Friday, September 29, 2006

An Early Morning Adamism

Fall crept up on us, taking us by surprise last night. While it hadn't felt like summer in a few weeks, we were still basking in the 72 and sunny that I played tennis in on Tuesday, and didn't bother to check the weather before we went to bed last night. Consequently, no heat. Just before dawn I heard Adam whimpering in his room across the hall. He'd escaped from the fierce clutches of his blanket, only to find that there is something worse than the tyranny of restricted movement.

I picked him up and carried him into our bedroom to warm up. He huddled with us under the blankets for a while. Then, after he'd had all the snuggles he could stand, he got up and started running around on top of the bed. Finally finished stomping our sleepy limbs - there is a cost to bringing a boy into your bed! - he stopped and looked out the window, just as the sun was rising over the trees in our front yard.

He started jumping up and down, pointing, gesticulating wildly, and shrieking the exuberant shriek of youth. Slow down, Adam. What is it? He gathered himself, took a deep breath, and said, clearly,

Outside... sun... LIGHTS ON!

What a way to describe the sunrise!

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Looking for God in the Shadow of Auschwitz

I don't have much time or energy to write right now, but after my afternoon reading I simply had to post something. There have been two basic themes in my reading and writing for the last month or so: the problem of pain, and Judaism. While I am not Jewish I must say that I have from time to time thought about converting to Judaism. Their strict monotheism appeals to the part of me that, while still affirming that Jesus is the Christ, the anointed of God who reveals the nature of God, rejects the Trinity, and as such the divinity of Christ.

I have also long been fascinated with Jewish culture, with the sense of identity that transcends even faith and race. I admire the most observant Jews, even if I find them often too strict or too literal, for seeking to integrate their faith into their lives to the point where the two form a seamless garment. And, as a vegetarian for moral and even theological reasons, I admire kosher households, whose faith dictates diet.

But what impresses me most about the Jewish people as a people is their ability to survive the kinds of dehumanizing systematic oppression which would have robbed me long ago of both my faith and my will to live. Both of those - faith and the will to breath in and out each moment - are too often fleeting for me. I have long struggled with a disease (in the most literal sense of the word) which I have not overtly written about here. I have no intention of wallowing in the filth and pity of that disease now, spinning some story for sympathy. Suffice it to say, as someone too easily discouraged in my own life, I have only respect for those who truly suffer and yet retain their faith, their hope, and yes, their love.

When I read I usually read at least two books at the same time: one a rigorous, challenging academic work, the other (at least in terms of literary style, if not always in terms of content) a "lighter" work. I'm still slowly picking my way through Heschel's philosophy of Judaism, God in Search of Man, which I may still be reading whenever I finally start taking classes again. The other book I'm reading at the moment is Elie Wiesel's famous memoir Night, the story of his experiences in a concentration camp. Put simply, this book is slowly ripping my soul out.

When I was 14 or 15 my family went to Washington, D.C. for Spring Break. While we were there I insisted on visiting the then brand new United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. There, for the first time, I stared at images of pure evil, unable to deny their place in history. I saw pictures of children my age, emaciated and disfigured. I read stories of unspeakable brutality, and stories of despicable complicity. I learned of the silence of a world that did not want to admit that this could happen, that a whole people could be exterminated, that children could be fed to the fires.

Now, 13 or so years later, I am reading the words, the memories, of one who survived. Once again, the problem of pain, the problem of evil, the problem of suffering is made too concrete. Yes it is an interesting philosophic and theological problem. But, as I've said before, the problem is not really one of reconciling our concepts of God to a world which includes suffering. The problem, ultimately, is that we experience suffering at all. And such suffering that the very fiber of our being protests, rages against it.

Francois Mauriac's foreword to the book ends with a meditation on the relationship between faith and such suffering. After relaying the story of how he met Wiesel and heard his story, the story that he would eventually help publish, he writes:

And I, who believe that God is love, what answer was there to give my young interlocutor whose dark eyes still held the reflection of the angelic sadness that had appeared one day on the face of a hanged child? What did I say to him> Did I perhaps speak to him of that other Jew, this crucified brother who perhaps resembled him and whose cross conquered the world? Did I explain to him that what had been a stumbling block for his faith had become a cornerstone for mine? And that the connection between the cross and human suffering remains, in my view, the key to the unfathomable mystery in the faith of his childhood was lost? And yet, Zion has risen up again out of the crematoria and slaughterhouses. The Jewish nation has been resurrected from among its thousands of dead. It is they who have given it new life. We do not know the worth of one single drop of blood, one single tear. All is grace. If the Almighty is the Almighty, the last word for each of us belongs to Him. That is what I should have said to the Jewish child. But all I could do was embrace him and weep.

"All I could do was embrace him and weep." That is the only truly human response to such overwhelming suffering. Words of encouragement, whether the come from our theologies or our psychologies or our philosophies of life, no matter how deep they may appear on paper or in the ears of those who have not just lost everything they've ever had, even their very selves, seem in the face of such suffering empty, hollow and weak. There is a reason why Rachel, while weeping for her children, refused to be comforted.

The cross tells us that sometimes the only way through pain is to embrace pain, to share pain, to take on pain. And the only way to comfort this wounded Jewish child, whose soul and whose God died on the same day, at the same moment, might be to enter into that moment, to share that moment, and to risk the death of one's own soul, one's own God.

But the foreword, however gripping, however devastating, should be read as a warning. It, after all, comes from the other side of the pain, a product of time, of space, of physical, psychological and especially spiritual difference. The book itself is raw emotion, a challenge to the God who allowed such pain. There are many passages which confront the reader with the death of faith, the death of the soul, and the death of God. There are many passages which, if you open yourself up to them, will force you to redefine your faith in light of them, to account for this story of unrestrained evil and a complicit, silent world.

Here is the last story I read today before I simply had to stop, to process, to write:

Akiba Drumer has left us, a victim of the selection. Lately he had been wandering among us, his eyes glazed, telling everyone how weak he was: "I can't go on... It's over..." We tried to raise his spirits, but he wouldn't listen to anything we said. He just kept repeating that it was all over for him, that he could no longer fight, he had no more strength, no more faith. His eyes would suddenly go blank, leaving two gaping wounds, two wells of terror.

He was not alone in having lost his faith during those days of selection. I knew a rabbi, from a small town in Poland. He was old and bent, his lips constantly trembling. He was always praying, in the block, at work, in the ranks. He recited entire pages from the Talmud, arguing with himself, asking and answering himself endless questions. One day he said to me:

"It is over. God is no longer with us."

And as though he regretted having uttered such words so coldly, so dryly, he added in his broken voice, "I know. No one has the right to say things like that. I know that very well. Man is too insignificant, too limited, to even try to comprehend God's mysterious ways. But what can someone like myself do? I'm neither a sage nor a just man. I am not a saint. I'm a simple creature of flesh and bone. I suffer hell in my soul and my flesh. I also have eyes and I see what is being done here. Where is God's mercy? Where's God? How can I believe, how can anyone believe in this God of Mercy?

Poor Akiba Drumer, if only he could have kept his faith in God, if only he could have considered his suffering a divine test, he would not have been swept away by the selection. But as soon as he felt the first chinks in his faith, he lost all incentive to fight and opened the door to death.

When the selection came, he was doomed from the start, offering his neck to the executioner, as it were. All he asked of us was:

"In three days, I'll be gone... Say Kaddish for me."

We promised: in three days, when we would see the smoke rising from the chimney, we would think of him. We would gather ten men and hold a special service. All his friends would say Kaddish.

Then he left, in the direction of the hospital. His step was almost steady, and he never looked back. An ambulance was waiting to take him to Birkenau.

There followed terrible days. We received more blows than food. The work was crushing. And three days after he left, we forgot to say Kaddish.

In the face of this story, and the thousands of other stories just like it, we must ask with the rabbi whose faith and God deserted him, "Where is God's mercy? Where's God? How can I believe, how can anyone believe in this God of Mercy?"

