What if God was one of us

5 11 2013

I’m one of those don’t-hate-religion non-religious types. Most of the time.

And then I read smug shit like this:

To a person, the new atheists hold that God is some being in the world, the maximum instance, if you want, of the category of “being.” But this is precisely what Aquinas and serious thinkers in all of the great theistic traditions hold that God is not. Thomas explicitly states that God is not in any genus, including that most generic genus of all, namely being. He is not one thing or individual — however supreme — among many. Rather, God is, in Aquinas’s pithy Latin phrase, esse ipsum subsistens, the sheer act of being itself.

I’m all about being, so you’d think I’d be all over this. You’d be wrong.

Hell, I’ve read Heidegger, and even if I can’t stop myself from muttering “Nazi gasbag” every time I pick him up, I do think he is worth picking up. It’s tough to talk being without talking nonsense, and while ol’ Martin (that “Nazi gasbag”) peddles his share of nonsense, he does also manage to make sense. Unlike Robert Barron.

God is not a supreme item within the universe or alongside of it; rather, God is the sheer ocean of being from whose fullness the universe in its entirety exists.

Actually, this does make a kind of sense: God is everything, such that without God, there is nothing. It’s a handy bit of sleight-o-hand: How does one know God exist? Because without God, there would be nothing. Easy-peasy.

It’s not a bad tautology, as tautologies go, but, like Pascal’s wager or Lewis’s trilemma, it seeks to lock down not just the answer to a question, but the questions themselves. This is THE question, one is told, and no follow-ups and no other possible interpretations, which might lead to other possible responses, are allowed. No questioning the question.

Barron allows that science allows us to learn a great deal about our material reality. The problem, he says, is that these materials are themselves “contingent”, i.e., dependent upon another reality rather than being real in and of themselves. How does he know this? God-is-everything!

We are surrounded on all sides by things that exist but that don’t have to exist.

[…]

Now a moment’s meditation reveals that all of the conditioning elements that I mentioned are themselves, in similar ways, contingent. They don’t explain their existence any more than the computer does. Therefore, unless we permanently postpone the explanation, we have to come, by logical deduction, to some reality which is not contingent and whose very nature is to exist.

Um, no. Perhaps the explanation is that everything is contingent, nothing is necessary, and existence itself a kind of chance, nothing more.

Barron accuses skeptics of incurosity and irrationality for not bothering with the question of why is there something rather than nothing, but not having an answer doesn’t mean the question isn’t asked; not all questions are contingent upon an answer.

As for Why should the universe exist at all? Who says anything about “should”? It does, for now, and for awhile longer. If it someday ends, it doesn’t mean it never existed at all.

Same goes for us. We don’t have to be here, and yet we are, for now. So what are we to do with this chance?

That, to me, is the real question, and wonder, of being.





All things weird and wonderful, 10

4 12 2011

Critters, critters, everywhere, in shapes we I could not have dreamed up, yet they exist.

Nature is amoral, red in tooth and claw, fragile, a human construct, scary, comforting, everything all around us. . . whatever else nature is, she is a mother:

Southern white rhino photo credit: The Wilds

Giraffe photographer: Tibor Jager

Malayan tapir photo credit: Edinburgh Zoo

Okapi photo Credit: Julie Larsen Maher

Distant cousins. . .

Emperor tamarins photo credit: Drusillas Park

Cotton-topped tamarins photo credit: Drusillas Park

. . . and near cousins:

Orangutan photo Credit: Tad Motoyama

Gorilla photo credit: Wilhelma Zoo

I take nothing away from religious people, who find gods in all the weird wonder in the world, but I see all at this of the world, of nature, of existing for no other reason than existence itself.

Nature has no need of god, nor does one need god for wonder.

That’s not an argument for or against god, but an observation that there is already so much, on its own, already here.

(All photos from ZooBorns.)





All things weird and wonderful, 6

13 10 2011

Of the contemplative sort:

Annie Dillard, For the Time Being





I will follow

10 07 2011

How can a political freak not have fun with a fellow political freak—oh she of the Goth eyeliner (which only serves to accentuate her cheerful bats-in-the-belfry look) and psycholbin-inflected understanding of American history, someone given to hiding behind bushes to spy on an open protest and screaming about lesbian bathroom-kidnap plots—like Michele Bachmann?

