4.07.2011

Ayn Rand Killed My Father

Fascinating little testimonial on Salon entitled "How Ayn Rand Ruined My Childhood", which doubles as a startling treatise on the cruelty of the Law. Say what you will about the political commitments of objectivism (ironically, most libertarians I've met are actually coming from a place of faith rather than reason), the relational ramifications appear to be pretty horrific: what happens when confession and repentance are, um, divorced, and honesty crosses the border into self-satisfaction. Is this merely an inflated athropology in the clothing of a deflated one? Or, in this scheme, if God is an objectivist, does that make Jesus a subjectivist? Either way, count me out:

My parents split up when I was 4. My father, a lawyer, wrote the divorce papers himself and included one specific rule: My mother was forbidden to raise my brother and me religiously. She agreed, dissolving Sunday church and Bible study with one swift signature. Mom didn't mind; she was agnostic and knew we didn't need religion to be good people. But a disdain for faith wasn't the only reason he wrote God out of my childhood. There was simply no room in our household for both Jesus Christ and my father's one true love: Ayn Rand.

[Rand] is a Russian-born American novelist who championed her self-taught philosophy of objectivism through her many works of fiction. Conservatives are known to praise her for her support of laissez-faire economics and meritocracy. Liberals tend to criticize her for being too simplistic. I know her more intimately as the woman whose philosophy dictates my father's every decision.

What is objectivism? If you'd asked me that question as a child, I could have trotted to the foyer of my father's home and referenced a framed quote by Rand that hung there like a cross. It read: "My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute." As a little kid I interpreted this to mean: Love yourself. Nowadays, Rand's bit is best summed up by the rapper Drake, who sang: "Imma do me."

I don't know exactly why [my father] sparked to Rand. He claimed the philosophy appealed to him because it's based solely on logic. It also conveniently quenched his lawyer's thirst to always be right. It's not uncommon for people to seek out belief systems, whether political or spiritual, that make them feel good about how they already live their lives. Ultimately, I suspect Dad was drawn to objectivism because, unlike so many altruistic faiths, it made him feel good about being selfish.

Needless to say, Dad's newfound obsession with the individual didn't pan out so well with the woman he married. He was always controlling, but he became even more so. In the end, my mother moved out, but objectivism stayed.
---------------

One time, at dinner, I complained that my brother was hogging all the food. "He's being selfish!" I whined to my father.

"Being selfish is a good thing," he said. "To be selfless is to deny one's self. To be selfish is to embrace the self, and accept your wants and needs."

It was my dad's classic response -- a grandiose philosophical answer to a simple real-world problem. But who cared about logic? All I wanted was another serving of mashed potatoes.
------------------

From what I understood of his favorite capitalist champion, any form of altruism was evil. But how could that kind of blanket self-interest extend to his own children, the people he was legally and morally bound to take care of? What was I supposed to do, fend for myself?

The answer to my question came on an autumn weekend during my sophomore year in high school. I was hosting a Harry Potter-themed float party in our driveway, a normal ritual to prepare decorations for my high school quad the week of homecoming. As I was painting a cardboard owl, my father asked me to come inside the house. He and his new wife sat me down at the dinner table with grave faces.
"We were wondering if you would petition to be emancipated," he said in his lawyer voice.

"What does that mean?" I asked, picking at the mauve paint on my hands. I later discovered that for most kids, declaring emancipation is an extreme measure -- something you do if your parents are crack addicts or deadbeats.

"You would need to become financially independent," he said. "You could work for me at my law firm and pay rent to live here." This was my moment of truth as an objectivist. If I believed in the glory of the individual, I would've signed the petition papers then and there. But as much as Rand's novels had taught me to believe in meritocracy, they had not prepared me to go it alone financially and emotionally. I began to cry and refused.

Hardcore objectivists often criticize liberals for basing decisions on emotion, rather than reason. My father saw our family politics no differently. In his mind, it was reasonable to ask that I emancipate myself and work for a living. To me, it felt like he was asking me to sacrifice my childhood so he didn't have to pay child support. To me, it felt like abandonment.

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4.05.2011

Paying Taxes To The Pale King

Tax Day marks the release of Mockingbird icon David Foster Wallace's posthumous novel, The Pale King. Quotes forthcoming, but from the few reviews that have appeared already, it sounds predictably ripe... Italics mine.

Michiko Kakutani in The NY Times: [DFW's] posthumous unfinished novel, “The Pale King” — which is set largely in an I.R.S. office in the Midwest — depicts an America so plagued by tedium, monotony and meaningless bureaucratic rules and regulations that its citizens are in danger of dying of boredom.

Just as this lumpy but often stirring new novel emerges as a kind of bookend to “Infinite Jest,” so it demonstrates that being amused to death and bored to death are, in Wallace’s view, flip sides of the same coin. Perhaps, he writes, “dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there,” namely the existential knowledge “that we are tiny and at the mercy of large forces and that time is always passing and that every day we’ve lost one more day that will never come back.” 

