Saturday, May 01, 2010

Saturday Rock Show

One of the great American heavy metal bands was Pantera. Along with Metallica, in the dim, dark days of the late 1980's and early 1990's, they kept alive a kind of pure faith when so many thought Motley Crue was heavy metal, and the popularity of Anthrax's speed metal was aided by their ubiquitous t-shirts. With brothers "Dimebag" Darrell Abbott on guitar and Vinnie Paul on drums - two flamboyant, charismatic musicians - they provided simple, clear heavy metal for true believers.

When Darrell Abbott was murdered on stage in late 1994, while certainly horrible, it provided a certain levity because I sat and listened to the report read by Carl Castle of NPR news. Hearing Castle intone "Dimebag" with his resonant baritone was truly a crossing of cultural barricades.

Out Of Control Prosecutor

Via Thers at Eschaton, read this article.
In papers sent to UVA April 23, [Virginia Attorney General Ken] Cuccinelli’s office commands the university to produce a sweeping swath of documents relating to Mann’s receipt of nearly half a million dollars in state grant-funded climate research conducted while Mann— now director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State— was at UVA between 1999 and 2005.

If Cuccinelli succeeds in finding a smoking gun like the purloined emails that led to the international scandal dubbed Climategate, Cuccinelli could seek the return of all the research money, legal fees, and trebled damages.

“Since it’s public money, there’s enough controversy to look in to the possible manipulation of data,” says Dr. Charles Battig, president of the nonprofit Piedmont Chapter Virginia Scientists and Engineers for Energy and Environment, a group that doubts the underpinnings of climate change theory.

Just a couple thoughts. It sounds so public spirited, don't you think? Investigating the investment of public money in science. Except this is the kind of thing routine reporting on grant approvals usually covers. At least from my own experience with receiving grant money, there is a requirement to report back to the grantor on how the money was used - in excruciating detail - at several points along the way, with a final report when the grant period has ended. There is really no need for this kind of thing, of course.

Precisely because scientific research is about seeking answers to specific questions - what Kuhn called solving puzzles, as it were - the possibility that a particular answer might just be "no", as we all know. I am really curious as to what, exactly, the Attorney General thinks might be a crime, might be worth wasting the time and even more public money looking for. Fraud? In what way? That Mann might have willingly and knowingly perpetrated a fraud in the course of using his public funds? Since science is a public enterprise by habit and practice, the AG can peruse the publication list, one would think. All the other stuff - emails and private correspondence - might be interesting. Or not. It might relate directly to the research. Or, it might be gossip. I really doubt that, even if Mann were stupid enough to perpetrate fraud in the course of using taxpayer money, he would be dim enough to write something like, "So, what do you think of my outline for defrauding the Commonwealth?", or, "Do you think my paper, as written, disregards the data enough to prove global warming even though it doesn't exist?"

This whole thing is nothing more than an example of an ignoramus being given far too much power. Aren't there marijuana farmers in Brunswick County to harass?

Friday, April 30, 2010

My Last Word On The Habermas Business

I think one reason - beyond the obvious defects - this blog just doesn't generate comment threads that stretch on forever is I am not in the business of continuing arguments. I realize others find it annoying, even (gasp!) somehow against the spirit of the internet. After all, isn't shouting at one another with our keyboards what the internet is all about? Why else is there a CAPS LOCK key?

As far as the recent business related to a Stanley Fish article reporting on a symposium including Jurgen Habermas and respondents on the place of religion in society, I really have only a couple things to say, then I really am quite finished, unless someone wants to send me the book in question so I can read what Habermas and his critics are actually saying, rather than read about it second-hand.

First of all, I see no reason why I, or any other person, or Church for that matter, should look at Habermas' attitude with anything other than disdain. Please note, the entire "proposal" consists of Habermas, occupying no role other than a semi-public intellectual from another country, grudgingly accepting that (a) religious life is an on-going reality; and, therefore, (b) it might be a part of our public conversation, as long is it dresses well and doesn't say a whole lot.

