Category Archives: Spirituality

A Long Delayed Post-surgery Update Here

Most of my blog readers here are, I believe, among my circle of personal friends, so most of you are well aware of my recent crises in life without reading about them here. Even so, as I am now able to do so, I feel that providing an update on my personal and philosophical perspectives regarding these crises here is in order.

For those of you who are not aware, I have had a relatively close brush with my own mortality lately, in the form of emergency surgery to treat major heart failure, and the long-term prognosis on this actually at the time of this writing remains somewhat uncertain. Three months ago, at the time of the TSC conference, this condition was, in hindsight, clearly beginning to set in already, but at that time I never could have imagined what was happening, or that it could come to such a radically life-changing point so quickly. Here is my best retrospective summary of the situation as I now understand it:

In the late winter and early spring I suffered a serious case of bronchitis, which was at its worst during the time of my second Kenya trip. I received various sorts of treatments for that illness, but its primary source remains largely shrouded in mystery. In any case, I looked at most of the health challenges I experienced over the spring as being related to after-effects of this event. During the spring it seems I was never entirely free of some form of coughs and aches, but I felt well able to go on with life, including purchasing and beginning work on my “country place” in the village of Matku. Beginning the deconstruction of the old farm house there also involved its own health risks in terms of moldy air and chances to injure myself, but in the current level of hindsight, that project seems not to have been the source of any of my later symptoms.

The first significant alarm to go off regarding my long-term health came about in April, while I was actually in Matku: I woke up there on a Saturday morning with no vision in my right eye. I have experienced temporary “grey-outs” of parts of my field of vision relating to stress and fatigue for many years, and I was told that such are quite normal for middle-aged men, so I didn’t panic in relation to this, but over the course of the day the vision didn’t return as usual; or it did only partially, for about half of that eye’s field of vision. For a few days I continued trying to go about my business as usual with it, waiting for it to sort itself out, but eventually I went to the health center to have it looked at, and was in turn referred to Helsinki’s main ophthalmological clinic for testing. I spent two days there as an out-patient, going through a battery of tests that never really got to the bottom of the situation. This may or may not have been the first strong hint that my heart was in trouble.

This combined with an increasingly disturbing cough over the course of May and June. I maintained my full, legendary vocal power through the middle of June at least, but increasingly as I spent time speaking with people I would have powerful coughing outbursts, combined with ever increasing dizziness and shortness of breath. Friends began increasingly to tell me that I needed to see a doctor about that, and I largely agreed. That wasn’t particularly convenient though: Presenting my coughing symptoms at the health center in June, they didn’t see anything urgent about the matter, and they did not have any non-emergency appointment times available until later in July. I had already booked flights to spend most of July in Kenya, and with that work being very important to me I decided to let it slide. So with an increasingly nagging cough and occasional shortness of breath, I left on my speaking trip to Kenya regardless.

I tried to pace myself carefully over the course of that trip, which still involved plenty of elements which would be physically challenging even for a perfectly healthy middle-aged man. I was able to keep up most of the time though, and able to control the cough during public speaking events by keeping sufficient supplies of bottled water and tea close by. Later on I will publish a more detailed account of the new perspectives I gained from the Kenyan visit; for now I’ll just say I survived it physically, but by the time I boarded the plane for home I knew I needed to get to western medical services as soon as possible.

I got back into Finland on a Tuesday evening, and got to my local health center first thing Wednesday morning. I was given an emergency appointment with a GP for that afternoon. The doctor in question was very young and obviously rather nervous about venturing a diagnosis with all of the variables in my case, but he had the laboratory there run an EKG on me, and from that he could see that things were not entirely normal. He sent me over to have tests at Jorvi, the local general hospital for the area, with his first concern being to rule out the risk that my violent coughing had led to a blood clot making its way to my heart.

I spent the next 7 hours at that hospital. They did a chest x-ray, more EKGs, more blood test and more stethoscope listening, without finding any clear evidence of what was wrong with me. By that time my heart was certainly down to less than 40% of its normal capacity, but they heard no murmurs and saw no clear sign of damage in the x-ray, so in the end they sent me home with a new inhaler system to ease my breathing difficulties and instructions to come back if things got worse.

The following day, Thursday, I spent running an errand of picking up my van from a repair shop where I had left it while I was in Kenya, and getting it back home to Espoo to be re-inspected for the year. That once again was an exercise in pushing my strength to its limits, and knowing that things were just not right. The next day at lunch time I returned to the health center, prepared to be sent back to the hospital for a longer stay… only that wasn’t to happen just yet. The duty doctor there looked at my paper work and told me that there could be no risk of heart problems after all the tests I had just had done less than two days earlier. She told me I was probably suffering from dehydration in addition to the cough, she wrote me a prescription for a heavier narcotic cough syrup and told me to go drink lots of mineral water. The help from that advice was marginal. The main thing it did was to cause rather sudden bloating in my legs and stomach area as the mineral water stayed in my system as excess fluid.

From there, with the school year soon to start, I took my business over to the city workers’ employment health service. The doctor there, who has the job of trying to keep city workers physically able to do their jobs, wasn’t quite sure what to make of my condition. He did all the routine examination sorts of things, gave me papers excusing me from my first week’s work, sent me to have more lab tests done, and told me to book another appointment with the secretary for the next week. The next week he told me that my blood was running somewhat low on iron, but that nothing else obvious had popped up in the lab results. They had ruled out a few rarer diseases that some of my co-workers had suggested might be the cause of my problems, but they didn’t answer the question of why I still couldn’t breathe or operate normally. So from there I was given another week’s worth of sick leave, sent back for more lab tests related to the anemia issue and told to come back again in a week. The next time it was much the same song and dance, but this time the order for lab tests I was sent away with included a fresh EKG. That’s where things started to move real fast all of the sudden.

It had been an early morning appointment so I went over to have the tests done right away. I had to climb one flight of stairs to get to the laboratory, and when the EKG was done 15 minutes later my pulse was still racing from that level of basic exertion. The lab tech took a look at the readout and said, “You should probably show this to the doctor right away.” So back across the street to his office I went. The doctor seemed more puzzled than anything else by the paper, but from there he said, “Well, just to be safe, the city can pay for you to see a private cardiologist on this one,” and he proceeded to write up the basic referral paperwork. So from there I drove over to the closest office for the private medical associates’ office that the city of Espoo has this sort of arrangement with, stopping off at school along the way for a brief chat with my substitute teacher, colleagues and boss. At the first office of the private medical company that I went to they told me that their own in-house cardiologist had his next available appointment time in a week and a half. I told them it probably needed to be sooner than that. They made a few phone calls and asked me if I could see someone in Helsinki already that afternoon. Of course. So at 3:00 in the afternoon on Thursday, August 20th I saw my first cardiologist. This veteran doctor read through my papers, ran a quick blood pressure check and EKG test of his own, took me across the hallway for a look at my heart with his ultrasound machine, and pronounced, “You need to be in a hospital!” The only new information he gave me was that there was a layer of fluid surrounding the heart over a centimeter thick, and that tests needed to be done to see where that was coming from. So from there it was directly back to Jorvi hospital with me.

The hospital’s cardiologist had already gone home for the day already by the time I got there Thursday, so they just got me into their stylish hospital pajamas and onto a bunch of monitors and under general observation that evening. To the best of my knowledge it was the first night I had spent in a hospital since getting out of the one I was born in over 53 years earlier. It was a pretty good run while it lasted.

Jorvi’s cardiologist arrived on rounds with his ultra-sound machine after lunch the next day. Notes from the hospital’s other doctors and my papers from the city health service hadn’t given him a clue as to what was actually wrong with me. He spent a while poking around and pressing into my chest with that jell-covered wand and after a period of uncomfortable silence I asked him it my valves looked OK. He said they looked quite good, and I was starting to joke about that side of things when suddenly his face went grey. “I spoke too soon about the valves,” he said.

He continued poking around and pressing buttons to capture images for a couple of minutes before he began to address my growing shock. The aortic valve at the bottom of the heart seemed to be entirely calcified –– frozen in place –– and the rest of the heart was literally fighting for dear life to keep some sort of blood flow going through this obstruction. This seemed quite clearly to come from a defect that my heart carried basically from birth, which had probably been giving a murmur before, but which, as it decayed further and hardened up with age, became less audibly noticeable in routine check-ups and the like. Now it had gone critical. It was clear to the doctor that I would need surgery on this right away, but he was trying to say so indirectly out of sensitivity to my shock.

The doctor packed up his papers and went to make some phone calls. He came back with a couple of the hospital’s young interns in tow about 10 minutes later to give them a quick guided tour of what a real live heart in critical condition looks like, giving them turns with the ultrasound wand to help them learn to track down such a defect for themselves. They seemed quite fascinated and appreciative of the learning opportunity. For me this was somewhat strange: I’ve always sort of wanted my body to be of interest to intelligent young women, but not quite in that way.

I was still laying there sort of digesting the shock when the cardiologist returned again, announcing that, because they would not have any heart specialists on duty at Jorvi over the weekend, he had arranged to send me to Meilahti: Helsinki’s main hospital for specialized heart treatment. As I started calling to inform my sons of this up-coming transfer I still had no idea that within 24 hours I would be undergoing massive open-heart surgery! But there it was. By the time the boys stopped in to see me in Meilahti that evening the surgeons and specialists had already taken a further set of high resolution images of my heart to guide them in the surgery scheduled for 9:00 the next morning…

My chest 15 days after the surgery.

My chest 15 days after the surgery.

So skipping over some of the details of the ups and downs of the recovery process since, that brings me to where I am now. For two and a half weeks now my heart has been pumping through a man-made valve, and trying to figure out how to relate to this new situation. It’s not as though my heart is saying, “Wow, now that you’ve got those restrictions out of the way I feel so much better! I can really get into this work again!” Nor is it saying, “What the hell are you doing to me? I can’t take this shit anymore!” It’s more of an in-between reaction like, “This is really strange. I’ve never tried anything like this before and frankly I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do about it. Isn’t there anything else you can tell me?” So they’ve been watching it carefully and trying to give it all the chemical encouragement they can to adjust to this new situation, but still with no guarantees that it’s going to work long-term. That’s sort of a freaky place to be at. All this beside the fact that I never really had time to prepare for the idea of joining the ranks of open heart surgery veterans to begin with.

So how have my religious and philosophical perspectives come into play here? What help has all my extra thinking on “the big questions of life” given me under the circumstances? What new thoughts and feelings come to mind in light of these transitions?

In some ways the experience is comparable to losing one’s virginity: Before ever having sex I sort of knew already how these things work, what sort of feelings should be involved and what the experience might mean in terms of the connection between my partner and I, but then there is a whole different level of understanding that comes with actually experiencing it. So it is as well with the existential experience of facing the possibility that your body has reached the end of its lifespan. Not that this is the first time I’ve realized that an ever so slight shift in recent circumstances could have resulted in my death, nor was it the first time I’ve realized that my body is showing signs of being past its prime; but I’ve now come to the point where I have to admit that, had I lived more than 100 years earlier in history, I would have inevitably have been dead now. I’m not that old, but for the body I was given I’m now on borrowed time already. That’s just the medical fact of the matter. That new experiential perspective does something to all of my contemplations of the meaning of life and all that where it’s almost like, “Yes, I get it more now.” Not that I felt like I hadn’t got it before, but there’s something about the actual experience of a strong encounter with one’s mortality that only comes with actually facing that experience.

The other significant thing that comes to mind in all this is the issue of finding a balance between maintaining a passion to live in every possible way and being at peace with letting go of things that I’ve always known were meant to be temporary. That’s one I’m still working on though. I’ll try to update you as I learn more about myself as that process goes on.

Meanwhile, however, going through this sort of experience, especially in the digital age, has given me wonderful opportunities to see the sort of warm and caring friends I have around the world. There’s something humbling about having people on six continents aware of my crisis, caring about what happens to me and in their own ways praying for me. I am full of gratitude for being able to have such a rich life in this regard. For those of you who have been part of this support network, may God richly bless you with the same sort of support you have given to me when you face your own times of crisis. I can think of nothing better to wish for you.

Peace, David

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Filed under Death, Empathy, Spirituality

Muhimu Matata

Having returned from my second trip to Kenya this week, I owe it to my friends, readers and spiritual supporters to give some sort of report on the matter. So what should I say? It was a wonderful time, full of contact with warm and sincere people who are looking for ways to be better Christians and to make their country a better place, yet there came many new perspectives on things there in need of repair. Both aspects were expected before I went; both were reinforced in surprising ways.

Some Kenyans have a charming way with the English language...

Some Kenyans have a charming way with the English language…

On my first visit to Kenya 8 months earlier I was somewhat surprised by the language situation I discovered. I was not surprised to find a variety of tribal languages with none of them having particular dominance, but I was surprised to learn that the public education system there operates in just two languages, neither of which either teachers or students tend to have native proficiency in: English and Kiswahili. Staying in predominantly Luo-speaking areas on my first visit, I got the impression that Kiswahili was nothing but an African version of Esperanto: an artificial language designed to be equally easy or hard for all of its second-language speakers, native for no one, serving as a lingua franca among those who speak it as a hobby but of little use outside of clubs for those who have such a hobby. Pidgin English seemed to serve as a more practical lingua franca for those who didn’t share a tribal language with each other, and who do not find each other’s tribal languages to be mutually understandable (on the level of potential interaction between speakers of Danish and Norwegian).

Being in the central part of the country this time around, however, I got a much more sympathetic perspective on the role of the Kiswahili language in Kenyan society. Particularly for older people with moderate levels of education, who neither want to stand for their particular tribe’s identity nor accept the heritage of British colonialism as their linguistic norm, Kiswahili is a very functional and living language. It plays a valuable role in many levels of social interaction in rural but inter-tribal areas of Kenya in particular. English still seems to be the language of choice among urbanized, well-educated and internationally traveled Kenyans of all tribes, and those rural people whose social interactions are only within their own tribe still tend to speak neither English nor Kiswahili with any proficiency, but in between those at the highest and lowest levels of integration there is in fact a broad band of people who function primarily in Kiswahili on a day-to-day basis. This was an interesting discovery for me.

