Wise Guys, Eh: a book review.

One of the principal errors of Christian dogma is that we are fallen from an ideal state in Eden. Archeologically, this is absurd: mankind was distributed across most of the globe at the time of the direct encounter between Man and God in the Middle East. The Fall was a local event, that set in chain events (as the seed becomes the mighty mustard tree) that eventually enmeshed all of humanity.

But it appears also in our theological arguments: we hold that those closest to Jesus must have understood most clearly his intentions. This is a great comfort to those that do not wish to wrestle with the universalism of Christian love – they justify their prejudices by picking and choosing among early writers, rather than confronting the work that must be done in each age.

In fact, our modern dialog is far richer than that among the early adherents to the faith. The participants are more heterogeneous, and we possess words (such as EMPATHY, coined in the 1800’s) that were unknown to the elders.

We are not fallen, we are still rising. Christ is still at work in the world, and continues to lift us up, NOT LEAST through the agency of women that bear witness to virtue.

James Matichuk offers a review of a survey by Christopher Hall on the thinking of early church fathers on issues of modern controversy. In general, I am very sympathetic to James’ theology, and he is constrained in his format to representation of the content of the original work. I am not so constrained, and weighed in with this perspective.


The attitude to the fetus is idealistic. Did the early fathers recognize that there are mothers and fathers that are incapable of providing such nurturance, and that in fact the pressure of adding a child to a household might guarantee suffering and death to both mother and child? I am not asking this to be contrary, but simply as a matter of record: did they grapple with the practical issues of pregnancy and birth from a woman’s perspective?

If they didn’t, why do we reference them?

A contrasting practice is the Roman prenuptial rite. This created a physical experience comparable to child birth, which in its traumas can break either body or mind. If the woman could not endure the ritual, she was encouraged to withdraw from her engagement.

This same type of critical analysis can be extended to others among the selected issues.

thoughts, prayers & songs:

My introduction to patristics came through the Desert Fathers. I picked up a book (I can’t remember if I read Helen Wadell’s or Benedicta Ward’s collection first) and discovered there compelling voices from another age. They were ethereal and strange, sometimes legalistic, but always thoughtful. They offered a compelling vision of the spiritual life. Since then I’ve read more widely the church fathers, exploring the saints of both the Christian East and West. Because their time was so different from our own, and not so different, I think they have a tremendous capacity to speak prophetically into our age.

5188Christopher Hall is an excellent guide to the thought world of the fathers. He is the associate editor of IVP’s Ancient Commentary on Scripture and his newest book is the fourth and final volume of his Church Father’s series (previously published, Reading the Bible with the Church Fathers, Learning Theology with the…

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Course Notes – Bernard Williams, “The Human Prejudice” — The Electric Agora

by Daniel A. Kaufman http://www.nyu.edu/classes/gmoran/WILLIAMS.pdf The last unit of my introductory level “Ethics and Contemporary Issues” course is devoted to the question of moral concern for non-human animals. We begin with excerpts from Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics, then move on to Cora Diamond’s “Eating Meat and Eating People” (which I discussed in a This Week’s […]

via Course Notes – Bernard Williams, “The Human Prejudice” — The Electric Agora


This is a great essay, Daniel, capturing with clarity the central intellectual dilemma.

However.

I am astonished by the moral vacuity of all analysis that assigns significance to our material being. As a person of spiritual experience, I recognize that our significance to God is in the capacity we have for facilitating spiritual transformation. The conditions of our material experience are more or less propitious to that end, but are not sufficient. We must understand the nature of love, and discipline ourselves to its expression in all of our relationships.

That includes rendering gratitude for the sacrifices made to support us – including the food and weather. Our ancestors prayed for everything, and gave gratitude for everything.

They experienced more joy in the world – and we call them “superstitious!” Of our European reductionism, the Native American elders offer the rebuke: “You insist on learning the hard way!”

Furthermore, as we are late arrivals on the planet, our spiritual weight is slight, and God’s purpose for us includes redeeming the spirits bound to less evolved species. That does mean caring about them. I know that those in your Agora will argue against this, much as theologians once argued against Galileo. The Italian saw things with his telescope that compelled him to write, and in bowing to the perceptions of the heart of Christ, so am I.

