Sunday, December 21, 2014
It’s a simple enough question, but perhaps difficult of answer: If Martin Heidegger was the major philosopher of the twentieth century, as Graham Harman argues, why has he not become a more central guide to philosophers since? Why has Heidegger’s work not had an impact on the West even remotely similar to that of thinkers like Freud or Marx, or even Nietzsche?
Harman is one of the key philosophers working in the recently rising Speculative Realist movement. Much of Harman’s project emerges from his reading of Heidegger, particularly Heidegger’s brilliant tool analysis, which makes his 2007 book length portrait of the great philosopher, Heidegger Explained: From Phenomenon to Tool, doubly interesting.
I’ve been an occasional student of Heidegger since my university years in the 1980s. As it’s been a while since I’ve taken up any of the philosopher’s texts, I decided to read Harman’s book to refresh my memory. I couldn’t have chosen better. It’s certainly the clearest and most comprehensive introduction to Heidegger yet published. Harman covers the whole scope of Heidegger’s career, addresses the dismal turn of the war years, and, for me at least, clarified things that had previously been murky at best, specifically Heidegger’s later writing on the fourfold.
But Harman’s work also led me to ask, given my own political (and environmental) concerns, if it is really worth seriously re-engaging in Heidegger’s thought. Can Heidegger stand as a guide or teacher to those struggling with the demands of the present?
Heidegger insists that the history of metaphysics has come to an end and that we await a new beginning in philosophy. One of the main problems facing this new beginning, at least in terms of its calling to those like me who might (modestly) engage it, is that based on Heidegger’s own work we sense that it will prove unproductive. One suspects that any beginning like that hinted at by Heidegger could not actually change the facts of the social world in the ways that seem necessary--given our ever graver ecological/technological predicament. Such a beginning would be, rather, a local philosophical shift: yet another philosophical school easily ignored by the machine now running roughshod over the planet, just as it ignored the philosopher’s work during his lifetime.
I’m aware of the irony of criticizing Heidegger’s new beginning as “unproductive”. One of the salient problems of the old metaphysics of presence is, certainly, its very productiveness. But even so, I suspect that many thinkers continue to neglect the Heideggerian path because they sense, quite simply, that it would not catch--it would gain no hold on the forces now rushing us toward annihilation.
Thus the conundrum facing thinkers tempted (but finally not taken) by Heidegger’s formidable project. We still hope to change or help rescue the world; we still hope to harness some of the power of metaphysics, even if at the same time undermining its totalizing power. Is this hope at all valid? I don’t know. But next to this hope, the philosophy that begins with the “revealing/self-concealing event” seems to lead fatally to a kind of quietism. Or at least it did so in Heidegger's case.
Explicating the Heideggerian prognosis, Harman argues that all attempts to manage technology through technical means (which here would include everything from statistical analysis to environmental protection committees to land use laws) are doomed to failure from the start, as they still function within the metaphysics of presence that fosters technology's rampant growth. But is this prognosticated failure really so absolute? Might not such "technical means" be at least preliminary to, or attendant upon, a developing awareness of the crisis, which awareness, which danger, might then prepare the ground for the more fundamental turn Heidegger envisions?
One could argue that with these comments I’m putting too much of a political or practical burden on philosophy. One does not take up philosophy in order to accomplish certain goals with it. Asked the question of what one can do with philosophy, Heidegger once answered that the point is not what we do with philosophy, but what philosophy does with us. And yes, not since Parmenides discovered that nothing moves has philosophy necessarily been called upon to solve our political ills.
But what is the place of philosophy once those political ills become potentially synonymous with our self-induced extinction as a species? Does the Heideggarian argue that we do not fundamentally exist as "a species”, but always rather as individual Dasein? If Dasein always means my ownmost, historically grounded existence, how do we think our ownmost historically grounded existence as species? Is such a thought possible in Heideggerian terms?
Harman's last three titled sections before his conclusion are "Heidegger's Vices", "First Objection to Heidegger" and "Second Objection to Heidegger". On Heidegger's vices, Harman doesn't merely restate his earlier points regarding the philosopher's disastrous failure of judgment during the war years, but, rightly I think, traces this failure to a more fundamental one: the lack of a any true political philosophy in Heidegger's work. My own sense is that this lack stems from a certain fatality in the periodization of Heidegger's career. First, Heidegger was grappling with concerns other than political ones during the first half of his career--and we should be grateful for this, as his pre-war work culminated in Being and Time. But subsequent to the war, and more problematically, Heidegger's (perhaps prudent) avoidance of writing directly on political concerns had more personal causes. The philosopher was no doubt aware that any attempt to weigh in directly on questions of the West's political order would only serve to re-ignite the painful issue of the war years; it would provide an easy pretext for his philosophical foes to repeat: "Who are you to philosophize on these questions? Haven't we already heard enough in your Rector's Address?" Had Heidegger not made the mistakes he did during the war, he may in fact have been emboldened over the following decades to develop his philosophy in ways more directly challenging to Anglo-American capitalism on the one hand and Soviet communism on the other. As is, he shrewdly (and perhaps inevitably) avoided political philosophy altogether.
Which leads readers of Heidegger like myself to ask: What would a true Heideggerian political philosophy look like? I believe strongly that the stances he took during the war in no way represented a rigorous development of his thought. They represented rather a poorly thought out attempt to paste his thought onto a political movement whose deeper meaning offended against that thought.
This leads me to wonder if Harman's section "Heidegger's Vices" wouldn't better be titled "First Objection to Heidegger", as it is in the lack of political philosophy, I suspect, that we approach the true cause of Heidegger's incongruously small impact on the contemporary West. Heidegger insisted that thinkers are to be the "shepherd's of being", but apparently viewed the shepherd only as one who watches and waits. In fact, to develop the metaphor, shepherds must also at times ward off wolves and seek out new pasture. I echo my opening question: Why hasn't Heidegger influenced Western cultures to the same degree as, say, Marx or Freud? He is no doubt a similarly epochal thinker.
In the two "Objections" to Heidegger with which Harman closes his book, he raises important challenges to Heidegger's thinking on the status of things and the interrelations of entities in the world. Each of these challenges lead into Harman's own work in what he calls "object-oriented ontology". Not familiar with Harman's work, I'd mainly be curious to know how he might address this question of what a Heideggerian political philosophy would consist in. Perhaps he's already taken up this question somewhere in his work. Or it may be another Heideggerian path which he may some day be interested to develop.
And of course: If Prof. Harman himself can spare time to answer an amateur, I’d be very curious to know how he might address these questions. I’ll be sending this link to him and will post any reply.
In any case, Harman’s book should be on the shelf of anyone engaged in the strenuous but always rewarding work of reading Martin Heidegger. Explanations of difficult philosophical arguments don’t get better than this.
Graham Harman kindly responded to my brief review with some remarks on Heideggerian politics.
Important in Harman’s thinking on Heidegger is the recognition that whereas the the philosopher himself fell for fascism, his philosophy is of a different order. Its basic gestures and modalities, the approach to truth it sketches out, would on more careful consideration lead to a different politics.
In his book, as I've said, Harman argues that one of Heidegger's main flaws was his clear lack of a developed political philosophy. Which left him easy prey to the allure of a rising far right.
First, Harman writes me that “the easy guess is that [Heidegger’s politics, made explicit,] would be like the politics of Carl Schmitt”--i.e., they'd be a product of where Heidegger was already headed under Hitler: “At a certain point rational negotiation disappears and there is simply an existential struggle with the enemy, who need only be defeated rather than wiped out completely. This would appear to fit very well with Heidegger's decision-based model of human action in Being and Time.”
This is an assessment of how Heidegger himself likely would have characterized his political stance had he been asked to declare it during those years.
Harman, however, sees a different politics implicit in Heidegger’s more rigorous side (that side where he actually wrestled):
But I think Heidegger's philosophy actually leads us in a different direction politically, if he had thought it through more carefully. Since Being is that which withdraws, this means that political decision always excludes an outside and focuses on what is present. I've written a whole book on Bruno Latour's politics that ends where I wish Heidegger could have ended politically, which is by saying that politics is based neither on truth or sheer decision, but on a collective dealing with issues whose solution is never fully known. Even Latour drifts a bit in Schmitt's direction in his recent work on ecology, but the Latour of the early 2000s was really onto something politically, I think.
To further the questions implicit in Harman's monograph on Heidegger, then--or at least the questions that most nagged me--one might move on to Harman’s book on Latour.
Sunday, December 14, 2014
I’ve been smoking cigars since about 2000. Finally this week I decided to quit. Cold turkey. Today is my third day smoke free, and boy does it suck. How do people live this way?
It’s like I’m walking around with my head inside a kind of echoing glass bubble, I can’t concentrate on anything, there’s a floating rage coursing through me, and it seems like I’ve lost about a third of my IQ.
Now I know what it must feel like to be a Republican.
Christ, I hope I make it. But really--is it worth it?
Saturday, December 13, 2014
If our future is to be anything but a nightmare of war and despotism, we must put the genie of unregulated capitalism back in its bottle. And we must clamp the lid down tight.
The neoliberal capitalism which now holds sway is rapidly eroding our environment, and without a moderately stable natural environment, civilization is impossible. These facts are irrefutable; they are backed up by the community of scientists and by political thinkers alike. Given the grim facts on the ground, appeals to neoliberal theory (that the “free market” will somehow ultimately provide solutions) are not only misguided but suicidal.
The future to be hoped for is one in which certain liberties are upheld (cultural, religious, political) but others are seriously curtailed: 1) economic liberty, 2) the “liberty” of global free trade.
Regarding the first, the individual’s right to own and manage property and capital is essential; even so, a responsible order will establish clear and enforced limits to the amounts of capital individuals may accumulate and control. For instance, in a sane and just social order it would be unthinkable that any individual could have a net worth thousands of times that of the average citizen. Rather than thousands of times, the number should be perhaps 50 times, or 27 times (the optimal ratio needed to maintain healthy competition while also maintaining a healthy democratic order would of course be subject to debate).
Regarding global trade, it must be more rigorously regulated, if only because global business has no government to watch over it and thus is never answerable to citizens’ needs. “Free trade” is now just a euphemism for corporate predation in both developed and developing countries.
If we are to avert the oligarchic dystopia we’re now sliding into, my generation and those younger will need to force the current capitalism off the throne. The markets must be wrested into form in which they can serve the people, rather than people existing as raw material to be ground up in unchecked markets. I envision a social order strict in certain economic and environmental regulations, but promoting liberty in other areas. It is obviously possible; there is no inherent reason free speech and freedom of religion need coincide with unregulated capitalism--in fact capitalism may come to undermine both.
