Sunday, December 27, 2015

Is There an All Important Question in Life?

I woke up, went to the bathroom, took my morning meds, and found myself thinking about how much Zoya hated my family. Admitted, they're all conservative, some more than others. One going so far as to find Santa to be a tool of the devil because Santa is an anagram of Satan. Zoya's rationale was the tired, clichéd trope of an atheist's contempt for religion, Christianity in particular, for being so much superstitious nonsense. 

For Christians, the most important question is always about Salvation, the Church, or belief in God. Different flavors of Christianity phrase the question differently. Sometimes it's phrased as "Do you accept Jesus as your Lord & Savior?" Sometimes as "When was your last confession, child?"  or as something else. However the question is phrased, it's always a rephrasing of "Are you  (still) one of us?" The absolutes and Holy Ghosts swarming in the hearts of believers that are stirred up by this question give urgency and even poignancy to this question. It works as well as as any other excrement for the growth of fanaticism even to implacably despising the widow, the orphan and the stranger.

To the religiously-minded nothing is more important than the answer to that question. The supreme importance of this question is expressed in appeals to Absolutes, Eternities, Love, Infinities & the like to drive home how inescapable, and even tragic, the otherwise unbridgeable chasm between believers and nonbelievers is to the Christian way of feeling. 

I do not merely assert that christianist thinking is reducible to us-vs-them, I maintain that that is all that it is and that the measure of orthodoxy and relative importance of doctrines is the extent to which the chasm between "us" and "them" is preserved and even deepened. Better to be a little Christian dick but tight with Jesus than to be one of "their" saints, even Simone Weil

Apart from the obvious invitation to hatred and fear, the overvaluation of one trivial piece of human life flows out of a shallow and trite view of human nature, namely that a person's answer to only one question is enough to get to the bottom of being human and to judge the value of a person's character. Every problem, every perplexity in life is viewed through this pinhole. What cannot be easily seen is of lesser value, even deserving of the strongest hatred and contempt.

The automatic contempt many atheists have for religion is not any better. Some trivial trinket in human socio-psychic life is absurdly overvalued, as if everything on the other side of their line in the sand can be dismissed with a wave of a hand. As if this little something something completely defined a person's character and humanity, like skin color in American racism. Not to equate the two but to provide a blunt example of this myopic way of getting on in life. 

It's good and right that many atheists support a variety of liberal causes. If the only justification for some backward prohibition is because God, it follows as an immediate corollary that with a loss of faith those prohibitions are longer binding. This is easy enough to understand with women's and LGBQT issues. And doesn't this also apply to believers' most important question?

This feels too much like circling the wagons and letting the Indians set the agenda. Atheists worrying about saying Merry Christmas or doing Eastery things? There's no threat of Eternal Damnation hanging over anyone's head for these peccadilloes. What's the worst that could happen? The hobgoblin of little minds will haunt you until your dying  day?

When we were together, Zoya and I both thought we were more of an atheist than the other one. Whatever else, she certainly was the more enthusiastic one. Sometimes she even reminded me of Bolsheviks from the 1920's. I'll give her points for her enthusiasm in keeping herself free from Christian impurities. I like to think I win on irony.

* * *

[Added 3/19/2016, 23:48]

For what it's worth, picking out some detail of a social life and making it determinative of a person's value or worth is the flip side of mindless conformity. The more abstracted from context the less can deviation from a fantastically narrow criterion be allowed. If that should be seem overly abstract, the kerfuffle that Hermant Mehta refers to here illustrates my point perfectly.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Speaking of moral absolutes...

The best & highest that we can do is to choose the moral and ethical standard by which to fail. What we learn from our failures is a matter of character and conscience. Too much success in following one's preferred moral code suggests that one has made things too easy. Failure can sometimes be its own answer to the rebukes and condemnations of a predatory conscience. Love redeems all, they say. Even love of an unattainable ideal.

The Apostle Paul was right in his epistle to the Romans. No one is good not even when judged by their own preferred ethical and moral standards. He, then, proceeded to draw a whole host of suspect conclusions. Guilt, guilt, and more guilt, failures, regrets and bitter self-recriminations. All so profoundly, hauntingly and inescapably irredeemable that the only possible escape was world-historical, metaphysical nonsense and supernatural crudities. Washing away sin with the Blood of the Lamb? Since when has blood ever removed any stain and not made for even more stains? Who comes up with stuff like that? It sounds like something out of Jeffrey Dahmer's childhood.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Sophie's Choice

Choosing the lesser evil” is a ploy to evade responsibility for one’s actions. This hackneyed justification of cowardly irresponsibility should be phrased as “each choice was more evil than the next.” Sometimes there are no moral choices. Sometimes there are only evil choices and still a choice must be made. Sophie’s choice for example. Choose between two sons, fail to make a choice both die.

Many attempts have been made to square this circle. Every proffered solution, whatever its rationalization, is as unsatisfactory as any other. Somebody always dies. Sophie’s choice looks like a conundrum. It has the form of a puzzle. It is not a riddle either. It is a piece of poetic imagery casting light on a very dark fact about any ethic or morality that ties responsibility to choice.

