Saturday, December 30, 2006

Can the Irrational be True?

As a follow on that I find irresistible for a number of reasons to my previous post, I am going to offer an explanation that fits no criteria of raionality I can imagine, yet is nonetheless true for all that as to why I am a Christian (this is much shorter than Hans Kung's book with the same title). These reasons are given voice most powerfully by the Christian band Casting Crowns (offered as a musical interlude here). These two songs speak to me because they describe my spiritual life as it is now in all its ambivalence, fear, joy, and hope. I can't write like this, but I am glad there are those who can.

The first is the song "Voice of Truth" with lyrics and music by Mark Hall and Steven Curtis Chapman:
Oh what I would do to have
The kind of faith it takes to climb out of this boat I'm in
Onto the crashing waves

To step out of my comfort zone
Into the realm of the unknown where Jesus is
And He's holding out His hand

But the waves are calling out my name and they laugh at me
Reminding me of all the times I've tried before and failed
The waves they keep on telling me
Time and time, again, "Boy, you'll never win!"
"You'll never win!"

But the voice of truth tells me a different story
The voice of truth says, "Do not be afriad!"
And the voice of truth says, "This is for My glory"
Out of all the voices calling out to me
I will choose to listen and believe the voice of truth

Oh what I would do to have
The kind of strength it takes to stand before a giant
With just a sling and a stone
Surrounded by the sound of a thousand warriors
Shaking in their armor
Wishing they'd have had the strength to stand

But the giant's calling out my name and he laughs at me
Reminding me of all the times I've tried before and failed
The giant keeps on telling me
Time and time again, "Boy, you'll never win!"
"You'll never win!"

But the stone was just the right size
To put the giant on the ground
And the waves they don't seem so high
From on top of them lookin' down
I will soar with the wings of eagles
When I stop and listen to the sound of Jesus
Singing over me

I will listen and believe the voice of truth

The second song is "Who Am I", with lyrics by Mark Hall:
Who am I, that the Lord of all the earth
Would care to know my name
Would care to feel my hurt
Who am I, that the Bright and Morning Star
Would choose to light the way
For my ever wandering heart

Not because of who I am
But because of what You've done
Not because of what I've done
But because of who You are

I am a flower quickly fading
Here today and gone tomorrow
A wave tossed on the ocean
A vapor in the wind
Still You hear me when I'm calling
Lord, You catch me when I'm falling
And You've told me who I am
I am Yours, I am Yours

Who am I, that the eyes that see my sin
Would look on me with love and watch me rise again
Who am I, that the voice that calmed the sea
Would call out through the rain
And calm ths storm in me

I am Yours
Whom shall I fear
Whom shall I fear
'Cause I am Yours
I am Yours


One of my seminary professors published a book that is the sum total of every lecture he ever delivered in every class he taught for over 20 years. The first chapter is nothing less than a dictionary. Roy had a penchant for what he called "operating definitions"; he wanted to make clear to others what he meant when he used a word. By calling them "operating" definitions, he was making clear that these were his ways of using these words in these instances. You could disagree with the definitions; but at least there was the beginning of mutual understanding with the operating definitions in mind.

While the chapter in question is pedantic, as Roy could be on occasion, the practice is a good one. Too often we use words thoughtlessly, assuming words are univocal - having a definition, and therefore an understanding, accessible to all equally. Of course, this is not true of any words, least of all in English, where words, their synonyms and homonyms create a vagueness and mutability of meaning that is breathtaking to consider. As an example (I promise to make this short), consider the word "rose" - it can be a verb (the past tense of rise), a noun with multiple meanings (a flower, a color), or an adjective. Its precise meaning can only be ascertained in any given instance by the context in which it is used. Even then, it can be used as a metaphor rather than have any literal meaning, and therefore might require even deeper interpretation to understand fully.

To me the word I find most frustrating in any kind of serious discussion, and a word rendered meaningless because of overuse, is "rational". What does it mean to be rational? Does it mean emplpoying a certain method of reaching conclusions to questions? Are there rules to this method such that certain criteria need to be met in order to be said to be rational? Are these criteria immutable and universal? Does the employment of such methods, by rendering one rational, make one superior in some way or others to all those who do not use such methods? Does raitonality imply finality, i.e., are decisions and choices and answers to questions arrived at in this way unanswerable precisely because they are rational, and does rationality provide reasons to all questions put?

There is, of course, a school of philosophy that follows Rene Descartes known as rationalism, in which the source of truth is the internal investigation of states of being using logic, assuming of course that logic itself is immutable, and that therefore all persons who so investigate will arrive at similar conclusions. There are few "rationalists" of this stripe any more, with the notable exception of Noam Chomsky who has often cited his discovery of Descartes at an early age to be revelatory, and his subsequent work in linguistics merely an extension of Cartesian methods by other means.

