Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Suzuki and Merton Drinking Tea - Another Zen Story

Some time ago I was fascinated with Zen stories, and shared a few of them here. A good Zen story means nothing, but still enlightens. Here is a delightfully absurd account of Daisetz Suzuki drinking tea, as told by Thomas Merton in his essay "Learning to Live":

... A room in Butler Hall, overlooking some campus buildings. Daisetz Suzuki, with his great bushy eyebrows and the hearing aid that aids nothing. Mihoko, his beautiful secretary, has to repeat everything. She is making tea. Tea ceremony, but a most unconventional one, for there are no rites and no rules. I drink my tea as reverently and attentively as I can. She goes to the other room. Suzuki, as if waiting for her to go, hastily picks up his cup and drains it.

It was at once as if nothing at all had happened and as if the roof had flown off the building. But in reality nothing had happened. A very very old deaf Zen man with bushy eyebrows had drunk a cup of tea, as though with the complete wakefulness of a child and as though at the same time declaring with utter finality: "This is not important!"

The function of a university is to teach a man how to drink tea, not because anything is important, but because it is usual to drink tea, or, for that matter, anything else under the sun. And whatever you do, every act, however small, can teach you everything - provided you see who it is that is acting.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Out of the Depths

Out of the depths I have cried unto thee, O LORD.

So opens Psalm 130, in the King James Version. I don't often quote the KJV here, but when I turn to the Psalms, the poetry of that English translation of the Hebrew, commissioned in 1604 by King James I of England, and first published in 1611, is unparalleled.

The ethicist in me wants to get out of the way first - before I delve into what I meant to write when I sat down in front of this screen and keyboard - that the English LORD here ultimately points back not to a literally male deity, but to the holy mystery of the unpronounceable divine name. Thus the Inclusive Bible renders it a tetraconsonant, a literal translation of the Hebrew on the page. This, however, has its own problems, and so most other translations render it LORD, following the Hebrew Adonai, which is substituted for the holy, unpronounceable name of God. Thus LORD, rather than pointing directly to the nature of God, serves as a weak metaphor, not to be fixed on to. It is an attempt not to fix a gender to God, but rather to respect the holiness of the divine name. Thus some scholars instead substitute Holy One, preserving the holiness of the divine name while also avoid affixing a gender to God.

But, as I said, for all its faults (and its faults are probably no less than any other translation) the poetry of the Psalms in the KJV sings to me, soaring above all other poetry in the English language. It may not perfectly capture the Hebrew - nothing could - but it does perfectly capture the majesty of the English language.

Lord, hear my voice: let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.

This - verse 2 in Psalm 130 - is my most fervent prayer.

As I wrote here, I've been struggling with depression and anxiety. And, as you might have guessed from that post, I see my depression and my anxiety through a theological lens. That shouldn't be a surprise, since I see everything through a theological lens. And, it is not wholly inappropriate. Depression and anxiety have deep theological value. Not that they themselves are valuable - I can't abide by romanticizing depression, as though this disease were responsible for great works of art or philosophy, as though its madness were a muse! But rather that depression and anxiety, like any disease, like any source of suffering, must be taken seriously by anyone who wishes to speak theologically.

I experience my own depression as a loss of faith. For years that has deeply troubled me. I saw that loss of faith, mixed with melancholy and despair, as both a moral and a spiritual failing. I saw that loss of faith that was my own failing to properly attend to God, resulting in the loss of the experience of God, as producing my depression. I would become aware of the experience of the loss of my faith (I can't do better than that clumsy phrase at the moment - in it I mean to assert not that I in fact lost my faith, but rather that my experience was of one who did lose faith), and then I would notice both a deep depression and a crippling anxiety.

It has always been the anxiety that has bothered me the most. It strikes like lightning, apparently from nowhere. And in a moment all hope, all faith, all meaning have been replaced by shear dread. Fits of terror. I taste not my own death so much as my own non-existence. I am, as it were, X-ed out. Erased. I can neither move nor breathe, but am gripped by a fear with no rational content nor any obvious object.

In these moments, I am incapable of faith.

But I no longer believe that the loss of my faith brings these attacks on, nor do I believe that asserting my faith can cure me of them any more than it could cure me of cancer. Rather, I believe that my depression and anxiety rob me of my capacity for faith, just as they rob me of my capacity for hope, for joy, and for meaning.

I have begun traveling the long road to recovery from this disease, that has already eaten away far too much of my life. And I've found that on this road to recovery, I do have faith. A faith deeper and more abiding than I've ever noticed before. My faith neither answers nor wards off my depression and my anxiety. Rather it persists through this time. And, as I heal, I notice it more and more.

So from the depths of my depression, I cry out to my God. Not because faith alone is sufficient to answer the suffering brought on by my disease, but because in the midst of suffering I need to cry out, and all such crying out is ultimately a crying out to God.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

What's love got to do, got to do, with it?!? What's love, but a second-hand emotion?!?

Or so I imagined Pope Benedict XVI singing in the shower, after he made his most recent comments on homosexuality. Before becoming the pope, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the more polite title for what was once the Inquisition. He used this bully pulpit to attack both modern theologians like his former colleague Hans Kung, and liberation theologians like Leonardo Boff. He also consistently demonstrated that his vision of the Catholic Church would not be friendly to women or LGBTQ persons. His former Tubingen colleague Hans Kung writes this of him in the first volume of his memoirs, titled My Struggle for Freedom:

Time and again people puzzle over how so gifted, friendly, open a theologian as Joseph Ratzinger can undergo such a change: from progressive Tubingen theologian to Roman Grand Inquisitor. Ratzinger himself has always described this as a straight line which he has followed since Tubingen... Certainly even in Tubingen my colleague, who for all his friendliness always seems somewhat distanced and cool, had kept something like an unenlightened 'devotional corner' in his Bavarian heart and shown himself to be all too stamped by Augustine's pessimistic view of the world and Bonaventura's Platonizing neglect of the visible and empirical...

That legacy of Augustinian pessimism and especially the Platonistic "neglect of the visible and empirical" is clearly at work here. The crux of Pope Benedict XVI's argument against same-sex sexual relationships - to the extent that he feels any need to build an argument, standing, as he is, on "tradition" - is that such relationships are unnatural, outside of God's will for nature, and as such are of necessity destructive. He makes this last point overtly, saying here in his ill-conceived comparison of saving gays and lesbians from themselves to saving a rain forest:

(The Church) should also protect man from the destruction of himself.

Setting aside for a moment the legitimate concern that in consistently referring to humanity as male the pope only reinforces a long, sad legacy of Roman Catholic participation in patriarchy, Benedict XVI is building an argument here concerning three kinds of harm done by homosexual relationships:

1. Harm done to the persons involved, by their participation in unnatural sexual relationships, which one of his Vatican spokespersons has called "a deviation, an irregularity, a wound."

More importantly, and more dangerously, he posits another kind of harm:

2. Harm done to humanity itself - though in accordance with patriarchy, the pope uses "man."

That is to say, the pope's specific language is not here principally pastorally concerned with the well-being of those who, in his mind, lead inherently sinful lives. If it were, one could argue that while he is mistaken on the moral value of same-sex relationships, the pope is at least operating here with decent intentions, out of love and concern for those who - in his view - might harm themselves by living outside of God's will for their lives. Rather, he is apparently principally concerned with the damage that same-sex sexual relations do in his mind to all of humanity. Thus LGBTQ persons are seen as violating an ecology for humanity (which Pope Benedict XVI calls an "ecology of man") in the same way that those who might cut down a rain forest are violating a natural ecology.

LGBTQ persons are then, strangely, a threat to all of humanity. This kind of language thus comes eerily close to calling for a pogrom, though the pope does not overtly do this (and, charitably, I do not believe that he thinks that this is what he is doing). If, after all, a particular way of living constitutes a threat against humanity itself, then is it not permissible to use any necessary means to end this threat?

But, sadly, same-sex sexual relations not only threaten humanity, but even creation itself. This is the third harm:

3. Harm done to the very work of God. As the Reuters article notes:

[The pope] compared behavior beyond traditional heterosexual relations as "a destruction of God's work."

This view stems from what Kung described as his "Platonizing neglect of the visible and empirical." As I argued here, traditional Catholic arguments against the permissibility of same-sex sexual relationships stem from a particular understanding of what is "natural":

Aristotle defined “natural” in a way that would be foreign to modern naturalists. For Aristotle, that which is natural is that which is the best possible end of a thing. This is particularly true in the realm of ethics. In Book I of his Nichomachean Ethics, for instance, Aristotle states that because “every action and choice seem to aim at some good; the good, therefore, has been well defined as that at which all things aim.”

It is natural that actions lead to a natural good, and to the extent which an action aims for the end which is natural to it, that action is a good action. Augustine operated with this understanding of good, thus, for Augustine every action had to aim at a good. Humans demonstrate their inherent sinfulness when they engage in actions which do not aim at the proper good of those actions.