Ethics and morality offer no guidance. They presume some good to be had or ideal to be striven for. Morally and ethically speaking there is no choice but to do evil. Pointing out the lack of choice and the impossibility of choosing anything other than what one did may go some way toward easing conscience. Post hoc justifications do not help in the heat of the moment. Nor do they do anything for the traumatic fact that some evil has been committed by one’s own hand. This shattering loss of freedom, independence, autonomy, call it what you will, is the stuff of nightmares and even of psychosis. Whatever else morality and ethics may be, they are tools to aid in the processing of the raw materials of social and psychic life: loves, desires, angers, jealousies, fears, bodily functions and needs, and so on. Morality and ethics are orderings and rankings of these psychic materials.

The presumption that each of us does what we do as a preference underlies all ethics, morality, really all of human social life. It is how we interpret the behavior and words of another and of ourselves. Whether explicitly or not, the question is always what does someone want. One’s preference in a given situation can be love, money, fame, the good opinion of others, Enlightenment, freedom from fear, power, security, a sudden rush of adrenaline, the list is endless. We are libidinous creatures. There is always something we want except in pathological situations.

Sophie’s choice short circuits part of our brain. There was an episode of Star Trek the Original Series in which a computer and the androids it controls hold Kirk and crew hostage. Part of their escape plan is to have Spock put illogical and nonsensical questions to the central computer in order to overwhelm its logic circuits. Of course the plan is successful. This is what finding oneself with Sophie’s choice does to our moral-ethical-social-psychological faculties. Such a soul finds itself the embodiment of contradiction: I must not choose evil but I must choose evil.

Sophie’s choice is analogous to an optical illusion. Optical illusions are possible because our brains evolved by selecting for optimal shortcuts: trading off metabolic requirements against computational limits against volume limitations against biochemical limitations against the limits imposed by the laws of physics against the genomic toolkit available to work with. “Optimal shortcut” should probably be replaced by “passable kluges.” Instead of a computer metaphor, a mechanical metaphor: the mechanism seizes up and stops working because the proverbial monkey wrench has been thrown into the works. One does well to not get too hung up on a favorite metaphor.

After experiencing Sophie’s choice, one becomes skeptical of the moral-ethical utility of the concept of choice. Consumer culture is christian choice in full bloom. Responsibility, praise and blame are tied to choice. McDonald’s or Burger King? Coke vs Pepsi? I eat healthy and I became diabetic within the past year. Why do I have precisely these choices and not others? Mac or PC? Most people feel themselves free if allowed to choose even if only within an arbitrarily narrow range of choices. I can at least choose which one I prefer, they tell themselves. What about Sophie’s choice? Why precisely
these choices and not others? Who decides that? Does anyone? If the choices available aren’t all that different and not all that preferable to one another, it can make for a persistent, gnawing unacknowledged dissatisfaction and resentment along with an unidentifiable feeling of unhappiness and a nonspecific feeling of powerlessness.

Buridan’s ass “refers to a hypothetical situation wherein an ass that is equally hungry and thirsty is placed precisely midway between a stack of hay and a pail of water. Since the paradox assumes the ass will always go to whichever is closer, it will die of both hunger and thirst since it cannot make any rational decision to choose one over the other. The paradox is named after the 14th century French philosopher Jean Buridan, whose philosophy of moral determinism it satirizes. A common variant of the paradox substitutes two identical piles of hay for the hay and water; the ass, unable to choose between the two, dies of hunger.” ('s_ass) I find it curious that this paradox is formulated in terms of two conflicting desires. Desire is always for something, even if only to be elsewhere. There is a build up of tension followed by its release. One chooses something. There is an object, a direction and an implied desire for this something. The appeal of the psycho-metaphysics of choice is understandable, at least until one thinks beyond naive understandings. Buridan’s ass is predicated on (frustrated) desire being in the direction of something. The ass starves because the impetus to move in one direction is canceled out by another equal but opposing desire for something else.

Sophie’s choice is not about desire and it’s associated choice. Sophie is placed equidistant between two equally and extremely repulsive choices. There is no solution that would save Sophie from a lifetime of nightmares and reliving the horror of that day, attempting to process on a neuronal level what cannot be psychologically processed or forgotten. The horror of it is that there is no should-have that would illuminate one’s failure. The experience resists assimilation even as guilt and failure.

In the hubbub of everyday life with its pressing business, it is all too easy to forget that those things we do happen in an instant, but live long in memory and imagination. Playing up the rightness or wrongness of a choice within the situation at hand ignores this very real and important fact. A traumatic event is over after a period of time which is vanishingly short in comparison to the length of time that comes afterward. The harmful effects of a traumatic event plays out over time, repeatedly threatening to overwhelm and destroy the psyche in new and unpredictable ways.

Sophie’s choice flashes a light on a dark fact of human existence. We do not set the limits to our range of choices. We do not get to decide what our choices are. I may be able to choose between what’s in my refrigerator, but I did not select the available choices at my supermarket. Fresh seafood is not a likely food choice in rural Montana. The example of food choice is apt because it is one of the first of many mundane freedoms taken away from prison inmates. The choices in the moment, as it were, that are available to a human being are always limited and arbitrarily so. If we keep asking the question why this set of choices and not others, especially if we do not shy away from applying it recursively, the answer becomes we never had any choice. The whole universe finds its way up into our brains there behind our eyeballs with its tendrils winding its way down into our hearts. We too are part of the questions and answers with the limits in our choices we set on ourselves and on others. To use the metaphors of cause and effect, we both cause things to happen and we are an effect that is caused to happen, just like everything else in our lives, in the heavens above us, and down in the dark places where we try not to go.

