Saturday, December 04, 2010

Why The God Debate Matters

Terry Eagleton treats this particular subject in his final lecture/chapter, but I thought it necessary to say a few words up front as to why this subject, which seems passe, is a vital issue at our particular historical moment. Before I get there, I think it important to say a few words about how my own mind has changed on a related matter.

A few years back, I spent quite a bit of time defending my own reading of the late Richard Rorty. I even subscribed, in a general way, to some of Rorty's views not just regarding language and metaphysics, but social hope as well. I have been troubled ever since with my own subscription to this point of view. Reading Eagleton has crystallized why on some matters, although I must say that Rorty's rather offhand shrug toward human suffering seems to me grotesque, particularly in light of our recent history. The best we can hope for, Rory says, is a world that sucks slightly less than it does currently. To even believe in more than that is to subscribe to a set of tenets that undermine themselves because they are rooted in an ontology that is no longer tenable. I cannot ascent to such a dim, dismal view, not just of the possibility for our human future, but to the prospects for political action rooted in a different set of assumptions.

While Rorty does have a certain insight regarding the contingency of language and thought, as well as explaining both the similarities and differences between different modes of human understanding, one need hardly buy his view whole hog to nod one's head in agreement with the view that, from a certain general methodological point of view, there isn't a whole lot of difference between the scientific investigation of a discrete physical object or phenomenon and the literary critical approach to a text. On the other hand, it makes all the difference in the world if the phenomenon being explored will be used as a tool to decimate innocent people, or the text being read offers tools for clarity regarding one's social situation.

All that by way of introduction. The God debate matters quite simply because it is part of a debate about what kind of a society we wish to be. Aside from all the other issues regarding the militant atheism of Ditchkins lies a certain complacency regarding the status quo that, to many of any or no faith is questionable indeed. This is more than just a question of politics or ideology in the broader sense. A person who insists that the very notion of some kind of divine grounding of existence is not fit for the modern world should be asking him or herself what, exactly, about our current historical moment compels anyone's assent to it. Our economies are in a shambles; our politics are in hoc to the bankers and broader corporate interests, without even the fig leaf of legal obfuscation anymore thanks to the Supreme Court; our military spans the globe, pitting the children of a stressed working class against the children of an oppressed religious system yearning for nothing more than the freedom to exist. The only "winners", at this point, would seem to be those who escape with their lives and psyches intact, a prospect made more and more dim as our military personnel are cycled again and again through combat zones.

At the heart of the Gospel message, indeed of the Biblical narrative, as Eagleton makes clear in prose that is both succinct and beautiful, is the message of Divine love and human freedom, linked in an ethical project that can be summed up by living this out together. The billions enslaved in the name of the State or capital or Dear Leader would be hard pressed to see anything triumphant in western liberal humanism beyond the threat of death; those who refuse to assent to its once-liberating but now stultifying views are consigned to a historical garbage heap by these proponents of a supposed expansive humanism, so I doubt they would willingly agree to go along, unless "willingly" includes "fearing for one's life".

The God Debate matters because, at heart, it is a debate not about God. God's existence does not depend upon our assent to a set of propositions regarding its possibility; indeed, belief (as Eagleton is at pains to point out) is not propositional at all. It is, in his usage, performative, that is, it is how one lives one's life. Hitchens utters a banal truth when he claims that religious belief has nothing interesting to say with the invention of the telescope and microscope. It is banal because the Christian faith was never about these things to begin with.

At the end of the day, Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, and Harris are not egregious because they have somehow insulted people of faith. Their crime - and it is, in a way, a crime - is to be far too insouciant toward the very real sufferings of so many at the hands and weapons of those who take succor at their triumphalism. One need not be a faithful Christian or Jew or Muslim to find this truly horrible.

But, it doesn't hurt, either.

A Dinner Party

Being the holiday season, which includes get-togethers that drag all sorts of disparate relatives, friends, strangers, acquaintances, and others around a common table, I thought a way to start unpacking my own thoughts concerning Terry Eagleton's Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate would be to imagine such a beast. You are sitting at a table along with Eagleton, Richard Dawkins (author of The God Delusion), Christopher Hitchens (author of God is Not Great), Daniel Dennett (author of Breaking the Spell), and (not included in Eagleton's marvelous, short tour-de-force) Sam Harris (author of The End of Faith). Dawkins would be the Uncle who holds sway, dominating all conversation, getting louder and louder, stifling any questions or comments as the result of one's own stupidity at not grasping his simplicity, clarity, and brilliance. Hitchens would be the drunk uncle, more entertaining, yet pedantic for all that, citing tiny factoids to make a point, many of which are demonstrably false. A drunken pedant, while having a certain charm, is a pedant nonetheless, which brings us to American analytical philosopher Daniel Dennett. More relaxed, less spittle-flaked than his British counterparts, Dennett would in all likelihood end up speaking more and more loudly only because, being dull, the rest of the table became engrossed in other conversations. Harris would be the annoying college sophomore cousin, who having read Nietzsche and finished a class on western history, has learned all sorts of things he didn't know before. Attempting to refocus the conversation, the frailty of his arguments, as well as the violence and superficiality of his understanding will bring about that most horrid of results. He will be devoutly ignored by the rest of those gathered around the table.