This is particularly apparent in Augustine’s position on sex, and it is that position which shapes the Catholic dogma as it pertains to sex. The natural end, and therefore the good and proper end, of sex is procreation. Sex is a procreative act. Therefore, any sexual act which does not aim to conceive a child is a sinful act. Sexual acts between members of the same sex, according to this view, must by nature always be sinful, because they cannot aim at conceiving a child.

This understanding of what is "natural" is at the heart of the Vatican's declaration that homosexuality is "a deviation, an irregularity, a wound." It is consistent with the Augustinian and Thomistic understanding of evil as a privation or perversion of created good, what Jacques Maritain called "a wound or mutilation of the being." But this understanding of the "natural" is what Kung rightly denounced as "a neglect of the visible and empirical," an intellectual defect this pope has had his entire career.

Homosexuality is denounced not because it has been observed to be harmful or destructive, but because - within a particular theological system - it might work out that way on paper. This comes not from the study of nature or the observation of the real consequences of ways of living, but because it does not immediately fit into a particular point of view. This may thus rightly be dismissed as pure, revolting prejudice, poorly disguised in theological language.

In truth, some same-sex sexual relationships are harmful to the persons in them. Some - by virtue of that harm - also are harmful to others, who see their loved ones apparently trapped in abusive and self-harmful patterns of behavior. But this sad truth is not limited to same-sex sexual relationships. It is a pattern that, at worst, all kinds of human relationships can fall into.

Would that the Roman Catholic Church (and all other expressions of Christianity) show more interest in rescuing persons from patterns of abuse, in whatever kinds of relationships such patterns emerge, and less time scapegoating LGBTQ persons for the problems that plague us all.



Renee has a more scathing post on the pope's comments, at Womanist Musings.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Update on Prayer

I don't often write about prayer here - and I write about my own prayer life even less often than that. However, in light of my last post on the topic, Abstaining From Prayer, I thought I'd provide an update for those who are interested.

I've been mired in a relentless bout of depression and anxiety, which has challenged what Paul Tillich might call my "courage to be." That courage is not the courage to avoid suicide, but rather the courage to affirm life in the face of apparent meaninglessness. As Tillich puts it

Courage is the self-affirmation of being on spite of the fact of nonbeing. It is the act of the individual self in taking the anxiety of nonbeing upon itself by affirming itself either as part of an embracing whole or in its individual selfhood.

This courage, Tillich rightly notes, is always risky, because it is always being threatened by nonbeing. This nonbeing is the opposite of his understanding of God as the Ground of Being, and, as importantly, as "being-itself". Because courage is the affirmation of being in the face of nonbeing, for Tillich it always has what he calls a "religious root."

For religion is the state of being grasped by the power of being-itself. In some cases the religious root is carefully covered, in others it is passionately denied; in some it is deeply hidden and in others superficially. But it is never completely absent. For everything that is participates in being-itself, and everybody has some awareness of this participation, especially in the moments in which [she] experiences the threat of nonbeing.

When my depression emerges in full force from its usual recession - that is, when my anxiety goes from a baseline level to a perpetual state of "all hands on deck"; I am acutely aware of the threat of nonbeing.

My abstention from prayer, in Tillichian terms, was a less-than-careful covering of the religious root of my existential courage. If that sounds like a mouthful, that's because it is. What I mean by that is this: it was an act of courage in the strongest sense of the word, to refrain from, to abstain from, prayer. It was an affirmation of self. The concept of God that dominated my prayer life from the moment I became conscious of being a Christian (I say it that way now, because in retrospect I see that even before I consciously converted to the Christian faith, I had already begun to pray to a God in whom I did not yet even confess belief) no longer connected me to God as God, or, as Tillich puts it "the God above God." For reasons outlined in painstaking detail at various points at this blog, that concept of God connected to my former evangelical faith, is seriously flawed.

God as omnipotent - especially where such power is understood as a kind of divine irresistibility - is both logically and ethically flawed. The logical flaw, that such a concept of God, when coupled with claims of divine omniscience and benevolence, is incompatible with the fact of suffering, is obvious. The ethical flaw is more subtle. Here is how I summarized that ethical flaw in my paper dryly titled "Ethical Problems With the God of Traditional/Supernatural Theism":

The traditional theistic understanding of divine power – in articulating and affirming divine omnipotence – depicts divine power as, roughly, that which can be neither effectively resisted nor restrained. This understanding thus equips God with an special kind of absolute power. God is a being such that, if God wills something, it happens of necessity. Power is here, then, a coercive force which can always, at least in potential, impose itself on others. This concept of power, coupled with both the way in which our ideas about God function as the highest ideals of a community and our naturally limited spheres of moral concern (which are often aided and abetted by our God concepts), can serve as theological cover for any number of atrocities.

The imitation of God, an important part of religious life, can – when coupled with an ethically flawed concept of God – lead to gross injustice. When, for instance, God is a being apart from, over and above creation, sitting at the top of a divinely ordained hierarchical system of power differentials, damage is done not only to the ecosystem (as noted above), but also to human communities. It is within human communities that attention to divine power and its human corollaries must be paid. And if divine power is conceived of as the ability to impose on others without restraint, it should be no surprise that humans – whose concept of God participates in, shaping and being shaped by, their own values – aim for that same unrestrained coercive power found in divine omnipotence.

The result of this raw appeal to and exercise of power can be found throughout human history not only in our exploitation of the natural environment for economic benefit, but also and especially in our economic exploitation of other humans, robbed of personhood and moral standing. Historically this has taken its most painful form in chattel slavery. This violent form of slavery, which reduced human beings to property, is not accidentally connected to certain expressions of Christianity.

When God is a tyrant, those who view themselves as created in the image of God, those who view the imitation of God as their highest calling, have theological cover for their natural bent toward tyranny. The raw exercise of power finds divine mandate in God's own power.

Of course this bent toward power is challenged by the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, God's willing abandonment of power. But too often this challenge to the claims of power is overlooked in communities where divine omnipotence is a vital part of the understanding of God. God's incarnation is seen as a one-time aberration, a unique event in the past that tells us less about divine power than it does about God's love. It, in other words, reveals not the nature of God, but instead the concerns of God. That becomes a back door through which tyranny may be baptized by the Christian community, those within the concern of God, for whom God was voluntarily humbled, and temporarily laid down divine power and dignity. Those, however, who stand outside the Christian community stand too often outside the concern of God, and thus toward them God remains a tyrant, baptizing the tyrannical exercise of power by the faithful community.

So, you might ask, if you survived all the nonsense above, What does this have to do with prayer?

I'm glad you asked.

For me the abstention from prayer was an act of existential courage, because it rejected this tyrant of a God-concept, and faced the absurdity of living without God while believing in "God above God," God beyond all God-concepts. In the midst of depression and anxiety, however, this is not sustainable.

So last week, to my great shock, I found myself praying again. Just as I never made a conscious decision to abandon prayer, I never made a conscious decision to begin praying. I just found myself - in the midst of my depression - confessing my fears, my anxieties, my doubts, aloud. To God, I suppose, though I don't know I would have said that at the time. Confessing them not as sins - I did not believe they represented moral failings - but rather in the same way one confesses faith. Confession as an act of self-location.

It was an act of prayer because it was predicated on being heard, even though there was no listener. It was a moment of absurdity. But the absurdity has thus far held up.

Since then I have continued to confess myself to the God above God, in the faith that beyond all flawed God-concepts there is a reality to which they all imperfectly point.

To that act of prayer as self-confession (the confession of self rather than the confession of sin) I have also now added meditation. I now kneel on the hardwood floor of my living room at various points throughout the day, just listening, just breathing, just be-ing. This meditation is also, in the midst of severe depression and anxiety, an affirmation of being in the face of the reality of nonbeing.

It is not enough. It is never enough. But, right now, it is what I have.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Born of a Virgin?

This is how the birth of Jesus came about.

When Jesus' mother, Mary, was engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Joseph, her husband, an upright person unwilling to disgrace her, decided to divorce her quietly.

This was Joseph's intention when suddenly the angel of God appeared in a dream and said, "Joseph, heir to the House of David, don't be afraid to wed Mary; it is by the Holy Spirit that she has conceived this child. She is to have a son, and you are to name him Jesus - 'Salvation' - because he will save the people from their sins."

All this happened to fulfill what God had said through the prophet:

"The virgin will be with child
and give birth,
and the child will be named

- a name that means "God is with us."

When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of God directed, and they went ahead with the marriage. He did not have intercourse with her until she had given birth; she had a son, and they named him Jesus.

- Matthew 1:18-25, The Inclusive Bible

The scripture above is, along with the birth narrative in Luke, one of two scriptural sources for stories of the virgin birth of Jesus. That story is one I have long been skeptical of, for various reasons.

First, and most obvious, is, of course, that a virgin giving birth is impossible. That, however, is a trivial concern. Despite the protestations of the most belligerent and least charitable critics of traditional Christianity, no one, regardless of what they believe concerning the historicity of stories of Jesus' virgin birth, argues that such events are, by nature, possible. Everyone is aware that this is not the normal, natural course. It is offered as an exceptional event, a unique event. That, then, it is impossible, means very little. The basis for the claim that it is impossible is the same as the basis for the claim that it is a unique event, an unprecedented act of God.