I guess, after a bit more thought, my own response would be, "Uh, Jurgen, who died and appointed you public discourse monitor?" Last time I checked, no individual, group, community, what-have-you has to pass a litmus test to be a part of the never-ending discussion, debate, and power game concerning how to be a good society. Churches, synagogues, mosques, temples - these are part and parcel of our lives, the lives of our fellow citizens. Whether Jurgen Habermas accepts that or not, or understands it or not, these folks have a seat at the table just because. Indeed, Habermas pose of intellectual (and, always lurking behind that, moral) superiority should be greeted with a heart chuckle at best. As soon as he can explain - without reference to denigration - why it is there are millions, perhaps billions, of human beings who actually believe in a set of religious doctrines as a real, living guide to their life, and that as parts of religious communities they are vitally concerned with the larger public good, I think he should have a Coke, a smile, and shut up. It's really that simple.

The idea that a European intellectual actually would deign to grudgingly admit that religious folks have a place at the table might sound all wonderful. Why, however, would any self-respecting member of any religious community want to be apart of a larger discussion of which Jurgen Habermas is a member, let alone leader, considering his attitude?

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Good Riddance To Bad Rubbish

I have cleared another website from the old blogroll. I have been, to say the least, disenchanted, with Crooks and Liars. Increasingly going off the rails, seeing the imminent return of right-wing Republican governance along with, say, theocracy and racism thrown in for good measure, they are almost wholly out of touch with their obsession with the Tea Party, their constant flogging of Glenn Beck, and their hyping of both Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow at the expense of serious, substantive discussions.

We are not on the verge of a Republican renaissance. Despite the on-going sluggishness of the economy; despite the natterings of the "left" that there is not a dime's worth of difference between Obama and Bush; despite the crazy train on FOXNews and right-wing websites - the Democrats will do just fine this fall, and the Republicans, offering nothing, void of ideas, let alone positive policy options, will flounder toward further irrelevance. Indeed, I am still willing to take any bets on the outcome of the mid-term Congressional elections, predicting (once again) the Democrats will make gains in both Houses of Congress.

Anyway, as much as I enjoyed C&L in its heyday, when the Democrats were in a rising minority, and the Republicans increasingly tone-deaf to the mood of the country (quite apart from any economic disaster), it served a useful function. Stuck in 2005, or even 2006, however, Amato and his cronies offer nothing more than ignorant hyperbole masquerading as a clarion call of pending doom and disaster. I am quite weary of the nonsense. So, as sad as it is to say, they're gone.

The world has moved on, as have I. Crooks and Liars, sad to say, has far too much invested in their view of themselves as a source of serious information with a liberal slant they have forgotten that. So, like digby and some others, I think it's time to celebrate what they meant once upon a time, and leave them where their best moments lie - in the past.

Seeking Clarity

In order to move my thoughts forward beyond asking what some might consider interesting questions regarding a Christian understanding of the state, I think it is necessary to clear the decks, as it were, of such dreck and effluvia from our usual public discourse so that clarity concerning our current situation can be approached. In short - I wanna cut through the BS. A whole slew of terms and catch-phrases, cliches and nonsense is going to be explained away.

First and foremost, precisely because of the centrality of questions of economy, I think I should make clear that any discussion that thoughtlessly bleats out "socialism" or "capitalism" without a clear understanding of what those words actually entail serves far more to dirty the waters than clarify. For instance, all the discussions of the glories of American "capitalism" ignore the simple reality that, by and large, our largest corporations are heavily subsidized by the federal government. Indeed, corporations are legal creations of the various state governments, so they already owe their existence to the state. Anyone who espouses the belief that our government should step aside and allow corporations to act in their own best interests should be aware that, if this were truly the case, many of even the largest would cease to exist.

Thus, reality already muddies our attempts to set clear boundaries between "capitalism" and "socialism" precisely because ours is a heavily publicly-subsidized private sector economy.

Further and related, very often in discussions of economic "theory" (in a vulgar sense, at any rate), we hear that our economy values competition, whereas socialist economies and polities discourage it, and therefore economic growth and general welfare. Yet, the largest corporations actively seek to eradicate competition as inefficient, a waste of resources, and a drag on potential profits. Every law and stricture on corporate action is tested over and over again, seeing if it passes legal muster.