Happiness, Wallace suggests in a Kierkegaardian note at the end of this deeply sad, deeply philosophical book, is the ability to pay attention, to live in the present moment, to find “second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive.”
---------------

Garth Risk Hallberg in NY Magazine: The Pale King is, for great swaths, an astonishment, unfinished not in the way of splintery furniture but in the way of Kafka’s Castle or the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. And it reduces chatter about the provenance of its author’s late renown to background noise. The book demands our attention precisely because while we’re reading it, David Foster Wallace is again the most alive prose writer of our time—and the one who speaks most directly to our condition.
[CONTINUE READING]

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3.28.2011

Another One from William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience

"Where God is, tragedy is only provisional and partial, and shipwreck and dissolution are not the absolutely final things." (517) 

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3.10.2011

J.D. Salinger and the Apple-Eaters

A great little exchange from his short story, "Teddy":

"Nicholson looked up at (Teddy), and sustained the look -- detaining him.  'What would you do if  you could ever change the educational system?' he asked ambiguously. 'Ever think about that at all?.' ...

'Well... I'm not too sure what I'd do,' Teddy said.  'I know I'm pretty sure I wouldn't start with the things schools usually start with.'  He folded his arms, and reflected briefly.  'I think I'd first just assemble all the children together and show them how to meditate.  I'd try to show them how to find out who they are, not just what their names are and things like that... I guess, even before that, I'd get them to empty out everything their parents and everybody ever told them.  I mean even if their parents just told them an elephant's big, I'd make them empty that out.  An elephant's only big when it's next to something else -- a dog or a lady, for example.'  Teddy thought another moment.  'I wouldn't even tell them an elephant has a trunk.  I might show them an elephant, if I had one handy, but I'd let them just walk up to the elephant not knowing anything more about it than the elephant knew about them.  The same thing with grass and other things.  I wouldn't even tell them grass is green.  Colors are only names.  I mean if you tell them the grass is green, it makes them start expecting the grass to look a certain way -- your way -- instead of some other way that may be just as good, and may be much better... I don't know.  I'd just make them vomit up every bit of the apple their parents and everybody made them take a bite out of.'

'There's no risk you'd be raising a little generation of ignoramuses?'

Why? they wouldn't any more be ignoramuses than an elephant is.  Or a bird is.  Or a tree is,' Teddy said.  'Just because something is a certain way, instead of just behaves a certain way, doesn't mean it's an ignoramus.'

'No?'

'No!'  Teddy said.  'Besides, if they wanted to learn all that other stuff -- names and colors and things -- they could do it, if they felt like it, later on when they were older.  But I'd want them to begin with all the real ways of looking at things, not just the way all the other apple-eaters look at things -- that's what I mean.'"

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3.09.2011

Possibly Insane Thoughts on Ash Wednesday (Written on the Occasion of a Sleepless Night)

A close friend of Mockingbird contributes the following reflection on the meaning of the day, and I'm sure you'll agree that it is a welcome and considerably more profound alternative to the (admittedly irresistible) irreverence with which we've treated (the "public displays of piety" which characterize) Lent in past years. A touching and personal defense of the season, and today in particular, from an exceptionally sympathetic a point of view: 

For those of us who came of age in certain fundamentalist or evangelical Protestant churches, life was a strangely disembodied affair. It is true that various sins of the flesh were railed against, but it never was in name of a truer way of actually inhabiting the world, of living joyfully within it. Instead, our bodies and the physical spaces of our existence were essentially temporary confinements, nothing but occasions for temptation, impediments to the spiritual life. Our subjugation to matter would be remedied through rapture or cataclysm – eschatology took the shape not of patient hope for the redemption of creation, which even now we groan for, but release from the grip of physicality altogether. Worship, and the religious life more generally, went ahead in spite of our bodies, with the hope of eventually transcending them altogether.

My fascination and love for Ash Wednesday only can be understood in relation to such a past, for lurking within this day’s penitential posture is a celebration of our mortal existence. It is a liturgical episode that takes our physical existence seriously. It is, perhaps surprisingly, an extraordinarily hopeful day. The superficial gloom of ashes to ashes, dust to dust, points to the paradoxical, deep truth of the Christian faith: those who lose their life will gain it. It is a day to be released from the deadliness of doing, which is to say released to live in the world.

Of course it is possible, even common, under the misguided moralism that blights most of our churches, to turn the beginning of Lent into a peculiar form of asceticism: we mortify the flesh in the name of the spirit, and deprive our bodies for the sake of religious “growth.” For Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and other liturgical Christians, a season of fasting and restraint can transmogrify into a dualism that is different in form, but not really content, from my youthful fundamentalism. The spiritual life can be pitted against our embodiment in a variety of contexts, whether “high church” or “low church,” liturgical or not. The constant allure of escapism is always at hand to turn such practices into a fearful longing to abandon the task of living patiently, generously, lovingly in a world marked by pain and sorrow. Part of us always wants to flee our bodies, and the world they move through, and Lenten observations can find their way to this place with astonishing ease.

One response to this line of thought, which is not unpersuasive, is that Lent assumes a relationship between our physical and spiritual lives. It is in its own way a season for people with bodies. It takes our bodies seriously enough to allow for a connection between what we do, eat, and drink, and what spiritual valence is possible for us. We go through our bodies, not away from them, when we make certain sacrifices. In a very basic sense, this is true. We might be able to fix our attention more clearly, or focus our attention in prayer more steadfastly, under certain conditions. Taken for not more than what they are, these practices can be a part of basically sound spiritual life. But such an observation misses the more important existential, personal element to what Ash Wednesday signifies.

