Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Limits Of Reason

I am currently enjoying a reread of Susannah Clarke's marvelous novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. The second title character, whom we meet first, has among his many quirks the marvelous, wonderful 19th-century naive conceit that it is possible to put upon a rational basis something as dangerous and wonderful as magic. Even as he violates his own rules, employing a fairy to assist in the resuscitation of the dead Ms. Wintertowne, betrothed to a minor member of the British cabinet, he seems to believe it possible to overlook the horrors he has already visited upon some "for the greater good", in this case restoring the glory of English magic.

It is that naive conceit I wish to talk about for a moment. At the same rough period of history as this novel is set - the first two decades of the 19th century, in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars - all western Europe was alive with the promise of Reason unleashed. Government Administration, the national economy, warfare, social relations, even religion - all would be served by the promise of being made rational, accessible to any literate adult. Mr. Norrell embodies this belief completely, having become a magician entirely through his own explorations of old books, ferreting out useful from useless information, finally demonstrating his power by making the stones of York Cathedral speak. In his quest to reestablish English magic as both respectable and important in the affairs of state, however, he unleashes the power of that nether world, Faerie, upon the poor, unsuspecting Mrs. Walter Pole, setting in motion a series of events that would undermine his desire even as he pursues it with that same naive desire to make it all modern, free of the fetters of such disgraceful, mystical notions as the importance of that legendary northern king who reigned for 3 centuries, the Raven King.

Religion, too, has suffered much from too many attempts to make it rational. Immanuel Kant wrote a book entitled Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, a remarkable little book, not the least for containing some of the most hate-filled passages in the German language (other than Martin Luther's or that Austrian guy's) concerning Jews. Hegel attempted to restore some of the mystery of religious thought even as he saw Reason as, in the end, overcoming religion's inherent limitations. It was, as he states in his lectures on religion, the Last Religion, to be replaced by Reason as the Idea of History makes itself ever more Real. Thomas Jefferson found the Bible held many remarkable ethical teachings, but was burdened with much nonsense about multiplying loaves and fishes and dead people rising and so on, so he removed those parts he found disagreeable and had a study Bible for his use. Friedrich Schleiermacher began his theological project by wondering what the word "God" might mean in an age in which belief, as it had been practiced and conceived in previous centuries, was no longer tenable. His On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers is a marvelous apologia for reimagining Christianity stripped of much of the (admittedly already by his time outdated) theological baggage that made it far too easy to dismiss.

While still with us, the ensuing two centuries of Christian thought (at least in the west, among Protestant theologians; Roman Catholic thought has only recently entered this territory, and Eastern Christianity continues on its own, remarkable, path) have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to make of the Christian faith something not only intelligible, but something reasonable. This is not to say that there is nothing reasonable or rational about it. On the contrary, precisely because it entails human beings understanding something, there is most definitely a role for reason, for understanding and comprehension. Yet, I think it a mistake to subsume all of religious life under the notion that we will ever capture it, or relate it, or explain it, or reduce it, rationally.

There is a limit to the ability of the human mind, and human language, and human understanding, in grasping and communicating what "it" is about the experience of religious life and practice that makes it vital to the life of the believer. We may take refuge either in the comfort of memorized Scripture, say, or the welcoming thoughts of this or that theologian, or the verses of a treasured hymn; yet, we make a mistake if we think we can reduce it all down to these formulae. On the contrary, we face the frightening prospect of losing our ability to make sense our experience at times. Whether the mystery and power of liturgy and sacraments that illuminate so much of the life of Catholics, High Church Anglicans, and Orthodox thinkers; the mysteries related by various mystics from the Anchorites to Thomas Merton; or the powerful and subtle thought of this or that theologian, all come up against the reality that we have to do with the unfathomable, the ineffable. God may indeed be Reason, as the medieval theologians insisted; but that is not the totality of who God is.

