which leads to the other point I wanted to make.

At the risk of getting all fuzzy-wuzzy in ways you totally cannot relate to at this point (and sappier than my high school biology teacher to boot), love is something vitally important for all of us. Love is about more than sex and genetic survival and all that; it is about recognizing that my importance is not limited to what’s happening within my skin. I am, as a person, important to others, and they are important to me. I matter to people (and to my dog) and they matter to me. Love is about seeing others as more than tools for your physical enjoyment and competitive self-promotion. Sex, at its best, can be one of the ultimate expressions of love; though sex as you’ve experienced it is pretty much the polar opposite of love. But in spite of that, love is particularly worth believing in for you.

Believing that we can find these sorts of connections with others is a huge part of what makes life worth living. Lacking a capacity to connect with others in these sorts of ways is actually the basic essence of what hell is all about. In that regard your rapist certainly deserves to be in his own form of hell, and there is every reason to believe he is. No one can do what was done to you and still have a capacity to connect with other people as people. He may be admired for his athletic skill or for his family’s social position, but he can never know what it is like to matter to others as a person if in practice he treats other people as disposable. Through his actions then his life has come to mean nothing. Likewise a community or society which thinks it is OK to treat certain people as disposable is more than likely to become hell for most of its members. This is what turns countries into what are known these days as “failed states.” In the same sense Maryville may well be a “failed community” already. Those are more common than you realize.

In fact as the emotional wounds from your trauma heal, in your case it should be relatively easy to believe in love again: After the whole #justice4daisy campaign there are thousands if not millions of people around the world who feel your pain and see your value as a person as important. As you have inadvertently come to stand for thousands of other young women who are to one extent or another treated as disposable sexual objects, you must be acutely aware of the fact that you matter. Let the sheer volume of that love you are receiving soak in for a minute or two. Through your pain you have become important to many of us who will probably never have a chance to meet you even, not just as a symbol, but as a person. That has to be a good thing for you.

The whole question of love and importance becomes far more difficult for girls who go through variations of your same trauma every day in many countries around the world –– from victims of sex tourism in Thailand, to child brides in Arabic countries still, to those raped as an act of war in the continuous conflicts happening in much of Africa today. It is much harder for me to imagine how love and justice can come into their lives than to see how it could come into yours.

I don’t want to trivialize any young rape victim’s suffering by saying, “Don’t worry. It will all work out.” For many I know it won’t. That’s where I comfort myself by believing in a form cosmic justice that lies beyond the limits of this life, and where I keep working on doing what I can to promote justice and caring for others within this life as well. I haven’t definitively solved the problem of unjust suffering. I’m quite sure no one has. I can only keep working on doing my best to reduce it in ways that still enable life to go on for all of us.

Let me close by coming back around to that oldest book in the Bible I was talking about. The introduction chapter in the book of Job is actually the silliest part of the story: How could we imagine God still being God if he would intentionally choose to let a good man suffer excruciating agony of all sorts just to settle a silly random bet with the devil? Forget about that part for the time being. The important part is to acknowledge that Job really didn’t do anything to deserve to suffer. From there the thing is to look at the series of debates which make up the core of the book.

Job has three peers who come to see his situation and try to help him figure it out, all assuming that somehow he must have done something to deserve it. First we have this guy named Eliphaz, who responds to Job’s statement of depression by telling him that God is just and justice always works, so he should just pray about it and comfort himself in trusting God. Job basically responds to him by saying, “No offence, but it really doesn’t work that way. If you think there’s some justice in this then show me how it works.” Then comes a this guy named Bildad, whose basic message is that you shouldn’t pretend that you’re in a better position to say how things work than God is, and if you’re a good guy God will always put things right in the end. To him Job goes on a rant and says that he fully understands how much wiser and more powerful God is than him, but that doesn’t really solve the question of why this shit keeps happening to him. Then comes the third one, Zophar, saying, “How dare you mock God and claim that you’re right and he’s wrong on this one?!” To this Job basically says, “You’re not the only one to give me that sort of crap. People who have it easy always treat those going through rough times with contempt. But besides joining in to what the crowds have to say, what do you really know about it?”

From there they each take a couple more rounds going after Job, with increasing antagonism as things progress. Eliphaz says that Job’s mouth is getting to be the cause of his problems. Bildad says that Job in turn is not being respectful enough towards their perspectives. Zophar finds a particularly long-winded way of saying, “I feel rather insulted here, so to hell with you!” Job gives abuse back to each of them as good as he gets. Finally they all give up on trying to change each other’s minds about things.

That’s when a kid about your age, named Elihu, gets involved in the discussion. Elihu had waited to talk because young guys weren’t supposed to interrupt older men in their debates in those days, but he found it particularly frustrating that Job was trashing the whole idea of justice and that his three “friends” were ready to attack him without really having any grounds for their accusations. So when all of the others are done talking he lets them have it. After deconstructing their arguments (for 5 chapters) he basically points out that nothing we can do as people would really have that big an effect on God one way or the other. Rather than worrying about what we can do for God, and what God is ready to do for us in return, the point of religion should be to look at the incredibly majesty and mystery we see in the world around us and to ponder the wonder of being able to connect with something that incredible.

After Elihu’s speech then a huge tornado comes up and God starts speaking to these guys from the tornado, saying basically, “You know, the kid’s right.” It then goes on with 4 chapters’ worth of itemizing the marvels of the universe that make people and our problems seem pretty tiny by comparison.

The ending of the story is almost as problematic as the beginning: God tells the three friends that they owe Job a pretty massive apology, so they follow through with that, killing a truckload of livestock before God and Job to say how sorry they are. Job then forgives them and asks God to forgive them, and after that God makes Job all rich and successful again… as though, in spite of everything that was said in the debate, that would be what really matters. But some people need to see that sort of thing in order to find what God has to say before that as important. Such is life.

So what can you take from this long speech? (Sorry. Sometimes I talk too much: teacher’s occupational hazard.) Hopefully that you have a value that doesn’t depend on you being a “winner” in any sense. Your importance doesn’t depend on being the prettiest or the sexiest or the most athletic or the smartest even. Your value is based on your being able to connect with something greater than yourself –– being loved and being able to love in return. For all your sufferings, that principle is still worth believing in. Many religious people fundamentally miss the point on that one, so they might try to give you the same sorts of messages that Job got from his “three friends.” You may want to avoid such people if you can. But if you can find people who really “get” the message of Jesus –– about being able to love God and each other in spite of all our problems –– you might find their company and support quite helpful.

Whatever else happens, I hope you do come to believe in love and justice again in the aftermath of your tragedy, Daisy. I hope the same goes for Paige and for all others who suffer great travesties of justice in our world. Speaking not only for myself, but for the thousands who still believe in God and who have been touched by your story, our prayers are with you.

David Huisjen

39 Comments

Filed under Education, Ethics, Happiness, Human Rights, Love, Pop culture, Religion, Respectability, Sexuality, Social identity, Spirituality

In Search of the Sweetest Sorrow

E. H. Sothern &  Julia Marlowe in Romeo & Juliet-The Balcony Scene-Photo-B&W-Resized“Sweet sorrow” –– the random comment Shakespeare gave to Romeo about his feelings at leaving Juliet once they had established direct communication about their mutual crush (sorry, it’s hard for me to take their “epic love” more seriously than that, despite the tragic extent they took things to) –– is often taken to be the epitome of an oxymoron –– the basic archetype for such later linguistic absurdities as “business ethics,” “military intelligence” and “Microsoft Works”. On further contemplation, however, to me it makes perfect sense for sorrow to be sweet. Let me unpack that a bit for you.

As I begin this essay the subject for the day in the photo project I am playing along with this month is “sweetest”. I’m trying to avoid the cliché of submitting some cheesy would-be advertising photo of something sugary, so I’ve been thinking about how I might approach the theme in a way that can visually communicate something deeper than that. What is the true essence of all of the different things we take for sweetness? What makes a baby’s smile sweet? What makes the smell of a fresh spring meadow sweet? What makes a lover’s embrace sweet? What do we really mean by this word? I don’t subscribe to my summer school professor’s school of thought in saying that when a word has so many and such varied meanings we should take that as evidence that it has no meaning at all. But can we really get down to the very essence of the concept of sweetness in a way that we can identify some superlative for the category?

StrawberriesLet’s go back to the literal meaning of the term: sweetness is the pleasurable sensation sent to the brain by a certain collection of sensors on the tongue which are designed to detect the presence of sugars in our food. Sensing sweetness is a matter of simple evolutionary advantage: being able to guess with reasonable accuracy, without necessarily even being conscious of the process, which foods have the greatest likelihood of providing our bodies with readily burnable fuel. The positive sensation of tasting something sweet is nature’s way of telling us, for instance, that strawberries are likely to be more useful to our bodies than rowanberries as a source of energy. There are plenty of less sweet foods that our bodies can convert into sugars (and then fats) quite readily, but in evolutionary terms the instant-burn capacity of sugars is very useful for our bodies to be able to identify, and for us to be attracted to.

summer school 218Figuratively speaking then, sweetness might be said to be that which stimulates a positive emotional sensation that we can associate with being energized: something which increases our capacity to go forward, to face challenges, to overcome obstacles, to thrive in life. The “sweet” is that which fuels our passion for life and keeps us from giving up.

The analogy also seems to work in the sense that many things we experience as sweet don’t necessarily “work” in terms of actually providing us with emotional energy to get stuff done; they just give us a good feeling like they might have increased our energy levels, even if they haven’t. The world of media marketing contains many forms of “artificial sweetener” in our day-to-day experience. Or we could say that much of the “sweet” emotional stimuli we experience do not translate into a healthy capacity for action. Without going too far into psychological theory on the matter, this involves the media in question hyper-stimulating our immediate emotional responses purely for the sake of having these emotional responses immediately hyper-stimulated. In other words some films, video games and concert experiences do to our emotional response centers in the brain what triple chocolate fudge cake does to the taste buds on the tongue: blasting them with more stimulation than the rational mind knows what to do with as an end unto itself, entailing a certain number of health risks in the process. Just as that intense chocolate cake experience doesn’t improve one’s capacity for athletic performance, the “sweet” experiences of media events don’t really make us more productive workers, better friends to those around us or more loving family members; they just give us a sort of abstract thrill for its own sake.

In the commercialized society that we live in the “sweetest” of manufactured consumer experiences are given to the rich and dangled like a carrot in front of the poor: a positive incentive to keep them plodding onward. Or in many cases it’s more sinister than that: These addictive hyper-stimulating experiences are given to whoever wants to try them, who might someday have something to offer in return, in exchange for surrendering their freedom and entering into a cycle of debt. The poor are not encouraged to wait for gratification, just surrender their freedom in order to get it. In fact poverty these days can be defined in three essential ways. In ascending order of severity:
–          Lack of “normal” access to the “sweet things” in life,
–          Lack freedom due to debt,
–          Survival risks due to a lack of means to pay for health care and other basic needs, frequently blamed on their addiction to “sweet things” beyond their means.