I personally would support nonviolent political action as the most effective way to bring about the saner order needed. Much can be learned from Marx and the rich tradition of interpretation of capitalism he gave rise to, much can be learned from Gandhi; personally I learn the most from the Christian tradition--still, as a Christian, I see no reason not to struggle along with those who are non-Christian or of a more secular mindset. We’ve a job to do here, and can respect our differences while working together.
In any case, either the current order will fall, or our civilization will. The regnant neoliberalism is unsustainable; we will have no future as a civil society if we continue with it.
A rough pathway forward is clear and has been for some time. If this is my “personal manifesto”, it is such in the sense that I commit to supporting and engaging in efforts toward the goals laid out. Without being a full-time activist, I nonetheless must strategically decide where my efforts toward these ends will be made, and make some commitment of time, energy and resources.
The problem for many of us is that we see the problems, we "weigh in" on the Internet in one form or another, we vote (for what that's worth) but we don't finally come around to much in the way of concrete action toward social change, or even in the way of concrete support for activists who are fighting directly. This personal manifesto is, then, a statement of a basic position, and a statement of commitment. I commit to the task of finding more concrete ways to engage.
David Graeber speaks in a recent debate “Is Capitalism Part of the Answer?” (next to Graeber is debate facilitator, Amiri Bhohi):
Sunday, November 30, 2014
The following historical chronicle is being written by my student Shawn (莊崴翔). Shawn is a junior high school student here in Taipei, and English is a second language for him. I’d say he’s got a pretty good narrative flare and a good sense of snark besides. I’ve edited a little and provided some transitions and tweaks, but in general this is Shawn’s writing.
It’s now Sunday evening in Taipei. An hour ago, I woke from a nap and had a big cup of Ethiopian Yirgacheffe coffee to get my wits about me. Then I decided to type out these chapters that Shawn had written and post them here, in hopes he will continue. Because I want to learn as much as I can about my people’s history.
In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, there is a large volcanic island about the size of Japan. With the clear water around the island, and the beautiful coral under the sea, the island would be one of the most amazing sights on earth, if we could visit it. But this island does not appear on any maps. Long ago world leaders agreed to keep it a secret.
In the 16th century, Captain Ericano Erannielcoric discovered the island. Soon he brought most of the Erics scattered over the world to live there. Thanks to Captain Erannielcoric, the dream of the Erics was fulfilled. The Country of the Erics was finally established.
Unfortunately, after the Captain died, the next king, Ericano Erannielcoric, Jr., stopped the country from communicating with the outside world. He threatened any countries that wanted to visit the island with a terrible vengeance: “We will send Erics to you.” It is for this reason that world leaders, to protect their own nations, agreed to erase the island from all maps.
The Country of the Erics is plentiful in natural resources, so that millions of people could live there. But after the centuries since its founding, still only Erics live in the country. People around the world have forgotten the island and the strange country founded of course.
People in the country of the Erics are all equal of course. That's because they’re all the same. With curly hair and fat bellies, which they swell out by drinking large quantities of coffee, the Erics have a population of millions, though exactly how many is unknown. First brought by Captain Erannielcoric, coffee plants are grown throughout the island. The Erics consider the coffee plant holy, and there are various important rituals they celebrate around it.
Even if the Country of the Erics sounds like a peaceful place, blood will soon flow over the land. The Erics will fight. With the hairy corpses left beside roads, the golden time of the country will never return.
The COE’s trouble began with King Eric XXVII, who still rules the island today. How this king attained the throne and became such a hated ruler is told in the Story of the Glowing Crow. Collected by scholars in central Asia, the story is originally in the Uzbek language. It is translated here:
Long long ago there was a magical tree. It grew Magic. People around the world learned of the tree and went on journeys to find it. The search for the tree led to rumors and wars.This story, while providing information about King Eric XXVII, is also seen as evidence that Erics occasionally leave the Country of the Erics to visit other countries. For what purpose, no one knows.
When the crow saw the tree, it decided to try to hide it so it could keep the magic to itself. The greedy crow disguised the tree with many other kinds of branches and learned the tree's magic powers. It got the power to defeat death and it acquired such magic that its feathers began to glow. Each feather could save a life.
Hundreds of years passed and the crow was still alive. One day an asshole discovered the glowing crow and learned something of its powers. The asshole tricked the crow and caught it. Knowing the feathers could save lives, he started to pluck them so that he could sell them.
Like all assholes, this asshole wanted to become rich.
But at the market nobody believed him. How could he prove that the feathers could save lives? Finally, as he was deciding to give up and try elsewhere, an Eric showed up.
In the Country of the Erics, where everyone is an Eric, it isn't easy to be king. Any Eric can easily overthrow the Eric on the throne because he is exactly the same. However, being the oldest of the Erics, looking much older and wiser than others, might make holding the throne easier. So Eric killed the asshole and took the crow.
Many years passed. The elder Eric, called Eric XXVII, was on the throne and the glowing crow had become the emblem of the Country of the Erics. Aging and weak, but impossible to kill, King Eric had become a total asshole. All the Erics wanted a new king, but they had no idea how to get rid of their current king because he had the power of eternal life. They didn't know the secret of the glowing crow.
And all this happened because of the greedy crow, the greedy asshole, and the natural greed of Erics.
III. A chapter from a history of the struggle against the evil King Eric XXVII:
“Eric!” Eric cried out. “Don’t do it!”
“You can’t stop me,” Eric said. “I’m going to kill Eric. I’ve already made up my mind. It’s for the country, for all the Erics who live under this hateful oppression.”
“But it is hopeless!” Eric said. “You’ll never succeed!”
“How has he been king for 117 years?” Eric replied. “How is it possible? I’m going to kill him and then we can build a republic.”
The cold wind blew over the darkness of the countryside. Eric disappeared into the shadows of the forest. Eric stood alone now. He’d just lost his best friend, Eric. What could he do next?
He heard someone standing behind him.
“Let him go, Eric,” the voice said. “You should trust him.”
“But . . . Eric, you know how many assassination attempts there have been. It’s hopeless! He’ll die like the others. We must stop him!”
“His mind is made up,” Eric said. “And if he doesn’t make it, he may still succeed in death. You know he is one of the most respected Erics among us. If he is killed, all the Erics will take up their weapons in revenge. . . . But now we need to rest. Tomorrow will be a day we’ll never forget.”
The sun rose over a turquoise sea. Another day was beginning in the island country. But now everything was different. The country had changed forever in the course of the night.
“He’s dead,” said Eric, dropping the newspaper to the floor. His voice was full of sorrow. Eric looked at Eric. They both knew in that moment what they must do.
Friday, November 28, 2014
Saturday, November 22, 2014
I’ve now read through much of the initial feminist commentary on the zany shirt Prof. Matt Taylor wore during the live stream of the Philae landing. I now understand why these women see the shirt as a major news story, and after reading their pieces, I’m ready to offer some new figures.
American feminists deserve to be ignored about 78% of the time. The number was 70% just a decade ago, so you see the trend.
I didn’t always think of the feminist movement this way. In terms of the feminism that insists women are equally capable to men and should be equally represented in companies, government, universities, etc., I’m still totally on board. But as for the newer feminism, or this neo-feminism, that focuses on the sexual politics of everyday life, I am like many people: I see little there beyond a deep and infantile hypocrisy.
Feminists have somehow come to insist that women can be sex goddesses and revel in their sexuality--they regularly champion those who are aggressively sexy--then in the next breath scream against men who react to them as sexy. (Well, not always: If it’s an unwanted man who shows some interest, that’s called “objectification”--“He’s a pig,” etc. But if it’s a guy they judge hot, then it’s not objectification, but “flirting”.)
Such feminism is a shallow hypocrisy, and should be called out as such. Women who subscribe to it refuse to recognize that they can’t have it both ways: namely, they can’t both "celebrate" their sexuality in the public arena and then not be recognized as sexy when they'd prefer not to be. Because the public arena is just that: a public space, where people mix and intermingle in relative freedom.
For decades now, these women, in their writing and speaking and everyday behavior, have sought to impose an absurd double standard on those around them: "Notice me; worship me; don’t notice me--what are you looking at?” all at the same time. They are like a little girl at a birthday party who, when she is told she can have cake or ice cream, says she wants both, then cries and ruins the party because in fact she can’t have both.
As for Matt Taylor’s shirt, the irony is that the supposedly “objectifying” images on it are images of female sexual power that these very same feminists would celebrate--were they in a mood for celebration. But instead, since they see the shirt’s being worn by a bearded scientist, it suddenly becomes an offense more newsworthy than the scientific history Prof. Taylor just helped make.
Never mind that the shirt was designed by a woman friend of Taylor’s--such details aren’t likely to slow down these women when they're feeling righteous and have a not-so-sexy male in their sights.
In fact such feminists have very nearly succeeded in making feminism a dirty word via their endless pettiness and hypocritical posturing. The movement used to focus on substantial issues of women's equality, but somehow, beginning in the 1990s, we watched it devolve into a sort of non-stop tirade conducted by a clique of largely privileged Women's Studies grads who apparently could find nothing better to do than discover new ways men were offending them.
For years, the main conceptual tool wielded by these women has been "objectification"--which, as I've said, they now apply selectively to any kind of sexual attention that doesn't arise from their own deified personal libidos. If something turns them on, it's cool or liberating. If the same kind of thing appears, say, on the shirt of an overweight man like Matt Taylor, suddenly it's "objectifying women". Which means what exactly?
The concept of objectification is itself nearly useless. Why? Because every human in love or in normal social interaction shifts constantly between objectifying others and respecting/interacting with them as persons--indeed often with the very same person in the course of the same get-together. This comes with the fact that we are sexual beings; it is not something that will ever disappear as long as we are human.
And so: a man admires a woman’s legs from across the room, but then admires her wit and passion as they talk; then later, again, he’s looking at her legs; then they talk more, and he’s back to thinking about her character and ideas. Though in this way she has been "objectified" several times, his respect for her hasn't suffered because of it. She may in fact end up being someone he respects more than anyone else he knows. And of course women are also constantly doing the same thing: appreciating men’s physical charms without thinking any less of them; ogling men's abs and making sly comments barely out of earshot--without necessarily thinking the man is therefore just an object.