DSCF2862So this time around my hosts were making a point of trying to help me pick up a smattering of polite social expressions in Kiswahili: “Asante sana” (thank you very much), “karibu” (you’re welcome), “sawa sawa” (OK, fine), and off course “hakuna matata” (no problems). This last phrase though, I must confess, started to bother me a bit, in that it seemed to always relate to papering over some sort of cultural misunderstanding. I usually heard it in contexts like, “By the way, we didn’t say anything before because we didn’t want to get you upset, but we need another 10,000 shillings from you to cover the cost of the afternoon tea service we ordered for the group… but hakuna matata.” Thus when it came to financial matters in particular I had to learn the opposite to this expression in their language: “Muhimu matata” –– there’s actually a significant problem here!

There is a difficult balance question in terms of how far to go in pointing out such problems for those of us wishing to make ourselves useful in post-colonial Africa these days. The message that colonial powers struggled to drill into the indigenous peoples there –– “You can’t get by with out us, so you need to thankfully cooperate with us and do whatever we tell you to do” –– has left all sorts of scars on modern Kenyan society. Some go to extremes in pre-colonial nostalgia, claiming everything was wonderful there before Europeans screwed things up; others still subconsciously believe the colonial propaganda and wallow in a consequent sense of helplessness. Both are thoroughly wrong. Both are conspicuously evident in various aspects of Kenyan society. So of course there are significant problems there. If there weren’t significant problems there I wouldn’t be involved in matters Kenyan to begin with.

DSCF2903Constructive paths for the future can be rather hard to build under such circumstances, but there is a certain human and especially Christian obligation to at least try to help build such paths forward. Expressing compassion while avoiding condescension towards those we are trying to help is easier said than done, but it is very much worth trying to do. Balancing an acknowledgement of Europeans’ collective historical guilt with an awareness of African traditional cultural dysfunctions that predate colonization –– and then putting all of that background information aside when it comes to helping individuals in critical need –– can be a very tiring process, but still very much worth doing.

The purpose of my previous trip to Kenya was to look into ways of providing help to those in the greatest need which could do long-term sustainable good. It was also a time for building initial contacts with those on the ground there attempting to help orphans in particular. Many of those who could provide the best assistance it seemed (and it still seems) are those who are motivated by a sense of Christian responsibility in the matter: church people. Kenyan church people in general, however, are a fascinating mixed bag, with plenty of problems of their own. They’re trusted more than politicians and government officials, but just barely.

The most financially and numerically successful churches tent to be those which preach a Christian version of something very close to the message of African traditional religions: “If you follow the proper beliefs and rituals, and believe in the spiritual powers we tell you about, you will get supernatural help in gaining the sort of material blessings you most desire.” Not surprisingly, this message has little credibility with more educated Kenyans, and it creates its fair share of crises of faith for those who sincerely believe in such. But worst of all, it actually does damage not only to the credibility of the Christian message, but to churches’ capacities to express God’s love by helping those in need.

A typical rural independent church in Kenya.

A typical rural independent church in Kenya.

Yet scattered among those who are preaching a magical Christian route to material success are many sincere and devoted pastors and Christian leaders who believe in the love of God as expressed through the person of Jesus, and who want to share that message with those around them and order their lives accordingly. What many of them lack is a thorough understanding of what they are doing, and how the message of the Bible can be related to the industrialized, commercialized and digitalized world that we live in.

Among those I met last June, the average level of education among preachers in independent churches seemed to be about 7 or 8 years worth of compulsory public schooling followed by 3 to 6 months worth of some sort of Bible School in Nairobi or some other relatively close by African city. That’s it.  All of them wished they could get more education, but they generally cannot afford the luxury. I had the idea of trying to arrange to provide such teaching for them as freely and ecumenically as possible. With that in mind I sketched out a rough proposal for what has now become the “Kenya Christian Leadership Development Mission”.

Driving with David and Wilfred

Driving with David and Wilfred

Bringing this project together were a couple of young men, David and Wilfred, whom I had never met in person prior to their picking me up at the airport on Valentine’s Day. Somehow they had got their hands on the proposal I wrote in June. As far as I understand both of these young men work as freelance chauffeurs to keep their families fed, but they both have strong interests in preaching, evangelizing and in building relations between churches. They managed to bring together a group of pastors from 5 or 6 different families of independent churches in central Kenya to organize this seminar, with hopes of building a continuous movement around such seminars. They proceeded to establish an official organization, open a bank account for the project, and reserve a rural public education center to rent for the occasion. It seemed like a good start.

There were some clear cultural misunderstandings between my Kenyan friends and I when it came to the groundwork for this seminar though. My understanding was that they would collect enough money among participants and their churches there to rent a classroom and provide a place for the participants from out of town to stay, and to pay for whatever catering would be necessary to make things work. I would pay my own expenses and I would further ask around here in Europe for sponsors for pastors who could not afford to participate otherwise. Their understanding, on the other hand, was that they could make all of the logistical arrangements there and get the pastors together for the event, and I would find European churches willing to pay for the whole project.

Their cultural frame of reference, it seems, related to American church organizations which have come to Kenya in the past with plans of establishing a foothold for their own denominational brands in that expanding market. With their significant denominational or mega-church funding, such groups could painlessly pay for food, lodging and entertainment for a week for as many future representatives for their brand as could be recruited. Such seminars, I now understand, have traditionally included free distribution plenty of professionally published teaching materials free of charge, and at times as a parting gift each participant has even been given a bicycle courtesy of the organizers to help him spread their message and thus increase their market share. It seems that David and Wilfred and their local helpers there didn’t really understand the concept of me coming as a solitary volunteer, without any sort of financial backing to pay for such things.

DSCN9973There was also a bit of a challenge in terms of finding the optimal target participants for such a seminar. My idea had been to make it available for anyone who was interested enough to take the time out of their other work to be there, and who could either pay their own basic expenses or find sponsorship for their participation for the week. As the organizers there never conceived of a seminar budget based on the participants’ own contributions though, their cultural premise was somehow to select those who were most deserving of such teaching being provided by foreign benefactors. Rather than everyone who was interested enough and who could afford to come being welcome on that basis, the operational principle became one participants being chosen on the basis of relationship factors. This led to some “important” pastors taking part, on whom much of the teaching seemed to be lost, with many others not having the possibility to join in.

As it came to be realized, the seminar ended up being a series of difficult logistical compromises, with lots of last minute practical support coming from the participating Kenyan churches, and with a bit of financial sponsorship coming from two of the churches in the Helsinki area which have a significant number of African members, but with the majority of the downsized budget ending up being paid for in the end on my personal credit cards.

Rather than pitying myself for my vulnerability on this one though, I have to say that many of the others involved also contributed everything they possibly could and then some. It would also be fair to say that this is not the first time I’ve been taken advantage of in trying to “do the right thing”, and over the years I’ve had plenty of “learning experiences” that have been more expensive than this one even. And when all is said and done I still have every confidence that David and Wilfred and their colleagues, given their own understanding of how such things are supposed to work, did everything they knew how to do to bring this seminar together in the best way possible.

DSCF2824So now the big question is, what good did it do? What did the participants in this seminar actually learn from it, if anything? What did the take home with them besides copies of my PowerPoint slides and a 25 cent participation certificate?

It is rather impossible for me to make any properly objective claims in this regard. I must admit that if my task would have been to prepare them to succeed in a standardized examination on the fundamentals of philosophy of religion, I would be more than a little bit nervous about their chances. As it was, however, my goal was just to provide them with a valuable learning experience which would at least marginally increase their capacity to interact with intellectuals, skeptics and/or non-believers in a fruitful manner. I don’t think many of them became ace apologists for the faith last week, but I do believe they all stopped to think about some of the basic issues involved a bit more carefully, and that especially for the younger ones this could have a very positive effect on their work as they go forward.

The week’s lessons were in practice squeezed down to three days of classroom work. In the first day’s talks I provided a crash overview of the field of philosophy: the focal issues of epistemology, metaphysics and ethics; and the broad outline of how academic philosophy relates to the history of western thought. It would be fair to say that the vast majority of this material went straight over the heads of even the youngest and sharpest participants there, but it gave them at least some sort of introduction to what philosophers do, and how it relates to matters of faith. Some participants strongly stated that this gave them a new interest in looking into such matters further in the future. That’s as much as I could have realistically expected.

20150218_090551Our second day was focused on the philosophical arguments for and against religion and the existence of God in general. I chose three on each side that I hoped would be most interesting and relevant for them. As arguments against religion I tried to explain the Theodicy issue, Occam’s Razor and the issue of evils committed in the name of God. As arguments in defense of the faith I offered the most convincing variation on the Cosmological Argument I could give, a Kierkegaardian argument from existential purpose, and Pascal’s Wager. All of this was very new territory to all of them and I did my best to make such matters at least somewhat accessible to them. Here too, however, I think the best I can hope is that they have a new awareness that such debates exist, and that these debates are relevant to their work as Christian leaders. Hopefully those with an interest in such things now have a basis for moving forward in investigating such matters.

Our third day was for many the most important. I confessed to them that, as important as many of the tools and understandings we had talked about thus far were, they were in many regards rather abstract concepts –– to the point that all of the defenses of faith I had offered could just as easily be used to defend Islam as Christianity. So the task remained to define in clear, somewhat philosophical terms, what precisely we as Christians believe.

I started by introducing the term “canon” in relation to scripture and comparing it to the term “benchmark”. We then explored together the question of what certainties we as believers are looking for in life; and how believers’ hopes, desires and certainties in life are the same and how they are different from unbelievers’. I then proposed a “mind map” regarding the key factors that identify Christian believers as such:

  • A sense of being forgiven and accepted by God’s grace
  • The interactive dynamics of faith, hope and love; particularly expressed in an ethic of kindness rather than cruelty
  • A mission to be “salt and light” to the world we live in
  • Rejecting the temptation to continuously compare ourselves with others
  • Following the moral teachings of the Bible in day-to-day life as an expression of our thankfulness to God.

Things got really interesting when we came to discussing questions of “spiritual warfare”. I proposed two premises on the matter as a basis for discussion: 1) The devil probably gets more credit than he deserves for the problems we have, and 2) The area of “evil” is broader than the work of the devil, per se.

20150218_112756As it happened, God had conveniently “blessed me” with a very troublesome sore throat over the course of the week, and this made a very apt illustration: My throat problems could have come from any combination of three factors: environmental stress (dust, weather changes, bicycling in freezing conditions the previous week, etc.), bacteria, and/or a virus. The warm concoction of lemon, honey, garlic, etc. that one dear sister there made for me, and menthol drops which they were watching me sucking on the whole time in an effort to keep my voice working, were going to be at least marginally helpful regardless of the cause, but a decision as to whether or not to take antibiotics was another matter. If it was a virus causing me to cough so much then taking antibiotics would do far more harm than good! The same principle, I proposed, is relevant to any decision they might make to try to cast out demons for example.

From there I opened the floor to a discussion of why it can be important to preach against the devil. It was clear that some of the older and more experienced pastors disagreed with each other about these matters, but there were some very useful and constructive debates on the matter without any trace of animosity between the participants. That in itself was a very useful result.

I tried to keep clear the whole time that I was not coming in as any spiritual father figure for these men and women, and that within their churches there are leaders to whom they should properly address more specific doctrinal questions. I was there merely as a teacher, not a pastor, to offer them more tools for thinking things through more thoroughly and communicating them more effectively.

DSCF2749I did have one piece of advice to offer regarding building their churches though, which I told them they were unlikely to hear in any Bible school: There are two methods of building a group of followers which are extremely effective, but which you should still always avoid because, because the success they bring to the organization is not worth the damage they cause to individuals: dogmatism and hate-mongering.

Many large churches have been built on the principle that you find on a humor sign that hangs in some offices: “Office rules: 1. The boss is always right. 2. When the boss is wrong, see rule #1.” As effective as it may be to insist on such absolute and unquestioning obedience to human authorities and even doctrinal standards though, in the long run it is neither honest nor constructive. I strongly encourage leaders not to make unquestionable certainty for its own sake the operational principle of their churches.

Beyond that one of the most effective ways of getting people to work together is by giving them a shared object of hatred. Hitler did that. Racist organizations around the world still do that. Too many churches also still do that. Don’t make yours one of them.

From there my message was, don’t be intimidated by large churches whose “fruit” is the result of operating according to such principles. If your church is worth building, its worth will be based on offering people faith, hope and especially love. Don’t ever lose sight of those priorities.

Needless to say, there were plenty of other important questions that we talked about over the course of the week, but these are the things I hope the participants remember, and which I hope stimulate further intellectual and spiritual growth in their lives. If this experience proves to have been important for them, if the senior pastors who were involved want more of their protégés to receive the same sort of teaching, and if the financial issues are properly settled –– if this message proves to be more important than the problems we had in getting it out –– this work will continue.

DSCF2840For myself, I’m just extremely curious to see what will happen next.

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Filed under Philosophy, Purpose, Religion, Spirituality, Travel

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.

 

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

What the Hell?

One last blog entry here before I embark on my Kenyan adventure.

It relates to another subject that I generally try to avoid: the meaning of hell. This is (excuse the pun) somewhat of a hot topic lately though, in that it is the primary inconsistency in the Christian concept of a loving God for some, and the primary test of Christian Orthodoxy for others.

In particular this last week one Louis Gohmert, a politician representing the conservative theological hot spot of Texas (again, excuse the pun), decided to make more of a name for himself by going after a less conservative clergyman –– Barry Lynn, who stands for the issue of maintaining freedom of religion (in the more traditional sense of the phrase) in the United States. Gohmert did so by tossing out the implication that, in order to count as a proper representative of Christianity, Lynn needs to explicitly state that all those who don’t follow the proper evangelical formula for receiving Jesus are destined for an eternity of torture in hell.