In the moment or two of silence that follows, Eagleton will speak up, his voice quiet, his attitude one of bemused irritation with the stridence of the first two, of a hand-waving dismissal of the third, and a total silence on the fourth. Listening to him, agreeing or not, you come to realize that, for all the arguments presented by those adamant that religious belief is a load of poppycock and balderdash, there is no need to lose one's aplomb. One can endorse the verdict that religion, as a social phenomenon, is guilty of monstrous crimes, yet still see in its variety and even the heart of the Christian Gospel much to commend. One can do all this all the while joking and chuckling at the expense of those sitting around in sullen silence because their moment has passed.

In matters of style, the raging polemic is, for me, a turn-off. Being enraged certainly is important, but it matters what one is enraged at. Eagleton never tires of pointing out that Ditchkins (his conflation of his British opponents in the God-debate) seem to lose all perspective over the notion that there might be those who hold a belief in God, all the while being relatively silent on the very real horrors their liberal-humanist-capitalist states have visited on various populations over the past decade. One can be horrified in roughly equal amounts by the blood-bath of the Crusades (which was preceded by a pogrom of Jews in many cities across Christendom) as well as the wholesale slaughter visited upon Muslim states in the name of neo-liberal capitalism, and still hold that while the sins of the Christian Fathers may indeed bring opprobrium upon their children, there is also, at the heart of the Gospel, a message of love and an ethic of solidarity that is worth preserving for its own sake.

Unlike many reviewers, I couldn't care one whit whether this work signals Eagleton's abandonment of Marxism for a radical theologicall-based rejection of late liberal capitalism (much in the manner of, say, Karl Barth). What impresses me most is the mixture of wit and seriousness, of real outrage over real atrocities with a real theological response without ever, once, conceding that the Christian churches aren't also soaked in the blood of the innocent.

From such a dinner party, my guess is many might come away confused. I, for one, am enriched by this stirring defense of the best of the Christian tradition against those who, as Eagleton makes clear early on, attack it at those points that are most weak. His generosity of spirit, his ability with a brilliant simplicity that hides a depth of understanding one finds lacking even in the most rigorous theological monograph, and his passionate belief that our world suffers not from the violence of belief, but rather from the violence of a political ideology that sees human beings as disposable commodities that interfere with profit all come together in less than 200 pages. There is much more with which to come to terms in Eagleton's little book. For anyone who thinks that Dawkins and Hitchens have had the last word on religion, Eagleton's little book offers more in any single paragraph than pages and pages of the former authors.

Friday, December 03, 2010

The Class War Is Over - We Lost

Doing some checking for a comment on another place, I came across this chart:
The rsing tide has done well for the yachts. For those of us barely afloat in rowboats, or even in life-jackets that are too water-logged to work much longer, that tide looks much more like a storm surge.

Considering just half of Americans own a combined total of two percent of the national wealth, while one percent owns 70%, I do believe all those cries of "Class War!" are a bit late.

Now, this isn't an accident. It isn't "natural". It is the result of deliberate political choices and decisions that have created this huge disparity in wealth. Which means, of course, that we can make different decisions that reset the imbalance.

To my mind, this isn't an ideological issue. It's not something on which different people of different political parties can line up in rough opposition. This is, at heart, an issue of justice. Some among the most wealthy Americans have already made clear they have no opposition to the modest tax increase that would occur if the Bush-era tax cuts expired.

What kind of society do we wish to be? Do we wish to be one in which fewer and fewer people control more and more wealth, therefore access and power? Or, do we create conditions where wealth not only increases in sum, but also in a more equitable fashion? These are the questions that this information forces upon us.

It isn't about capitalism. It isn't about class warfare. It is about living in a society in which all human beings have a place, including access to the tools to live a more full life.

Pebble Tossing

A couple different posts caught my attention today precisely because they focus some inchoate thoughts I have been having on this whole exercise of writing a blog. Joel's offers a positive view of blogging, one with which I heartily agree. I would add that it really doesn't matter who reads and why. As the gentleman in the video states, it is the exercise, the thinking, that matters.

The Crooked Timber post, while concerning comment sections, seems to beg some questions about the place of political blogging in general. I ignore the comments at most places I visit (CT being the exception if for no other reason than the readers and commenters seem far more intelligent and focused), except for smaller, individual blogs that offer the opportunity for discussion. The "comment communities" at the older established sites - Eschaton, say, or Sadly,No! - tend to be cliquish, in-group mutual masturbation societies.