Like Mr. Norrell in Ms. Clarke's marvelous novel, we err greatly, and dangerously, when we trick ourselves in to thinking that our understanding begins and ends with the books about us, or even previous experience. If we are honest, we should say that all we can say is, alas, all we can say, or perhaps all we can say. There might be much more others can say; there might be more to be said. We, however, must also acknowledge that silence, too - holy, reverent silence in the face of the reality of our Subject - has its place, not least among its virtues an admission of humility.

We should acknowledge that, as powerful, indeed world-changing, as reason has been and will continue to be, it has its limits when it comes to the religious life. We stand on the shores of the eternal, and even our best cast tosses a stone within our site. We fool ourselves that we can see further than that.

Failure (UPDATE with link)

"My dear Lascelles," cried Drawlight, "what nonsense you talk! Upon my word, there is nothing in the world so easy to explain as failure - it is, after all, what every body does all the time."
from Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
Susannah Clarke
p. 77

Several years ago, I slipped in to quite a long funk because I realized that I was, not to put too fine a point on it, a dismal failure. Perhaps not at the things that are most important, as father and husband. On the contrary, I think I am an exemplary father, and while my "husbanding" always needs work, our marriage remains strong as we head toward our seventeenth anniversary this May.

Yet, I was depressed precisely because I knew that I had not achieved any of the goals I had set myself. No by-line, no publication list, no nothing. All I had ever wanted to do was write. Like all writers, I practiced incessantly. I wrote a journal. I wrote poems. I wrote short-stories. I started a novel. I worried my way through various non-fiction essays, book-reviews, and longer-form pieces. Of course, there were the various papers I had written for graduate school, a good testing ground for developing both style and the insistent practice and habit of writing if ever there was one.

When I started doing this whole blogging thing - and Lord do I hate using that word, even though it is now in the subtitle of this site - I realized I finally had an outlet. Perhaps, a path to achieve what had eluded me up to this time. I realized pretty quickly that being one voice among millions wasn't exactly a path to recognition. So, the depression that was starting to lift settled back down.

It has only been the past year or so that I reached, more than peace of mind, but a sense of equanimity about it all. As the discussion at this post says quite explicitly, 90% of what exists out here in virtual land is crap, and someone who writes and presses that "publish" button as much as I do has certainly contributed much to that internet sewage reclamation pool. Yet, I am quite happy to have achieved what I consider the singular success of not really caring anymore. I do what I do not to achieve some goal. I do not write for my work to be noticed. I do this thing everyday (or nearly so) because I love it. I write what interests me to the best of my ability (typos, grammatical mistakes, and all), and have become acquainted with more than a few people that, had I not continued to do so, I never would have come to know. I would not continue to learn how much good stuff there is out there to read, to which to listen. I would not be constantly pushed to think and think again what it is I believe and why.

When I read Leon Wieseltier's recent lament that writer's just aren't paid enough - some aren't paid at all! - all I could think is, well, I haven't received one red cent for what I've been doing for over three years now. Perhaps most of it hasn't merited pay. That's OK, you see, because even if I were to suddenly land some kind of deal that paid me to do what I do and live as comfortably as I do now (and while we aren't even close to being rich beyond anyone's dream of avarice, we have at least achieved that weird American goal of providing for our children a far more comfortable existence than the ones we had growing up), it wouldn't matter as much as the simple fact that, for the past three and a half years, I've been doing what I do because I love it. I hope I have said something important a time or two; I hope I have provoked thought, whether that thought was twinged with sadness at my imbecility, or anger at my ideology, or humor at my insipidness, if I have done that on rare occasions, so much the better.

So, I continue to be a happy failure. And no one can take that away from me.

UPDATE: In the interest of fairness and honesty, here's a contrarian point-of-view (h/t HASTAC).