130625_louie_gohmert_ap_328To say that Gohmert missed the point of the hearing in question may miss the point. Lynn had gone to Washington to address the issue of government slipping in the direction of indirectly requiring religious observance of various sorts from its citizens. Gohmert wanted to make his own point that, in the name of freedom of religion as he sees it, people should be free to believe that those who don’t meet their requirements are going to hell, and they should be free to use the political process as a means of promoting their beliefs and pressuring those “hell-bound” others to get right with God. Whether or not that can be done in a fashion that respects the beliefs of those who believe differently from him and his evangelical base supporters is a secondary matter; the important thing for Gohmert was to send a sound bite back to his base which tells them that he is fighting the good fight and standing for the principles of the “true faith” up there in that heathen city of Washington –– the litmus test for being part of that true faith being belief in a literal hell of some sort for those who don’t “come to the Father” by way of Jesus according to the proper formula.

There are plenty of Christians who deny the existence of hell, and who have paid the price for their disbelief in this regard. The story of Carlton Pearson in particular comes to mind on that one. For me Pearson is neither a hero nor a villain, but an interesting anthropological case study in how important this issue is to how many people. Gohmert chose his emotive hook wisely it would seem, at least in demagogic political terms for impact in Texas.

In looking up the link for Pearson’s story I also stumbled across Addie Zierman’s recent comments on the subject. Mrs. Zierman is apparently working on promoting her recent memoir about dabbling around the edges of adultery as a formerly good evangelical girl, and the effects that had on her faith. She has thus been giving various radio interviews on the subject, in which she’s also tried to shore up what remains of her evangelical credentials. On one such occasion last winter though she got significantly stuck on the question of whether she believes in hell –– in the doctrine of unbelievers automatically being destined for eternal torment in the after-life. She didn’t really know, and she is mildly self-critical about the lack of erudition this caused her.

She had thoroughly believed in this concept when she was an elementary school child. Back then she was proud to tell her classmates that they were going to hell and she wasn’t, even if her teacher didn’t necessarily understand how this was supposed to be an optimistic message… but the complexities of adult life had made her a bit less sure about the matter. She lets herself off by saying, “What the hell do I know about hell? I’m not a pastor or a scholar. I’m a writer. An English Major. I sat in the back row of my Christian Theology class senior year of college and slept through much of it.”

Unfortunately I can’t let myself off that easily. I too have certainly slept through more than my fair share of lectures on dogmatics, but even so… I’ve been considered an expert of sorts on all things religious since long before I knew what I was talking about, and for the last quarter of my life or so I’ve made a living explaining such matters to teenagers in the Finnish public school system. So how do I explain what I believe about hell? I guess I’d have to say that I’m in the process of re-evaluating my beliefs on the subject as well.

Like Jesus’ ascension, the concept of hell definitely contains certain aspects that fit a lot easier with a medieval world view than with a modern one. The idea that hell (and/or purgatory) would be physically somewhere down below our feet, heated by the sort of molten magma that bursts out of volcanoes every now and again, makes slightly more scientific sense than the idea that, somewhere above a relatively flat earth, on the other side of the clouds, there is a physical realm of heaven where God and his angels and saints live and party every night –– but just barely. It doesn’t really address the question of whether there is some physical essence to the soul being tortured there. If there is, what sort of sentient physical form would that be? If not –– if the soul lives on after death as a non-material conscious entity –– what difference would the physical conditions surrounding it actually make?

Then there’s the whole question of what basis we have for believing that a disembodied yet conscious soul can be a real thing. Assuming that such things do exist (and will exist for each of us), what is the basic essence of the soul in such a state? If we take the creation narrative in Genesis 1 somewhat literally in this regard, the thing that makes each human a living soul is the “breath of God,” breathed into Adam by God and spread to all of his offspring from there. Aristotle’s take on the subject, which I was analyzing here last month, is that the only part of the soul which would survive death is the nous or “mind” –– the divine spark within each intelligent person that enables them to perceive non-material realities in general. Either way, if the part of the soul which survives separation from the material body is actually divine in its essence and origin, how can that divine part of the person –– the trace of God within the person –– be the object of God’s wrath?

Then there’s still the question of where the whole concept of hell came from to begin with. There are actually two concepts that get mixed together here: Sheol, the ancient Hebrew concept of the abode of the dead; and the image of the Hinnom Valley, south of Jerusalem.
Hades-childhood-animated-movie-villains-25060468-1024-768Sheol is translated from Hebrew to Greek as “Hades”, but it’s hard to say exactly how much the concept of death in the time of David’s kingdom had to do with the fiery lord of the underworld in Greek mythology. The main image we get in relation to this place is one of detachment, non-feeling, non-knowing and emptiness. The hope given is that after their time in the cold, dead grave, significant persons will be brought back to life to receive God’s favor or face further manifestations of his wrath (Psalm 49:14-15, Daniel 12:2), but these hopes remain rather vaguely expressed in the Hebrew scriptures.

The Hinnom Valley, also known as Gehenna, was a spot outside the walls of Jerusalem on the south side, where, in the lowest ebbs of Israelite and Jewish culture, human sacrifice would take place –– particularly the killing and burning of young children to offer them to various local gods who were seen as able to supplement JHWH’s power in helping them out in battle and the like. The prophets had all sorts of good reasons for condemning this practice, though sometimes it’s hard to tell which they were more worried about: God’s jealousy or the disrespect for the rights of children. In any case, this same valley was, at least by legend, the place where the bodies of losers in battle were disposed of, frequently by burning for health protection purposes.
GehennaThis is the place that Jesus warns his followers to be careful so as not to, figuratively speaking, end up getting tossed into –– to the extent of chopping off limbs or gouging out eyes if that is the only way to avoid it! He describes his worst ideological enemies, the Pharisees, as the children of this valley and destined to burn there (Matthew 23: 15, 33). But that’s about it for Bible teaching on that one.

Beyond specific references to Gehenna, without specifically naming the place, twice Jesus spoke of torture by fire for the dead in the after-life. In both cases it was a matter of rich bastards who refused to have mercy on the poor: The tale of the rich man and the beggar named Lazarus in the end of Luke 16, and the prophecy of the judgment of the “sheep and the goats” in the end of Matthew 25. In the portion in Luke, the grave, “hades,” is referred to as a place of burning torment where the rich man “gets what’s coming to him” for being such a jerk in his treatment of the beggar. In the story in Matthew the nations which ignore the plight of the poor, the sick, the stranger and the imprisoned are sentenced to “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” That kind of leaves open the question of individual versus collective punishment in such cases, but the main point is clear: fires of judgment in the after-life are especially intended for those who callously disregard the basic human needs of others. Somehow then this got twisted around to mean that an unending sensation of burning would be the fate of those who didn’t swear allegiance to the proper religious team according to the correct ritual formula. We’ll come back to that.

There are actually two other forms of torture besides burning referred to in the Bible in terms of the after-life experiences of the damned: the worm and the bottomless pit. The worm is referred to in the very last verse in the book of Isaiah (66:24), where it is part of the punishment for those who will rebel against the new messianic order that God is supposed to bring. From there they make an appearance in Jesus’ warnings in Mark 9 about the tortures of hell for those who commit any form of child abuse. The bottomless pit, or the Abyss, is where many of the bad guys come from in the epic battle between good and evil in the book of Revelation. Ultimately good wins and the forces of evil are locked back into this torture chamber for an extended utopian period; after which they are once again released, stomped on decisively in a final battle, and permanently thrown into a lake of fire (chapter 20).

My previous understanding and personal interpretation of these combined references was that the fire, the worm and the abyss –– as combined metaphors for the tortured state of the disembodied soul –– pointed to one thing: progressive destruction which is never finalized. It would be sort of like any radioactive isotope, e.g. carbon 14: As long as a living organism is interacting with other carbon based life forms in the biological world this isotope remains at relatively stable levels in all of its structure. Once the organism dies, however, and no new C14 is being circulated through its system as part of the metabolic process, the C14 starts to break down, so after 5730 years there is roughly half as much C14 in the organism than there would have been while it was alive. But the C14 never disappears from the remains of the organism entirely; after millions of years the breakdown process remains on-going. (In this way paleontologists can make their best scientific guesses as to how long the fossils the find have actually been dead.) So it is for the soul that dies without forming a lasting connection with God –– the source of that “divine spark” within which ultimately makes us human: Like a radioactive isotope, without the refreshment that life offers, such a soul begins to break down, without ever finally getting to the point of being completely broken down. It can feel itself perpetually dying, yet never reaching the restful state of having entirely nothing left to lose. That would be the non-material hell to be avoided –– of which physical pains, and more specifically experiences of alienation and social detachment within this life, are merely something of a foretaste.

There are a number of levels on which I am no longer so sure about that theory. To start with there is the matter of determining which analogies, if any, to trust as the basis for our conceptual understanding here. Literal fire and literal worms eventually burn out or finish consuming all tissues which they find edible. We don’t find thousands of years old glowing embers or obese worms. Nor does any pit on earth extend further than about a quarter of the way through the crust of the planet. By the original analogies the torture at worst would still be of limited duration. In the literal case of the Hinnom Valley fires could and would be kept going non-stop and worm colonies could thrive for years by continuously adding new fuel and bodies, but that does not mean that any given body would be perpetually burning forever. So why should I put more faith in my isotope metaphor than the original ones given in the Bible? Assuming that there really is an experience of disembodied torment for the soul and time of regret after the death of the human body, is it really necessary to believe that this is inevitably something unending?

Secondly, if the ultimate reason why human souls exist to begin with is God’s desire to express love, is there any reason to believe that God would not eventually have mercy on such tortured souls and allow them to rejoin their transcendent source? Could God really be so “heartless” as to ignore the suffering of particular human souls as lightly as factory farm managers ignore the suffering of unwanted male hatchlings which they dispose of as useless by-products of their egg production operations?

Is this really the way God thinks of our "unsaved" friends?

Is this really the way God thinks of our “unsaved” friends?

While agreeing with the rabbi who says that believing in an afterlife is an essential corollary to believing in God –– there is clearly no justice in this world and so it’s impossible to imagine a just God who does not make distinctions between an Adolf Hitler and an Anne Frank “on the other side” –– and while I’m willing to “let God be God” and not make my own declarations of who has to go to which sort of Hell, and who doesn’t, I no longer take that to mean that the evangelical hellfire and brimstone message is a “thus sayeth the Lord” issue.

Interestingly it is only in the end of the book of Revelation where there is any hint of the possibility of “normal people” –– those who actually live conscientious and compassionate lives without association with Jesus –– still potentially ending up in eternal torment: “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” Evangelicals take that to mean anyone who does not “receive Jesus” in such a way as to have their name on his team’s roster is doomed to hell. Revelation 20:15 is the only verse they have to support that interpretation. The idea that it will be everlasting torment comes from verse 10 of the same chapter, referring to the fate of the devil and his leading generals on the side of evil: “They will be tortured day and night for ever and ever.” Two aspects of this part of John’s apocalyptic vision frequently get overlooked: First, as John saw it, this further torture of the dead requires re-animating their bodies. This “second death” can only happen after the bodies of the damned dead are brought back from the grave and reassembled in such a way as to enable them to face God’s judgment at the final end of human history. There is no talk of disembodied souls being in everlasting torment on the sole basis of not being found in the “book of life” prior to this great final resurrection. (For those who abuse children or ignore the needs of the poor it is a different story.) Secondly, it is repeated in verses 12 and 13 of this chapter that these walking dead will be judged “according to what they had done”, not according to how well they kept the ritual formula of properly receiving Jesus. One of the main themes of Isaiah 66, referred to above, is how little God thinks of those who attempt to do enough religious rituals to compensate for a crude and selfish lifestyle. The New Testament is not intended then to just provide better rituals to justify continuously abusing others.

These are mostly my own somewhat random deliberations on hell, which isn’t really my area of expertise. The most interesting expert on the subject that I can point to these days is Brad Jersak. Brad’s take on the matter is basically that:
1) The vengeance mentality and the fear tactics used as a revivalist motivation to get people to “come to Christ” which significantly motivate belief in this doctrine are in many respects socially and psychologically unhealthy.
2) The doctrine of hell evolved in the western church in particular well after the time of the Nicean Creed, based on a number of leaders’ personal and political concerns about the motivations of the masses.
3) There are essentially three competing views on the matter that can be equally well “proof-texted” from the Bible:
a) infernalism, the eternal torment for unbelievers theory;
b) annihilationism, believing that those outside the scope of God’s love eventually fade away and are no more; and
c) universalism, believing that eventually everyone will inevitably “love big brother” enough to be welcomed into heaven. Finally,
4) God probably doesn’t want us to be too sure about what sort of justice follows this life, leaving the subject broadly open because it is healthiest for us to have some balance of a bit of the fear of God for ourselves and a strong awareness of God’s mercy for everyone else.

I would broadly agree with each of these main points. (If you need them further unpacked I’d recommend surfing around Brad’s web site for a bit, or maybe even buying his book on the subject.) In other words even the best of theological experts are best off agreeing with Mrs. Zierman and other less theologically informed believers in saying, “I really don’t know.” Those who pretend to know for sure are often the most dangerous people to listen to on the subject.

From there we can move on to trying to motivate people less with threats of divine violence and more with not just promises but offers of God’s love starting here and now. Even if some churches find that they are able to boost their statistics by tossing in the occasional (or not so occasional) hell-fire message, on many levels I believe that such an emphasis does infinitely more harm than good.

So that’s about all I know about that. If some find this theoretically helpful, so much the better. If some feel more justified in condemning me to whatever sort of hell they believe in on the basis of what I have to say here, they’re welcome to go for it. Being detached from people like Gohmert and the gods they make in their own image for all eternity is actually a form of punishment I think I can handle. In fact I’m pretty sure I’d prefer it.

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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.

 

 

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In Search of Aristotle’s Soul (Book 2)

aristotle1Continuing on with my efforts to grasp the basic principles of ensoulment that religious thinkers over the years have borrowed from Aristotle, I now move on to Book 2 of the man’s work on the subject. It starts out with Aristotle basically saying, “enough on those other old farts; let’s get down to business on analyzing the subject itself.” This dives pretty directly into what the professionals in the field these days call “Hylomorphism”: how the essence of what something is relates to how its form or shape is determined.