I have been reevaluating my own blogging habits of late, in particular in regard to our seriously broken national politics. Four years ago, it seemed that we were making a difference, and for a while at least there seemed to be real momentum, the possibility that they could be a platform for creating a network of liberal, left-libertarian, and progressive activists who would do more than just snipe and snark. That was co-opted, I think, by the Obama GOTV machine during the 2008 Presidential campaign, and then left to wither on the vine. The result, now at this moment, is that the older, established liberal blogs, even the well-written ones, are doing little more than recycling tired old themes, playing the victim card, and generally not engaging with what is actually going on. I have dropped all but one or two of the places I used to read, because in most cases I realized that the habits of outsiderism, and the heavy lifting of actually doing more than just writing a blog post or encouraging people to call or email a member of Congress was beyond them. That plus the way some, such as Jane Hamsher, who has quite simply gone off the rails of rationality, or Glenn Greenwald, who seems to take it as a point of honor that he evidently hates everything about our country except the Constitution as he understands it (and any disagreement on that point means one is some kind of fascist, totalitarian-in-waiting), leave me wondering how much, for some of them, blogging is a substitute for real action.

For me, these are just pebbles tossed out there. Sometimes, usually in fact, they make few ripples that aren't overwhelmed by the flood of crap that gets dumped by the sewers of the internet. That's OK, I suppose, because there is something a bit narcissistic about this whole project anyway. Denying that would be ridiculous.

I have managed, over time, to make a few connections with people, to produce some interesting (to me, at any rate) writing, and have some fun. I have certainly changed my mind on a whole host of issues, and part of that is the result of having to sit down and think about what I am thinking about, rather than leaving it formless and vague. At the end of the day, all any of us can do is the best of which we are capable, and leave the rest up to chance. That's all I have ever done, and since I understand that my own views are odd, or idiosyncratic perhaps being a better term, I figure I get about what I deserve in terms of readership.

I know many bloggers who have simply given up the fight, for one reason or another. Beyond all the initial hopes and ambitions I had, that I have a place and some time to sit and gather my wandering thoughts in one place is a good discipline. I am not changing the world. I am just making sure that the world doesn't change me too much.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Being Counter-Cultural

A dear friend from my seminary days, the Rev. Rodney Graves, used to call me "bohemian". At the time I didn't really get it. I knew bohemian types, and while I admired them, I considered myself more a bohemian fellow-traveler than a real example of the species. We would have this discussion, and I accepted the compliment not very gracefully.

It took me a few years to realize that he was talking about being truly free, about being truly counter-cultural. Not in the standard view of one such. Rather, truly being an individual, choosing quite consciously to live one's life with a certain amount of integrity, including the strength to say "no" to that which is clearly unacceptable; these are the qualities that make one a true bohemian. One does not need to conform to some stereotype to be bohemian. Indeed, I have found again and again over the years that those who claim to celebrate real freedom of thought and life-choices are offended by those who refuse to play by the rules others insist are necessary to fit in to this or that category.

I am involved in several different on-line discussions, on-going in different platforms, that seem to center around a small set of issues that boil down to a single question: What does it mean to live a Christian life? All sorts of topics arise, opinions are offered, arguments ensue, but really I keep coming back to the centrality of that question. It is the question that forces itself upon me each day. I know that I answer it wrong as often as right. That doesn't worry me nearly as much as it used to, because I believe it is far more important to stay on the journey the question dictates. In any event, what has become more and more clear to me over the past few weeks as a wide array of discussions seem to converge, again and again, on this question, is how much of our so-called "Christian talk" is dictated by categories that have absolutely nothing to do with the life we are called to live as followers of the crucified and risen Christ.

It is impossible to discuss matters without falling in to the traps of left/right, liberal/conservative, secular/sectarian. It is impossible to discuss matters involving Christian ethics without being bombarded by discussions of conventional morality, petty issues of personal choice and lifestyle, or bigoted attitudes, particularly toward sexual minorities. Sometimes I am accused of not even understanding my own words, because I am clearly a non-Christian, Marxist, and was even told that I was on a moral par with Stalin and Mao, because I support abortion rights.

I have attempted in a variety of ways to escape these traps, and have found little success. Even those who call themselves Christian seem to use them without realizing they are a trap. All I can say, at this point, is that it is necessary to insist that being a Christian, if it means anything at all, means being in a very real, substantive sense counter to the reigning culture and its values and ethical, political, and moral demands. Even as we live within this broken world, we need always remember that brokenness lies as the heart of the inability for the Gospel to penetrate further than it has; we need to live in love toward those who seem hell-bent on making a mockery of the grace of Christ, and turning us against one another.