Where is God, in the shadow of Auschwitz? Such questions have no answers; at least no rational answers. They are existential questions every bit as powerful as the existential questions which lead us to God, to faith, to religion. They are questions which we must embrace, questions which we must take into our very selves, questions which we must make a part of us until they no longer terrify us. Faith can survive doubt only if faith embraces doubt rather than illusion.

But at the moment I am in a strange place. My son is next to me, exploring ever corner of my basement office, his joyous music filling the air as the childish voice of Brian Wilson asks us about our favorite vegetable. Elie Wiesel's Night is in front of me, with stories of parents and children with dreams similar to mine, whose hopes were shattered by pure evil. My son holds a toy horse and looks at it, meditating for a moment on just what he wants to do with as Brian Wilson serenades us with pieces of children's music mixed into his pop overtures from Smile. And I want to believe that the world is safe, that the world is good, and that God is looking out for me as I look out for my son. All the while I remember the shattered faiths of people more devout than I have ever been or ever will be, just before their bodies are tossed into the flames which have already consumed their children. And my son is blissfully unaware of the war in my soul as I try to reconcile my own faith to a world with such horrors in it.

Perhaps this is why even Jesus cried out from the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!?" But I am not Jesus, nor am I Elie Wiesel, and my God has nor forsaken me yet. My son grabs my leg as Brian Wilson moves into "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow," originally titled "Fire," saying "Uh oh!"

Monday, September 25, 2006

Conflict of Interests?

I just read this, saying that McDonald's is donating $2,000,000 to the Scripps Institute to fund scientific research to help solve America's childhood obesity epidemic.

I'd love to salute their generosity, I really would. I would love to be moved by such a benevolent gift to such a noble cause. But, sentimental sap though I be, I simply can't see this as anything other than a relatively small gift to help a company whose PR has been sagging, especially in the wake of documentary "hit job" Supersize Me (one of the many pieces of leftist propaganda in my movie collection).

Simply put, McDonald's shilling for childhood obesity research is as dishonest as big tobacco leading campaigns to inform consumers of the health risks of smoking. McDonald's, after all, was the company who perfected market directly to children, using an over-sized hypnotic clown to pair their product with the immature desires of children who can't distinguish between advertising and entertainment.

When I think of my own childhood obsession with McDonald's, which forced my parents and grandparents to consume far too many items of dubious nutritious and culinary value, I remember a more recent incident involving my oldest nephew, Josh. One day Josh approached his father, my twin brother Tom, and said "Daddy, did you know that Papa Johns has the best pizza in the whole world!"

To which Tom, somewhere between mildly amused and incredulous, replied something like, "Really, Josh? Where did you hear that?"

Josh, armed with the certainty of youth, said, "I heard it on the TV, so it must be true!"

Josh got a long lecture on the difference between programming - particularly news programming - and advertisements. He's still struggling to understand that just because someone says something is true, that doesn't mean that what they say really is true, especially if they're trying to sell you something.

But, of course, it is easy to dupe people, and it is especially easy to dupe children. And McDonald's has made an nearly uncountable pile of loot using cartoonish characters to blur the line in children's minds between advertising and programming. In doing so they have made the life of many a parent far more difficult by creating an artificial desire for their product in the minds of children - a desire based less on the merits (and especially demerits) of their product, and more on the pair of that product with lovable lush figures.

Of course, while they count their dough (pardon the bad pun) we count the pounds added to our collective waistlines, and more troublingly the waistlines of our children. This is not to say that McDonald's is solely or even primarily to blame for the epidemics of obesity and childhood obesity in our culture. But it is to say that they participate in it, and profit from it.

If they fund an honest study, it will probably tell them a number of things which we already know. What you eat matters, and what they serve is not fit to be eaten. Sure, the epidemic of obesity and childhood obesity is more complicated than that, but certain aspects of it are simple, and simply put, they are part of the problem. They don't need to put $2,000,000 into the hands of researchers to find that out.

The bigger question is, as it become undeniable that the fast food industry in general and McDonald's (as the symbol of our fast food culture) in particular are helping to make Americans the fattest people on the planet, what are they going to do about it? Because a $2,000,000 PR job isn't going to be nearly enough.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Telling Adam Stories

This blog used to be full of stories about my son, Adam, now almost twenty months old. But lately I've been caught up in "serious" stuff, forgetting the wisdom of youth which says that the purpose of life is simply to live. While I don't want to idealize them too much, children have a kind of spiritual genius which we could all stand to learn from.

My son, for instance, still makes no firm distinction between work and play. Every morning, after I change his "morning diaper" - the sticky, soggy, saturated blob still stuck to his butt from the night before - he insists on cleaning everything up. He picks up the changing pad and the wipes container, putting them back where they go. Then he grabs his late, great diaper, lifts it over his head and proudly, almost gleefully, declares "Trash!" Then he trots out to the kitchen, opens up the cabinet where the trash can for diapers is kept safe from the reach of curious household pets (who would gladly scatter the remnants of a former diaper all over the house if only the could get the paws on one), and plops it into the can. "All done!"

"All done" is his new favorite phrase. It is a useful little gem of a statement, made all the more useful by the flexible meanings he ascribes to it. It could mean that he is finished eating his morning oatmeal. It could mean that his cup is empty. It could mean that he has just done something that we should all marvel at. Or it could be an expression of wishful thinking, hoping against hope that if he proclaims an unwanted activity finished, then, by God, the activity must be finished.

Half an hour into the forty-five minute trip to Oldham County to visit Sami's mother, Adam's beloved "MeMe" (so named in part as a joke that stuck - every time she left a message on our answering machine my mother-in-law would begin, "Yeah, it's me," so we threatened to change her name to "Me") he grabs the strap on his car seat - we call it his "seat belt" so he can associate it with our seat belts and realize that if Mama has to wear a seat belt and Daddy has to wear a seat belt then Adam had better wear a seat belt, too - and declare this torturous trip "All done!"

His language is exploding. That may be the biggest change since the last time I've written about him. Whereas he once had only a few disconnected words, now he speaks in little sentences. Every morning, as he readies himself for preschool, he says, almost rote, "Bye-bye, Daddy! I love you, Daddy!" Of course, his "I love you" is more like "Iwufoo," sounds all jumbled together, unable to slip past his still developing tongue. But I know what he means.

His language is often context-dependant. That is, he is almost constantly speaking, but if you don't know what he's looking at or responding to, you may never know what it is that he's saying. For the longest time I thought it was gibberish, but it is starting to become more clear. You can see patterns in the sounds even when he doesn't exactly know the word he's looking for.

To understand him, you also have to understand that sometimes he simply gives up on words. Realizing that he can't get the whole thing out, he'll pick a sound for a particular word, go with it, and hope that you can figure it out. For instance, "Ahhh!," if it is accompanied by the roar of an airplane overhead and his little finger pointing at the sky, is "airplane." If that same sound is accompanied by him puffing his cheeks out and blowing furiously trying triumphantly to imitate the trumpeting of an elephant, is, of course, "elephant."

But he doesn't always pick his closest approximation of the opening sound in a word or phrase. For complex words he generally goes for the most familiar sound, no matter where it appears in the word. This morning, for instance, we were wrestling on the bed, part of our Friday morning routine. He goes to preschool Monday through Thursday. When we signed him up we expected that by now I would either be working, in law school, or both. But I still don't have a job, and law school was a terrible idea for me. Since his preschool is in the same building where his mother works, and since we are getting a good discount for that, we decided top let him start preschool anyway, giving me time to work on my writing while also, hopefully, getting a part time job and working toward getting back in school (you should already know that story. While I pick him up from his preschool at noon four days a week, giving us some time alone together those day, Friday is our day. Just the two of us, like it used to be.

So, on Friday mornings, we wrestle on Daddy's bed, a treat for the both of us. Today during our match, he learned a new word: BOOM! I'd pick him up and slam him down on the mattress, yelling "Boom!" I'd jump onto the bed next to him, mimicking an elbow drop. BOOM! Then he started saying "boom." He'd jump up an down on my chest after "knocking me down" (I wonder if he thinks he did that with his own strength, like he can really take me down if he needs to), yelling Boom! BOOM!