To put it in Aristotle’s terms, there are three ways in which what we might call “things” can exist: 1) they can exist as entirely physical objects (like the pillow I am using for back support); 2) they can exist as formal patterns (like this blog itself, which you are probably reading without any physical object having been transferred between you and I); or 3) they can exist as a combination of the physical and the formal (like my computer, and actually most other things around me to one extent or another). In these terms every living being is a category 3 thing –– a composite –– a combination of material substance and formal, functional (we would say genetic) design. So the soul, as Aristotle conceptualizes it, is more or less identical with a living being’s functional genetic design –– the category 2 aspect of our basic being. Thus Aristotle’s summary definition for the soul is, “substance in the sense which corresponds to the definitive form of a thing’s essence,” or in simpler terms (in Smith’s translation), it is “‘the essential whatness’ of a [living] body.”

From there the distinction comes up between the realized and potential function of a given composite (category 3) item. Can we refer to an apple seed, for example, as having a soul –– as a living thing? Well… potentially. But how is that seed being a potential apple tree different from a pile of snow being an actual snowman which just needs assembly?

ikea snowmanThe difference of course is that the apple seed contains within itself all of the pattern information necessary to produce an apple tree. It still needs lots of soil and rain and sun and time, but the “whatness” in terms of the basic model and all that is already there. The snow, on the other hand, does not contain the information within itself of how it could be packed together to form an abstract representation of a human being; that has to imparted to it by some crazy individual like myself.snowman karhusuo

In this regard Aristotle considers seeds to have soul in a sense that corpses and porridges do not. From our modern perspective we could say that the DNA is still there, (and thus cloning might still be possible), but it no longer either actually or potentially meets the two classical Greek standards for being alive that Aristotle subscribes to: independent movement and sensation.

Aristotle concludes his sketch of the basic nature of the soul in general in the first chapter of book 2 by once again concluding that, at least in its most basic sense, the soul cannot exist in any disembodied form: “[T]he soul is inseperable from its body, or at any rate […] certain parts of it are (if it has parts) for the actuality of some of them is nothing but the actualities of their body parts.”  Yet within that sentence we see him hedging his bet a bit, which he actually continues on with as the work progresses. Some aspects of soul, he speculates, might not be “actualities of any body at all. Further, we have no light on the problem of whether the soul may not be the actuality of its body in the sense in which the sailor is the actuality of the ship.”

(These days we would use the driver and automobile analogy for soul and body in that sense, but back in Aristotle’s day sailors and ships was the best he could do.)

He goes on to expand on this by saying that in plants, lower animals, more intelligent animals and humans alike we find “soul” in a sense of some combination of “the powers of self-nutrition, sensation, thinking and movement.”  Can these be distinguished from one another? A problematic endeavor, yet right away Aristotle comes back to his basic reason for studying the soul to begin with: considering what it is that makes the glories of thinking possible for us. “We have no evidence as yet about mind [nous] or the power to think. It seems to be a widely different kind of soul, differing as what is eternal from what is perishable. It alone is capable of existence in isolation from all other [soul-based] powers.

Aristotle is thus, while trying to remain as “scientific” as possible, starting to explore two different meanings for “soul” in the human context: the design of the body and the driver of the body, and trying to figure out how the two essentially relate to each other. Regarding both, however, he reaches the conclusion that they are not physical substances like air (breath) or blood per se, but rather the “formulable essence of something that possesses a potentiality of being besouled.”

He goes on to build something of a hierarchy of biological of soul functions. He basically concludes that plant souls are capable of little more than the “nutritive” functions of self-perpetuation through acquiring nutrients from their environment, growing, reproducing and dying. Other, slightly more advanced life-forms are also capable of sensing or feeling things. It would seem, however, that sensing and feeling are only revealed and relevant when the organism in question also wants things; thus what Aristotle calls the sensory and the appetitive aspects of the soul tend to go together with each other. At their most primitive even the simplest of animals (and though Aristotle didn’t recognize them as “wanting” in such a way, perhaps many plants as well) manifest desires for food, suitable temperature and moisture conditions, avoidance of pain and sexual opportunities. The next level of soul activity Aristotle recognizes then is the ability to physically chase after the objects of our desires through physical motion or locomotion. Above that though, in a category limited to mankind and “possibly another order like man or superior to him” is the power of thinking proper: mind. The extent to which this property of mind is a separate matter from the rest of the soul, and the extent to which it is universal even among humans, are questions regarding which Aristotle’s answers seem to be tentative at best.

Aristotle soul functionsTo state again what is obvious to all who have studied the subject even superficially, in Aristotle’s day, and for the next 2000 years thereafter, there was no distinction made between “science” and “philosophy” in the way we now distinguish between them. So it would be a gross anachronism to say that Aristotle goes back and forth between “playing scientist” and “playing philosopher”; he didn’t see any sort of distinction between the two. These days we tend to take such a distinction as self-evident, perhaps creating more problems than we solve in doing so, but that’s another long story unto itself.

In any case, given our contemporary way of looking at such things, we can say that from our perspective Aristotle goes back and forth between the scientific, biological view of soul, considering it as both the “life-principle” –– sort of like what we’re hoping to find on Mars –– and the philosophical view of soul as “the miracle of consciousness” and cognition, enabling us to somehow connect with the world around us in ways that, near as we can tell, no animal is capable of –– formulating, theorizing, exercising artistic imagination, etc. This leads to a fair amount of ambiguity and inconsistency; sometimes he seems to be dogmatically saying that the miracle of consciousness is merely a manifestation of biological processes, and sometimes he seems to be dogmatically saying that consciousness has to be a spiritual phenomenon that must have its origins in something beyond the material.  He doesn’t really seem to be sure. My sense is that for this reason his modern interpreters are all able to find ideological reflections of themselves in his text.

There is also a third sense of soul that Aristotle tosses into the mix: that of purpose or end for the life of the individual organism. Why do plants and animals and us “higher life forms” keep struggling to go on with this process called life? Because our souls make us do so. This “natural law within us” (a term used by Medieval philosophers, not Aristotle himself in this context at least) in this sense operates as follows: “[F]or any living thing that has reached its normal development and which is unmutilated […] the most natural act is the production of another like itself […] in order that, as far as nature allows, it may partake in the eternal and divine. That is the goal towards which all things strive” (ch. 4, 2nd paragraph). In other words the continuity of life is something of a spiritual principle that all living creatures instinctively attempt to take part in, giving their own lives meaning in the process.

Thus we can say that the soul is the cause and source of the body in at least three distinct senses: it is the design principle behind the body, it is the driving force in the body, and it is the teleological destination giver for the body. In this last sense, “Nature, like mind, always does whatever it does for the sake of something, which something is its end. To that something corresponds in the case of animals the soul and in this it follows the order of nature; all natural bodies are organs of the soul. This is true of those that enter into the constitution of plants as well as of those which enter into that of animals. This shows that the sake for which they are is soul” (ch. 4, 5th paragraph).

From there Aristotle goes into a long “scientific” rather than “philosophical” discussion of the functions of “lower” aspects of the soul in terms of its nutritive and sensory aspects. Much of this amounts to a historical curiosity in terms of early theories regarding aspects of neurology that Oliver Sachs has marvelously popularized the current scientific understanding of in recent years. This includes, among other things, Aristotle’s speculation as to how vision works given his premise (which I quoted last time) that there is no credible reason to believe that light actually travels. Another classically mistaken “scientific” premise which he states here is that the soul within animals in general “is due to the action of the male parent” (ch. 5, 9th paragraph). This corresponds with his acceptance in Book I (end of chapter 2) of Hippo’s argument that the soul as such cannot be contained in the blood, since “the primordial soul” comes from the father’s seminal fluid, which is a non-bloody liquid.

Another would-be scientific statement here, which has fascinating poetic potential in spite of its failure in scientific terms, is, “Voice is a kind of sound characteristic of what has soul in it; nothing that is without soul utters voice” (ch. 8, 12th paragraph). He goes on to say that to speak of the “voice” of musical instruments is a metaphorical use of the term, and to speculate about the multiple natural functions of the respiratory system, before further expanding on this idea: “Voice then is the impact of the inbreathed air against the ‘windpipe’, and the agent that produces the impact is the soul resident in these parts of the body. […] What produces the impact must have soul in it and must be accompanied by an act of imagination, for voice is sound with meaning […] not merely the result of any impact of the breath, as in coughing.”

So, from Aristotle’s perspective, if you are looking for some core physical location for the soul within the body, don’t search between the ears or in the heart, but rather look down the throat.

Most of the more “philosophically interesting” questions relating to the “higher levels” of the soul are reserved for book III, but one last matter worth considering in book II here is the starting comparison between sensation and knowledge. Both are soul functions that can exist either actively or passively/potentially. Thus being a seeing being can either mean that the brain is actively registering incoming light at given moment in question (Aristotle had the technical aspects of this all screwed up, but that’s beside the point), or it can be the opposite to blindness, indicating a fully developed capacity for such function. The same with hearing; it can be an active process of “using your ears” or it can be merely the opposite of deafness. So what about thinking? Well, as Aristotle puts it, “We can speak of someone as a ‘knower’ either (a) …meaning [she/he] falls within the class of beings that know or have knowledge, or (b) when we speak of [her/him] who possesses a knowledge of grammar,” thereby having a capacity to absorb knowledge of other sorts. The former has what we might call a neurological potential to develop knowledge; the latter has what we might call a culturally adapted potential. These in turn then imply a third category for those who actually know stuff that is somehow worth knowing, like math, biology, politics, etc.

So from there Aristotle wishes to consider what the proper role of the teacher is. “What in the case of knowing or understanding leads from potentiality to actuality ought not to be called teaching, but something else.” I take it for granted that there are semantic aspects of the question of choice of terms here that are going to get lost in translation, and which probably weren’t particularly clear to Aristotle’s own students in the original Greek either. The point though is to stop and consider what sort of change the teacher is attempting to bring about in the student. Is he trying to do something analogous to farming –– burning off or ripping out what is naturally growing in the field and replacing it with the sort of seed that he has in mind; then helping those seeds to grow in order to yield the desired crops? Or is the teacher’s work more a matter of nurturing and coaching the student to develop and more efficiently use what he already has within? Aristotle seems to be leaning towards the latter option. He also seems to be resisting the idea of educational interaction in the sense that the teacher and student would learn from each other, or that the teacher would himself learn in the process of teaching: “[I]t is wrong to speak of a wise man as being ‘altered’ when he uses his wisdom, just as it would be absurd to speak of a builder as being altered when he is using his skills in building a house.”

But once the learning has taken place, the difference between sensing and knowing is that “what actual sensation apprehends is individuals, while what knowledge apprehends is universals, and these are in a sense within the soul. That is why a man can exercise his knowledge when he wishes, but his sensation does not depend on himself; a sensible object must be there.”

This opens up all sorts of interesting possibilities for further speculation regarding the inherent connection between the knower and the known. Does it really “take one to know one” in a definitive sense? Can only Greeks understand Greeks; only men understand men; only dogs understand dogs, etc.? If so, does that mean that for everything we are able to understand, there is necessarily some part of that object of understanding within ourselves? Does this make some degree of pantheism a prerequisite for epistemology?

For the answers to these and other fascinating questions, tune in next week…

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Hagiographies

Two dead men have been in the news this week, though neither on the front pages. Both have been portrayed rather broadly as heroes, though for very separate causes. Both have been the subject of Hollywood films of limited historical accuracy, made mostly to energize the believers in their causes. Both have been subject to critique from the opposite side of the ideological spectrum. Both deserve the deepest of respect for confronting injustices in the sixties, achieving unexpected global celebrity for their causes in the seventies and winning decisive victories in their fields in the eighties. Both also deserve to be critiqued for their human failures, however, in ways that may make them less useful as icons for their causes.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m referring to Karol Wojtyla and Rubin Carter, better known respectively as Pope John Paul II and The Hurricane. The Hurricane died this last Sunday, just shy of 77 years old –– a respectable level of seniority for a man whose fame was based on his reputation for violence of all sorts. Pope John Paul II died 9 years ago, just shy of 85 –– also a respectable level of seniority for a man who had stood up in opposition to both Nazis and Communist totalitarians, and then took an assassin’s bullet to the chest in later life and lived to tell about it. The final official touches on his sainthood are taking place on Sunday, April 27.

Back in the 1960s Wojtyla was one of the radical young intellectual archbishops sent to Rome to stir things up at the Vatican 2 conference (in part just as an excuse to get the trouble maker out of Poland for a few years), which permanently changed the public face of Catholicism: eliminating claims of an exclusive institutional right to declare who could have God’s grace and who couldn’t, with all those not explicitly submitted to papal authority being damned to hell; embracing freedom of religion and rejecting the doctrine that all good Catholic rulers and political leaders should work to eliminate people’s freedom to worship in non-Catholic ways; expanding the role given to active participation by the laity in Catholic rituals in general; and somewhat in counter-balance to all of these liberalizing tendencies, explicitly emphasizing the church’s right to regulate people’s sex lives.

hurricane_carter_wall_01bBack in the 1960s Rubin Carter was building a reputation for being everything that middle class white Americans feared about young urban blacks: a gun-toting, hard partying fighter who had been dishonorably discharged from the Army prior to the Viet Nam crisis. Carter was pulled over one hot June night in 1966 for “driving while black”. Circumstantial evidence from that contact with the police was used months later to convict him and the friend he was riding with that night of shooting up a Patterson, New Jersey bar, resulting in 3 deaths.

In the 1970s Bob Dylan wrote an extended ballad about Carter’s case that drew international attention to the matter. In 1976 Carter was given a retrial, which he also lost, but not without a lot of international attention being drawn to the problematic issues involved in the case. In 1978 Wojtyla became Pope –– the first non-Italian to get the job in over 400 years. In the process he managed to draw a great deal of international attention to the problems of official anti-religious actions being taken by governments under the Soviet sphere of influence.

Pope John Paul II - Voight
In the 1980s both men “won” their battles, sort of. Carter’s convictions were overturned on procedural grounds and the Soviet bloc discovered that “Glasnost” – openness – was more than their oppressive systems could handle, leading to its systemic implosion. Carter, living out his remaining years in Canada, and John Paul, living out his remaining years in the Vatican, had gained the status of moral heroes of the oppressed in the countries they had left behind. Both continued, in their own humanly flawed ways, to fight for the rights of those they saw as oppressed for the rest of their lives.