We need to turn our music up louder. We need to do what St. Francis did when his parents attempted to have him removed from a priestly calling - he stripped himself bare in court and walked out naked, symbolizing that he no longer wore the clothes of someone of this world. We need to be unafraid of saying that God doesn't really care whether or not I love a man or a woman as my life-partner; rather, God cares quite a bit that there are those who hate people who make what they might consider the "wrong" choice. We need to be unafraid to say that God created the world, created it in love, and to the best of our understanding did it billions of years ago in an event we call the Big Bang. We need to be unafraid to be the voice for those who have stopped speaking because no one listened to them. We need to be unafraid to say to those communities of which we are a part that they are broken, they are loved in their brokenness, and that we who call ourselves Church exist to help salve the wounds of that brokenness.

We need to be bohemians. We need to live out the freedom granted in the new life in Christ, recognized by St. Paul. Most of all, we need to remember that being Church, being a Christian, is serious business. It isn't about making sure we are all comfortable in the lives that are set before us by others; rather, it is about insisting that the new life offered in Christ is an uncomfortable one, a threatening one. As the lives of so many martyrs, past and present remind us, this isn't a game we are playing, and we need to remember that being Church, if it means nothing else, means living out a threat to the comforts of the rulers of this present age.

Being counter-cultural means no longer fearing death, because we have handed our death over to Christ on the cross.

We can discuss details, to be sure. At the end of the day, the call to follow Christ means our whole life is now lived under that shadow. We need to laugh because we who are Easter people see the cross is empty, the stone has been rolled away, and death has been defeated. I know of nothing more counter-cultural than to insist that death is not to be feared.

Credit Where Credit Is Due

The Illinois legislature has passed, and Gov. Quinn has promised to sign, a law creating civil unions. These are state-sanctioned unions, enjoying many but not all (federally offered) benefits of marriage to couples, either same-sex or otherwise. While not marriage equality, it is a HUGE step in the right direction. Furthermore, that the Illinois legislature managed to do this at a time of fiscal and legislative crisis in the state is all the more amazing.

So, my hats off to the ladies and gentlemen in Springfield who proved that it can be done. It isn't perfect, but it is a step in the right direction.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Rawls, Religion, And The NYRB

I was happy to discover in my latest print edition of the New York Review of Books a review article by Kwame Anthony Appiah on the recent publication of the senior thesis of the late philosopher John Rawls. Having read it, I came away disappointed, and a bit annoyed at some errors by the author of the review.

As an undergraduate at Princeton, Rawls' senior thesis was entitled "A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith: An Interpretation Based on the Concept of Community". As an aside, with a title like that, the use of "brief" should be taken with a grain of salt. In any event, Rawls' thesis should be unsurprising to most Christian thinkers today. The heart of the Christian faith is relational, based primarily upon our relationship of dependence as creatures upon the loving-care of God. This forms the basis for a community of mutuality rooted in love that is reflective of divine love. It is only in this context that sin as such can be properly understood.

As Appiah makes clear, many of the themes of his youthful exploration of Christian theology found expression in his major mature works, particularly Political Liberalism and the third section of A Theory of Justice. Yet, as Rawls himself made clear in a late essay, "On My Religion", he lost the trappings of faith, in large part due to his experiences as a combat soldier in the Second World War and the revelations of the depravity of the Holocaust. For one who had committed himself to a view of the moral life and moral agency rooted in communal values of mutuality, the Holocaust, along with its more basic horror, must have been a serious blow.

Yet, I have to wonder about the relevance of this collection. Beyond reconstructing the intellectual journey of an influential thinker, Rawls' senior thesis is more in the realm of a curious found item. While he certainly continued to accept the communal nature of human reality (Justice seems to be a description of how such a community comes to define "the good", although in a different context and with a different set of presuppositions), he could just have easily arrived at that same foundation by reading Hegel (who lies at the heart of so much mid-20th century theological musings).

Another couple quibbles concern Appiah. Karl Barth was not German, but Swiss. In 1942, his major project, the Church Dogmatics was certainly well under way. To those who didn't read German, however, he was known in English in large part to the publication of a couple essay collections. These essays, moreover, were hardly reflective of his maturing thought. Moreover, the title "neo-orthodoxy" does not refer to the terms Appiah thinks. Rather, while always having Schleiermacher in mind, his major conversation partners were the 16th and 17th century Protestant scholastics, whose views appear in long excurses. He had encountered them in a volume of summaries he used to prepare himself for courses in the history of doctrine he taught in Germany prior to his expulsion by the Nazis.

Reinhold Niebuhr was not "neo-orthodox" in any sense of the term. A radical liberal, influenced at least as much by a rejection of the triumphalism of American liberal theology as any desire for scriptural integrity and a return to doctrinal fundamentals, Niebuhr was lumped far too unfairly with the continental movements occurring roughly simultaneously. After Paul Tillich emigrated to the US, he fell under Tillich's spell, yet Tillich while certainly a part of the same general theological conversation as Barth and Brunner, could only be called "orthodox" if the word is stretched beyond any serious meaning.