Every moment is a teaching moment, so I decided to teach him something he won't learn for a few more years. I said, "Adam, did you know that 'boom' is an example of onomatopoeia?" He responded by proudly declaring "Pea! Pea!," like, "I get it, Daddy! See, I can say it, too!"

But what I love most about him is that, for him, everything is play, everything is - at least potentially - a game. It is a dark, damp, ugly morning. Rain has set in, keeping us from going to the park, swinging at the playground, or taking the dog for a walk, a few of our favorite Friday things. He spent much of the morning begging to go outside, so I told him that it was raining, and we can't go outside in the rain. Adam, in response, opened up the front door revealing the glass storm door that he looks out through to see the wider world, as if to try to prove that it wasn't really raining, like hope is a strategy for changing the fundamental nature of the universe. Seeing that it was, in fact, raining, just like Daddy said it was, he paused for a moment, downtrodden.

Then he simply shut the front door behind him, leaving him standing in the space between the front door and the storm door. In mock surprise I playfully teased, "Where's Adam?" Giggles come from behind the door. "Is he under the couch?" More giggles. "Is he in the bathroom?" Still more giggles. "Is he... behind the door?" *Gasp* A little voice from behind the door, emphatically, "NO!" I walked to the door, slowly opened it, and said "I see ADAM!," at which point he erupted into a fit of giggles.

But now I hear him calling out to me, "ALL DONE!," letting me know that his benevolent patience has about run out. Daddy simply must be done pecking at that silly keyboard.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Heschel on the Decline of Religion

Some of you know the strange path I took to getting my college degree. I flunked out of college not once but twice, wrestling with immaturity and undiagnosed mental illness. When I was twenty two years old, not sure when or if I would give school a third try, I got married. My marriage to Sami provided me with a safe and stable home environment. Her love an encouragment literal pushed me back into a classroon.

Just over a year after we got married, I enrolled in a community college, full of anxiety, and eager to see if all of the academic skills that others saw in me would translate into success in the classroom. To prepare for my return to school I put together a reading list to try to jump start my brain. I'd spent the years out of school working dead-end jobs while studying theology on my own. With theology as the only academic discipline I'd ever really known, my reading list was full of it. The summer before classes started I read copious doses of Bonhoeffer, Tillich, and H. Richard Niebuhr (but, for some reason, not the other Niebuhr. I also read a couple of more general books on Buddhism, especially Donald S. Lopez, Jr.'s The Story of Buddhism: A Concise Guide to its History and Teachings.

I don't know whether or not the reading list helped. I do know that when I went back to school I was as good a student as I was a bad one the first two times I'd tried college. I spent a year at the community college rehabilitationg my transcript, before tranferring to a state university. It took me three years (one at the community college and two at the university) to earn my bachelor's degree, with High Distinction, no small feat even if I hadn't been working as the Youth Minister of a United Methodist church the whole time.

If all goes as planned I'll be back in school - after a one year layoff - this spring, working on a Master of Arts in Religion as a stepping stone to a PhD or ThD, possibly in theological ethics. Remembering my old reading list, I've been putting together a new one, to re-jump start my brain. The last few weeks I've been studying contemporary issues in Judaism as a way to prepare myself to read Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel's great God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism.

Heschel, Professor of Ethics and Mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (where he eventually eclipsed Mordecai Kaplan - responsible for the first bat mitzvah, a sign of the full inclusion of women in at least some forms of Judaism - as the dominant theological voice) was perhaps most famous outside of Judaism as an activist. He not only marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Civil Rights movement, he also spoke out against war and violence as a part of the peace movment. A brilliant and lucid scholar, he is a credit to the religion which produced him, and his insights spread far beyond the narrow scope of a single religion.

That is perhaps what attracts me to him most. While he writes within a religious tradition that is not my own (even if it is both - in the form of the religion of ancient Israel - a parent religion, and - in the form of the rabbincal Judaism which emerged after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE - a sister religion to my own Christianity), what he writes can inspire the practice of people of just about any faith.

Yesterday, with great anticipation, I finally picked up his most famous work, the aforementioned God in Search of Man (or, in the gender-inclusive language of our day, God in Search of Humanity, since Heschel doesn't here mean that God is seeking only those of us with a penis), and read this:

It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religionin modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion has declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion - its message becomes meaningless.

Religion is an answer to man's ultimate questions. The moment we become oblivious to ultimate questions, religion becomes irrelevant, and its crisis sets in. The primary task of philosophy of religion is to rediscover the questions to which religion is an answer. The inquiry must proceed both be delving into the consciousness of man as well as by delving into the teachings and attitudes of the religious tradition.

Those words which, first published in 1955, open Heshel's greatest book, still speak poignantly and powerfully today. In fact, perhaps they speak most powerfully today, in the midst of a culture war which pits religion against those bugaboos idenitfied by Heschel as "secular science and anti-religious philosophy." Religious people today are too often most fearful of any idea which seems to contradict the tennants of their belief system, as we confuse systematic belief with deep and abiding faith. As such we have a near war between science and religion, with evangelical parents either yanking their kids from the "Godless" public schools and thus financially crippling them, or, worse, working with political instiutions to change the fundamental character of public education. Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection - which Teilhard put to such good theological use - is, despite long being accepted science, under increased attack by people who mistake mythos for logos.

Thus science is pitted against religion, even though, as Heschel points out here, science and religion ask very different sorts of questions. But it is not just science which is pitted against religion. The culture wars place almost everything against religion, waging a war on too many fronts to name. In this suspicious environment, in which nothing is allowed to challenge the tennants of one's belief without being seen as a diabolical plan to steal faith from the faithful, Heschel's warning that religion is responsible for its own demise could not be more timely, even if it is now more than fifty years old.

Tomorrow, or perhaps this weekend or early next week (the great thing about blogs is there are no externally imposed publishing deadlines!) I will break down these two paragraphs in more detail. For now, however, we should simply meditate on them. I am interested to hear what other people think about the way Heschel opens his magnum opus on philosophy of religion in general and philosophy of Judaism in particular. So, if you're so inclined, leave a comment or send me an email, letting me know your take on Heschel's comments. What do you think he's saying, and is it valuable today?

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

I Want My Country Back

In a "war on terror" - even if it isn't, properly speaking, a "war" - it should not be too hard to hold on to the moral high ground. After all, the "enemy" - even if said enemy is really an over-simplified homogenized construct - has as their modus operandi mass death and destruction, failing to distinguish between the innocent and the guilty, the military and civilians. Against such an enemy (or better, against such enemies, as there is no centralized terrorist organization against whom we are fighting, nor any real way to unify the disparate elements whom our government lumps together under too neat a heading), it really should not be too hard to come off looking at least a little bit sympathetic.

After all, how hard is it, really, to look at least a little bit morally superior to people whose idea of a successful event is chaos and destruction? How hard is it, really, to be the morally preferable choice when your opponent sets up roadside bombs which kill indiscriminately, or takes aid workers hostage and publicly beheads them?

Yet my beloved homeland, the United States of America, is constantly losing the PR war and the war of ideas. Unable to morally distinguish themselves from the terrorist networks that they so ineffectively combat, the current presidential administration's policies in this never-ending "war on terror," which is really a struggle against Islamism (which can be distinguished from Islam in the same way that, say, the KKK and other "Christianist" hate groups can be distinguished from Christianity), are often so morally reprehensible that it is impossible to tell who the "good guys" are.

Our president is famous for his "moral clarity," a phrase which is growing increasingly ironic. Liberalism, the tired refrain goes, blurred the firm moral distinctions which are the foundation of our great nation. Tolerance, relativism, situational ethics, these amount to nothing more than a front for self-indulgent hedonism. This long-obvious truism, so the neo-cons would have us believe, was made most manifest in President Clinton's loose sexual relations, and even looser relation with the all-important "truth." Our new guiding light, a born again Christian and man of integrity, was to restore our faith in simple moral absolutes, cutting through the fog of liberalism.