Saturday Rock Show

The soothing tones of 1980's thrash band Nuclear Assault. A little advice for those on the right who have followed in lock-step behind all those "leaders" talking about how our country is disappearing under the assault of health care reform. In tones that reflect how I feel.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Reaping The Whirlwind

All the disingenuousness among Republicans concerning post-HCR-passage violence is starting to make me a bit angry. The simple fact is, last summer when the Tea Party got going with the Town Hall nuttiness, the Republicans in Congress saw this as an opportunity to whip up opposition to HCR. Over the intervening months, they continued to use the teabaggers and others as the "voice of opposition", giving tacit support to idiots like Rush Limbaugh and whack jobs like Glenn Beck. The rhetoric was of a piece: HCR was a direct assault on the Constitution of the United States; there were death panels; we are on the road to some kind of totalitarianism; on and on and on.

Now, it has passed. All that rhetoric, all that talk of an unAmerican President who hates white people and is a socialist hell-bent on destroying the fabric of our politics and society has achieved his singular goal as stated during his campaign - the passage of major health care reform. And the result? Why, all sorts of violence, not only against members of Congress (the first person who mentions Eric Cantor gets deleted; the story has already been debunked by the Richmond Police Department) and even a private citizen sporting an Obama bumper sticker on his car.

To those on the right who are truly outraged by all this behavior, I salute you.

To those on the right, however, who continue to spew nonsense about "American Descent" and our Marxist President and how he and the Democratic Party are destroying our Constitutional freedoms, all I can say is, if you lie down with pigs, don't be surprised if you wake up muddy and smelling like pigshit. Also don't be surprised if other people tell you you're dirty and stink.

The Pope's Priorities

The revelation that Pope Benedict XVI was up to his eyeballs covering up pedophilia among Irish priests (we know he was directly involved there) even as he excommunicated Leonardo Boff for daring to preach good news to the poor in Brazil (liberation theology! oh, no, it's communism baptized!!!) shows how screwy Josef Ratzinger's priorities are.

Some guy who molests little kids gets shuffled around Ireland like the Jack of Hearts in a poker game, popping up (no pun intended) in parishes with fresh little boys to hurt, while making sure no Brazilian poor get the word that God might be on their side.

Makes me glad I'm not Roman Catholic because I'd have to find a new denomination.

Most denominations are quite good at doing the right thing. Not only did Ratzinger make sure the Catholic Church didn't do the right thing, they threatened the victims with excommunication if they went public.

It's like 1517 all over again.


John Marshall:
Big fights and wins don't deplete political capital; they create it.

Better use it now to get the financial sector in order.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Some Thoughts On Human Sexuality And Gender

I've written enough on sexuality to have it be, in a way, a running sub-topic here. I'm not sure I have a single post, though, that, given the limits of the medium, sum up my own thoughts on human sexuality from my own perspective. Given a boost by the ladies, however, I thought I'd take a crack at addressing the questions posed at the link.
Has the nature of modern drift and loss of obligation created a crisis in masculinity? Has the precedence of “equality” as a modern value destroyed the erotic pleasures of gender roles (whether or not they are socially or biologically determined)? What does hierarchy have to do with the erotic, and how does queer identity complicate this? What would Kirkian-conservative feminism look like?

To the first question, I suppose one could wonder whether there is a "crisis in masculinity". The real challenge to masculinity is not anomie; rather it is, and continues to be, the refusal of many men to accept the social and sexual equality of women. With the advent of the pill, no-fault divorce, and legalized abortion-on-demand, women are now as free as men once were to pursue sexual adventure without fear of issue. This sudden freedom, combined with a rising social and political consciousness among women that occurred about the same time, redefined forever the relationship between men and women. Women are no longer the passive recipients, the tools of male pleasure, but just as freely may pursue carnal pleasure for its own sake.