Yes, some of the sharper feminist theorists have tried to define the parameters of objectification more carefully, but even among them there are those who recognize the concept is inevitably subjective or undefinable. And that is precisely how it comes to be used by the thousands of card-carrying "feminists" who spend their time in a fury against the male gaze. They use it simply as a pseudo-theoretical slur to throw at anything that doesn't please them. This is why the whole concept of “objectification”, as a basis for criticism of the desiring gaze, should have been junked years ago. In itself the term has virtually no conceptual meaning.
I could go on, about women's representation in the media (usually their own self-representation therein) but I think these are different topics. The key words here are "narcissism" and "childishness" and “hypocrisy”. As Glenn Harlan Reynolds wrote in a USA Today column, some women watching the science event unfold on their screens were apparently “overcome by the desire to feel important and powerful at others' expense”:
Thus, what should have been the greatest day in a man's life--accomplishing something never before done in the history of humanity--was instead derailed by people with their own axes to grind. As Chloe Price observed: “Imagine the . . . storm if the scientist had been a woman and everyone focused solely on her clothes and not her achievements."
The best thing intelligent women could do for the feminist movement is spend some time, as women, attacking the shrill "feminists" who regularly claim to speak for them in the press. They should attack those who made a big deal out of Matt Taylor’s shirt; those who think "objectification" is a useful concept and who use it almost to the exclusion of all other concepts; those who think using the term "patriarchy" in one's critique is sufficient as analysis; those who've managed to make feminism intellectually useless through their nonstop shrill posturing.
I wish I were part of a society where I felt I could be proud to support the self-identified feminists around me. But it looks like I’ll have to wait. As long as the movement continues to demand both cake and ice cream, it shouldn’t be surprised if people consider it childish and irrelevant.
Among the many feminist pieces online responding to Taylor's shirt, Nikita Ramkissoon's piece at Thought Leader provided a casebook example of the kind of thinking "objectification" theory leads to. I recommend reading it. As the reply I tried to post there at first didn't get posted, then got cut in half, I'll offer it here--for the record as it were:
If we reduce it to its basic premises, the argument you make here, Nikita, runs as follows:
1) Men in our society “own” women, so men’s attention to women’s beauty or sexuality is always an attempt to further consolidate this ownership and is thus always a matter of objectification.
2) Women in our society don’t own men, so women’s attention to male beauty or sexuality is never objectification, but rather a kind of worship of or awe at masculine power.
Really I don’t know what is more striking about this argument: the sheer obviousness of the double-standard or the fact that many so-called feminists still think such biased claims are worthy of any respect.
First, a few simple questions: Who showed you (or your feminist sisters) what is happening in men’s heads when they look at women? Human sexuality, after all, is a complicated phenomenon, with many levels. How would you know anything about the various levels or elements that make up male sexuality? How do you presume to define my sexuality, and that of other men, so precisely? Please show me your sources, if you have any, besides other feminist writers who’ve now been repeating this same worn-out urban legend for decades.
But second, and more importantly, the only even tentative logic your argument holds is based on your first premise, which is easily disproved: namely, your claim that men in modern societies “own” women.
I’m sorry, but I personally have never met a man who owns any women. As far as I can tell, there is no one around me who knows of such an institution either. As a modern Westerner, I see all the time how women are free to walk out on these men who supposedly “own” them. It’s called breaking up. And in such cases, if the man were to try to force her to remain under his “ownership”, that would be a crime and our justice system has statutes to deal with it.
So what society exactly do you live in? If you live a modern Western society as I do, the level of malice and possessiveness you project into the heads of men like me is simply offensive--those men you somehow imagine “own” you or are trying to own you. Or have I misunderstood your argument? Because to me it looks no more respectable as argument than it would be to claim that, say, “Black men are inherently violent” or “Jews will always try to cheat you.” Nobody who tried to foist off these kinds of unfounded racist generalizations would get a second hearing. Because such claims are not critical discourse, but merely bigotry. Yet this is just the kind of prejudiced assertion you’re promoting. This is the intellectual company you belong with. Like antisemitism or other forms of racist theory, your discourse is offensive starting from its very founding premises.
You write that: “We cannot lay back and make feminism comfortable for you. We refuse to work within your paradigm, because it’s your paradigm that is doing the oppressing.”
Okaaaay. Frankly, Nikita, I don’t care if you make it “comfortable” for me or not. I’m personally not interested in getting closer to people who themselves are comfortable living a prejudice that is nearly sociopathic in its extremity. But forget about me. Think of the women around you. The least you could do, for them, some of whom have posted comments here, is to make “feminism” a bit more respectable in terms of its intellectual rigor. Because at present your discourse is shabby, offensive, and bankrupt.
Yes, there is still serious gender inequality in many world cultures, including Western ones, so I would think that you, as a feminist, would recognize the work that needs to be done. Why not begin by throwing out this transparently two-faced discourse of “objectification” and finding a different tack? Sure, it may not be as sexy or exciting as the man-hating mythology you currently spout, but it will almost certainly bear more fruit. After all, evidence suggests that even most Western women are getting tired of the spiel you currently have on offer.
Sunday, November 9, 2014
If you ask me, he looked a little bit shady. If you ask me, he’s getting balder. If you ask me, he knows they are not serious. If you ask me, he’s angling for some major gig in Hillary’s future administration. If you ask me, he is scared of your reaction when he tells you that he loves you or probably at least likes you. If you ask me, he’s a nasty sadistic git. If you ask me, he says he’s a tree surgeon but I don’t like the sound of it. If you ask me, he’s playing for something much grander. If you ask me, he’s been nothing but trouble since he got here. If you ask me, he’s simply reaching for a convoluted excuse to skirt the law. If you ask me, he’s not what you might call an expert on love. If you ask me, he’s ready to destroy pussy. If you ask me, it’s like that ad they have on TV. If you ask me, he was too protective of Theresa. If you ask me, he aha te mea. If you ask me, he has an overdeveloped sense of entitlement. If you ask me, he was drunk. If you ask me, he’s one step away from pushing a baby carriage filled with tin cans down the street. If you ask me, he has a rather extraordinary eye for visually embodying key aspects of projects just like yours.
Cf.also Things She Took.
Friday, November 7, 2014
The Starbucks where I go between classes has put up the plastic trees and started in with the rinky dink Christmas music. So looks like I’ll have to go somewhere else to study for the next eight weeks. In the meadow we can build a snowman, etc. I’ve had enough of these dumb tunes for one lifetime.
Praise the Lord; shoot Santa on sight. My thoughts for the holiday season.
The Democrats deserved to lose. I’m sad they did, but the reason people vote Democrat to begin with is because it’s the party that stands tough for average working people, fights big corporate money and protects our education system and other public services from right-wing attack.
But this week not enough such voters turned up and the Democrats lost big time. And why didn’t they turn up? I believe it’s because many millions of them no longer see the Democrats as real Democrats. What they see instead is “Republican Lite”.
The president himself is more to blame than anyone for this loss. He was elected to re-regulate Wall Street, to hold the crooks in high banking accountable, and to reverse the erosion of civil liberties that had occurred under Bush, Jr. He was elected to stand up for the shrinking middle class and others even worse off who were being systematically deprived of their voice in government. But the president did none of these things. His health care reform, while significant, was not enough to disguise the fact that in nearly every other area of policy he was what? Republican Lite.
Soon after taking office, in the midst of the financial meltdown, Obama was reported to have said to the big boys on Wall Street: “I’m all that stands between you and the pitchforks.” At that time we Democrats believed this was a statement of fact, a threat leveled for strategic reasons, that it meant that the big banks would have to allow for the serious reforms Obama was soon going to force on them.
Nothing doing. Now we see what his statement really meant: “Rest assured. I’m going to keep any hint of pitchfork from getting anywhere near you.”
The American people is smart enough to see that this president has basically allowed the same system to keep running as nearly destroyed us under his predecessor. The 1% have done even better during his tenure than under Bush, Jr. Meanwhile the rest, the middle class, remain with no voice in government.
The momentum was behind our president, the opportunity was given him to act against such obvious corruption--and what did we get? A compromiser always trying to make some grand bargain with a Republican Party that couldn’t get his race out of their heads. It is all too ridiculous.
Millions upon millions of Democratic voters didn’t in fact go out and vote in this midterm. Rather, seeing they had no party that fought for things they believed in, they just stayed home. And that is why the Republicans took the Senate.
Sunday, October 26, 2014
All of us are possessed of physical vanity to one degree or another. We’re pleased to think we look good, and bothered if we don’t look as good as we’d like. Such vanity is part of us as social beings: it is not something we could ever eradicate.
Nonetheless vanity is a vice. Follow it where it leads you, and at some point a certain line is crossed, and your desire for beauty, or your conviction that you are beautiful, will bring about its opposite. Something deformed or monstrous will be the result.
This line that is crossed is very hard to define, to be sure. Different people sense it in different places. But wherever one places it, I think it’s clear that in America crossing this particular line has become an everyday occurrence. A vague and queasy feeling of monstrosity pervades the public space.
I don’t usually write about these kinds of things, but the recent discussion of Renee Zellweger’s “new look”, raising up hordes of people criticizing her and others defending her, has given me the perfect opportunity. Because the issue of cosmetic surgery, what used to be called plastic surgery, has bothered me for years. I wouldn’t consider it a major issue, no, but it’s a bothersome one, regularly disgusting me anew with the culture around me.
Frankly I’m flat out against cosmetic surgery. I think its prevalence is a cultural illness. And it’s getting worse. If I had the power, I would ban cosmetic surgery except in certain cases (reconstructive surgery, for instance). And I will insist on the following: The world would be a more beautiful place if cosmetic surgeons were put out of business.
Regarding that line I mention, the one that shouldn’t be crossed, I might clarify that I personally find nothing wrong with makeup or coloring ones hair, and nothing wrong with staying firm and fit as opposed to slack and fat. Makeup is best in moderation of course, and I’d prefer if you didn’t color your hair, but if you really must, I still respect you. Obviously some people are too obsessed with maintaining their killer bodies, but again--if you must, I’ll hold myself to snide remarks or a few jabs, which will bounce right off you, fit as you are, whereas your comebacks will likely stick on me, overweight as I am.
So makeup or hair coloration or workouts are not really likely to drag one across the line, or at least not too far.
But cosmetic surgery is something else entirely. It almost always crosses the line. I admit that when I’m talking to someone whose face has obviously had procedures (and yes, it’s pretty obvious when such procedures have been done) I lose a good couple dozen points of respect for the person talking to me. Sorry, that’s just me; and sure, maybe you don’t care to talk to me anyway, but I thought you should know.