* * *

If this should seem overly abstract and leave you with a feeling of “and so?” Consider an aid worker in the immediate aftermath of a horrible earthquake in a densely populated area. He (or she) cannot possibly hope to save everyone in need of saving. He has to choose who to save or everyone who he could possibly save will die. In a life dedicated to helping the injured and the helpless, choosing who dies and who lives is unvarnished evil. Or consider sexual abuse. Bodily autonomy is the prerequisite of all forms of freedom. Even a slave retains a small measure. It is impossible to specify his movements so precisely that his discretion completely vanishes, some tiny measure of autonomy remains. Sex and one’s choices about who, what & how are an irremovable part of adulthood. If someone forces sex on another (female or male), the victim finds themselves doing things. “Against their will” is too much of a cliché. In some cases reflexes may become engaged. This last can be especially troubling for young males. The experience of powerlessness is discovering that one’s will is worse than useless. Bodily integrity is tightly bound to bodily autonomy, whether in a chaste young woman of whom even Pat Robertson would approve, or in a sexually adventurous senior whose behavior would make even otherwise rather liberal-minded individuals uneasy, or somewhere in between. Choice, bodily control, call it what you will is the foundation upon which the self is constructed.

* * *

Sophie’s choice is a simplified version of the trolley problem (Wikipedia). I’ve never thought it proved very much other than the shallowness of a certain way of regarding moral and ethical conundrums. In almost every variant somebody dies. In none of these variations is there any effort to imagine what it would be like to be faced with the choice of saving 1 person or saving 5 persons. The problem is presented in a trite way. If the problem is presented as situation faced by a figure fleshed out and made to feel real, instead of by an automaton, there would be more concern about how the decider [finally a use for G.W.’s otherwise unfortunate neologism.] fared afterward. Here a reductionist approach obscures really interesting elements of the problem.

In addition, there is the hidden assumption that our choices extreme situations, hypothetical or otherwise, reveal something important. As often as not, decisions made in extreme situations are excused and even disowned because it is felt that those decisions are not made freely. Nietzsche, for one, and no slouch in ethical matters, thought it was precisely in extreme situations that we show our truest colors. Decisions made in the absence of consequences mean nothing. Save 1, save 5, save no one, does the answer really matter to a question phrased so trivially? It could easily be part of a game dreamed up by Cards Against Humanity.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Finally something about Star Wars that .,..

Finally something about Star Wars that puts words to a vague but persistent intuition that ever since I watched for the second time whichever one came out in the late Seventies a couple years ago. See here. It's nice to come across someone else also not totally enamored of Star Wars.

I'll try write more about this later. Right now I'm at the local library downloading an Open Suse Linux ISO file. I've needed to reinstall for some time. I keep getting a weird error message from the file system on the root partition of my Open Suse installation.

I've been thinking about a post or two about Linux for quite some time. Maybe I'll be able to get around during the holidays.

The Backdrop to my Most Recent Depressive Episode (2011 - 2015)

The following was written while and because of writing and preparing letters and documents to Zoya's latest antics.

* * *

I spent my adolescence trapped between the onslaught of puberty and a suppressed, but not any the less raging for it, anger at an abusive father controlling the minutiae of the daily lives of my mother and siblings. He ruthlessly exploited our dependencies and weaknesses to further expand opportunities to dominate and manipulate by setting us against one another, all the while with poverty and illiteracy in our air, water and dirt.

This is a very rough sketch of the backdrop to the unfortunate events that transpired between my sister & myself. The details are unimportant here. Suffice it to say, those events profoundly affected both of us. I have made it a point of honor to inform my serious romantic partners of those events, trusting in their decency and good taste for discretion. I had always done this before things got “too serious.” Partly for reassurances that my partner really did love me for who and what I am. Besides, they would likely find out sooner or later. This also meant that it was necessary that any possible fiancee meet my family in Arkansas. I don’t remember whether I told them of this precondition to marriage. Whether I did or didn’t, I would have put off marriage until she had met them. This was not to seek my family’s approval. An important advantage of poverty is that one’s parents have no wealth to speak of. It was so that any fiancee would know what I came from and what she might be getting herself into. If she still wanted to get married, we could. Both of my ex-wives made the journey to Arkansas to meet my family several years before marriage. Zoya & I made our visit in June 1998. There’s no use in her denying it. I have pictures. It would only be a minor inconvenience to ask my siblings for an executed affidavit. They might be fuzzy on details, but they would all swear to a visit some time before she & I were married in 2000.

Zoya’s attempt to make use of these heart-wrenching events from some 40 years ago in our custody dispute does not show her in the best light. She knew well before we married of those unfortunate events. She knew well before before we had children. It was only until the custody hearings began that she began to be “concerned.”