This would have been no less true in Jesus' time as it is today. Despite caricatures of 1st century Palestinians and other citizens of antiquity as benighted savages unaware of the laws of nature, and despite the fact that we have undoubtedly uncovered a great deal more of the workings of nature than they had, it is abundantly clear that the necessary connection between sexual intercourse and human reproduction had been made in Jesus' culture.

So, that virgins giving birth is impossible should bother those who believe that Jesus was born of a virgin not even a little bit. No one, at the time of Jesus, today, or at any point in between, would assert anything else. Those who believe merely add a single caveat:

With God, all things are possible.

The obstacle to belief here then is not some basic knowledge of biology, but rather the capacity to believe that claim, that God can do that which is by nature impossible. The capacity to believe that unique events can and do take place.

My real reason for long disbelieving in the stories of the virgin birth of Jesus is found instead in the passage above. Matthew's account includes a reference to Isaiah 7:14. This reference follows a recurring pattern in Matthew's Gospel. This pattern is one of prophesy and fulfillment, and it occurs roughly 14 times in the Gospel of Matthew. Here the fulfillment of prophesy is not merely a predicted event now taking place, but rather also the completion of an act of God that has already begun. It is a way of connecting the life and work of Jesus to the work that God had already begun in the world, as understood in the Hebrew scriptures.

Matthew's Gospel quotes Isaiah 7:14 from the Septuagint, the Greek language version of the Hebrew Bible. The Greek term employed there for the young woman giving birth is parthenos. In English it is rightly rendered "virgin." The Hebrew, almah, however, is not translated "virgin," but rather something like "young woman."

For me, then, this was a simple case of Matthew writing the virginity of Mary into his story, since it was a part of the prophetic literature that he saw being fulfilled in Jesus. This is, after all, how I've long seen Matthew work. In his Gospel - and others - Jesus is seen through the lens of the sacred literature available to the early Christian community. Jesus' unique life and ministry are understood through the lens of the Torah, through the lens of the prophets, through the lens of the wisdom literature of ancient Israel, and through the lens of cultural and religious expectations. If - per a mistranslation in the Septuagint - the virginity of Mary would have been expected, then it would be inevitable that, after the fact, such stories would emerge.

The problem is, I'm no longer sold on that. For one thing, while Isaiah 7:14 is evidently important to Matthew, Luke makes no mention of it. And the Gospel of Luke exists independently of the Gospel of Matthew. That the two both contain stories of a virgin conceiving by the Holy Spirit indicates that such stories predate either work, and make the analysis I offered above pretty shoddy.

For another, according to Raymond E. Brown (1928-1998), one of the top New Testament scholars of the twentieth century, "there was no Jewish expectation of virginal conception of the Messiah." If that's the case, then:

1) Isaiah 7:14 would not have been seen among 1st century Palestinian Jews as predicting the birth of the Messiah to a virgin, thus making the above analysis of Matthew's motives for using the verse suspect, and

2) cultural expectation would not have been a motive for the crafting of a story of Jesus being conceived in and born by a virgin.

That brings me to something I read the other day. Ben Witherington, a New Testament professor at Asbury Theological Seminary, is one of my favorite conservatives. And not just because he has a pretty cool blog. He is both intellectually curious and honest, and is more interested in Biblical theology than cultural conservatism. He is, in other words, an honest evangelical Christian who is not held captive to the political right. More importantly, he makes me think.

Here he offers a clear and concise argument for the historicity of what he calls "the virginal conception" (as opposed to "the virgin birth," as the miracle is not so much that a virgin gave birth as that a virgin conceived in the first place) that anticipated every objection I've ever had, plus a few that I hadn't yet thought of.

I'm not yet ready to say that I fully believe in the virginal conception, or the claim that Jesus was born of a virgin. But I'm more open to the possibility than I have been in a long, long time. Now I have to ask myself a simple question:

Can I really ever believe that God can do impossible things?


Update: Here is Michael Westmoreland-White's post on the Virgin Birth, mentioned in the comments.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Watch your language!

I just read this by davidseth at Docudharma. I understand the need to keep decorum and civility in the courtroom, and I certainly understand the need for all parties (especially council) to respect the court. But, seriously, don't drop the F-bomb in a Cincinnati court. You'll go to jail for 6 months!

I'd add some commentary of my own, but the author of that post did such a bang-up job that I've got nothing worthwhile to add.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Music, Music, I Hear Music...

Today I went to my final seminary class. I'm not done with my degree yet, mind you; I still have to finish the albatross, I mean, Thesis. But I'm now done with all of my classes.

To celebrate, tonight I'm going out with a buddy to see my all time favorite band, King's X, who by happy coincidence or divine providence are playing in Louisville tonight, at the Phoenix Hill Tavern.

This morning Adam and I - anticipating tonight's concert - listened to King's X (taste in music must be a genetic inheritance, he loves them, too!) on the way to that fateful final class. He's joined me in class every Tuesday and Thursday this semester, becoming a kind of seminary mascot. When we leave, I swear, he'll be missed far more than me.

Anyway, listening to King's X in the car, I decided to tell him what I'm doing tonight.

Hey buddy, I said. Guess what. Tonight, King's X is going to be in Louisville, and I'm going to go see them!

Wow, Daddy! Are you going to play with them?

No, buddy, I replied, laughing at the absurdity of his question. I don't get to play with King's X!

Why not, Daddy? You play with Tom.

Something tells me that if King's X ever decided, in some fit of artistic whateverness, to get a violinist or mandolin player, they could do just a little bit better than me.

But, just once, I'd love to be able to see myself the way Adam sees me.

One of our favorite books to read at night is My Daddy is a Giant. Perhaps we both go to bed with the same dream, that somehow I can really be like the giant-Daddy in that book.

Prop 8 - The Musical!

I just love it when good stuff goes viral!

Sami sent me this last night, then I saw it at Jack and Jill Politics. I'm sure by now it has circled the blogosphere 10 or 12 times over, but, in case you missed it, here is (drum roll please....)

Prop 8 - The Musical!!


See more Jack Black videos at Funny or Die

Reminds me a bit of my favorite scene in the West Wing, Season 2, Episode 3, "The Midterms" (and, seriously, what good is the Internet if I can't flagrantly violate copyright laws by finding then posting a clip of that scene?!?):


Update: 12-8-08, 10:36 am

Because I just can't get enough video embeds, here's video of Keith Olbermann interviewing Mark Shaiman, Jack Black and John C. Reilly:

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

How Did That Happen?!?

While I'd love to write some well-informed post on the attempt by the right to improve their standing in the blogosphere (an attempt, incidentally, that I welcome, as I think that the more diverse the ideas present in any media of discourse, the better that discourse can be, so long as basic rules of civility and conversational charity are followed), I don't know enough about it to write that post.

I'm a liberal. An unapologetic liberal. I'm betting that's pretty clear from the posts that I write. Sometimes I even call myself a socialist - and I'm certainly more of a socialist than Barack Obama!

So I've got to ask:

How did I become part of the rise of the political right in the blogosphere?

Seriously, how did this happen? What did I do, and how can I undo it?

I ask this knowing full well that there are conservatives that I respect who read and comment on this blog. I'm not trying to knock them. I'm just betting that they noticed that I'm not a conservative. Hard to miss that.

Yet somehow I've ended up on the mailing list of NetRightNation, an organization that bills itself as "the Net Right's Blogging HQ," whatever that means.

I can say that their emails are polite, and well organized. Their website looks polished and professional. They may or may not be what I'd label "wingnuts," but if they are, they hide it well. Or, at least, I couldn't discover any wingnuttery in the 48 seconds I looked over their stuff.

But, whatever else can be said of them, they most certainly did not get their man here!

I feel like my seminary adviser felt when one of her books got a favorable write-up from a Bible professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, an evangelical school known for adherence to Biblical inerrancy: I don't know whether to be flattered, or to revisit the way I do things here!

Monday, December 01, 2008

Craving a Kalamazoo KM-21

The first Noble Truth of the Buddha is often translated

Life is suffering.

Some days that rings true. There are days when a lifetime's assortment of physical and psychological maladies make me wonder if my life isn't marred by suffering. The torn cartilage in my knee from martial arts. The screw in my wrist from tennis. The deviated septum from the three times (so far) I've broken my nose. The surgically repaired shoulder. Not to mention the various self-inflicted mental wounds, anxieties, fears, and insecurities.

And my life is relatively privileged. I live it surrounded by friends and family who love me and care for me. I am well fed (too well fed, of late!), have good shelter, and a fair amount of freedom to choose the course of my life.

So, if my life is suffering, what about that of the poor, the marginalized, the hungry, the lonely, the imprisoned? What about those who have been beaten, abused, raped, molested? What about the tortured parents of children who cry out in pain, unable to sleep because they are too hungry?