In some ways this brings to mind the paraphrased version of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism that I’ve been teaching to 13-year-olds (as part of the world religions section of Finland’s national religious education curriculum) this month: 1) Life is a process of suffering. 2) You suffer in life because of your desires. 3) By overcoming desires and attachments in life you can overcome suffering. 4) Following the rest of the teachings of the Buddha can enable you to overcome desires and attachments. In some ways I deeply respect their ethic of escaping from the addictive behaviors we all tend to drift into and the pain we cause ourselves in the process. I would also agree with their assessment that when you open the door to life’s sweetness you also open the door to all of life’s sorrows. But I would flip the moral of that connection the other way around: Rather than rejecting life because it hurts too much, I recommend finding the sorts of sweetness in life that make the sorrows of life truly worthwhile.

buddhaThe best word we have for that process of embracing life in all of its messiness and painfulness, because in spite of those things there is something truly magnificent about life as such, is thriving. In this regard the reason I have for remaining a Christian rather than converting to Buddhism is because, in spite of all the sorrow I’ve experienced in life, I still would rather thrive with all my sorrows than attempt to escape from the thriving that causes them. In fact one of the messiest and most painful parts of life as we know it is one of the things that Buddhism, in spite of its escapist emphasis, still strongly recommends embracing: compassion. This word is usually used to designate the (theoretically) less self-interested end of the spectrum of emotional experiences we designate as love. All of them make life painful and uncontrollable; all of them play an important role in making life worthwhile.

Thus the sorrows associated with love –– embracing the pains and lack of control that go with forming connections with others, in spite of all of the others’ problems –– are the sweetest, most energizing thing we can find in life. Feeling shared sorrow somehow helps us know (or at least believe) that there’s something real in the connection, strengthening us in turn to work for the good of others, and producing the most important possible sense of happiness that we can experience within ourselves in the process. In short, there is nothing sweeter than the right kind of sorrow. If you don’t know what I’m talking about you really need to try it more.

This is not to say that all sorrow should be seen as sweet. Some sorrow is caused by our own stupidity, or by attempting to connect with people who are not capable of such connection; of loving us in return. This is not to say that feeling compassion for those who themselves have no capacity for compassion is necessarily a waste; it just means that hurting ourselves through building up expectations that by loving we can make people and things different from what they are can be a wasteful sort of suffering to put ourselves through. It is the same as many mundane forms of suffering that we go through due to our own stupidity at times: the suffering of food poisoning from eating improperly stored or preserved food, the suffering caused by car accidents when people don’t pay sufficient attention to basic safety precautions, the suffering that goes with frostbite or pneumonia from not dressing warmly enough on Arctic winter days, etc., are all fundamentally wasted forms of suffering. The only use they have, besides potentially eliminating you from the gene pool, is to teach you not to do the sort of things which caused you to suffer in such cases. Sometimes, however, it’s difficult to draw the line between learning from our mistakes and daring to love in spite of knowing that it will cause you pain, and just being stupid.

Highway Car WreckSo fully recognizing the risks involved, but knowing that without love life becomes largely meaningless, I continue my quest in search of life’s sweetest sorrows. Some particularly sweet sorrows that I’ve experienced thus far in life –– besides the romantic sort and those having to do with parenting –– have been the ones I’ve experienced as a teacher in helping young people adjust to the challenging process of becoming adults; or those I’ve experienced in various aspects of interfaith dialog, helping those of differing religious backgrounds recognize that people who don’t share their convictions are still worth befriending and caring about. Then there are the sorrows that I have shared with millions of others throughout the world regarding victims of nature’s or humanity’s cruelties, ranging from the Haitian earthquake victims to child soldier of sub-Saharan Africa to girls in Pakistan who wish to get an education beyond what religious extremists there feel is proper for them. I really don’t want to avoid susceptibility to these sorrows, as they draw out and bring together all that is sweetest and most noble about us as humans in general.

Malala - the iconic girl whose suffering the world in now particularly anxious to share and end.

Malala – the iconic girl whose suffering the world in now particularly anxious to share and end.

Obviously we each have personal limits as to how many such sweet sorrows we can imbibe in how deeply at any given time. Just as obviously, part of the point in consuming such sweet sorrows is to work on overcoming the causes for them. Romeo’s “sweet sorrow,” for instance, was a matter of motivating him to overcome the obstacles to him and Juliet being able to remain together. The sweetness of my sorrow regarding girls in Pakistan who bravely desire an education involves a hope that through a global focus on the problem we might be able to overcome it. Both hopes might be equally tragically naïve.

We are also prone to hunger for the sort of sorrows which, ironically, don’t draw us too far out of our comfort zone –– sorrows that help us feel we are part of a virtuous effort to overcome evils that we actually had no part in. It is easier to embrace the sorrows of those who suffer from natural disasters than it is to embrace the suffering of those whose poverty is compounded by our own greed and/or carelessness. It is easier for Americans to embrace the sorrow of children being denied access to clean water, healthy food and education in Pakistan due to tensions caused by religious extremism than it is for them to embrace the sorrow of children being denied access to clean water, healthy food and education in Detroit due to the collapse of the industrialist economic infrastructure there. It is easier for Europeans to embrace the plight of child soldiers in Africa than to embrace the plight of suicidal teenagers in their own countries. Confronting the causes of others’ suffering within ourselves is far more difficult than confronting causes of suffering for which we cannot hold ourselves responsible. In terms of the basic analogy here though, the latter form of sorrow may be sweeter, but the former is probably more nutritious for us.

Detroit public schools: a form of suffering Americans find more difficult to connect with for some reason.

Detroit public schools: a form of suffering Americans find more difficult to connect with for some reason.

I cannot claim to have mastered the art of selecting the sweetest forms of suffering yet. I’m actually not entirely sure that such mastery is possible. I am sure, however, that suffering is part of the sweetness of life, and struggling to avoid suffering entirely cuts off all possibility for human thriving as well. I would encourage each of you to fully embrace the sufferings that enable us to thrive as humans, and I would ask any of you who has especially profound insights as to how to find the best forms of suffering for each of us to please share them with me. Let’s keep doing the best we can from there.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Aesthetics, Education, Empathy, Epistemology, Freedom, Happiness, Love, Philosophy, Pop culture, Purpose, Risk taking, Sexuality, Spirituality

Dilapidation

The dilapidated signal tower of Muizenburg station a couple years ago.

The dilapidated signal tower of Muizenburg station a couple years ago.

This month I’m following the lead of Carol, one of my South African friends, in participating in a hobby photographers’ activity of posting a current picture for a given theme for each day of the month. I’m pretty sure that the initiators of the event are from South Africa, but there’s a fair number of us from the northern hemisphere also participating. But for today I feel the theme is a bit of a disadvantage to those outside of South Africa: “Dilapidated”. There are probably more picturesque dilapidated buildings, vehicles, monuments and people within any given square kilometer of the Cape Town area than within all of southern Finland.

001Thinking about the subject was an interesting way to start the day though. Since I junked my dilapidated old car in February, limiting my access to more remote ruins in the Finnish (and Estonian) countryside, probably the most dilapidated sight I come across on a week-to-week basis these days is the sight of my face in the mirror each morning.

Or is it? Is that really a fair thing to say? What does dilapidated actually mean anyway?

So of course I looked it up. Etymologies are always fun in such events. To dilapidate something literally means to get the building stones –– “lapides” in Latin –– of the property in question out of their proper places. In traditional British law “dilapidation” is the basis for a tenant not getting his security deposit back when he moves out of property left in bad repair. The same could be applied to a parson or other churchman being fined for letting the parsonage or parish properties get run down during the time they were in his care.

So how badly are my own stones, figuratively speaking, shifted out of place these days, and what sort of penalty might I be liable for in that regard? Hard to say. All things being relative, I could perhaps be taking better care of my body, but so far it’s holding together as well as can reasonably be expected at my age –– significant as that qualifier is.

029

The dilapidated breakwater at the harbor down the road from my apartment

This also brings to mind my recent Zygmunt Bauman readings again. How badly has consumerism and the “liquid modern” situation shifted the foundation stones of contemporary society? What are the most important foundation stones in that regard, for that matter, and what should we be doing to keep them in place? In Liquid Love (2003)  –– the last of my Bauman summer reading books, currently late for return to the library  –– the old social theory guru takes on perhaps the most fundamental aspect of the human experience: the relationship between love, sexuality and economic self-interest. After exploring the concept of “pure sex” as a commodity in the consumer economy for a while he makes the speculative statement (p. 47), “Intimate connections of sex with love, security, permanence, immortality-through-continuation-of-kin were not after all as useless and constraining as they were thought and felt and charged to be. The old and allegedly old-fashioned companions of sex were perhaps its necessary supports (necessary not for the technical perfection of the performance, but for its gratifying potential).” These stones, however, are rather thoroughly out of such a place these days. Does that mean that sex has become dilapidated? Can the de-commercialization of sex put these stones back into place? Is the de-commercialization of sex merely a necessary condition for some other cultural force, like religion, to reconnect sex with its former necessary “intimate connections”? How willing are we to see the clock turned back in this regard?

033One significant part of the question is the extent to which we are willing to defy the capitalist/consumerist status quo. How far can we escape the urge to put a price on everything as the measure of fair exchange? How much can we allow ourselves to give and receive without price “merely” for purposes of having a sense of connection with each other? To do so is to defy the market system’s absolute sovereignty over our lives; to enter into some level of “unofficial” or “underground” economic activity. Not to do so is to accept that our lives have no value beyond what someone is willing to pay for them in an officially recognized “legal tender”. Taken to its furthest extreme, allowing the market to maintain absolute sovereignty might well make human life itself untenable and unbearable. What hope do we have for fixing this? De-dilapidating sex and social life may well, according to Bauman (p. 48), call for “consumer rationality to be deprived of, and to shed, its present-day sovereignty over the motives and strategies of human life politics. This would mean, however, calling for more than could be reasonably expected to happen in the foreseeable future.”

Some stones are best left right where nature put them.

Some stones are best left right where nature put them.

In some regards Bauman is taking this discussion back to Kant. Commenting on Kant’s minor 1784 treatise What is Enlightenment?, Bauman (p. 125) says: “Sooner or later, Kant warned, there will not be a scrap of empty space left where those of us who have found the places already occupied too cramped or too inhospitable for comfort, too awkward of for whatever other reason uncongenial, could seek shelter or rescue. And so Nature commands us to view (reciprocal) hospitality as the supreme precept we need to  –– and eventually will have to –– embrace and obey in order to bring to an end the long chain of trials and errors, the catastrophes leave in their wake.” Thus in Bauman’s perspective (and mine) striving to create a cultural atmosphere which encourages treating of others as ends and not means –– loving your neighbor as you love yourself –– considering the well-being of others to be part and parcel of our own well-being –– is the best utopian hope we can harbor for reducing the likelihood of humanity’s self-destruction.