At the time I was unprepared for how low she would stoop to gain some petty advantage in an ongoing legal dispute. It was this, more than her waiting several months to disclose her initiation of office seduction until I was researching plane tickets to my mother’s funeral. Her death came almost year after a diagnosis of Stage IV terminal ovarian cancer. As difficult as the painful timing of her disclosure was, I remained willing to consider the possibility that it was some psychological issue that she needed to work out. This was in spite of her consistent and repeated assertions that it had been her decision, her choice, her responsibility to chase after some little twat at work. I carefully probed, on occasion casually suggesting that she might have been the victim of a manipulative seduction. She was clear. She was insistent. She wanted a clean break and that it hurt her more than it hurt me. This affair was something that she had thought about for some time prior to beginning chase. It was something she had doggedly pursued with vigorous intent. She left me with no reason to think otherwise. I do not know what she told her spouse or what she says about her behavior now. All I know is what she told me persuasively with clarity and conviction.

Initially, it was estimated that my mother might have six months from the time of her diagnosis of terminal. She did not die until April 21, 2011, almost a year. Her impending death was known to be inevitable well in advance. Zoya told me she began her pursuit of that little twat at work in the November before. That Zoya did not wait even a week until after the funeral after the death of her mother-in-law, a woman she claimed to have respected…. I don’t know how to finish that sentence without resorting to overwrought and profoundly misogynistic imagery.

As bad as April and May in 2011 were for me, it was not until Zoya’s failed attempt to use against me in court the childhood traumas alluded to above that the severe depressive episode of the last several years began in earnest. I had fundamentally failed in my reading of her character and personality. I had placed my trust in a propped up by a successful deception. The discovery of my failure destroyed any confidence in my judgment to know who to trust, who not to trust and to what degree. My trust issues have always centered around uncertainty about social skills. Even after years subjected my father’s machinations, I have always believed some people are trustworthy. I never allowed myself his paranoiac mistrust. I suddenly found myself unable to talk to even my closest friends, even ones that I had known for decades. I often wished that I still had my mother to help work through this horrible situation. Even before her diagnosis, I had called her several times a week with conversations lasting a few minutes to sometimes a couple of hours. I could not. I was alone.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Is Secularism a Religion?

This article on NPR's website, Unbelief As A Belief System: Core Tenet For Christians' Fight For Religious Rights, set me off on a train of thought, specially after daring God to strike me dead and worse.

It's not that I am so very sure of God's nonexistence, rather I am unmoved by the arguments, professions of faith, unpersuasive testimony of so-called miracles of the Spirit, and so on and so on. I'm not persuaded. At. All. Not. Even. A. Little. Bit.

My lack of belief should not be construed to mean that I am (hypocritically) certain of God's nonexistence. A seemingly endless parade of arguments each failing to persuade in a nauseatingly similar way does make for low expectations that the next argument will be "the one." Being unable to articulate the exact failures in logic of this particular ploy to save this poor sinner from eternal damnation is not proof of much of anything. Persuasion is not about truth or truthfulness. It's about coaxing and cajoling assent. Assent can be given for many reasons besides concern with truth: to join the "right church"; for the love of your life to get laid regularly; to ease loneliness; etc etc.

From the encounters that I had when I proselytized and later when I was proselytized to I realized that Christians and other ideologues do not engage in honest debate. They expect their listener to put his beliefs at risk, but they themselves do not extend the same courtesy to their listeners. After all, they already have the Truth. I find apologetics with its dishonest attempt to justify and rationalize foregone conclusions thoroughly and without reserve disgustingly unpersuasive on principle.

This bad faith underlies all proselytizing. It is a resolute refusal to acknowledge the emotional and social investment these would-be saviors of Mankind have in their articles of faith. When I came out of my religious crisis "the wrong way," I lost nearly all of my friends. I lost a great deal of support at a difficult time time in my life—I'd just received an academic dismissal. The implied threat of loss makes for extra fervor in attempts to persuade others to one's doctrines. Every soul, Jewish ones especially, bagged for Christ confirms the validity of one's convictions and the legitimacy of this whole approach to truth and persuasion. Each conversion eases doubts and uncertainties for a time, like a drug. In some cases it's certainly a petty exercise of power over another [I have to include this one. I am Nietzschean, after all.]

Early on, I realized that in giving up God and Salvation I had no right to certainty. I found myself unable to discern a difference between faith and mulish conviction. Certainty was just an attitude toward certain ideas and beliefs. It does not touch upon the truth or falsity of ideas and beliefs. Nietzsche's living life as a series of little experiments struck a chord. I resolved to see how it would go living with degrees and shades of certainty. I knew better than to discuss this with the friends I had at the time: they were already upset with me because of coming out of my religious crisis "the wrong way."

Now, some three and a half decades later, I can safely say that it's not impossible and requires attention to detail coupled with fastidiousness in saying what I mean. Not for their benefit. We hear and see only so much. Some more, some less. The limits of our language is the limit of our world. Some of us live in bigger worlds and some in smaller.

Consistently declining to be persuaded by bad arguments is as much "proof" of faith and certainty as is a parent answering a bored child's "Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?" And if there's a lack of certainty and faith in unpersuasive arguments is secularism or atheism a religion like Christianity?