Back at the end of the 19th century, and continuing on through to the beginnings of the Great Depression of the 1930's, much populist rage was directed at a certain sector of the economy that produced nothing, sold nothing, bought nothing, yet was understood by many to be the engine of economic activity. In our normal parlance, they are bankers; since the 1930's breakup of commercial and consumer banking, they are the investment bankers. The populists had a far more colorful term - social parasites. In the wake of the economic collapse brought on in large measure by certain creative "investment products" - most notoriously treating debt instruments as capital and collateral for funding ever greater debt - there has been a back and forth about the question of the role of investment banking in the larger economy. One would think this older terminology, while certainly provocative, might find a bit more traction. The money made and lost by investment bankers, especially in the real estate market with the "bundling" of mortgages, was all just lines in an accounting book. While it is true that many banks and other investment firms - like the insurance company AIG - based their real market value upon these lines, they were by and large unreal. Indeed, the economic collapse was due in no small part precisely to the unreality of the assumed value of so many of these very assets.

The real economy is not a creature of banks. Make no mistake, investment in economic activity is vital; no business would begin, or even continue, without the injection of capital from interested parties who see this or that business as an opportunity for wealth. Banks serve a necessary function as conveyors of investment capital between those who seek to make money and those who seek to use that money for their own purposes. Yet, that is all banks are. Their health and vitality is certainly necessary, but when investment becomes not a bridge between real economic actors, but rather an end in and for itself, the real driver of economic growth - the production of goods and the practice of services - becomes subordinated to the investment sector. When banks no longer serve as a conduit between real economic actors, but increasingly are seen as the real drivers of economic growth, this distortion of their role, almost of necessity, creates the conditions for the general collapse of economic activity.

All of these mundane realities become unclear if we spend our times worrying over nonsensical discussions of "capitalism" versus "socialism", and reduce "freedom" to the ability to make money. Any Christian witness on the State, on social life, on justice becomes meaningless without keeping even this sketchy survey in mind.

"Socialism", at least in its Marxist variety, is most definitely not what we currently have. For Marx, "socialism" was a stage of social development in which the workers controlled the levers of state power through a dictatorship. Marx clearly was not fond of this stage, yet he understood it as dialectically necessary, the historical counterweight to the age of bourgeois freedom and (mostly sham) democracy controlled by the industrialists. The closest real-world examples of a kind of Marxist socialism, it might be argued, are the post-WWII Labour governments of Great Britain, in which all sorts of economic activity from health care to transportation, was nationalized and ownership transferred to the state (it isn't called British Airways for nothing, you know . . .). The kinds of central planning one saw in Stalinist states has absolutely nothing to do with socialism, even less "communism" as Marx understood that term.

To sit around and insist that what I am pondering is some kind of Christian defense of socialism, or that I am blind to the socialist tendencies of our current federal Administration are nonsensical on their face. In the first instance, it should go without saying - but I'm saying it anyway! - that any dictatorial rule is not anything I am interested in defending. Any attempt to address questions of socio-economic and political life of a certain necessity need to grasp the reality of our situation; any Christian attempt to do so must take the further step of insisting that this or that temporal, contingent political or economic philosophy, regardless of its intrinsic merits, must answer to the bar of the cross of Christ, where we come face to face with that most political question of all - do we side with the powers that sought to execute this man to maintain their power?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Yes And A Partial No

To the quote below included in this comment, I can give partial consent, but also hold some partial reservations:
[Religious man] must therefore live in the godless world, without attempting to gloss over or explain its ungodliness in some religious way or other. He must live a "secular" life, and thereby share in God's sufferings. He may live a "secular" life (as one who has been freed from false religious obligations and inhibitions). To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to make something of oneself (a sinner, a penitent, or a saint) on the basis of some method or other, but to be a man--not a type of man, but the man that Christ creates in us. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life.

First of all, for the most part, the spirit (Spirit?) of this particular passage is one I can accept almost without reservation. I say "almost" only because the "religious man" is a kind of abstraction for me. Obviously, individuals do inhabit a variety of roles, but they are always constituted of relationships. We define ourselves as part of a variety of groups and webs of relations, sometimes crisscrossing, sometimes incommensurable. The challenge, I suppose, is taking stock of which identity we assign top priority. Are we a parent first? A spouse? A child, sibling, employee? Do we define ourselves by our jobs, as in, "I am a doctor"?