Their epic struggles not withstanding though, both men suffered from a certain credibility deficit with regard to key aspects of the causes they came to represent: Carter in terms of being violence-prone; Wojtyla in terms of personifying the Catholic Church’s head-in-sand approach to sex problems. No one can credibly accuse Carter of being any sort of urban warlord, and no one can credibly accuse Wojtyla of not having kept his pants zipped, but in their respective zeals for their causes both can be said to have overlooked major issues that some “normal people” have a certain justification in feeling angry about or threatened by.

It is true that many young black men who have been raised under circumstances of systematic injustice and oppression become dangerously violent and disrespectful of any abstract concept of the rights of others. Just because they are victims themselves does not mean that they are not dangerous. Carter’s case and his work over the course of the last third of his life, after his convictions were overturned, seem to belittle these risk factors.

It is true that emotionally meaningless recreational sexuality has got grossly out of control in the past couple of generations, and that some form of deeper motivational force for personal restraint in that regard may be in order, but that does not make it safe for any authoritarian religious organization to claim the right to control people’s sex lives. This is especially the case when isolated individuals within such organizations’ ranks are prone to use their position of power to sexually dominate vulnerable individuals under their charge, and this is especially objectionable when the vulnerable individuals in question are (pre-)pubescent children. John Paul’s obsession with maintaining a hard line on issues related to sexual control, together with his inability to deal effectively with matters of priestly abuse of power and especially pedophilia within his organization, have seriously sullied his saintly reputation in ways that his conservative fans largely fail to grasp.

Those who would wish to use these men as saints of their respective causes –– fighting against racial prejudice and abuse within the criminal justice system of the United States in particular, and maintaining an emphasis on sexual moralizing over social justice issues within the Vatican hierarchy and the American Religious Right respectively –– would prefer that their heroes continue to be presented in as sympathetic and unsullied a light as possible. It is far easier to promote their causes if they don’t have to content with attack sound-bites and negative talking points from their opponents. Neither group can be accused of being excessively honest and open about their heroes in this regard. Yet meanwhile the general public seems to realize that both heroes had their serious weaknesses; thus the public enthusiasm for both hagiographies is running rather thin this spring, keeping either Carter’s death or Wojtyla’s canonization from being front page news.

I have read far more of John Paul II’s writings than I have the Hurricane’s, so I’m in a better position to deconstruct that hagiography than the other. For the casual reader here though, suffice it to say that by the end of the first Bush presidency the Pope’s political sympathies had been thoroughly co-opted by his Cold War comrades in the United States, with Ronald Reagan as their own patron saint. This can especially be seen in John Paul’s supremely naïve statement in the encyclical Centesimus Annus, where he says (in § 41), “Exploitation, at least in the forms analyzed and described by Karl Marx, has been overcome in Western society.” It can also be seen in the complete absence of concern for the poor in his encyclical writings from that point onward.

It wasn’t that these problems were all magically solved once the Cold War was over; it was merely that the Pope had become convinced that after playing a role in defeating communism he now needed to focus his energies on defeating all forms of promiscuity an unauthorized sex. Abortion was part and parcel of this evil, and a particularly conspicuous issue to be raised politically, especially in the US political market. It might also be said to have served as a convenient form of PR offensive by which the church could attempt to draw attention away from scandals regarding cover-ups of priests’ pedophilic practices, which may have been going on since time immemorial, but which came to light in steadily increasing ways over the entire course of John Paul’s papacy.

The relevance of all this is not in terms of reducing Wojtyla’s personal historical significance, or discrediting him as a virtuous and intelligent human being. The point is more to say that a continued emphasis on his moralistic “pro-life” heritage is problematic at best, and trying to maintain momentum in that movement on the basis of his personal heroic stature is looking like less and less of a winning strategy. His shift of emphasis in his post-Cold War years away from “social issues” and towards “moral issues” –– arguably due to the influence of American political conservatives on his thinking –– has probably done Christendom in general and the Catholic Church in particular far more harm than good. Pope Francis’ primary historical role thus far has been to push the boundaries of how far he can take the matter of shifting the emphasis back in the other direction. This in turn has won Francis blanket condemnation from those within the US Religious Right, and universal praise from pretty much every other possible source. This makes his presiding over John Paul’s canonization this weekend all the more ironic.

As for the Hurricane, it doesn’t take too much research to reach the conclusion that when Denzel Washington claimed that he was “all love”, that was more than a little bit of an exaggeration. Carter certainly had a lot of love of various sorts within him, but there was a lot of ugliness as well. How far that ugliness goes in justifying the actions of the US “prison-industrial complex” that he spent the last half of his life fighting against is another question. Unlike John Paul, however, the Hurricane achieved no major shift in the status quo from which the pendulum might now swing back the other direction. There are still many people who resent the extent to which darker skinned people can be treated as their equals, but there is no sense that now we’ve got to the point that we’ve been doing too much for black people and now we have to start working on putting them back in their “natural” inferior position. Thus Carter’s human failures cannot be taken as a valid excuse for re-enslaving black people or otherwise reducing the civil rights they have been fighting to gain recognition for. The problem is just that, given his mixed legacy, Carter’s death will probably have little effect in terms of energizing people to fight for the cause he has represented for the past 40 years.

The lessons in all this? Choose your heroes and icons carefully, and be prepared to be disappointed by them; but regardless of this risk, seek inspiration for the courage to change this world for the better wherever you can find it, and don’t let your heroes’ failures keep you from fighting for worthy causes which they stood for.

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A Theological Alternative to the Creationist Dogma

I’ve been on vacation from my writing here for the past week and some, but during all the time I’ve “been away” I’ve been thinking of giving some sort of response to the Creation Museum’s big debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye this month. That event seems to have served no other purpose so effectively as to drive a further wedge between sincere Christian believers and sincere seekers for truth. I doubt that I can undo such perceptions to any significant extent, but I’d still like to give it a try.

It’s easy to write off Creation Museum front man Ken Ham as a flake on all sorts of levels. He basically holds to a position which states that “true Christian belief” –– an existential reliance on the teachings in the Bible –– requires that we accept the Bible as an infallible all-purpose guide to everything we really need to know about life, the universe and everything; and that any information which contradicts his understanding of the Bible must be categorically false. Among Christians worldwide this is by no means a majority position. The equivalent position regarding the Qur’an is still the orthodox majority position among Muslims, but among Christians Ham’s position is that of a shrinking minority who more or less explicitly self-identify as Fundamentalists. But regardless of demographics involved, the question deserves to be asked: Is it fair for Ham and company to assert that biblical literalism regarding creationism the one true form of Christianity from which all others have drifted? I don’t believe so, and my decision not to believe so is not something I acknowledge to be a retreatist or fall-back position based on the Fundamentalist position being so untenable in a scientific age.

As a theist I'm the first to admit, the slogan "God's way" has historically been used to market lots of seriously funky stuff!

As a theist I’m the first to admit, the slogan “God’s way” has historically been used to market lots of seriously funky stuff!

The fundamental issue is that I don’t believe that authoritative positions of “absolute certainty” about what “God’s way of doing things” is relative to “man’s way of doing things” are what God had in mind to give us. If he had intended for us to have such a perspective I think he would have arranged the world and the history of man’s religious experiences significantly differently. In contrast with this, though the vulnerability of uncertainty is something that many people come to religion (and to science) hoping to escape from, an essential part of the message of Jesus is that this vulnerability is part of the human condition that God has chosen to share with us, and something which we need to have the courage to embrace and to share with each other.

Before going any further here, let me clarify that I am not attempting here to further demonstrate to non-believers why I consider God to be worth believing in. I would ask those who have serious doubts about that matter to address discussions of their differences of perspective to my various essays here more directly related to that question. I have posted a few such essays in recent months, and I intend to further address that matter in the weeks to come, but this entry addresses a rather different topic. What I wish to talk about here is why, on the working assumption that there is a God, I still believe Fundamentalists such as Ken Ham are fundamentally wrong in their approach to determining what sort of character God is, and what he expects of humans who would hope to please him. The sort of dialog I’m hoping for in response to this particular essay is one with folks who would wish to defend different means of relating to and serving God than what I suggest here; perhaps with those who still cling to one particular form of fundamentalism or another. Fair enough? OK, on we go.

Let me start by taking the discussion back to the times when essentially no one attempted to question the premise that the book of Genesis provided all of the foundational information we need to understand the origins of the universe and mankind’s place in it –– what Fundamentalists would call the “good old days”; what many others would call “The Dark Ages” –– roughly from the fifth to the fifteenth centuries of our calendar. The authoritative Christian hegemony of that era was strong enough so that defensiveness against non-believing perspectives essentially became redundant. Thus the intelligentsia of the age, those who managed to build careers out of finding things to argue about between themselves, were more occupied with questions of what we can know with certainty about God’s nature than with fighting off skeptics as such.

In the later part of that era, following the innovative writings of Thomas Aquinas, one aspect of that project was to attempt to harmonize Aristotle’s understanding of the relationship between physics and metaphysics with the Genesis narratives, which effectively gave rise to the creationist dogmas so important to Ham and his followers today. It should be pointed out though that this was actually something of a later adaptation of Islamic thought that Christian intellectuals inadvertently picked up on during the time of the Crusades. It is also fair to say that, advanced as he was for his time 2300-some years ago, Aristotle’s grasp of physics and related matters had some significant failings to it that these days any bright school kid can point out, so his ideas are no longer the best horse to hitch our intellectual wagon to for purposes of harmonizing physics and metaphysics.

The Medieval stuff I’m interested in comes from further back, in the more strictly Christian contemplative traditions that were around before the Thomist system of proofs of God’s existence was developed.

Another disclaimer is in order here by the way: my area of specialty is not medieval philosophy or medieval theology as such. My comprehension of the original Latin these documents were written in is pretty basic and rusty, and my own academic research is focused much more on phenomena within the past couple of centuries. So it wouldn’t take much for someone to outdo me in this particular field. What I can claim is that I know enough about that era to appreciate a bit of the wisdom of those back then who laid the groundwork for how we do philosophy of religion still today, and to spot the BS of those who claim to be representing and defending “eternal truths” which have their roots in this era. But beyond that if someone wishes to correct my understanding of the details involved, or dispute my interpretation of the overall trends in question, I welcome your input. Now back to the subject at hand.

239335To deal with the issue of scriptural certainty we have to take the discussion back at least as far as Peter Abelard. Students find the story of Abelard’s tragic biography and his post-castration love letters to Heloise particularly memorable, but in terms of philosophy he is best remembered for his classic Sic Et Non, where he demonstrates that simply relying on the authority of the scriptures and the sayings of church fathers without stopping to critically analyze what they are talking about is not only intellectually lazy and dishonest, but inevitably self-defeating in the long run. In this regard attempting to discover the true nature of God through authoritative second-hand accounts is a particularly problematic endeavor.

The authority of scripture on this matter is best regarded in terms of what the church fathers originally called it: the canon –– a measuring rod or a benchmark by which to measure other phenomena, in particular the experiences of God’s presence felt in prayer and worship and in serving his people (and among God’s people the poor in particular). From this perspective, worshiping the Bible itself (or any other holy book) rather than using it as a means of building, enriching and evaluating one’s spiritual experiences and practices, is a particularly bass ackwards way of “doing religion”.

Once this is realized, the seeking pilgrim soon comes to understand that if there is one thing God didn’t tend to provide us with, it’s certainty about matters of faith. Functional certainty is a human goal in terms of which we are continuously attempting to reach the point where they can set aside the troublesome task of actively thinking about things.  We hope to settle questions in our minds so that we can forget about them, relax and devote our energy to other things. That is a worthy goal in engineering for instance –– a well-designed device is one where the user can functionally forget about how it works and just move on to the process of using it without having to think about it. When it comes to theology however, God does not give us such a luxury. We can never get to the point of completely comprehending and mastering the divine essence so that we can then functionally just forget about it, or else it ceases to be divine. If we could capture God in a formula he would no longer be God.

Beyond that, the stated point of Christianity in particular (and to one extent or another other religions as well) is to teach us to love and respect each other. (I trust this is self-evident to all who have studied the matter as far as actually having read through the New Testament at least, but if anyone needs me to proof-text this out for them just write and ask.) To this end, as social theorist Jeremy Rifkin points out, uncertainty and vulnerability are essential elements for enabling empathy –– and thereby love –– to function in practice. In this regard I believe that Frank Schaeffer is also entirely right in referring to theological certainty as a “death trap”. Our natural desire to have complete certainty in our understanding of the transcendent, and to dominate one another through some absolute understanding of theological truth, is actually about as opposite to the message of Jesus as any theological concept could be.

The path of searching for peace with God and each other through the words and work of Jesus without pretending to certainty that God never meant us to have –– humbly serving one another rather than using the teachings of the Bible as means of attacking one another –– is one that the Orthodox Church can claim to have followed more consistently than the Western Christian tradition has, but there are plenty of important exceptions to this rule on both sides. Accepting the limits of our knowledge –– even (or perhaps especially) knowledge we claim to have received through infallible revelation –– and living a life proscribed by the humility that this implies, is a tradition that can also be traced as a minority position through the history of Western Theology as well, from the monks who transcribed the writings of the “Desert Fathers,” to the writings of John Scotus Erigena and the meditations of Blaise Pascal, on into the 19th century writings of Kierkegaard and those he in turn inspired. Nor can the east/west cross-pollination seen in and brought about by Dostoevsky’s novels be ignored in this context.  Of course those who have wished to use Christian doctrine as a Machiavellian tool for political manipulation have consistently labelled all of these thinkers as heretics, but that’s sort of beside the point. Their influence has been frequently ignored, but never silenced. (For an interesting overview of the subject, have a look here.)

In contrast to this, Ken Ham, representing the Fundamentalist, biblical literalist creationist perspective, claims that we need to have absolute certainty about everything written in the first book of the Bible in particular as having come entirely by God’s special revelation to Moses, or else we lose certainty about all sorts of critical matters like how marriage is supposed to work, what counts as sin, why people die, why nudity is problematic, etc. Because of the need for a sense of certainty in these areas, Ham and his comrades refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of any information that contradicts the world view presented in Genesis. From there it becomes a rather transparent process of looking for viable excuses to interpret the data of the material world according to this ideological perspective. Thus the emotional need for certainty and control within a religious framework is at the heart of his argument. The resulting intellectual dishonesty in the process of interpreting the data of natural sciences is merely a by-product of this problematic ideology.