When depression hits, or when a change in the weather reminds me of each time I tested my far too little talent on some sports field only to break or tear something, or when I consider the plight of that faceless majority of the human population whose existence I would rather deny, it seems only honest to declare that life is suffering.

But in other moments, such a statement seems, well, a little harsh.

Life is filled of moments of pure, distilled pleasure, unsurpassed joy. You don't even have to look too hard to find them. Every time Adam jumps into my arms. Every time I hear a beautiful piece of music, or read an inspired passage of great literature, or mediate on some passionate work of art. Each night when I fall asleep cradled in Sami's arms.

Such pleasure, such joy, calls into question that Noble Truth of the Buddha, doesn't it?

That's what Westerners familiar with Buddhism have declared for, well, as long as Westerners have been studying Buddhism. Life is suffering? they ask, What about all the pleasure, what about all the joy? Surely the entirety of life can't be reduced to suffering!

But that's not exactly what the first Noble Truth does. It doesn't reduce life to suffering, but rather points to a fundamentally dissatisfactory quality that permeates each aspect of life. The Sanskrit work dukha that is often translated "suffering" has, as you might guess, a much more subtle meaning. A more honest translation of the first Noble Truth might read more like

Life is full of discontent.

That dissatifactory quality to life, that discontent the simmers under the surface, ready to emerge even in the midst of pleasure, that dukha, is caused, according to the second Noble Truth, by "desire," or, more accurately, "craving."

This is at the root of a great many addictions.

When I taste, for instance, a great piece of pumpkin pie, like I did when I ate my grandmother's best contribution to this year's Thanksgiving dinner, that sensation - while certainly pleasant - is a complicated one. I am first drawn to the pie by its aroma, an aroma that entices me, whets my appetite, instilling in me an insatiable desire to put the pie in my mouth. So I do. I scoop up a slice, put my fork to it, and place a bite between my lips onto my tongue. I feel the texture, and that texture, mixed with the aroma, creates a taste. A great taste. A wonderful taste. As I chew and swallow, I think, I must have more of that taste.

And so I do. But that sensation, however pleasant, is also impermanent. I can't repeat the experience indefinitely. Eventually the pleasure gives way to something else. And that something else, whatever it is, is dissatisfactory, because I could not cling to the pleasure. I could not hold on to the moment forever.

Trying to cling to that elusive pleasure can manufacture a great deal of suffering. In fact, Thanksgiving may be a perfect case study for that. How many of us, chasing the pleasure of the food we pile on our plates, hunt down that sensation far too many times, until we must retreat to the bathroom, or at least to the comfort of a soft recliner, nursing a stomach ache? I know that - at least at Thanksgiving - more often than not, I do. And so pleasure turns quickly into pain. And that pain was manufactured by craving that which cannot be, by clinging to something impermanent.

There are a great many other ways in which suffering is manufactured by craving. Many of them are obvious. My teenage years were full of them, pining like Romeo for Rosaline or Juliet, some abstract fantasy of feminine beauty, some mysterious sexual allure the mere sight, smell, or even memory of whom would burn the chest with the pain of unrequited love (or, at least, lust).

And those cravings do not, alas give way with the end of adolescence.

I remembered this today as I held in my hands the most beautiful instrument I'll probably ever touch.

A couple of weeks ago my mandolin died. It was a sad day. I almost wrote about it, drafting a post titled something like The Day the Music Died or some other bit of allusive melodrama.

That mandolin - a Kentucky KM-630 - was an extension of me. I found it at a used instrument store (not worth naming here because, frankly, the store is the pit of hell), in bad shape, for sale for less than half what it was worth. Taking a chance, I bought it, took it home, and fixed it up. Soon it sounded just right.

I played it every day, until I could no longer tell the difference between the music I was hearing in my head and the music that was coming out of it. It wasn't the best instrument by any stretch of the imagination. But it was my instrument, an extension of me. My playing style adapted to it, and it seemed to change with my playing style, too.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, in a moment of reckless stupidity, I stepped on it. As the luthier I took it to today dryly noted, they're not made for that. The neck is broken in several places, and it won't hold string tension. With the KM-630 deemed beyond repair, I took this afternoon to start looking for a new mandolin.

Steilberg String Instruments - where I found my violin, a Keith, Curtis & Clifton handcrafted last year in Romania - is far and away Louisville's best instrument store. I drop in my time to time to drool over a Weber octave mandolin that I'll never, under any circumstances, be able to afford.

Today, however, I was on a mission. Not to buy anything - I'm broke. But, at least, to begin forming some plan that will eventually end with the acquisition of a new mandolin. So I told the guy there what I was looking for, and he took me to a practice room and started handing me a few instruments. My favorite of the new ones was this Weber Aspen #1, but it is well beyond any budget I can dream of.

Then he said he had something special. From the used section of the store he dragged out an instrument they don't have listed on their website, a Kalamazoo KM-21. It was made by Gibson at their plant in Kalamazoo sometime between 1936 and 1940, and has matured nicely. My first thought when playing it was, This is what that Weber wants to be when it grows up.

I don't know how long I sat in that practice room, strumming on that antique mandolin. But I do know that from the moment I first touched it, all the other instruments in the room were dead to me.

But that experience, like everything else, was impermanent. It couldn't last. I don't have the unfathomable amount of money to spring it from its prison. I lack the funds to adopt it and take it home. And, well, eventually it would get awkward, sitting in a practice room all day, clutching a mandolin that dates back to before WWII.

So I handed it back to the guy, and we shared a knowing look, both of us wishing that somehow I could afford to buy it. But, like almost every other time I walk into that store, that wasn't going to happen. I left the store, once again, empty handed.

But now, for better and for worse, I have the memory of playing what was for me the perfect instrument. For better because not only do I have the joy of holding that exquisite work of art and coaxing beautiful music out of it, but I also have a better appreciation for the potential of the mandolin. It isn't just a tinny instrument to draw out the high end. It is also a complex instrument. A rough instrument. A mature instrument. And for worse because, no matter how much I crave that instrument, how tightly I clung to it in the store and how tightly I now cling to its memory, it isn't my instrument.

Not yet, anyway.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Beer of the Week: Terrapin India Style Brown Ale

The Beer of the Week series is being at least temporarily revived in honor of my cousin Michael's Thanksgiving contribution to my fridge.

A couple of weeks ago Michael - who lives in Atlanta - called me from Taco Mac, legendary (so I'm told, though I'm a little suspicious of the name) for their world-class beer list. He told me he'd just had a really hoppy Brown Ale, that it was amazing, and that I had to try it.

I told him that the beer he was describing was impossible, a contradiction, so he must have been wrong about what it was. I had no doubt that he'd had something to drink, and that he really liked that something. But a hoppy brown ale? It defied credulity.

Shifting into professor mode, I explained to him that the Brown Ale is a British style of beer known for its rich malting, but that it isn't particularly hoppy. In fact, all British styles go light on hops, as far as I know. Brits may have their Bitters, their Strong Bitters, and even their Extra Special Bitters, but none of those are, by contemporary American standards, particularly bitter. An American Pale Ale or an India Pale Ale, for example, while related to Bitters are, frankly, a great deal more bitter.

The Brown Ale, however, is mild even by British-style standards. Some of my favorite beers are Brown Ales, including the native-to-Louisville Bluegrass Brewing Company Nut Brown Ale. But they aren't known for their hoppiness. Derived from the English style Mild Ale, they are more more malty, thicker, and delightfully sweet.

But Michael, only 21 years old but by no means cowed by my knowledge of any subject - much less my relatively limited knowledge of beer - swore over and over again that what he'd had was a very hoppy Brown Ale. He looked it up on the menu and told me that it was called an India Style Brown Ale, and that it was brewed by Terrapin Beer Company in Athens, Georgia.

I'd never heard of Terrapin, so he told me he'd try to pick up some bottles from them for me when he'd see me at my parents' house for Thanksgiving.

True to his word, the first thing he handed me when I arrived in Lexington, where my whole family converges every year for Thanksgiving (this year my poor mother had to find places for maybe 23 of us to sleep!) was a 12 pack sampler from Terrapin, featuring their Rye Pale Ale, their Golden Ale, their India Style Brown Ale, and their SunRay Wheat Beer. Those are the four beers they bottle year-round.

All I brought him, sad sack that I am, was a bottle of my favorite winter seasonal, the Brooklyn Brewery Black Chocolate Stout (which he didn't like quite as much as Brewery Ommegang's Chocolate Indulgence) and a bottle of Sierra Nevada's winter warmer, aptly named Celebration Ale.

He also gave me a few other Georgia micro-brews, which I may write about later if they merit it and if I carve out the time to write about beer again. I'm most looking forward to tasting the Sweetwater Festive Ale that I'm currently cellaring.

But last night - finally home from juggling Thanksgiving with two families - I cracked open the 12 pack sampler from Terrapin. The first bottle I tried was the Rye Pale Ale, which I drank with dinner. While the idea - adding some rye extract to an American Pale Ale - seems bold, the end result was less adventurous than it sounds. What I tasted was a very drinkable if a little nondescript Pale Ale. More golden in color, a little thin, with a wispy head, it was hoppy without being overpowering. Not a bad effort, but it doesn't merit a post of its own, either.