But, I have to ask, what good is moral clarity if it focuses primarily on, say, sexual issues, rather than more serious social and moral issues such as the justifications for war and violence, and fundamental civil and human rights. It is becoming increasingly clear that such moral clarity amounts to a divine mandate to do whatever the hell you want.

Both the AP and the New York Times published stories today on the sad case of naturalized Canadian citizen Maher Arar, one victim of the Bush administration's morally dubious policy called, in a marvelous case of the sanitization of public language, "extraordinary rendition." And, while this policy, which amounts to kidnapping a suspect and then transferring them to the custody of a nation whose idea of "moral clarity" includes the divine right to beat the hell out of someone for information or just plain fun, allowing the United States to at least in the eyes of a few lawyers adhere to letter of international treaties to which we are a party, is no longer accepted, it is worth meditating for a moment on the moral damage of ever having thought that this was a good idea.

It has been well established that Mr. Arar, who is just one of many victims of the morally bankrupt policy, "was detained at New York's Kennedy Airport on Sept. 26, 2002, on his way home from vacation in Tunisia." After his detention, he was sent to Syria, where he was tortured. For all of the images that the word "torture" conveys, it is still a relatively sterile word, taking some of the punch out of the facts of the case. We can all agree that torture is bad, but by coming up with a handy heading under which to bundle any number of behaviors, we, with our delicate stomachs, can conveniently avoid concrete images. Images of a man being beaten, whipped with electrical wires, deprived of food, deprived of sleep, deprived of light, deprived of human companionship, deprived of air, deprived of space. Confined, isolated, physically and emotionally abused in unspeakable ways, for what certainly seemed like a very, very long time.

Time, as has often been noted, is relative. Writing from a Nazi prison, German theologian and Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer meditated often on the way in which our experience of the passing of time depends on our circumstances. And for him, time in prison was interminable. How long must Mr. Arar's year in Syrian custody have seemed to him? How can one ever be compensated for such a loss?

And now, in the words of Ian Austin's New York Times article, "[a Canadian] government commission on Monday exonerated a Canadian computer engineer of any ties to terrorism." Exonerated is a strong word, but Mr. Austin didn't make it up. The head of the commission which spent a whopping two and a half years studying Mr. Arar's case said this at a press conference yesterday:

"I am able to say categorically that there is no evidence to indicate that Arar has committed any offense or that his activities constituted a threat to the security of Canada."

In other words, the computer software engineer is so innocent that there is no credible evidence at all against him. Because of an ill conceived American policy, a man whose only crime was to be an Arab at a time when all Arabs are being lumped together under the heading of "terrorist," was subject to twelve months of torture at the hand of a Syrian agency working for the United States.

That Mr. Arar was so obviously innocent, while compounding the tragedy of his case, should not, however, distract us from the larger moral and political considerations here. It is easy to condemn such treatment when the victim is innocent, but the guilt or innocence of a subject should not mute the moral outrage at such intolerable behavior. The rights of the accused do not, cannot, depend on the guilt or innocence of the accused, particularly in an environment so emotionally charged that, the law be damned, all are presumed guilty until proven innocent.

Simply put, "torture," whatever form it takes, constitutes the physical and emotional harming of a moral object (that is, someone who can be the object of moral behavior - this term is not meant to imply that a moral object cannot also be a subject - that is, one who acts, and whose actions can be morally evaluated). Any such harm should be both

a.) justified on some grounds, with greater justification needed for greater harm, and with some harms being so great that there may be no conceivable justification, and

b.) balanced by some good which is brought about by the harm.

That is, every harm must be balanced by some good, and every harm must be in some way justified. The justification and the resultant good must be proportional to the harm caused. These twin checks ensure

a.) in the case of justification, that no contrived harm (that is, a harm which is artificially and intentionally constructed) may be justifiably imposed on an innocent person, and

b.) in the case of balancing harm with resultant good, that every contrived harm must aim for and be reasonably expected to achieve some countervailing good.

I could flesh out these consideration in much greater detail, but that would distract from my purpose here, which is to provide these as a rough and ready tool to evaluate the moral value of cases in which great harm is done to "suspects," especially in the case of torture, such as the torture or Mr. Arar. Those of you, like Brian, who do this for a living can, I'm sure, offer a valuable critique of the moral theory presented here. It surely needs some refinements, as it borrows heavily from Utilitarian moral theory while trying to answer some serious concerns about Utilitarianism.

Anyway, in the case of the extraordinary rendition of a person with suspected ties to a terrorist organization, what moral considerations do we have?

The primary harm is the physical and emotional damage of being carried far from home and being, say, beaten, confined in solitude, deprived of vital needs, and the like. While there are other, lesser harms, these harms are so strong we almost need not consider them. But, in a less extreme situation, those harms might be serious indeed.

Mr. Arar, for instance, was held against his will for over a year. During that time he had no contact with his family, which I am sure caused more than a little distress and anxiety not only to him, but also to those who care about him. He was also economically harmed, prevented from practicing his trade while in custody. No doubt the implication of his (now known to be fictional) association with terrorist organization, in this climate of fear and hostility, further harmed his ability to practice his trade, and did serious damage to his social standing.

But those peripheral harms might be justified. They are, after all, fairly common products of any criminal justice system. Any moral theory which holds that such harms are not in at least some case justified has few if any options at its disposal for curbing criminal behavior. The primary harms here, however, may never be justified. Not only is it difficult to imagine any behavior which would warrant such treatment, it is even more difficult to imagine that any countervailing good could be used to offset these harms.

What good, after all, comes from torture? While it has often been used for interrogation, there is no credible evidence that any reliable information comes from people who talk to end their immediate physical suffering. People are inclined to say anything to make the pain go away. That means far from providing authorities with any new information, often dubiously confirming what is already "known," even if such "knowledge" later proves to be false.

Meanwhile, aside from the obvious and immediate harm done to the object of torture, the practice of torture opens the door to more subtle harms. When torture becomes public - and if the Abu Garib and "extraordinary rendition" scandals prove anything it is that torture almost always eventually becomes public - it does great harm to the very people who justified using it against others for their own self interest. The standing of the United States in the world, its public moral authority, so necessary to its standing as a super-power, has been irreparably harmed by its inhumane treatment of terror suspects. Far from making this ill-conceived war on terror easier, moral dubious US policies have made our nation's task that much harder. Our allies are few, our enemies numerous, and our moral authority bankrupt. At a time in which we need the world to trust our judgment as we use our unprecedented power to attempt to solve serious global problem, our dishonest justifications from unjustifiable actions have made those few states which trust us look foolish in the eyes of an ever suspicious world.

The Bush adminstration's promised "moral clarity" has proved to be neither particularly moral nor particularly clear, and I am left with a country I barely recognize. Long cherished values of due process and the rights of the accused have been tossed aside at the very moment we needed them most. While power has long made America secure, it is not only the tangible power of military might which has aided our security. It is also the power of our ideals, ideals which the Bush administration appropriates in language and denies in action, which, in helping our standing in the world and lending us the moral credibility necessary for difficult actions, secures us.

When we act with the moral bankruptcy of the disparate Islamists who use terror to reshape the world according to their disturbing ideals, we are indistinguishable from them. This lack of moral distinction, far more than the too few and too quiet protests against morally dubious administration policies, truly gives aid and comfort to the "enemy": aid in the form of increased donations to "charities" who fund terrorist organizations, and comfort in the illusion of the divine mandate which comes with opposing an enemy that is so obviously unrighteous.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Infestation Prevents Relaxation, or For a Nuclear Winter This Feels Awfully Warm

This past week my basement dungeon/office has been under siege. My animal right credentials may be pulled as a result of my response to said siege. Fleas have infiltrated my sacred space, torturing my legs every time I sit down to write. Frustrated, this weekend I unleashed an assault which - I thought - would be sure to bring about a devastating nuclear winter, rendering my adversaries extinct. I went to Feeders Supply and bought the biggest flea bomb I could find. And, since the fleas were congregating by the computer, I sat it right next to my desk. After fiddling with it for what felt like most of an afternoon, but which really must have been only a couple of minutes (time is relative, and when your legs are being eating by merciless insects, a minute feels more like a decade) I finally got the bomb to unleash its fury.