Of course, the questions I pose above concerning the operating definition of "rational" themselves beg certain questions, not the least of which is do I understand what others mean when they use the word. That, however, is precisely my point. That, and its antithesis "irrational" are thrown around so frequently, often as compliments or insults, without any clarity as to how the words are being used, that we are left to conclude either, (a) we are too irrational to understand the word rational; or, (b) the person using the word doesn't really understand what he or she means in using the words in question, and only confuses the issue by tossing them around so freely.

The pair - rational and irrational - are often applied to persons adhering to religious beliefs of one kind or another. It is said that there is no rational explanation to claiming to believe something that is neither demonstrably true or false. Of course, that much is true (it also implies an understanding of rationality as method, but we shall leave that to the side for the nonce). Yet, I would challenge someone to give me a rational explanation (again, implying a method with certain criteria agreed upon by most if not all) for the choices that person has made in his or her life. Of course, as we chase the circle of explanation down this spiral, we should find, if we are honest, that such is impossible. Life is not reducible in this way (and if it is, it isn't life but robotic motion). I am not suggesting that there is not thought in the process of living. Of course there is! I am suggesting that we come to a point in what one modern-day realist philosopher calls "the spiral of reflection" where there are no answers left that satisfy, no reasons that justify, and no generally accessible truths that mark an end to questioning. Human life, in this way, is irrational at its core, because there are irreducible elements that are impervious to rational inquiry.

This is no less true of non-religious than it is of religious life. It is no less true in Christianity than it is Judaism or Islam or Buddhism. It is no less true of those who accept the theories of quantum mechanics (and who can not accept them, relying as I am now on a machine based upon them) with those who refuse to do so (including Albert Einstein and Neils Bohr who refused to accept them; the latter worked out the equations for hydrogen, and it took him two years to do so, and he realized it would take longer than the solar system would exist to work out the equations for the next element, helium. Seeing this as unacceptable, he tossed the theory to one side). Creationists are called irrational, when a better word would be "unscientific", and this in a limited sense that they do not understand the methods of science. Of course, the theory of evolution is scientific, but does that, ipso facto, make it rational? This, I think is the nub, and would require many volumes of many books to answer.

I find too often that tossing around rational and irrational in discussions mean little beyond the epithetical. We are seeking to compliment, or insult, those with whom we are discussing, as as rationality is one of the hallmarks of Enlightened humanity, and since of course we are all Enlightened now, those who would disagree with us are, by this understanding, irrational. This isn't real argument. It's namecalling disguised as serious argument.

I shy away from using the words at all (except when they can be used in a very constricted sense; the Bush Administration is often irrational in a very precise way - the words and ideas that come from it make no sense no matter how hard one tries to analyze them) precisely because they have become meaningless, even though everyone, it seems, knows what they mean. When we have descended to trying to understand the words we are using in our disagreements, perhaps it is time to find other, better, words to use.

Forced to Be Free

Note: This and the next post reference a discussion in the post below titled "God", which you can read (or not) depending on your preference for giving a context.

Conservatives like to mock Jean-Jacques Rousseau for being a horrible individual; he never married his mistress of many years, and the children that issued from their years-long affair were all given over to others to raise. Of course, libertinism is neither new nor restricted to political and moral philosophers. It is just that Rousseau was earnest in his insistence on a certain social morality that his own amorality (some would call it immorality) would, at the very least, point to a level of hypocrisy only equaled by Bertrand Russell in the 20th century (another philosopher conservatives love to hate because of his personal flaws).

I, on the other hand, am no fan of Rousseau because of the phrase in the title above. In his The Social Contract, Rousseau argues for (a) a universal human nature; (b) the necessity of social and political life flowing from the roots in natural life; and, (c) the importance of bringing all those recalcitrant enough to deny these universal truths to a recognition of the possibilities inherent in social life stemming from (a) and (b). He believed, or at least wrote, that it is necessary for the good of society to use coercion to force those who refuse to conform to do so, for the health of soceity as a whole. It is right here that the roots of so many of the horrors of the previous century lie. It is here that I stand and protest, demanding that we surrender our simplistic ideas of human nature, and the hubris that comes from assuming (a) there are answers to questions that, in the end, aren't questions, so therefore no answers are needed; and (b) there is one right answer to any question at all.