The search for sanctification never is that far removed from neurotic burden. There always is something half-comical, half-tragic about the banalities of what we “give up” for Lent.
[CONTINUE READING]

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2.21.2011

PZ's Podcast: Conventional Thinking, and Unconventional (Alan Watts and Somerset Maugham)


Just because Alan Watts said it, doesn't make it wrong. Or, putting it another way, just because Alan Watts said it, doesn't make it right. He is not the point. But he did say some interesting things in the course of an interesting, morphing life.

Here is something Watts said in an essay prompted by The Dharma Bums. (He was not happy with Kerouac's portrayal of him in that book.): "Conventional thought is the confusion of the concrete universe of nature with the conceptual things, events, and values of linguistic and cultural symbolism."

He is talking about abstraction, which is 'conventional thought', versus concrete observation, which is unconventional thought.

When this quote begins to make sparks inside you, you begin to see that a lot of your everyday thinking is putting things, people, and events into categories; rather than letting them exist in their uniqueness, or on their own terms. When we set particular things into an intellectual 'frame' or grouping, we are working to deny them their individual reality. Whenever you say of a thing, 'This is that', rather than 'This is this', you're adding to the thing, and thereby really detracting from it. You're seeing it in terms of something else, such as a category you already have or an interpretation through which you already see things, rather than seeing it as it is, right there in front of you.

Conventional thought, if Watts is right, is a way of controlling reality. His theme relates to our upcoming Mockingbird Conference in New York City (March 31-April 2).

In case you think this sounds abstruse or unrelated to what you're interested in, think the late Medieval struggle between the philosophers who called themselves Nominalists and the philosophers who called themselves Realists. It was the essential background for Luther.

Episode 35 of PZ's Podcast considers the nature of things if they don't have names.

Episode 36, which will be released Thursday, gives some examples of un-conventional thinking, the thinking which eschews categories.  An instance of this, and quite hilarious if you've been exposed to what he is lampooning, occurs in Somerset Maugham's 1938 novel Christmas Holiday. There we are given a tour through the Louvre that is conducted by a pompous parent for the edification of her two young children. That painful tour represents 'conventional thinking'. But then, immediately afterwards, we are given a tour conducted by a most afflicted young worker in a Paris bordello, as she guides a befuddled and supposedly intellectual young man right to the spot where they can both appreciate a somewhat hidden still-life unconventionally. The whole thing's a hoot, but it's also moving.  

I hope you'll hear me out, as we begin with that 'genuine fake' Herr Watts, survey the punctures of abstraction in the wheel of reality, then allow suffering 'Lydia', in Christmas Holiday (who was played by Deanna Durbin in the movies), to bring us straight to the hem of a specific beautiful thing.

Listen here. 

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2.18.2011

Chantal Delsol on Demiurges and Gardeners

From the French philosopher's The Unlearned Lessons Of the Twentieth Century: An Essay On Late Modernity, ht MS:

The interplay of frailty and promise forbids us to dismiss all philosophies of man as illusory and compels us to reflect on humanity. Because the human fabric remains imperfect, it cannot be reinvented by the will or indefinitely molded by desire. It commands respect through its weight and resistance to manipulation. We must try to understand this frailty before we can put a face on the promise. The presence of evil prevents the future from creating its own order; it must respect a certain givenness of being which must always remain largely unknown.

The Constitutive incompleteness of man forbids him to attempt to turn perfection into reality. But he can care for what exists, and it is probably this caring that defines what is uniquely and properly human. This style of being, as it were, expresses itself in the attention man pays to the world he has inherited in order to understand that world. The world we inherit and share is full of being, in the sense that forces are at work that we did not ourselves introduce. Having focused on reinventing the world, we must now turn our gaze toward the potentialities of being. Our fascination for planning must be replaced by attending to desirable possibilities. In order to care for, improve, and clear the brush away from what exists, we must keep in check our will to begin again ex nihilo, loving both existence and those beings who exist. That is, we must love them more than the products of our own minds.

The failures of the twentieth century reveal who we are. We are not demiurges. We are gardeners.

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1.26.2011

Nietzsche, Socrates, Seneca and The Philosopher's Stone

A fascinating if somewhat downbeat review of James Miller's new Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche appeared in this past weekend's NY Times Book Review, containing more than a few gems about human nature and the search for meaning. In particular, the book details how various philosophers have negotiated, or failed to negotiate, the impossible gap between the ideal and the real (known to us as, well, sin) in their own lives. Lots of prime divided-self/Romans 7-material in here:

If the proof of a pudding is in the eating, and the proof of a rule is in the exceptions, where should we look for the proof of a philosophy? For Friedrich Nietzsche, the answer was obvious: to test a philosophy, find out if you can live by it. This is “the only critique of a philosophy that is possible and that proves something,” he wrote in 1874. It’s also the form of critique that is generally overlooked in the philosophy faculties of universities. Nietzsche therefore dismissed the professional discipline as irrelevant, a “critique of words by means of other words,” and devoted himself to pursuing an idiosyncratic philosophical quest outside the academy.

Few readers will be astounded to learn that philosophers make as much of a mess of their lives as anyone else. But Miller, a professor of politics at the New School and author of a biography of Michel Foucault, among other books, does not rest with digging out petty failings or moments of hypocrisy. He shows us philosophers becoming ever more inclined to reflect on these failings, and suggests that this makes their lives more rather than less worth studying.

As Socrates himself said, “Don’t you think that actions are more reliable evidence than words?” The rest of “Examined Lives” can be read as a history of other philosophers’ failures to measure up to this ideal, either in their deaths or their lives.