I’ve had a lot of fun with the Republican representative from the sixth district  of Minnesota, and, frankly, I expect to continue doing so. She may be an ideological menace who would make a terrible, terrible president, but she’s so manifestly unsuited to the job that I have no real worries about her delivering an inaugural address in January 2013.

So I feel free to mock her at will.

There is, however, one (semi-? sur-?) real issue that her candidacy brings to the political debate, that of the influence of her husband, Marcus. Ms. Bachmann, you see, proclaims adherence to the “wifely submission” model of marriage.

How she and her hub run their home is, in the main, not my business, and the practice of a spouse influencing a politician’s decisions is hardly new (if only John had listened to Abigail’s admonition to “remember the ladies”. . .).  But outside of Edith Wilson’s alleged takeover of the presidency during husband Woodrow’s stroke-induced decline, it’s generally conceded that whatever the influence, the president is still is charge.

If, however, that politician states outright that she is not in charge, then what are constituents and voters to decide?

Marcus Bachmann, after all, isn’t the one taking the oath of office. He makes no promises to “uphold and defend the Constitution”, nor does he hold any responsibility to his wife’s constituents. He is in charge without being accountable.

Now, given that Rep. Bachmann stated in 2006 that “The Lord says be submissive. Wives, you are to be submissive to your husbands” a month before she was elected for the first time to the House, and has been re-elected twice, it’s entirely possible that her constituents decided they were just fine with voting for someone who answered to her husband before she answered to them. Maybe that they both claimed to answer to God was sufficient assurance that even if this greater accountability to the Lord translated into a lesser accountability to the people, the greater was for the better.

The issue of authority in marriage is a big issue in conservative Christian circles. The “complementarian” versus “egalitarian” models of marriage each (apparently) finds support in scripture, and even those marriages which claim the husband as head can look awfully equal. And with or without any scripto-ideological positioning, marriage can be a bugger.

Given these complexities, it’s possible that those who hear “submissiveness” translate the term  into “agreement”, and are thus unbothered by any notion that Mr. Bachmann might tell Mrs. Bachmann what to do; they’re simply a married couple, like any other, trying to keep it together.

That’s one end of the interpretive spectrum, anyway. At the other end, however, is the possibility that the Mister is in charge, and that what he says, goes, period. No oaths of office, no promises to constituents, matters as much as the God-infused authority of the Man of the House.

I’ll take the cynical middle course: Rep. Bachmann may see no conflict in choosing amongst her various accountabilities—her God, her husband, the Constitution, the citizens in her district—because these constituencies all line up. That is, because she doesn’t recognize that there might be other legitimate interests, because she doesn’t acknowledge the existence of those who legitimately (i.e., are motivated by something other than hatred or ignorance or some sort of anti-American bias) oppose her, she doesn’t have to reckon with the mess of pluralism—which is to say, the mess of American and global politics today.

Nope, she’s just able serenely to float above it all, hand-in-hand with her hubby, utterly unable and unwilling to engage in the realities of life as Other people live it.

We’re not real to her, and thus not to be taken seriously.

Which I guess frees us not to take her seriously, either.

_____

h/t Jill Lawrence, The Daily Beast; Jason Horowitz, The Washington Post; Molly Worthen, New York Times Magazine





Whisper words of wisdom

24 11 2010

Allow a moment of sympathy for the Roman Catholic Church.

No, really.

The old girl is over 1500* years old, and the world now is not the world of its founding or expansion—a tough spot for an institution based on both spreading the Word and upholding eternal truths.  Yes, the One True Church has had to deal with interlopers and usurpers—in particular that centuries-long unpleasantness sparked by a disgruntled monk—but always, always, she has held true.

(*Given the un- and dis-organization of early Christian communities, a conservative estimate seems best. Oh, and for the purposes of this post, ‘the Church’ is defined narrowly as the institution, not the laypeople.)