The last point, at least in the west, goes back at least as far as Aristotle, who insisted on what came to be known as "the law of the excluded middle". A question about a certain state of affairs ecludes the possibility of the answer containing two distinct and mutually exclusive states. Thus, a person cannot be both alive and dead simultaneously (in a classic example). From the idea that questions not only do, but must, have only one correct answer, we arrive at the killing fields of Cambodia, the insanity of Maoist China, Stalin's crimes, and Auschwitz, with a prelude in the guillotine of Committee-led Revolutionary France. If all questions have only one correct answer, including questions about what is the best, most human life possible in society, those who answer incorrectly (a) have to be re-educated or, (in a 1970's phrase of equal condescension if not of eqaul horror) have their "consciousness raised"; (b) if that fails, they are deliberately refusing to give assent to universal, normally self-evident Truth and are a threat to the well-being of society, and need to be removed permanently.

There is no answer to the question, "What is the best society?". There is no answer to the question, "What is the most representative human life?". The reason there is no answer to these questions is because the questions themselves are non-sensical, based upon an absurd and unprovable assumption that there are criteria accessible to all persons in all times and all places that we can use to judge the correct and incorrect answers. They are nonsensical because life is not a problem to be solved, but just living, making wrong and right choices, or making no choices at all. What makes humanity, and the individual, is not the full realization of some abstract set of potentialities, but full participation in life - eating, drinking, sleeping, spewing, screwing, defecating (in the words of a VanDerGraf Generator song). That's really all there is to it.

There are many on the left who would disagree with this position. They would argue that allowing individuals to make "wrong" choices creates social turmoil and conflict. They want to "educate" people so that they have more facts, more information from which to make decisions. In the end, of course, decisions are no more than answers to questions, and there can only be one correct decision. This point of view, to me, is as nonsensical and irrelevant and absurd as the whole question-answer business. People live their lives based on a whole host of things, many of which are not only unspoken, but inaccessible to any kind of rational reflection. Sometimes we are like Topsy in Uncle Tom's Cabin - we just growed.

I am not an adherent to abstract principles (or at least very few; no one, I think is free from all abstractions), but rather to real human life, lived in the day-to-day, here-and-now. If some people make decisions I would not, or some societies choose practices I would not, I am free to argue with them, to say why I believe those choices are wrong, and why alternatives might be better for them. I do not base those arguments in fictions life human nature, though, for a very good reason. If there were a universal human nature, accessible to all persons in all times and all places, this should automatically beg the question of social conflict. As social conflict is real, I accept what is real over some philosopher's idea of what is true any day of the week. In the end, if others still make choices different from those I make, well, so what? Am I the font of wisdom or the source or prophet for truth? I can only do so much, and I have other things to do as well, such as loving my family, working forty hours a week, listening to good music, reading good books, etc. Life is a complicated business that does not require thought or planning. It just requires living.

Once we surrender the idea that there are questions and answers, and based on these answers plans that can and should be made as to how we should live our lives, we surrender the idea that others must be forced, through imperial invasion or internal coercion, to be free, because freedom is no longer an abstraction, but the small, domestic, tidy reality we all actually live. No one needs to be forced to be free.

Friday, December 29, 2006

The Only 2006 Review that Matters to Me

Last February, I was scouring the last of the bins as the Rockford, IL Media Play prepared to close its doors. I was sad because they actually carried titles I liked withouth having to order them. As I flipped through, depressed that all that was left was copies of Wrecking Ball by Grace Slick, I saw a familiar label name on the side of a jewel case and snatched it up. InsideOut is a Germany-based record label that specializes in progressive, neo-progressive, and progressive metal. I had yet to go wrong picking up something put out by them, so I went home full of hope, if not necessarily joy.

The band I had never heard of, Sieges Even, and the CD title, Learning to Navigate By the Stars, seemed pretty typical. I went home and sat and listened I listened again. I was, to be honest, stunned. This was actually something different. The music was crisp, clear, reflecting a production that stripped echo and reverb, creating a sound that was sharp, distinct. The singer was a typical tenor, although he had more control than most (not a whole lot of vibratto), and the lyrics, though enigmatic and metaphorical, pretty clearly described the emotional turmoil surrounding the ending of a relationship.

I just couldn't get the crisp, almost minimalist production approach out of my head. There was something som refreshing about a band that stripped away the gee-gaws of the modern sound studio (available to most amateurs thanks to computers) and created a sound that forced one to listen to the music. One song begins in 13/8, shifts to alternating bard of 5 and 4, back to 13. This rhythmic complexity is not self-conscious or affected. It is what the song is and flows very naturally. With only a few keyboard overdubs, and the stripped-down style of production, there is very little cover for the three instrumentalists and one vocalist. They either get it right, or they flub it. For the most part (no album is without its weak moments) they get it very right, taking turns I would not have thought of, the music moving in surprising ways.