This also relates to the eschatological dystopia spoken of in the Bible’s book of Revelation. The mysterious “mark of the beast” –– the number 666, or some close variation on such –– near as we can tell, was a coded reference to Caesar Nero, in whose honor the most commonly distributed CD-ROM burning software package these days is named. Nero, according to legend, started the major persecution of Christians throughout the Roman Empire as an exercise in scape-goating with regard to the great fire of Rome in the year 64 of our calendar. As the story in Revelation goes, there is a dragon, a beast coming out of the sea, a junior beast and a big statue of the first beast, all being strongly connected with the number 7 (as in the 7 hills of Rome) and the number 10 (perhaps related to the fact that Vespasian, Caesar at the time of the Roman legions’ destruction of the city of Jerusalem, was the tenth Caesar of the empire); who together form the ultimate opposition to the forces loyal to God/Jesus. It is the first beast from the sea which gets the famous triple-six number. This beast is basically considered to be invincible by its fan club, and it comes back from seemingly certain death a time or two. But its trademark characteristics are waging war against the righteous and establishing dominance over economic affairs.

018Leaving aside all of the numerological puzzles contained in the text for the moment, assuming that Nero did have a hand in the great fire and that the Christians were innocent scape-goats in the matter, the purpose of lighting such a fire would have been to eliminate part of the city market area that was outside of the emperor’s control and to enable him to rebuild in a way which gave him far greater control over the economic structure of the city. This would fit together quite well with the idea that the human name based code number for the “mark of the beast” was/would be Nero’s name, and that its purpose was/would be to control all economic activity: “…so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name” (Rev. 13:17). The next chapter declares a major curse on anyone who goes along with “the beast’s” economic control program: “There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name” (Rev. 14:11).

019

There are a number of fantasy interpretations of this text popular these days, as there has been in many phases of the history of Christendom, but I would propose a more practical application, in line with what Bauman has to say about the sovereignty of market forces over our lives: Those who place a higher priority on economic power than on love, loyalty and justice –– who are willing to turn a blind eye to the abuses that are perpetrated by the economic powers that be, which enable these powers to strengthen their grip on things  –– create their own personal hell for themselves and set themselves up as the enemies of God/goodness/righteousness/justice. To be on God’s side we must be willing to prioritize non-market values over market values. Not doing so leaves us thoroughly spiritually dilapidated.  012Meanwhile, while contemplating visual manifestations of dilapidation, I took Luna, the dog I am baby-sitting this weekend, and walked down to the little harbor closest to my apartment. I knew that there is a relatively new breakwater there which is somewhat prematurely dilapidated in the more literal original sense of the term. I also suspected that there might be some boats down there in less than ideal condition. Along the way we went to explore a hilltop ruin of some sort, which at one time would have commanded the best sea view in the district. I can’t say what the original building was, but these days it seems to provide a location for young people and rebels of all ages to party and practice their graffiti skills. It was as definitive an image of dilapidation as I might have hoped for.

This in turn opens another contemplative aspect of the dilapidation question: is it healthiest to sometimes just allow certain stones to slip out of the places we had in mind for them –– to let the dynamics of life to somewhat break free from the structures we try to use to contain them, even if that significantly damages the structures themselves? Sometimes perhaps so.

016I appreciated the fact that the ruins I explored today were not entirely fenced off, like some of the more interestingly dilapidated sections of Suomenlinna, the island fortress outside of Helsinki. I respect the local authorities’ judgment calls in both cases though. The ruins above the Haukilahti harbor which I visited today are of little historical value as such. Preserving them in some nostalgic form would not serve to genuinely enable a deeper sense of contact with the struggles and accomplishments of previous generations. One of the most important purposes they can serve is as an outlet for dilapidation as such; a place where those who feel a need to be unruly can be so with relatively limited risk to themselves and others. Outside the opening in the rusty chain-link fence around the ruins there is a sign with a mildly stated warning that there are certain risks involved in exploring such dilapidation, so be on your guard and don’t try to blame anyone else if you end up hurting yourself in here. Suomenlinna, on the other hand, is a UNESCO World Heritage site, with all sorts of associated rules and restrictions and preservation requirements. It also has significantly higher walls over rocky coasts, offering significantly greater risk of self-injury. I would still like to be allowed to climb around in some of the areas they have fenced off these days, and I believe I could do so with relatively limited risk, but I get the idea of why they’d want to try and stop me from doing so, and I’m willing to abide by those limits in that case.

A "re-lapidated" section of Suomenlinna I explored a bit at Midsummer

A “re-lapidated” section of Suomenlinna I explored a bit at Midsummer

Finding the right balance between keeping our rocks in the places we want them and letting them slide around a bit as they are wont to do –– literally and figuratively –– is one of those matters about which general rules can have limited validity in their specific applications, generally speaking. The important thing is to keep believing that we each have a value that consumerist dynamics cannot quantify, and that we must never allow market forces to take from us.

Leave a comment

Filed under Aesthetics, Economics, Ethics, Love, Philosophy, Religion, Sexuality

Autumn Flowers

Apologies, to anyone who might have noticed and been disappointed about it, for not posting anything last week. I have been working on a more ambitiously contemplative piece on “othering” while at the same time attempting to get some “real academic work” done, so I didn’t end up getting anything finished enough to publish here. I’ll be putting that essay up when I’m satisfied with it, Meanwhile I thought I’d put up a quick random stream of consciousness piece about my afternoon walk in the autumn air today.

Autumn flowers 006I went to the morning mass at my local Lutheran church this morning, which I don’t actually do that often. It’s a quiet local parish with a pretty, relatively modern chapel less than five minutes from my house by bicycle. This morning I just happened to wake up at an hour where it was easy enough to get there, and I just decided that I’d like to go to a Eucharistic worship service today, so I got on my bicycle and went.

I actually got there about 5 minutes late, and was surprised to see an old lady outside the church selling long-stemmed roses from white plastic buckets in front of the door. Inside the chapel was surprisingly full for a regular autumn Sunday morning, and soon I realized that the reason was a confirmation celebration for 20 of the local young people. It’s a bit late in the season for those, but why not.

This made the ritual significantly different from the normal routine. It would be longer than usual, and more oriented towards providing a rite of passage for the families in question than a worship experience for outsiders like myself. I slipped into the back and settled in to observe and marginally take part anyway. There were a number of neo-cliché efforts at being hip with Finnish church camp style worship choruses accompanied by violin, guitar, piano and drums. There was a much larger than usual delegation of families with young children, who were just familiar enough with the setting to be bored by it. And besides those being confirmed there were a number of other teenagers present trying to be both ceremonially formal and “edgy” in their own way.  Two rows in front of me there was a teenage couple consisting of a boy in a formal black blazer with a hot pink shirt underneath, accompanied by his heavily made-up girlfriend, who looked like she got a lot more sun than he did, and who kept adjusting her short, strapless cream colored dress to keep it in the tiny strategic area where it would not entirely expose either her top cleavage or her bottom cleavage. Every now and again she would turn to talk to her boyfriend, showing her conspicuous false eyelashes to the back rows. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of that show for me was to find myself viewing it with something resembling Buddhist detachment.

The epistle reading was one of the portions where Paul talks about circumcision not being that important. The decidedly un-hip female priest who gave the sermon didn’t seem to notice that she wasn’t speaking into the pulpit microphone, so it was rather hard to hear her over the restless children in the back third of the chapel, but I don’t think I missed much. She was trying to provide some basic life lessons for teenagers who are rather unlikely to darken a church door again within the next few years. There was one part about the dangers of excessive computer gaming; the rest pretty much went past me. No one was there to hear an inspirational sermon anyway. Most were just there to celebrate these young people, none of whom I happened to know this time, officially becoming adults in the eyes of the church. And other than the acne scars on most of the boys, they did actually look quite adult already.

Autumn flowers 007I didn’t bother to stay for the “third sacrament” –– church coffee hour. Instead I headed home to try to get some writing done, but I was struck by a few beautiful images along the way, so I took a walk around with my camera before settling into my little home work station.

Autumn flowers 022Autumn has definitely arrived. The birches and maples still have some green leaves, but they’ve also lost quite a few of their yellow and orange ones already. Most of the bushes on the sides of the road and along the paths through the woods are in one way or another making their last ditch efforts to get their seeds into places where they’ll have reasonably good chances of forming new plants in the spring. The aronia bushes are bent over with the weight of their fruit that no one other than me seems to have a use for, begging for birds to come and gorge themselves on the berries so their seeds can be shat out into new growth frontiers for the plant. The fireweed stalks, meanwhile, have gone entirely greyish brown, having blown out the last of their wind-born seeds weeks ago. Rose hips are starting to shrivel and drop to the ground, with their seeds ready to endure being deep frozen close to the mother bush. We haven’t had any frosts yet, but all around there is this glorious swan song of nature starting to shut down for the year.

Autumn flowers 016But in wandering around capturing this sort of visual magic I noticed something out of place: Some plants seem not to have gotten the message that it’s time to shut down. Some wild rose hedges are still trying to flower, and among the falling leaves there are still pink and white flowers trying to lure in bees to help them pollinate. I feel like telling them, “You’re running a bit late, aren’t you?” But they seemingly reply, “Hey, why not? We’ve still got the energy, the bees can use the late season nectar, and we gave you a smile, didn’t we? Besides, who knows; we might still get an extra seed or two out of this process.” To that all I can say is, “Respect!”

Autumn flowers 027Maybe that is also what was happening in the church this morning. There are plenty of indications that the season for growth in that sort of traditional church is pretty much over, and that these young people are no longer particularly interested in the beliefs behind the traditional rituals, and the rituals themselves are fading in importance. Yet there they go, attempting in this late season to somehow blossom – to put on the sort of display that would make you think they think it’s spring. Well… why not?

Autumn flowers 034I’m not sure how far this analogy applies to my personal life, as I move beyond the age where I would seriously consider fathering more children yet continue to search for what satisfactions I can find in single life. How much effort should I put into “blossoming” at this point? Should I just realistically accept that it’s no longer spring for me and avoid looking like a fool in pretending otherwise? Yet on the other hand, what else should I do with my remaining energy in life than to continue trying to find ways of somehow being beautiful and hopeful, albeit in more subtle ways as my autumn deepens?  Something for me to keep contemplating.

Autumn flowers 039Just some random thoughts on a partially cloudy September Sunday afternoon. Take them for what their worth. Enjoy the accompanying pictures. And beyond that I guess I would say, dare to be beautiful, even if you can’t really expect to get much in return for your efforts and even if you have to break with the expectations of your environment in doing so.

