Monday, February 20, 2006

Selecting what is transient

Die Grosse Stille
"When I left the monastery, I was thinking about what exactly had I lived through and it was realizing that I had had the privilege of living with a community of people who live practically without any fears." ... "We tend to say that our society is driven by consumerism or greed but it's not true. Greed, consumerism, wanting to have a new Porsche, for example, is a disguise of pure fear. It's a near panicking society and that was difficult to accept." Documentary filmaker Phillip Groening to the BBC
Groening made his comments to the Beeb in light of his documentary, Die Grosse Stille. In English it means the big silence and its' subject is life in a Carthusian monastery called Grande Chartreuse. The monks live a regimented life of a kind that I can't really contemplate ever living personally. But I am glad to know that such places exist. I would be pleased to visit and stay awhile; I would understand my own life better, I think. After seeing the film David Warren writes that he think's Groening is on to something. He writes:
This is why the film plays to packed houses. It speaks to people about what they are. I think Mr Groening has astutely diagnosed not merely what is wrong today, with post-Christian Europe and by extension all the West, but why we are due for a terrible tribulation. One that began to unfold in the events of 9/11, and now begins to take a shape in the ludicrous battle over Danish cartoons. Emerging from a fog, our fears resolve into something we can look at. We cling to things that cannot last, out of our curious panic; to things like Porsches, and the nanny state. We ignore, in this panic, anything that isn't hard to the touch - the verities of God, nature, and our nature. Yet in so doing we select what is transient, over what is eternal.
If this film ever makes it's way to a DVD store near me I shall give a look. On the weekend we attended Mass not at our local parish but at a nearby seminary school, where the service is done by Benedictine monks, seminary students and the boys attending the school. The pace was considerably slower than your average parish Mass and the setting was pretty spectacular. It was a large concrete sanctuary with a medieval feel (even if it was completed in 1982) with the sun rising through stained glass and monks' singing. It was like stepping into another planet. I think we will be doing that again. It was wonderful.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Open source theology

Over at Rough Type, Nicholas Carr is writing (again) about the Wikkipedia and it's shortcomings. I've been a fan of the Wikkipedia for a while, and have linked to it often in my posts when I want offer a helpful background brief to a reader. It's something I know anyone can access. That said, I've never been of the opinion that it's as good or better than a paid encyclopedia with professional, paid editors - and without pranksters and worse. Carr writes:
The problem with those who would like to use "open source" as a metaphor, stretching it to cover the production of encyclopedias, media, and other sorts of information, is that they tend to focus solely on the "community" aspect of the open source model. They ignore the fact that above the community is a carefully structured hierarchy, a group of talented individuals who play a critical oversight role in filtering the contributions of the community and ensuring the quality of the resulting code. Someone is in charge, and experts do count. The open source model is not a democratic model. It is the combination of community and hierarchy that makes it work. Community without hierarchy means mediocrity.
I simply cannot avoid pointing out that this argument applies to Churches as well. When tradition and authority are decried what results is usually hypocrisy - a church of all believers in which the all accepts that it is a church of all believers because the church authorities have sold them on it. A real church of all believers tends to be disorganized cult, and at worst it leans in this direction. When there is no structure people gravitate to those who are the most charming, and the charming are, in turn, are untrammeled by restrictions. After all, who is anyone else to say they're wrong? This fellow's description of the Catholic preisthood and Pope is quite erroneous. He succumbs to the old charge that a religious class 'intercedes' for people with God. This is false; they are custodians of tradition, which is not saving, but instructive. Because they have no other interests, they can devote themselves to this task in a way that no lay person could. The brightest among them can engage in the study of theology and philosophy and we can all then share in that. Is theology saving? Is philosophy saving? Heck, is reciting the rosary saving? No, to all of that. A priest in his teaching and counseling is simply a specialist in the same way that a doctor, scientist or social worker is. The 'Church of all believers' argument is a sort of iconoclasm, and it fails for much the same reason. Placing yourself before a stature or a picture is not worship of the stature unless you hold that the item itself has some sort of divine power. If it merely serves as an aid to thought, to memory, then that is all that it is. The only thing active in the relationship is the mind and heart of the believer. If clergy can show us an error or a contradiction in our thinking, that is an aid to thinking and not an "intercession" on behalf of someone who is not "good enough" or "smart enough." A specialist, for example, can point out to us that the form of a stature is not the same thing as its content. That is, it is not synonymous with the thing it is intended to represent. Attempting to correct erroneous thinking is exactly what PG Mathews is attempting to do in the article I've linked. The same can be said about prayer. Someone who prays for another - robed or unrobed - is not 'interceding'. Even if it were, the argument would apply to all prayers on behalf of another, not just prayers by clergy. The point here is not to bash other Christians but to try and recognize that churches necessarily have structures and traditions - some more formal than others. The 'all believers' argument is more about shunning rivals than it is an argument about theology. In fact, it's not really an argument at all.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Three good links