Ten months later the CD still sounds fresh, and I look forward to getting their back-catalog (once it becomes available again; the band had broken up in 1999, only reuniting in 2004, and its back catalog is on a German label that no longer exists) and to future CDs (ihave seen, on their website, they are back in the studio). The truly new and different is rare, and usually not as new or different as its promoters would claim. This is unique, and satisfying. Give it a whirl.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

On Sensitivity, Cultural and Otherwise

An old friend is finally called out. This summer I tried to start a dialogue with Leo Pusateri and the results were, well, not what I had hoped (see here, here, and here for details; he was also kind enough to contact me via e-mail through my profile, and continue to harangue me. I wish I had kept those). Now, Gavin over at Sadly,No! has asked the Minnesota one-handed keyboardist to shut up, revealing personal pain in the process. The comments section of the above post need to be read to be believed, but Pusateri actually dives in and attempts to justify himself. It is one of the most incredibly unfeeling things I have ever seen. Pusateri has shown he has no feelings for the dead; now he demonstrates that he has little for the living as well.

The worst part comes in his first comment when he claims he is only attempting to prevent future pain such as that revealed by Gavin. The point, apparently lost on Pusateri, is such false bravado is the source of Gavin's rage. It demeans the deaths of people like Wayne to be used as rhetorical points by cowardly war-bloggers who offer little as hostages to fortune, but ask that many risk everything. It demeans the losses that they simply become part of some insane calculus where dead bodies serve as marks on a chalkboard, seeking to balance the tally. It excuses as irrelevant the views of those who refuse to succumb to mindless fear and hate in the face of grief and loss. Pusateri seems absolutely incapable of understanding that he actually made things worse by showing up. He was asked to please be quiet (actually, he was told to shut the fuck up; I was trying to be polite), and out of respect, he should have. Sensitivity and respect have no place in a world where Leo Pusateri crouches shaking in his boots, afraid some crazed Muslim might, at any moment, attack the Metrodome, or something.

I will just repeat Gavin's question toward the end of his post: What about us produces something like him?

Say it Loud! I'm Black and I'm Proud!

Everyone seems to be commenting on Gerald Ford's death, but there are few who are talking about the loss of James Brown. Ford was the accidental president, and his legacy - Cheney and Rumsfeld - lives on in ways both pernicious and damaging. Brown, on the other hand, changed the way R&B was played, inventing a whole new musical grammar, and worked endlessly to be the best. From early songs - "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag", "I Feel Good" - to his later pride songs - "Black and Proud", "Sex Machine", "Bad Mother" - Brown not only wrote songs, but he wrote songs about and for the African-American community that spoke of them and to them in a way whites had a hard time hearing. Of course, music-lovers understood that something wonderful was happening when they heard the clipped horn parts, the choppy guitar work, and the intricate rhythm-work of Brown's band. His sound is still heard today, in samples on rap records, in the minimalism of contemporary R&B (think of Usher's song, "Yeah", or "Hey Ya" by Outkast), even in the disciplined way so many artists go about promoting themselves and their work (from Sean Combs to Beyonce Knowles).

Brown has left behind a vast legacy of music that is larger than many others, including the Beatles, and more influential than most except perhaps Elvis, Chuck Berry, and Bob Dylan. Brown taught the world how to shut up and dance. Brown reminded blacks that they were beautiful, powerful, sexy - and important to the life of the country. He will be missed precisely because he never gave up, he danced, threw himself around the stage, threw his microphone around the stage, sweat pouring off him in buckets, determined to give those who came to hear him a show they would never forget. We are fortunate that we never shall.

Fantasyland is a Better Place to Live One's Life

Charles Krauthammer's latest column (you can find it, among other places, here) is a case study in how ridiculously, absurdly out of touch right-wingers have become. They just got seriously spanked at the polls. No one supports their war. No one supports their President. They are objects, not of awe and respect because of their intelligence and perspicacity, but objects of derision because of their insane insistence that reality will one day conform to their beliefs about it. In the midst of a national referendum that solidly rejected such fantasy-prone politics, Krauthammer recedes even further from everyday life by declaring that America's problem is that it is too good.