Ham's slide depicting his perception of the moral risks entailed in not being a creationist

Ham’s slide depicting his perception of the moral risks entailed in not being a creationist

If we turn the priorities of Christendom around from an emphasis on social control to an emphasis on enabling compassion, as many of us believe the priorities should have been all along, the certainty argument goes out the window. Rather than seeking for a justification to stone those who we consider to be less holy than ourselves, we begin seeking for means of gaining acceptance for them, and ourselves, into the sort of club that by rights shouldn’t have people like us as members. Rather than focusing on controlling other people’s sex lives, we begin to focus on preventing people from being sexually abused and sexually objectified, and beyond that on building the sort of caring community that equips people to experience the sort of personal intimacy in which sex finds its greatest expression. Rather than basing medical ethics on abstract concepts of the value of life, we base our medical ethics on showing compassion and communicating to each individual that his or her life is personally important to us.

Pope Francis was not looking for excuses to set aside creationism when he wrote in his epic letter Evangelii Gaudium of “practical relativism” being a greater risk than “doctrinal relativism”. The pontiff is telling his flock that rather than worrying about losing a sense of absolute doctrinal certainty, they should worry more about the sort of relativism where they end up “acting as if God did not exist, making decisions as if the poor did not exist, setting goals as if others did not exist, working as if people who have not received the Gospel did not exist. It is striking that even some who clearly have solid doctrinal and spiritual convictions frequently fall into a lifestyle which leads to an attachment to financial security, or to a desire for power or human glory at all cost, rather than giving their lives to others in mission.” (§ 80) In other words doctrinal absolutes are far less important to the Church in fulfilling its basic mission than believers having an experience of joy in being able to serve as an instrument of God’s mercy for others.

When the priorities of the Church slip from such a foundation, it amounts to what Pope Francis calls “spiritual worldliness”, based on carefully cultivated appearances and thus, “not always linked to outward sin; from without, everything appears as it should be,” yet far more dangerous to the mission of the church than any outward moral failures. (§ 93) This takes the twin forms of “gnosticism” and “promethean neopelagianism”: a detached form of religious experience without relevant application in serving others, and a trust on one’s own sense of moral power and religious superiority. “A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying. In neither case is one really concerned about Jesus Christ or others. […] It is impossible to think that a genuine evangelizing thrust could emerge from these adulterated forms of Christianity.” (§ 94)

I am in no way a supporter of any doctrine of papal infallibility, but on these matters Pope Francis comes across as having a far clearer grasp of the essence of the Christian message than Ken Ham does. When we build from that sort of moral foundation described in Evangelii Gaudium motivations for twisting geological and biological data to fit one’s ideological “scriptural” premises are greatly reduced. Our message no longer depends on proving to ourselves that we have the right gnostic code –– the correct system of passwords for getting into heaven and staying out of hell that others need to learn from us in order to have the same hope we do. Nor does it leave us with anything to prove in terms of our having a superior moral code that we can expect everyone else to live up to. Once we reach that point of simply desiring to overcome our selfish barriers to truly loving God and each other certainty about the details of the physical origins of the universe is no longer an emotional issue. If it turns out that the stories in Genesis are based on ancient folk legends which allegorically explain something about how people over 3000 years ago believed that God expected them to relate to each other, nothing about our essential message fails on the basis of such a discovery.

If God’s top priority was for us to keep each other in line in terms of recognizing traditional moral standards as eternal and unchanging, there would be no point in the message of a suffering savior. God would merely have sent a team of angelic messengers with official declarations of the divine will and flaming swords to deal directly with those who resisted their message. There would have been no need to dignify human vulnerability and frailty with God taking on such a form. On the other hand, if God’s top priority were to convince us to treat each other with love and respect regardless of one’s status within various human power struggles, he would have driven this point home for us by himself taking on the form of a humble servant –– sort of like Jesus…

Thus I conclude that the message of Christianity is not about guilt, justice, retribution and forensic certainties; but rather about embracing frailty, experiencing empathy, showing mercy and finding redemption through deep, undeserved interpersonal connection. In order to communicate this sort of message it is not necessary to pretend that we have an absolutely reliable technical understanding of the prehistoric origins of the earth and the universe which must remain impervious to all evidence to the contrary. On the contrary, such an assumption of certainty tends to be rather counter-productive in that it entails a belief that certain people have a God-given right to dictate to others a set of standards regarding every area of life for them to live up to, which in turn goes directly against the Gospel message of humble service.

Good news: One does not need to believe that the event depicted here, happening roughly 5000 years ago, explains the existence of the worlds great canyons and the limits of biodiversity that we find among humans and animals in the world today in order to have a capacity to accept forgiveness and to forgive and care for others in return. Just in case you were wondering...

Good news: One does not need to believe that the event depicted here, happening roughly 5000 years ago, explains the existence of the worlds great canyons and the limits of biodiversity that we find among humans and animals in the world today in order to have a capacity to accept forgiveness and to forgive and care for others in return. Just in case you were wondering…

Thus to reject the Creation Museum’s theological premises is not a matter of submitting to the superiority of a non-theistic premise; it is a matter of putting the teachings of Jesus ahead of a lust for power and an emotional need for certainty. I would encourage all who wish to be counted as followers of Jesus to adjust their perspectives accordingly: “All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you.” (Philippians 3:15)

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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“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!

 

 

 

 

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“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…

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‘Cause I Know I Don’t Belong…

This week I got a link from Eric Clapton’s Facebook page to the video of his most recent rendition of Tears in Heaven. That sent me on a minor binge of listening to some of his classics on line and from my old CD collection.

ClaptonColorDannyClinch

It doesn’t take much actually –– just a reminder, some free time and a temporarily working web connection. I’ve been a Clapton fan for as long as I’ve been able to independently define for myself what sort of music I like. The back cover blurb for the philosophy textbook I wrote has a brief list of facts that, in my experience, pretty much all high school students I’ve ever taught would agree with me on:
–         The world is round.
–         This shirt is red.
–         My mother loves me.
–         Clapton rules!
–         Mosquitoes suck!

But in posting the link to my own Facebook page I made what might strike some as a pretty radical and superficial comment: I find Tears in Heaven to be “probably the most beautiful and sincere original Gospel song of the past generation.”

What? An aging old rocker/bluesman who has done more to promote souls being sold to the devil than any other musician still recording today gets to have his music labeled as “Gospel” just because he uses a Christian afterlife motif in mourning the loss of his son?! Yes and no. Yes, he does get to be included among Gospel artists regardless of his history. No, it is not the passing references to heaven which make this a Gospel song. Time to unpack.

What makes Tears in Heaven Gospel for me is that it is a song about grief, searching for the essence of personal identity, discovering unworthiness, accepting redemption and choosing to move forward with a new openness to life on the basis of finding the grace of acceptance in spite of continuing grief and awareness of unworthiness. Those elements are what the Christian Gospel, in its most basic terms, is really all about. Let me unpack that a bit further still.

Would you know my name if I saw you in heaven? Would it be the same…

Beyond the incredible hurt of having lost someone who had given his life profound new meaning –– his first son, Conor –– Eric is asking if souls beyond bodies are capable of recognizing each other. That’s not an easy question to answer with certainty, no matter what sort of basis one is working from. The hope that those who have passed on are not relationally lost to us for ever is certainly one of the reasons people in every part of the world are so prone to be religious. But beyond that there is the question of, in the areas where it most matters, what is one’s fame and reputation really worth?

Or as Jesus put it, “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?”  (Matt. 16:26)

Building name recognition in terms of our personal “branding” processes is one of the most important aspects of human ambition, regardless of one’s area of specialty. Recognizing the importance of that, I find it deeply embarrassing when I am unable to remember former students’ names when I meet them in public, and I in an odd way I find it somehow comforting when other old acquaintances get my name mixed up as well. Shakespeare implied within his plays that this sort of reputation building is the closest thing to eternal life we as humans can really hope for. Among other places we see this in the words he put into the mouth of Henry V before the battle of Agincourt:

…Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d
;

But more than whether or not his fame will last, what Eric really wants to know is if he would continue to be significant to the one he loves –– if love, parental love in this case, can survive the tragedy of death. Can love really be as strong as death, as the Bible says (S of S 8:6)? That, more than his professional reputation, could provide a means of not loosing his own soul as such. And with this realization comes the awareness that he cannot acquire this lasting connection of love on his own merits:

Would you hold my hand if I saw you in heaven? Would you help me stand…

Grace is all about coming together with those who don’t deserve acceptance, and being accepted even when we don’t deserve it. Eric was painfully aware of his slow learning curve in adjusting to being a father. He is asking not only for his son’s acceptance but his son’s help in being able to stand. For someone who had a history of substance abuse in various forms as a way of dealing with deep personal sadness, being able to stand after a tragedy like the death of a pre-school aged child is not a foregone conclusion. One cannot buy this sort of strength on the basis of one’s other merits. It can only be found through reaching out for acceptance from a point of vulnerability.

This acceptance of those in need, regardless of how powerful or powerless, how ceremonially clean or ceremonially unacceptable they happened to be, really is core to the message of Jesus. When those in need came to him, be it the powerful Roman centurion (Matt. 8:5-13) or the shy woman with bleeding problems (Luke 8:43-48), the synagogue supervisor (Mark 5:22-24) or the prostitute (Luke 7:36-39), for whatever reason, he took their hands and helped them to stand. Being able to make that sort of undeserved connection and being “made whole” by it is the gift Jesus came to give us.

I must be strong, and carry on, ‘cause I know I don’t belong here in heaven.

This lyric really sums up the whole experience of redemption then. A sense of connection has been found which provides a perspective of being “here in heaven”. Heaven, more than anything else, is the state of knowing that love has given us a secure identity and existential foundation for the rest of what we hope to do or become. This isn’t something we get on credit to pay back later, nor is it something that we can claim to have earned in advance. We are forgiven for our flaws and accepted for who we are, and in spite of our on-going weaknesses making us aware that we “don’t belong,” heaven begins to open up to us as an experience. This in turn invites the proper response of wanting to “be strong and carry on” through the on-going sadness that life involves. It makes us want to be better people and gives us the strength to become better people. This isn’t the full extent of our hope as Christians, but it is our fundamental starting point.

Beyond the door there’s peace I’m sure…

What lies beyond this life is something we cannot explore in any scientific way, other than to see how it relates to the forms of “heaven” we reach in this life. We hope to escape from the ways in which “time can break you down” without losing the peace of being connected through love with important powers beyond ourselves. There are good reasons to be humble about how certain our knowledge about such things is, but there’s really no good reason not to believe in and hope for a state of timeless connection with all our tears dried once we get “beyond the door”.

conor clapton grave

The one thing that Tears in Heaven does not do is to promote a particular brand of Christian or any other metaphysical belief as such. It doesn’t give any magic words or creedal formulas for reaching heaven. It doesn’t automatically lend itself to particular churches borrowing it as part of their organizational marketing campaigns the way most gospel music throughout history has. I find that to be an integral part of the song’s beauty actually. If the above message can be presented in a way that doesn’t depend on such formulas, so much the better. If this leaves some people feeling uneasy about the ambiguity of the message, I can only hope that the uneasiness causes them to dig deeper into their own understandings of love and redemption and heaven.

Since the death of his son Clapton has embraced sobriety and fatherhood as deeply meaningful elements of his life and lifestyle. I can respect that as much as I can the music itself. I’m still not going to pretend to have the right to claim him as a kindred soul or anything, but I can say that clearly the message of redemption in this way has been real for him. I add my voice to the millions who both sympathize with his loss and appreciate where the experience has brought him, both as an artist and as a person. So I repeat my starting assertion: I believe Tears in Heaven really is the most beautiful and sincere original Gospel song of the past generation. And as a father prone to grieve about the state of my own fatherhood at times, I fully join him in appreciating what forms of heaven I am able to find in these relationships in spite of myself. I hope others find the same in their own journeys.

Let us pray.

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Filed under Aesthetics, Empathy, Purpose, Religion, Spirituality

Scientific Insight vs. Blinding with Science

Together with the many entirely fair critiques of my last entry here was one that I found to be rather off the mark: that it contained a “subtle condemnation of biology and sciences”. I actually believe that this was a misreading by someone who is conditioned to believe that anyone who is in favor of religious perspectives is in all likelihood anti-scientific. There are plenty of inductive reasons why someone might be prone to reach such a conclusion, but I honestly don’t believe that it is applicable to me, at least not in the context of what I was trying to say to Daisy. Yet at the same time I must admit that, like many theists, I do see limits in the extent to which science can replace philosophy and religion in human life. Let me see if I can make a case for that for you.

Richard_DawkinsI see science as a means of searching for understanding of the world we live in, which has resulted in some spectacular insights and, through technological advancement, miraculous changes life as we know it. What I don’t believe in is “Science” as an abstract authoritative determinant of truth in ethical and metaphysical matters –– I’m not a believer within the sort of faith that Richard Dawkins has become high priest of among the so-called “new atheists”. This has been on my mind a fair amount this month, since a friend of mine suggested that some of us participate in Sam Harris’s “The Moral Landscape Challenge” this winter. At this point I am fully intending to do so, even though I don’t think I have much chance of winning, for the same reason that I don’t feel that I have much chance of winning the lottery.

I look at it this way: Given Harris’s ability to top best-seller lists with his attacks on religious beliefs, I’m quite sure there will be thousands of participants wanting to take a crack at him. I’m also quite sure that Harris’s mind is sufficiently made up on the matter where he will allow himself to become confused by seriously considering the merits of any of the arguments he will be presented with. Any reasonably clever under-grad student of philosophy could easily refute Harris’s arguments, but that doesn’t mean he’d be able to recognize the merits of their arguments and admit defeat. Many public intellectuals who are not even theists, and who will be too busy with more prestigious and better paying work to bother with such a challenge –– ranging from Simon Blackburn to Jonathan Haidt –– have already pointed out the multiple flaws in Harris’s arguments. Given his obstinate rejection of their counter-arguments, I’d see it as pretty close to psychologically impossible for his mind to be changed by an argument presented by any of us unknowns. Nor do I see it as particularly likely under these circumstances that he would be able to qualitatively differentiate between those who adequately refute his ideas and those who don’t, to say nothing of being able to judge who best refutes his ideas.