No promises, but here are some links that I thought were good enough to post. I'll even bring them full circle and comment on the cartoon controversy. One) Adam Kirsch writes in the NY Sun about Daniel Dennett's latest book, Breaking the Spell:
Mr. Dennett wrote the book in the first place. He candidly describes him self as a "godless philosopher" and has invented an obviously value laden term, "bright," to describe people like himself who are proudly emancipated from religion. [how nice! -ed] He is careful not to pronounce outright on the existence of God or the truth of any given religion - preferring to argue that what religion needs is not affirmation or denial, but study - but there is no doubt that Mr. Dennett believes the world would be better off if religion disappeared tomorrow. If his actual assertions leave any uncertainty about this, his metaphors and images do not: On the very first page, for instance, he compares human religions to Dicrocelium dendriticum, a parasite that lives in the brain of ants and compels them to irrational, self-destructive behavior. The problem with "Breaking the Spell" is not this frank hostility to religion. On the contrary, there is a long, honorable, and thrilling tradition of atheistic polemics, from Voltaire to Nietzsche and beyond. If anything, one wishes Mr. Dennett were more familiar with this literature and had learned its most important lessons. If he had, perhaps his own attacks on religion and religious people would not sound so much like the complacent broadsides of the village atheist. For the best atheists agree with the best defenders of faith on one crucial point: that the choice to believe or disbelieve is existentially the most important choice of all. It shapes one's whole understanding of human life and purpose, because it is a choice that each of us must make for him or herself. To impress on a man the urgency of that choice, Kierkegaard wrote, it would be useful to "get him seated on a horse and the horse made to take fright and gallop wildly ... this is what existence is like if one is to become consciously aware of it." Mr. Dennett would have benefited from a ride on Kierkegaard's horse. For what dooms his book, not just in literary but in logical terms, is his complete failure to recognize the existential demand of religion. "I decided some time ago," he writes, "that diminishing returns had set in on the arguments about God's existence," and so he leaves God out of his argument entirely. Instead, Mr. Dennett writes about religion as a purely social and empirical phenomenon.
Two: This article by Micheal Kazin, in the left leaning Dissent Magazine, contains a history of twentieth century politics that is sure to be useful today. It serves as an antidote to the widespread practice of viewing and commenting on politics soley through the lens of ideological theory. He writes from the other side of the fence that I sit on, but deserves credit for being pretty fair. Writes Kazin:
Perhaps the most significant reason for the tenacity of public religiosity in U.S. history is the fact that a crusading faith and a democratic polity emerged together and at roughly the same time. Wrote Tocqueville, "Next to each religion is a political opinion that is joined to it by affinity." A leveling faith has dominated American religious life since the Second Great Awakening of the early nineteenth century, which Tocqueville witnessed. The great revival appealed as much to blacks as to whites, spawned thousands of new Protestant churches, and made the passion of evangelicalism the common discourse of most Americans. In the words of historian Gordon Wood, "As the public became democratized, it became evangelized." The idea that anyone, regardless of learning or social background, could "come to Christ" dovetailed with the belief in equal rights emblazoned both in the Declaration of Independence and the rhetoric of Jefferson, Jackson, and Lincoln. The synthesis of evangelical Protestantism and the ideology of grassroots democracy was found in no other nation—at least not with such passionate conviction and for such a long period of time. After the early years of the Second Great Awakening, most white Christians turned their backs on its transracial promise and refused to continue worshipping alongside blacks; the latter, both from necessity and pride, founded their own churches. But all embraced a religion that promised to cleanse a sinful world. ... But then a great transition took place. In the quarter-century after the Second World War, the liberal intelligentsia—among whom secular Jews and lapsed Catholics had achieved unprecedented status—viewed the close link between political crusading and evangelical faith to be an anachronism, vital mainly among "extremists" on the right. Billy Graham was no extremist, but his energetic companionship with every president from Eisenhower onward seemed a perfect example of how leaders of mass revivals were also willing to prostitute themselves to the powerful. Prominent liberal Protestant clergymen came to the same conclusion, albeit by different routes. Reinhold Niebuhr, the most respected theologian of the postwar era, argued that no manner of collective awakening could rid the world of sinful institutions or behavior. "[Billy] Graham honestly believes," he scoffed, "that conversion to Christianity will solve the problem of the hydrogen bomb because really redeemed men will not throw the bomb." Meanwhile, activist Protestant ministers on the left, such as William Sloane Coffin, Jr., first an influential chaplain at Yale and later senior minister at New York’s Riverside Church, interpreted their faith almost solely as an ethic of "social action" and "social responsibility." The spiritual majesty was gone. Bryan and his generation of Christian progressives thought of a good conscience as a gift from God, one only a knave or fool would turn down. But liberal Protestants and their secular allies now thought of God as little more than a good conscience.
Three: I'm with this guy. Peter Berkowitz takes on "critical theory" which might not mean anything to you if you were never a literature student, however I'm sure you've encountered these ideas if you read at all widely:
[Critical] Theory's central tenets are few, are neatly summarized, and purport to describe the world as it really is: "There is," as Derrida famously put it, "nothing outside the text." Indeed, all the world is text. Equivalently, what passes for knowledge - not only in literature but throughout the humanities, social sciences, and even the natural sciences - is socially constructed, or a text that is collectively authored. Texts are radically indeterminate and inevitably self-subverting. No author can successfully inscribe his or her intention in a text or convey meaning through literature. Every text is no more and no less than what a reader makes of it. Cultural studies - the examination of how hierarchy and subordination are produced and performed in everything from mundane habits, mass media, and popular culture to international relations and theoretical physics - is the highest form of intellectual inquiry, and because all the world is text, literary theorists are its consummate practitioners. It might appear that nothing in particular follows from these propositions for politics, or that what follows is that in politics, as in the interpretation of literature, anything goes... The particulars of Theory's transformative agenda remain murky. But the tendency is plain. The vast majority of causes that Theory's proponents champion involve the demand for the liberation of imagination and desire from the allegedly false and malevolent limitations imposed by two constitutive elements of the West. One oppressor is the tradition of rational thought from Socrates and Plato through the Enlightenment and its contemporary heirs. The other is the Western tradition of individual liberty and equality under law as developed and instituted in the West but especially in the United States. Indeed, to reconcile Theory's affirmation of the radical indeterminacy of texts with its claim that such indeterminacy generates an emancipatory and typically egalitarian political program, one would have to suspend the ordinary laws of reason - recognized, contrary to Theory's extreme pronouncements, not only in the West but around the globe and from time immemorial. If texts are all there is and the world is nothing but a text, if moral and political standards like everything else are constructed and not discovered, why shouldn't the strong and ruthless regard themselves as emancipated to rewrite other people’s lives in whatever ways that strike their fancy and that they can get away with?