This afternoon, bored with football (Colts thumping Texans, Bears destroying Lions), I finally mustered up the courage to go downstairs to survey the damage. Let's just say that if the Cold War had ever really turned hot, the cockroaches wouldn't have been the only survivors. The fleas may have been demoralized, and they may have suffered some heavy casualties, but they are far from routed. I type this wearing blue jeans, and worse *gasp* socks and shoes. (For insight into preferred footwear, see, say, my pseudonym, or the title of this blog.) Even so, I've already picked more than a few fleas off of my legs.

Until I get this situation under control, my writing will suffer. I simply can't concentrate while having my blood sucked by these parasites. I wonder if the problem of suffering, or the problem of pain, or the problem of evil (pick your favorite title) shouldn't be rechristened the problem of fleas. What constructive purpose do these creatures serve? How do they fit into the interconnected, interdependent and beautifully organic whole of creation? Do they do anything but create misery?

I'm only half joking here. It is easy to excuse God for some forms of natural suffering because we can see how such suffering is the inevitable result of a natural system which is working quite well. But is all natural suffering so easily dismissed as the cost of doing business in a complex world which holds many forms of organisms in balance?

But we'll have to have that discussion sometime when my legs don't look like an cross between an all-you-can-eat buffet and a cheap motel.

In the meantime, I've been working on some thoughts about the relationship between some passages in Mark and some passages in James, particularly Mark 7:1-23 (especially 14-15, when Jesus sounds just like a Reform rabbi) and James 1:17-27 (especially 27). In both cases the focus of religious practice shifts from the ritual or ceremonial to the concrete. I may or may not relate this to some contemporary disputes in Judaism; especially disputes within Orthodox Judaism (between, say, more modern Orthodox Jews and the fundamentalist sects) and between Orthodox Judaism and the other strains of Judaism, such as Conservative and Reform.

That, however, will have to wait until my office looks and feels less like a war zone.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

That damned liberal media... always distorting the news

There is a great deal of criticism about the main-stream media circulating today. But much of that criticism badly misses the mark. Don't misunderstand me. I'm not coming to the aid of media conglomerates who distort the news, or selectively choose what counts as news, for ideological or commercial reasons. But I am saying that every time a conservative mindlessly parrots the old line about the media being liberal, far from serving as a watchdog guarding against and correcting media bias, they are instead helping cover up the real abuses of the news at the hands of mass media.

As Eric Alterman demonstrated in painstaking detail in his book What Liberal Media?, the media considered as a whole - despite the party affiliation of individual reporters - is neither conservative nor liberal, neither Republican nor Democrat. Rather, it is a commercial enterprise interested less in a well informed public and more in lining the corporate coffers with gold.

In practice this means that the media consistently fails to confront power by arming the electorate with information. Instead of being told how we are being constantly screwed by those who want to use us to make themselves more obscenely wealthy, instead of being told how money and power are being consolidated into the hands of a very few, we are fed a constant diet of junk. Distracting frivolities.

Of course, all of this is a painful oversimplification, but such is the nature of blogs. While there are many diverse forms of media, and many different groups and interests represented within each form of media, the entire enterprise is handily reduced to "corporate media" or "mainstream media," or, far too often and far too inaccurately, the "liberal media." But, if we are being honest in how we use our language, we ought never to conflate "liberal media" with "corporate" or "mainstream media." Simply put, "liberal" media outlets - and there still are a few out there - have a very different interest than mainstream corporate media outlets. Liberal media, strong in its ideological convictions, believes that a well informed public will come to see that the political philosophy of the so-called "liberals" is the best way to address what ails our country. Mainstream corporate media believes - if one can describe this as a belief - that a well informed public is bad for advertising revenue.

As such, there is tremendous conflict between liberal (and even "conservative - as it, too, has ideological principles which require a well informed public, I hope) media and the mainstream media; though not that the mainstream media would notice.

The LEO, the standard bearer for local liberal media, has just published an article on the 10 big stories - vital for a well informed public, which is necessary for democracy - which have been censored, ignored, or under-reported by the mainstream media, as identified by Carl Jenson of Project Censored. Alongside these stories are Project Censored latest edition of Junk Food News - 10 stories with little or no news value which have been all over the news, distracting and dumbing down the public.

Of course, to a certain extent blaming the media for covering Tom Cruise instead of, say, civilian casualties in Iraq, Halliburton selling nuclear technology to Iran, or erosions to federal whistleblower protection is like blaming McDonalds for America choosing to eat crap. Corporate entities, the argument goes, sell what people are willing to buy. Celebrity fluff pieces, tabloid news, they sell. Global warming? Al Gore's valiant effort notwithstanding, not so much.

But I have to ask: is a corporate model the best model for the news? Sure we all believe in the gods of the market, who magically work out all things for the good of those who love money. But is the marketplace the best way to test the value of all things? Shouldn't some essentially human areas, such as, say, health care, and, yes, information, be rendered as a service instead of as a product?

One more reason why guns and God don't mix well

Special thanks to Tom for sending me this story, from the AP:

ATHENS, Ala. - A woman and two roommates are accused of holding her brother at gunpoint as she prayed for his repentance, even firing a shot into the ceiling to keep his attention.

Randy Doss, 46, of Athens said he fled the house when his captors got distracted and later went to police, who were skeptical at first because his story was so bizarre. But police said it checked out, including the bullet hole in the ceiling.

"We found where they patched the hole with caulk," said Sgt. Trevor Harris.

Police said the sister, Tammie Lee Doss, 43, Donna Leigh Bianca, 37, and Ronald David Richie, 45, who live at the Athens house, were charged with unlawful imprisonment, a misdemeanor. The two women were also charged with menacing, a misdemeanor. All were released on bond.

Harris said Randy Doss went to the house about 7 p.m. on Labor Day and at some point got in an argument with the two women about religion. When they prayed for him, he laughed.

"They both got upset and pointed pistols at him," Harris said. "They wouldn't let him leave. Bianca fired one round in the ceiling in the hallway a few feet from the victim's head."

Harris said the women tried to get Doss to admit things he did as a child.

"She claims the brother wronged her years ago when they were kids and she just got the truth out of him and apparently wanted revenge," said Harris. "He says they would not let him go. The sister says she was just trying to scare her brother."

The three suspects denied they held Doss against his will.

"The door was never locked and he could have walked out that door any time he wanted to," the sister told the News-Courier of Athens. "We never held him against his will."

Harris said Richie did not have a weapon but is accused of blocking the door to keep Doss from fleeing.

Doss said he escaped the house about 1 a.m. Tuesday.

"We don't know if they were just playing games, but it is ridiculous for men and women in their 40s to be playing games like this," Harris said.

Monday, September 11, 2006


It seems strange to write about divine providence on the fifth anniversary of an event which shook the collective faith and psyche of our nation. So much has been written, is being written, and will be written concerning that fateful day. We all watched with shock and horror as planes flew into those iconic buildings, the Twin Towers, a symbol of America and the American dream.

I did not sit down at my computer this morning to write about that day, or to commemorate its fifth anniversary. Yesterday I watched football and tennis, awed by the raw power of Andy Roddick, the quintessential American tennis player. Yesterday I was amazed as, once again, the sheer brutality of his game was neutralized by the artistry of Roger Fedderer. I also watched my Bengals (whose training camp is in Georgetown, KY, just a few miles from my hometown of Lexington) silence the naysayers who thought that their schedule was too tough or their chemistry too volatile to make another run at the playoffs. And, last night, I watched two brothers face off against each other as opposing NFL quarterbacks for the first time in the history of that league.

Yesterday I did not watch the many, many 9-11 anniversary specials, nor will I watch them today. I understand the value of remembrance, the need to grieve together our terrible losses as we celebrate the heroism of those whose merciful and courageous acts in the face of unspeakable tragedy become a part of our collective mythos. I don't know why I won't watch them, why I won't subject myself to the spectacle of suffering. Perhaps I am afraid of my own emotions. While I was not directly affected by those criminal acts, like the rest of us that day many illusions were ripped from me. Including the oh so precious illusion of control.