Of course, a response - and it would most certainly be mine - is that to live as a Christian embraces all these partial definitions, fulfills them, and (to follow Wesley, I suppose) sanctifies our own participation in them. To be fully human is certainly the goal of life as a baptized Christian. That means, if it is to mean anything, that in our various relationships, in the various ways we live out our lives, we live fully and completely as family member, as this or that employee/worker, as a citizen. Going further, it is precisely here that the so-called Christian right goes off course. They assume that there is a distinctive Christian sine qua non for living in the world, precisely because theirs is a kind of simplistic dualism that, silently or explicitly, gives the lie to one of the favorite Biblical passages (John 3:16).

As to whether the "world" is "godless", I guess I just cannot affirm that, from a theological view. Do we reserve God, then, only for the elect in the community of faith? Perhaps by living in the world as a Christian qua Christian, we demonstrate through just living that the world is, indeed, not godless. "Secular" is not the same as declaring the world "godless", unless one accepts a broad understanding of "secular". Since the part of the mission of the Church is to live out Divine love for the world, this would most certainly include simple living, in all the ambiguities and contradictions entailed therein. Yet, we betray that mission when we give pride of place to this living without reference to the Divine condescension in the cross and resurrection of Christ. This latter places us firmly within a web of relations that not only are horizontal - spatial, that is, relations with other individuals who also are Christian - but vertical - temporal, stretching across time, confession, even language. Thus embedded, if we allow ourselves to become aware of this intricate web, we can live in other relationships more fully precisely because we claim their fulfillment in the cross and empty tomb.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Not A Way Forward

On second and third thoughts, and despite Feodor's endorsement - which I understand, and grant - I cannot see where Habermas' attempted partial turn toward "religion" can avail itself as even a conversation-starter. In particular, this description of Habermas' position by Stanley Fish sticks out and calls out for a response:
. . . Habermas does not want to embrace religion wholesale for he does not want to give up the “cognitive achievements of modernity” — which include tolerance, equality, individual freedom, freedom of thought, cosmopolitanism and scientific advancement — and risk surrendering to the fundamentalisms that, he says, willfully “cut themselves off” from everything that is good about the Enlightenment project. And so he proposes something less than a merger and more like an agreement between trading partners: “…the religious side must accept the authority of ‘natural’ reason as the fallible results of the institutionalized sciences and the basic principles of universalistic egalitarianism in law and morality. Conversely, secular reason may not set itself up as the judge concerning truths of faith, even though in the end it can accept as reasonable only what it can translate into its own, in principle universally accessible, discourses.”

As Norbert Brieskorn, one of Habermas’s interlocutors, points out, in Habermas’s bargain “reason addresses demands to the religious communities” but “there is no mention of demands from the opposite direction.” Religion must give up the spheres of law, government, morality and knowledge; reason is asked only to be nice and not dismiss religion as irrational, retrograde and irrelevant. The “truths of faith” can be heard but only those portions of them that have secular counterparts can be admitted into the realm of public discourse.

Briekskorn is exactly on point. For what possible reason would the Church surrender its ratio? For entry in to the public realm, but only on terms inimical to its unique vocabulary? What of the Church's critique of state action? Is it not already compromised by accepting these terms?

While some of Habermas' further comments seem to suggest a certain begrudging acceptance of a role for the religious life as more than a social palliative, I cannot but think that Habermas is not so much offering a new way forward so much as acknowledging the status quo as one that at least offers to believers a role that is no longer intellectually second class.

Furthermore, a short retort on the marvelous gains of the Enlightenment. With the victory of instrumental rationality, we have seen the perfectly sane, bureaucratized butchery of millions of human beings in the pursuit of goals that were rationally defended. The hands of the Enlightened are as bloody as the rest of ours, and an appeal to some kind of instrumental, functional superiority for the "rational" claims of the Enlightenment project would be lost in the screams of the dead, if they could speak. Since they can't, I think my own feeble objection will have to suffice. Like America's perpetual innocence, always lost yet always found again in a heartbeat, the nobility and humanity of the Enlightenment project is declared atop a mountain of corpses. While this makes it no different than most other human projects, intellectual or political, it does not make it, morally speaking, able to pronounce upon the rational or moral acceptability of other dissonant voices.