Except, of course, the old stereotypes remain. "Slut" is still a viable English word. As is "whore". We have given women the tools to live as men have always lived, but have not freed ourselves (speaking as a man) from the decision to label women who choose so to live as immoral, unwomanly. Rather than respect a woman who is free enough and strong enough to pursue and experiment with her sexuality the way men have always done, we would rather settle for the old whore/virgin syndrome. There are women whose sexual favors we enjoy (the whore) and there are women who are "moral" enough to raise our children and keep our homes, even as we continue to run around with because we can't get the kind of sexual satisfaction we seem to crave from the mothers of our children and the keepers of our home fires.

This "crisis of masculinity" is really more fear and resentment than anything else.

Related to this question is the second, concerning the way changing gender roles have impacted erotic pleasure. How often have we read some right-wing public figure dismiss feminists as "ugly", "can't get a date", that kind of thing? These neutered females, stripped of their erotic selves my men with power, become stand-ins for the women who have rejected these men over the years. Nothing is more threatening to a man than a woman who proves through her life that she is in no need of a man for her personal, professional, and sexual fulfillment. Rather than something men pursue as a matter of male privilege, erotic enjoyment is far more a negotiation between equals. Those men who still think that women should be passive recipients of male virility rather than equal partners of a mutually fulfilling encounter - and that fulfillment should extend beyond the mere physical pleasure, but be emotional, even spiritual - are unable to negotiate this new reality. They turn their rage at those who seem to embody this rejection - the women who are most vocal about insisting on an equal footing in bed, as it were.

All the same, equality should, for all intents and purposes, increase erotic pleasure; rather than the empty and superficial pursuit of that 1970's and 1980's bugaboo, the one-night-stand, even the briefest encounters can become something more, as sex is no longer just about one or the other partner reaching some kind of physical climax. Opening oneself to all the possibilities inherent in the human sexual encounter - not just physical intimacy, but emotional intimacy, a kind of spiritual union - makes of those moments entered in to with only the intent of physical pleasure full of possibility, not to mention danger. As long as the people involved are aware of the possibilities inherent in real human intimacy, of which sex is just an outward and visible sign, it seems to me that real equality only makes a great thing even better.

I guess my take on sexual minorities is two-fold. From a sexual perspective, viewing same-sex relations as existing within a continuum of human sexual possibility, it runs up against social and cultural taboos; particularly for men, gay men are a threat precisely because they upset our understanding of "masculinity", while lesbians exist as the perfect personification of those women in need of no man. The sexual, then, meets the social/cultural as we consider the impact of "normalizing" same-sex eroticism. I think this is the source of so much Sturm und Drang in regards many of the issues surrounding LGBT folk - it is impossible for far too many people to separate out the sexual from the socio-cultural that we end up with a whole lot of hatred and fear rising to the surface.

As for a Kirkian-conservative feminism, I cannot imagine such a beast; it would devour itself almost immediately.

Please note the absence of any discussion of the morality or immorality of these trends. For the most part, I believe that freeing women from the twin burdens of being passive recipients of male lust and the demand they keep their homes and families intact while the men pursue their worldly ambitions and pleasures is a good thing. I think that human sexuality is the most potent force in human nature; more powerful than the need to satisfy hunger, more determined than greed to satisfy its desires, more insistent than any other instinct one could name. For this reason it should be treated with far more respect and care than it usually is. The pursuit of sexual pleasure for its own sake can become destructive of human lives. It would be far better if we could both affirm human sexuality as a part of our nature, something that, as the United Methodist Book of Discipline affirms, is a good gift from a good God, while still understanding that it is precisely because it is so powerful, it entails huge personal and interpersonal risks. The call to celibacy and monogamy, while too often bleated without thought, actually have much merit, as long as they are accompanied by a frank and broad discussion both of the dangers and rewards inherent in human sexual intimacy. All the same, I do not judge those whose lives have followed other paths, precisely because even this view, which I think has much merit as it comes from my own experience as well as that of countless others, and by which I have chosen to live, is not the end-all and be-all of wisdom. Full human lives have and are lived quite differently, and from these differences we need to learn and ponder our own limitations.