One of Miller’s great transitional figures is the Roman court-philosopher Seneca. Living half a millennium after Socrates, he too was condemned to death by suicide. He accepted his fate with Socratic courage, but his death itself was difficult. He slit his wrists before begging for a cup of hemlock and retiring to a hot bath to expire. The messiness of his death reflected a morally messy life. For, while his writings promoted wisdom, balance, restraint and detachment, Seneca himself was forced into numerous compromises in the service of his protégé and employer, the murderous emperor Nero. He even helped Nero plot the murder of Agrippina, the emperor’s own mother. The strain was evident. “I am not wise,” Seneca wrote; “nor . . . shall I ever be.” Yet he also advised his favorite correspondent, Lucilius, to “harmonize talk with life.” As Miller remarks, Seneca was “in conflict” with himself. 
Other philosophers suffered even more self-division, particularly those who succumbed to mental illness.

Miller concludes that his 12 philosophical lives offer a moral that is “neither simple nor uniformly edifying.” It amounts mainly to the idea that philosophy can offer little or no consolation, and that the examined life is, if anything, “harder and less potentially rewarding” for us than it was for Socrates. 

Perhaps this is what still distinguishes the philosophical life: that “once in a lifetime” convulsion, in which one reinvents reality around oneself. It is a project doomed to fail, and compromises will always be made. But what, in life, could be more interesting?

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1.13.2011

William James on Muscular Moralism and the Eternal Present

Our quotable day continues with quite the humdinger from James' The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, courtesy of Mbird friend Brian Martin:

"The moralist must hold his breath and keep his muscles tense; and so long as this athletic attitude is possible all goes well -- morality suffices. But the athletic attitude tends ever to break down, and it inevitably does break down even in the most stalwart when the organism begins to decay, or when morbid fears invade the mind. To suggest personal will and effort to one all sicklied o'er with the sense of irremidiable impotences is to suggest the most impossible of things. What he craves is to be consoled in his very powerlessness, to feel that the spirit of the universe recognizes and secures him, all decaying and failing as he is. Well, we are all such helpless failures in the last resort. The sanest and best of us are one clay with lunatics and prison inmates, and death finally runs the robustest of us down. And whenever we feel this, such a sense of the vanity and provisionality of our voluntary career comes over us that all our morality appears but as a plaster hiding a sore it can never cure, and all our well-doing as the hollowest substitute for that well-BEING that our lives ought to be grounded in, but, alas! are not. And here religion comes to our rescue and takes our fate into her hands. There is a state of mind, known to religious men, but to no others, in which the will to assert ourselves and hold our own has been displaced by a willingness to close our mouths and be as nothing in the floods and waterspouts of God. In this state of mind, what we most dreaded has become the habitation of our safety, and the hour of our moral death has turned into our spiritual birthday. The time for tension in our soul is over, and that of happy relaxation, of calm deep breathing, of an eternal present, with no discordant future to be anxious about, has arrived. Fear is not held in abeyance as it is by mere morality, it is positively expunged and washed away."

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1.11.2011

Michael Oakeshott on the Modern Religious Man

From the great philosopher's early (1929) essay "Religion and the World" expounding on the idea that "Pure religion is to keep unspotted from the world" (James 1:27), ht MS:

This, then, is the character of the religious man today, as I conceive him.

Unlike the typical medieval saint, he makes no attempt to leave the beauties and attractions of the visible world unseen, to subdue the flesh and curb the mind; unlike the primitive Christian, he is moved by no fantastic expectations; unlike the children of his age he is fascinated by no hope of a Good Time Coming. The world's ideal is achievement, it asks for accomplishment, and regards each life as a mere contribution to some far-off result. The past reaches up to the future, and the present, and all sense and feeling for the present, is lost. From all these the religious man seeks nothing but escape; they are forms of the secularism which is the death of religion. He will keep in age youth's refusal to take life as it is, and the present condition of society will always cause him discontent. What governs him is not the world's ideal of visible achievement; life, for him, will mean more than a career, and he will not measure his success by the place he fills in some hypothetical development of evolution. The world and its 'careerist' ideal presents a whole miscellany of possible purposes for life, but all these the religious man will view as no more than distractions from its real business.

             The world
             Is full of voices, man is call'd and hurl'd
             By each:

but the religious man, undazzled by these glories and unimposed on by these values, seeks freedom, 'freedom from all embarrassment alike of regret for the past and calculation on the future,' freedom from the encumbrance of extraneous motives and parasitic opinions, which is the sole condition of the intellectual integrity he values more than anything else. Life to him is not a game of skill, people and events are not counters valued for something to be gained, or achieved, beyond them. In the extemporary life he deserves to live, nothing is of final worth except present insight, a grasp of the thing itself, and the only failure to fall back on that 'anodyne of muddledom' by which men seek to substitute mere extent of knowledge, or a career, or this idea of a contribution, for the too difficult task of attaining a personal sensibility.

Memento vivere is the sole precept of religion; and the religious man knows how easy it is to forget to live. But he has the courage to know what belongs to life, and, with it, steps outside the tedious round of imitation by which the world covers up it ignorance of what it is alive for...