Tentative Beginnings . . .

So John Quiggin has noticed me, or at least noticed me noticing him, which amounts to the same thing. Anyway, he opens up the linked thread and what one finds is, in a sense, the same, sterile back-and-forth that leaves me wondering if these folks understand what it is they're saying. Not in the sense that they are writing about topics about which they have no knowledge; rather, I wonder if they grasp how so much of their discussion is in a vocabulary that, really, no longer holds up. In particular, the whole question of tactics versus strategy - incremental versus revolutionary change, that kind of thing - becomes a quagmire precisely because it states the problem without addressing the utterly changed context.

As I stated yesterday, our world is currently in a muddle, politically. The de facto reality is the senescence of the nation-state and the reality of international capital existing outside any controlling legal framework of accountability. It seems to me that even stating this reality cuts through so much of the nonsense one hears on the news and reads on the internet. Some seem to be aware of it, yet wish to address it in terms similar to those, say, of Matt Yglesias, who seem to land in territory that says, in effect, incremental bureaucratic management of capital is the best offer on the table, using the relative success of the mixed economies of western and northern Europe as models. Yet, he is pretty explicit in saying that his conclusion is the result of the current alternatives having exhausted themselves as practical failures.

While I have to admit admiring Marx as diagnostician, I think using him as a guide for moving forward in an age when, in many ways, his predicted withering of the state is already at hand, only under the auspices of transnational capital rather than the victorious proletariat, leaves us at sea. For this reason, as attractive as social democracy seems in many respects, its victories are those of the past, and cannot address our current reality.

Just one example of our current confusion is this comment:
It is an unhappy fact that if the Third World suddenly became inacessible (with the exception of Saudi Arabia) the 1st World would barely notice. If Africa, for example, suddenly vanished, it would change the economic course of the 1st World almost not at all.

The Third World is the First World's garbage pit, the source of our cheap labor, the source of our elite beverages and snacks (often at the expense of local, indigenous, sustainable agriculture), and contain vast amounts of currently inaccessible mineral wealth (only because of endemic political and social instability, mostly the result of hundreds of years of imperial exploitation). To state as bald fact that we would not even notice the disappearance of Africa is ignorance masquerading as thought.

I believe the problem is stated accurately, if not fully, at the two posts Quiggin has written. The solutions, however, still range over issues that by and large were settled decades ago.

So, how does a Christian who accepts this reality (very sketchy and certainly incomplete) move forward? In the first instance, I think we need to consider a range of questions from the traditional formulations of the doctrine of the state (at least in its Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed versions) to how we understand terms such as "power", "authority", "justice", and "law" in an age where these are decreasingly concentrated in state actors. Indeed, in many ways, while it seems reactionary, considering the traditional Roman Catholic understanding of the place and role of the secular power might be as good a starting point as any. From W. A. Whitehouse (pp. 69-70 of The Authority of Grace):
God created men, and the world in which He set them, with the purpose of establisheing the human race in supernatural communion with Himself. The Kingdom of God which accomplishes this purpose is realized in the relation between Christ and His believing people; that is to say, in the Church. The powers of Christ in His kingdom are communicated to His people, and though not realized in their fullness in any indivudal, they are completely deployed in the total hierarchically ordered life of the Church. The Kingdom may therefore be identified with the Church of Jesus Christ, made visible through the ages in the Roman communion, under the headship of the Pope.

The bearing of these powers on politics is to reinforce in man the active pricinple of natural community, which can be apprehended by the intellect, and affirmed in moral freedom in particular concrete acts which establish a State, whose end is "right order," expressed, preserved, and developed by the proper functions of the State in the community. The political life gives to all men the possibility of self-realization of their social nature, towards an end of natural self-sufficiency. . . . The Kingdom of God in the Church embraces that whole life of man, and it is from the Church that the believer learns true political life, in terms of "Natural Law." He learns that politics is concerned only with the natural life of man. As a political creature, made for community with his fellows, he affirms the State as an ordinance of God which guarantees the public order, and expresses the inner moral necessity that the lives of individuals be organized in community. He learns also to require of the State, to which he gives political allegiance, that it acknowledge the supreme status of the Church as above all other communities.