Going full circle, here is the conclusion of Adam Kirsch's take down of Dennet:
Mr. Dennett is left, then, with two aporias. The first is that, as we have all learned, you cannot move from an "is" to an "ought": in this case, from the assertion that religion evolved to the prescription that we stop practicing it. Any ethical exhortation, and that is what "Breaking the Spell" boils down to, must employ ethical arguments, which means arguments about truth and human flourishing. These are the kinds of arguments that serious atheists have dared to make: that religious belief is a dereliction of our ethical responsibility, an affront to our intellectual honor. Mr. Dennett surely believes this as well, but his failure to argue it leaves his atheism looking like just another prejudice. The second, and more important, dilemma for Mr. Dennett is that there are kinds of truth the positivist cannot measure. At the heart of organized religion, whether one accepts or rejects it, is the truth that metaphysical experience is part of human life. Any adequate account of religion must start from this phenomenological fact. Because Mr. Dennett ignores it, treating religion instead as at best a pastime for dimwits, at worst a holding cell for fanatics, he never really encounters the thing he believes he is writing about.
The point of all this is that Liberal / Secular / Material arguments about how they are remaking the world but those darn hidebound religious conservatives keep getting in the way are so much hogwash. First, they are dishonest and confused, most of them, about their own relationship to metaphysics - which any attempt at reform must rely on. Secondly, this confusion allows them to say horrific and apocalyptic things about their opponents (take a bow Paul Martin and Micheal Herle). Of which, I am not. I am in favour of people seeking reform, and being aware that this is logically dependent on a metaphysics of some sort. I favour doing so without tearing down and mocking those who simply have a somewhat different metaphysics from which to start. If we are historically aware, the greatest things the west has accomplished have come about through this sort of dialogue. The floor here is humble respect for your opponent. The ceiling is - well, that's what they debate is all about, isn't it? The real and ugly opponent in all of this is not so much right or left, religious or secular. It is being in the dark about our metaphysical assumptions and how that darkness leads to cursing and hating others for not being mirror images of ourselves. It is the polar opposite of humilty. Using the cartoons of the Mohammed that have caused such a stink in the middle east as an example, there is nothing wrong with taking offense at the cartoons. There is everything wrong with acting on that offense with violence directed at anyone and anything that is different, including those who have nothing to do with their creation or publication. Were the cartoons offensive? Should they have been published? Those are questions that it is profitable to debate. Debate requires that such things can both be published and that non violent responses be permitted. A blanket ban on them stifles debate, as does the suggestion that they are nothing more than funny hats and smelly food - ie. they are nothing but a private concern. Another question that cannot be overlooked in all of this is who brought the cartoons back out of the musty closet they had fallen into, and why now? Qui Bono from this bit religious manipulation? Because republishing them to this effect has to have consequences too.