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1.03.2011

Conditional Forgiveness and Unconditional Unforgiveness

A provocative article appeared over the break in the NY Times by Charles Griswold entitled "On Forgiveness". It's a wide-ranging if not entirely sympathetic (read: par-for-the-course and predictably/instinctively Pelagian) discussion of our favorite subject, raising some interesting questions, the bits about conditionality in particular. Griswold certainly succeeds, however, in painting the like-it-or-not explicitly Christian notions of "preemptive" Romans 5-style forgiveness in even more radical colors. The notion that the "conditions" for genuine forgiveness could be met by another - a substitute, if you will - seems refreshingly antithetical to the whole outlook on display here. Imperfect forgiveness, indeed! A few excerpts:

If you seethe with vengeful thoughts and anger, or even simmer with them, can you be said to have forgiven fully? I would answer in the negative. That establishes another condition that successful forgiveness must meet. In the contemporary literature on forgiveness, the link between forgiveness and giving up vengefulness is so heavily emphasized that it is very often offered as the reason to forgive: forgive, so that you may live without toxic anger.

However, if giving up revenge and resentment were sufficient to yield forgiveness, then one could forgive simply by forgetting, or through counseling, or by taking the latest version of the nepenthe pill. But none of those really seems to qualify as forgiveness properly speaking, however valuable they may be in their own right as a means of getting over anger. The reason is that forgiveness is neither just a therapeutic technique nor simply self-regarding in its motivation; it is fundamentally a moral relation between self and other.

It is not so much the action that is forgiven, but its author. So forgiveness assumes as its target, so to speak, an agent who knowingly does wrong and is held responsible. The moral anger one feels in this case is a reaction that is answerable to reason; and this would hold too with respect to giving up one’s anger.

One of the several sub-paradigmatic or imperfect forms of forgiveness will consist in what is often called unconditional, or more accurately, unilateral forgiveness — as when one forgives the wrongdoer independently of any steps he or she takes. Some hold that unilateral forgiveness is the model, pointing to the much discussed case of the Amish unilaterally forgiving the murderer of their children. I contend, by contrast, that the ideal is bilateral, one in which both sides take steps. I also hold that whether forgiveness is or is not possible will depend on the circumstances and reasons at play; not just anything is going to count as forgiveness. Establishing the minimal threshold for an exchange to count as “forgiveness” is a matter of some debate, but it must include the giving up of revenge by the victim, and an assumption of responsibility by the offender.

Other familiar cases of imperfect forgiveness present their own challenges, as when one seeks to forgive a wrong done to someone else (to forgive on behalf of another, or what is commonly called third-party forgiveness, as for example when the victim is deceased).  Another case concerns self-forgiveness.  The latter is particularly complicated, as one may seek to forgive oneself for wrongs one has done to others; or for a wrong one has done to oneself (say, degrading oneself) by wronging another; or simply for a wrong one has done only to oneself.  Self-forgiveness is notoriously apt to lapse into easy self-exculpation; here too, conditions must be set to safeguard the integrity of the notion.

Are any wrongdoers unforgivable? People who have committed heinous acts such as torture or child molestation are often cited as examples. The question is not primarily about the psychological ability of the victim to forswear anger, but whether a wrongdoer can rightly be judged not-to-be-forgiven no matter what offender and victim say or do. I do not see that a persuasive argument for that thesis can be made; there is no such thing as the unconditionally unforgivable. For else we would be faced with the bizarre situation of declaring illegitimate the forgiveness reached by victim and perpetrator after each has taken every step one could possibly wish for. The implication may distress you: Osama bin Laden, for example, is not unconditionally unforgivable for his role in the attacks of 9/11. That being said, given the extent of the injury done by grave wrongs, their author may be rightly unforgiven for an appropriate period even if he or she has taken all reasonable steps. There is no mathematically precise formula for determining when it is appropriate to forgive.

Many people assume that the notion of forgiveness is Christian in origin, at least in the West, and that the contemporary understanding of interpersonal forgiveness has always been the core Christian teaching on the subject... [ed. note: ha!] Religious origins of the notion would not invalidate a secular philosophical approach to the topic, any more than a secular origin of some idea precludes a religious appropriation of it. While religious and secular perspectives on forgiveness are not necessarily consistent with each other, however, they agree in their attempt to address the painful fact of the pervasiveness of moral wrong in human life. They also agree on this: few of us are altogether innocent of the need for forgiveness.[CONTINUE READING]

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12.28.2010

Mikhail Bakhtin and Glee on Identity

"I cannot manage without another, I cannot become myself without another; I must find myself in another by finding another in myself (in mutual reflection and mutual acceptance). Justification cannot be self-justification, recognition cannot be self-recognition. I receive my name from others, and it exists for others (self-nomination is imposture)."
(Taken from: Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, p. 287-288.)

In the above quote, Russian Philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin promotes a relational understand of the self whereby who I am is dependent upon who and what I encounter. If you've been watching Glee recently, you'll see this first hand in the relationship between the OCD/
Mysophobic Emma Pillsbury and Dentist Carl Howell. Through her relationship with the adventurous and spontaneous Carl, Emma has discarded her vices while assimilating Carl's daring. She cares less about hygiene, attends a midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and even elopes to Las Vegas. Emma has changed almost effortlessly and without any struggle. Carl did for Emma what no self-help book could do. Most importantly, Carl hasn't even tried to change Emma. He's loved her without any preconditions.

In other words, who can resist the gravitational pull of love? You unexpectedly meet someone new, or by chance see someone in a different light and its as if the world has been turned upside down. You lose yourself in them, thereby discovering a new self. You find you tolerate Grey's Anatomy (or UFC!) more than you thought you ever would. Even your work seems like its been more enjoyable than normal.