After dinner - while watching another miserable Kentucky-Tennessee football game - I cracked open the India Style Brown Ale. If only the game were so lively!

It truly is a contradiction, a Brown Ale with 65 IBUs (International Bittering Units, a measure of the hops in a beer). It makes use of 6 different malts and 5 different kinds of hops to create an impressive hybrid between an IPA and a Brown Ale, keeping the biting hoppiness of the former while also preserving the sweetness and rich malting of the later. Deep brown in color, it was relatively thick, had a robust, white head, and finished smoothly for such a hopped-up beer.

I liked it, and eagerly anticipate the other two bottles of it sitting in my fridge. I'm glad Michael called to extol to me the virtues of this "impossible" beer!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

I Guess I'll Be Shopping at Lowes

I saw this at The Huffington Post. It seems Bernie Marcus, the founder of Home Depot, thinks that Democrats, or even lackluster Republicans, should be summarily executed.


Here's what he said, as quoted by Thomas Frank in yesterday's Wall Street Journal:

"If a retailer has not gotten involved with this, if he has not spent money on this election, if he has not sent money to Norm Coleman and these other guys," Mr. Marcus said, apparently referring to Republican senators facing tough re-election fights, then those retailers "should be shot; should be thrown out of their goddamn jobs."

First off, I guess I'm safe, since I'm not a retailer.

Second, and maybe this is just picking nits, but shouldn't you throw them out of their "goddamn jobs" before you shoot them? Otherwise, wouldn't they be dead before you fire them?

Evil businessmen (gendered language intentional), take note: terminate employment first, then terminate life. Otherwise the firing would be less than satisfactory, right?

Pardon me this last weak joke:

Business can be murder!


Update: Here's a diary at Kos that simultaneously places this story in its context in the fight over the Employee Free Choice Act and avoids my penchant for bad jokes. Check it out.

Monday, November 17, 2008

A New Journalistic Low

I've been meaning to ask this for a while now:

What's so scary about Barack Obama?

Really, I've got to know. What is it about him - other, of course, than his race - that has a small but significant minority of Americans absolutely losing their minds?

The most credible non-racist answer I've heard is that his tax policies amount to a quasi-socialist redistribution of wealth. For some people, as a matter of principle, income tax levels should never be raised. I have no interest in having that debate at the moment, though I will say that a certain amount of taxation is the price we all pay for living in a civil society that helps protect our interests. Exactly who should pay how much of the taxes that provide our social and yes fiscal security is a fair and open question.

However, I fail to see exactly what's so scary about raising to income taxes of the wealthiest 1% of Americans to the pre-Bush levels. What that amounts to is an increase in the tax rate for highest tax bracket from 36% to 39%. Of course for those people (including, I might add, most likely my parents, though they've never told me exactly how much they make from year to year) this amounts to a pretty good chunk of change. But it doesn't exactly leave them penniless.

Brian Beech - our regular conservative commenter, and all-around-good-guy - has argued passionately that such increases place a disincentive on work, writing here that president-elect Obama's tax policy stems from a "Robin Hood" mentality that, carried to its logical conclusion, would "reward people for not working" (Brian, please do let me know if my selective edit of your comment somehow misrepresents your point).

This, I think, is a pretty clear articulation of the point that many conservatives are trying to make, that the accumulation of wealth should be rewarded, not penalized, in a capitalist society, and that the system of progressive taxation that has long been the staple of the modern American tax code penalizes that which should be rewarded. Of course I strongly disagree with this point. It overlooks the extent to which the social fabric bought by the taxes paid by the wealthiest Americans actually secures their wealth by providing for them a stable society in which that wealth may be preserved. Thus the taxes paid by the wealthiest Americans is not so much a punishment as it is an investment. And that investment is, in any democracy, not altogether involuntary.

I could also make a fair number of ethical points. I, after all, don't have a great deal of sympathy for the person who can't buy an extra yacht because their taxes got raised, when people all around have little idea where there next meal is coming from. But independent of those considerations, the fact remains, whatever one thinks of Barack Obama's tax plan, that progressive taxation has long been the way we do things in America. Notwithstanding the occasional lead balloon that is some right-wing plan for a flat-tax, the fight over progressive taxation was won or lost a long, long time ago.

Barack Obama's tax plan does not do something new or unprecedented. It simply bumps the highest tax bracket up a little, to where it was before the Bush tax cuts. If this is the best that those who are deathly afraid of Obama's upcoming presidency can come up with, I don't know what to say.

But that's not why I'm writing today. I'm writing because, once again, I'm simply in shock. I've noted here before that nut-jobs like Hal Lindesy, famous author of The Late, Great Planet Earth, (for those of you unfamiliar with contemporary evangelical eschatology, think Tim LaHaye before there was a Tim LaHaye) have declared that Barack Obama is a precursor to the anti-Christ.

Well now Newsweek has an article asking if Barack Obama is the anti-Christ. Yes, that Newsweek!

I don't know what to say. I really don't.

I could start with how the whole anti-Christ thing is misunderstood. Despite thousands upon thousands of assertions through history that the biblical book of Revelation (not Revelations!) forecasts such a figure, the word "anti-Christ" does not appear in it even once. Either it or its plural are found in the Bible only in 1 John 2:18, 1 John 2:22, 1 John 4:3, and 2 John 7. There the anti-Christ is not some apocalyptic future being, but rather persons present at the time of the writing (probably sometime in the early 2nd century CE). See, for example, 1 John 2:18b: "So now many antichrists have come," (NRSV, italics mine). This and the other references to antichrists in the epistles of John refer to a group present within the church at that time, who in John's view had a bad ("deceitful") Christology.

Thus anyone using the Bible as some sort of prophetic code telling when some supernatural enemy called the anti-Christ is coming should probably go back and read their Bible - especially those parts of it that actually mention antichrists!

But, of course, there has been a long tradition of Christians speculating about the anti-Christ. That doesn't begin with Hal Lindsey or Tim LaHaye. And while that word is not used in the Bible the way that those who profit (literally! These people make millions of dollars selling books, making movies and giving lectures!) from it use it, there are still Biblical images that give rise to this mad speculation about the anti-Christ. But since when is Newsweek in the contemporary evangelical eschatology business?!?

And, since when is it OK for Newsweek to give space to speculations that our president elect may be this anti-Christ?!?

I'm not advocating censorship of the press. Newsweek is of course legally free to print just about whatever the hell it wants. But whatever happened to journalistic standards? Anyone seen those around?


Since posting, I've seen posts on this at Political Base and Daily Kos. And, Political Base notes that CNN has been down this road, too.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Internet Nonsense, Cat Division

Is your cat plotting to kill you?

Here's how to tell if your cat is trying to kill you.

(I know, I know, this isn't nearly as funny as Sami's stupid cat post. I guess I'll just have to learn to live with that shame.)

Keith Olbermann on Prop 8, Plus a Rant of My Own

I know, I'm a little late to this party, since this clip aired on Monday. But, for those of you who didn't watch it then, and haven't seen it online since then, here's Keith Olbermann's Special Comment on California Prop 8:

If you voted for this Proposition or support those who did or the sentiment they expressed, I have some questions, because, truly, I do not... understand. Why does this matter to you? What is it to you? In a time of impermanence and fly-by-night relationships, these people over here want the same chance at permanence and happiness that is your option. They don't want to deny you yours. They don't want to take anything away from you. They want what you want -- a chance to be a little less alone in the world.

I can understand - though I disagree with them - why some people would be religiously opposed to same-sex relations. I can thus understand why there may be rules and regulations within particular religious communities prohibiting same-sex sexual relations, though such rules are not, I believe, supported by an appropriate understanding of Christian theology and ethics. I can understand why some, whose view of the divine-human relationship is shaped by what scholars call the Deuteronomist school, would try their best to remove "self-avowed, practicing homosexuals" (in quotes because I hate that phrase, which shows up in United Methodist polity on the issue) from their congregations and denomination.

After all, the Deuteronomists - whose main contribution to the Hebrew scriptures is the bulk of Joshua - viewed purity as the main religious concern. Purity of identity and purity of ritual. This purity is the driving force behind the covenantal relationship between God and the religious community. The fate of that community rests on their upholding their end of their covenant with God, which is to keep their group pure. Thus tolerating those who bring impurity into the group could, in this view, bring disaster to the group.

I saw this theology up close and personal in the church that I pastored. That church, part of a dwindling rural community with few jobs and fewer young people - who would leave in droves after they graduated high school - was in an uneasy position. They viewed their history in terms of their relationship with God. When things were going well they enjoyed God's favor, when things were going poorly they suffered God's wrath. In the brief time that I pastored them, things were going poorly. And, while I had plenty of sociological reasons for their decline, they saw it through a theological lens. They were suffering, they explained to me, because they had fallen from God. How had they fallen from God? By tolerating my heretical preaching.