Cosmetic surgery almost never makes a person look better--it nearly always makes one look to some degree plastic or strained or, sorry to say it, somehow post-human. So as I’m talking to you across the table or watching you on the screen I can’t help repeatedly thinking: What a dope. Why did he/she do it?
These remarks go for both men and women, by the way, but the sad fact is--women are the main consumers of these deforming procedures. And more and more women, in all the world’s wealthier nations, are making themselves borderline monstrous. And spending big bucks to do so.
It really is sad.
Doubtless my deep feeling of distaste when confronted with all these new plastic faces everywhere comes from my sense of what a face is to begin with. Is my sense of the meaning of the human face maybe somehow eccentric? Judge for yourself.
The way I see it, you do not own your face as something you can change as if it were a sofa or a pair of drapes. Rather, your face is constitutive of who you are as a human being vis-a-vis others. Change your face, and you’ve inevitably undone part of your character.
What’s more, when people can see you’ve changed it, and they can, a little voice inside them will whisper: She’s turning away from her self. She’s trying to efface herself and become a different face.
And the gut feeling that accompanies these whispers? It is a queasy feeling of nature offended: a vague feeling, as I’ve said, of monstrosity.
And what is this “different face” that you suddenly show up wearing? It is no one really. It is not a face that has experienced time, that has lived through the years with loved ones and rivals and joys and pain. No, it is no one--a kind of new artifact appearing out of nowhere.
I never was one for watching American TV, but in recent years I can hardly stand it--all the plastic pseudo-faces blabbering at each other, all the people turning away from the self and toward some kind of shiny and conformist non-self.
And this is what Renee Zellweger has obviously done. She had a face with character, she acted edgy roles and gave the impression of a woman with a strong sense of self. She didn’t seem like the type to give up on her real self just because of wrinkles or a bit of sagging of the cheeks. But that’s just what she did.
If you hadn’t told me it was her, I wouldn’t recognize the woman in the recent photos as the actress whose movies I’d seen. What’s more, though the woman in the recent photos is (somewhat) beautiful, she has the strained and fake look of nearly everyone who gets such procedures. I do not at all feel like I’d be attracted to talk with this woman.
And no, I don’t think the fact of her making her career in Hollywood, or the pressures of being a major actress, should temper my criticism. If anything, her choice to deface herself is worse because as a celebrity she knows she’s a role model for millions who very likely possess even less self-confidence.
Of course some writers who consider themselves feminists have come out with daggers raised against the many others who were shocked and a bit dismayed by Zellweger’s “new look”. I’m sorry, but I don’t think there’s anything feminist in defending a woman who’s undergone such radical cosmetic surgery. If Zellweger wants to be respected as a woman who is more than her mere appearance (her appearance as a commodity, given her career) she shouldn’t have gone and tried to upgrade that appearance, to undo its slight changes over time. Further, the shock of Zellweger’s critics can be attributed, I believe, not to any tendency to commodify women, but rather to that deep sense of the meaning of face that I try to get at above. Someone who changes his/her face to that degree, whoever they are, has broken with themselves and rejected their continuity as a person in the community. And I believe most everyone, whether or not they can articulate the fact, senses this deep down. Thus the dismay at what Ms. Zellweger has done.
I suggest a new practice for bloggers and others who agree with me here. When an actor or singer (or even a person in one’s social circle) changes their face like Zellweger has done, why not acknowledge the new person by giving them a new name? Because in a disturbing way, as a familiar face in society, that person is starting over from scratch. So I will refer to this new woman as Renashe Zellweger. It's different enough, and broken enough, to suggest the willful mashing of one's own appearance that cosmetic surgery grants.
In these remarks I’ve left out the other valid question of the privilege, as in spare cash, of those who can afford to deface themselves in this way. But the question of the wealth necessary for such changes only further underlines the degree to which vanity, unchecked, quickly becomes tied up with vice.
I repeat: Cosmetic surgery should be banned, and if it can’t be banned, it should be taxed to the hilt--and in any case, for those who value what is real and true in this world, cosmetic surgery should be shunned. And since the question may arise: Would I include Botox, or whatever other virus they’re injecting these days, in the ban? By all means. Stiff and rubbery, botoxed faces are clearly a part of this new ambient monstrosity.
The actress Renee Zellweger has defaced herself, and that’s that. Please don’t follow her lead.
[Further reading: Of the handful of pieces I’ve read, Vis Groskop and Mary Elizabeth Williams get it right I think; Jennifer Gerson Uffalussy is just using the incident to blow her rinky-dink feminish horn.]
Monday, September 15, 2014
My small Saturday class has impressed me again. I talked with them a bit about different cultures’ ideas of the afterlife--I mentioned Christian and Muslim ideas, Buddhist ideas, including reincarnation, and different ancient pagan ideas--then wrote their assignment on the board:
Do you believe you have a soul that will continue after death, or do you think you only have a physical body? Many people in the world, following different religions, believe there is some kind of afterlife; others believe that when we die we cease to exist. Whether you believe in an afterlife or not, for this assignment I want you to imagine that you have died and discovered that in fact there is an afterlife.
It is now three hours after your death. What has been your experience during these three hours? Where are you now? Are you alone? Do you know anything about where you will be in the future?
You have twenty minutes to write.
These are the four versions of the afterlife they gave me.
I’ve been dead for three hours, my soul left my body and now I’m trying to figure out what to do next.
The last three hours might be the most painful time of my life. I didn’t want to stay beside my body and watch people crying for my death, so I decided to leave the hospital and take a last tour of the city.
Being bodiless is kind of convenient. I didn’t have to walk at all, I don’t have to pay attention to traffic lights, and I could get everywhere I wanted to go by only thinking about it.
I went to places where I had created lots of beautiful memories with friends and family. I thought about things I’d done in my life: what I did right and what I did wrong.
Later I was sitting in a park and an angel appeared. He said I would only have 24 hours to stay in the world, and also I could get into the dreams of people who still wanted to see me again. I could talk to them again and say goodbye for the last time. And then I will be in the heaven, living an afterlife.
So now I’m thinking, with 21 hours left, what is the thing that I should do? (And god damn it, why the hell did the angel only show up 3 hours after my death? He should show up immediately!)
by Shawn (莊崴翔)
It is now three hours after my death. I can’t see anything that isn’t in darkness. I don’t know where I am. I think I am floating in the sky, higher and higher.
Abruptly, I feel a strong light. I am on the ground. I don’t know where it is. Then I see a house, not so far, so I go into it. When I walk in, I see many pictures of animals and insects, and there are some points under them. A man is using a computer near me.
“Where are we?” I say.
“Here you can choose what you want to be in your next life, but not everything. You did many good things in your life, so you have 1000 points, but you can’t choose the animals which are more than 1000 points like pandas.”
I chose human and thought: “I have to do more good things this time and I can be an animal which is better in my next life.”
by Yoyo (王佑淳)
It is now three hours after my death. My soul is getting away from my body, and I can see that there’s a long tunnel leading toward me, with a shining light. I can’t see the end of the tunnel, and there’s no reason why I’m going straight down.
After a while, I take a train with no color, keep going in the tunnel. The train has many windows, but they seem like DVD players, playing my life, telling all the good or bad things to me. My tears keep bubbling up.
After my life has finished playing, the tunnel has ended too. I can’t control my body, and I can’t move, it feels like a large hand pressing me tightly onto the seat.
Suddenly a “god” appears in front of me. He speaks with a deep, deep voice, and shoots me with his dark, cold eyes, but I don’t have any fear. He tells me that because of my behavior during life I deserve to go to heaven, and he raises up his hands, just like magic, makes a big wave and leads me to heaven. I’m not happy, also not sad. I have no feelings now.
When I get to heaven, a lot of people who have died are welcoming me with their hands. Maybe this is my new home now. We can’t speak to each other, can’t smile, but our feelings strangely go right to each other. We enjoy the sunlight every day, and enjoy our afterlife.
by Frances (蔡詠淇)
Now I’m in the “empty space”. There is nothing about “afterlife” exactly. After we die, we will come to the empty space and pass through it. Once we pass through, we appear in the “Eyeth”. Also, we forget everything from the “Earth”.
The Eyeth is a planet just like the Earth. People on both planets think there is a universe, but actually there isn’t. Nothing is outside the planets. The Eyeth is a world of magic as the Earth is a world of science. Every other thing is the same on both planets. However, depending on whether the planet is based on magic or science, some things will be opposite. For instance, novels and movies on both planets will be people’s imagination of the other planet.
Every time we come to the Eyeth or the Earth, we will be the same person as last time we came, but the environment will change. Sometimes it will be better, sometimes not. Maybe next time when I go to the Earth, the world will be at 2000 B.C. or 5000 A.D. Nobody knows.
While in the “empty spaces”, we see nothing, just emptiness, there is no other world to describe it. Getting through the empty space, you’ll remember something about yourself on the next world. After that, you’ll be on that planet.
Nobody, wrong, no soul knows why this is happening. Maybe some other more powerful race is controlling it, but no soul can understand.
by Anthony (黃聖翔)
Unfortunately, the very talented smart-ass Ryan (蔡睿敏) was absent this time, which was really too bad, because he often writes fascinating things. Next time, Ryan!
Wednesday, August 27, 2014
Listen to this London Muslim preacher. I think ISIS is on the verge of overplaying its hand.
And he's got it all wrong ideologically. The battle is not between those who believe in God and those who believe in man, but rather between those who believe their own narrow idea of God should control everyone (the jihadists) and those who believe a society is best when it allows different religions and different secular visions the freedom to co-exist (as long as they don’t harm each other).
Against the jihadists and fundamentalists, we need to stand with pluralism. And we may be having to stand tougher pretty soon. If these folks really want to attack the West directly, I think they will find the West capable of fighting back.
Although I'm usually critical of US bombing campaigns (and was critical of the Iraq war to begin with, which only managed to destabilize Iraq) I'm fully behind any military action of ours that may weaken ISIS. I suspect we're going to be dealing with the loyalists of this new "caliphate" for some time.
And how is London managing to deal with these people? I really do strongly suspect that if ISIS starts launching anything like sustained attacks in Europe, it's going to end badly for the millions of moderate European Muslims caught in the middle.
Monday, August 25, 2014
Sunday, August 24, 2014
I’ve just begun a reread of my tattered copy of Beautiful Losers and notice here online that Leonard Cohen is bringing out a new album for his 80th birthday.