Finally, the disagreement between Barth and Brunner, while certainly abstruse to an outsider, was at heart how one could argue against the attempt of the Nazis to usurp theological authority (which they largely achieved). Brunner, following in a long line of Christian thought, understood divine grace as operating upon a capacity, broken in the Fall yet still operative, in human intellectual life to grant us an understanding of the reality of God via reason. Barth, accused of fideism for his stridency on this issue, called any such latent (even if sinful) rational approach to the Christian God, apart from the revelation in the incarnation, "natural theology". Nazi theologians appealed to the faculty of reason, grace-filled (in an odd way), to grant not only some innate ability to grasp the reality of God, but also what was for them the related necessity of seeing the German Volk as the pinnacle of human creation, and the German Reich as the embodiment of human community. While Brunner, to be sure, never intended any such thing, there were so-called "German Christians" who appealed to Brunner (and Friederich Gogarten and Paul Althaus and others who were sympathetic with the Nazi regime, at least for a while) in their arguments. Barth separated himself from Brunner in an essay entitled "Nein!". Never one to surrender a grudge easily, when Brunner was on his deathbed and asked for Barth to come so they could bury the hatchet, Barth refused (showing less grace than the Christ he professed, apparently).

Encountering Brunner at the time Rawls did in all likelihood means that Brunner's more nuanced approach to divine revelation and the potential for human agency were more influential than Barth's bleak views on both. Furthermore, encountering the horrors of war, the cupidity of a Lutheran chaplain blessing bullets, and the Holocaust with that generosity in mind may not have helped Rawls hold on to his Christian faith.

In any event, all this is to say that I am underwhelmed by the idea of reading a youthful foray in Christian theology, written 68 years ago by someone better known for far better works in a different field. Furthermore, it would be nice if those who wrote reviews would familiarize themselves with even such basic facts as the nationality of individuals who they name in passing.

Captured By The Staring Abyss (Oopsie corrected)

Yesterday, Rep. Eric Cantor, R-VA, speaking after a meeting at the White House, said that he was encouraged by Pres. Obama's confession that he, the President, just hadn't done enough to reach out to Republicans in the previous Congress. There was an agreement to hammer out some kind of deal on the Bush tax cuts. Today, the Republicans promised to block all legislation in the short lame-duck session unless extending the Bush tax cuts was acted on.

It is astonishing how blase they are about their nihilism. They really have no interest in governing.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

They Hate Us For Our Freedoms

Is this how American constitutional republicanism dies?
For several weeks now, conservative legal circles have been buzzing with Virginia House Speaker Bill Howell's plan to amend the Constitution so that a 2/3 vote of the states could overturn overturn any federal law passed by the Congress and signed by the President.(link 1)

Conservatives are planning to propose an amendment to the Constitution at some time in the next few weeks aimed at allowing states to repeal legislation without the approval of Washington.


The Repeal Amendment calls for allowing states to band together to repeal, or overturn, federal legislation. As it is written now, if approved and ratified, two-thirds of states’ legislatures would need to vote in favor of a repeal.(link 2)
While altering the Constitution is certainly legitimate, I have to wonder why this measure - basically reinstating the Articles of Confederation - is seen by anyone as attractive.

Of course, I know the answer.

Conservatives know that, even though they skimmed slim majority of the popular vote in the previous election, voter turnout was low, and had the economy been in even moderately better condition, no one would have paid attention to them. Their moment in the sun is waning. Even though they are patting themselves on the back for winning back a majority in the House of Representatives, the divided Congress is a recipe for getting nothing of substance done.

Proposing this Amendment now does two things. First, it distracts attention from the reality that, for the most part, the conservative agenda is really, really unpopular. Second, it distracts attention from the reality that the Republicans will do nothing either to bring down the deficit (which they promised to do) or imrpove the employment situation (about which they care even less than the deficit). It allows blow-hards and demagogues to carry on about socialism and an omnipresent federal government without achieving anything of substance.

Yet, I worry. The virus of national disintegration that infected part of Europe after the collapse of Soviet control spread west. Britain allows Scotland to have a separate Parliament (even while sitting members in Whitehall). Wales has some limited autonomy as well. Belgium is flirting with dissolution between French Flanders and the Dutch Walloon. Canada has barely escaped federal dissolution a couple times over the past decades. Are we next? Is it possible that Lincoln's experiment in liberty is just too difficult to sustain across a continental landmass and beyond, with different ethnic groups and religious beliefs and languages and histories?

Repeal Before Christmas

The majority of service members see no problem. The service chiefs, with the notable exception of the Marine Corps, see little in the way of any problems. The Secretary of Defense says it can go, and should go.