Christians Praying For Death

Well, it was bound to happen.
Orange Country Pastor Wiley Drake fired off an email to his supporters this morning, telling them that all 219 Democrats have been placed on the “imprecatory prayer list.” “We’ll remember in November and pray Psalms 109 while waiting,” he urged, before listing each offending congressman by name in “Satan’s domain in Washington D.C.”

This modern Manichean, who sees Good and Evil n such bright colors, and who is quite sure he knows how to identify each without fail, is calling for people to pray for a quick death for those who voted for health care reform.

At a site that highlighted this story, a commenter wrote: "praying for death for people is crazy….not christian". I would love to be able to endorse this view, but in fact, consistency forces me to admit that this kind of thing, as ugly, unBiblical, ungracious, and foreign to the Good News as it may be, should also be called Christian precisely because these folks consider themselves Christian, they are worshiping in a Christian church led by an ordained clergy person. Also, we shouldn't forget that the Christian Church has a long history of praying for death - supporting forces fighting wars, for example; of course, let us not forget St. Bernard of Clairvaux preaching the first Crusade, enthusiastically whipping crowds in to a frenzy for killing Muslims; there were local preachers who got the ball rolling by preaching death to local Jewish communities as well, resulting in pogroms across central Europe at the time - and we would be false to our history if we simply wrote all this off as a bad idea, or misunderstanding.

Just as it is difficult to claim that violent jihadis are "not true Mulsims" because of the history of Muslim violence, we should at least have the courage to shamefacedly admit that people like this are, alas, acting out part of our collective heritage, repugnant as it may be.

It is for this reason we need to embrace repentance. Not for whatever petty things we have done. For these people who present that shadow side of our collective Christian heritage to the world, we who insist the way of Christ is not that of seeking the death of others, we need to say to the world, "Yes, these, too, are our brothers and sisters in Christ. For this, I am heartily sorry, and do seek your forgiveness."

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A Discussion On The Future Of Books

NBCC, The Next Decade in Book Culture from Sonnet Media on Vimeo.

One of the panel members is Scott McLemee. Scott endorses The New Inquiry. Also, the questions to the panel reveal that the panel is far more open than the questioners.

Repeal This!

Yeah, I kinda hope the Republicans run on this in the fall.

Will the Roberts' Court go the way of the Hughes Court of the 1930's? Striking down provision after provision of the New Deal, Roosevelt was fed up and advocated a reorganization of the Supreme Court. While it failed in Congress, and in many ways turned many previously sympathetic Congressional Democrats against Roosevelt, it had the practical effect of goading the court, in 1937, to change course, ruling in favor of the New Deal in West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish (upholding federal minimum wage laws). Soon after, aged Justice William VandeVanter retired, and the court's approach to federal commerce regulation changed forever. Will the present Court change decades of Constitutional jurisprudence as states seek to nullify federal law? While I doubt it, it will be interesting.

The Republicans have lost a major fight. Since they never intended to vote for this thing anyway, imagine how much better this bill might have been, including a full-fledged public health insurance option, the right for the federal government to negotiate drug prices with Big Pharma, and other provisions that would have made this bill so much better. I am not saying this bill is horrible; I am only suggesting that the Democrats gave away a little too much for no good reason.

This may very well be as important in retrospect as Reagan's firing of the air traffic controllers in 1981.

Monday, March 22, 2010

I Want Some Recognition For Being The First Person To Talk About This

Usually, I don't care about recognition. All the same, it would be nice if someone noticed that I first talked about Obama being patience, not caring about the 24 news cycle (and, also, being able to have those who pursue it have it turned against them) during the 2008 campaign. On August 19, 2008, I wrote:
I think Obama is allowing McCain to rant and rave in order for McCain to define himself as the kind of Republican we are tired of. The post-Labor Day campaign has always been far more important, and even though we have the whole 24-hour news cycle and pundits and journalists who spend years of their lives on a single campaign, Obama is trusting that the American people, both far more wise and far more balanced than the typical pundit, will only start paying attention once the summer is over.