That self-described atheists organize around and pursue various joint projects that cut into traditionally Christian domains confuses these issues because it looks like membership in various secular/atheist organizations presumes certain beliefs as a prerequisite for membership, instead of recognizing that a lack of faith in conviction allows for other possibilities of social organization. It doesn't help that many nonbelievers are themselves confused and inconsistent in these matters. It's a rough thing to come to terms with, but wildly liberating.

To sum up, consistent failure to be persuaded of somebody's doctrines is not prove of any conviction in the falsity of anybody's doctrines. This is a misunderstanding rooted in ignorance. For many, many Christians the beliefs and valuations that they hold of non-Christians is an absolutely essential and irreplaceable part of their religion.

This second point is far, far more troubling than simple ignorance. It is easy to dismiss Christians vociferously protesting Marriage Equality as homophobic bigots who'll get over it. The fact remains that Christianity (but not only) has a long history of doctrines and beliefs about those outside the local congregation stretching back through the Middle Ages on into antiquity.

This irreconcilably conflicts with secularism's ideal of treating all minorities, all religions, all social groupings fairly and equitably. To think otherwise is to indulge in fantasies of squared circles. It should be noted that failed attempts to square the circle led to all sorts of developments in mathematics.  In the sublunar world all things are mortal. It would take some time for the pursuit of the ideal to prove itself as fruitless. In the meantime, efforts to reconcile the irreconcilable would exercise creativity, passion and imagination. Faith in a final solution to a problem may be necessary for many people in order to make any attempt at a solution. And if the ideal solution is ever attained, it becomes either worthless or the goal posts are moved.

Something more about yesterday's post

It has puzzled me ever since I first began to suspect that “Truth” when used to talk about transcendent realities and the meaning & purpose of life was not the same as “truth” when talking about the mundane facts of everyday reality. Why does Christianity insist on the Truth, but especially of the historicity of its core narrative? Why insist on the singularity and exclusivity of Truth? Why do many, many Christians say to themselves and to the world, “we alone have the Truth, everyone who disagrees with them is dangerously wrong”?

I don’t have an answer just yet, at least not one that I feel is complete. I am certain that a satisfactory answer is related to something I noticed a long time ago. Maybe it was the 80's. I’m not sure. I recall it as being shortly before the start of the Culture War by the Right.

Part of Christianity is beliefs and judgments about people outside the local congregation. Many conservative Christians would certainly agree that their beliefs about homosexuals are an essential part of their religion. Liberal Christians and many young Christians who would otherwise pass for conservatives might differ on that point. I chose homosexuals as my first example because their rights to live like any other law-abiding citizen have been vociferously disputed by conservative Christians of the past several years.

Consider a more delicate example. Jews and the history of Jewish-Christian relations. Or, if that example is too delicate, consider pagans, wiccans, members of the Satanic Temple, Muslims, etc.

If that should seem a little iffy, consider those moralities derived from the Abrahamic religions. Such and such is wrong. Such and such is pleasing unto the Lord. Millennia of moral instruction, oftentimes accompanied by horrific punishments. And still adulterers, murderers, thieves, the covetous, and the like live among us. One conclusion is that this demonstrates the need for moral instruction. This is said most commonly by people fearful of losing their non-menial jobs. “You know I wanna be a Baptist preacher, just so I won’t have to work.” (Son House) Another is that preaching morals does not change behavior in any meaningful way. At most morality teaches careful secrecy (a triplet to her sisters, guilt and shame). Ask anyone who was ever a teenager in the Bible Belt.

Keeping that and the passage quoted from The Antichrist in yesterday’s post in mind, Abrahamic morality is all about beliefs and teachings about people who do not keep the “Law.” Feminists have rightly made a great deal of Patriarchy and its morality. Prostitutes. Need I say more?

Or maybe the necessity of the exclusivity of “higher” Truths is yet one more bit of emptiness, and the knotted string holding all of their contradictory and nonsensical doctrines together. The mystery of the Trinity? All the better to exclude and thereby bind together. It doesn’t need to make sense. “If they can make you believe absurdities, they can make you commit atrocities.” (George Orwell).

The Christian conviction in the exclusivity of the Truth of their stories is just one more trick for the faithful to manipulate the feelings of themselves and of others so as to feel a little closer to one another and to their God. The answer to my perplexity was within me the whole time.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Maybe Nietzsche Didn’t Go Far Enough

One of Nietzsche’s angriest charges against Christianity is its lack of reality.

“In Christianity neither morality nor religion has even a single contact with reality. Nothing but imaginary causes (“God,” “soul,” “spirit,” “free-will”—for that matter “unfree will”), nothing but imaginary effects (“sin,” “redemption,” pu“grace,” “punishment,” “forgiveness of sins”). Intercourse between imaginary beings (“God,” “spirits,” “souls”); imaginary natural science (anthropocentric; no trace of any concept of natural causes); an imaginary psychology (nothing but self-misunderstandings, interpretations of agreeable and disagreeable feelings—for example, of the states of of the nervus sympaticus—with the aid of the sign language of the religio-moral idiosyncrasy; “repentance,” “pangs of conscience,” “temptation of the devil,” “the presence of God”); an imaginary teleology (“the kingdom of God,” “the Last Judgment,” “eternal life”).