Monday, February 06, 2006

The pause that refreshes

This is a post that I really didn't want to write, but I'm now trying to look at it a bit longer term and remain positive about it. I'm putting NWW on hiatus, probably until the end of Lent (that would be Easter). It's been very apparent to me, and probably to any long term readers that I have, that my interests have been elsewhere of late. I had hoped to make it until my second blogging anniversary in August but it's only early February now and I can see that that isn't going to happen. I'm not pulling the plug on the site but taking a much longer break than I have allowed myself to take thus far. It's possible I'll wind it down then but that is not my intent. Maybe by then I'll have some new books under my belt to share, and the editor's block that has been my nemesis for a while now will be in retreat. I hope so, anyway.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

For all you do

This trophy is for you, zebras: Worst super bowl refereeing I can recall. Let's review. Bogus "pushing off" call robs Seattle of touchdown number one. Pittsburgh touchdown number one does not clearly get into the endzone. In the second half a "holding" call takes Seattle from 1st and goal on the one to first and 20 on the 30. This call not only robs Seattle of a very likely TD, it leads up to a forced throw that is intercepted and ultimately it gives Pittsburgh a TD. I should have shut the TV off at this point as any hope of enjoying this contest was gone. On the interception I just mentioned the refs also had the gall to call Hasselbeck for a "low block" when in fact he made the tackle. There's no such thing as a "low tackle." That's a fourteen point swing at a minimum, and it could easily be a twenty-one point difference since scoring a TD from the one is a very high percentage play. There's an awful lot of garbage that comes along with the superbowl every year, and I don't just mean the roman numerals. If you guessed the Rolling Stones, you're getting warmer. NFL football is the only sport that I watch for recreation as I figure too much sports is very good way to waste a great deal of time. It's good - one game a week for roughly twenty weeks. That's a pace I can handle. Compare the NHL with something upwards of five million meaningless games every week for month after month. I ditched that years ago and have no regrets. Vancouver who? The Calgary what? I don't care. But waiting thirty one years to have a mismatched zebra team screw it up about as bad as they could? Nope. We'll see if I'm back next year. I enjoy the sport, so maybe I'll cool down. Then again, think of all the other things I could do with Sunday afternoons. Maybe if the zebra teams are kept together through the playoffs. Maybe.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Tao of Grace

