Saturday, February 20, 2010

They Hurt My Feelings

OK, not really.

As usual, my position is not offered correctly. The "facts" of the matter regarding the attempted kidnapping of some Haitian children by some Baptist "missionaries" became darker and darker; if I had to guess - which, with the few verified and verifiable facts available is all I can do - I would say that these well-meaning but misguided individuals were being used by persons with nefarious purposes. A bad plot to a bad book (soon to be a movie in a theater near you, directed by Michael Bay!), to be sure, but no less a possibility for all that.

Craig's "facts" such as they are, ignore my central contention that taking children from one country - regardless of the underlying desire of those who are doing it - is a crime. Had these people managed to fill out the paperwork, and to make arrangements with the Dominican authorities to cross the border, and made proper contacts with American consular officials in Dominica, we might never be aware that there was something less than noble occurring. I, for one, am grateful that these folks were stupid enough to think they could get away with this; I applaud the Haitian legal system for retrieving some of their own from the clutches of missionaries who believe they have the right and duty to steal people from one country and take them to another.

The whole episode stinks.

Reading For Pleasure

I have been introduced to The New Inquiry and this post, right off the bat, manages to capture my attention.
I immediately recognized myself in this passage, as someone who tends not to care what most people read, who thinks poorly of the common reader, and who doesn’t think literature can or should be justified morally—who prizes aesthetic over moral concerns any day of the week. The third habit is the one I struggle with especially. I tend to believe that literature exists solely for the pleasure of those who read and write it, and that claims that literature does moral good in society invariably rely on dubious logic.


I balked and continue to balk at the implication that literature must be justified morally. Unlike Trilling, I believe that there are irreconcilable conflicts between ethics and aesthetics. What about great art that is amoral or perversely immoral? (For example, art that valorizes the anti-social impulses Freud considered in constant conflict with the positive, social ones, and which Camille Paglia explores magnificently in Sexual Personae.) Is that art (if you believe art has a significant impact upon society) a detriment to society? Should we eschew such art? Should artists ever privilege moral concerns over aesthetic ones when they create art? My answers to these questions tend to fall on the side of the aesthetic, not least because I don’t think we can determine the moral content of all impulses (sexual and violent impulses are particularly ambiguous).

The best literature contains multitudes. There are political dimensions, social dimensions, psychological dimensions, and, yes, narrative dimensions that exist purely for their own sake. I am not one to impugn anyone's reading habits; even the most dreadful works of writing offer to their readers something, a moment's escape, a way to investigate the lives of others. Those works, The Life of Pi, One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera, and A Suitable Boy that present whole worlds, characters that are more than mere sketches on paper, and even (as in the dense Pi) ideas and thoughts that linger long after the final paragraph is finished reward repeated visits.

The idea that there is some kind of inherent "conflict" between the "moral" and the "aesthetic" is a product, it seems to me, of a vision of art in general as existing in some pristine netherworld, divorced from life. While I have no issue with anyone who chooses to read purely for the aesthetic pleasure reading can bring, I find it a highly dubious notion that there can even be such a thing as "immoral art" (or even "moral art" for that matter). Do the stories and plays of the Marquis de Sade make up the former? In what way? Is "Billy Budd", Melville's "lost story" that many high school students read with relish, something of this sort as well?

Is "Piss Christ" immoral? What about The Last Temptation of Christ, in either book or film? I fail to see how such a verdict - it's immoral! - works in any of these cases, even the extreme one of the pornographic stories of the Marquis. Morality is the tale we tell ourselves of how wonderful our ideas are; we tend to read those stories, observe that art, and such not, that reinforce our own sense of ourselves as "moral" agents, and judge that which we do not take in as not satisfying whatever criteria we have set up to meet the standard of "morality".

So, the author of this piece eschews the moral dimension for some kind of pure aesthetics. Good for him. Sometimes, reading something for the pure joy of encountering those beautiful bits of prose or poetry for their own sake can indeed be a joy. To claim, however, that literature enjoys some kind of Platonic sphere, removed from the conditions that drove authors to create it, makes of it something artificial, even inhuman.