But before I write what I sat down to write, let me share some memories here.

Sami and I were married August 18, 2001. We immediately moved into an old apartment in downtown Louisville, complete with 18 foot ceilings and 12 foot windows on the main floor. It had potential, even if that potential was never realized in the time that we lived there.

On September 10 we drove to Lexington to be with my family as my dad prepared for a surgery the next morning. We were all concerned about the operation, but being together, as we were, so soon after our wedding - an event which helped rekindle the bonds of our emotionally fragmented family (a healing process which began with the birth of our beautiful nephew Josh) - we could put on our bravest faces.

I got up very early on the morning of September 11, to help take Dad to the hospital. Then I went back to my parents house, and fell back asleep in the arms of my new bride.

Bang! Bang! Bang! "We're under attack!"

My twin brother, like a lunatic, bang on and screaming through the door to the guest room at my parents house.

"Go away. I'm trying to sleep. That isn't funny," I groggily replied.

It wasn't funny, but it was true.

We spent the rest of the day between the hospital and the living room, watching the events unfold on the news at both locations.

Dad, of course, had the strangest experience. He was being prepped for his surgery as the planes exploded into the towers. He was already heavily sedated, and they were about to put him under the general anaesthesia when the news hit the operating room. As he was losing consciousness, he heard the staff gathered around him whisper ominously. Then he slipped into a bad dream.

It is hard to write about divine providence, God's plan which guides the course of the universe and each body in it, on a day like today, as we remember such devestating suffering. But even in the midst of such suffering, if we are honest, our experience of suffering is not monolithic. I've been writing a great deal lately on the problem of pain. My writing has come in part from my own, recent suffering. When I left pastoral ministry a part of me died. That part is slowly coming back to life. If we blame God for our sorrow, we must also, if we are honest, thank God for our joys.

In my last post I wrote about a friend whose wife is battling cancer. This past weekend he sent me an email. She came home from the hospital just in time to celebrate their oldest son's sixth birthday. Better still, her PET scan came back clear. There is no sign of the cancer.

I've also written here about my struggles with my vocation. I still can't find a job. Mix that with my family's recent financial distress and our culture's conditioning men to think that they must be the one's to enter the workforce and "provide for" their family, and you have an emotionally toxic cocktail. But, during this whole struggle, I have been seeing only half of the story. There is another story, and that story may have more to do with the course of the rest of my life than any other story told here.

This summer the IT department at my former seminary gave some faculty members technology assignments, to help them understand some of the many new ways in which students communicate. My former advisor was assigned to find out how many students and former students keep blogs. That assignment led her, of course, to my blog.

She loved what she read here, and as she read it she remember my strong work as a student, as well as the terrible day that I dropped out of school. We had a long conversation about my struggles in ministry, and the difficulties that struggle created for my family. We both wept as I decided to no longer pursue my formal theological education. She promised to help me in any way that she could, but after I walked out of her office our paths diverged. Until last week we hadn't seen each other since I left school.

A couple of weeks ago she sent me an email, complimenting my thinking and writing, and saying that I really should consider a career in academic theology. We set up a meeting at the seminary to discuss my prospects. Last week I visited her and others at the seminary, and they were all eager to get me back. After so many months of silent rejections by employers I'd never want to work for doing jobs I'd never want to do... the honor of being sought after, pursued, is unspeakable.

If I can get the money lined up - and it looks like I'll be able to do that - I intend to go back to school this Spring, to work on a Masters of Arts in Religion, focusing on theology, and more specifically, theological ethics. I should finish that program within two years. From there I will either immediately enter a PhD or ThD program, or continue my work at the seminary, pursuing a ThM (Masters of Theology) before I start my doctoral studies somewhere else. In any event, those of you who have encouraged me to re-enter academia should not consider your kind cousel wasted. If everything works out, I should spend the rest of my life doing this for a living.

I can't say for certain that the universe operates according to some divine plan. I can't say, in the face of the suffering which we remember today, that everything always works out for the good. But I can say, at least for now, that when my life seems darkest, there is always a light shining in the distance, waiting to illuminate my situation. I can say, at least for now, that when my story seems bleakest there is always another story waiting to be told.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Speaking of Suffering

One of my closest friends is a United Methodist minister named Aaron. I met him while he was a graduate student studying Medieval literature at the University of Kentucky, living an a rat-hole apartment behind my home church in Lexington. That stately building, home to "First Church," one of the oldest and most prestigious congregations in the Kentucky Conference, stood in such contrast to the humble neighborhood surrounding it. The wealthy suburbanites who drove across town to fill its still-proud pews had no points of intersection with the desperate poverty that surrounds every downtown church since white-flight bled our cities dry.

When I met Aaron he looked homeless. Sporting an old Russian beard (like a ZZ Top beard, only it hadn't yet turned white) adorned with denim and flanel, he cared not one whit for his appearance. His stark looks complimented his uncompromising personality. He had fire, both personally and intellectually. He helped me learn to love the quirks of the English language, even before he helped me learn to more deeply love the Lord, and the Word.

He was quite possibly the most unlikely member of our church, having ventured in one Sunday shortly after he'd had a conversion experience. But he quickly made himself indisposable, helping out with the Youth Group and even going on a mission trip to Estonia (he has a love of all things Eastern European, especially if they involve language or culture). As he grew in his faith, and as his involvement with the church expanded, he began to realize a calling to pastoral ministry, dropped out of his PhD program, and entered seminary.

He is the rare minister who defies all labels, a theological and political conservative who often shares the social concerns of liberals. He has no trouble breaking from the party line, if he will even acknowledge that such a line exists. I could spend thousands of words praising him for the depth of his faith and his service, not to mention the compassion with which he reaches out to the least and the lost, including the teenage Strappy, wandering in his own wilderness.

A couple of years ago Aaron's wife was diagnosed with cancer. Recently he started a blog, Grace Under Pressure, to help share the spiritual journey of fighting that cancer, and the bitterness and discouragement which so often accompanies such a fight. His most recent post is one of the most powerful meditations on suffering I've ever read. Since we've been discussing theodicies here, I thought that some of you should check out what Aaron has to say. For him, as for us sometimes, suffering is not some abstract subject, but simply a fact of life, to be overcome by the grace of the God who turns bad into good.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

No Comment

On of the unintended consequences of my recent switch to Blogger beta is that, at least for the moment, I can leave comments on non-beta blogs. So, if any of you are wondering why, in the past week, I haven't been commenting on some of your posts - posts which in some cases should have inspired good comments from me - that's why. As soon as Blogger gets its collective act together and solves the glitch which keeps beta bloggers from commenting on non-beta blogs, I'll happily resume my treasured correspondence with you through your blogs.


Some theodicies, rather than focusing on the nature of God or the nature of the world - and as such arguing that suffering is a necessary consequence of the interaction between those natures - focus instead on the nature of suffering itself. More pastoral in tone, these theodicies seek to find some redeeming good in suffering. While they may not outright say that suffering is better than not suffering, they do at least say that suffering is not unambiguously bad.

It seems to me that while these may be the least philosophically powerful theodicies, if their tone is carefully monitored they may be the ones which come closest to solving the problem of pain. That is, if they are truly and sensitively pastoral in tone, they can do what any Christian or even human approach to the problem of pain must do: help alleviate suffering.

One of my favorite bands as an evangelical Christian teenager was a group called Luxury. Listening back to them now, I can see them as - in their first incarnation - a kind of sillier Radiohead. They had a limited appeal, and so traveled across the country from dump to dive, in a van, unable to afford the luxuries that they so wittily mocked in "rock stars."

In the summer of either 1995 or 1996, I can't remember, on the road after playing at a Christian rock festival, they flipped their van. Each member of the group suffered many serious injuries, including broken backs, broken necks, and extreme blood loss. They were in grave condition, but all four of them eventually survived.