One hesitates to take seriously such drivel, because in doing so, it becomes legitimate discourse rather than the nonsensical ramblings of a mind bereft of any contact with the universe. I point to it, not to either "criticize" it (the piece is self-mocking, although Krauthammer seems blissfully unaware of that) but to show how empty the pundit-calss mind has become. While some are spinning fantasies of war with Iran, and others see the Democratic election victory as a temporary bump on the way to total Republican hegemony, and the President eagerly seeks to feed more bodies into the Iraq meat grinder, Krauthammer outdoes all of them in a kind of parody of serious commentary. It is bad enough that, seven weeks after a national referendum repudiating Bush Administration policies there is actually an official discussion to intensify those policies, rather than one on how to undo the damage that has been wrought on our country, our military and its infrastructure (remember when the Army Chief of Staff said that the Army is now, not would be or might be at some future time, broken?), and our standing in the world. It is bad enough that the Democrats have yet to receive from the press the credit they deserve for forging a victory on positive issues. It is bad enough that Cokie Roberts still chokes up air time on NPR (that is tax-payer funded, right? I hate paying her salary!). Krauthammer severs the last bit of umbilical tethering him to earth and floats away to a place where America is so wonderful, so powerful, so awesome in all its splendor that we have forgotten it is important to throw to the lesser peoples of the earth various bones of some sort - World Cup Women's soccer victories, various Olympic medals, the Ryder or Davis Cups. After all, the Old Europeans need something to salve the wounds of losing their empires to their Betters.

In a week, exactly, from today, the Democrats take control of Congress. After the first four days of intense legislative activity, it might be possible that a new media narrative takes shape. President Bush has already signalled, in a defeat for his party die-hards in Congress, that he would sign minimum-wage legislation that was not tied to any action on tax cuts for the wealthy. He has also signalled that he is open to legislation allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices in the new presecription drug plan, which could force down the cost of the program and make it much simpler to use (my parents are both in the plan and are both highly intelligent, educated adults, and can make neither hide nor hair of it frontwards or backwards). Perhaps, as things actually change, the Krauthammers of the world will sink deeper into the background noise of public discourse. I am not saying it is likely. I am hopeful that it is possible.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Abortion Again (God Help Us)

Digby and Duncan brought up the subject, so I just wanted to say a few things. first, in reference to Digby's post, which is a rejection of the idea that Democrats should reach out to evangelicals because they are unregenerately Republican and, besides, who needs God on your side, right? Anyway, because one of the consultants the Democratic Party used was an evangelical, and raised the possibility of a reconsideration of blind adherence to a simplistic pro-choice position, this is incipient Republicanism sneaking in through the back way, which must be fought at all cost.

Atrios, on the other hand, offers a more direct approach. Debate is not necessary because the liberal position on alternatives to abortion - better education and access to adequate health care - are those offered by "moderates", so there is no debate. The end.

Except, of course, there hasn't been any debate at all, since Roe v Wade essentially closed off debate, opening the way for the polarization of public dialogue. The pro-choice position, staked out in the shadow of Justice Blackmun's confused and confusing opinion, understands its own precariousness, as each election cycle the dread prospect of overturning the decision is dragged out,k with all sorts of threats to the republic to follow. This has been the real debate - people pelting plastic feti and screaming "Babykiller!" at women entering clincs on the one side; the politics of fear on the other - and it ignores the ambivalence most Americans feel towards the procedure and its current legal standing.

Of course, overturning Roe would mean little. The vast majority of counties in the United States do not offer abortion services at all. If you live in North Dakota, there is one clinic in the entire state the provides the service, or you can go to the Twin Cities in Minnesota. The practicalities of abortion are making the legal debates obsolete.

At the same time, Duncan has a very good point. Better sex education has always been shown to have a positive impact on sexual behavior, sexually transmitted disease rates, teen pregnancy rates, and abortion rates. Until there are some kind of national minimal standards on sex education - more than abstinence only, please - we will continue to deny our young people access to the information they need to make good, informed choices. That this is inhibited by political forces that seek to deny any information about sex out of fear is undeniable; that some of these forces are Christian is also undeniable. This in no way makes them right (yes, even Christians can be wrong).

I honestly hope that Roe (or its follow-on case, 1989's Planned Parenthood of Pennsylvania v Casey) is overturned, and abortion politics are returned to the arena of serious public debate. Both the left and the right might be surprised at what transpires as America really wrestles, for the first time, with abortion as a political issue that lies within their control, not in the hands of ideologues whose only desire is power.

Moral Governance

One of the trump cards many atheists think they carry in the on-going god wars is the argument from moral governance. If, as has been asserted even here by me, God is love, why is evil permitted? The famous/infamous theodicy question is often used as an argument against the existence, at least of the "omni" God discussed below. It is also used to discredit the Biblical account of God because of divine complicity in everything from genocide to child murder (Elisha praying for bears to come out of the hills and kill children who had insulted him). Either way the argument from moral governance goes, it would seem God (god?) is found wanting.