That is how this theology works in a church. There it is destructive, forcing out those who in their mind bring impurity into the community. While I disagree with it, I understand it. It has ancient roots, and even in its most destructive moments articulates something constructive, that the religious community must live up to its covenant with God, striving to be who God calls it to be.

But the United States is not a religious community with a collective self-understanding of being in a particular relationship with God. We are not a church, but a nation, and a pluralistic one at that. The broad diversity of faith - which even includes those who say they have no faith - makes, in the interest of both peace and liberty, some distinction between the regulations of any particular religious community on the one hand and the laws of the state on the other absolutely necessary.

Yet in Prop 8 we have no non-religious justification for the imposition of a law that makes sense only within a particular religious community. In Prop 8 we have religious bodies - mainly the Church of Jesus Christ of Later Day Saints - both funding and even running a political campaign to alter the constitution of a state. Even for those who have religious convictions on the issue - and I should again state that I don't think that such convictions properly understand Christian theology and ethics - this should be chilling.

When churches help pass laws and alter constitutions, principally on the grounds of the rules and regulations of their own particular community, founded on that community's understanding of its relationship with God, it begs this most frightening question:

Which religion, which church, gets to decide which of its own rules get to become civil law?

Because, religious people, we don't all agree.

We may celebrate the imposition of our own religious code on the broader population, but will we celebrate when someone else's religious code is imposed on us?

Keith Olbermann asks of those who support Prop 8 and other such legal efforts to deny equal rights to LGBT persons, Why does this matter to you?

What do you think is at stake here, other than the imposition of a particular religious moral code on the general population? Does the notion that some people have different sexual desires than yours somehow threaten your own sex life? Does the notion that two people of the same gender want to carve out a life together somehow threaten the life and household you've established for yourself?

Because, outside of the religious concern, I just don't get this. And, if the religious concern is the driving force, it should be driving the other way! Because all people who value their own religious freedom should be scared to death of the imposition of any particular religious code on the general population, as the same mechanism may then impose itself on your own practice of your own faith.

Monday, November 10, 2008

God Hates Shrimp

Got this from Tom. Thought you'd like to know.

So, don't eat shrimp, lest you bring condemnation into your very body.

Abstaining From Prayer

While I don't usually write on "spiritual" topics here (or anywhere else, for that matter) for some inexplicable internal reason, I feel compelled to do so this morning.

It is not a great secret that, by and large, I don't pray. I participate in a perfunctory prayer before meals, mostly because Sami and I decided that would be a decent habit to instill in Adam. And, since I left ministry, Sami has been the one - at least most of the time - who speaks those prayers aloud, while I merely try my best to remain mostly still and silent for the few seconds she takes to offer some spontaneous words of thanksgiving. I also participate in congregational prayers at church, and am still occasionally asked to lead them.

But, when I am in private, most of the time I do not pray.

Oh sure, every once in a while some impulse will strike me, and I will do something that must seem very much like offering a prayer, though I might not describe the act as prayer while I am engaging in it. There are moments in which anxiety might bring me literally or figuratively to my knees. There are other moments when I may literally or figuratively leap for joy. But the act of pausing to pray, of kneeling in silence, being mindful of the presence of God, or of offering words of praise and thanksgiving, of contrition and repentance, of supplication, of request... this I simply do not do any more.

I guess I'm thinking of that right now because this morning I read this in Abraham Heschel's classic work on prayer, Man's Quest for God (and yes, I think that if he were alive now, Heschel would recoil at that title):

About a hundred years ago, Rabbi Issac Meir Alter of Ger pondered over the question of what a certain shoemaker of his acquaintance should do about his morning prayer. His customers were poor men who owned only one pair of shoes. The shoemaker used to pick up their shoes at a late evening hour, work on them all night and part of the morning, in order to deliver them before their owners had to go to work. When should the shoemaker say his morning prayer? Should he pray quickly the first thing in the morning, and then go back to work? Or should he let the appointed hour of prayer go by and, every once and a while, raising his hammer from the shoes, utter a sigh: "Woe unto me, I haven't prayed yet!"? Perhaps that sigh is worth more than prayer itself.

We too, face this dilemma of wholehearted regret or perfunctory fulfillment. Many of us regretfully refrain from habitual prayer, waiting for an urge that is complete, sudden, and unexampled. But the unexampled is scarce, and perpetual refraining can easily grow into a habit. We may even come to forget what to regret, what to miss.

We do not refuse to pray. We merely feel that our tongues are tied, our minds inert, our inner vision dim, when we are about to enter the door that leads to prayer. We do not refuse to pray, we abstain from it.

Heschel, of course, goes on from there, but this is where I stop. I am less interested in his explanation for why we (whoever we are) do not pray, and more interested in examining for myself why I do not pray, and what is gained or lost by that decision. Though to say (or in this case write) "that decision" is misleading, because it implies that at some point some conscious choice was made to abstain from praying, whereas the truth is simply that I find myself not praying, and am trying to explain it after the fact. Here Heschel's "perpetual refraining can easily grow into a habit" strikes most true.

First, I have some sympathy for the shoemaker whose prayer life Rabbi Issac Meir Alter of Ger ponders. Unlike him, however, I do not have some noble task pulling me from prayers I wish to utter. That shoemaker may or may not be able to articulate that in some important way the act of making and fixing shoes - especially when done, as in this case, for the poor - is an act of prayer, an offering to a compassionate God distributed to the community. Heschel seems to note as much when he offers that the shoemaker's sigh of regret as he misses morning prayers to tend to his work may be "worth more than prayer itself." The Apostle Paul may have had something similar in mind when he wrote of God's spirit interceding for us in sighs and groans too deep for words.

But I am not the shoemaker, doing some noble act instead of prayer, marking with remorse the hour of prayer missed because I could not leave my labor. Even if I were, I suspect from Heschel's perspective - valuable though that sigh may be - something important, something vital is missed by not more consciously, more intentionally, attending to that hour of prayer. To see what may be lost, however, I must first explore why I do not pray.

I do not pray because I do not believe in the God I used to pray to. That is part of what I tried to articulate here, when I last wrote on prayer:

All my life... I've interacted with a God who is unconsciously conceived of as a big, powerful, and wise man, standing outside, over and above the created order. It is this concept of God that was embedded in each of my religious experiences, and which has always been a part of my prayer life. But I no longer believe in, and so can no longer pray to, a Big Guy in the Sky. However, while my theology has developed some concepts of God to replace the inadequate one, my prayer life has not. As such, I can write about a more mature and better thought out concept of God, but that God exists only conceptually, not experientially. That God is a part of my developing theology, but not a part of my religious experience or practice.

That post focused principally on the gender and location of God. God is not a

1.) man
2.) out there,

but is instead our very Ground of Being (to use Tillich's phrase), found in here, all around us and even inside us. This Ground of being is neither male nor female, but both male and female images can be used as metaphors for the divine, affirming the truth that we are all - male and female - made in the image of God, participating in the divine image.

Related to this is how we understand God's power, the topic of my Thesis.

Simply put, I do not believe in an all-powerful God. Such a God is not only philosophically problematic, but also ethically flawed and thus ultimately religiously undesirable. Simply put, an all-powerful God, where suffering exists and where such power is understood as a kind of irresistible divine coercion, the imposition of God's plan on creation, is a tyrant.

I thus do not believe in a God who of necessity hears me when I pray. I do not believe in a God who changes my material circumstances when I pray. I do not believe in a God who will - responding to my prayers - heal me or anyone I love of illness or injury. I do not believe in a God who will - again, responding to my prayers - rescue me from the consequences of my own foolish actions.

For most of my life my impulse, in times of trouble, has been to pray. Family member sick? Offer a prayer for healing. Money getting tight? Offer a prayer for help. Grieving the loss of a loved one? Take that grief to the author and perfecter of life and salvation, your very present hope in times of trouble.

But the God to whom I prayed, the God who I believed would hear my prayers, would receive my concerns and act on them, is not the God in whom I believe now. That is an awkward sentence, especially coming from someone who has always made a sharp distinction between God as God and any particular description of or belief about God. I cannot reconcile it with my conviction that God as God cannot be conflated with my beliefs about God. That conviction would lead me to say not that I no longer believe in the God to whom I used to pray, but rather that my beliefs about God are and have always been fluid, yet they arise and fall within the context of a relationship with God as God.

But that is not what I write here, nor is it what I mean. My experience is of one who prayed to a god that never existed. Not that there is not some reality to which the word "God" rightly points. But that what I used to mean by that word never was.

So, I don't pray. This is not a matter of policy, simply an articulation of historical fact. When I wake up in the morning, I no longer share my thoughts and words of hope for the day with the god I used to pray to. When I eat my meals - except when sitting at the dinner table with the whole family - I no longer offer thoughts and words of thanksgiving to the god I used to pray to. When I am sick, when I am mourning, when I am anxious, when I am afraid, I no longer turn those things, by any conscious act, over to the god I used to believe would keep me safe.

Yet these are not the only forms prayer takes, and that leads me (finally) to what is lost.