What is true in general is also specifically true about God and Christianity. When the love of God is truly grasped, when it is recognized that God no longer regards us as sinners (thought we are!) it changes everything. We are no longer the same people: we are given confidence where we were shy, thankfulness where we were bitter, or new love in place of our cold hearts. We become reflections of the people God sees us to be. In the same way that God renamed Abram and Saul to be Abraham and Paul, or Jesus renamed Simon to be Peter, a new identity is given and effortlessly received in a radically new way.

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12.03.2010

Another Week Ends: Self-Evangelism, Jay-Z, Paradoxes, Susan Boyle, NASA, Friday Night Lights

1. Another scorcher from our 2011 NYC conference speaker Mark Galli entitled "Evangelizing Ourselves", in which he unwittingly sums up much of our operating philosophy:

How do we talk about our faith without making others feel denigrated or angry? For one, we can talk about our faith so that everyone feels equally denigrated and equally inflamed!... So that everyone—even the Christian—recognizes his or her sinfulness...[and his or her] desperate need of a savior. If we can do that, a couple of remarkable things will happen. First, we will recognize afresh that we're not talking about our religion versus their religion, not about how we are right and they are wrong..., not about how we are righteous and they are not... At the same time, we will also see a merciful divine hand extended to all of us, like the hand that Jesus used to grab and raise up the lame man... When we all will hear afresh the invitation that comes to any who are weary and heavy laden, that there is a yoke that can give us rest and a peace that passes understanding.

Let me suggest, in fact, that whenever we communicate to non-Christians that we have found it and that they have not, that we have been chosen and that they have not... —whenever we assume that stance, consciously or not, we are communicating something other than the gospel, the Good News.

Should we not preach this gospel as if we also need to hear and accept it daily? And if so, can we ever preach to others a gospel that does not apply equally to us? Can we see, then, how if we preach this gospel, it will be nigh impossible for anyone to dodge the message by charging us with self-righteousness? 

p.s. We are pleased to announce that the 2011 Conference theme will be "Grace for Today: Freedom in a Culture of Control". Pre-registration begins in the new year.

2. Some illuminating and even sympathetic thoughts on hermeneutics from Jay-Z himself in the New Yorker's absorbing write-up of Decoded:

Too often, hip-hop’s embrace of crime narratives has been portrayed as a flaw or a mistake, a regrettable detour from the overtly ideological rhymes of groups like Public Enemy. But in Jay-Z’s view Public Enemy is an anomaly. “You rarely become Chuck D when you’re listening to Public Enemy,” he writes. “It’s more like watching a really, really lively speech.” By contrast, his tales of hustling were generous, because they made it easy for fans to imagine that they were part of the action. “I don’t think any listeners think I’m threatening them,” he writes. “I think they’re singing along with me, threatening someone else. They’re thinking, Yeah, I’m coming for you. And they might apply it to anything, to taking their next math test or straightening out that chick talking outta pocket in the next cubicle.” 

Speaking of hermeneutics (and communication, and evangelism, and preaching, and living, and loving, etc), if you haven't gotten your hands on Paul Zahl's preaching seminar from Pensacola yet, you are truly missing out! I may be biased, but this blogger feels it represents his most important new material since Grace in Practice. We've made it available on a Radiohead-style, donate-what-you-want/can basis.

3. A fascinating primer on paradox by Graham Priest in the NY Times, in particular how Aristotle's principle of noncontradiction is currently under attack from Dialetheism, the idea that certain paradoxes can, in fact, be true. One particularly fine paragraph for all you apologists out there:
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11.04.2010

Glenn Tinder on Hope and Time

From the political philosopher's essay The Fabric of Hope (ht MS):

"The commonplace that no civilization can last forever contains an essential truth: time is the enemy of civilization. And in the last analysis we humans are on the side of time, not of civilization. Time must finally be allowed to have its way with civilization. Hope is willingness to entrust our lives to time...

"Sin is evasion of time. In giving way to nostalgia, for example, we flee from time into the past. Evading time is accomplished mainly, however, by constructing worlds -- orders of life in which everything has its assigned place, and all events are foreknown if not willed. There are personal worlds, occupied perhaps by only a single individual; and there is also 'the world,' the surrounding order of society, treated as objectively knowable, humanly controllable, and morally final. A world is always a kind of fortress against time. Sin, as I have tried to show, is in essence worldliness, whether in proud mastery of a world, in distracted abandonment of oneself to someone else's world, or, as is almost always the case, a subtle mixture of these. To entrust your life to time, however, is to acknowledge the impermanence and imperfection of all worlds. It is to dwell within the situation in which time has placed you, suffering and doing what you must, in the faith that by submitting to the demands of time you are submitting to the demands of God, the Lord of time."

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10.18.2010

Hieronymus Bosch, Animal Altruism and Bottom-Up Morality

A thorough, at times exasperating, at times inspiring, and at times challenging look at science, morality and religion over on The NY Times' Opinionator by Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal entitled "Morals Without God?". De Waal uses Hieronymus Bosch's painterly obsession with the pre-Fall human nature as a touchstone for his objections with what he sees as the reductionism of the Veneer Theory of human motivation ("morality is just a thin veneer over a cauldron of nasty tendencies"). Among other things, he views altruistic behavior in animals as supportive of a "bottom-up" approach to morality. But for our purposes, I felt his concluding comments on religion showed some serious insight:

According to most philosophers, we reason ourselves towards a moral position. Even if we do not invoke God, it is still a top-down process of us formulating the principles and then imposing those on human conduct. But would it be realistic to ask people to be considerate of others if we had not already a natural inclination to be so? Would it make sense to appeal to fairness and justice in the absence of powerful reactions to their absence? Imagine the cognitive burden if every decision we took needed to be vetted against handed-down principles. Instead, I am a firm believer in the Humean position that reason is the slave of the passions. We started out with moral sentiments and intuitions, which is also where we find the greatest continuity with other primates. Rather than having developed morality from scratch, we received a huge helping hand from our background as social animals.