Leave a comment

Filed under Aesthetics, Empathy, Love, Purpose

The Essence of Expertise in Religious Matters

I promised my virtual friend James that this weekend’s blog would be in response to his inquiries about what I consider to be the core issue of expertise in religion in general. More specifically he tells me, “We had a…  conversation about this in the past. At the time you said that some religious authorities might be experts in something different from philosophers — not necessarily metaphysics or ethics.” To be honest about it, I don’t remember the details of that specific conversation, but I don’t question his word that we had such a discussion at some point.

So where should I start with this? How can I present this in a way that is accessible and somewhat interesting to folks other than James and myself, without repeating too much of what I’ve already blogged about this summer?

I suppose I should begin with a few comments about the limits of language in such matters. I was recently reminded of the Frank Zappa quote, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” There are many different expressions of human creativity and the human experience which have a very imprecise correlation with each other. Put in another way, there are many different sorts of “truth” that we humans can try to express to each other. The western tradition has been justifiably faulted by those of the African, Orthodox Christian, Indian and Oriental traditions for being too preoccupied with what might be called a forensic aspect of truth: what can “be proven in court beyond reasonable doubt” –– or in the words of a blogger of the Orthodox tradition that came up on my feed this week, we are preoccupied with a “flat” or “literalistic” interpretation of truth. This is where we get off on reducing religion to a collection of positions on metaphysics and/or ethics that largely miss the point of what religion is there for. We become so busy with our dance that we fail to see the architecture for what it is.

But here I’m trying to communicate to James and others something of what this other level or dimension of religious reality is all about without just retreating to empty clichés about its “otherness”. Given the limits stated above, the best way I know how to do that is in terms of exploring the concepts of connection and integrity. The point of religion is both to enable us to deepen our sense of connection with essences and realities from beyond our own physical and phenomenal limitations, and to “hold ourselves together” and discover what the meaning and purpose of our individual identities are. In many senses these two purposes can be at odds with each other, and the struggle to balance them with each other creates an on-going dynamic and learning process which (I believe) needs to be the center of the religious life in general, and the Christian experience in particular. Now let’s see if I can unpack that a bit for you.

The great dilemma of philosophy of religion is that the building blocks of epistemology –– the investigation into the question of how we can really know anything –– are based largely on processes of alienation. There is a great truth to the aphorism, “Whoever discovered water was not a fish.” In order to recognize the existence of water as such we need to be aware of something other than water. For a fish to make the discovery that water exists it needs to have the experience of being taken out of that water. Thus much of the process of investigating the basic realities of what makes life what it is for us inevitably involve fish-out-of-water experiences for anyone who really wants to know about such matters.

Beyond that, the process of learning always involves an element of comparison, and comparison involves holding things in separation from each other –– frequently putting them in opposition to each other. Any time, as a teacher, I divide a class into small groups for a review game, I create false borders between those who will end up as the “winners” and the “losers” for that particular exercise. In the pursuit of a greater depth of knowledge this is considered to be a justifiable risk  –– or acceptable collateral damage –– but it also clearly illustrates how our pursuit of knowledge can lead to a reduced sense of harmony and connection with others and with the world around us.

Thus it becomes necessary to have certain professionals within our societies whose job it is to somehow bring the people together again, and to re-establish harmony between neighbors and between mankind and our environments. Those who performs such tasks are very commonly referred to as priests or priestesses; sometimes figuratively, sometimes literally.

Yet if in this process of re-establishing harmony the “priest” causes people to doubt or to lose track of what it is that makes each of them unique and valuable –– making everyone think of themselves and each other as indistinct parts of a nebulous mass of being “one with everything” –– he may be doing more harm than good. Like the organs within the human body, recognizing that they are interconnected and mutually dependent does not make any given organ less vital to the whole. Each organ has to have its own integrity for the whole to be able to function. So in addition to bringing people together and building a sense of commonality, another vital part of the religious leader’s job is to help people discover their own distinct value within the whole and to develop a basic set of principles to live by that enable them to “hold themselves together” as individuals on a day-to-day basis.

These processes of discovering and developing an integral personal essence for myself as a person and discovering and developing the forms of connection I have with the people and the world around me are profoundly challenging on-going processes. These are the essence of religious or “spiritual” life. A number of different traditions have developed over the millennia of human experience to guide us in these processes. Some have worked better than others. Arguably the most successful has been the Abrahamic monotheistic tradition, and not just for reasons of historical coincidence. This is not to say that this tradition has reached a state of perfection in any one particular form as many of its various fundamentalists might claim, but that it has provided a variety of very useful means of enabling people to conceptualize their relationships with each other and a greater reality which have led to some particularly successful civilizations, by whatever measure you care to use.

But to look at religion as a means of building materially successful and securely self-perpetuating societies is, from the perspective I am talking about, to put the cart before the horse. This is where the most fundamental difference between what we might call a scientific paradigm and a spiritual paradigm comes in. The scientific perspective could be said to focus on the dynamics of physical forces colliding with each other and struggling against each other to make our world what it is. Gravity, centrifugal force, inertia of various sorts, magnetism and a variety of chemical bonds interact in sometimes more, sometimes less harmonious ways, randomly producing reality as we know it, pretty much by coincidence. To the extent that any of this has any meaning it is a matter of the conflicts between these forces, and their random abstract manifestations in our macro-level experiences, result in victory for some forces and defeat for others. By trying to influence which forces are able to succeed in given situations, and by trying to arrange to be on the “winning side” in as many conflicts as possible, those of a scientific perspective set out to give their life meaning through the dynamics of conflict.

The spiritual paradigm, on the other hand, looks at things from the perspective of love rather than conflict being the most important thing in life. Rather than defining ourselves in terms of what and whom we can overpower, we can define ourselves in terms of what and whom we can connect with most deeply. My meaning is not determined by the extent to which I can prove myself to be one of the fittest for survival, but by having the privilege of interacting with what is most beautiful and magnificent in life, and contributing to this beauty and magnificence for others to experience.

There is no denying the interconnection between these two paradigms. Not only, as stated above, does a sense of connection provide a competitive advantage for some, seen by those who prioritize the scientific perspective as well, but a battle against “the forces of evil” frequently sets the conditions under which spiritual interactions take place. There is very much a yin-yang relationship between the factors of conflict and harmony here: they continuously spin around chasing each other, and at the very center of each is the other. This, however, does not keep them from having very different implications and sets of priorities. Another good virtual friend of mine, Pastor Brian Zahnd, expressed it particularly well in one of his Facebook statuses this week:

“Deep down don’t we at least suspect we are really made for shared relationship and not competitive acquisition?

But we’re thrown into a modern world where identity and purpose are almost entirely based in a ruthless contest for status and stuff. […]

Attempting to yoke God to that kind of agenda is what the Bible calls idolatry. God harnessed as means. The holy reduced to utility. It’s what Abraham left Ur to get away from. It’s what the Spirit call us away from.”

This is not a matter of reducing the religious experience to just “stories, rituals and social needs” as James suggested at one point in our discussions this week. It is a matter of a matter of exchanging our cultural yin for a much deeper yang as the basis for our lives. It is not a matter of more precisely defining the forces in conflict with each other (metaphysics) or finding socially acceptable competitive strategies for ourselves (ethics), but of turning the whole paradigm upside-down.

Let me illustrate what this means to me by telling something of my day-to-day experiences this week and how I define myself in relation to them. On Monday my younger son, Kristian, began his compulsory Finnish military service. While he’s doing his first few weeks of basic training he agreed to loan me his car. This whole phenomenon of our father/son relationship, the significance of compulsory military service within this society, and the symbolic role of the vehicle in question within our social dynamics are all complex issues unto themselves. Let me paint through them with broad brushstrokes by saying that I chose to relate to each of them in terms of the love expressed rather than the competitive factors involved.

Which one looks sort of like me?

Which one looks sort of like me?

At times I have my doubts about how thoroughly my sons realize how important they are to me and how much I love them, in spite of all of the barriers that have come between us over the years. Sometimes I get the feeling that they are “playing me” to get what they can out of me for their own competitive advantages in life, but other than staying honest with each other about such matters there’s no point in dwelling on such negativity.

With regard to the compulsory military service, Kris is not in any way significantly tempted to try to get out of it. While on the one hand it is a matter of being ready to kill those who would try to seize control of his homeland, its more direct meaning for Kris is one of taking part in a form of competitive bonding with his older brother and his peers in terms of proving what he is capable of physically and socially within that context. In many real ways it is far more love than hate which comes out in his motivation for being there.

The car is actually an expression of social identity for Kris as much as it is a practical means of transportation. I haven’t always approved of his motivations to try to gain social acceptance through having the right sort of vehicle, but then again he hasn’t always approved of the particularly ugly but practical vehicles I have driven over the years. (Ten years ago when I was driving him to soccer practices he used to ask me to let him out around the corner from the field so his teammates wouldn’t tease him about my car, literally!) In any case, it is was a significant exercise in trust between us when I loaned him most of the money to buy his current “sporty and cute but practical” set of wheels, and it is a return gesture of love and trust for him to loan me his “baby” for this time when he is otherwise occupied.

My primary interest in having the car was to have the opportunity to visit with one of my dearest friends in the world: my old spaniel, Mac. When I left for my year in South Africa I gave Mac up to a new family which lives down the Finnish coast a ways from the capital region. In many ways this was painful for me, but in all respects it has turned out to be a perfect fit for Mac. He has now lived with his new family for a full 2 years, and while there is still a bond between my furry friend and I, he clearly loves his new home and the whole family clearly loves him. Getting to visit with him this week, for the fourth time since my return from Africa, was a much anticipated treat. I would almost call it a spiritual experience in itself.

July w 021In one sense a dog can be considered as basic “property” but that’s not really how it works. I fully identify with the prayer, “God, help me to be half as good a man as my dog thinks I am.” It’s not a matter of having a status symbol I can be proud of, but a matter of having a personal connection with a loyal friend that helped keep my sane for many years. Following up on that connection with personal visits continues to have its own therapeutic value for me, but that’s not all there is to it. There really isn’t any other adequate expression for it than “sharing the love”.

I’ve tried to make it perfectly clear to Mac’s new family that I’m deeply grateful to them for the way that they’ve enabled him to thrive in his new home, and I would not consider trying to take him back for my own selfish therapeutic needs. Borrowing him for the afternoon once in a while, when it fits together with their agenda, is something I deeply appreciate though. In fact I consider my life to be that much richer for this family’s friendship based on our mutual appreciation of our four-legged friend.

July w 039Anyway, as I was leaving on that trip, since the radio antenna is broken off on my son’s car, I got out a old collection of CDs from his trunk that I forgot I had loaned to him, and I chose Stevie Wonders “Conversation Peace”. This wasn’t a big hit album for him, since it admittedly ranges from rather preachy to rather sappy in places, but along the trip I was still struck by the extent to which Stevie “gets it” spiritually:  Love, in many different senses of the word actually, is our best chance of overcoming the greed and corruption which plagues our societies. This ranges from appreciating the sensuous whispers of an intimate partner to feeling a new lease on life based on fresh human contacts, to taking a stand against the senseless violence caused by the ridiculously competitive and unregulated handgun market in the United States, to having a capacity for repentance when we cause pain for others, to very overt songs of prayer and worship. If you want to understand what the basic message of Christianity means to me personally you could do much worse than giving this album a listen.