Lutheran thought, usually dubbed "Two Kingdoms theory", differs little with the sole exception that the "Kingdom of Man" as an ordinance of God bears particular responsibility for natural order - usually termed "the power of the sword", or what we would call "police power" - and this is a power and authority received directly from God under the orders of creation.

While moderns might blanch at the thought the state would derive its authority from the Church, and Protestants would certainly more than quibble over the declaration that the primacy of the Roman communion is the source of state power, the basic source of this doctrine lies, Biblically, in St. Paul's exhortation for the Christian communities of Rome to pray for their leaders precisely because they have received their power and authority from God. This basic Biblical formula, for all its contentiousness, remains the fount of much political theology, even in an age of political repression and mass death.

Yet, from a different vantage point, there are all sorts of questions that cannot be answered if we consider the question from this point of view. If we start, not from St. Paul, but from the crucified and risen Christ as Divine revelation in its fullness, how are to understand "justice", "power", and "authority"? For the last, do we turn, say, to Philippians 2 and the kenosis hymn, which recognizes that all authority is granted to the risen Christ, and all knees shall bow and all tongues confess the Lordship of Christ? Of what does the power and justice of God under the sign of the cross consist but the rejection of "power" as coercion, and the embrace of those who commit injustice? How can a state ever attempt to reign in the powers that be if it rejects the kind of temporal power thus expressed, and seeks justice through grace?

To begin, I think we need to consider that traditional Roman formulation with a more ecumenical mind and heart, and always keep the cross of Christ shadowing our words and thoughts. The order thus considered under "natural law" is not the traditional Natural Law of the Scholastics, even less of the high Enlightenment thinkers for whom the term meant something very different. Indeed, it has been my contention all along at this site that the word "nature", whether in its scientific or philosophical understanding, is far too muddled to serve as anything other than an obfuscatory role. It confuses rather than clarifies. Considered in light of the full revelation of God in the crucified and risen Christ, what is "natural" might just mean something completely different than we normally grant; indeed, as the whole created order is restored through the sacrifice of Christ, that would include, of course, the natural order, which includes it seems the political order.

These are tentative statements by way of prolegomenna, I guess. Thoughts, anyone?

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Demise Of The Roman Church? (UPDATE)

Even more than the scandal of concubinage a thousand years ago, or the Protestant Reformation half a millennium ago, the current daylight being shed on what can only be called systematic pederasty among priests in the Roman Catholic Church is doing more than just undermine what moral authority it may have left. Might we be seeing the real beginning of the end?

A Belgian Bishop has retired after admitting to long-term abuse of a family member. The US, Germany, Ireland, now Belgium - is it possible this is pandemic in the church as it is currently structured? Clearly, because he is so severely compromised, if he had any integrity left, Pope Benedict would resign, and the Curia would confront the entire situation with openness and confession. Any Cardinal compromised by this scandal would, I would think, be unfit to serve as pontiff. Of course, that might just mean an interregnum as worst case, perhaps an African or other non-Western Pope. In any case, the current power-structure of the Church is far too riddled with the taint of this systematic predatory behavior upon boys. Unless the Church comes clean, opens itself to external legal audit, forces the resignation of much of the current hierarchy, and perhaps installs a caretaker coalition until the various national legal messes can be sorted out, I do believe this has far reaching implications for the long term survival of the Roman Church.

UPDATE: Let me heighten the controversy just a smidge by offering the following view. As agents not just of a spiritual organization, but also of a foreign state - Vatican City is recognized by most countries as a sovereign state - how do individual nations respond to what can only be interpreted as a decades long attack upon the children of a variety of states by these agents?


So I turned from Stanley Hauerwas to a far more traditional, and quite dead, theologian - W. A. Whitehouse - and am now bewildered on what I think is an important question.

Can Christian theology, in its liberal Protestant variety (never mind the Roman Catholic, much less Orthodox varieties, let alone conservative Protestant mode) give a theological account and defense of the liberal republic as its exists? While I think it can certainly undermine the natural law and contract theories that underpin the American versions (via Locke and Montaigne), my question is really whether, by ridding ourselves of this ahistorical and metaphysically unsatisfying stuff, are we left with anything we, at the beginning of the 21st century, can hang our hats on with integrity? Considering the traditional Protestant Christian defense of the state derives, in part, from ideas rooted in western European feudal monarchies, in both their original Lutheran and Reformed traditions (not to mention the Anglican), I am at a loss to say how relevant they can be to our current situation.