One Cosmos remains one of the more interesting blogs I've found of late. Today "Gagdad Bob" is writing about Taoism. I read the Tao Te Ching more than a few years ago, during university and also after when I was dating a girl who was rather hard left. This was long before I knew anything much about Christianity or even considered it worth looking at. You can imagine how pleased (and surprised!) she was when I (oh so delicately!) tried to tell her that it was not compatible with her political beliefs. You might stop and wonder how can anything be compatible with an every changing amalgam of anarchism and communism? You might give yourself an aneurism trying to reconcile just those two things, never mind adding a third element, but that would be to get ahead of things here. Do the aneurism on your own time, please. Writes Bob:
wu wei is one of the central concepts of Taoism. Although literally translated as "non-doing" or "non action," it is probably more accurately thought of as 'not forcing." The apocryphal writer of the Tao Te Ching, Lau-tzu, gained his insights by simply observing the way nature worked. Nature doesn't "do" anything, and yet it gets everything done in a most efficient way. Non-action means living in accord with the way things are, for example, in the way that water naturally overcomes whatever is in its way and flows toward its destination. It doesn't mean that you don’t cut the wood, but that you cut it along the grain--you don't force things. ... Non-doing means not acting in the way you would like things to be, but in terms of the way they are. In other words, it means acting in accord with objective truth, with the natural order of things, not with mere opinion. It means living in alignment with with pre-existent reason--with the logos.
I think this is a very wise way to look at things, and quite irreconcilable with social engineering, from full blown communism's "new man" through "new government" to silly PC-isms like quota hiring, so why she glammed on it I have no idea. Bob:
The principles of the Tao are very much at odds with contemporary left-liberalism, which forever tries to impose order and outcomes, as opposed to classical liberalism, which trusts that the chaos of liberty spontaneously leads to a higher and much more robust order. For example, the Tao states, "I let go of economics, and people become prosperous." "When taxes are too high, people go hungry." "When the government is too intrusive, people lose their spirit." "If you don't trust the people, you make them untrustworthy." "Try to make people happy, and you lay the groundwork for misery." "Stop trying to control. Let go of fixed plans and concepts, and the world will govern itself." Leftists hate the idea that there is infinitely more embodied wisdom in a free market than in the shrewd sophistry of Paul Krugman, and that most societal problems will solve themselves if you allow them to. Indeed, many of our most troubling contemporary problems are a result of some meddling liberal "solution" that was put in place 30, 40, or 50 years ago.
Bob, however, goes too far when he links president Bush's governance with Taoist minimalism. Most conservatives, admirers and naysyers, will admit that Bush Jr. is not a small government man in the mold of, say, Ronald Regan. It's true that Bush appears to be skepictal about some nostrums near and dear to certain intellectuals but there's no denying that he is beholden to certain other intellectuals. How does one square nation building in the middle east with hands off governance? Beats me. Perhaps my ex, like Bob, saw only what she opposed as being forced. If she was for it, then it was natural; in her mind it took the form of "I'm for what's natural." easy mistake to make, but a harder one to recognize. Which way does the cosmic wood grain run? Bob goes on to get a little mystical, a bit philosophical:
Perhaps the ultimate lesson of Taoism is that language can introduce all sorts of redundancies into existence. We do not "have" an experience. We are experience. Experience is an encounter between a knower and known, but in reality, knower and known are simply two sides of the same coin: there is no knower without a known, and no knowledge without a knower. External and internal reality are bound together by a mysterious process that we do not understand, and to which we add nothing by escaping into some symbolic representation of it.
Indulge me as I play the annoying philosopher, but isn't the suggestion that "there is no knower without a known, and no knowledge without a knower" exactly the kind of redundancy one might expect language to give rise to? My view is that we are social by nature and as a result we need language in much the same way that we need houses and clothing. Those are extentions of a human or humans. They are like an arm or a leg. We can survive without them, but we are greatly aided by having them. There is a real charm and insight that arises from this point of view - another example is that the beaver's dam is an extention of the beaver itself - but there is a danger as well. The biological ideas I gleaned from Richard Dawkins' Extended Phenotype, and simply extended the idea to include language. In both instances - The Tao and Dawkins' book - the threat is to the autonomy of the individual, which is in danger of being nothing more than a neutral place where something happens. My own argument would be to seek a middle ground. Language exists in all human societies, and - I'm willing to bet - there exists in all of those languages a subject / object distinction. The widespread existence of that metaphysic in disparate circumstances leads me to give it a great deal of weight. There is something here, something normative. The "I" is not a mere quirk. If this basic relational metaphysic is true, then there are likely others as well. The key term is "relational." Metaphysics is about relationships, which is why it slips by when we focus narrowly on me, myself and I, and what I can see, touch and count. The subject / object distinction is prior to measurement, for example. You have to recognize something as "not me" before it occurs to you to investigate it purely through physical means. If the "I" is real, however, so is the dependence on a social network. We can't champion one over the other without injuring ourselves. Which brings me back to the subject at hand - what is nature? And what is 'control' or 'force'? It's too simple and too easy to wrap ourselves in 'nature' and accuse others of 'forcing it'. Isn't doing that simply trying to give reign to our own 'I' and buck the constraints of somebody else's? Isn't the sum of those other 'I's' something we might call our community? In my own tradition we understand nature in light of what is called natural right, and there is a lot of complex thinking and writing about what that is and is not. Some of a more antinomian mindset find that school of thought controlling, but as I've tried to show, and as the Wikki entry mentions, the charge itself is problematic. There don't appear to be any easy answers. The one that comes to me is simply ongoing negotiation, trusting that Grace will prevail among those who think they have it and those who deny it that it exists.