Cohen's tenacity is a wonder and gift. He has given us so much--the ground he’s covered, the class and grace with which he’s covered it; no one compares.
In early celebration of the singer’s birthday, I’m posting some lines and videos. Not to be missed.
I. Cohen in a 1966 interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Company. Brilliant:
II. Performing “Hallelujah” in 2009:
III. Cohen’s poem “French and English” from the 1978 book Death of a Ladies Man:
I think you are fools to speak French
It is a language which invites the mind
to rebel against itself causing inflamed ideas
grotesque postures and a theoretical approach
to common body functions. It ordains the soul
in a tacky priesthood devoted to the salvation
of a failed erection. It is the language
of cancer as it annexes the spirit and
installs a tumor in every honeycomb
Between the rotten teeth of French are incubated
the pettiest notions of destiny and the shabbiest
versions of glory and the dreariest dogma of change
ever to pollute the simplicity of human action
French is a carnival mirror in which the
brachycephalic idiot is affirmed and encouraged
to compose a manifesto on the destruction of the sideshow
I think you are fools to speak English
I know what you are thinking when you speak English
You are thinking piggy English thoughts
you sterilized swine of a language that has no genitals
You are peepee and kaka and nothing else
and therefore the lovers die in all your songs
You can’t fool me you cradle of urine
where Jesus Christ was finally put to sleep
and even the bowels of Satan cannot find
a decent place to stink in your flat rhythms of ambition and disease
English, I know you, you are frightened by saliva
your adventure is the glass bricks of sociology
you are German with a license to kill
I hate you but it is not in English
I love you but it is not in French
I speak to the devil but it is not about your punishment
I speak to the table but it is not about your plan
I kneel between the legs of the moon
in a vehicle of perfect stuttering
and you dare to interview me on the matter
of your loathsome destinies
you poor boobies of the north
who have set out for heaven with your mouths on fire
Surrender now surrender to each other
your loveliest useless aspects
and live with me in this and other voices
like the wind harps you were meant to be
Come and sleep in the mother tongue
and be awakened by a virgin
(O dead-hearted turns of particular speech)
be awakened by a virgin
into a sovereign state of common grace
Sunday, August 17, 2014
Sadly we can now add genocide to the crimes committed by the radical Sunni movement ISIS. The news out of northern Iraq over recent weeks is heartbreaking in almost every respect, but for those who value religious pluralism the evidence that ISIS is doing its best to exterminate Iraq’s Christian and Yazidi communities is especially depressing.
According to most reports, Christian Iraqis are given the choice to convert on the spot to Sunni Islam or die. Either that, or they are killed outright without being given the choice of apostasy. For Yazidis, at least in most reports I have read, no choice is offered. The men are killed and the women and children (those deemed worth using at least) are taken as slaves. Some witnesses who’ve managed to escape speak of groups of Yazidis buried alive; at least one report speaks of a pregnant Yazidi woman having being cut open, her womb and unborn child yanked out of her.
As one Yazidi man put it: “These ISIS fighters cry out ‘God is great’, and then do such things. What kind of human beings are they?”
Indeed. It it were me writing the battle cry for ISIS, it would go: “God is great, but our version of Islam is greater!”
The concept of God, and of how God relates to humanity, has clearly gone haywire in this branch of Sunni Islam. ISIS brings not a return to the Islam of the Prophet Mohammed, but yet another modern utopianism run amok. We can add it to the list: Nazism, Stalinism, Maoism, Sunni Jihadism.
The crime of genocide against the Yazidi represents a special threat to our human religious inheritance because the Yazidi community is so small. Worldwide there are around 700,000 Yazidis, 93% of which live in the Iraqi province now under ISIS control.
The Yazidi religion is, according to most authorities, a syncretism of elements from Sufism and the Zoroastrianism of ancient Persia. The creation story they subscribe to includes a first human named Adam, as with the other western monotheisms, but the importance they give angels, particularly the angel they call Melek Taus, puts them more in line with Zoroastrianism and even with ancient Gnosticism.
According to the Yazidi, God created the world and then put it under the command of seven angels, emanations from the Godhead, chief of which is Melek Taus, literally “the Peacock Angel”. That the Yazidi symbolize their chief angel with a peacock has led some to assert flippantly that the Yazidi “worship peacocks”--an explanation about as subtle as would be the assertion that Christians worship doves because the Holy Spirit is symbolized by that bird. The story of Melek Taus is a fascinating one; and, one would think, may have led the Yazidi to a uniquely nuanced understanding of authority.
When God created the first human, Adam, he asked the seven angels to bow down before the new creation. One of the seven, Melek Taus, refused.
“How can I bow to another being!” the angel said to God. “I am from your illumination [i.e., a direct emanation from the Godhead] while Adam is made of dust.”
God accepted this argument,and made Melek Taus leader of the other six angels.
The Yazidi, then, conceive of this highest angel as the power that rules directly over the world, their God being more removed, somewhat as in western Deism. What’s more, human good and ill fortune are meted out by Melek Taus according to his wisdom and will, and it is not proper for humans to question their lot. Good and evil are seen as inherent in every human heart, and individuals may choose one or the other. The Yazidi teach that we are to do as Melek Taus did, and choose the true and good.
Of course this is only a very rough sketch, but it gives some idea of the Yazidi belief system, how it is similar to yet different from what is found in the three Abrahamic religions.
Another striking difference is found in the Yazidi belief regarding their ancestral heritage. According to a tale in one of the two collections of Yazidi scripture, they are descended not from Adam and Eve, but from Adam alone. The story is told that a child was born of Adam from his seed stored in a jar, and when this child grew to adulthood he married an houri. The Yazidi are descendants of this “son of Jar” and the houri. It is presumably for this reason that the Yazidi forbid exogamy, i.e., marriage to someone who is not him- or herself a Yazidi. Likewise one cannot convert to Yazidism, as the religion is that of the people born in this lineage from Adam and the houri.
It is the Yazidi’s worship of Melek Taus, and the story of this angel’s refusal to bow to Adam, that has led their Muslim neighbors to characterize them as “worshippers of Satan”. In both the Christian story and in Islam, the angel Lucifer (or, in Islam, Iblis) refused to submit to God through pride, and was cast down from God’s presence--thus our image of Satan as fallen angel. The Yazidi story however is different, as Melek Taus does not refuse through pride, but through respect for the element of God in himself: in other words, through wisdom. In fact the Yazidi consider that the command to bow down to Adam was God’s way of testing the angels, and that Melek Taus is the only one to have passed the test.
Yazidi beliefs are known to outsiders largely through two texts compiled in the early 20th century: the Book of Revelation and the Black Book. These texts, which most scholars agree were not actually written by Yazidis, contain internal contradictions but have been judged to be generally accurate regarding main beliefs and customs.
Since the first appearance of the sect sometime in the Middle Ages, the Yazidi have been persecuted by their Muslim overlords. The current genocide being practiced by ISIS fanatics however poses a special threat to this faith community. Small Yazidi communities exist in Germany, Russia, Georgia, and Armenia, there is a community of several hundred in Lincoln, Nebraska in the US, but the vast majority of Yazidis are now being massacred and enslaved by the barbarians now overrunning northern Iraq.
President Obama’s decision to call for bombing raids in support of the Kurds, Christians and Yazidis against ISIS was overdue. Like many others, I believe our 2003 invasion of Iraq was a grave miscalculation, and that much of the mayhem that has ensued there is a direct result of this initial major blunder. We should not have troops on the ground in Iraq forever, but we should do what we can to beat back the Sunni extremists who are now and always have been our real enemy. The Obama administration shouldn’t have let ISIS get as far as Mosul, much less to within striking reach of the Kurdish capital Erbil.
1. Check this article at CNN. In the upper left (at least at present) is a link to the full video report from CNN’s Ivan Watson, who accompanied a helicopter supply and rescue operation to Yazidis trapped atop Mt. Sinjar. One of the most striking pieces of video journalism I’ve seen in years.
2. Yazidis in America, thankful for the support they’ve gotten, nonetheless fear their Iraqi community has been left to fall through the cracks of US insistence on a “unified Iraq”. Voice of America reports.
3. Faced with news of what's happening to their family members in Iraq, Yazidis in Nebraska are paralyzed by guilt, reports the LA Times.
4. Son of Yazidi leader calls for British aid.
5. The Catholic organization Caritas: one of the legitimate and reliable ways to help Iraq’s persecuted religious minorities. I would offer more possibilities, but this is the only one I've been able to find that is already up and running in Kurdish territory.
Saturday, August 16, 2014
A man on the sidewalk yelling at the designer sunglasses in the optical shop display window. And I find myself agreeing with him. “Yeah! Fuck those sunglasses! Who do they fucking think they are!” And the sunglasses just sitting there in rows, looking at us like they don’t even hear.
Things are getting out of hand.
Wednesday, August 13, 2014
Most people of faith will agree: there’s a huge difference between the secular person who isn’t convinced of God’s existence and the atheist who thinks religious people should shut up and that only secularists have anything to say on ethical issues.
A good friend of mine from high school made the following Facebook post recently. I was disheartened to see it. Not that I hadn’t seen plenty such memes in recent years, but coming from him it seemed to be a declaration of sorts.
In recent months I’d engaged in edgy online debates with Steve and several others over the role of religion in America. If Steve’s post especially depressed me, it was because he’d graduated from one of America’s best universities and had always shown himself to be open-minded on the various tribes that battle in the cultural arena. That he’d put this up for his thousand-and-more friends showed he’d grown closer to the militant atheist line. Here he was echoing some of their most tired tropes.
Atheist fundamentalists have gotten the traction they have in recent years in part because they offer such a simple narrative. To agnostics too busy to think through the complexity of the issues, it becomes seductively easy to see the world as neatly divided between those who believe in science and those who believe in Christ.
As it turned out, Steve wasn’t toeing the line I thought. At least he finally explained, pointedly, that his post didn’t quite mean what it seemed to mean. But still, I’ve seen my friend various times on this edge, once averring that the world would be better if Christianity were done away with, other times echoing this or that New Atheist sound bite.
What can one do to keep moderate, secular friends from turning newther [a term I’ve adopted for those who subscribe to or ape the New Atheist mode of discussing religion: explanation here]?
This particular FB discussion covers a lot of ground and raises points some Christians won’t like, but still I think nearly all will find parts of it worthwhile. Exactly what my friend Steve intends by “magic”, I can’t quite grasp, and he has yet to make it clearer.