Instead of pretending to worry about the deficit, which no one really cares about (least of all Republican politicians), maybe the lame duck can redeem itself a tad by repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell? The only thing standing in the way are a bunch of right-wing politicians who hate gays. Do it now before they get the power to bury the Pentagon study and convince America it says the opposite of what is actually in it.

Obviously, that would require a Democratic Party with spine.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Open Covenants Openly Arrived At

Unlike with previous document dumps at Wikileaks, I clicked over yesterday. I read two sample cables, one from the London embassy, the other from the Munich consulate. I found both to be rather banal, typical diplomatic dispatches. The first was a report on a foiled attempt by Iranian intelligence to assassinate an Iranian emigre who broadcasts on Voice of America (it was foiled when the person who was at the heart of the attempt was arrested in California for attempting to solicit the murder of another Iranian emigre). I thought this was an instance where the secrecy did more harm than good; this was a victory of sorts, and should have been more widely circulated. The report from the Munich consulate concerned a rather dim Bavarian politician. My guess is the Bavarians knew he was dim, and there was little in the cable to suggest anything more than a kind of standard warning not to expect too much from a brain wizard like this guy.

I stopped there, tempted as I was to dig more deeply. For one thing, we had a house to decorate for the holidays. For another, with the number of cables reaching in to the tens of thousands, I had few guides for discernment, and figured it would be far better to leave well-enough alone. Should I wish to look later, they will, in all likelihood still be available. Nothing ever dies on the internet, it changes its URL.

The reflection on "what it all means" has begun, in the absence of any single person's ability to take in the massive amount of information dumped on the world. The best of these, precisely because it is contradictory and confounding, is Kevin Drum's. At this point, any clarity is lost in the twin impulses to enjoy being in on a secret and wariness concerning legitimate security concerns.

This latter is why Glenn Greenwald's tweet this morning - I'm keeping a running list of all the lives lost from the WikiLeaks disclosures - here are the names so far: - really bugs me. He has to know that drawing any links between the publication of these cables and any actions states take down the road would be difficult to "prove". On the other hand, one scenario that certainly should alarm anyone is the much-discussed private back-and-forth among Iran's neighbors that would seem to give tacit support for an American military strike against Iran.

Suppose a Republican is elected President in two years, and the Republicans gain control of the Senate, as well as keeping control of the House of Representatives. Iran has continued its work on its nuclear capability. It is at least plausible that under those circumstances, the United States might consider a military strike. It would argue, not without reason, that such would receive at least private approval among the Sunni states that border Iran, regardless of what they said in public.

How many thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, would die in such a possible contingency?

We cannot know the final outcome of revealing classified information. As Drum reminds readers, states do have a legitimate interest in keeping some secrets, although it has certainly run rampant in the United States. Our periodic reviews of classification tend to favor declassifying older information even while strengthening classification rules down the road, which pushes any final resolution in to some distant future.

For the most part, this is an interesting exercise in which the United States gets egg on its face. The most likely outcome will be consternation on the part of diplomats that our cyphers have been breached so thoroughly (although, as I pointed out in an exchange on Facebook yesterday, the Soviets did this quite well during the Cold War; in all likelihood, their understanding of how to do this probably went to high bidders after the Soviet Union dissolved). Those who see "conspiracy" in this - granting too much to the ability of the US to stop a document dump like this, therefore it must be part of some larger game of chess - would be wise to remember that, for all that classified information increases, the number of eyes with access to it also increases, making the possibility of an event like this far more likely.

Beyond that, I'm not sure what this "means". I do know that other countries struggle with dim-witted politicians, too, which is refreshing.

American Exceptions

Thinking about this article. . .

Every western nation has outlawed the death penalty, except the United States.

Every western nation has ratified the treaty authorizing the International Criminal Court, except the United States.

Every western nation has ratified the treaty banning land-mines, except the United States.

Every western nation has a comprehensive energy policy that includes energy conservation and a high tax on the consumption of gas to encourage diversifying our consumption and conservation practices, except the United States.

Every western industrialized nation has an infant mortality rate below 6.0 per 1,000 live births, except the United States (our exceptional nation is 45th in the world, just ahead of the Faroe Islands, just behind the Northern Mariana Islands).

Every country in the world that has signed the Kyoto treaty on global warming has ratified it, except the United States.

See, there's no reason to doubt American exceptionalism. It's there for anyone to see!

Eager For Eagleton

There is a small but highly vocal group of people who insist that the received scientific understanding of development and change of the world is wrong. They publish parodies of scholarly journals with allegedly scholarly articles that attempt to prove their point. They have even sponsored a museum to display their ignorance to the world, in the form of a Creation Museum.

They are, and should be, objects of derision.