Truth—ay, there’s the rub. Or, perhaps, insert the requisite LOLcats image here: ‘The Truth: I haz it.’

Consider the view of Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, newly elected preside of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops:

“You get the impression that the Holy See or the pope is like Congress and every once in a while says, ‘Oh, let’s change this law,’ ” he said. “We can’t.”

The key is to convince [would-be] parishioners of the Church’s position:

He said he was chagrined when he saw a long line of people last Sunday on Fifth Avenue. “I’m talking two blocks, a line of people waiting to get into …” he said, pausing for suspense. “Abercrombie and Fitch. And I thought, wow, there’s no line of people waiting to get into St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and the treasure in there is of eternal value. What can I do to help our great people appreciate that tradition?”

Hence the dilemma: We have this great tradition. . . that many reject.

The whys of the rejection are likely numerous—people don’t think the traditions are great, don’t think they’re immutable, don’t believe the Church is the best or only repository of those traditions, etc.—but that people are able to reject them means that those trying to sell the eternal value of those traditions have to figure out how to persuade the rejectionists to change their minds.

A number of commenters on the Dolan piece note that this amounts to a view of ‘Change your mind so we don’t have to’—a reasonable take on the Church’s position.

But those same commenters are also missing the point: the Church does in fact hold the position that there are eternal truths, that it is the guardian of those truths, and that to compromise on those truths is to call into question the point of the Church itself. Granted, some of those commenters are doing just that, but others seem to think that the Church simply needs to ‘get with the times’ when in fact the Church thinks it’s the times which need to get with the Church.

This is Ross Douthat’s view, expressed in his usual fuzzy, befuddled, obedient manner:

Here the Church struggles and struggles, in ways that it doesn’t on other controversial issues, to make its teaching understood and its moral reasoning transparent. . . . Orthodox Catholics sometimes argue that the problem is simply that the teaching hasn’t been adequately explicated and defended, whether by bishops or priests or laypeople — and there’s truth to this. But the problem probably runs deeper than that: It isn’t just that the arguments for the teaching aren’t advanced vigorously and eloquently enough; it’s that the distinctions that the Church makes bump up against people’s moral intuitions more than they do on other fronts, and the Church’s arguments often take on a kind of hair-splitting quality that’s absent on other hot-button questions. (As in: The natural law permits me to rigorously chart my temperature and/or measure my cervical mucus every day in an effort to avoid conception, but it doesn’t permit me to use a condom? Really?)

So Douthat sees that even those who generally follow the Church’s teachings nonetheless squint at the reasoning behind the pronouncements on Truth—in this case, the anti-contraception Truth. Thus, should these same laypeople follow their own reason to the Truth?

Not exactly:

Now for a serious Catholic, the argument from tradition and authority is a real argument, not just the dodge that many people assume it to be. And the fact that the Church’s moral reasoning seems unpersuasive may just reflect the distorting impact of a contraceptive culture on the individual conscience.

Again: the problem, dear (un)believer is with you.

But what if the Church does try, however fitfully, to make practical sense of its moral stance in an im- or a-moral world, as with condom use in paid-for sex? You get it from all sides, from those of us skeptical of the morality of its stance to those who consider it an impermissible detour from the straight and narrow.

John Haas, president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and a moral theologian, urged the publisher not to publish the Pope’s book, Light of the World, arguing it would only create a ‘mess’. That a Vatican spokesman later clarified that the Pope’s comment related not just to male but also to female prostitutes, was almost unbelievable, given the implications regarding contraception:

Indeed, Dr. Haas, of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, could barely countenance Father Lombardi’s comments that broadened the debate to include women. “I don’t think it’s a clarification; it’s a muddying of the waters,” he said. “My opinion is that the pope purposely chose a male prostitute to avoid that particular debate.”

And if Benedict was in fact opening that debate? “I think the pope’s wrong,” Dr. Haas added.

Well.

The Church has to hold the line because, were any slack allowed, the meaning of the line would cease, as would that of the Church itself. Yet not to loosen the line means that people will flee, if only to save themselves from suffocation—and in so doing, to call into question the meaning of the line and that of the Church itself.

It is a true dilemma, and for that reason, I am sympathetic.