The challenge of balancing these factors of connection and self-respecting integrity is no easy matter. The sheer difficulty of the challenge involved has led many who have found functional systems along these lines to jump to the conclusion that their particular tradition represents the only right way of thinking about such things. It would also be fair to say, however, that many of the followers of the scientific paradigm have fallen prey to the same fundamentalist impulse at times. A philosophical perspective, which theoretically doesn’t take sides in this matter, sees both forms of belief in the absolute finality of their own truths as equally problematic. This is why, as Bertrand Russell noted, philosophy is subject to attack from both scientists and theologians much of the time. Yet both scientists and theologians –– both those focused on discovering the dynamics of material conflict and those interested in developing a capacity for transcendent love –– inevitably and reluctantly go through processes of learning from their own mistakes. To characterize either paradigm according to the behavior of its fundamentalists is equally objectionable. To say that those of either paradigm are more or less capable of admitting their mistakes and learning from them is blatantly prejudiced and untrue.

But of course I have my own biases here. As a proponent of what I have labelled as the spiritual paradigm, in spite of the argumentative tendencies that I continue to recognize within myself, I prefer increased connection to perpetual conflict –– I am honestly more interested in building friendships than winning arguments as my primary goal in life. I recognize, however, that there are those for whom having the experience of intellectual power is more important than searching for meaning in life beyond our competitive urges. And yes, I do realize that some of the nastiest competitors in such manners use religious dogmas as their primary weapons in the fight. Thus, even if this were a perfect statement of my position (which I am quite sure it is not) the debate could never end here. Thus the best I can hope for is that those on the other sides are willing to compromise to the extent of introducing a bit of mutual respect into the ideological struggle. If that level of compromise with a spirit of harmony is too much for them… so be it.

3 Comments

Filed under Ethics, Love, Materialism, Philosophy, Religion, Skepticism, Tolerance

Master Statuses

As a number of my former students have gone on to study social sciences in Scotland in particular, please forgive me for retelling a crude old Scottish joke that I was reminded of lately. Please forgive me as well for any mistakes I make in approximating the classical form of the joke:

An old Scotsman was sitting at a bar, well into his cups, bemoaning the unfairness of life. “Y’know,” he says to whomever might be listening, “I’ve probably pulled more fish out of the sea than any two of these blokes in here, but nobody calls me ‘McDuff the fisherman’.” He takes a sip on his whiskey and goes on, “I fought in the royal marines and have medals for bravery in combat, but nobody calls me ‘McDuff the marine’.” Another sip. “Give me a bagpipe and I can play you any tune these hills have ever heard, just as loud and sweet and pure as you could ever hope to hear, but no on calls me ‘McDuff the piper’.” Then with quivering lip and a repressed tear he says, “But ye shag just one lousy sheep…”

This basically explains what sociologists mean when they talk about someone having a “master status.” Whatever other virtues and vices a particular person may have, if there is one particular distinction which overshadows all others, which prevent the other things about him or her from being recognized as important, that becomes the person’s master status. Regardless of what else he does in life, Paul McCartney will always be primarily known as “the ex-Beatle.” Regardless of the genius he demonstrated in other areas, Ted Kaczynski will always be known by most simply as “the Unabomber.” Regardless of what artistic and philosophical contributions he may have to offer to the world in his own right, Frank Schaeffer (the fifth) will always be known to most people who have ever heard of him as Francis Schaeffer’s renegade son.

The thing that reminded me of this joke and this state of affairs is the story of Geronimo Aguilar that has been making the rounds this past week. “Pastor G,” as he is said to be known among his friends and admirers, for whatever else his virtues and accomplishments in life, will be known according to the combined master statuses of “megachurch pastor” and “sexual predator,” and he stands a good chance of going back to prison for the rest of his life on that latter account. This isn’t a unique combination of master statuses; they almost seem to go together in the public imagination as readily as “Catholic priest” and “child molester”. Needless to say, the vast majority of megachurch pastors are not sexual predators, and the vast majority of sexual predators are not clergymen of any sort; just like the vast majority of Catholic priests are not child molesters, and visa-versa. But the overlap is familiar enough where it brings a cynical grin to many a skeptic’s face.

pastor-g-geronimo-aguilarIt doesn’t really help that the individual in question looks far more like a porn star than a preacher. With his shaved head, is conspicuously muscular build, his exposed tattoos and his close cropped goatee, one could easily stereotype based on appearances that having his way with women would be a significant part of his life. But then again, reaching out to the unchurched and those caught in cycles of self-destructive behavior in a thoroughly street-credible way might explain most of that image. Or then again, it might not.

Other aspects of the image portrayed in the coverage of this event fit squarely within the stereotype of American evangelical megachurch culture though: acres of retired school busses used by the church to bring in kids from the community to be evangelized; a headquarters composed of a set of strip-mall-style buildings just off a major freeway; an Israeli flag flying next to the stars and stripes on the church roof; a luxurious colonial styled “parsonage” for their leader in the suburbs; a combination of admiration, jealousy and suspicion expressed by outside “community leaders”…

I must also say, however, that frankly the reporting on this scandal is riddled with inconsistencies. To start with it claims in one place that Aguilar started this “ministry” in 2003 (ten years ago by my math), but then he is quoted as saying in his resignations speech that “Serving you all and leading this church have been the best twelve years of my life.” Then that mathematical mismatch is further complicated by the accusation that a girl whose family joined into the church in question when she was 5 years old was seduced by Aguilar just after she turned 18. Something here just doesn’t add up. That seems just to reinforce the message that none of us really know enough to judge, but with such a juicy gossip topic at hand that lack of actual knowledge about the situation isn’t going to slow things down much.

Without rattling off a series of names of guilty parties in such matters, why is it that so many men in high positions of spiritual leadership have such a hard time keeping their pants zipped at strategic moments then? And beyond the question of finding it hard to resist temptation when presented with adoring fans who want them sexually, why is it that so many seem to be prone to using their influence to pressure others (usually women, but not always) into physical intimacy? I can’t claim to know too much about this from personal experience or from having such leaders confide in me directly, but I have been close enough to such cultures to make some valid conjectures about the matter.

Elmer_Gantry_posterMy primary point would be that this is really not based on an Elmer Gantry narrative, at least not as a general rule. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Sinclair Lewis’s character, Gantry is an “elegant drunk” who becomes a fundamentalist preacher just for the thrills and sensual benefits the job has to offer, while never really taking the message to heart or constraining himself to live according to it. This character has really set the standard for condemnation of religious hucksters ever since. The problem is, it doesn’t really connect with what makes corrupt religious leaders tick. Martin Luther King Jr., for instance, had as difficult a time controlling his erotic urges as any religious leader ever, but that makes him neither a huckster nor even a hypocrite –– just one more screwed up human being who was doing his best to leave the world a better place while somewhat carelessly appreciating what life had to offer in the brief time he had it.

The core of the issue, as I see it at least, involves the interaction between the top three ways of searching for happiness in life: control, confidence and connection. (See my “Kristian’s Ethics” series starting here for further explanation of the terms.) Depending on the individual in question, some powerful preachers are essentially motivated by the thrill of being able to have a major impact on the lives of others; other preachers, more by being able to change the world –– put a ding in the universe, as Steve Jobs used to say –– in what they consider to be a positive way; still others, more for that satisfying mystical sense of being deeply connected with God, the universe, and people around them. All of these things can be related to a requirement of having mastery over one’s sexual urges, but all of them also relate to basic forms of satisfaction in life that can have a very sexual element to them. Let me unpack that a bit for you.

Especially those preachers who are in conversion-oriented churches and denominations, when they’re good at what they do –– getting people to make significant changes in their lifestyles and religious affiliations –– they get a certain thrill in the “win” that each convert represents. It is the same sort of thrill that a good litigating lawyer gets from presenting a successful closing argument; that a politician gets from winning a hard-fought election; that a salesman gets from closing a big deal. To deny that much good can come from people having such motivations at times is foolish. Obviously seeking such a thrill can cause people to do some particularly admirable and some particularly disgusting things morally. The danger is that an addiction to the sort of thrill that comes with being able to control people in this sort of way can have the effect of reducing the leader’s moral judgment as to which types of “wins” are morally justified and which are not. Take that far enough and seduction becomes just one more form of victorious control over others to feed that habit.

The sense of confidence in one’s moral value can function in much the same way. When someone is particularly good at problem solving, conflict resolution and social reform, that too brings its own addictive high. It isn’t necessarily about being able to get people to do what they want so much as being able to establish a vision for how things should ideally be and to bring that vision to pass. It starts with wanting to see people getting their thrills from being among believers singing worship choruses rather than being drunk in a pub singing karaoke or high on heroin in some ghetto shooting gallery. Being able to give people hope of better things, make society a safer place, setting up organizations that reduce suffering and increase the peace… all make us feel better about ourselves in a very satisfying way. Part of how that works is also being gracious about allowing some people to do nice things for you in return, so that they too can feel good about themselves as part of the exchange. And when it comes to doing simple things to make each other happy, sexual tensions are often not far below the surface.

Then there is the sensation of feeling deeply connected with others. In some very basic ways the ecstasy of religious euphoria can affect the brain in much the same way as chemical “E” –– “the love drug.” When you start to really feel that you are part of others and others are part of you, and we’re all part of something much bigger than all of us, hugs and kisses between participants become very free and natural. From there the temptation to allow the physical and emotional closeness to keep building becomes very powerful at times. Some are better at keeping this on a Platonic, brother and sister level than others.

So from the perspective of these three forms of satisfaction being intensively in play, it is not terribly surprising that so many religious leaders end up getting caught in embarrassing moral situations. This doesn’t justify their indiscretions, and certainly not their predatory practices, but it might explain how they tend to slip into such so easily at times. From this perspective the Catholic practice of clerical celibacy –– keeping the whole possibility of sexual intimacy off the table once and for all for all of their professional promoters of spiritual love –– might not be as crazy as it sounds to many outsiders. Then again, that clearly has not been a foolproof solution either. The best we can do, I imagine, is to remain on our guard in terms of which trusted individuals might be hoping for what extra forms of satisfaction at times; and to bear in mind what we want our master statuses to be, and how our various actions might end up affecting them.  I still believe that control, confidence and connection are the greatest factors to be developed in having a satisfying life, but I also believe that we need a certain amount of mastery over where they might lead us.

The idea of the master status is that you have one status which takes over everything about your life to one extent or another. It is not that you have a status which causes you to be recognized as a master; it is that the status itself is master and you end up becoming its slave or prisoner. Some statuses make better masters than other. Some we have more control over than others. So as much as it is within your power, choose your potential master status carefully.