In 1999, to everyone's surprise, they released their third album. Scarred physically and emotionally from their collective near-death experience, this self-titled album had the lyrical depth which was so painfully absent from their first two effort. Their previous albums were witty and clever, sure, but juvenile and immature - which in rock isn't always a bad thing. But this third album, emerging from the ashes of the wreck which wracked their bodies and souls with pain, was a true work of art.

The last song on the album, "To You Who Gave Me Hope and Were My Light," most overtly deals with the emotional and physical residue of the wreck. The lyrics read:

I would that I were made new
These scars on my belly undo
And the blood that I have in my veins
Could be mine and not stranger unnamed

'Cos I once was perfect as you
Pink-skinned and full flaming youth
as the wind on a terrible sea
as a pillar of ivory

With six angels at my back
Two to sing
Two to pray
Two to bear my soul away

I would that I were made new
I would that I were made new
These scars on my belly undo
I would that I were made new

Hearing that song for the first time, I realized how pain can make one a little deeper, a little wiser. This band that had once nearly revered their own youth, and the perceived immortality which accompanied it, could now write a song that almost laments the passing of that youth. Time is precious, life is precious. Neither are to be wasted or taken for granted.

Just before noon today I headed out to pick Adam up from preschool. On the way out the door I grabbed this cd and stuck it in the car. Listening to it on the other side of my own life-changing wreck, I could see that while the final song may have been most overtly about the wreck, the entire album was colored by that innocence shattering experience.

I started this blog, though I didn't admit it at the time, as a kind of self-therapy. Having just resigned my pastorate, and with it having given up my life-long dream of being a United Methodist minister, I had a great deal to process. While I voluntarily left ministry, the circumstances surrounding the loss of my vocation were anything but voluntary. I was stuck between several wills, nearly unable to insert my own will into the conversation. My congregation was rejecting me and my ministry, rendering me unable to do my job. My wife was miserable both with that church, and with her broader role as a preacher's wife. I was just trying to hang on to my dignity and my sense of self-identity.

On the way to pick Adam up from preschool, for perhaps the first time, I really listened to the song "Mincemeat." Sure, I'd heard the song before, in the sense that I had been by the speakers when it was playing, having the sounds emitted from those speakers resonate in my ear-drums, and go through the usual process of being processed and interpreted in my brain. I even thought that I liked the song. I, for instanced, loved the interplay between the percussive guitar part and the string quartet - a first for Luxury. I was most impressed with the combination of acoustic and digital percussion, giving what began as a sparse bit of emo-rock a nearly symphonic feel as it raced toward the climactic crescendo. But I'd never really listen to it.

When you listen intently, intentionally, you are able to hear the things that you didn't expect to hear. You are able to be surprised, and even transformed. You are willing to consider a new perspective. Having heard the song without really listening to it, I was unable, until today, to hear in it the voice I never expected to hear. I was never able to hear it as a prayer, uttered in a moment of desperation, from someone struggling with the same sort of brokenness I have struggled with since my pastoral career ended.

So you thought
I looked a little unhealthy
A little weak in the knees
Well, why not?
Since you made mincemeat out of me

I thought I knew you
You were clean and cold
You did just what you were told

I thought I made you
Easy to behold
Easy to let go

Then you speak to me
That voice that made the seas
Those words never heard
That light never seen

All the times I was in the same room as this song, thinking that I understood it, that I liked it, it somehow escaped me that the song was directed at the God who had literally reduced the author's body to mincemeat. But while there is some bitterness hear, ultimately the voice of this prayer is not the voice of one who has rejected God. It is, instead, the voice of one who has come to understand that God transcends all of our thoughts about God.

We are the authors of theology, of concepts of God. But if there is truly a God, while we might craft a description of that God (a description which is doomed to be inaccurate and almost idolatrous) it is God who is continually making us, rather than the other way around.

The author/s here looks back to his childish understand of the God that he created in his own mind, and contrasts it with the incomprehensible majesty of the voice which made the seas. In that contrast, the suffering for which he/they blamed begins to make sense. The brokenness which followed that hellish moment becomes the lens through which God can be more clearly seen.

Finally listening to this song, hearing what I didn't expect to hear, was very inconvenient for me. I was driving, on my way to see the people who care for my son four mornings a week. I want them, for some strange reason, to like me, to admire me. I almost need them to approve of the job I've done so far in raising him. But driving there, with this song filling my car, the pure sound of it pushing down the walls that I construct to protect my precious bitterness and resentment like the trumpet blasts which felled the mythic walls of Jericho, tears welled in my eyes. I could no longer deny how broken I am. How directionless I've been since I left ministry.

As I pulled into the preschool parking lot, forcing back the tears which almost never come, I must have looked like a mess. And then, as quickly as that vulnerable moment arose, it subsided. I remember who I was, and where I was. I remembered that I need to pretend to have it all together. I remembered that adult life consists primarily of bluffing. And so I bluffed a well adjusted adult, pretending to be whole, all the while knowing just how broken I've been since I laid aside my vocational dreams.

Under my breath I muttered the closest thing to a real prayer I've been able to come up with in a long time: Fuck you! I admitted what I've been keeping to myself the whole time. I blame God for the state I'm in - a state which I don't often even admit to myself. But being able to admit that blame is perhaps the first step to recovery. Being able to - even if it is ultimately only directing curses to a steering wheel - admit how much I hate God, how much I blame God for the direction of my life, may be the beginning of being able to authentically worship God again. And they may be the beginning of reclaiming my life.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Teilhard's Limitation on Omnipotence

In my last two original posts I discussed part of the theology of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and a theodicy that limits God's powers while still holding to the description of God as omniscient and omnipotent. As luck, or fate, or providence would have it, the very next essay I read by Teilhard concerns something very much like that theodicy advanced by Swinburne discussed in my last original post.

Like the essay discussed here, today's essay, "Note on the Modes of Divine Action in the Universe," was written in January of 1920, but not published in Teilhard's lifetime. It is divided into two related sections, the first concerning how we experience the activity of God in the universe, and the second concerning, as Teilhard puts it, "the true extension (in the logical sense) of his [God's] omnipotence."

Teilhard, as both a scientist and a theologian, is concerned with balancing a semi-traditional view of God's activity in the world (especially a notion of God as a First Cause, the Aristotelian Prime Mover so influential on the scholastics which shaped the Catholic theology that Teilhard responds to) with the understandings of the science of his day. Perhaps his most controversial and influential work concerned the theological implications of Darwinian evolution. His allegiance to evolution by natural selection is clear here.

He immediately rejects a notion of God as "[a] dominant causality among [italics his] the other causalities," as "a force interpolated into the series of experiential forces." To speak of God's activity is not the same as to speak of any natural activity. To speak of God's influence is not the same as to speak of the influence of the wind, or of the sun, or even of human or animal activity; nor is it the same as to speak of the influence of natural forces such as gravity, or natural laws such as inertia. God, as the First Cause, is not to Teilhard one of many causes. God is categorically different than any other cause, and God's activity is categorically different than any other activity.

Having established what God's activity is not, Teilhard then turns to the question of what God's activity is. He sees God's activity in two ways. "A first, and peculiarly divine, way by which the First Cause can affect lower natures consists in its ability to act simultaneously on their whole body [italics his]." That is, viewing the world as a system, God is outside the system, working on the entire system simultaneously. Because God is outside the system, and because God works on everything in the system simultaneously, God's activity is, from inside the system, undetectable.

But, just as the theistic tradition balances a view of God out there with a view of God in here, and just as Christianity attempts to juxtapose an external Creator God with the incarnation, for Teilhard God's activity is not just that of an agent outside the system working on the system as a whole. As such, he says, "in addition to the faculty of acting upon the whole at once [italic his], the First Cause must also be able to make itself felt at the core of each element in the world individually." God, then, is not only immanent, God is also transcendent. God not only works on the entire system from the outside, but on each individual entity within the system, taking "a hold on their innermost life."