This world of pure fiction is vastly inferior to the world of dreams insofar as the latter mirrors reality, whereas the former falsifies, devalues, and negates reality. Once the concept of “nature” had been invented as the opposite of “God,” “natural” had to become a synonym of “reprehensible”: this whole world of fiction is rooted in hatred of the natural (of reality!); it is the expression of a profound vexation at the sight of reality.

But this explains everything. Who alone has good reason to lie his way out of reality? He who suffers from it. But to suffer from reality is to be a piece of reality that has come to grief. The preponderance of feelings of displeasure over feelings of pleasure is the cause of this fictitious morality; but such a preponderance provides the very formula for decadence.

The Antichrist, section 15 (in its entirety)

Does this all explain “everything”? No, it doesn’t. Psychology, metaphysics, yes. But, it fails to answer a simple question.

I read somewhere on the Internet that saying out loud something like “I ask God to strike me dead. I dare God to make me suffer grievously for the rest of my life. Come on, God, you can do it, make it worse for me than it ever was for Job.” Apparently, saying such things out loud makes some professed atheists uneasy. I was curious about what the reality of it would be for me. I grew up in a conservative religious milieu in a thoroughly red state and was enthusiastically religious for a while. After saying it, all I could say was, “meh.”

I’ve been taking my evening meals at soup kitchens and food pantries organized and run by the Salvation Army and local churches. I hear a heartfelt prayer almost every day almost everyday, sometimes twice in one day.

With my thoroughly jaundiced eye for Christianity, a simple question needs to be answered. If there’s no reality and substance to all of that jabbering about empty irrealities, then what the hell are believers doing when they make noises and call it theology?

As a philosophy major I received some exposure to the Wittgenstein of The Philosophical Investigations. I don’t remember much. Something about showing the fly the way out of the bottle and meaning as use. The meaning of a word or phrase is its usage.

Even though Christian concepts are devoid of content and reality, Christians continued to use their words and concepts consistently, for the most part, even after _______ (fill in your preferred cultural or scientific event or discovery).

So what are they doing with their God-talk and their strivings for righteousness and holiness? The answer struck me as too simple. Its simplicity made me suspicious and mistrustful of it. Christian language marks who is “in” and who is “out.” The vocabulary and the grammar of its use functions as a badge and marker of who is a Christian. The articles of faith, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s prayer, Ava Maria, Silent Night, The War on Christmas®, all of it, just tokens to mark membership. Life as a Christian as a member of a congregation is dependent on the judgment by others of one’s spirituality. Jesus and the Pharisees holds within it a dim awareness of this fact. If a well-intentioned Christian is too “spiritual” in an inappropriate way, he will be ostracized.

Nietzsche usually so perceptive in peering into the darker nooks and crevices of the human heart missed something in the passage above. He recognizes the lack of reality and substance to Christian noises. It offends his truthfulness. He was working before modern philosophy of language. Language and thought were supposedly described and referred to the world and things within it.

Meaning as use” a la the later Wittgenstein makes meaning social, as something worked out between people. Neurology has begun to recognize that some ridiculous portion of our brains is devoted to navigating social life.

Nietzsche early on (On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense) recognized that evolution meant that our brains were not designed by Nature to be organs of truth, but to aid in persisting a while longer. The necessity of untruth is a recurrent theme in his middle and late periods. So why did he miss the social nature of truth and language?

It is my belief that Nietzsche’s philosophy should be read as a grand exegesis and glorification of a lonely, chronically suffering, philology professor forced to retire due to ill health. He had to retain and protect his faith in the primacy of the solitary individual lurking about at the fringes of the herd. The abyss he felt between himself and the herd precluded recognition that language, even his wonderful prose, premised other people. There is in his writings a glimmering intuition that language is not a neutral conduit of reality and that language is not a mirror of reality that may be safely ignored, much in the way we do when grooming ourselves.

If all of Christianity’s so-called realities listed in the passage quoted above are purely signifiers of membership and levels of membership, this means that membership in the Church is not based on shared experiences, or rather the essential shared Christian experience is one of exclusion. To compensate for the emptiness of specifically Christian concepts, membership in the Church works by excluding somebody. Whether its Pharisees, Pagans, Infidels, Devil Worshipers, Heretics, Witches, the Ungodly, Whores, Jews, etc etc etc etc. In America Conservative Christianity is especially inventive in finding an unending supply of Enemies. The “War on Christmas” is as an egregious example of any. The yearly hysteria and outrage provides opportunities for Conservative Christians to recognize one another and feel like they belong to something greater in their shared outrage that someone should dare to not be one of them, a Christian. Nietzsche summed all of this up in one word: ressentiment.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Life in a Post-Christian World


The proper response to the threats of despair to be found in a life without God is courage.

* * *

What does this mean? I can’t help but think of those Christian ministers who sternly declare “Life without God is meaningless.” Even if I have very good, even convincing, reasons to question the Redemptive Truth of Christianity and strong sociological data that strongly shows that for human health and happiness Christianity has on balance been a disaster for humankind, my life is worthless as a driven leave. My life without God doesn’t matter, it has no weight, no seriousness, nothing to love. The truths of this world leave very little room for a God who acts in History. The only possible way for me to feel my life is worth the living, is to profess belief in things that I know to be false. Credo que absurdum. The most common way of reconciling this opposition between those things that I know to be true and those things that I ought to believe (but really don’t) is to favor one over the other. For many Conservative Christians this means choosing (their interpretation of their) Holy Scriptures over worldly science whenever this is disagreement between what they (oftentimes wrongly) think worldly science teaches.