Leave a comment

Filed under Control, Ethics, Freedom, Love, Religion, Respectability, Sexuality, Spirituality

Is there an Alternative to Secularism and Fundamentalism?

In trying to be a good little boy and use my summer vacation from teaching productively in terms of my doctoral studies, over the past week and a half I’ve been reading a fair amount of theoretical literature about the sociology of religion. Part of what I have realized in the process is that there are effectively two paradigms that dominate the discussion in the field: secularization and fundamentalism.

secular marchThe sad narrative goes something like this: Starting in the late 1700s a series of revolutions started to seriously weaken the political authority of churches within the western world. Priests were allowed no role in government in the United States, the power of the cardinals was demolished with the collapse of the monarchy in France, and the political authority of the papacy became a thing of the past in southern Europe in general. This led to Copernicans being allowed to come out of the closet, and other ideas that would have previously been considered dangerous heresies to develop and advance –– the most infamous being Darwin’s theory of evolution. By the mid- to late 1800s the Vatican states had collapsed entirely; Comte, Marx and Freud were each predicting the complete demise of religion as a force within society; and Nietzsche was declaring that God was already dead. A concerted effort to phase out traditional Christianity and to realize a new, “more advanced” sort of social structure started to take shape among western intellectuals.

Within Christianity some German theologians in particular started working on developing new variations on the faith which would be less at odds with these modern ideas, but rather than making Christianity more relevant this merely made it more relative: rather than putting the faith in touch with new realities these theologies had the general effect of making it harder to see how there could be any distinctively Christian message left. It sort of helped the secularists prove their point. Other Christian leaders, however, particularly in the United States, went to work with great vigor on trying to defend the traditional understandings within their various branches of Christendom as eternal and unchangeable truths. They declared that there are certain basic ideas which are absolutely essential, or fundamental, to anything which could dare to call itself “Christian”. Thus within this sort of siege mentality the social phenomenon of “Fundamentalism” was born.

Over the course of the twentieth century secularism and fundamentalism continued to do battle with each other. After starting out as a Protestant Christian reaction to modernization, variations on fundamentalism began to spring up within other religious traditions as well, most notably within Islam. Effectively those religious movements which remained “mainstream” and interactive with the modern world have become less and less relevant culturally and politically, while those who have been seen as taking a strong stand in promoting the implementation of God’s will –– sticking to “eternal truths” regardless of how unpopular they are with the mainstream –– have managed to draw significant numbers of new converts continuously. While these new, radically conservative religious movements have not been able to establish anything like the sort of power base that the Medieval Catholic Church had –– or even the sort of pull that the first generation Protestant Reformers had within central Europe –– they have progressively become the most politically significant forms of religion in the world today. Particularly intimidating in terms of world peace over the next generation are the Saudi, Pakistani and Iranian variations on Islamic fundamentalism, and the US “religious right” variations on Christian fundamentalism together with some of its radical off-chutes in developing countries.  BRAZIL-MARCH FOR THE FAMILY

The information revolution of the past generation has further intensified the battle between these trends. Anyone can find as much reinforcement for their extreme positions as they could hope for, 24/7 –– telling you why you should ditch all religion as nonsense, or telling you that you need to stand and fight against the global conspiracy to destroy your faith, whatever your taste may be. The question is, is there any alternative left between these two extremes?

Before taking this question further, I think it is useful to unpack one current distinction in terminology: between secularism and secularization. Secularization is a matter of sociological theory which addresses the fact that religious institutions do not have the sort of power that they did a couple of centuries ago, or even a couple of generations ago. This much is in many ways self-evident in most western societies, even in the United States. This is not necessarily an indication of a victory for a group of politically and intellectually anti-religious activists who can be referred to as “secularists.” Such activists undoubtedly exist, and have a significant audience, particularly in Europe, but they don’t really deserve much of the credit or blame for the reduced role of Christianity in, for instance, determining what hours shops will be open, or determining which children are “legitimate” these days.

What I am talking about here though is the ideological battle between secularism –– the socio-political effort to phase out religion as a factor in public life at least –– and fundamentalism –– the religious belief that the teachings of a particular faith tradition need to remain unchanged and unquestionable as a social norm, with subsequent claims over all aspects of public life. For both of these ideological movements the social realities of secularization make up the essence of the cultural environment in which they function.

So is there some viable middle ground to be found between secularism and fundamentalism then? To address this challenge we have to stop to consider what we regard as the basic point of religion is to begin with. There are a few alternatives to be considered. It seems that most secular sociologists are making a combination of two assumptions on the matter: the point of religion is either to enable social control or to secure magical help in day-to-day life, or both. On the first account it could say that a cultural assumption of a religious or biblical standard being binding in society was once useful as a means of creating cultural solidarity and mutual trust and the like; but this also had its down-sides in encouraging things like gay bashing and witch burning as accepted social practices. The second consideration puts Christianity on even footing with Shamanism: rather than worrying about pleasing God or building an ethical code for its own sake, it implies that people are worried about God sending the rains so that their crops grow. Then if they get beyond worries about this life then maybe they’ll start worrying about life after death as well, needing magical assistance in securing a favorable position for themselves there as well. As far as the basic purpose of Christianity goes I believe both of these assumptions are fundamentally wrong, but in terms of understanding portions of the social dynamics within particular societies they are worth taking seriously at least.

Knowing where you want to go is an important part of getting there. If what you really want is a safe, comfortable and controllable life in the material world, and that’s really all you want, then a secularized technological perspectives on life is probably the most effective means of getting you there. Not that prayer and use of technology are mutually exclusive. If I were to become seriously ill I would definitely use both, and I really don’t think I’m alone in that matter. But I would not substitute prayer for taking medication or whatever else a trusted medical professional would recommend on a purely materialistic basis. In many very fundamental respects we all depend on modern technology to keep our lives functioning safely and dependably. In the western world one important fruit of this technological perspective is that, unlike just a few generations ago, having a few children in each family die of disease before reaching adulthood is no longer the norm within society. Another significant effect of the technologically driven world that we live in is that I can sit here and write this in my low budget teacher’s apartment, with no significant financial backing for my ideas, and with minimal skill in using publicly available technologies I can send out this essay realistically expecting it to be read in 50-100 countries. So overall I think it’s fair to say that rather than depending on prayer as a means of magical control of our environment we can more reliably turn to technology to help and protect us in practical terms.

Sports technology company Suunto came up with a pretty funny ad about technology replacing luck.

Sports technology company Suunto came up with a pretty funny ad about technology replacing rituals to improve our luck. If improved luck is the point of religion for you…

This deserves two important qualifications though: First, our technological approach to life can have many horrible unforeseen consequences, which we need to be watching out for continuously. We have not yet mastered the art of using our technological skills and possibilities in sustainable ways. We as humans have burned out many habitats where we have set up shop, sometimes successfully moving on to other places afterwards; sometimes dying out en masse as the result of our mistakes. The only thing that’s really changed about that dynamic over the generations is that we’ve got fewer and fewer alternative habitats to move on to when we burn out our old ones these days, and our impact on the planet as a whole is more something we need to pay attention to than in the old days. So in this respect we need to limit the faith we put in technology as we now have it, carefully insisting that it serves us and not visa-versa.

Secondly, there are many aspects of faith healing –– involving feeling a sense of purpose and in our lives and a sense of connection with forces beyond ourselves –– that really do work in terms of helping our bodies to heal at times and helping our technical operations in this world to function more efficiently. Praying really does help people to be more successful on all sorts of different levels. Regardless of your understanding of why that might be, there is really no point in trying to deny this fact. This is not to say that prayer is as effective as modern technology in terms of realizing many basic goals, but as a factor operating in conjunction with technology, or in the absence of technology, there is plenty of evidence that it really does work somehow. At a bare minimum it reinforces a sense of being loved, which any medical doctor can tell you is not something to be belittled.

In any case, on the other end of the spectrum, if the strongest possible sense of social control in society is really what you are looking for, then fundamentalism is probably the most effective way of getting there. As one old agnostic acquaintance of mine on line pointed out some years ago, “Just look at the pyramids. Religion gets s**t done.” The less you allow religion to be questioned, the more s**t it is able to get done. There are a number of more politely expressed and politically accepted variations on this theme, ranging from the writings of Nicolo Machiavelli to those of Francis Schaeffer, with the common theme that if people can be assumed to share certain religious values, you need far less authoritarian brutality to keep them in line. And when you do use authoritarian brutality, if you do so in the name of a god that everyone trusts in they are far less likely to revolt and make a (literally) bloody mess of things as a result.

Beyond that, as a matter of temperament many people do not want to live in a state of uncertainty about any more than is absolutely necessary. They want things to be cut and dry and simple; clearly understood by all as operating according to “proper principles”. If that’s the way things have to be for such people, an absolutist understanding of religious tradition is the most tried and true means of keeping things that way for them.

But such pragmatic considerations aside, these aren’t the most important aspects of religion –– or “spirituality” –– to be considered. Part of the broader perspective necessary has to do with the qualifications stated above regarding the usefulness of prayer at times, but more to the point would be the consideration of the enduring role of some traditional religious practices even in secularized societies: rites of passage, the most important of which are affectionately known as “hatching, matching and dispatching.” What is it that continues to make baby dedications, church weddings, and religious funerals –– and to a slightly lesser extent coming of age ceremonies of various sorts –– within religious settings popular even with essentially non-religious people? It could be argued that these rituals have been used as means of controlling people and bringing good luck to those participating, but neither of those explain why people want to keep doing them these days. There’s obviously something more to it than that.

Why is it really that church weddings continue to mean so much to so many people?

Why is it really that church weddings continue to mean so much to so many people?

These rites are means of marking out times when the overall meaning of life is most profoundly being considered and open to question –– when people are thinking about why we’re here, what it means to be human, what we might hope to accomplish in life, what meaning our lives have to others, what makes someone a “good person,” and the possibility of something more “out there” that ties all of this together. It is in its capacity to consider these matters that religion distinguishes itself from being just an expedient of politics or a crude form of control to be replaced by technology.

The essential Christian answer to these questions of the meaning of life is in what Jesus taught were the most important commandments given by Moses –– the Twin Commandment of Love: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself. We must first find a way of relating to the transcendental principle that gives our lives true meaning, and embrace it fully and without reservation; and once we have that established we must recognize that each of us is essentially connected with all of those around us, and we need to treat them accordingly. It is the process of developing this sort of meaning in life, not the politics or the luck improvement rituals, which is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian –– perhaps what it means to be a religious or spiritual person in general.