STEVE JOHNSON: I'm a believer in efficacy. If magic works, I'd roll with that. Just give me something that works. And I don't mean, after massive interpretations that try to reframe something that didn't work as something that did.
July 21 at 4:25am
ERIC MADER: Steve, the whole of history is and always has been a matter of interpretation and reinterpretation. And the borderline between what you think of as magic and what you think of as science isn't as clear as you take it to be. The fact you believe there is an identifiable object--religion--you can point to as "something that didn't work" in the past is just more proof of the degree to which your thinking it tied to the logic of one particular reinterpretation--that of the 18th and 19th centuries. And yes, for all of us, to one degree or another, our thinking is trammeled to Enlightenment models, because we were all educated in the modern West. But the point is to learn to be conscious of it as a questionable bunch of assumptions that has deviously set our discourse and thought to repeat the same tracks over and over. For us it is an overarching structure, taken for granted, where Science is the bedfellow of Technology, who in turn is the bedfellow of Progress, and where all three keep loving it up to the rocking tunes of the Free Market.
I find this structure, as I say, deeply questionable. Because, hey, that we keep singing this same song with such lame confidence may finally do us in. (And note: Part of this song has always been those few catchy verses where Science and Religion are posited as opposites. And here your meme is singing that same old refrain again, as if, again, we had to choose one or the other. It is a false choice.)
Your meme reverences the man in a lab coat as a potential savior. “If only we’d let him do his work we’d be on track.” That's the implicit message, no? But this reverence for the man in the lab coat is part of our problem. After just a couple hundred years of the Enlightenment culture he represents, here we are literally on the verge of collective suicide. Think about it, Steve. Homo sapiens has been around for 200,000 years, living according to a wide variety of religious codes ("magic") and social structures, but once modern science and the culture of scientism arrive on the scene--here we are at the brink of mass extinction.
All of which is not to say that I’m against science education. Only that I don't see anything in our Enlightenment culture that will get us out of the mess we're now in. I don't see anything there, and I have yet to hear anything from you, Mr. Johnson, that "will work".
Furthermore, when scientism (i.e. science as promoted by the New Atheists) thinks it can offer our culture a more meaningful philosophical ground than religion or theology--in those cases I'll do my damnedest to kick it over. Because then it is trying to replace things it cannot replace. It is being as dumb as Fundamentalist religion, and in fact is a Fundamentalist religion. And it poses a greater threat than the Biblical Fundamentalists.
In short: We cannot escape reinterpretation, which is what culture does. To the extent we think we can throw out things that have been deeply rooted in humanity for eons--to that extent we don't understand humanity. We only put ourselves in deeper peril--prey to utopian pipe dreams like those offered by Bolsheviks or Maoists, themselves children of the Enlightenment who got too excited about science, who got too eager to rid their societies of religion and "backward" cultural norms. July 21 at 11:15pm
STEVE JOHNSON: Actually Eric, I gotta hand it to you. I didn't really think about the dude in the lab coat, nor did I notice there was a cross on the 'chalkboard'. And although I am in technology, I see technology as nothing short of magic in many ways. So considering what my comment was, based on the fact that I only saw the words cognitively, and then posted... here is what I was hoping to convey: Frankly, I don't care what 'thing' we use as a species, as long as it works. If Wands and Spells do the trick, and we can fix what was made wrong, then I am all for it. If prayers to deities of all manners and ilks works, then lets get on our knees, or sit in the lotus position. I couldn't care less. But, lets let efficacy be the guide. Not wishful thinking. There are myriad proofs that science doesn't answer many things. There are myriad proofs that none of our "theories" or "world views" are an answer to any larger or specific question in particular. Why are the bees dying? I want a definitive answer, and I want it to stop. If religion, or magic, or science, or ass wiping gets the answer, so be it. But if you are huge believer in ass wiping (and I presume you are not except in the same way it is effective to you) then let ass wiping rule the day on finding and answering the problems we face. But if it turns out that ass wiping isn't the way, please don't tell me that it did work, but I don't have enough faith, or that I need to run more tests, or that in lab environments it works, just not today. Or that the outrageous side effects of ass wiping although worse than the original problem, did in fact solve the original problem. So, I think, believe it or not, we are exactly on the same page. What you said above is in fact what I believe. The difference is, I have no sacred cows. The markets? Pffft. Epic Failure. Only the those who have the undying faith of a religionist can still believe in them. Science? Pfftt. Its good, maybe our best tool, but it cannot explain so many things its sad. Religions? Ha. Nearly all the concrete facts that Science was able to prove came by fighting off religions. So, Magic? I think I am a buyer. And I don't think Religion qualifies as magic. But pushing a button and something happening might just qualify. Either way, I should get back to my original thought. Efficacy is my 'god' of choosing. If it works, I'm in. And that goes for religion too. If it works, I'm a buyer. If not, I'm out. And the evidence that it works, whichever form of thought you are going to deploy needs to be provable, at some level, without constant reengineering the situation to make the proof be there. July 22 at 6:04am
DEBRA SERBANIC: Bottom line.....it's a comic and each is entitled to their own opinion not trying to fuel the fire. I thought the comic was funny. Like the bible, didn't take it literally. I believe in ass wiping. July 22 at 6:08am
STEVE JOHNSON: I have always believed in the efficacy of ass wiping. July 22 at 6:19am
ERIC MADER: Steve, your argument simply reduces all aspects of culture (and ultimately human being itself) to material efficacy.
This Sunday at Mass I stood with the other congregants and prayed for peace in the Ukraine, Palestine and Iraq. If you think that myself and the other people there believed that we were delivering a "to-do list" to a deity who would then, because of our prayer, immediately go and effect peace in these regions by divine fiat, then you simply don't understand religion (as usual, I might add). Because part of the efficacy of our prayer is in our own witness in standing there, in our togetherness, in our meditating for a moment on the crises in the world and how our actions (in voting, volunteering, etc.) might improve or worsen things; part of the efficacy is in our coming together there and then, and that because of the truth we celebrate some of us will be moved, beyond our Sunday participation, to work for and push for settlements of the terrible conflicts now raging. Because we believe in peace as a goal in itself, regardless of strategic interests. Because we strongly believe that this is God's will, as conveyed through Christ.
I submit that if we are on the same page, as you say, then you need to broaden your perspective regarding the complexity of how culture(s) find meaning, assert meaning, and apply it to the world. And you can do this regardless of whether or not you believe God exists or what you think of claims of miracles, etc.
Again: If the individual human being is a particular organization of carbon-based molecules (which is all science can ultimately tell us about human being) then the reasons to respect individual human lives are no more compelling than the reasons to respect the life of a snail or a gnat. When the next totalitarian movements begin to sweep over the planet, I believe those who have faith in a soul, in a God, rather than those who depend only on what can be empirically demonstrated by science, will be better prepared to resist and more courageous in resisting. In other words, their faith will be EFFICACIOUS in defending our liberty. As it is currently efficacious is running schools and orphanages, caring for the homeless, giving voice to the oppressed. July 22 at 10:11am
DENNIS LOWELL: OK - We've gotta smoke a big fat joint together this weekend..... July 22 at 10:41am
ERIC MADER: Dennis knows efficacy when he sees it. July 22 at 11:05am
STEVE JOHNSON: Eric, my argument DOES NOT reduce all aspects of culture and the human being itself to material efficacy. Let's take the case of Magic. Or Prayer. I read a study that confirmed that something like 50 Buddhist Monks prayed for peace for the city of Washington DC. During the experiment, violent crime and rape fell an astonishing 75% (or something like that). So is this efficacious? In my view, if it is in fact true, then yes, it is. IF Voldemort, the head of the new-found Republican Party, were to stand up at the Republican convention, and wave his wand, thus making all the "attendees" understand the plight of the poor, I would say that was efficacious. It worked. How it worked is a mystery. Why it worked is a mystery. But that it did in fact work, is all that I want to base my belief structure on. If you and the congregation of praying Catholics are able to bring peace to the Ukraine and the Israel/Palestine conflict, than I will stand with you all, and demand that we all practice this because it worked. How? Why? Again, a mystery. However, if 6 years from now, a nuke goes off and everyone in either region is killed, and then peace comes because of it...And the Priest who lead the congregation of prayers that your group did last night, claims that the prayer of last night, done 6 years prior IS THE REASON that peace is now there, I will not support that is a causative link. As that would require so many lenses of 'so called' truth to be lacquered onto the facts that it makes anything true. My view is fairly simple. It does not deny reality, nor does it deny that reality may not be knowable or understandable. It does however put front and center 'the effectiveness' of whatever approach is utilized. There will clearly be some forms of action that will be amoral, and so, it might be effective, but it is not moral. So, effectiveness may not be the only guide post, and it may not be the preeminent one in any given situation. But, effectiveness being absent usually leaves so much room for interpretation that we are left without any real truth. I am not saying that a person who may find a prayer effective for 'whatever' it is they utilize prayer to fix/heal/change/express, and if it is effective for them individually and in groups, by all means...please practice it. Because for them, it is effective. And I honor that. But if two parties are attempt to resolve an issue, than effectiveness is a great guide, and for me, most often, the only real arbiter of what is and what isn't. Excuse typos, words missing, just had to get this out, despite errors. July 23 at 1:24am
ERIC MADER: I see I may have misinterpreted your meaning here, Steve, and that my assumption as to what you were getting at led me into attack mode. Let me explain. I read the photo and remarks in the context of our long-term debate/dialogue on religion in America. One of the lengthiest FB threads you've ever hosted was a couple months back where you, myself and several others debated the New Atheism, religious education, evolution, etc. In that debate one of the main topics taken up was the importance of interpretation--namely, the fact that Christianity, like all religions, has gone through many stages of development, change of stress, literalism vs. figurative thinking, etc. It’s pretty clear that the New Atheists do their best to suppress this complex history. Which is significant because very much of the debate online has been influenced by their prefab reduction. What the New Atheists have tried to do is reduce Western religion to a caricature they can then knock down in favor of the narrowly positivist materialism they support. It's a classic strawman. And so: To listen to them, religion = magical thinking = a naive literalism like that of the small child who believes there is a literal Tooth Fairy. Thus, as these folks argue, religion should be extirpated, should be laughed out of the public arena, etc. To me and to most people educated in the humanities (poli sci, anthropology, philosophy) this view of religion is an idiotic reduction of a multifaceted human phenomenon. In fact many atheists are deeply embarrassed by the likes of Dawkins and Harris--embarrassed by the epistemological shallowness. Whether you like it or not, your post echoes this whole prefab reductionism we then debated. Consider: Your post offers a meme showing a guy in a lab coat equating Christianity with "magic" and lamenting that science is being "cancelled" because of such magical thinking. And you, in your comment, criticize people who use "interpretation" to try to validate a "magic" that “never worked” in the first place. In the context of our debates and other things you've posted in recent years, this seemed to me to be saying: "A lot of modern folks have newfangled interpretations of what religion means, but hey, we all know that religion is just a kind of naive magic, so don't try to make it anything else. Science is what can give us answers, because magic doesn't work!” That's how I understood your meaning, in the context of our previous debates and in the context of the meme itself. If that's indeed what you meant, it’s not simply something I disagree with, but you are basically declaring yourself not just a guy I can debate differences with, but my ideological enemy. Because you are subscribing to the New Atheist soundbite that “one must choose” between religion and science--and since religion "didn't work", then science is the answer.