Yet, the idea that the State is part of God's natural order for curbing our sinful nature, controlling our tendency toward destructive, and self-destructive behaviors seems, well, unAmerican to me. It reduces the state to a nanny of the worst sort. At the same time, secular liberal insistence on the primacy of the individual and that individual's pursuit of his or her individual self-interest as the root of social growth is so easily shown to be a god that failed. Do we start with traditional Scriptural passages in light both of their historical use and exegesis? Do we start with doctrinal affirmations concerning human sin and agency? Do we assume from the get-go the conflicted nature of the church and state?

In part, this is driven by a the reality that the nation-state, as it has existed for the past four centuries is increasingly superfluous. Might it not be necessary for the purposes of moving forward to concentrate less on a defense of an already antiquated socio-political form than to imagine something more forward-looking, something that addresses our current reality? Not necessarily "cosmopolitanism" as western European intellectuals have considered it, but certainly something approaching it?

Just some questions in search of honest responses . . .

Muisc For Your Monday (UPDATE)

OK, so it isn't for everybody, but Rammstein's extra-loud, very German Industrial Metal keeps my eyes open. I have to confess really liking the way the vernacular fits the music so well, even better than grunting Norwegian Death Metal.

With thanks for the suggestion, here is "Hallelujah", with a rough translation in the video!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Reasons For Hope

This post at Crooked Timber addresses itself to the related topics of the intellectual barrenness of the right, and the equally muddled discussion on the left. What I find most interesting about this entire topic is the opportunity provided for a truly Christian alternative in the midst of the chaos.

While it is true that the right is currently self-destructing, supporting ideas and policies untethered to anything resembling reality, Quiggin is also correct that the left has not offered any meaningful alternative, preferring to pick of the soft targets of the right in a display of intellectual bravura that belies the lack of serious alternatives, including engagement and the acceptance of certain conservative positions (Burke on the organic nature of society; Popper on historicism; Hayek on central planning) that have proved to be spot on.

In the midst of this intellectual vacuum, it seems at least possible that some in the church might offer the viability of an entirely different vocabulary, one that sets to one side the intellectually and practically exhausted categories of "left-right", "liberal-conservative", and speaks of human life, hope, and the common life in a wholly different way. The Christian humanist tradition, both Catholic and Protestant, certainly have a deep and wide well from which to draw; that they are relatively unknown to most people today would add the benefit of novelty to their introduction. Finally, offering as a serious counter to the barrenness of so much of our current discussions a way of speaking about living a fully human life that is not reducible to economic, sociological, or even political categories would force the discussion away from territory so tramped upon it really has nothing left to offer.

It would also, at a stroke, force the intelligentsia to address a topic it refuses to face squarely and honestly - the survival of uniquely Christian vocabularies on human agency and society long past the time they were supposed to slide in to oblivion. While many on the intellectual left simply assume that any religiously-based vocabulary is incoherent, they cannot give reasons for its ongoing vitality and increasing relevance in the face of the decline of other ways of speaking about living our lives in the world. There is simply no way the left can defend the position that "religion", in particular Christianity, is in fact dead precisely at the moment it might just offer new life to the musty back and forth of our public discourse.

So, in the graveyard of our current public discourse, I have to wonder why so many on the left are looking for something living among the dead. Might it not be possible to claim that the Christian message of real, abundant human life under the sign of the cross of God offers some hope to a world bereft of any defense against the intractable march of the machinery of economic and military death?

Prior Questions - Hauerwas On The Church, Marriage, Sex, And Capitalism

Reading Stanley Hauerwas' account of his own vicissitudes on the United Methodist Church's Study Commission on Homosexuality in the early 1990's reminds me of my first encounter with my seminary advisor, Dr. James Logan, also a member. Logan was telling me of his own situation, leaving due to health concerns, but expressing his own frustrations at the hopeless divisions and lack of communication and common ground.* There is irony in one simple reality - had Logan sided with Stanley Hauerwas, there might have been the beginning of a real healthy discussion of the topic, one that might have transformed the entire process and made the Church's statement something worth reading.