It must also be recognized, however, that while there is a very generalized seeking and vague awareness of the challenge of finding meaning in life, that makes particular religious rituals at different phases of life feel particularly comforting, it has always been a small minority within the population who truly “get it”. In this regard I believe that Sören Kierkegaard was on the right track –– in the generation before secularization and fundamentalism became significant social dynamics in northern Europe –– in saying that the religious mob mentality that was dominant in his time had little to do with the message of Jesus. True faith is a matter of individual connection with a power beyond ourselves, in a way that is not intended to win popularity contests. What the masses are into as means of establishing social acceptability is never going to be a matter of loving God with one’s whole being.

kierkegaardFrom Kierkegaard’s perspective then secularization is hardly to be regarded as a threat to true faith; quite the opposite. It is only when faith can be seen as a matter distinct from social respectability that it can truly have significance as a dynamic unto itself. This does not mean that Kierkegaard would have been happy about the program of secularists –– those whose political agenda includes the elimination of religious observance as part of everyday social interaction. He would have wanted God to remain important in people’s lives in ways that these folks have made it their mission in life to deny. But secularization as a progressive historical trend towards less mass religiosity within mainstream culture is something that Kierkegaard certainly would have received as very good news.

Fundamentalism would have been a greater problem for Kierkegaard. Trying to distill the essence of Christianity down to a set of doctrinal standards intended to provide a safe basis for social identity and a valid criteria for controlling and judging others is precisely what the gospel is not about. In fact this is a greater threat to the processes of learning to find meaning in our lives through loving God and truly connecting with our neighbors –– believers and non-believers alike –– than either secularization or secularism. But I believe that Kierkegaard would believe that in spite of the Fundamentalists who attempt to dominate religious dynamics these days, those who truly seek God with all their hearts will still be able to find him.

There is still something to be said for the argument that human beings have a near universal sense of spiritual craving, unfulfilled and ignored as it may be for most people. But somewhere deep down inside, almost everyone wants to find a sense of transcendental purpose and social harmony based on connecting with factors beyond themselves. In our secularized age many people turn to experiences other than religion to fulfill these longings. In this regard, while reading up on the passing of “Funky Claude” Nobs this year, I was rather struck by a quote from Deep Purple front man Ian Gillan, saying that for 40 years he’d never done a concert without Smoke on the Water because “it’s almost a spiritual experience. The song no longer belongs to us… we just accompany the crowd.”

Deep+PurpleThat sounds about right actually. Rock concerts involving standard anthems enable people to experience a sense of transcendent connection with those around them in ways that few other things do these days. If religion fails to enable people to find such experiences they will seek them elsewhere… with varying degrees of commitment and success in finding what they are looking for.

I’m not really sure how important it is in the big scheme of things, but I’d sort of like to see more sociologist of religion actually get this point.

2 Comments

Filed under Love, Purpose, Religion, Respectability, Social identity, Spirituality, Tolerance

Forms of Freedom

In case you haven’t heard, Finnish is a rather funny language. It has a particularly unusual grammar structure, and the vocabulary is less inter-related with other languages than pretty much any living language in the industrialized world. There is a word for borrowed words which is in itself rather interesting: “sivistyssanat”. There is no literal translation for the word “sivistys”, but it implies something of personal refinement and development. So borrowed words used in Finnish are thought of somewhat as signs of cultural refinement. Nevertheless, there is an intense effort to find alternatives to these “sivistyssanat” in day to day use. The inventive ways of using the basic etymological building blocks of Finnish to develop conceptual equivalents to terms used in English, German, French and Russian is an art form unto itself here. Some of my favorites:

unique –– “ainutlaatuinen” -> literally “of a solitary quality”

simple –– “yksinkertainen” -> literally “of a one time sort”

complex –– “monimutkainen” -> literally “having many twists/turns”

This week I became aware of another Finnish alternative to a particular borrowed term: I’ve always freely used a Finlandized variation on the English word “spontaneous” when speaking Finnish: “spontaaninen”. A paper by one of my university course-mates, however, pointed out that the properly Finnish term for this is “omaehtoinen” –– literally “having one’s own conditions”. In other words the Finnish understanding of spontaneous action is to do things on your own terms, not being submitted to conditions set by others. I had to ask about this, because in many ways this strikes me as an interesting linguistic effort, but a bit of a near miss conceptually. Our professor confirmed that this is a standardized official translation, but the philosophical contemplation of how spontaneity actually works would be a long discussion unto itself.  Fair enough. So for this weekend’s blog I’ll just toss out my own preliminary perspectives on the meaning and value of spontaneity as it relates to the cultures I’ve lived in, and open the matter up for further debate here if anyone is interested.

The process of setting standards to live by is indeed an interesting one to analyze. There are animal trainers which will tell you that “an obedient dog is a happy dog,” and there might be some truth to the adage. Continuous contests of wills between the dog and the humans in question make everyone a bit stressed and frustrated; if the four-legged family member has accepted a more submissive role within the pack that is completely natural and satisfying for the dog, and for all others concerned. That is not to say, however, that in order to have a satisfied life the dog should lose its own will and personality entirely; in my opinion quite the opposite. A dog has a greater degree of satisfaction in life, and makes a more satisfying companion for humans, when it can decide some things for itself, and communicate its own joys, interests and desires to other members of the family at times.

My old dog Mac is generally well house-broken and capable of following most necessary commands for contented life with a family, but he is also quite prone to do things occasionally according to conditions he sets for himself. In his old age he is deaf as a post, and he tends to use that as a bit of an excuse for wandering off in the directions of interesting smells. He knows where the limits of his territory are supposed to run, according to the conditions set for him by others, and when he reaches those limits he generally stops to check as to whether or not there is anyone interested in enforcing his boundaries. If not, he will happily wander off in search of whatever adventure life has to offer.

Mac on a spontaneous trip to the beach last year.

Mac on a spontaneous trip we took to the beach last year (my spontaneous decision, not his ).

If any blame needs to be assigned for Mac’s tendencies in that regard it falls squarely on me. It could be said that he’s sort of been socialized into my own bad habits: doing things less according to standardized norms and more according to whatever seems workable on any given occasion. This goes with the territory of being what Jungian analysts refer to as a type-P (for “perceiving”) as opposed to a type-J (for “judging”) personality, and in that regard I admit to being something of an extreme case. I tend to allow myself to work on things that interest me in the moments when they interest me, even if that totally screws up my sleep schedule at times. I tend to leave things where they lay and deal with cleaning tasks and the like only when the clutter becomes a practical hindrance to my random activities. I have to put a serious effort into being places and doing things according to an agreed schedule; it never comes naturally to me. I don’t consider myself to be lazy, just… overly spontaneous. That spontaneity allows me to be inventive, humorous, problem-solving and personally open to the sort of surprises life always throws at us in ways that J-types have more difficulty with.

But this doesn’t mean that I consider myself to be a better person than the J-types. Nor do I consider them to be less free than I am in the sense of being able to set their own conditions in life. When I visit with the sort of friends who always have a place for everything and everything in its place –– who have a regular schedule that they keep week in and week out that they don’t want to have disturbed –– I can see that they have their own sort of freedom: they have the ability to set their own rules in ways that enable them to feel entirely in control of their own lives. The rules they follow are ones they have fully chosen to adopt, at least as completely as I am capable of choosing when I allow myself to do things more randomly. When I am their guest I try to make a point of not stealing their sense of control from them by messing with their carefully structured lifestyles, and when they come to visit me I try to make some effort to have the place at least minimally sanitary and organized according to socially accepted principles. Inevitably I slip somewhat and I try their patience at least as much as they try mine, but among those I care about and who care about me in return we’ve learned to deal with that and accept each other in spite of our differences.

This comes to where I would question the Finnish etymology for their word for spontaneity: I agree that freedom has something to do with setting your own conditions, but I would argue that J-types are more thorough in setting and consciously owning such conditions, whereas we P-types are more properly spontaneous in terms of being capable of doing things without dependence on plan or structure.

There are many, however, who would say that those of us who live without properly structured guidelines for our lives lack a fundamental sort of freedom. Whereas I might be prone to think of my more organized friends as “slaves to the clock,” they could just as justifiably label me as a slave to my own uncontrolled whims. This can be tied to an idea that, like the obedient dog, humans can only be properly in harmony with life when they are able to do things rationally and logically. Some theologians would go as far as to say that the fall of mankind that got us kicked out of the Garden of Eden had to do with losing our capacity for submission to God’s completely rational and transcendentally ordered standards by drifting off to do “our own thing”; and the practical goal of religious redemption should be to enable us to return to a more completely rationally organized and self-disciplined and thus sinless state. Their savior, they believe, came to make life more controllable and less unpredictable and messy. I am more inclined to believe that our savior came to embrace life in all of its structure breaking messiness –– to heal the sick and spontaneously pluck grain on the Sabbath –– and to enable us to accept all of the things about ourselves and each other that we can never control and predict as much as we’d like to.

What is worth recognizing here though is that neither the P-types nor the J-types have a right to remake God in their own image –– the greatest and most dangerous of religious temptations, that we never completely escape from. What Jesus preached was that we should place a personal attachment with God ahead of all other pursuits in life, and that we should learn to empathize with those around us as completely as possible: the twin commandment of love. This means P-types having compassion on J-types in spite of what we might in Freudian terms call their anal fixations, and J-types having compassion on P-types in spite of their slovenly lack of discipline at times.

Meanwhile, when it comes to a sense of freedom in terms of both self-regulation and spontaneity, we are confronted with the question of raw determinism and what, if anything, we can do to escape it –– or if it really is worth escaping from in the questionable event that it is possible. What is the form of slavery that we need most to liberate ourselves from? What addictions are most dangerous to the process of learning to thrive in our most basic human essence (which religious folk call “the image of God” within us)?

My take is that this is a very individual question. Each of us is faced with a variety of things that functionally prevent us from being able to live at harmony with ourselves and each other. Some of these are problems caused by holding ourselves and each other to overly strict abstract standards that have little to do with the genuine process of human thriving. Some of these problems are caused by a lack of impulse control and capacity for delayed gratification. Pretty much everyone I know has to struggle for balance between these factors so as to achieve a lifestyle that would generally be regarded as “free”.

Such is my spontaneous deliberation on the contrast between spontaneity and living according to one’s own conditions. If native Finns in particular would like to challenge my perspective I’d be more than happy to spontaneously discuss the matter further and perhaps adjust my standards.

Leave a comment

Filed under Empathy, Ethics, Happiness, Love, Philosophy, Religion, Respectability

Monday’s Losses

Monday, April 8, 2013 will go down in history the day on which two particularly significant women passed from this life: Annette Funicello and Margaret Thatcher. I put them in that order on purpose. Maggie was the older of the two and the more recently famous, but Annette comes first alphabetically, and I honestly believe that she had the more positive influence on the world we live in. I stated in a Facebook status on Tuesday morning that I would not want to see Annette’s death overshadowed by Maggie’s, and this received mixed responses. So I thought I should explain why I see things that way.