My point of interest is narrowly personal. I was brought up in a confusing mishmash of various Protestant denominations by largely ignorant and uneducated parents. I say this latter not by way of accusation or with resentment, but as a simple statement of fact. I was left on my own to figure out Christian teachings and Doctrine. That was several decades ago. Since then, I’ve read some C.S. Lewis, but mostly Nietzsche. Curiously, it was Nietzsche that helped me understand and gain insight into Christianity and the meanings of various doctrines. Unlike my brief time as an angry atheist, I now longer fear those parts of my childhood and culture that have to do with Christianity. Reading Lewis’s Mere Christianity was a revelation. It explained how the various bits and pieces of Christianity that I had picked up over the years fit together. It almost goes without saying that I became an enthusiastic follower of Jesus. My time as a professing Christian lasted about 2 years. The end roughly coincided with my discovery of Nietzsche.

Long before I immersed myself in Nietzsche’s later writings, I was being dragged off to church and discovering the joys of naively wallowing in guilt (like anyone on the cusp of puberty, I was acutely aware of sinful curiosities and bad self-touching). I was quite the science and math nerd in middle school and high school. I read a lot, I thought a lot about what I read. Science magazines, novels, history, histories of mathematics and science, biographies of scientists. And I thought a lot. I remember one day, I pictured clearly in my mind how in the natural world every cause had an effect and every effect had a cause. I was a part of the natural world. Therefore, I & “I” (I didn’t know the word “subjectivity” at the time) was also a piece of nature. The picture I had was of me being dragged along through my life by the universe. This strict, naive determinism left no room for free will or personal freedom. It was up until then the most horrible experience of my life. I tasted unadulterated despair. It gave me a sick feeling in my stomach. My life was nothing.

Awareness of the emptiness and despair of my adolescent life would make its presence felt almost as a physical sensation at unexpected and unpredictable times. It was a fact of my existence at the time that the only possible cure for my chronic despair at my guilt was God, Jesus and going to church. In other words, some sort of Christianity. Life without God wasn’t worth anything. And I didn’t believe a word of it. There was what I knew to be true and opposed to that was all those things that I was morally obligated to know to be true (or at least persuade myself were true). Saying those things to be true when I knew they were not would be to lie. Lying is wrong. Everyone agreed that lying to God is especially bad, because God knows everything. I was willing to entertain the possibility that maybe I was wrong and that Jesus, God and Christianity might be True in spite of my (or anyone’s) best efforts to understand myself or my surroundings, even though I didn’t believe a word of Doctrine.

I was hopelessly confused and my thinking was absurdly muddled. It took me many years to figure out that the problem wasn’t one of truth or evidence but one of ethics, values and to speak Christian love. I did not know where my treasure lay.

* * *

Earlier I brought up the Latin phrase, “Credo que absurdum.” I believe because it is absurd. Attributed to Tertullian, the phrase has a long history. It is presented as a justification of Faith in the face of evidence against the Holy Faith. Faith is placed over Reason, sometimes called Fideism. It is also a justification of Authority and authority. Prior to the Reformation, this meant the authority of the Roman Catholic Church which meant in practice submission to the authority of parish priests, bishops, and the who bureaucratic structure of the Church and not just to the offices held by men, but to the men who held those offices. It’s easy enough to understand the intuitive appeal of Protestantism’s ideal of each believer being his own authority. Hence the need to mass produce Bibles and the importance of literacy.

Skipping forward to the present, it is clear that demanding Faith hasn’t solved Fideism’s essential weakness. There are some persons, regardless of denomination, who have more authority to say what Scripture means and what God’s Will is. This authority may be based on training in ecclesiastical matters and psychological counseling, or this authority may be little more than being naively held captive by the charisma of a deluded soul. Or, as I am fond of saying, Speak with Confidence and the Weak-Minded will believe you. For most people most of the time this appeal of and to authority works really well because most people most of the time need someone to tell them what to think, feel and do. And conversely, there are some people who have an inordinate need to tell other people what to do. It’s symbiotic. This symbiosis rooted in placing Belief and Faith over Reason means it is obedience that is of the highest value. Of course, theological smoke and mirrors makes this surprising palatable to many, many people.

For a nonbeliever, such as myself, believing because I’m supposed to believe triggers a reflexive mistrust and curiosity. What is a life of Reason about? What is it about inquiry and checking for someone behind the curtain? Nonbelief is a consequence of each man being his own priest. If I am responsible for my relationship to God and the Higher Truths without the mediating apparatus of the Catholic Church how am I to decide on the meanings of Scripture? What counts as evidence? If my eternal fate hangs in the balance: an eternity of punishment and torment versus an eternity of bliss and happiness, then oughtn’t I be as scrupulous as possible in pursuing truth and meaning in Scripture? For most people most of the time, it is good enough to hazily believe and play the numbers in thinking about truth: most people believe X to be true, therefore it’s probably true.

