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.