Sam HarrisThe 1000-word sampler format he has stipulated adds even further to the randomized aspect of the contest. So which, if any, of the hundreds of competently written refutations that he will inevitably receive will come out as the official winner has to come down to a matter of random selection. (I do believe there will be an official winner, but given what I see as the inevitably random nature of the selection process, I’m not at all sure that the winner will be one of those which competently refutes Harris’s position.) But what the hell, I play free raffle drawings for new cars and the like at the grocery store all the time, so why not participate in this one?

So as this relates to my perspective on science which has just been called into question, as I have been pondering such questions anyway, and as, for reasons stated above, I don’t believe that tipping my hand a bit here would seriously reduce my chances of winning, I’ve decided to start offering some of my thoughts here on why I actually don’t believe that science can answer all of our moral questions for us, and where I believe we should go from there. Harris/Dawkins fans, feel free to comment here and critique my perspective to your hearts’ content.

To start with let me give Harris credit for sincerity in at least one regard: I don’t believe he is doing this challenge thing for the money. He might or might not sell enough extra books on the basis of such a contest to cover the minimal prize money he’s offering, but that’s not the point, for him or for the participants. Like Rick Warren, Billy Graham, Tariq Ramadan and many others, Harris is fortunate enough to have become quite financially secure from book sales that have been an incidental part of his holy war on behalf of the ideals he believes in. His interest in offering such a challenge would more likely be  a matter of hoping that if he can get a few thousand people –– philosophically inclined theists in particular –– to seriously consider his polemics against their position, he might actually succeed in converting a few dozen or so of them in the process. This in turn would advance the meme he believes in, which he has dedicated his life to spreading, thereby doing far more to justify his existence than additional money in his pocket would. This point will be worth coming back to.

benthamAnyway, as hundreds have already pointed out, the essence of Harris’s moral perspectives are borrowed, through some convoluted form of intellectual heredity or another, from Jeremy Bentham –– the fellow whose mortal remains can still be seen in a glass case in the hallway of University College of London. Bentham’s essential belief was that there are really only two things that matter in life: pleasure and pain. Whenever you increase the former and/or decrease the latter for the population at large, you are doing something morally commendable.

S BaartmanNo basic high school level philosophy course is complete without exploring the limits of the validity to this approach. In simple terms we have to ask ourselves, for example, was the exploitation of Saartjie Baartman, “The Hottentot Venus,” as a sideshow freak, a sub-human curiosity and a sexual novelty item in London and Paris a morally right thing to do? You would be hard pressed to find an ethicist these days who would stand up to defend this historic abuse; but since it did give hundreds of Europeans pleasure, a sense of superiority and adventure, increased solidarity and perhaps even increased libido –– all for the nominal price of destroying the well-being and dignity of an African servant girl who probably wouldn’t have had much of a life back in Cape Town anyway ­­–– according to a consistent application of Bentham’s principles it would very definitely have been considered the morally right thing to do. And this case isn’t even hypothetical.

If we consider the defense of innocent victims to be a higher priority than the overall pleasure of the crude and sadistic masses –– as would the vast majority of professional thinkers on the subject, and even “normal people” in the world today would –– in its simplest form, Bentham’s moral philosophy fails right there. So instead of sticking to the simplest form of Bentham’s utilitarian belief, Harris focuses on the negative side of things. He paints a picture of the worst possible condition, where intense suffering for all continues unabated indefinitely. Wouldn’t the prevention of such a situation be a moral goal that everyone could agree on? Rather than focusing on increasing pleasure as a moral goal then, we should simply focus our moral energies on reducing suffering.

The problem with that is something that any middle school student can see quite immediately and intuitively: The simplest and most effective way of eliminating suffering is to eliminate all beings capable of suffering. Would this sort of global suicide solution really be the hypothetical peak accomplishment of human moral action? Highly unlikely. So from there the question becomes, what is there about life that makes it worth embracing and promoting, even if it does involve pain and suffering for many?

BraveNewWorld_FirstEditionHarris doesn’t really take the question that far, and to the extent that he brushes up against this question he speaks of “peak experiences” between the valleys of suffering that somehow might make life worth it. He doesn’t say in very specific terms what these peak experiences might be, but he has faith in science and technology being the best ways of defining them and bringing them about. This in turn leads directly to the justification presented for the dystopian society in the 20th century’s pioneering novel of that genre: Huxley’s Brave New World. Huxley, no Christian apologist himself, doesn’t offer any ideal solutions for the problem of how to find sustainable meaning and purpose in life, but after giving such arguments a carefully constructed coherent expression, he thoroughly demonstrates that the best hope for humanity is not to be found in making people into happy cogs within an immense societal machine. Pretty much every other novel in the same genre thereafter has come to much the same conclusion.

What makes these future horror stories so scary is really the whole idea of people being considered disposable in a system that doesn’t offer any significant amount of choice to those stuck within it. To Harris & Co. these factors don’t really seem to make any difference. Life is essentially random and meaningless for the most part anyway, they believe, regardless of what sort of ideology you espouse. Beyond that people are far more like machines than we care to admit –– following pre-programmed paths and automatically responding to stimuli around us even when we are the most sure that we are choosing our actions and responses for ourselves. So if some group of self-appointed technicians takes it upon themselves to engineer everyone else’s lives so that the average guy can go through life without thinking too much, with a minimal amount of pain and with reliable drug-induced periods of euphoria coming on a regular basis, what’s wrong with that? If you don’t really care about freedom as such, if thinking for yourself isn’t all that important to you, or if you imagine yourself to be one of those who would be in the position of deciding things for everyone else; and if you can’t imagine that life could have any greater meaning than that… nothing.

Philosophers in general tend to be rather addicted to the sensation of thinking freely for themselves, and they are rarely under any illusions that a technocratic totalitarian government would select them as the technicians in charge of things. It thus comes as no surprise that they do not embrace the same sort of Huxleyan vision that Harris does as an ideal for an ideal future. Meanwhile for the less philosophical “normal people” of the Western world there is still the recent historical memory of what happened when the people of Germany and Austria surrendered their freedoms to the technocratic regime of the Nazis (shortly after Huxley’s classic was written) which discourages them from going along with any such system too readily.

Nazi-Swastika-AustriaThe greatest risk/possibility of Huxley’s dystopian vision coming true these days then would actually be if “the one percent” of the population which controls obscene amounts of wealth and power these days were to engineer an Atlas Shrugged style revolution where the rest of the population would no longer be able to challenge their power. In fact this isn’t an entirely unlikely scenario. The “Tea Party” movement’s economic populism seems to have been designed to lay the groundwork in the US for just such a move: convincing the population to think of “entitlement” and “socialism” as dirty words, and to believe that the common folk should be happy just to take whatever the ingenious technocrats in charge of the economy are willing to give them. Government should not try to help the poor majority at the expense of the tiny minority at the top; that would be stealing! If those not within the ruling elite become nothing more than disposable commodities within the system controlled by the unquestioned elite, well… that’s just how life works. Nor, it must be admitted, has the Democratic Party, which theoretically should be the counter-balance to this sort of elitist dynamic, made any decisive moves to reduce this slide towards absolute oligarchical control.

I’m not accusing Harris of being a closet Tea Partier; I’m saying that the Tea Party is the political tool with the greatest possibility of enabling his technocratic ideals to be put into practice, and that should give him pause for thought. I can’t imagine it will.

The irony is that the majority of those who support the sort of “new atheist” dogma which Harris publicly champions seem to have something of an allergy to authoritarian regimes in general, since historically, more often than not, such regimes have had a heavily religious component to them. Harris’s own favorite whipping boy in this regard is the Taliban. But rather than promoting personal freedom, justice and individual liberty as solutions to this problem, what Harris is effectively suggesting is that organizations like the Taliban be replaced with a more competent, secular and scientific form of totalitarian control; what Neil Young poetically refers to as “a kinder, gentler machine gun hand.” How else can the ideal of scientifically detecting and engineering greater states of satisfaction in the population be achieved? But is this really what we want?Neil_Young_2012

The above critique –– tearing down the opposition’s dogmatic position –– is the easy part. Offering a viable alternative is the hard part. When it comes to dealing with real live human beings, with all of their destructive passions and mutual antagonisms, designing a system to help them thrive and meet their individual needs while respecting each of them as intrinsically valuable and entitled to freedom as individuals has proven far easier said than done. So let me start by saying that while I don’t believe that science, in some abstract authoritative sense, can provide us with the ultimate goals that we should be striving towards, I do believe that science as a set of methods of looking for information without any particular ideological baggage attached, and technology as a collection of tools which provide means of achieving personal goals we set for ourselves without determining what those goals should be, are especially useful for promoting human thriving and social stability. At best they are means of keeping ourselves honest as we search for understanding, and of avoiding unnecessary pain and risks in the process. The trick is to keep these particular pursuits within their respective roles as servants rather than as authoritative structures. As long as we don’t let science blind us to other aspects of the human experience, or let technology determine what is important about us as people, we should be OK with them, but that’s far easier said than done.

When it comes to setting goals that are ultimately worth living for, I believe that there are a number of different means by which this can be done, and that the greatest risk for us as humans is when some authoritarian figure or another declares that he has the exclusive (God-given) right to determine which lives have value, on what bases, and which lives are more readily disposable. I don’t believe that making such declarations based on the authority of “science” makes them any less dangerous than basing them on the authority of some deity or another.

Harris points out that presuppositions of given values are inevitably built into the activities of the “scientific community” as such, and science cannot be done without certain presuppositions in terms of basic values, but that does not mean that the validity of such values can be conclusively proven by way of experimentation or scientific observation. This makes it rather absurd to refer to such values as matters of “absolute fact” that can be discovered and declared on the basis of some sort of scientific authority.

I believe the path to greater peace and stability in human society is that of having the humility and sincerity not to claim the sort of exclusive handle on truth which makes us feel entitled to eliminate those who don’t share our perspective.  This points to something that both theocracies and “brave new worlds” have been guilty of. The alternative is to build a system of mutual respect based on empathy and appreciation for our commonality in many important regards. In religious terminology this means seeing other human beings as also made in the image of God and entitled to certain expressions of respect on that basis, given that none of us are entitled to put ourselves in the place of God to judge the ultimate value of another person’s life. In secular terms that would mean recognizing our common heritage and shared long-term interest as part of the same remarkable process of life. This is far easier said than done though, and claims of special revelations and whiz-bang technological innovations cannot be trusted to iron out the moral bumps along the way for us.

But this essay is already more than twice as long as Harris’s little contest rules will allow for, and at that it still doesn’t include some significant points I have in mind on the subject. All in all I don’t see myself as likely to make any serious money off of these ideas, especially not by way of Harris. So why am I bothering with all this?

I guess I have to admit that I too do this to advance the sort of memes I believe in –– which for me include love, justice, tolerance and the spirituality found in the Christian tradition. That doesn’t mean I do this to belittle processes of scientific discovery or to promote any particular power structure based on European cultural traditions, though I recognize that the sort of memes I believe in have often been used to do such things. I have no vested interest in the maintenance of the power of those currently controlling our cultures though, and I don’t see tradition for its own sake as something to be desperately clung to. Nor do I see academic rationalism as a pure, sterile process unto itself as the key to solving all of the world’s problems. I believe in carefully, rationally and systematically thinking things through; and combining that process with connecting with and caring about the messy business known as human life. I see that as my best chance of finding happiness, purpose and longer-term satisfaction in life for myself and those I care about.  I also happen to see that as the essence of the Christian gospel. I recognize that your mileage may vary though, and I don’t give myself the right to send those who disagree with me to hell.

Harris, and others like, him have very different ways of going about giving their lives meaning. I don’t find his approach particularly coherent or promising, but as long as he isn’t using it to belittle the value and dignity of those I care about (or even if he tries to use his ideas for such purposes, but does not do so particularly effectively) I can leave him to it. If he’s offering a podium for presenting what is important to me, I’ll take a crack at it. The rest, as I’m prone to conceptualize it, is up to God.

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Filed under Basic logic, Control, Ethics, Freedom, Religion, Science, Spirituality, Tolerance

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

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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.

 

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Considering the Fall

 

Last Sunday morning I heard a sermon on Genesis 3 that didn’t really sit right with me.  The preacher was one of those nice, blameless, soft-spoken guys whose integrity no reasonable person would want to question. This wasn’t the first time I found his preaching to be somewhat lacking intellectually, but he has a certain moral standing that I don’t, and he plays a valuable role within his community of faith, so from my personal ethical perspective it would be wrong for me to tear him down for being too simple about his approach to faith. And I don’t mean it in any condescending way when I say that his style of faith is probably the best thing for him –– personally, psychologically, socially, etc. If I were to try to “fix” his approach I’m sure I’d do more harm than good.

But then I hear him preach in his own soft, matter-of-fact way about all our problems in life coming from historical mistakes made by our shared ancestors, how people would have just been so incredibly much more intelligent without the curse that came with the Fall, how the devil tricked humanity into wanting to be like God the same way he did, how gender role differences are based on this historical event, how bloodshed becomes necessary as a means of dealing with guilt… and I wonder, is this really the most constructive perspective to have on Christian life… or on life in general?

Adam_and_Eve_expelled_from_ParadiseTheologically, particularly among Evangelicals, this is the ultimate “Emperor’s New Clothes” situation: Anyone who would dare to question such teaching is considered thoroughly unfit for their job, or for any responsible role within a respectable Christian society. If you start to question or to deny the importance and implications of the Fall of mankind into sin, you are inevitably belittling the extent of your dependence on God’s mercy. You may be setting out on a path of making excuses for your own sinful practices, and you have certainly fallen into the sin of pride, if nothing else. Left unchecked in this error, you could spread the “leaven” of your ways through the whole church, and cause others to enter into all sorts of sin. In the worst case you might cause anarchy to spread through the community by reducing people’s fear of God and respect for the authorities he has placed over them! So anyone who doesn’t see the obvious necessity of believing in the Fall as a literal historical event in order to be a Christian –– and anyone who is uncomfortable with the implications that Biblical literalists draw from this portion of the scriptures –– generally knows enough to stay quiet about it at least.