There are a few highly vocal people who demonstrate their ignorance, and have their ignorance celebrated as the triumph of reason and good sense, of other fields of human endeavor. Their demonstrated lack of understanding of the length and breadth and depth of part of human experience is breath-taking. Their proud refusal to engage that history is seen not as a sign of dogmatic irrationality but the pinnacle of human rationality.

These folks - Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris - are celebrated as leaders of a movement.

If we were honest with ourselves, we would make them the object of derision, too.

Several months ago, a friend of mine on Facebook let me know that British literary critic Terry Eagleton had published a book entitled Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. I didn't rush out to get it because I was in the midst of packing to move, and in the months since have been preoccupied with other things. I finally had the opportunity to purchase it, so on Saturday I ordered it to be mailed to my home. To get ready for it, I have been perusing reviews and interviews on the subject that Eagleton gave after publication. I have to say that, so far, there is little in his presentation, or in the summaries of others, with which I could disagree.

I have presented many, similar arguments over time, but I think the best summary argument against Dawkins (in particular) is offered here (the original link has gone bye-bye):
There are six billion people in the world . . . . If we think that we are going to persuade them to live a rational life based on scientific knowledge, we are not only dreaming - it is like believing in the fairy godmother.
Taking in to account the false equivalence offered here that "rational life" and "scientific knowledge" are opposed to a life of faith, the main reason I like this quote is simple. For Dawkins, and to a lesser extent Harris and Hitch, have this naive, narrow view of what "rationality" is, that this narrow view is the sole truly human way of understanding the world, and that it would be far better if everyone lived that way. Rather than learn to live with and celebrate the variety of expressions of human life and understanding and, yes, even rationality, they would impose their own rather narrow understanding, and eliminate those that are different. This isn't just believing in the fairy godmother; it borders on politically and socially vicious.

None of this is new. It will be nice to dive in to Eagleton's relatively short (about 200 pp. or so) book, not because we agree on this issue, but because these arguments, thanks in no small part to Eagleton's influence, are receiving a wider audience. Also, unlike the aforementioned authors, Eagleton demonstrates in previous works as well as the linked interviews and reviews that he has a marvelous wit, lacking in the strident and dismissive hauteur of Dawkins and Hitch.

Having read one Marxist wrestling with the Christian faith in a non-dismissive way (Ernst Bloch's Man on His Own) and found some truly moving words and seeds for enhancing my own life of faith, even while acknowledging that Bloch's endorsement of aspects of the Gospel is done all the while rejecting the metaphysical trappings of faith (including God), I find nothing incongruous about a Marxist finding in Christianity tools with which to work and live. As a Christian who finds much in Marxism that helps in understanding the world (in order, as St. Karl wrote, to change it, which is the real point) the interchange between these two large and diverse ways of understanding and living in the world should be fruitful and mutually respectful, rather than antagonistic. If Eagleton offers more tools for the tool box in these matters, so much the better.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Home Should Be Lived In

My wife has a funny story about the dog her family had growing up, the cat her family had growing up, and a room in the house in which she grew up. The cat knew the dog was banned from this room, and would go and sit just over the threshold, taunting her. One day, as pets will, the cat was playing its game, and Tandy, their dog, was quite fed up. Having already chased the cat through the rest of the house, the dog charged in to the room and the cat, realizing that something was not quite right, took off. Tandy, however, knew she had done wrong, ran through the room and out. She stopped, sat, panted, with a look on her face, as Lisa says, that seemed to say, "I really hope no one saw me do that."

I've always wondered, though, about that mindset. Some rooms are off-limits. Take your shoes off when inside (don't want to get the floor dirty, you know; just your socks from all the dirt that settles on the floor). Don't throw stuff in the house, because you might break something. Don't drag your toys to the middle of the floor, even though that is where there is room to play. God forbid, of course, that company arrive while a child is shoeless, playing in the middle of the floor, say, tossing a ball around.

These attitudes, to my mind, betray a kind of bourgeois striving. This is not to say that keeping a clean, neat house is unimportant. Obviously for reasons of both health and safety, these are not just important but necessary. To worry about the appearance of one's home in the eyes of others, however, to the point where a house can cease to be a haven, a safe place for children and adults to relax (with their shoes on!) and play, really has nothing to do with "home". A home is to be lived in. If it's cold and you want to keep your feet warm and clean, wear shoes! If you want to play, do it in the middle of the floor! For crying out loud, I used to sit and bounce a superball against a covered chimney in our TV room with my parents sitting in the room with me!

Every once in a while, Lisa will declare, with vehemence and disgust, "This place is a disaster area." On some of those occasions, I have said, "No, honey. This place is lived in." That's all. Our home is lived in. We keep it clean and neat, although we're still working on getting the kids to put things away without needing reminders. We vacuum because we have a long-haired dog. We even dust! Ours is not a pigsty, a dump, or a disaster area. It is a home. Anyone and everyone is welcome here, to live and laugh and enjoy. No place is off-limits (although it would be nice to have a few more pictures hanging in our bedroom).