But—you knew I’d throw a ‘but’ in—the Church itself is the author of this dilemma. It set itself up as the One True Church, the path to salvation, the authority on all matters God, so much so that authority itself was reified. The point of the Church became the Church.

This is, of course, an ancient dilemma, one which runs through the history of not just Church but Christianity itself. Early dissenters (including Pelagians and some gnostics, among others) argued that God was carried within and thus no formal structure was necessary; a thousand or so years later protesters lay the Bible before the people and told them that was all they needed. (That those Protestants set up their own structures is another issue.) Sola fidelis, sola scriptura.

But the Church, the Church said No. The Church said We are the One True Faith. The Church said, in effect (if anachronistically): Who you going to believe? Me or your lying eyes?

The Church, in other words, rested the faith on its authority, rather than its authority on faith. In doing so, the truth of the authority calcified into the Church’s Truth and, as such, could be neither compromised or countermanded. The Church is the repository of God’s Word, its guardian and keeper; to doubt this authority is to risk losing the keys to the Kingdom itself.

This risk has kept many inside, as, I hasten to add, have faith and love for the Church itself. But those on the outside, especially those faith-seekers on the outside, see the lines and the walls of the Church and wonder Where is God in all this?





Waiting for Armageddon

19 05 2010

I do loves me some apocalypse—fictionally.

But actual death and destruction does not make my heart go pitter-pat, unless by ‘pitter-pat’ one means racing-with-anxiety-and-despair-not-joy.

Yeah, I have my moments of ‘fuck ‘em all’ and ‘people suck’, but I have no real sense that all humans should perish, or that by large numbers of us perishing the survivors will be redeemed. I don’t think we can be made clean or whole or without all the crap that led us to the apocalypse in the first place. Maybe the survivors would  chomp on one another, a la Cormac McCarthy, or maybe they’d*separate themselves into chosen communities and live-and-let-live; either way, it’s not at all clear to me how this is in any way ‘better’.

(‘*They’, not ‘we': I have a chronic disease which requires daily treatment; absent that treatment, I die. It’s possible that I could manage to stockpile the thousands of pills necessary to keep me going for years, but I doubt it. The apocalypse will have to go on without me.)

C. and I had a conversation about this the other night, and while I’ll desist saying much about her position beyond noting that she’s more optimistic about post-apoc possibilities than I, I will admit that I was a bit startled by her, mm, cheer.

I am not cheerful about humans, pre- or post-apocalypse. We’re greedy and self-centered and violent and far too willing to use one another for our ends. Sure, we have our good qualities—I happen to like that we figured out how to make wine, chocolate, and a comfy pair of slippers—but we’re not all that.

We are, however, all that we have.

Now, the godly among us might disagree, but except for the  world-hating of the god-believers, most of  the faithful admit there can be joy in the world.

In any case, this is our world: beat-up and weird and so, so complicated and ours. This world is ours, and we are who we are in this world. If this world ends, so do we.

And I think that would be a damned shame—again, not because we’re so great, but because we’re not, because we don’t have to be, because we can be beat-up and weird and so, so complicated. I’m pissed that we’re fucking our world over because in so doing we’re making it increasingly difficult to find out just how we can be human in the world. The possibilities we’re foreclosing. . . .

There are some among us, of course, who do revel in the foreclosure. Some may be secular (extremist environmentalists, for example), but it’s that minority of the godly who look forward to the end-times who grab the bulk of the attention.

Which brings us, belatedly, to Waiting for Armageddon. This short documentary, now streaming on Netflix, follows a group of dispensationalists who are straining at the confines of the world and looking forward to its end—an end which begins in Jerusalem.

It’s basic Bible-prophecy stuff: The in-gathering of the Jews in Israel is foretold in scripture, as is the rebuilding of the Temple, one-world government headed by the anti-Christ (and, for some pre-tribulationists, the early return of Christ), the rapture of the faithful, the tribulation (think ‘great wailing and gnashing of teeth’, ‘four horsemen’, etc.), and the millennial reign of Christ on earth. One hundred forty-four thousand Jews will convert and be saved, while the rest will perish, (along with almost everyone else), all as a prelude to the great cleansing and the springing forth of heaven on earth.