Like most educated religious people, I don’t see any need to choose between religion and science, because each addresses different levels of the reality we experience. When religious people clash clearly with scientists over matters of biology (for example, when biblical literalists claim the earth is 6,000 years old) I think it’s obvious the scientists are right. But that is not a big deal to educated religious people, it is not in any sense a “serious blow to Christianity”, because through the whole history of the faith, going back to ancient times, there have been thinkers in the Church who argue that the biblical account of creation is NOT literal, but figurative or symbolic. Which has also been my view from the beginning. So you can see my ire for contemporary atheists: they’re working overtime to misrepresent what religion is, to tell ME what I believe so that they can then refute me, all the while spending virtually no time going to actual Christian writers or theologians to check if their portrayal is right.
If I’ve written with some bitterness, it’s because all the evidence pointed to your post being a restatement of their general argument. I now see from your last long remark that this might not have been your original meaning. You’re apparently still among the sane people who see that religion, like science, is a mixed bag. Each is an immensely complex part of culture that brings both good and bad, and the essential is to support the good and lessen the bad. If you indeed still subscribe to this kind of basic wisdom, then I owe you an apology. But honestly: If my first understanding of your meaning was correct, if you think humanity “must choose” between religion and science, and that religion should be steadily but completely pushed from the public arena, then I’d have to conclude that you’re just shallow, because you don’t understand what you’re talking about, and what’s more, you’ve betrayed the basic American respect for pluralism. You’re becoming illiberal in the classic sense.
If you want to respond to this, please weigh my arguments carefully. If you don’t respond, fine and good. I’ll take it to mean you accept the apology and that my revised assessment, i.e., that you’re not becoming just another New Atheist loudmouth, is the right one. July 23 at 2:06pm
DENNIS LOWELL: Eric Mader - Your post is thought-provoking. Thanks! I like your point about religion evolving - if scientists have been wrong for centuries and are "allowed" to evolve, why shouldn't religion. I do, however, see a difference. I've always had more respect for people who listen and absorb the facts (which is why I enjoyed your thread) and I've valued their contributions over those who just echo a few "cherry picked" talking points. Along these lines, I believe that you should start with the facts and end with a conclusion - not the other way around. Maybe I'm wrong (it's happened before), but I've felt that religion starts with a conclusion (Jesus is God; the Bible is the word of God....) and works backwards to include/exclude facts that support/oppose their views. This has always been my rub with organized religion. It would be interesting to hear your thoughts. - Cheers July 25 at 9:01am
STEVE JOHNSON: Eric: I think I said in the thread that I never noticed the cross on the chalk board when I posted. When I read it, it seemed to me to be saying that Science had some kind of answer for everything, and frankly, it doesn't. I like the overall notional construct of science, but it is flawed too. I have had too many personal experiences that Science doesn't even deem an actual question worthy of finding an answer to. But, what I also fully comprehend is that you feel religion is under attack from the New Atheists. Candidly I am not an atheist. I believe in what religions call a god. I prefer to use words that come from our own modern 'stories'...like 'the force' or the 'all pervasive love'. I don't however subscribe to any literal translations of ancient works (or interpreted properly or otherwise), as I have found them PERSONALLY as lame as Science in answering the questions of the Spirit. If I were to have to join a team or religious brand (and yes, that is how I perceive them) I would join the Buddhists. Mainly because they don't appear to own property, or corporate 501c's nor do they appear to have followers who congregate in packs that then vote in blocks or attempt to enforce a code of ethics on others, where those codes are derived by their decree from a god head. Granted, the texts those followers cite may state exactly the opposite of the followers claims, but the followers themselves do not agree or understand the works they utilize to make their points often enough. So, I don't consider myself a new Atheist in any way, and I would most likely consider their arguments fairly mundane and trivializing of many of personal experiences I have had that are real, and could only fall into a category for science that would be labeled "unexplainable". Which leaves the term Magic. If you fully comprehend what is actually happening inside of a computer, it is as close to what one might call magic (even though it is explainable) as one can get. And it works. And so I add my call for efficacy. So, whether or not Science will answer all the questions that matter is still up for debate, and what I see from most of the religious folk is not what you say or believe but something vastly less sophisticated and nuanced...and so, I turn to a word that is still relatively clean. And I like it. Magic. So, yes, I believe in Magic, and yes, it is preferable to Science and Religions because it has at a level something that neither posses. It has efficacy and answers things that are relevant to the spirit and the soul. I hope at some level, I have redeemed myself in your eyes. July 25 at 11:09am
ERIC MADER: Dennis Lowell - Thanks for weighing in here. I think you hit on something that needs to be recognized by more Christians: namely that the arguments many of them give for their religion are merely circular, and they perhaps “believe” these arguments because they internalized them from their upbringing. And so, to hear some Christians tell it: The Christian God is real because the Bible says so; and the Bible is a trustworthy source because it was inspired by God.
My own experience of Christianity is very different from this. Though raised a Lutheran, even as an adolescent I found, when I questioned myself as to what truth there was in it, that I couldn’t believe. At 16 I declared myself an atheist. I began to study literature and philosophy, a bit in high school on my own, and seriously in university. Then, at the end of the 1980s, partly based on my study, and partly based on my own experiences, I came to believe there was a compelling truth, or at least a reflection of truth, in some of the basic assertions of the Christian faith: 1) the material universe is not all there is; 2) there is a God behind the universe; 3) we are endowed with a soul (we ourselves are not merely flesh and bone: there’s another level to us); 4) the man Jesus was in fact a privileged conveyor of how God relates to humanity and the world, how God intends to relate to us, and how we must respond by bringing ourselves into closer harmony with an emerging “kingdom of God” (however that term may be understood).
As I say, I came to be convinced of these few things at the end of the 1980s. It may seem to you that this would make me a Christian, a member of that two-billion-strong body of believers worldwide. But actually these elements I was convinced of didn’t really make me a Christian, because for most Christians the litmus test for the true faith is the Nicene Creed: a “real” Christian, according to most, is someone who can recite this creed as a series of propositions that are true. But there was much in the Creed that I didn’t believe true. Probably some of the things I didn’t accept were precisely those things that many Christians “believe” without actually examining them--things they’d been taught to accept and defend as true without first, as you put it, arriving at the truth of the statement after carefully considering all the facts.
Nonetheless, regardless of my eccentricity during those years, I insisted I was a Christian and argued that anyone who believed in a few basic tenets should also be considered one. Thus the Christian, to me, is someone who can say: 1) I believe there is a God; 2) Jesus is a privileged voice for God (the “anointed one”, or, in Hebrew, Messiah); 3) I believe there is a spiritual element in the universe and in each of us as individuals; 4) I will try to follow Jesus’ teachings as best I understand them.
And so, to anyone who finds Jesus a “great teacher”, to the extent he or she makes this finding more determinant in his or her life--i.e., to the extent he or she becomes an avowed follower of Jesus--to that extent the person may be called a Christian. Do you believe all the currently existing species were created by God in a brief period of time? Do you believe in the stories of virgin birth? Do believe Jesus was physically resurrected from the dead? Do you believe his first followers stood and watched as he was literally taken up into heaven? In my thinking, which I still hold to on this point, you can be a Christian without believing any of these things as literal happenings. Because the essentials of Christianity are in points 1-4 above.
In the 1990s and 2000s I worked to define more clearly both how I believed and how I came to understand the truth of Christianity. I coined a term for this particular way of believing: it was a “durationist” Christianity. A lot of that work ended up in my book HERETIC DAYS.
I go this roundabout way in answer to your comments because I feel too many people have been set up to take our religious traditions as either/or constructs. Either you subscribe to the whole program, including the belief in a relative literalism of biblical texts, or you reject the whole program. This is deeply wrong and deeply destructive to our cultural and spiritual possibilities. It is far better for contemporary people to approach Christianity as a tradition of which they might make what they want. (I say approach, as in: during the early stages of one's engagement with Christianity.) The individual, as in you yourself, can find whatever truth in the Gospel texts you deem valid. You are not asked to believe all these things literally happened or that the orthodox Christian reading is the only one. As happened with me, these texts and this tradition can then become the fascinating matter of a long-term work of spiritual and historical sleuthing. Do the texts represent what Jesus really taught? Are there not perhaps many hints in the texts of something different, something that was repressed by orthodox Christianity in the course of its development? Is not orthodox Christianity perhaps keeping us from making contact with something more essential in Jesus that Jesus would want us to find?
In any case, the story of Jesus of Nazareth and the God he meant to tell us about is one of the most contested and tantalizing historical mysteries we have. Especially given that the movement created from this man’s life work has shaped our world more than the work of any other individual. And this is true whether one is a believer or not. We live in a culture whose intellectual grounds are thoroughly Christian: our basic understanding of history (as a progressive process “going somewhere”), of justice, of how the individual relates to society--all these derive from our Christian background.
But I’ve gone on too long. You may want to check out the following few links, if you’d like to know more about my own route pursuing these questions.
The Durationist Gospel
Heretic Days: First Reactions
July 27 at 12:43pm
ERIC MADER: Steve Johnson: Yes, you’ve redeemed yourself. Of course. And I agree with you that far too many Christians (especially in America, where many have become living advertisements against the faith) have come to stand for things their own scriptures consider deeply wrong. In my view this sad situation is largely a result of the perilous linkage made between Protestants and the GOP back in the 1980s. Christians have been misled by this alliance to equate their religion with specific right-wing political goals. I think Pope Francis has offered some sorely needed, and truly Christian, answers to the sick nonsense we get from Fox News and friends.