Speaking Of Competing Narratives

This post asks a good question. I wonder if our resident Haiti-expert, Craig, can tell us, exactly, who is right.

Taking Stock Of Our Heritage

Scott McLemee provided a link to this article from Inside Higher Ed. A general defense of an "intellectual history" approach to teaching Christianity in a secular institution, the article offers its best points, I think, toward the end.
[I]t’s not my business what my students do with the knowledge and skills I give them, least of all when it comes to their own spiritual lives or lack thereof. What is my business is giving them the tools they need to take stock of the cultural inheritance that has, for better or worse, been forced on us all, in different ways and to varying degrees, and to open the door for them to consciously and creatively reappropriate elements of that inheritance if they choose or else articulate their reasons for rejecting it entirely. To my mind, such a goal is not only compatible with liberal education, but it is at the very core of what we try to do in the humanities: to help our students come to the point of making their own critical and informed judgments about their stance toward their cultural inheritance, or put differently, to be active rather than passive in their relationship to culture.

I understand that for many, dealing with the Christian aspect of our cultural heritage may be too emotionally charged for a variety of reasons, either because of traumas associated with religion or else because of the fear of "losing one’s faith" through critical investigation. I am very conscious of that reality, and for that reason I would never propose making a course in theology a general education requirement at a secular institution and would in fact fight against any such proposal. Yet even if we can choose to avoid a class on Christian thought, none of us can choose not to have been born into a culture that has been deeply informed by Christianity. There are very good reasons to wish we had not been chosen for this particular inheritance, reasons that should be obvious to us all. Nevertheless, we owe it to ourselves to at least take an inventory. That’s how I view my teaching of the Christian tradition — helping my students to take an inventory. They can’t go back in time and decide not to have received some form of Christian inheritance, in all the varied ways they have received it, but I would hope that after taking my class they are in a better position to decide what to do with it.

The stock of ideas that make up our cultural inheritance includes a hefty amount of Christian ones. A university education that seeks to make its students not only more informed, but better critical thinkers, should definitely include these ideas. Setting them out honestly, which includes being critical of them, makes these young men and women more aware of what it means to be children of the western cultural tradition.

I would add that many survey classes in western thought could benefit from a more rounded approach. For example, teaching Descartes as the first "modern" thinker (his Meditations and Discourse on Method are usually the first texts read in a class on "modern philosophy" could benefit from making clear that such a designation is arbitrary; Descartes himself would have no idea what it would mean) includes the caveat that he saw himself as providing a better approach to talking about God and a better metaphysics than the Scholastics. Teaching Hegel without any reference to the impact of the Napoleonic Wars misses the reality that he lived, as the old saw had it, in interesting times, and was reacting to them. Far too often "intellectual history" that fails to set ideas firmly within the larger milieu in which they are articulated makes of them a "thing", free-floating, inhuman, rather than all-too-human responses to a received heritage in a particular political, social, and cultural setting. We can adopt the thought, for example, of Plato (one of my fellow students at Catholic University of America considered himself a thoroughgoing Platonist), but we should do so only with the understanding that Plato was an Athenian living two and a half millennia ago; he was responding as much to his time and place as any one.

As Charles Taylor makes abundantly clear, the past few hundred years of western intellectual life includes not only Christian theology and thought; it also includes countervailing ideas that pushed Christian thought further and further from its pride of place. I think any class on the history of Christian thought should also include this reality as well.

The complexity of the intellectual inheritance of we children of the west should, given even a passing glance via a survey class, provide the opportunity to understand that the narratives we often choose are only partial and artificial. That doesn't mean they cannot inform our lives. It only means that we should always be aware that we should never lay claim to any cultural narrative, be it Christian, Jewish, or secular, without an awareness that it is not the sum total of the meaning of what it means to be fully human.

Offering a class such as the one outlined and defended in this article would go a long way toward more fully presenting our cultural inheritance and giving young men and women tools with which to be more honestly children of the west.

Saturday Rock Show

From Fear of a Blank Planet, one of those enigmatic songs, maybe about running away, maybe about contemplating suicide, but definitely about escaping from the terror of existence. Enjoyed seeing and hearing this life last August. This video played above and behind them.