At the same time, however, I am reluctant to call a chimpanzee a “moral being.” This is because sentiments do not suffice. We strive for a logically coherent system, and have debates about how the death penalty fits arguments for the sanctity of life, or whether an unchosen sexual orientation can be wrong. These debates are uniquely human. We have no evidence that other animals judge the appropriateness of actions that do not affect themselves. The great pioneer of morality research, the Finn Edward Westermarck, explained what makes the moral emotions special: “Moral emotions are disconnected from one’s immediate situation: they deal with good and bad at a more abstract, disinterested level.” This is what sets human morality apart: a move towards universal standards combined with an elaborate system of justification, monitoring and punishment.

At this point, religion comes in.
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10.01.2010

Forgiveness IS the Justice of God

I ran across this fascinating article by Dr. Samuel Wells, dean of Duke University Chapel, entitled Forgiveness and the Justice of God, on the relationship between justice and forgiveness that is right up our law/gospel alley. Although our ruminations can, at times, seem like abstract speculation, forgiveness is the concrete act where these ideas take flesh. Of course, following Derrida, we have to admit that "pure forgiveness" is impossible, but, then again, so is rising from the dead ;-) Here are some excerpts:
One feature of American life that has always fascinated me is the degree to which the Supreme Court has become the focal point of its culture. Most Americans seem to believe that the best place to discover right and wrong, to identify good and bad, and to resolve ambiguity, is through legal judgment.
The risk is that the attention given to getting the rules right can distract from the fact that a healthy society is always primarily about relationships and only secondarily about rules. It is only when both of these dimensions are working harmoniously that we might say that we have reached a point that could be called justice. . .
So this is what the story of Naboth's vineyard is comprehensively showing us. Justice unravels when we lose sight of who we are in relation to God, and, once justice has had a great fall, it's a tall order to put it back together again.
There really is only one thing that can make things better. There really is only one thing that can make any difference in a situation where you can't bring Naboth back. There really is only one thing that can prevent an act of merciless force and the crushing of an innocent life turn into a spiral of retribution, a vendetta of vindictiveness and a cascade of vigilante revenge.
And that single thing is forgiveness. . .
Forgiveness says, "You can hurt me, but you can't take away my allegiance to Christ. You can be cruel to me, but you can't make me become like you. You can crush me, but you can't put yourself outside the mercy of God."
Why do we forgive? Because we don't want to turn into creatures of bitterness locked up in the past, and we don't want to be given over to a hatred that lets those who've hurt us continue to dominate our lives.
Why do we forgive? Because unlike Simon we know we're sinners too and we can't withhold from others the forgiveness we so desperately need for ourselves. That's why in the Lord's Prayer we say "Forgive us ... as we forgive those ..."
Why do we forgive? Because Jesus in his cross and resurrection has released the most powerful energy in the universe and we want to be part of it and be filled with it.
Why do we forgive? Because we know that every form of justice, all the systems for setting things straight, have failed.
Why do we forgive? Because Jesus is dying for us to forgive. Jesus is dying for us to stop our shame and secrecy and beg for forgiveness. Jesus is dying for us to end our enmity and hard-heartedness and offer the hand of mercy.
Why do we forgive? Because forgiveness is the justice of God. . .

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9.30.2010

Personhood in the Communio Peccatorum: "Little Boxes Made Of Ticky-Tacky"

My recent re-obsession with Weeds is understandable. It's got this impeccable grasp on people per se, the communio peccatorum, the communion of sinners, turned inwards on themselves for themselves, contorted. It ends up making us all the same in a startling way, and in a strangely comforting way, too. The introit to each episode begins with the same, eerily major-chorded song "Little Boxes," which depicts this suburban uniformity--an unnoticed and sort of sunny-dayed sameness. And yet as the episode unveils, despite this sameness, within this communio peccatorum, there is an utterly desolate (and usually sadistically comical) individuality and isolation under each roof or "little box". Each episode starts with the same song, and yet in the second season, as though to express the irony of its message, each episode is sung by a different artist to breathe personhood into the serial nature of it all--the one below is Engelbert Humperdinck. There is utter sameness in this communion of sinners, and yet a particular personhood calling for some form of particular mediation.


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9.29.2010

It's Not God Who Needs Saving--It's Us

I ran across a review by John Cottingham--Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Reading and an Honorary Fellow of St John's College, Oxford--over at Standpoint entitled: It's Not God Who Needs Saving--It's Us, that adds to the long line of arguments and counter-arguments about the veriticality of Dostoyevsky's operating thesis: If God does not exist, then everything is permitted. He reviews two books from self-proclaimed atheists who are trying to incorperate what we would call a "spirituality of the cross" into their naturalistic worldviews. Hmmm. . .