Two things concerning this argument. It has become most popular in the modern era (although the ancients and medievals were aware of it), with the archetypical moment coming in the wake of the Lisbon earthquake when, seeking an explanation for the deaths of thousands, some enterprising persons put forth the proposition that those who died must have been guilty of some sin or other, otherwise they wouldn't have died. Never mind that the Book of Job discredited such simple-minded retributive justice, it would seem Voltaire's disgust was more popular than the fact that even some Christians thought the idea absurd. Since then, wars and rumors of wars, famines, earthquakes, volcanoes, tornadoes, floods, mass murders, and of course the genocidal insanity of the previous century - all seem to tally againt God.

What is the alternative offered? Why, rationality, of course. Let us look at the first consciously and conscientiously rational government - the French Revolutionary governments from 1789 until the Bonapartist coup. As more and more rational control was sought, then demanded, from redoing the calendar to the standardizing of clothing, to thinking thoughts - real freedom became more and more attenuated, because officially defined freedom was the norm. As the understanding of freedom applied was rationally determined, and rationality is open to all people, it can only be willful evil to resist the rational truths. Thus, these people are not only wrong, they are purposely wrong. There is nothing that can be done with them. Through such logic and thinking, perfectly rational, thousands died, the alst sight very often being their own beheaded bodies as their severed heads were shown to the crowds.

All one needs to do is read Lenin's works - especially The State and Revolution - to see the debt he owes to the French for his ability to rationalize away human life in pursuit of the revolutionary goal. He doesn't "faith" it away, or "believe" it away. He rationalizes it away - he reasons it away. How many millinos died as a result of such rationalization?

So much for rationality as an alternative to religion for moral governance. Or is it? The arguments are so familiar, and rehashed so often, that we tend to forget that, behind the words lie human lives, human bodies broken, burned, and buried in the name of some rational Truth. More than any "argument" that can be made concerning the question of the superiority of one set of moral values for governance over another, I am appalled at the lack of seriousness, and the refusal to acknowledge the reality that Reason's hands are no less bloody (and, by some reckoning, quite a bit more) than those of "unreasoning" faith. I say lack of seriousness because, as long as we continue to treat evil and its consequences as a problem to be solved, rather than a reality to be faced in new guises each and every day, we shall never get passed the "My argument is better than your argument" phase, and nothing will change and more and more people will die, or worse. In the endless pursuit to be right all the time, we forget that what is at stake is human life - human life that quite possibly could be saved if, rather than sit around and try to prove who is right and who is wrong, we actually did something about it.

In the end, any argument about the supriority or inferiority of one set of moral principloes for moral governance will fail because - human beings will fail. Rather than figure out beforehand what is and is not the correct way to order human personal and social life, perhaps we had better figure out how to fix the probelms we have, then fix the problems those fixes generate, and so on, and so on. We have to content ourselves with contingency, with limits, with the inevitability of failure and error. We have to be bold enough in the face of these realities to keep struggling, keep fighting to save just one life at a time, or maybe two, or maybe a hundred - it all depends on circumstances, I suppose - but we have to stop trying to be Right and start trying to live together.

OK, there is Stupid There, But . . .

I may be going mad. Or losing my lefty credentials. Or something, But, in the midst of this article I actually found a few points that made sense. Apart from the ridiculous aside concerning Star Wars and G. K. Chesterton (every Roman Catholic's favorite British author; he was so ultra-montane, he would have made Newman and Manning blush), the point Goldberg was trying to make - liberals are no less dogmatic and intransigent than those on the right with whom they disagree, and whom they villify for their "certainty", is fundamentally accurate. I would have wished another person had said it, and said it better, and more coherently, but the basic point he is making is one with which I am in total agreement, and have made myself on several occasions. My biggest beef with liberals is they pretend to be open-minded and welcome difference, but in fact want the "difference" to be mere appearance, preferring ideological conformity to true difference and distinction.

His example of same-sex marriage is a perfect one, and it works well because I happen to have a nuanced view. I believe that full marital rights need to be awarded to same-sex couples who wish to have their relationships legally recognized by the state. I believe these ceremonies should be civil by law, and religious by choice, and where the denominations allow them to take place. I also do not believe they should be called marriages. A distinction without a difference, perhaps, but there we are. In any case, there are few more sanctimonious, morally superior individuals than those who argue for same-sex marriage, and use their arguments to attack their opponents as hate-filled zealots who do not care about people. Zealotry, however, knows no political or religious distinction, and many of the most vocal on this issue would qualify for the modifier.