What an awesome band. . .

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Nightfly?

In August, 2008, someone asked McCain and Obama for their favorite songs.

Apparently, the Pope doesn't want to be outdone.

The picks range from the conventional - Revolver is number one - to the surprising - Dark Side of the Moon is number two - to what can only be called odd.

Don't know what else to make of this.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

One Door Closes, Another Door Opens

Probably won't finish until tomorrow. But, need to start.

This thread, as quite a few do, gets interesting.

In order to honor ER's plea, I am shifting attention here, if for no other reason that I think Feodor's rather childish non-response response to the on-going discussion deserves an honest reply.

First, as a general rule, rage at God is neither new nor interesting, at least to me. The desire for a recognition of our common humanity, for the suffering caused in large measure by our own greed and lack of care for our fellow human beings is one I certainly share.

Yet, I cannot but think that "a pox on all your houses because you're not as angry as I am" is only a childish ranting at the silence of history and universe in the face of the real desire for us to acknowledge that we cause the innocent to die.

At what point does a recognition that we all share in a responsibility for the lives of our fellow human beings become a substitute for acting to change that? At what point do we surrender the explicit necessity to make the world a little more just, a little more humane, for the satisfaction of being right?

I have no need to justify my faith, my actions, or my words, before Feodor's tribunal of self-proclaimed prophetic utterance. His remarks are, for the most part, banal and trivial. His concerns, on the other hand are not.

He offered the silence of God in the face of humanity's propensity for profound evil as a challenge to the proclamation that God speaks. God is silent. God is speaking. It is never either/or. It is always both/and. The world will not, does not, and cannot alter its course because we stand over the broken bodies of our children, our parents, our brothers and sisters - even those we will never meet - and scream out our rage to the silence around us. That shriek certainly satisfies our refusal to take it lying down; stopping there, though, is petulance.

Which is why Wiesel, for all his profundity, does not satisfy. Ditto Richard Rubenstein, Richard Dawkins, or Feodor. Petulance is unbecoming. As a professor of mine in college remarked, shit or get off the pot. More than anything else, that sums up my approach to the Christian faith. Either get in the game, or get out of it; kibitzing from the sidelines about how we're all wrong, about how we are all missing the point, about our own faults and failures, is a distraction.

The suffering of today's unfortunates is no different in kind from the sufferings of millions over the course of human history. Misery has been the lot of the vast majority of human beings. So has God's love for them even in the midst of that misery. Occasionally, that love was brought to life in a parish priest offering the sacrament, or some folks offering bread or soup. Even a radical who demanded that the entire order be reset to end that misery. Since time hasn't stopped, history marches on, and human beings are imperfect and as bound to hate as to love, the question of suffering will go on. The answer, as far as my very limited abilities and vision can tell, is that love is stronger than death. It may not be much.

It may, though, be just about everything.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The "Not-Mount-Vernon-But-They-Still-Owned-Slaves-So-It's-All-Good" Statement

It's always fun to read conservatives talk about the Constitution. Especially Ed Meese, who violated it more times than most conservatives can count (unless they aren't wearing shoes and have a couple vestigial toes; then they might be close).

A couple things about this "statement". One bullet point toward the end reads:
* It encourages free enterprise, the individual entrepreneur, and economic reforms grounded in market solutions.

I guess I missed that part every time I read where the Founders wrote that Congress has the power to regulate commerce. Apparently, they meant "regulate by not regulating" which is a bit like going to war for peace.

The nice thing about being a conservative is you are able to destroy the country and never have to apologize for it. It's always someone else's fault, especially if they are liberal, the first black President, and have an African surname. And besides, everything would have been fine if the American people didn't notice how much they hated George W. Bush.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Not The God We Think

The advent of the so-called "new atheists" a few years back - Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, with the late addition of long-time religion-basher Christopher Hitchens and now, it seems, philosopher Donald Dennet - was an occasion for much garment-rending, attempts to "prove" them wrong. There is, in fact, a cottage industry among conservative Christian publishing houses that continues to pour out volumes taking their arguments to task.