The short essay Hauerwas includes in A Better Hope on his time on the commission is entitled "Resisting Capitalism", which should give the reader a clue that he is approaching the topic from a completely different angle. Indeed, early on Hauerwas insists that he attempted to frame the discussion not in terms the rest of the commission members were attempting - he even puts quotes around the description, "science" - and says that he tried, and ultimately failed, to turn to the discussion in to a theological statement concerning marriage, sexuality, promiscuity, and childbearing. His reasons were simple. If the members of the commission could formulate a distinctively Christian theological vocabulary about these topics, it might be possible to discuss homosexuality in the vocabulary that emerged. Instead, the commission seemed bound and determined to restrict itself to the question of scientific evidence on human sexuality and innate sexual preference.

What is interesting is that had such a distinctive theological vocabulary emerged, the church's ongoing muddling on the question of the place of sexual minorities in the denomination might just have become a model for others to follow, and been the beginning of a real breakthrough on all sorts of related topics (which was, I believe, Hauerwas' intent; he says at one point the church can't even muster a good theological discussion on marriage and divorce, promiscuity and fidelity, so it's no wonder it is at sea on the topic of sexual minorities).

One of the ways Hauerwas attempts to change the entire vocabulary of the discussion is to remove the question of sexual identity from the realm of "science" to the realm of the economic superstructure (to adopt some Marxist terminology). He quotes Nicholas Boyle's Who Are We Now?: Christian Humanism and the Global Market From Hegel to Heaney on the relationship between capitalism and identity:
Sexual preference, once detached from the process of bodily reproduction, loses touch with the necessities and enters the realm of play - it becomes part of the entertainment industry, a choice to be catered for, but not a constraint on producers. Indeed, worldwide consumerism makes use of homosexuality as a means of eliminating the political constraints which regulate sour role as producers: if marriage is redefined as a long-term affective partnetership, so that it may be either homosexual or heterosexual, the essentially reproductive nature of male and female bodies is no longer given institutional (and therefore political) expression. Bodies are seen as the locu only of consumption, not of production; production is thereby repressed further into our collective unconscious, and producers, particularly women, are deprived of the political means of protest against exploitation.

Hauerwas notes, immediately following this quote (on p. 50 of the text):
Capitalism thrives on short-term commitments. The ceaseless drive for innovation is but the way to undercut labor's power by making the skills of the past irrelevant for tomorrow. Indeed, capitalism is the ultimate form of deconstruction, because how better to keep labor under control than through the scarcity produced through innovation? All the better that human relationships are ephemeral, because lasting commitments prove to be inefficient in ever-expanding markets. Against such a background the church's commitment to maintain marriage as lifelong monogamous fidelity may well prove to be one of the most powerful tactics we have to resist capitalism.

In this context, then, the issue is not the science of human sexual desire as a part of an individual's genetic and developmental make-up. Instead, sexuality becomes subsumed under the issues of human agency in an age of increasing capitalistic exploitation. Seen from this vantage point, attempting to draw upon a theological vocabulary on matters of marriage and divorce, promiscuity and fidelity, cuts across old (and largely nonsensical) "liberal-conservative" lines, and attempts to draw out the implications of the church's endorsement of fully-lived, fully-human lives, under the shadow of the crucified and risen Christ with reference not to science, but to the church's witness in a world governed by the destructive logic of the global market.

Do I think this would satisfy many whose commitment to the issue of supporting sexual minorities in the life of the church? Probably not. Hauerwas admits this sounds like it supports certain "conservative" social positions, but insists this is not the case. He is correct. It does so only if one continues to think in the old, "scientific", sociological categories that even now dominate so much of the church's discourse on these and other topics. If one begins with the premise that the issue is the church's witness and fidelity to the God manifest in Jesus Christ, a whole and wholly different understanding of these topics can emerge that challenges all our presumptions, liberal or conservative.

*The report of the study commission, released prior to the 1992 General Conference, was a muddled affair, with the two sides, liberal and conservative, hopelessly divided. Nothing was resolved.

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