What is lost by my failure to attend to the divine in the course of my day-to-day living, no less than what is lost in the shoemaker's skipping of morning prayers to make his vocational offering, is the mystical component.

My "spiritual" atrophy (I detest the word "spiritual," not just because it so often left content-less, undefined, but also because it implies some sort of body-spirit dualism that is at the root of our collective sexual dysfunction) has robbed me of the tools I used to use to unpack that phrase "mystical component." It is, after all, such a subjective phrase, and I am no longer subject to the experience of mystical prayer. But, though Heschel is right (at least in my case) that "we may even come to forget what to regret, what to miss," I am still aware of missing something, regretting something. And that regret is no mere product of the guilt that was once instilled in me when my prayer life - no less than that of my religious leaders' - fell short of our professed ideals. It is less a guilt, and more the noted lack of something.

Of what?

I can't say. But I can say that, though I do not pray because I no longer believe that my prayers can manipulate either God or the universe, no responsible theology of prayer has ever advocated prayer as a form of manipulation in the first place. C.S. Lewis - by no means a "liberal" - famously noted that we pray not because it changes God, but because it changes us. Other voices have articulated similar sentiments. This understanding of prayer (and/or other religious disciples) as self-work permeates every religious tradition I am aware of.

Call it prayer or call it meditation, the act of simply sitting - in the presence of God, or just in stillness and solitude - can drive us so deeply into ourselves that we may come to see the fundamental absurdity of clinging to the claims of self. This may come from listening to the monkey-mind swing from branch to branch spouting the nonsense that we can so rarely see as such. Or this may come from bringing a list of claims and requests to God, only to see them for what they really are, a selfish hope for wish-fulfillment.

So I need to sit. I need to be still. I need to pray. Not to any particular deity who may choose - manipulated by my magical words - to supernaturally intervene in my life. But rather in the presence of the God in whom I need to be grounded, so that I can escape the infantile claims of self and become a more compassionate person.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

We're Not Done Yet!

I was sorely tempted to write an unequivocally joyous post this morning, trumpeting the new dawn in American politics. I stayed up far too late last night, drinking far too many celebratory beers, filled with pride in a country that could elect a man named Barack Hussein Obama, the son of a Kenyan and a Kansan, president.

I wanted to proclaim a last and final (yes, I know that's redundant) end to the Civil War, with an African-American not only winning a presidential election, but even gaining the electoral votes of the former capitol of the Confederacy.

I wanted to do this. I really did. But my joy is tinged with grief this morning. Because I see a new Civil War emerging.

While one avenue of oppression was at least partially closed, with racism getting a stinging (if incomplete - the election of a black president neither ends nor erases centuries of institutional racism) rebuke, another avenue of oppression is seeing a tremendous increase in traffic.

Across the country there were ballot initiatives designed to trample of the rights of same-sex couples, and all four of them passed:

With 92% reporting, Arizona Proposition 102 is ahead 57% to 43%, which means, of course, that it has passed. This is especially painful because a similar ballot initiative, Arizona Proposition 107, was defeated 51.8% to 48.2% only two years ago. In those two years, then, it seems homophobia and heterosexism have enjoyed a 9 point bump in Arizona.

Meanwhile, Arkansas voters, responding to a 2006 Arkansas State Supreme Court ruling that a state policy banning LGBT foster and adoptive parents, have "approved a measure banning unmarried couples who are living together being adoptive or foster parents." This ban is essentially a back-door route to banning LGBT foster and adoptive parents, although its victims are not limited to the LGBT community.

In Florida, voters - not content with having already banned same-sex marriage - have voted to do it again, just for good measure, passing Amendment 2 62% to 38%.

But, most shockingly, it looks like California Proposition 8, a measure to change that state's Constitution to outlaw same-sex marriage, has probably passed. Yes, even in California, heterosexism and homophobia still rule.

Last night was still a great night for America. The country stood up and demanded change, and change has happened. But many, many more changes are still needed. A young African-American girl or boy may now be able to dream of leading the country without being laughed out of the room, but a gay man or a lesbian can still be denied fundamental rights, and can still be scapegoated for the problems faced by heterosexual couples.

Racism may have been dealt a blow, but it has certainly not been killed. And, this same election that dealt that blow to racism has also proven that heterosexism and homophobia are not only still alive and well, but are in fact growing.

So congratulations to Barack Obama, president-elect of the United States. And congratulations to America for taking a bold but necessary step. We can certainly rejoice in this great moment. But my rejoicing is muted this morning, as I mourn for those citizens of this great nation who were told in no uncertain terms last night that they are still "other," still "less than," still at best second-class citizens, who cannot marry the person they love, who cannot adopt children (or even take in foster children!) and who may even be denied the right to visit their partner in hospitals.

So, by all means, take a moment to celebrate. But when that moment is done, realize this sobering truth: Injustice and inequality persist, and are in some very significant ways growing in strength.

We're not done yet!



Oh, and Comic Elon James White takes on the notion that Obama's victory somehow signals an end to racism and the rise of a post-racial society in Episode 12 of his brilliant This Week in Blackness:

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

I Voted!

As you can see, I voted today. Did you?

Thursday, October 30, 2008

A Lesson in Necessary and Sufficient Conditions, Compliments of Mr. Sowell

Every now and then I like to find the most ridiculous thing written by a conservative columnist, and hold it up to the light for a moment. I don't do this very often, probably because the process of finding said ridiculous bit of bloviating is, frankly, more than a little annoying, and from time to time inspires violence against my computer (I can't read this stuff on my laptop, lest it launch itself across the room!)

I generally pick on Cal Thomas, because if anyone knows ridiculous, it is Cal Thomas (though I am on the record agreeing with him once - I won't make a habit of it, I promise). Today, however, I'm going to diversify a little, bringing just a hint of light to a particularly flagrant bit of ridiculous from Thomas Sowell. In a recent op-ed piece in the Washington Times, Mr. Sowell takes up the subject of the kinds of judges a president Barack Obama might appoint. (And he gets extra credit for his use of scare-quotes around the word "change" in the first paragraph - I could see John McCain's sarcastic shrug jumping off my computer monitor!)

He writes:

Mr. Obama has stated very clearly what kinds of Supreme Court justices he wants - those with "the empathy to understand what it's like to be poor, or African-American, or gay, or disabled, or old."

Like so many things Mr. Obama says, it may sound nice if you don't stop and think - and chilling if you do stop and think. Do we really want judges who decide cases based on who you are rather than on the facts and the law? If the case involves a white man versus a black woman, should the judge decide that case differently than if both litigants are of the same race or sex? The kind of criteria Barack Obama promotes could have gotten three young men at Duke University sent to prison for a crime neither they nor anybody else committed.

I don't know whether or not Mr. Sowell is accurately quoting Sen. Obama - you don't need to offer citations for an op-ed piece, and your readers wouldn't thank you if you did. Since I have no reason to doubt the veracity of this quote, I'll take Thomas Sowell at his word when he writes that Obama said this. However, I seriously doubt that this is the only thing that Barack Obama, a lawyer who taught Constitutional Law at the University of Chicago - one of the world's finest academic institutions - has ever said on the subject. Yet that's what Mr. Sowell would have you believe. It is, in fact, the premise on which his entire argument depends.

Barack Obama says that judges should be able to empathize with the experience of the marginalized, therefore the defining characteristic for a judge, according to Barack Obama, is empathy with the experience of the marginalized. Knowledge of the law? Bah! All you really need to be able to do, to be a good judge, is to side with the minority against the majority, every time. A case between a woman and a man? You don't need to know the facts of the, or the relevant legal principles and precedents. Just side with the woman! A case between a black man and a white man? The black man should win every time! Gay v. straight, poor v. rich? These are easy decisions!

Now, it gets tricky when you have to choose between a black man and a white woman. Which is the trump, race or gender? I guess you could just flip a coin.

Does Sowell really believe that a lawyer and a scholar of Constitutional law would use this, and this alone, as his criterion for entry to the federal bench? I certainly hope not. Sowell has, frankly, written some whack-out shit in his time, but this would take the cake, calling not only his intelligence but his very sanity into question.

The most reasonable take on the quote from Sen. Obama that Mr. Sowell offers us is that Obama believes (rightly, I think), that the ability to empathize - and especially to empathize with those who so often stand powerless before the court - is a judicial asset. The strongest reasonable reading is that such ability is a necessary condition for being a good federal judge. That is, that empathy for the experience of the marginalized in our society is a quality that would be present in any good federal judge.

But is this the only quality? Heavens no! And no serious person would suggest otherwise. It should go without saying that any lawyer - much less someone who has taught Constitutional Law at the University of Chicago (have I mentioned that enough?!?) - would value some knowledge of *gasp* the law and the Constitution! Yet clearly Mr. Sowell needs this spelled out for him.

So, Thomas Sowell, let me be (hopefully not) the first person to tell you that you have committed a flagrant violation of logic, and should be chastised accordingly. You have made the elementary mistake of confusing a necessary condition with sufficient conditions.