Listening to liberals preach on tolerance, diversity, and acceptability is a bit like listening to conservatives whine about how oppressed and neglected and ignored they are - they are both positioning themselves as those whose voices are not heeded in the mainstream, are victims of the conspiracies of a biased media and power structure that operates to thwart its struggle for the rescue of the American public. That both should make essentially the same argument (I am not suggesting that each argument is of equal weight; in fact, conservatives have laregly controlled the national dialogue for over a quarter century) makes one wonder, exactly, who is right and who is wrong. It also shows that both, at their core, believe themselves to be the representatives of moral and political Truth, beseiges by barbarians and infidels on all sides. I reach for the Maalox when I hear an earnest liberal preaching about human dignity as quickly as I do when I hear a conservative speak about true morality.

Humility is an underrated virtue these days. One must not only be right, but Right; one's beliefs must be reflective of ontological reality, demoting all others to perversion and error and heresy. Liberals quote DNA, conservatives quote scripture, but in the end, they are reaching for an authority they both believe is unimpeachable, an argument that is unawnswerable by their opponents. Those who pronounce a pox on the house of Certainty are, by definition, outside the argument, because, in truth, no one wants nuance and uncertainty. The stakes appear too high to afford distinction and the messy reality that doesn't necessarily conform with ideological absolutism.

Unfortunately, the stakes are indeed high, and that is precisely why we need to remove the blinders we place on ourselves when we pretend we, of all those human beings who have ever lived, have Figured It All Out, and are therefore given the tremendous responsibility of spreading our discovery of truth to all the earth. Isn't that what got us into this mess in Iraq?

When Goldberg says that liberals only want to tolerate those with whom they agree, I believe he is fundamentally truthful. It is a sad truth. We do not want to hear from those whose views differ from ours. We want our world-view reinforced, not challenged, because a challenge to the way we see the world is an affront to our personal integrity at its most basic level. We would rather insult and laugh at those whose views do not conform to our own. We have nothing to learn from those whose world-view is different from ours, because those who are different are, by definition, wrong, and therefore have nothing to teach us except error.

Political debate only works if the opponents are listening to one another. Political action only works when enough people are convinced it is possible that, by so acting, something substantive can be accomplished. Don't get me wrong, I know quite well that the recently retired and unlamented 109th Congress was an object lesson in Republican refusal to countenance Democratic difference and debate. I also do not trust all the Wise Ones from Washington, including many Republicans, offering advice on how Democrats whould act in a bi-partisan way. The Democrats have a mandate to act in certain ways, and would be throwing away their principles, as well as the support of those who put them in office, if they acted otherwise. This does not mean they possess Truth. They just have a certian amount of political authority granted them to act in certain ways.

To think that Democrats winning is a sign that Truth has triumphed over error, right over wrong, good over evil, is to succumb to the same disease that infects the current White House. The world is messy - and that includes the world in which liberals live. While I would argue with Goldberg's notion that certainty is necessary for politics, there is no doubt that it is part and parcel of liberal as much as conservative political beliefs.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006


I have been mulling over this particular post for a while now, always hesitant to write something that is bound to cause confusion and perhaps even a bit of anger. Talking about God is never easy, and always fraught with the hazards that come with challenging people's most cherished beliefs (or non-beliefs). When I was in seminary (where I received my Master's Degree), the arguments were heated, and occasionally perched on the edge of violence, because an assault on one'e belief in God, one's image of God, is so personal, so bound up with that person's identity, that it was often perceived as a personal affront. Even those who profess atheism are uncomfortable with challenges to God-imagery, challenges which very often make their arguments irrelevant.

I remember the moment I began to think the whole "omni-" God thing - God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent - was wrong. As an undergraduate, long before I even thought of studying theology or philosophy, I overheard a discussion of these supposed attributes of the divine, and how they involved God in contradiction, which was said to be impossible (by whom, I'm not quite sure). For example, if God is all powerful, one person said, could God create a rock that God was unable to lift? Could God create another God? In another context (a discussion I read concerning creationism vs evolution), I read that, using certain creationist logic, one could make the argument that God only created the universe moments ago, placing in our heads all the memories of our previous lives, as well as te vast tomes of history, which would be, of course, false.

It took years for these initial, tiny cracks in the facade of traditional theism to crumble the edifice that was my own belief in this strange creature so many people called God. Reading N. T. Wright recently has only confirmed for me what I have held tacitly and unspoken for so long. First, we all use the word God, thinking that we are all using the word to refer to the same thing - some old white guy with a long flowing beard, wearing a robe, by turns smiling benevolently or frowning malevolnetly upon the world that is his handiwork. This general, unquestioning univocity (to use a fancy term that means the same as the previous sentence) creates a situation wherein discussions about "religion", too, no longer need to refer to anything specific because, of course, we all know what religion is all about, don't we? I have written at length and ad nauseum about my objections to this whole idea, so I will not tire anyone with a repeat performance, except to say that much the same argument applies to the word "God" that I have used in my discussions over the meaningless word "religion". Without a reference to anything specific - who this God is that we are all talking about - the word means nothing, and all the ideas in our heads have no reference to anything except, as Freud and Feuerbach noted, our own wishes or concepts of what is best (or worst) in humanity writ large.