I kind of miss them. Especially Harris. Talk about low-hanging fruit. Dawkins, however, isn't much better, really. His major work on religion, The God Delusion, was only the opening salvo in what he understood to be the on-going project of completely destroying religion from human life.

Good luck with that.

I honestly am not fazed by atheists. Arguing with them tends to be futile; as the "arguments" (such as they may or may not be) in both Dawkins and Harris show pretty clearly, what they insist Christianity is, and what all Christians in all times and places think and do, bears no resemblance to anything resembling the complexity and contradictory nature of Christian life and belief. Their "defense" - that Christian theology is intellectually untenable fluff, beneath their notice - is a dodge. Reveling in a self-imposed ignorance, they blithely insist they have the scoop on "religion", when they prove, over the course of thousands of words, they are as ignorant as fence posts. Taking them seriously is really not worth my time.

As I remarked last week, if we are to be clear about who this God is we Christians claim to encounter in Jesus Christ, we need to think in a Trinitarian way. While it is true it is difficult to find specific references to the doctrine in the Bible, the Trinity is a good way of talking very specifically about this particular God, how this particular God has chosen to encounter us.

This is the crux of my complaint about much of the "atheism". Whether it's Dawkins' claim to have given a definitive definition of "God" and gone on to "prove" the impossibility of that God's existence, or the kind of general rejection of the "sky fairy", most of this babble has little to do with the God whom Jesus Christ calls "Father", and whom we encounter through the power of the Holy Spirit.

In other words, most of the arguments of the "new atheists" are nothing more than a bunch of people who don't know what they're talking about insisting they know more than anyone else how people think, and telling them that what they think is wrong. My response is, no, we don't think about God that way, because in the first and last instance, God isn't some "thing" about which we "think", but the reality we encounter as a people called out by Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Ours is not the God we think; ours is the living God who in turn gives life.

In the first and last instance, this is my own doctrine of God. This is why the Trinity is necessary to understanding who we are as Christians. Ours is not some posited universal Idea; ours is this very specific God who has done very specific things in the past; is continuing to do them even now; and will do them in to the future. We believe these things - we don't "know" them; knowledge is such a tenuous thing in any case; belief shapes who we are far more than something as mundane as "knowledge" - because this particular God has moved among us in very specific ways.

I know of no way of starting to say who God is other than this way.

Science As Metaphysics

Did you know that everything around you, for the most part, isn't really there?

Elementary particle physics makes it abundantly clear that, as we descend the ladder of the material universe, the various bits that make up physical existence are barely-there bits of stuff, in constant motion, with the space in between them occupying a far larger percentage of a given area designated for a particular "atom" or "molecule".

I urge everyone to test this theory by tossing a baseball through a window; better yet, do as my childhood friend once did and bash your head against a wall as hard as possible. Since the stuff isn't there, no problem, right?

Each and every meta-theory on the basic structure of the universe offers certain challenges to our common sense; whether it's Copernicus, or Newton, or Mach, or Einstein, or Bohr, or Heisenberg, or Hawking, we are challenged to consider again the old adage that the universe is not only weirder than we imagine, it's weirder than we can imagine.

Today comes word that, as the old saw goes, everything solid melts in to air:
"If the GEO600 result is what I suspect it is, then we are all living in a giant cosmic hologram."

The idea that we live in a hologram probably sounds absurd, but it is a natural extension of our best understanding of black holes, and something with a pretty firm theoretical footing. It has also been surprisingly helpful for physicists wrestling with theories of how the universe works at its most fundamental level.

The holograms you find on credit cards and banknotes are etched on two-dimensional plastic films. When light bounces off them, it recreates the appearance of a 3D image. In the 1990s physicists Leonard Susskind and Nobel prizewinner Gerard 't Hooft suggested that the same principle might apply to the universe as a whole. Our everyday experience might itself be a holographic projection of physical processes that take place on a distant, 2D surface.

The "holographic principle" challenges our sensibilities. It seems hard to believe that you woke up, brushed your teeth and are reading this article because of something happening on the boundary of the universe. No one knows what it would mean for us if we really do live in a hologram, yet theorists have good reasons to believe that many aspects of the holographic principle are true.(italics added)

2500 years ago, Plato posited that existence is akin to humanity sitting shackled, forced to stare at images on a cave wall; Plato, it seems, was the first to break these bonds and declare the images are just that, shadows without substance. Awake! Turn your head and see the way things really are!