But as for what you call “magic”: In fact I like your conscious choice to adopt a term, to try to set it off from both science and religion. I do, however, think you need to formulate more clearly how you see “magic” relating to “the force” or whatever you prefer to call the guiding power in your universe. Especially: How can anything you might call magic--as it evidences itself in computer technology for example--be expected to help fulfill the goals of “the force”? How can we get any guidance as to whether “magic” is being employed to further or undermine “the force”? Also: If there is a “force” or “pervasive spirit of love”, as you say, why is the universe not already determined by it? Why, in other words, is there hate and violence and bigotry if indeed the spirit of love is “pervasive”?
You say you reject reverence for ancient scriptures, regardless of how they are interpreted. Does that mean that “magic” was not an active force in ancient times? Or that Jesus or the Buddha had no access to this power we now are starting to access?
I submit that the main thing behind your finding that ancient scriptures offer “lame” solutions is that you haven’t really studied the range of interpretations of ancient texts. Of course the predicaments ancient people found themselves in were both similar to and different from the predicaments we are in. And the genius or possibility of spiritual insight on the part of ancient people was, I would argue, equal to our own. But whatever.
I do know of a book, now written a while ago, that may turn you on if you’re thinking in these directions. Erik Davis: Techgnosis. Maybe you know of Davis already. The book is dated in some respects, but it is absolutely not dated in essentials.
And if you want to have a “double dose” of gnosis that might get your attention, order Davis’ book along with Ron Miller’s The Gospel of Thomas: A Guidebook for Spiritual Practice. In this second book you’ll get a surprisingly different version of Jesus, based on a long-lost ancient collection of his sayings, that will possibly show him more in line with your currently developing notion of “magic”.
But again: I’d be very interested to see how you explain the connection between “the force” and what you call “magic”, especially as this latter might manifest itself in or through technology. July 27 at 1:44pm
ERIC MADER: I’ve often taught Philip K. Dick's work here in Taipei. Here's a nice piece of Davis' writing on what made the master tick:
Philip K. Dick’s Divine Interference
July 27 at 1:47pm
DENNIS LOWELL: Eric Mader: Thanks, again, for your thoughtful reply. I enjoyed reading of your background and found that it has some parallels to mine. Though we may have ended with somewhat different conclusions, I think our thought processes are aligned. (By calling them conclusions, I don’t want to imply that we aren’t still both working through things.) I’ve been interested in (and struggled with) religion and spirituality my entire life. When I was younger, I traveled to see the Dalai Lama and identified pretty strongly with Buddhism. I enjoy reading the very approachable books that Bart Ehrman writes about historical Jesus, etc. I took my kids to church at the local Unitarian Church when they were younger. I enjoyed their approach to religion – the Dalai Lama called it the “fruit salad” approach. Take a little of the best of everything and mix it up (something that must churches would really frown on). However, even the UU church finally turned me off.
This was back around 2002, when the Iraq war was starting. Even though I was strongly opposed to the war at that time, I didn’t want to hear about it from a pastor on Sunday. I REALLY wanted the spiritual piece [peace], without the baggage. Therein lies my conundrum: Religion and Spirituality are separate. There is a relationship between the two, but they have very different goals and these have been at odds since the earliest days of Christianity. The goal of religion is to build a congregation with followers. I know that this could be argued, but for the biggest churches (including the Catholic church) this is true. In order to best build a congregation, churches use things like rituals, patternicity, and the discouragement of individualism. I’m not saying that EVERY church does this or everything in the church is designed to build a following, but in general, religion says “stop asking questions, we have the answer… God”. This is exactly the opposite of what spirituality calls for.
In a gross simplification, religion is supposed to facilitate finding “The Truth” (but still build a congregation). In order to find the truth, you have to spend real time thinking about it and probably have to go down many wrong paths. So religion has to do this crazy dance of letting you stray down those paths, but not so far that you don’t still land at “The RIGHT Truth”. Honestly, Eric, I think that this is how the more liberal churches view it. For the more conservative churches, they don’t do the dance at all - “it’s our way or good luck in hell." (OK – I know that hell could be interpreted as the eternal separation from God’s love, but still, does my love for a different God, or different understanding of God, mean that I end with separation?)
Anyway, that’s my struggle with religion in general. My struggle with Christianity is more complex and involves conflicting scriptures that were written 30+ years after Jesus’ death, their misinterpretation, and the conflicting goals of the church that I’ve outlined. I know this is being a little harsh on the churches and I don't mean to imply that the people within the congregation all share the same views. I’m looking forward to reading your book (you’ll have to put your next one on audible, as that’s how I get most of my reading in these days – long commute). Cheers! August 2 at 1:54a
ERIC MADER: Dennis Lowell: You're right that we have a lot in common in our general route. And so most of your considerations here are congenial to me, and of course I get the distinction between religion and spirituality you present. But personally, for a long time now, I don't see the two as being necessarily in conflict in the way you do. With some religious communities, yes, the conflict can be very real. Try to tell a Fundamentalist where you think he's wrong, and he'll tell you how he knows he's right and why are you "outside" real Christianity. But I don't think this kind of inside and outside divide is characteristic of many Christian communities now. And so it doesn't steer me away from Christianity as a whole.
I'll offer a metaphor for religion vs. spirituality that may give some idea of how I see them. Think of the relationship as something like that between nation and individual. You, for instance, are part of the American population, an American citizen, and presumably you support many of the things America stands for. But you'll define these things that "America stands for" in your own way. In other words, you may support America's codification of civil rights, its history of progress in this area, and the value it places on a free press and free civil debate. While insisting these are what America is at heart, you may think its international role as "exceptional nation", its free-wheeling capitalism, its willingness to treat the world as its playground--who cares what other countries say--you may find all these things to be aberrations, not truly what is great about America. But at the same time, while you're reading this, there's another American down the block from you who emphatically supports the international hubris, who thinks the market is in fact way too regulated, and who wants the world to become culturally more and more like America, malls and all. In short: You and this guy both subscribe to “America”; you both hold the passport and feel patriotism. Yet your ideas of what is great in America and what is excess dribble are very different. But neither of you would like to renounce your citizenship based on these differences.
I don't see why it should not be the same with churches. I have gone a long route through atheism, through a kind of gnosticism, and now have converted to Catholicism. There are things in the Catholic tradition that I think make it great and true, other things that I think are wrongheaded and aberrant. Another Catholic down the block from me might stress a different set of elements. In other words: We each have our own spirituality; we don't quite agree; but those things in each other we disagree with are not enough to make us renounce our citizenship.
Just as the blanket phenomenon called America can foster different kinds of patriotism, so the phenomenon called Christianity can foster different kinds of spirituality. I will not leave a church just because I disagree with some of the things a pastor or priest says from the pulpit. Rather: I'll try through my own engagement to move the church in the direction I find true.
There's another point here I'd like to raise, having to do with the value of conditional acceptance of doctrine. A very important phrase in my own development is Credo ut intelligam: “I believe in order to understand." If one sees a religious tradition as a very complex symbolic system for conveying spiritual truth, it is necessary, if one ever wants to find that truth, to learn the system. And just as one learns a foreign language, or learns a new dance step, by doing it, so one learns a religion's understanding of reality by seriously entertaining its tenets. Part of my final decision to convert to Catholicism was that I saw in it the most complete repository of spiritual, theological, and experiential wisdom about the meaning of Jesus Christ as conveyed in the New Testament. And so I decided to enter this church, to begin to think and move according to its promptings; and moving in this slightly new way, positioned in this slightly new place, I would see a different spectrum of reality. Simple as that. If some parts of the tradition left me unconvinced, that didn't matter. I would understand more and more in terms of my own spirituality simply because the seriousness and depth of the tradition I was living with and studying was far greater than anything I could come up with on my own. Credo ut intelligam.
The problem with the fruit salad approach you mention is that, not really learning any one tradition, you risk missing certain depths. To make another analogy, I'd much rather learn to be a very good pianist than learn to be a dabbler in piano, a dabbler in guitar, and an amateur flautist. Immersed in piano, I'd learn more about music as such. Which is the point.
At one point you write: "Even though I was strongly opposed to the [Iraq] war at that time, I didn’t want to hear about it from a pastor on Sunday. I REALLY wanted the spiritual piece [peace], without the baggage." I'd say that one doesn't get spiritual piece or peace without struggle--whether that be struggle with the vagaries of one's own skewed perceptions and nagging worries and desires, or struggle with the injustices in the world. Quietism is a possible response to the world, and it may have some fundamental validity, but it's never been the kind of approach that has attracted me.
Also, regarding the historical Jesus, I've done a lot of study in these areas also, and I believe they are well worth the effort. The kinds of things Ehrman works on are seen as a threat by some believers, but they don't bother me in the least; in fact I relish the problems and contradictions of the textual and historical record. The crucial thing to me is not that the Gospels are second-hand accounts or were redacted by different hands, but that such an extraordinary figure as Jesus existed, that some core of this tradition we have about him, a core collection of parables and a core of historical events, are true. The vagaries of the Gospels are just what you'd expect from an ancient community of followers and believers who'd experienced such a figure as Jesus was. In short: We don't know exactly what he was and what he said, but we know roughly. We know as much or more about Jesus than we do about many important ancient figures: Socrates, the Roman emperors, Virgil.
Before I finish I want to make sure I'm not misunderstood in my remarks on Credo ut intellegam above. I used the analogy of learning a foreign language, but didn't really explain. If I say that I've chosen to "believe in order to understand", this is not to say that I'm pretending to believe, that I'm putting on an effort of belief in order, some day, to actually believe. No, it's rather that I'm learning a new language; I'm believing in the sense one believes when, learning German, one repeats a new sentence several times: one's grasp of the syntax may be a bit slippery, one doesn't quite feel how this series of sounds means what one knows it means (there's the English translation on the right-hand page) but one is confident even so that there's a compelling representation of the world in this series of sounds: that German is a real language and that this way of saying the world is as valid as one's native English way. Thus, learning a language, one must believe in order to understand. This is similar to the way I've begun to believe Catholicism, with one crucial difference. Since I'm convinced the Church has been guided by the Holy Spirit over the course of history, this "language" I'm now learning is more profound, and very likely offers a truer representation of reality, than any theological pidgin I could put together on my own (which I think is true regardless of whether or not said pidgin may itself be guided in places by the Spirit).
Still waiting for Steve Johnson to address my last remarks to him. And truly: Those two books I suggest, Steve, I really think you'd dig a whole spectrum of things in them. Take the plunge. August 3 at 7:58pm