I have known many people who act as if any sign of human habitation is some mark against them. Their houses, while certainly beautiful, are not homes. They are museums, the velvet rope narrowing the space for movement so much that one wonders how anyone can get from one room to the next. Next week, our house will be open to the congregation from Cornerstone UMC, and it should go without saying that we will clean and straighten and neaten our home. All the same, it will, I hope, look lived-in, rather than well-preserved. The spot on the carpet where the dog lost his cookies will, alas, be a bit darker than the rest; there might even be some stray cat hairs on the couch. This doesn't mean we've failed as housekeepers or human beings. It just means that our family lives here.

Advent Tensions

With the beginning of Advent, we enter a time of preparation. More, we enter a time of waiting. Superficially, we are awaiting the celebration of birth of Jesus. Historically and doctrinally, this is a far less important event than the passion narrative; modern and contemporary thought had given it more weight than the church has, historically speaking. Two hundred years ago, Schleiermacher used a family Christmas gathering as the backdrop for a dialogue on the incarnation, which at least introduces the not-unimportant point that for Jesus to have suffered and died and risen, he had, at first, to become flesh, to be born.

More than awaiting the celebration of Jesus' birth, we who live between the times are to look not just backwards in remembrance. We are to look forward in anticipation. More than that - in hope. We have been offered a promise, the promise that Christ will return, that God's final triumph over sin and death will come (there is enough equivocation on details to leave them, at the moment, to one side). When we sing, as most western Christians will today, "O Come, O Come, Immanuel", we are not just joining an old monastic antiphonal chorus. We are praying for the coming again of Christ. We are often reminded, in Scripture lessons, that our waiting is to be more than some emotional preparation. It is to be a way of life. Metaphors of the sentry and wall guard, of constant vigilance are employed by Jesus to speak of how the Church is to wait.

In Luke 2:25-38, we read of two very different people, Simeon and the prophetess Anna. Simeon had been promised in a vision not to die before seeing the Messiah; Anna spent her time in the Temple, fasting and praying, and after she encountered the Holy Family, she told everyone she saw that she had seen the salvation of Israel.

I think of this story when I consider "waiting" as part of the Christian virtues. Both were old; Anna's age is given as 84, even now not exactly young. I have a greater appreciation for the possibility that, having achieved a certain age in life, death is no longer understood as an enemy, but a welcome respite from the round of days, the pains and aches both physical and emotional that a long life can visit upon us. Waiting in the midst of the mixture of sorrow and exhaustion can lead to despair.

What happens next? Nothing notable. Parents bring an offering, as dictated by Scripture, the infant in tow, and pass by Simeon. I don't know about anyone else, but I have seen enough week-old-babies to know that it is difficult to discern much more than either sleepiness, hunger, or that wide-eyed wakefulness as the baby tries to figure out how to use these things called "eyes" in this new thing called "light". Beyond that, nothing special. Yet, Simeon, watching as the couple passed, most likely in the hustle and bustle that was the daily round at the Temple, saw in this infant the fulfillment of the promise made to him so long before. His prayer, "Let now your servant depart in peace," is also part of Advent liturgy. We have no words from Anna, just a report that she, too, told all she saw that she had seen the hope for Israel.

We need to wait in the midst of our living for the most unexpected thing to occur. My guess, since it is all I have, is that whatever we think may mark the coming again of Jesus probably has nothing at all to do with what will transpire. The testimony of Scripture is nothing if not clear on this point - God's acts in human history are far more subtle than we would wish them to be. A shepherd boy defeats the champion warrior of a vicious enemy; a man is told by God to marry a prostitute as an object lesson for Israel; build a boat; head to Egypt; the King of Persia is anointed as a Savior of the captive people in Babylon. We have listened far too long to the voices that insist it will be loud trumpets and some kind of cataclysm that we forget the lessons of the Bible - God doesn't work that way.

So, we wait. Like Simeon, we the Church have grown old holding the promise of the coming of final salvation. Like Anna, part of our lives as Church is devoted to fasting and prayer, disciplining our lives for hearing and seeing what God wants of us. In the midst of this waiting, this faithful boredom of routine, we need to be prepared for the unlikeliest moment of all. No loud trumpets, no Rapture, no horsemen of Apocalypse. Instead, we should be ready, perhaps, for the most mundane moment, no different than all the passing moments of our very long life lived in the promise, to surprise us with the realization that right there at the heart of something so banal, something holy is stirring, that time is not so much ending, as (to use St. Paul's phrase) reaching its fullness.

So we wait. Waiting, consisting of living, should be who we are year round. In preparing to remember a day that has come, we should look forward to the day that has been promised to us.

Virtual Tin Cup

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