But the transcendant activity of God is just, to us, as undetectable as the immanent activity of God. "By reason of its extreme interiority it becomes inapprehensible." God activity, then, can never really be detected by humans. Either it is far too external, or far too internal. Either it works from outside the system on the system as a whole, or it works deeply inside of each of us, so internal to us that it is essentially a part of us, God inside us. "Thus, sometimes by excess of extension [italics his], sometimes by excess of depth [italics his], the point at which the divine force is applied is essentially extra-phenomenal."

As such, Teilhard, the scientist and theologian, says with confidence

[W]e shall never be enabled scientifically to see God, because there will never be any discontinuity between the divine operation and the physical and physiological laws which are science's sole concern. Since the chains of antecedents are never broken (but simply bent or extended) by divine action, an analytical observation of phenomena is powerless to enable us to attain God, even as Prime Mover. We shall never escape scientifically from the circle of natural explanations. This is something which we shall simply have to accept.

While this may at first seem like a more modern deism, like a precursor to the "Natural Religion" of the Enlightenment resurrected as the "New Christianity" of John Shelby Spong, there are a few of important points of deviation between Teilhard's view of God here and the "Watchmaker God" of deism. First, while Teilhard does posit a Creator God, outside the natural order, his God is also, as noted above, deeply inside the created order, working within each created thing. Second, while both views of God see God's activity as indistinguishable from nature, the deistic God created once upon a time, while Teilhard's God is constantly creating. This is a natural extension of his acceptance of evolution. Creation was not some event in the past, finished and done. Rather, the universe and all that is in it is constantly being created anew.

But perhaps the most important difference between Teilhard's theology and deism, at least as far as it relates to the life of faith, is found in his approach to miracles. While, again, both deism and Teilhard find God's activity so connected to nature that one cannot distinguish between the two, Teilhard, unlike the deists, does not deny accounts of the miraculous. God does not, to be sure, break the laws of nature, which Teilhard says are the sole concern of science. But God does bend them. Miracles, then, are "vital forces that have been remarkably augmented in their own direction [italics his]." Stories of miracles, then, even if the miracles involved are "found to be extensions of biology," are important both for apologetics (defense of the faith) and for the joy they bring to the religious life.

The second section of Teilhard's essay takes this view of the nature and activity of God, and uses it to apply logical limits on the omnipotence of God. To open this section Teilhard takes on one of the assumptions of the Scholastics: that God creates or can create individual beings, "from scratch," logically speaking "completely alone" with the possibility of being "completely sanctified" like Adam before the fall. Teilhard says that "[t]he question of becoming and of the whole do not exist for such thinkers," who consider the universe and everything in it "in isolation and fully formed."

But Teilhard, as I noted in an earlier post, sees the world as an interconnected and interdependent organic whole, which is constantly being created. As such, "God's power has not been so free a field of action as we assume." There are certain limits on God's creative power, by virtue of the nature of the universe which God is creating. "[I]t is always obliged, in the course of its creative effort, to pass through a whole series of intermediaries and to overcome a whole succession of inevitable risks." This is because, as Teilhard noted earlier in the essay, of the way in which God has chosen to create/ "Properly speaking," he says, "God does not make [italics his]: He makes things make themselves."

Creation, then, is not only an ongoing process, it is also a cooperative process, involving the mingling of all of the wills in the universe, subordinated to but not silenced by the will of the God who is constantly creating in conjunction with those wills that have been willed to create. This places limits on the creative power of God, which is because of this "unable to act in discontinuity with individual natures or out of harmony with the advance of the whole."

This limitation leads Teilhard to note two more limitations, which arise from this one. The first emerging limitation has to do with the interconnected and interdependent nature of the universe, a universe that God must work with even as God continually creates. No individual entity in this organically whole universe can exist in isolation - logically speaking, Teilhard reserve such a solitary nature for God alone, "Ens a se (Being which exists only in itself)." Everything else, the great sea of beings in the process of becoming, "is essentially multitude - multitude organized in itself, and multitude organizing around itself." The limit this places on God, then, is that God cannot create a single, solitary individual. God cannot create only one thing, by itself. "If God... is to make a soul [italics his]" God must "create a world."

This limitation, the inability of God to create an individualized instance of being in isolation from other beings, leads to the second limitation which Teilhard derives from the way in which God chooses to create, a limitation which he explicitly connects to the problem of evil, and which as such serves as a theodicy. Because God creates in cooperation with created wills, and because those wills are not isolated from each other, God cannot create anything without that creation necessarily involving "a struggle with some evil."

This fact seems obvious to Teilhard, who calls the notion of a God who is "able to draw from non-being a world without sorrows, faults, dangers - a world in which there is no damage, no breakage" a "conceptual fantasy." But, alas, he does not tell us why evil is necessary. By noting this I am not asking for the usual theodicy, which tells us that evil serves some necessary purpose and so is really not evil at all, at least in a sense which would make it incompatible with the will of a good God. This is because, as Teilhard presents it, evil is not necessary morally or spiritually, but rather, logically. Evil, in his presentation, is the inevitable consequence of God's creating anything, by virtue of the above limitations on God's created powers.

And this is where I begin to leave him. He, while placing some limitations on God's creative powers, still describes God as being by nature omnipotent, all powerful. As such, he has to hold that the limitations placed on God's creative powers are logical limitations, akin to the Scholastic limitation of God being unable to make something which contradicts its own existence. But, while I see Teilhard's description of the created order as very much like how the created order actually is (we do, in fact, exist in an interconnected and interdependent world, which is, in fact, being constantly and progressively made); it is not clear to me that because the world exists in this way that this is the only logical possibility.

While it is true that a world without pain, without suffering, without moral and natural evil, is in fact a conceptual fantasy; does it follow from that that a perfect God, a God imbued with all of the powers given to God by the traditional theism, could not have made such a world?

Teilhard is skating a fine line between process theology, which like Teilhard's theology sees a world being progressively made by a God whose creative powers are somewhat limited, and traditional theism. In this delicate balancing act he describes the God of process theology in the terms of theism, arguing that the limitations on the power of God are merely logical ones which in no way detract from God's omnipotence.

Whether or not he ultimately succeeds in doing this, he has correctly noted that the conceptual fantasy of a perfect world without any struggle or pain, does nothing "to solve the problem of evil." This is because, ultimately, the problem of evil is an existential fact. Pain and suffering are not helped by envisioning a hypothetical world in which they do not exist. As such, when we craft our theologies, we should be mindful of the fact of suffering.

Theology - human concepts of God which help explain the divine-human encounter - is not a purely rational exercise. Our concepts of God do not come just from observing the world and seeing that some being, which we call "God," is necessary for explaining the world. Sure, some, like Swinburne, get a great deal of mileage from the argument that God is the hypothesis which best explains all that is. But ultimately, if God is an experiential reality, God is certainly not reducible to an operational hypothesis which explains a set of data.

Our concepts of God, ultimately, are our attempts to rationally explain the phenomena of "religious experience" - those times when, as Borg says, the distance between the secular and the sacred grows "thin." God, then, is not just some sort of metaphysical explanation used to makes sense of the physical order. God is instead something which we experience as a presence which helps. Whether that experiential presence can be best described in theistic terms as being omnipotent, omniscient and the like; or, instead, described in the more limited terms given by Teilhard or the still more limited terms of process theology; is less important than whether or not the experience of the God who lies beyond all possible descriptions helps with the living of our lives.

This does not mean that we should abandon our theologies, our attempts to rationally describe a God who conceptually helps make sense of what we see in the universe. But it does mean that we should not get so attached to our concepts of God that we cling to them in the face of the evidence that the physical realm gives us. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin has here, as elsewhere, crafted a vision of God which, while still connected to his Catholic tradition, does not deny the vision of the world provided to him by the science of his day.

If evolution is a fact, the creation must be ongoing, whether or not that is the only logical or conceptual possibility. If creation is ongoing, then God's will must cooperate with the multitude of wills in the evolving universe, whether or not that is the only logically or conceptually possible world. As such, God is, in fact, limited, whether or not we can reasonably conceive of an unlimited God. And a God whose creative powers are limited, but whose creation is progressive and ongoing, and whose concern is with all creatures, is much more useful in solving the problem of evil than a "perfect" God who allows suffering anyway.