Adding to the ongoing discussion about the Pope's recent comments at Westminster Hall, comments that build upon his Gespräch with Jürgen Habermas, Dr. Cottingham's essay is both provocative and timely, particularly as the Western world (following most church bodies, sadly) moves closer and closer to "thus says the Lord" being synonymous with 51%. It doesn't really lend itself to a digest version, but hopefully these quotes will whet your appetite:

The "undergraduate atheists" have had their day. The spiritually deaf onslaught of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and their ilk has presented such an unfair and one-sided picture of religion that not only has it won few converts, but it may even have aided the cause of faith. If such crude tactics are the best the militant atheists can come up with (many open-minded readers must have thought) then perhaps religion is worth a second look after all.
Of much greater interest, and vastly more intellectual sophistication, are two books, one by the Princeton philosopher Mark Johnston, the other by the French best-selling author André Comte-Sponville, formerly of the Sorbonne. Both are inspired by the achievements of modern science, both firmly reject the traditional idea of a transcendent creator and yet both are sympathetic to our long heritage of spirituality, whose riches they would like to preserve if humanly possible. . .

. . . And now comes the distinctive twist. There is, Johnston argues, "a religious argument...that we should hope that ontological naturalism is true. For ontological naturalism would be a complete defense against...our tendency to servile idolatry and spiritual materialism." Spiritual materialism involves retaining our ordinary selfish desires (for security, comfort, success, etc) and trying to get them satisfied by manipulating supposed supernatural forces. Idolatry is similar, placating the gods to get what we want. Authentic spirituality, by contrast, must address the "large-scale structural defects in human life" — arbitrary suffering, aging, our and our loved ones' vulnerability to time and chance and, ultimately, death. The religious or redeemed life, Johnston argues, is one where we are reconciled to these large-scale defects.
Johnston's achievement here is to grasp the crucial difference that authentic religion makes to ethics — to the whole question of how we should live. The ordinary secular virtues (self-confidence, fairness, good judgment, etc) "take life on its own unredeemed terms and make the most of it". By contrast, the theological virtues (faith, hope, love) are "not merely intensifications of ordinary virtue, but conditions of a transformed or redeemed life". Johnston, unlike the "undergraduate atheists" (the aptly pejorative label is his own coinage), is deeply sympathetic to the resonant insights of Scripture — for example, the story of the Fall, which shows how we are by our nature caught in an oscillation between self-will and the "false righteousness" which conforms to the good out of fear or self-interest.
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9.17.2010

Another Summer Ends: ITunesU Playlist

It has been a while since I've updated our ITunesU Mockingsyllabus, so consider this some last-minute beach listening pleasure for all of you who are looking for a way to pass the time putting the finishing touches on your tan. For all of you who want to broaden the repertoire of your innocuous Cocktail banter by adding "relative successes of the Vietnam War" to Original Sin, Law/Gospel and the bound will, this collection is for you.

1. History of the International System: James Sheehan, Stanford
In our polarized world of sound-bite partisanship, it is instructive and humbling to actually learn about how complicated and difficult the modern political system has become. This class will make you think twice (or for the first time) the next time you read Nicholas Kristof or Glen Beck.


2. Reading the Decalogue: Wheaton
God knows that this will not be the last word on His (in)famous 10, but this collection of differing interpretations of the 10 Commandments within different theological systems is required listening for anyone who is interested in the way the concept of the Law has been utilized in theology throughout history. Of particular interest to us are the lectures on Luther, Calvin, Lancelot Andrewes and Barth. On the whole, and for what it's worth, it confirmed my suspicions of Calvin, further confused me about Barth, deepened my appreciation of Luther and gave creedence to the argument that "morality" is the real (and unfortunate) Anglican heritage. Listen to it and see what you think!


3. Aesthetics: Jeffrey Wattles, Kent State University
From Plato to Derrida, this class helps illustrate that there is neither a spoon nor a line between the questions raised by theology and philosophy.


4. Christ and Human Thought: Cornelius van Til, Westminster Theological Seminary
This is an example of the way the word "theologian" used to be synonymous with "polymath." The audio is a little weak, but this is well worth the effort.

5. Worldview Everlasting: Revd. Jonathan Fisk
Ever been embarassed by your inability to explain the theological and pastoral significance of the Genus Maiestaticum? If so, there is good news: you no longer have to live in fear or shame. While not technically an offering from ITUnesU--yet--Rev. Fisk (whom some of you may have met at the recent Mockingbird conference) has a 10 minute video podcast that will make all of your wildest dreams come true.

Well, that's about it. I would love to hear of any classes you all have found helpful and/or interesting. Day-by-day, you too can atone for the time you spent perfecting your foosball goalie shot (see below) instead of applying yourself to more "traditional" educational opportunities.


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Zombies and Existential Angst

I was recently wandering around on iTunes U (looking to expand my provincial horizons) and found this series of podcasts devoted to zombies in film. Can you guess what university this came from? You guessed it... The University of Alabama. Roll Tide! We might not be Ivy League but we know our zombies, by God.

Anyway, this podcast actually tackles some interesting facets of human experience which are brought to the surface by zombie movies. Things like racism, religion, consumerism, and the specific fears of successive generations (like nuclear war, holocaust, biological disaster, and some others). Things that we discuss here on Mockingbird! Now, the hosts aren't Hubert Dreyfus and Gerhard Forde (so don't expect face-melting brilliance), but they do talk about some interesting topics and dance around some important ideas.

Enjoy!

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