But it takes more than feeling like a little boy with no reputation to lose to solve this one. Complaining about the implied censorship does not answer the question, how should we look at the story in the third chapter of the Bible? What lessons would someone like me –– not having much of a moral reputation left to defend, but deeply interested in learning to better connect with others and with whatever transcendental realities are out there by way of the Christian tradition –– hope to draw from this portion of scripture?

Let’s back-track a little ways on this. How do we know that these events actually happened? Well, basically the record tells us that about 3500 years ago, give or take a century or two, a guy named Moses became the first literate member of the Hebrew slave community in Egypt, and after he led a successful revolt by way of which these slaves gained their freedom, he put their oral history into writing.

Now there is room to doubt exactly how close the book of Genesis as we have it today, in its original Hebrew language, is to the original writings of Moses on the matter. Some would go as far as to say that Moses is quite likely the same sort of mythical figure as King Arthur: someone made up to fulfil a need for a hero to build national pride around. But let’s set aside those reservations for the time being. Let’s assume for the moment that there really was a Moses who really did put the basic records given in the book of Genesis into writing. How do we know that he got the story straight historically?

It is entirely plausible that the legends of Jacob’s family, the four mothers of his children and the power-struggles between them, could have been accurately passed down from generation to generation to the time of Moses. The further back we go from there though, the more speculative the record becomes. There isn’t any specific record, for instance, of what happened between the breakdown of the unified civilization of all humanity in Babel and Abraham’s family’s move away from Ur, or what caused them to move. If that information was unknown to Moses, there is little reason to believe that he knew anything chronologically prior to that with anything resembling critical certainty, no matter how charitably we view the rest of his writings in historical terms.

So the basis on which Jews and Christians believe the stories in the first ten chapters of Genesis to be historically accurate is an assumption that God revealed to Moses, entirely flawlessly, what had happened in the time before the living memory of his people. Why should we believe that? Why would we suspend disbelief in this improbable sounding narrative being true? Standard answer: because God wanted us to be able to know these things with certainty. That’s why he revealed them to Moses as flawlessly as he did. Yet here comes the irony: The desire to know things with certainty is the precise bait which, in Genesis 3, the serpent used to convince the woman to eat the forbidden fruit. The forbidden fruit was not promiscuous sex, not some form of drug, not violence, but knowledge itself. So the belief that the story of the Fall is unquestionably historically accurate is in itself a form of grasping for the power of knowledge, which is exactly what the story itself is a cautionary tale against doing!

It’s easier for Christians to see the rational flaws in this way of thinking when those of other religions do it. The narratives in the Qur’an are the easiest example to give. Many of the stories there are re-tellings of stories from the Hebrew Scriptures, a.k.a. the Old Testament. Yet the details of these stories are in many cases significantly altered, often without any historical or theological reason for changing them. Take, for example, the story of God commanding that the army be reduced in size by checking the manner in which the men drank from a stream. The Bible’s version goes like this:

“But the Lord said to Gideon, ‘There are still too many men. Take them down to the water, and I will thin them out for you there. If I say, “This one shall go with you,” he shall go; but if I say, “This one shall not go with you,” he shall not go.’

So Gideon took the men down to the water. There the Lord told him, ‘Separate those who lap the water with their tongues as a dog laps from those who kneel down to drink.’ Three hundred of them drank from cupped hands, lapping like dogs. All the rest got down on their knees to drink.

The Lord said to Gideon, ‘With the three hundred men that lapped I will save you and give the Midianites into your hands. Let all the others go home.’ So Gideon sent the rest of the Israelites home but kept the three hundred, who took over the provisions and trumpets of the others.”  (Judges 7:4-8)

The Qur’an, on the other hand, tells the story like this:

“And when Saul went forth with the soldiers, he said, ‘Indeed, Allah will be testing you with a river. So whoever drinks from it is not of me, and whoever does not taste it is indeed of me, excepting one who takes [from it] in the hollow of his hand.’ But they drank from it, except a [very] few of them. Then when he had crossed it along with those who believed with him, they said, ‘There is no power for us today against Goliath and his soldiers.’ But those who were certain that they would meet Allah said, ‘How many a small company has overcome a large company by permission of Allah. And Allah is with the patient.’ And when they went forth to [face] Goliath and his soldiers, they said, ‘Our Lord, pour upon us patience and plant firmly our feet and give us victory over the disbelieving people.’” (Surah 2:249-250)

Gideon300While it seems obvious from a Jewish or Christian perspective that the Prophet of Islam was retelling a story from the Bible that he heard during his years travelling around the Arabian Peninsula as a camel driver, only in rather mixed up form; the Muslim explanation is that God revealed a perfectly historically accurate version of the events to Muhammed, correcting the corruptions which had crept into the Old Testament version of things. They don’t explain how or why the deeds of Israel’s first king would have come to be attributed to one of their otherwise less important theocratic warlord judges instead, or how or why a victory over the Philistines would have been altered in the historical record to be a victory over the Midianites. To all but dogmatic Muslims themselves the Muslim dogma put forward in this debate sounds like very weak excuses for their prophet’s flawed memory in recalling stories he had heard in his youth as he integrated them into his poetic message about God not allowing the people of ancient Israel to take credit for the military miracles he performed for them. The moral of the story remains entirely the same; it’s just the historical details that are entirely mixed up. Still for the overwhelming majority of believing Muslims it is essential to believe that the information they have received via their scriptures is flawless, as this gives them confidence in their exclusive claims to the power that goes with certain forms of knowledge.

It is easy for Fundamentalist Christians to see this as a problem in Muslim thinking, but not in their own. If Muhammed could get the story of Gideon mixed up and add in his own details that have little to do with the historical account, why couldn’t Moses have done the same? Is there any reason why the “because God says so” argument works better in one case than the other? Just because we don’t have older versions of the story of Adam and Eve to compare Moses’ version with doesn’t mean that his mystical revelation insures that he got all the details historically right there. Rather than faith in the infallibility of the telling of the story, I believe that the important issue is to see what the story is trying to tell us about how we should relate to God and each other.

We still have to bear in mind that this came from a source which justified genocide as a valid form of obedience to God’s will (e.g., Deuteronomy 20:16-17). Therefor there’s no escaping the fact that either a) God has changed over the millennia, b) God is still a bloodthirsty psychopath or c) Moses made some mistakes –– not only in describing pre-history but also in articulating what God desires of mankind. Of these alternatives the third would seem to be the least problematic, especially given what we know about the low priority given to knowledge as such in the story Genesis 3.

So where does that leave us? Why don’t we try re-reading the story from a state of innocence, like we’re hearing it for the first time, knowing that it is a literary classic but not knowing much else about its message or truth-value. If it came up in this sort of way as a reading text in your book club, what would you think?

We start out with a talking snake… which already tells us that we have to suspend our everyday perspective and allow ourselves to enter into a world of magic. Nothing is said about this snake being a devil or anything. It’s just a snake: a particularly crafty animal, at worst perhaps somewhat of a phallic symbol that the woman finds herself attracted to. So the snake starts to wear down the woman’s resistance to the idea of acquiring knowledge in general by testing her knowledge of God’s prohibitions, which amounted to a grand total of one: Don’t eat from that tree right in the middle there. She embellishes the command a bit: Don’t touch. So obviously she doesn’t know much good from evil so yet. Umm… duh!

Eve-and-serpent_christianimagesourceSo the snake then continues with the seduction. He says that the death risk is exaggerated, and that the reward of being autonomous more than makes up for it. The problem is that God sets rules because he’s jealous and insecure. At that point, so the story goes, she notices three things about the forbidden fruit: it’s nutritious, it’s pretty, and it leads to wisdom. Now taken literally that makes little sense. She wouldn’t have been able to say much one way or the other about its nutritional value just by looking, and the path through to wisdom would have been even less obvious. But if we think about this as a feminine contemplation of the pros and cons of gaining an education, it becomes a little less absurd. Looking at the object not as some fruit, but as the process of gaining knowledge… yes, she might see where that knowledge could lead to better physical well-being; yes, that knowledge might have its own aesthetic rewards involved; and yes, that knowledge could lead to the greater benefit beyond itself of attaining wisdom.

Now what the snake didn’t say was that knowledge always involves separation, comparison… the fish-out-of-water thing that I’ve talked about in previous blogs this summer. But that’s adding in a level of interpretation that keeps us from reading the story from a position of innocence. Then again, we’ve arrived at the point in the story where innocence is lost: The woman dives into the learning process, and starts teaching her husband a thing or two as well. The immediate result of the effort to gain power through knowledge: a fear of vulnerability –– they came to see themselves as naked and exposed, and they tried to hide their most vulnerable spots from each other using the comically hopeless measure of sewing fig leaves together.

Then God comes by, just on an afternoon stroll. Now if you had to suspend disbelief to go along with the talking snake, you really have to stretch your imagination to think of God as just this regular guy enjoying his casual afternoon walk in the garden and looking for someone to hang out with and talk to. Had God not really become God yet, in the sense of being the massive power that made the whole universe? Was he not omniscient and omnipresent yet? Anyway, somehow God is just wandering around in the garden looking for Adam to hang out with him like his big buddy, but he’s a bit confused about not finding Adam hanging out there the way he usually is (another strange detail), so God finally gives a yell: “Yo Adam, where ya at?”

Adam comes out of hiding and says, “Sorry, heard you coming and I felt funny about coming out with my bits down there just dangling in the breeze like this.”

To which God says, “Why should that bother you all of a sudden? You’ve been getting into that fruit I told you to stay away from, haven’t you?” Pwned. Then the blame-game starts.

“This woman that you gave me, she made me do it.”

“OK, woman, what have you got to say for yourself?”

“Well, the snake tricked me…”

Next the story tells of God starting to dish out the curses: The snake gets to be face in the dirt for the rest of time, with continuous tension between its head and the feet of humanity. The woman gets to have childbirth in the same pain category as kidney stones, and gets to be told what to do by men all the time. For the man, working life really starts to suck, and things start never going the way we want them to. Briars come up where we’re hoping for grain, and dealing with that is never going to be easy.

So the question is from there is would these things have been otherwise if mankind had never, on account of a female initiative, taken an interest in education? Do these things happen just because our ancestors fundamentally screwed something up by try to get an education? That seems a bit unlikely, in spite of Fundamentalists’ claims to the contrary. More likely is that this goes with a lesser sort of God dishing out these proclamations –– the sort of god who gets confused and pissed about not finding his afternoon drinking buddy at their regular spot –– who decides that he wants people to feel like all of the problems that go with life being what it is are now their fault. This goes together with the line given to God in verse 22: “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.”

Who the “us” is there is another interesting question. The natural answer would be that the original story teller here was thinking of God as part of a community of higher beings who resented this pair of “subjects” or “pets” of theirs getting too close to their level. God and his comrades decided that humans needed to be kicked back down the ladder by a few rungs. In other words, according to the ending of the story here, the snake was in fact entirely right in everything he said in verses 4 and 5!

In between there are a few more little details given. First, it’s only after they have received the forbidden fruit of education and been cursed for it that Adam bothers to give his wife a name. Second, God decides to give them animal skins as a more suitable form of clothing than fig leaves. Third, they are driven to the east, with an angel stopping them from going back to where life was better, in the west. You can work out your own theories of why those factors were considered important here.

So where does this story leave us? Like any literary classic it provides us with a bigger collection of metaphors to use in talking about the human condition, but more than that what? One thing that jumps out at me is that Moses, or whoever her borrowed the earliest version of this story from, was prone to being a bit pissed at God every now and again. It sort of goes together with the message of the book of Job:  Sometimes God just doesn’t seem to care, and just because someone is suffering doesn’t mean that they’ve acted dishonestly, rebelliously, hatefully or cruelly towards others; it could just as well be that God was in a capricious mood –– or more charitably, He has his own purposes that we don’t understand.

But rather than playing blame games with some primitive image of God, we can stop to consider the question of what we really want to learn and why. Are we trying to use knowledge as a means of controlling each other and getting to the top of the competitive pile; or are we trying to use knowledge to increase our thriving in non-competitive ways (it being “good for food”), find new ways of appreciating beauty (it being “pleasing to the eye”) and eventually achieve true wisdom (it being “also desirable for gaining wisdom” –– all from Genesis 3:6)? The God I worship is not threatened by my attempts at achieving knowledge for these latter purposes, and I actually consider it to be an act of worship to help others to attain knowledge for the same purposes.

Admittedly it is hard to separate these types of motivation from each other. Perhaps the best litmus test in the matter is to see how ashamed and vulnerable our knowledge makes us feel. The more “fig leaf” cover-up it makes us prone to see as necessary, the greater the potential evil of the knowledge in question. Thus it is particularly important to avoid the sort of “scriptural knowledge” which some use as a means by which to condemn and shame others. I strongly believe that God has kept himself a mystery from us in so many ways specifically to prevent us from having a legitimate claim to divine sanction in our attempts to use our knowledge to overpower each other. I don’t see him as being really insecure about our creeping up to a level where we could be a competitive threat to him, as Genesis 3:22 would imply. The issue is that getting into power struggles and holy wars with each other in order to get that wonderful feeling of being victorious in the end is not part of God’s plan for our lives.

I have probably now succeeded in alienating myself both from those who take the Bible or the Qur’an as the final word in spiritual truth, and from those who believe that the whole idea of a spiritual world is dangerous abstraction developed by silly, fuzzy thinkers. So be it. I do in fact reject both strictly materialistic atheism and all forms of religious fundamentalism. But to the extent that it is up to me, I hope to live at peace with all on either side who would be willing to live at peace with me –– without feeling it necessary to for us to either convert or dispose of each other. My goal –– while carefully avoiding any form of sexual harassment –– is for my learning processes to enable me to be ever more “naked and unashamed” in the sort of way that “Adam and his wife” were before their particular learning processes screwed that up for them. Building that sort of redemptive love and trust indeed requires a bit of a miracle, but that’s a whole different sermon.

Go in peace.

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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.

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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.

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