“A life without God is meaningless” means obey the authorities. They know best. In practice it means ignoring and retreating from the uncertainties and unpleasantries of this life. Look away from difficulties. For all the appeals to figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., or Bishop Desmond Tutu, there still seems to me to be a specific form of cowardice at the root of faith. I can only describe it as epistemic. Certain fundamental beliefs and propositions are not scrupulously evaluated. Even as I write this some Christians that I’ve known are vociferously complaining that faith, real faith is not a matter of professed adherence to certain fundamental beliefs and propositions, or at least, not merely so.

The paradox of this latter sort of faith is that the more it is insisted that it is not grounded in specific beliefs and propositions, the less that it can be said to be Christian, at least as Christianity has been understood historically and even by most practicing Christians and most Christian theologians. In many cases all that remains is an empty label and a fetish for a name coupled with a tediously evasive reluctance to admit to an actual break with anything that anyone else would call Christian.

In a secular world, epistemic cowardice means a lazy self-justifying avoidance of the beliefs and experiences of other people. “I have Jesus” means “I already know all I need to know.” In other words, cowardice in one’s living and in one’s dealings with other people. Where there is cowardice, there is fear and an inability to trust. “If I already have Jesus, there is no need to look further into my motives than I am comfortable in doing.” This might strike many as a caricature, but what is a caricature but the exaggeration of its subject’s most prominent features? The exhortation to believe X also means that questioning X leads to needless fear, uncertainty and doubt. The road beyond X leads only to Mordor.

It is a peculiarity of inquiry that its limits cannot be externally imposed. “These beliefs and doctrines maybe be questioned, but those may not.” Questioning, irony, satire, comedic treatment all have in common a refusal to accept that anyone can control the career of an idea, doctrine or belief out in the world. Part of Christianity is expectations about how its beliefs, propositions and doctrines are to be treated, meaning that it is what the usual authorities say that counts all else is blasphemy worthy of condemnation and punishment. Don’t ask too many questions and don’t laugh at the wrong things. This is all that Truth means.

And what of life in a post-Christian world? Christianity, and ideological systems in general, have at their foundation cowardice as their attitude toward life. Exhortations to believe this or that distracts from what we do in fact think and feel. This is no longer an emotionally or spiritually satisfying way of life, assuming that it ever was. It is not enough to give up belief in God and in the Gospel like some intellectual exercise. Feelings of guilt and dissatisfaction remain, only now there is no promise of Redemption and being washed clean of Guilt and Sin in the blood of the Lamb. Giving up God, Jesus and Christianity with its story of Redemption leaves us without any ready means to articulate certain moods, sensations and feelings, as well as without rituals to assuage those moods and feelings. We no longer have a story of how the world is not what it’s supposed to be. The world is as it is, as it is supposed to be: broken, ugly, unhappy but most of all indifferent. We cannot hope for a better world. We have to live in the world as it is. Anything else is cowardice and escapism. Resignation is not the right word. We didn’t lose anything, anymore than someone who stops playing the lottery regularly after many years loses millions of dollars. The fantasy was always a distraction and even evasion of a life without those millions of dollars. No, it’s not resignation.

The loss of God and Jesus means that we no longer know how we should live or how to approach life. This ignorance makes life into something new, even innocent. The vastness of our ignorance is enough to make is weak in the knees. It is courage we need. Courage to look at the scary, ugly and unexpected. Truthfully, we do not even know if something is scary or ugly until we make our examinations of it. We only know what we’ve been told and maybe what was true yesterday.

Above I described the life of Faith as one of submission to authority. What, then, is the life of Reason? It is deciding for oneself what should count as truth. It is a devotion to one’s autonomy. For the longest while, I thought of autonomy as managing one’s own affairs. Not as an act of will and choice. Free-will is just theological smoke. The answer to those feelings and sensations of making a choice is a reinterpretation of those feelings and thoughts. Autonomy is the culmination of decisions and choices in the feeling that one is the author of one’s own acts and behavior. Further, this authorship rests on a swarm of largely unconscious calculations and judgments that it is possible to achieve satisfaction of one’s needs and desires.

Life in a post-Christian world rests on a foundation of courage. Not just the physical courage of firemen, for example, but also courage in our feelings and thoughts. The ideal is never giving into nameless fears, but always looking our horrible nameless fears in the eye so as to give it a name. Once it has a name, we can decide what to do about it. Maybe it’s reasonable to be afraid. Maybe it’s not. Maybe we do what we have to do, even and especially when we’re afraid.

I’m skeptical that moral exhortations do much more than inculcate a sense of failure. We all fail to live up to our ideals. As the Apostle Paul, “There is none righteous, no, not one.” We are not supposed to meet our ideals. If we could then they wouldn’t be ideals. An ideal is a guide to making decisions about what counts as acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Failure to live up to the ideal only means an opportunity to do better next time. Sometimes an enemy can only be properly sized up after retreating. Sometimes it’s a matter of recognizing one’s own cowardice in retrospect and owning up to one’s failures and to one’s successes.

A meaningful life is full of those things felt to be important. That doesn’t always include safety and a happy ending either in this life or any other. Whatever faith might have been, now it is less than whistling in the dark. We can close our eyes in prayer and cower in our sometimes not so metaphorical corners, or we can—

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