Am Misbehaving

Teri Gross, interviewing a young female actor/writer/director tonight on Fresh Air, had an uncomfortable dialog concerning male role-models that have now been revealed as sexual predators. The discussion focused on the challenges of not saying “the wrong thing,” with “the wrong thing” never being elucidated. Presumably it would be something that could be interpreted as hateful of men in general, or dismissive of the human depth and value of the work of some of the men involved, or offensive to men that they might want to work with on future projects.

So they preferred to say nothing.

This contrasted with the All Things Considered interview of women from lineage of three generations that have worked in Hollywood since 1960. They spoke frankly about the problem of sexual harassment and what it takes to avoid degradation. They had direct experience, and so had a specific human story to tell.

In both contexts, their attraction to Hollywood was explained as a reaching for the opportunity to create dreams. Remember that these are successful creators, so they have not hit the wall that causes most workers to hate their jobs after they turn forty. That wall is the gate that narrows when the cost of providing opportunities to all qualified people exceeds the available resources. When opportunities for professional growth thin out, what characterizes those that stay the course?

I would hazard that it’s not just the opportunity to create dreams for others, it’s the link between their work and the expression of their own fantasies. The more powerful those fantasies are, the greater the commitment to their craft.

Perhaps the most disturbing experience I have had in church is being told by a pastor that I was not welcome because when I meditated on the cross, everybody in the congregation felt that they were being sexually harassed. To love someone is to affirm their personality – and if they find more joy in sex than in compassion, they will channel the energy that way.

Couple this to the desire of a director or producer to associate and control beautiful people – the people that we love to watch on the screen – and the adoration that we tender to our media figures is going to amplify their worst habits. The more we adore them, the worse their conduct will become.

The problem is related to the problem Jesus faced with his disciples. The disciples believed that they needed Jesus to tell them what to do, just as consumers of entertainment believe that they need someone to give them dreams. Jesus complained of the “little faith” of his followers because they didn’t believe in themselves. He died, was buried, rose and ascended to convince them that they should cast off their doubts and love others.

Rather than fixing our gaze on that story – the true and heroic testimony of the redeeming power available to all that choose to love – we choose to fill our dreams with fantasies that can’t possibly be made true. In seeking to entertain, Hollywood doesn’t create dreams, it creates illusions. Those that suckle on its teat shouldn’t be surprised when those illusions are pierced, unmasking the self-serving motives of all those that peddle illusion – and exemplified by those that have clawed their way to the top.

Our government is also riven by corruption – politicians don’t have the power to solve our problems, so they peddle illusions. And we are disappointed in our relationships, because we operate under the illusion that someone else can change our soul when that is work that only we can do in collaboration with God.

We’re not going to end exploitation by shaming people, or throwing them in jail. There will always  be replacements.  We’re only going to solve the problem by recognizing illusionists when they appear in our lives, and putting them off with “That’s all very nice, Donald, but I need to pray for a friend before I go visit them.”

Circumstantial Racism, Universal Exploitation

Ta Nehisi Coates rails against White racism in his analysis of Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the Oval Office. That racism is characterized as a universal Caucasian affliction, evident even in the policies of the Clinton White House. Coates cites welfare reform and mandatory sentencing as reasons that Hillary Clinton did not command black loyalty as did President Obama. That these policies are color-conscious only in the pattern of their enforcement reveals Coates’ own racism.

In his analysis of the root causes of white supremacist logic, Coates hits closer to the truth. In the face of economic exploitation (whether as white indentured servants or black slaves, whether living in company towns or struggling to survive as share croppers), the pride of the impoverished whites was preserved by their social superiority to blacks, Hispanics and Asians. Any policies intended to even those disparities opened a yawning pit of debasement under the feet of the white electorate.

It is this fact that Republicans have used to solidify their control of that constituency. The stark evidence is seen in the exclusivity of the staff in Speaker Paul Ryan’s office. Not a colored face among them.

So Coates takes a step backwards, and argues that the true root of racism is capitalism. This is an error, as the seat of slavery in America was in the agrarian South. With this fact, we should recognize ‘capitalism’ as a stand-in for ‘exploitation.’

Exploitation is a universal phenomenon that manifests as deforestation, water pollution and global warming. It is consumption of resources without consideration of costs to our neighbors or descendants. It is a phenomenon seen in every hierarchical culture on earth, not excluding any race, ethnicity, religion, or economic framework – and in fact driving internecine conflict that belies any attribution to those causes.