What offends so many people when they read the Bible is that the God of the Old and New Testaments is not this God who is omni-. This God does not conform to what we think a God should be. This God does not act the way we want a god to act. I also think that, because of the emphasis on the omni's, too often we think of God as some kind of invisible magician, pulling rabbits out of hats, or our chestnuts out of the fire - and when that doesn't happen, it is obvious that God does not exist, at least to these people. Rather than struggle with the God professed and witnessed to in Scripture - much as Joshua did (and remember, Joshua lost) - we would ask God to be something God is not, and when God doesn't meet our qualifications, we reject him.

I wish to offer an alternative. Read the Bible with the omnis out of your head. Don't think of God as some wizened, and wise, old king, a combinatino of Plato, George Washington, and Santa Claus. These are foolish notions, childish notions, best left in the nursery where they belong. Read the Bible and discover who the God of Christianity is. Read who this God whom Jesus called "Father" is. Read about what this God did, both the wonderful and the horrific. Read about the love this God has, not just for Israel, but for the whole created order - a creation he loved so much, he actually sought to destroy it when it became so tainted by human sin (yet relented enough to allow Noah to salvage a bit from the wreckage). I have often heard people, well-educated, smart people, say that they don't understand why God this instead of that - again, the whole magical thinking thing. All I can say is asking "why" of God doesn't mean much, except, in the end, to discover that, as the first epistle of John says, "God is love". This love doesn't always manifest itself in the Bible in ways we might like (an Old Testament scholar wrote a book in the early 1980's called Texts of Terror; so much for Christians not facing the horrors of the Bible square-on) but it is always there, sitting behhind what happens, and (more importantly) how people perceive the role of God in these acts.

So, to discover God, we should not look into our heads, or the concepts of philosophy. We should read the Bible. Again. And again. And again. God isn't a concept, except insofar as the word "God" is only conceptual until that concept is filled by the specifics of Scripture.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

The Other Christmas Story

I know I said I was going to take a break, but I felt a need, as it were, to put up something here from Dickens' A Christmas Carol (I have the Yale University Press fascimile edition of the original manuscript; try reading Dickens' handwriting, and you'll not have a merry Christmas). The high point of the story, for me, is not the disclosure at the grave that Scrooge will die that night if is not to change. Personally I have always felt that irrelevant; we all die, and none of us know the manner of our death or the status of those who might or might not mourn. For me, the climax is the lecture Scrooge receives from the Spirit of Christmas Present at Cratchit's house. Scrooge has just been told tha Tiny Tim will die (and there is no condition placed upon that fate; Tim is as dead as Marley's doornail whether Scrooge changes or not, all the TV specials notwithstanding) and he begins to weep. The Spirit quotes back Scrooge's words concerning the adventatious nature of death, decreasing the surplus population, and then he continues:
Man!" said the Gost, "if man you be in hear; not adamants; forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you and such as you decide what men shall live, what men shall die! It my be, that in the sight of heaven, you are more worthless and less fir to live tham millions like this poor mann's child. . . ."

I wonder what the oh-so-superior, oh-so-perfectly knowledgeable idiots on the right make of such a statement. O'Reilly, Hannity, Limbaugh, Coulter, Malkin - the whole blathering herd of non-thinking flapping lips stand as Scrogge stands, under the judgement of their own words, their own sense of superiority, hoist by their own petard, as it were.

Dickens' novella is a part and parcel of Christmas celebration because it echoes the true meaning of the day - the new birth offered even to the most "squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner" - against the backdrop of a society dedicated to forgetting the truth that God's love is not measured by the wealth of the nation, or the effectiveness of its business culture. Those who claim a War on Christmas would do to remember Dickens' words in the mouth of that sublime and joyous Spirit - the real War is the one waged day after day to render inhuman all those who do not agree with them; to create a society as unfeeling, as uncaring, indeed as hostile as the one in which Scrooge stomped about with his eyes downcast. We should all remember this day that any of us, myself most definitely included, are in no positino to pass judgement upon the lives, and most especially the untimely deaths, of others, because we are, most likely unable to pronounce such judgements apart from pronouncing them upon ourselves. While I would offer, with Dickens, that this tale not leave you out of the spirit of th day, perhaps there is a lesson here we can recall in the heat of July, or the rain of April, or the falling leaves of October - we are fellow-travellers upon this globe, and all we should do is help one another as fellow-travellers.

God Bless us, everyone.

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