The problem with these various theories about the way the Universe "really" is - microparticle physics as the Tao of all things; Bell's Theorem with its positing of a multiverse, each possible quantum state of each and every elementary particle since the Big Bang spinning off a new possible existence at each nanosecond of time; the physical unreality of all that is - require us to stand outside the world as we experience it. This is not to argue that holograph theory is or is not true; it sounds to me more like a certain mathematical model than anything else, most of which would be far beyond most of the people who read this blog. I am suggesting not so much that the theory is bogus as it is unfalsifiable. How would it be possible to falsify a theory whose very existence means assuming that entire Universe operates from its first principles?

Whenever I read somewhere that scientists deal with the way the world "really" is, I have to smile, because, far too often, theories like this are introduced that defy some of the most basic tenets of scientific inquiry. It may, indeed, be the solution to certain mathematical computations; that doesn't mean, however, it is scientific.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Ken And Me

I have had the name Ken Starr waved in my face a few times today, once in reference to an incident at Wesley Theological Seminary. Before he became infamous, when he was just Bush 41's Solicitor General, he spoke at the commencement in 1992.

The announcement that Starr would so speak was not greeted with enthusiastic cheers from the student body. I was reminded (again) that one student wrote to the student newspaper, and included the marvelous phrase "pale, male, and probably stale" to describe the choice. I was among many students who thought it might be possible to choose someone else.

I remember that commencement very well, precisely because it was one of those tempests-in-a-campus-teapot that seem so transcendentally important at the time, but really don't mean all that much in the long run. After all the hoo-hah and back and forth, Starr came and gave his little speech - spending, I recall, much of the first half half-heartedly defending himself against much of the animosity directed his way by students - and then sat down. Because I was in the student choir, I was sitting in the chancel, and Starr actually sat right next to me. I introduced myself, a moment I'm sure he recalls with fondness. I could be as polite as the next person.

The next year, when I graduated, Harry Blackmun gave the commencement address. Hard on the heels of his very public decision to no longer support the death penalty, and in light of his being the author of Roe v Wade, it received much less student angst. I had several opportunities to sit and chat with Justice Blackmun, because he attended Metropolitan Memorial UMC, where I also attended, and more than once sat in front or behind him. A very nice man, easy to talk to.

Anyway, having read Starr's name today, and being reminded of that incident, I thought I'd offer this apropos of nothing more than my own brushes with the infamous and noted.

Music For Your Monday

On Friday night or Saturday, I posted a Joni Mitchell video on Facebook, and one of my friends said that the only way one could really enjoy it was to be really high. I find that hysterically funny, all things considered. I decided to do some music I like that could very well be considered "only stoners like this stuff".

Miles Davis with the title track to his classic Bitches Brew:

Traffic's "Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys", which I picked as the entrance song for our wedding reception.

What's most interesting about this final pick, I think, is Robert Fripp's history of outspoken disgust with drug use among both musicians and fans. Yet, few bands were as trippy as King Crimson. This is "Larks Tongue in Aspic, Part II"

A New Wrinkle

Apparently, the lawyer advising the alleged Haitian kidnappers is wanted in El Salvador for participation in a child-smuggling-for-prostitution ring.


I look forward to Craig explaining this one away. Those Haitian kiddies would, indeed, have such a better life in the U.S, blah, blah, blah . . .

Don't Let The Door Hit You On The Way Out (UPDATE)

I would have thought Evan Bayh would have stuck around if for no other reason than the folks who control the conventional wisdom in our nation's capital dearly love him and his constant idiocy. Apparently, though, he has a bit more integrity than, say, Joe Lieberman.

Like Sarah Palin, another darling of Washington insiders, Bayh is quitting, only with more integrity than Palin, who left after two years in office.
No other thought than good riddance to bad rubbish. His "statement" is a meaningless combination of self-flattery and nonsensical drivel.
"For some time I've had a growing conviction that Congress is not working as it should," said Bayh. As a prime example, he referred to the recent filibustering of legislation to create a bipartisan fiscal commission. What particularly bothered Bayh was that it was defeated by Senators who had previously been co-sponsors of the measure itself, but then blocked it for what he described as political reasons.