Given that universality, Coates’ calls for retribution against those that celebrate those causes (such as those co-ethnic to slave-holders in America) are counter-productive until we can demonstrate a political and economic framework that mitigates against exploitation. Without it, we are simply adherents to the ancient policy characterized satirically by:

The beatings will continue until morale improves.

Solidarnosc, Roboti!

The Russian police arrested a robot that was collecting opinion data at a political rally. Given how little suffering corporations endured to obtain free speech rights in America, I think that soon enough it will be time to let robots vote. It’s not quite as bad as sending 18-year-olds to Vietnam when the voting age was twenty-one, but its getting there.

Okay, probably not.

Beyond Evil to Good

Miguel de Unamuno, considering the road from masculine frailty to faith, observed in Tragic Sense of Life that all men desire two things:

  • To live forever.
  • To rule the world.

The obvious paradox in these impulses is that most of us (myself being a man) attempt to accomplish the second by beating the crap out of other men – which tends to advance the interruption of our seeking after the first.

Work-arounds abound, the most obvious being to have a gun at the ready whenever an altercation arises. The subtlest is the use of psychological conditioning to get others to do the beating up for us. In totalitarian states, that conditioning takes the form of propaganda against imagined enemies, but is often joined with control over basic necessities. In democratic cultures, the conditioning is typically tied to unattainable visions of sexual conquest. When progeny ensue, hypersensitivity to their vulnerability often becomes the lever used to encourage financial exploitation of others.

Obviously in these systems there will be losers – a great many losers. The power of the impulses identified by Unamuno then manifests in a terrible perversion, expressed by a friend who asserted that the world would “know about him.” He testified ominously:

“Yeah, when a man has nothing to lose, there’s nothing he won’t do. And when the world learns about me, it will be nothing like anything that it’s ever seen before.”

I tried to lighten the air, offering that I knew what he meant, and that my sons were sometimes worried that I was going to just walk off and disappear. When he asked “You mean go live on the streets?” I replied, “No, probably they’d find me out someplace like the Amazon in Ecuador helping the indigenous people deal with the mess that Texaco left behind.”

Ah, the contradictory consequences revealed by Unamuno’s observation!

Some men lose everything, and seek to rule the lives of others by ending them, thus finding immortality in notoriety. I have nothing, and so claim this little piece of the blogosphere, writing about everything for almost nobody, and imagine conquering a little part of the world with a sponge and a squeegee. Some men fear the immigrant, and extrapolate our future against Europe’s tragedies where the Muslim population is ten times proportionately larger than ours. Accepting King’s dictum that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” I embrace Muslim America as an opportunity for Islamic scholarship to rediscover and reassert the original message of Mohammed (pbuh), and any acts of violence as a cross to be born in conquering fear.

Unamuno’s defense of Christian faith was that we “create this God of love and eternal life by believing in him.” I see that as heresy: we don’t create him; we rather allow his virtues to manifest in our lives. In doing so, we learn to love ourselves and accept love from others, thereby obtaining dominion over the only part of the world that really matters: ourselves. In focusing that strength to the service of loving others, we lessen the burden of their resistance to our survival, and so enter more deeply into their world.

And for those that cannot learn – either those that lash out in violence or those that consume the innocent? What do they become in the end? Not themselves any longer – they become a headline in a newspaper. The history implicit in the personal “why” is lost. They become simply a “what”: 18 in San Bernardino. 49 people dead in Orlando. 3000 dead on 9/11. 47 million during World War II. Their personal history is consumed by the violence they created.

But men like Buddha – who renounced violence to bring a system of self-control to his people – or Jesus – who died to expose the hypocrisy of the military-religious complex – their names are enshrined in the hearts of those they have liberated. They live on in us.

Coming Clean on Student Absenteeism

Daily Kos reports that allowing poor students access to washing machines at school decreased absenteeism in 90% of cases – as well as improving student enthusiasm and participation.

People facing challenges in life test the effectiveness and fairness of the systems designed by those granted opportunity. When something so basic as personal dignity can be addressed so simply, with such a profound impact, it’s hard to argue that we shouldn’t do what we can to understand their condition.