For those of you keeping score at home, a necessary condition is a condition that must be met. A baseball, for instance, must be round. It is not sufficient, in that there are a great many round objects that are not baseballs; but it is necessary, in that there are no baseballs that are not round.

Similarly, if we are to read the statement of Barack Obama's that Mr. Sowell devotes an entire ill-conceived column to in the strongest reasonable way, it is necessary for a good federal judge to show empathy. That is, per Sen. Obama, there are no good federal judges who are unable to empathize with the experience of the oppressed. (This may well mean that, by this standard, a good many federal judges are not good, and that is a problem that I certainly hope an Obama administration would address!) So, it is necessary that a good federal judge be able to experience and express empathy, allowing that empathy to factor into judicial rulings. However, it does not follow from this that empathy is sufficient, that it is the only quality of a good federal judge.

I really shouldn't have had to type that.

Did I mention that Barack Obama taught Constitutional Law at the University of F-ing Chicago?!? They don't just let ANYBODY do that! (that's as close to shouting as I get)

But I'll give Mr. Sowell some credit. As ridiculous as his assertion is, it is by no means the most ridiculous assertion made at the page on which I found his column. For a real taste of true wingnettery, check out the comments, which include claims that Barack Obama - because he once clumsily used the phrase "spread the wealth" (as though that weren't the point of all taxes!) - would outlaw private property! However, the lunatic claiming that didn't get paid for his/her contribution.

Thomas Sowell: Thanks for trying. Better luck next time.


Reader survey:

Should we indict Thomas Sowell for crimes against logic?

If so, and if he is convicted, what should his sentence be?

Monday, October 27, 2008

Process Eschatology and the Power of God (Part I)

Last week I wrote an update of sorts on my Thesis, my first overtly theological post in more time than I care to remember. In that post I explored James Cone's eschatology - especially his assertion that for eschatology to have any value it "must be grounded in the historical present." That is to say that for eschatology - the study of the eschaton, the "end" - to have any value it must not be the sort of useless speculative nonsense that comes from the Tim LaHays and Hal Lindseys of the world, who offer visions of a future that detracts and distracts from the here and now. Rather it must draw one into the present moment, forcing a stark and jarring contrast between the indignity of the present moment and God's hoped-for future.

Beyond this, Cone argues, that hoped-for future itself must be able to be made present. It cannot remain forever some beautiful yet perpetually unrealized dream. How it gets made present, however, is the subject of some debate.

One of the challenges of my Thesis is that, while I am attempting to bring aspects of Liberation and Process theologies into some kind of synthesis, Process thought is in general wholly uninterested in this kind of eschatological vision. Eschatological language has next to no place in a Process system. The future is, after all, undetermined, ultimately indeterminate, the product of both random events and the vast chorus of free agents acting out of their freedom. To speak of some ultimate end that represents God's final vision for creation - which is what eschatology often does - is, in Process thought, nonsense.

This is where it becomes even more evident that John Cobb is a perfect fit for my project. Not only does he have the social and political interests so often absent from at least early Process thought, which was more interested in articulating a philosophically credible concept of God and God's role in ongoing creation than anything else; he also *gasp* offers something of a fledgling eschatology.

In his book Sustainability: Economics, Ecology, and Justice (a book that represents the social and political nature of his theology) he speaks to what he calls "the eschatological attitude," and about what he means by living "eschatologically." In offers this as a responsible alternative to Christian realism, an political ethic more interested in what is possible than in articulating what God's ultimate desire for the flourishing of God's creation. Of Christian realism he writes:

Since it accepts the existing structures of power, and since these structures are part of the total world system that moves toward catastrophe, Christian realism alone is not an adequate Christian response.

There is no doubt for Cobb that Christian realism has a place, a value. Christian realists offer, after all, not only "moral exhortation," some articulation of what should be done, but also an appreciation of the difficulties of the task and the complex nature of reality. Christian realists understand how to navigate systems, how to form alliances, working within structures to do concrete good. But that strength is also a weakness, tying the Christian realist to amoral or even immoral structures that themselves ultimately represent the problem. Christian realists become entangled with worldly powers, unable to articulate a prophetic critique of those powers, unable to stand apart from them an offer some alternative construct.

That is where eschatology comes in. Cobb does not shy away either from eschatological language or eschatological thinking. He instead embraces it, offering a defense of what he calls "the eschatological attitude" against attacks that such an attitude does no real good:

Some Christians may elect to live now in terms of what they envision as quite new possibilities for human society even when they do not know how to get from here to there. We may not know how to bring about a society that uses only renewable resources, but we can experiment with lifestyles that foreshadow that kind of society. We may not know how to provide the Third World with space and freedom to work out its own destiny, but in the name of a new kind of world we can withdraw our support from the more obvious structures of oppression. We may not know how to shift from a growth-oriented economy to a stationary-state economy, but we can work out the principles involved in such an economy.

To exert energies in these ways is not to live in an irrelevant world of make-believe. It is to live from a hopeful future. It may not affect the course of immediate events as directly as will the policy of Christian realism, but it may provide the stance that will make it possible, in a time of crisis, to make constructive rather than destructive changes.

To live eschatologically, then, to live life with an eschatological attitude, is "to live from a hopeful future." That is a wonderful phrase, worth unpacking. But before it gets unpacked - before we flesh out what it means "to live from a hopeful future," there is other business to attend to.

Aspects of this articulation of eschatological living remind me a great deal of Cone. Most important is the necessary connection between the vision for the hopeful future and present activity. Simply put, for Cobb and Cone no less than for the apostle Paul (see I Thessalonians 5, especially v. 11) eschatology is an entry-point for ethics. It is the vision of the hopeful future that informs present behavior. That hoped for future thus means something right now. It motivates a certain lifestyle. Eschatological living means, to paraphrase NT scholars Marion L. Soards, living in such a way that the hoped-for future has a determinative effect on the present.

In Cone, as we saw last week, this bonding of ethics and eschatology means that the hoped-for future motivates resistance in the present moment. It means that the oppressed see in that hoped-for future a dignity that informs their present struggle. Thus, for Cone, eschatology weds itself to an ethic of resistance. God's vision for creation does not include large sections of humanity being placed under the thumb of a powerful minority. For blacks and other racial/ethnic minorities in America, this means that God's vision for creation - that vision of a hoped-for future - does not include racism; therefore, racism and its equally evil twin, white supremacy, must be opposed in the present. That present opposition is informed and strengthen by the vision of a hoped-for future.

For Cobb, living eschatologically would undoubtedly include this. However, Cobb is less interested in articulating an eschatological ethic of resistance for the oppressed, and more interested in articulating an economic and ecological ethic that assumes an audience not of the outcast but rather of the privileged. For Cobb, then, this means first world Christians, motivated by a vision of a hoped-for future, opting out of exploitive economic systems. Freely choosing to live more ecologically sustainable lives, while also attending to the extent to which their past economic activity participated in the systematic oppression and exploitation of large chunks of humanity.

It should be added, however, that this eschatological ethic, this structuring of life in accordance with a vision of a hoped-for future, this living out of an eschatological attitude, is messy business. The future is by no means certain. And how they future - or, at least, this vision of the future - affects living in the present is equally uncertain. We don't "know how to get from here to there." We aren't even certain where there is. We just have certain principles which, coupled with a vision of a hoped-for future in which these principles are actively lived out, inform our faulty and often piece-meal attempts to live more responsible lives.

The question, then, is how this hoped-for future is made present, not only in the often tentative attempts of those who wish to more intentionally live out their faith, but in reality. Cone after all rightly notes that unless this hoped-for future can be made present, eschatology is insignificant, or worse, a distraction. This is where some discussion of the power of God becomes necessary.

I've written more critiques of divine omnipotence than I care to count. I won't waste more space here on the problems I and others see with doctrines of divine omnipotence. The biggest counter-argument - the one I wrestle with the most - is that if God is not all-powerful, if God cannot impose God's will on creation, then ultimately God is ineffectual. What is the point in believing in and praying to a god who cannot alter the course of events in creation, who cannot ultimately shape everything in accordance with a perfect plan.

The strength of eschatology lies in a kind of certainty. The future can determine the present if and only if that future is bound eventually to become present, or, at least if those acting in accordance with that vision of a hoped-for future believe that it must come to pass. The oppressed can rise up against their oppression, resisting it even when the price of that resistance is death, because they know that God is on their side in their struggle for liberation, and that that means something.

For an eschatological vision, God's vision for the ultimate end of creation, to have any value, God must have power sufficient to make that vision real. But if God is not omnipotent, if God cannot do anything, if God's will is not irresistible, God's plans not inevitable, unthwartable, if God's ultimate victory not certain, not already won, how can anyone assert that God does in fact have power sufficient to make this vision of a hoped-for future real, present?

In my next theological post I will engage a Process description of divine power, principally that articulated by Catherine Keller in her newest book On the Mystery: Discerning Divinity in Process. I will bring this description of divine power into dialogue with Cone's eschatology, and argue that ultimately the vision of the hoped-for future itself is the very power by which God brings that vision into reality.