Just ugh. Imagine a political body using politics to do its job. This is a Louis Renault moment from Casablanca if ever I read one.

UPDATE: While I would probably replace "immoral" with "venal and self-regarding", Matt pretty much sums up why Bayh's departure is as awful as his actual tenure.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Between The Times

In the 1920's, a little theological revolution took place in Germany. With the publication of the second, completely revised edition of his commentary on Romans, Swiss pastor Karl Barth became the focal point of a small group of Christian thinkers who were seriously wrestling with their times. Understanding the impact of Romerbrief necessitates understanding that, even in the first edition, Barth was out in front of many European intellectuals in grasping how the First World War was not just a political catastrophe for Europe; it was also a cultural catastrophe. The self-congratulatory, triumphal attitude of European culture - its philosophy, its theology, its political approach to the rest of the world - had bled out in the trenches of Flanders and France, and Barth recognized that the ground which had seemed so firm, now soaked with the blood of millions, could no longer hold the brave new European poised to stride the earth.

Little noted beyond a small coterie of fellow churchmen and theologians, Barth continued to write and preach and eventually, with his close personal friend Eduard Thurneysen and the Lutheran Friedrich Gogarten, started a journal entitled Zwischen den Zeiten, Between the Times. It reflected their own view that the Christian life was not the culmination of the Kingdom; nor was it existence in some primitive cultus. Rather, it is a life lived in the constant tension between two temptations - the desire to chuck it all, as it were and the desire to proclaim the arrival of the Divine Rule and rest on one's laurels. History would not allow the journal to survive too long; with the rise of German fascism, and with many including Gogarten siding with the demons, Barth took his leave of both the journal and eventually Germany. He published one final, famous, essay in Zwischen, entitled "Nein!" - essentially a huge finger to all the Hitler apologists and those like his fellow Swiss Reformed theologian, Emil Brunner (with whom he refused to reconcile even when Brunner lay dying because Brunner refused to admit that Barth was correct in his criticisms of Brunner's thought) - and retreated to Basel on the triple frontier of France, Germany, and Switzerland.*

Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration. It marks the end of the first stretch of what is usually considered "ordinary time" in the Church calendar, from the Feast of Epiphany through Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. It marks the real beginning of Jesus' ministry. Not his baptism by John in the Jordan River, not his reading and preaching in the Nazareth synagogue, not even his calling of the twelve marked it out as clearly as this event. Harking back to other mountain tops, Jesus went up to a mountain where he was revealed in his fullness, standing around chatting with Moses and Elijah, the two great prophets of the Hebrews, who themselves knew something of events on mountains. The reaction of the disciples, in particular Peter, demonstrate how far they had yet to go in understanding, even in this fullness of revelation, what Jesus was to be about.

We do not, cannot, live on that mountain, in the fullness of the presence. Nor can we live at the foot of the cross, an event which Jesus predicted even as he descended from the mountain. We are destined to live in the far more ambivalent reality around us; the memory of that moment on the mountain, perhaps, staying with us as a reminder of who this Jesus really is, even as we still wrestle with what that "really" means in the context of the messy, sometimes horrifying, sometimes transcendent, always frustrating day-to-day in which we find ourselves immersed.

While we celebrate that moment on the mountain today, on Wednesday as we recall that we all are nothing more than dust and ashes, destined to die, we need to remember that our real Christian life, the one to which all baptized Christians are called, is a life between those two moments of the Transfiguration and the Cross. Like those so-called "dialectical theologians" of last century, we need to remember that ours is not a calling either to retreat or to final victory. Rather, we travel on, granting to the world its status as neither hell nor heaven, and serve as Jesus called us to serve, between those two poles.

*A detailed history of German theological life in between the World Wars and after is told in Christian Faith in Dark Times, which includes brief sketches of Barth, Gogarten Paul Althaus, Rudolf Bultmann, Paul Tillich, and Emmanuel Hirsch.

Virtual Tin Cup

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