Not that I am a huge fan or deep resenter of either of them –– and they each had plenty of both –– but I recognize both of these women as having reshaped people’s perspectives on how society should work and what makes people valuable. I don’t think either of them actually thought particularly deeply about the matter, but in following the paths that came naturally to them they both left a huge mark on the world in this regard –– probably greater than I ever will in both cases. Some consider the world to be better off for what one or the other of them contributed; some consider one or the other of them to have profoundly damaged the basic values that we should live by. I’m ready to take something of a middle position on both accounts.

Both of them had relatively full, rich and long lives. Both had been out of the public eye and profoundly disabled by degenerative diseases that eventually killed them for over a decade already, so it’s hard to consider either of their passings to be particularly tragic. Rather both provide especially good opportunities for reflection on what makes particular individuals, and human life in general, valuable. What values should we be fighting to protect from women like these, and what new perspectives represented by women like these should we be heartily embracing?

bikini-beach-annette-funicelloAnnette was the embodiment of two monumental cultural aspects of the 20th century: the Disney princess cult and the early years of rock and roll. Both have a rather mixed cultural legacy in terms of providing purportedly harmless entertainment while sending conflicted messages to young people about what they should be looking for in life and trying to make of their lives.

Disney was never edgy in the same way as Warner Bros cartoons. It was perfectly natural to see Bugs Bunny in drag starting to seduce Elmer Fudd, or to see Daffy Duck flying up to join a migrating flock of his own species promising, “I’m good company! I know lots of off-color jokes!” Mickey Mouse would never do or say anything of that sort. Even the pants-less Donald Duck gave no indication of ever being a sexual being in those sorts of ways. Old Uncle Walt was a stickler for traditional propriety. His amusement parks were famous not only for their wiz-bang adventure rides and tie-ins to children’s films of various sorts, but also for the clean cut, white bread image that all of their workers were required to maintain.

But Disney’s stock and trade was folk tales and fairy tales from various parts of the white-skinned world, with most of the brutal violence and sexual innuendo of the originals scrubbed out and replaced with post-war American Dream optimism of various sorts. Then to increase their market appeal new abstract forms of sex and violence were introduced: Chaotic but bloodless chase scenes, gun fights and brawls helped maintain the myth within Disney versions of these tales that with sufficient courage, determination and magical weapons of various sorts, good could always defeat evil in violent conflict. When it came to sexuality, all of the Disney female role models are built like Barbie Dolls, and boys’ and girls’ abstract desires to hug and kiss each other, and perhaps to run away together to take things further, were part of the essential dynamic of most classic Disney stories. Annette was basically a live action model who enabled Disney to present this fantasy princess character in more than animated form.

The sixties fundamentally screwed up that clean-cut cultural image for everyone though. Attempts to keep depicting the Beatles, the Beach Boys and their clones as “really nice young men” were destined to failure, and at the end of the decade Woodstock provided the perfect symbolic funeral for that fantasy of traditional respectability living on in popular youth culture. Annette, however, even while surrounded by armies of corny rockers and bikini-clad go-go girls, never stepped out of the wholesome, principled yet drool-worthy image of the real life Disney princess.

But regardless of the wholesomeness of her image, very carefully guarded by the Disney apparatus, Annette became the first child starlet of the television generation to go from being a cute little pre-pubescent girl to watch cartoons with to being a full-blown glamour girl and sex symbol. Her essential commercial value was based on being “lovable” in two very different senses. In this regard she paved the way not only for later generation Mouseketeers Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, but for many other little show business girls who have had identity issues in the process of becoming sex symbols. The open question remains, is this a bad thing? Should we rather be steering little girls away from having a value based on their capacity to make boys hornier –– from living according to expectations set by men’s sexual fantasies? Or on the other hand, if some girls are able to play this sort of role while still maintaining a capacity to carefully choose their mates, and if they can eventually establish the sort of family life that they want for themselves, like Annette did (sort of), where’s the harm in that?

It could be argued that the whole underlying theme of the musical Grease –– written as a nostalgia piece about the fifties already in the seventies, and still running strong as a popular DVD and a staple of amateur theater nearly 40 years later –– was to explore the tensions and contradictions inherent in Annette’s public image. Whatever the case, she simultaneously played the roles of both the Disneyesque “good girl” and the object of teenage erotic desire with a rare sort of dignity. With her open display of intense sex appeal combined with her deep traditional values she leaves us asking ourselves how much we are willing to respect women who live up to our other cultural standards but willingly allow themselves to be sexually objectified–– a question worth asking ourselves repeatedly from era to era.

margaret-thatcherAnd then there’s Maggie. No one could accuse her of allowing herself to become a fantasy sex object –– quite the opposite. It is said that no one who really knew her would ever think of calling her “Maggie” even; such a casual nick-name was the total antithesis of her persona. But as she was a public figure who is otherwise a stranger to me, I’ll take the liberty.

Margaret Thatcher’s image and impact is based quite directly on not being attractive, and not being particularly lovable in any sense. To the extent that she is loved by anyone it is for her unsentimental attacks on the post-war socialist norms of British, European and global politics. She didn’t seem to care about people as people. She was more interested in whipping the lazy plebes into shape and getting things operating as efficiently as possible to fulfill the desires of the rich and powerful, and for this she made no apologies.

The hallmark of Thatcher’s reign was the Falklands War of 1982, where she sent the Royal Navy and Air Force to keep the Argentinians from permanently taking over these chunks of rock out in the south Atlantic. In order to keep these islands –– and the 3000 British subjects and 500,000 British sheep living on them –– British, as a matter of principle, Mrs. Thatcher decided that it was worth expending £3 billion and a thousand or so lives. More importantly, she couldn’t have remained in power to solidify her tax cuts for the rich and service cuts for the poor without such an exercise in reinforcing what was left of British imperial pride.

It says something further about Maggie that she considered Chile’s General Pinochet to be a good friend and Nelson Mandela to be a dangerous terrorist. Yet this was perfectly consistent with the rest of her agenda: busting up labor unions as far as possible, selling off government-owned corporations to finance tax cuts, arguing that economic polarization is not a bad thing, reducing government spending on poor families with children and offering them some potential savings in turn by making late-term abortions easier to come by. Yet many of my acquaintances in America’s religious right still want to see her as a cultural hero. Go figure.

Some consider Mrs. Thatcher to have been the British female equivalent to Ronald Reagan, and since Reagan is somehow seen as having improved the world, Thatcher too must have been a force for good. Their combined opposition to Communism and all political phenomena associated with such are believed to have been the final factors bringing about victory in the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact alliance.

After Thatcher, Reagan also began a new era of military adventurism and wars of choice. Seeing how well Thatcher’s little war off the coast of South America played out, a year and a half later Reagan decided to declare a little war of his own in the same region, seizing control of the little island country of Grenada. Grenada had become independent of Britain less than a decade earlier and it had been going through a string of unstable Marxist dictatorships ever since, so it looked like a pretty good place for the US to start restoring order in the world and telling these Marxists where to go. After that came the covert proxy war for control of the Central American country of Nicaragua, paid for by secretly selling weapons to Islamic dictatorships that the US Congress had refused to sign off on. Without Thatcher’s example of rebuilding national pride through military adventurism, Reagan might never have gone down such paths. Had that not happened, conceivably the Soviet house of cards that Thatcher’s other dear friend, Mikhail Gorbachev, was trying to keep standing, might have collapsed a bit more slowly. Revolutions in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania might have begun a little more hesitantly or they might conceivably have been quashed a bit more aggressively. This is probably just idle speculation, but it is the best justification I can think of for according some sort of historical respect to the Iron Lady.

The only other justification I can think of is that there were certain industries in Britain that were effectively stagnated and collapsing, but which were being kept standing by the government’s fear of civil unrest and voters’ rage were they to face the inevitable and close down these losing operations. Chief among these was their national coal mining industry. In order to get to a place where these hopeless ventures could be phased out and people would start looking for more sustainable long-term economic alternatives for their families and their villages was to have the sort of political leadership that didn’t care about causing pain to working people. Thus Thatcher’s natural lack of empathy may have enabled the country to make necessary transitions that a more humanly attuned leader would have kept trying to resist.

All the same, I find it rather tasteless for the British political left to have street parties celebrating Maggie’s death. I can appreciate the humor in playing “Ding-dong, the Witch is Dead” from The Wizard of Oz privately in honor of the occasion, but I can’t see a justification for marching down the street with banners making such a proclamation. Even less do I go along with further reinforcing this message by changing the W-word to the B-word there. It just becomes grossly inaccurate; Maggie had none of the loyalty, empathy and protectiveness that typifies female dogs, so she should not be posthumously referred to as such!

In any case, as I was saying, both of these ladies which passed on Monday were “important” in terms of having a significant influence on the world they lived in, albeit not necessarily an entirely positive influence in either case. In both cases their legacies leave us with the question of what makes particular people valuable and/or important. In Annette’s case her importance was based on the abstract, sanitized sensual attractiveness that she came to represent. In Maggie’s case it was a cold-hearted rational consideration of what particular people are useful for politically and economically that characterized her thinking and her impact on her era. Neither of these perspectives represent a value system that I can heartily endorse, but there are aspects of each worth paying heed to.

Something of a middle ground between Thatcherite and Funicelloian values can be found in Aristotle’s thought on the matter. Aristotle famously advised his son, Nichomachus, to establish his personal value through recognizing what various things make people happy –– things people come to desire for their own sake, not as a means of getting something else –– and to build strategic friendships and alliances with those who are the most capable of providing such happiness for others. The good man is one who can fairly exchange means of gaining happiness with others at the highest possible level. Some people have more to offer than others in this regard, but everyone has something to offer, even to his or her superiors, in terms of appreciation and respect. The satisfaction to be gained by receiving these intangible goods in exchange for other favors is not to be underestimated, but nor can it be assumed that having enough respect for another can be currency enough to settle all debts. In any case, however one does it, one must always take care to give as good as one gets, and get as good as one gives.

That taken into consideration, this would seem to leave us with a risk of seeing other people merely as means of satisfying our selfish, animalistic desires for physical pleasures or social dominance. The solution to this, and the point of life as I see it, is to move beyond that level of thought and desire, towards a more interconnected one. In this regard I agree strongly with the point made recently in a sermon by my good virtual friend, Brian Zahnd, where he cites Dostoevsky in defining hell as a place of not being able to love. Being able to meaningfully connect with others, not just as a means of getting “stuff” from them and not just in order to establish some sort of dominance over them, is what makes life truly worthwhile –– what keeps life from becoming hell for us. While I didn’t know either of them personally, of course, I have the strong impression that Annette seemed to get this a lot more clearly than Maggie did.

Whatever the case, may they both rest in peace, and may the better parts of their legacies go on to overpower the results of their limitations.

Leave a comment

Filed under Death, Empathy, Ethics, Love, Philosophy, Politics, Pop culture, Respectability, Sexuality, Social identity