Great, huh? One guy said it was going to be a lot of ‘fun’. Well, y’know, he said, maybe not fun-fun, seeing as how so many will suffer and die horrible, horrible, deaths, but fun in that I was-right-and-I-get-to-watch kind of way.

Whoo-hoo! Totally not at all like the crowds cheering the lions ripping apart the Christians in the Coliseum.

Some of the folks at least managed to be chagrined at the thought of so much death, and most preferred not to dwell on how exactly the Al-Aqsa mosque and al-Haram ash-Sharif complex will be removed without utterly destroying the site of the putative third Temple—but hey, God will take care of all that.

What matters most of all of that these people are right, and if it takes the destruction of the world to prove them in their right[eous]ness, so be it.

Of course, they’d say it’s not about them, it’s about God, that they’re just following the Word. But they’re so God-damned happy about all of this, so God-damned sure that this is The Way, that it’s difficult not to conclude that this is less about God and more about them.

They don’t like the world, and they want to see it end.

Not coincidentally, those who are younger are less avid for The End. They want to marry and have kids and then maybe the end could come, as one young woman said, ‘When I’m 85,’ i.e., when she would end anyway. She doesn’t despise the world quite enough for it to end before she’s had a chance to enjoy it.

These dispensationalists are a minority even among evangelicals, who are themselves not representative of all of Christianity. The film was too short fully to engage cross-Christian talk on The End, nor even those who believe that we are in End Times and are pained by the prospect of the extermination of billions of people.

Instead, we are left with the smiling faces of those who want to see us all end.





Friday poem: Second Space

25 12 2009

I don’t want to cast aspersions, but:

Viruses are evil.

Do I exaggerate? Is it possible that not all viruses, are, in fact, evil? Do I moralize on a subject which has little to do with morality? Could I be taking this cold just a mite too personally?

Yes, yes, yes, and yes again.

Thus the cause (proximate and otherwise) for the lacunae in posting, tho’ there is always, head befogged by cold or not, more to be said.

Saved, then, by the Friday poem: sayings on another’s words.

Today is Christmas, and while I doubt that Jesus was born 2009 years ago on this date—I’m among those who think the early Church bogarted the pagan celebration of solstice for its own purposes—I’m not much bothered by the bad timekeeping.

After all, I’m neither pagan nor Christian, and tend to think of time as a useful construct rather than a moral force: that we may be wrong about times and dates  may cause chagrin scientifically, historically, but philosophically? A mere oops will suffice.

In any case, if Jesus of Nazareth was born, he had to have been born some time, so why not late December or early January (for all you Orthodox readers)?  Jesus-the-Capricorn: why not?

This is all a long prelude to a poem by a poet who is rather more unsettled by God than I am. Blake? Auden? Ah: Czeslaw Milosz.

Milosz, the Polish poet tormented by Polish history, by all the blood and ashes so recently spilled in his land. He struggled with God, with his fellow Poles, with his fellow humans, with himself, breaking beauty against the hard and tumbling facts of existence.

In his early poems Milosz is easier with God, with his nearness and apart-ness; then again, in his early poems Auschwitz had not yet been called forth by the Germans,  was still Oœwiêcim, a small town southwest of Krakow.

This is one of his later poems, overtly yearning for God, in mourning for his absence. If he had been a sign or symbol early on, by the end of the century God was, for Milosz, a bruising reality—one  necessary for mortal life.

So I the unbeliever in search of something more give this space to a believer in the something more. Peace, in all things.

Second Space

How spacious the heavenly halls are!
Approach them on aerial stairs.
Above white clouds, there are the hanging gardens of paradise.

A soul tears itself from the body and soars.
It remembers there is an up.
And there is a down.

Have we really lost faith in that other space?
Have they vanished forever, both Heaven and Hell?

Without unearthly meadows how to meet salvation?
And where will the damned find suitable quarters?

Let us weep, lament the enormity of the loss.
Let us smear our faces with coal, loosen our hair.

Let us implore that it be returned to us,
That second space.








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