So, I think we all should all relax, take some deep breaths, and wait and see. While it is theoretically possible McCain could win, or (a slightly different thing) Obama could lose, my own sense is that Obama will win, handily, with greater majorities for Democrats in both Houses of Congress, ushering in a whole new political and social era in America. The nuttiness on the right will continue to be loud, but it will wield no power, and will be sidelined once again.

For my prescience and faith in Obama's strategy, I got made fun of. Today, I read this.
I should wander back to Obama, shouldn't I. Oh yes: he apparently just doesn't care at all about winning the news cycle, or the day, or even the week. He wants to win elections, and passage of legislation, and, I suspect, the war in Afghanistan. He seems, as far as I can tell, surrounds himself with people who have the same view.

I'll say one thing: I wouldn't bet against him.

So, I guess I want a little recognition because I saw this . . . trait . . . propensity . . . whatever you want to call it a long time ago. He is patient. He knows what he wants and he gets it (remember the stimulus bill? he got almost exactly what he wanted . . . even after both Houses added this then took away that, in the end the President signed the bill he proposed).

I said some time ago that (a) health care reform would pass, and (b) the Democrats will gain seats in the mid-terms this November. Anyone want to bet?


Did you know this was a "blasphemous blog"? It's true! Mark said it. This is the same Mark who, in an exchange with another liberal blogger, used pornographic language to attack a close family friend of said liberal blogger (the comment was deleted by the blog Administrator, but Mark has never apologized for this highly offensive remark, nor does he ee anything wrong with what he said). This is the same Mark who compared me to Stalin and Pol Pot because I am pro-choice.

Since I don't actually believe there is such a thing as "blasphemy", at least as commonly understood, I find this amusing and ironic, really. I saw this in passing while reading comments, and thought, I should rename this "The Blasphemous Blog", but too many people wouldn't get the reference. Still, maybe a subtitle?

Music For Your Monday

What else?

Simon and Garfunkel - "Homeward Bound"

Dream Theater - "Home"

U2 - "A Sort of Homecoming"

Get Thee Behind Me, Satan!

I'm supposed to be on vacation, dammit! Stop enticing me to spend all sorts of time watching videos on YouTube and sitting around writing posts in response to this.

I refuse to succumb. I refuse . . . I . . .

No, I will not weaken.

So, go check it out if you like. I'm on vacation. Really.

All Over But The Shouting Which Always Happens Anyway

The House passed Health Care Reform, and other than a procedural vote in the Senate later this week - reconciliation that also deals with student loan reform (yea!) - it is now, for all intents and purposes, the law of the land.

While hardly the socialist utopia, or creeping tyranny, or death of the Constitution that we keep hearing about, it is certainly significant. Even with the removal of abortion coverage - why, I wonder, when even the private health care plans the Republican Party offers its employees covers abortion! - and other bits and pieces not to my personal liking, since the bill isn't about pleasing me, it is difficult to disagree with Josh Marshall's take that, in the end, its the results that matter. As the plan is phased in over the coming years, and even some regulatory changes become effective pretty much immediately - most important who whole issue of denial of coverage for pre-existing conditions - I think it will be pretty clear that, imperfect as this is, we have reached a real milestone in this country.

I hate to say this, because the process has been long and aggravating, but thank you, President Obama and Speaker Pelosi, for finally getting the job done, a job that has been the dream of reformers since Teddy Roosevelt was President over a hundred years ago.

This should have been named the Harry S. Truman Health Care Reform Act, because he ran, in 1948, on instituting national health care similar to the one implemented by Britain by the Labour Party; while this hardly qualifies, we have at least, in part, fulfilled his desire.

Virtual Tin Cup

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