Monday, March 7, 2016

Thought for the Day

On the bad days laugh and smile that in spite of the best efforts of God & Man, you're still here, a light-hearted mockery of their best efforts. On the good days, listen to the birds sing under a blue sky. Then, maybe one day you won't be able to tell the difference between your worst and your best, good days from bad days.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Liberation, Fear and a Stupid Quote

I don't remember who it was that said just recently "Liberation is freedom from fear." I did some unfruitful googling. It was a tweet from some singer to her fans. Why is it stupid? First things first, there will always be something new and unexpected to make us afraid. Liberation as freedom from fear really means one remains afraid of fear itself.

Liberation, if it means anything, means the recurring experience of finding oneself, contrary to all hopes and expectations, to be bigger than one's fears. Fear treated as resistance, as obstacle (and dare I say intoxicant?) is something completely different from fear as objectively and irredeemably evil in its propensity to destroy human happiness and potential.

It will be objected that not everyone is cut out to be an existential daredevil, nor will even the best of us prove herself to be bigger than her fears each and every time. Occasional failures, that is to say running away by dressing up one's cowardice as something else, are assured even in the best cases. A little failure sweetens every success. One of my students shared a Chinese proverb: Failure is the mother of success.

Or, is a little failure not sweet at all? Maybe we shouldn't think of failure in terms of sugar, honey and sweetness. Why not in terms of heat, capsaicin and Scoville units? Repeated and continual failures in pursuit of one's ideal might prove to be a stronger stimulant to happiness than any promise of a land rich in milk and honey. Not everyone finds the allures of capsaicin irresistible, and not every chilihead enjoys ghost peppers.

This all presumes, of course, fear as an inextricable  part of the human animal. If one has once known liberation from fear even in passing, it would make for sadness to think liberation could only happen just once in a person's life.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Going Further (A Ramble of Sorts)

Taking this further and building on Section 15 of The Antichrist.

Christians of whatever stripe believe themselves in possession of the Truth. Part of Christianity is that Christian teachings of whatever local variety are all that a human being needs to know about being human. This roundabout phrasing brings out a crucial element that explains why Christians are notoriously easy to troll and often lack any sense of self-irony.

Faith in one's belief to possess The Truth (or at least only the parts that really matter) means one need look no further to understand doctrine or other people than some Bible verse or maybe a Papal Encyclical or some other commentary. This means that self-reflection outside the confines of the local doctrines is pointless, even blasphemous as an assault on the sanctity of the Holy Mother Church.

This last point should be distinguished from self-criticism and striving for moral/spiritual purity. No, I mean that the most heretical, immoral blasphemy possible would be an anthropological description of Christians (of whatever stripe) doing Christian things. Or better yet, setting the ghost of Erving Goffmann loose in the pews.

Consider a hypothetical: deciding who will "serve" as chair of a bake-sale committee. The last thing any candidate can point to is objective qualifications. There must be be prayer and appeals to the Spirit beseeching God to show His Will, etc. What this means for an ambitious member of Christ's attainment of the chair of our hypothetical bake sale committe requires cloaking one's intentions and character flaws in the proper Christian symbols, concepts and words. Unlike many critics of Christianity, I do not consider the difference between a self-deluded charlatan and a scheming con man to be of any importance. Well, maybe for psychologists of religion, but outside that narrow interest, not so much. The former results from ethical and intellectual sloppiness in the care of their immortal soul & the latter is possible because of the ethical and intellectual carelessness of others to the fate of their immortal souls.

The problem is not prayer or pleadings to supernatural beings. Those are contentious enough. Part, maybe all, of "accepting Jesus Christ as your Lord & Savior" means limiting oneself to one collection of symbols, doctrines and concepts. One of which is the belief that this aggregation of symbols, doctrines and concepts is sufficient to describe all the important parts of being human. And what does it mean for a religion to be True, if not that?

As a matter of logic finding the truth of a matter concludes the investigation. However, as a political matter (politics is always local and face-to-face) Truth is a powerful tool to silence dissent and opposition.Whether the local Truth is actually true in any meaningful sense is irrelevant. Politics is a science of expediency in attaining goals.

Faith in one's Truth precludes self-understanding, or rather precludes a priori consideration of material that doesn't fit. Perversely, Truth gets in the way of truth. Or less perversely phrased, the attitude one has toward feelings of certitude, of being right, error, and (possible) objections often unnecessarily interferes with resolving a conundrum.

Returning to the bake sale, it is easy enough to imagine a minister's niece, or maybe even his wife, as feeling not only deserving but also ambitious, seeking to be the person responsible for making final decisions and responsibilities. Depending on who you read, how this power and responsibility are to be exercised  this may be at one extreme a tale of domination and submission and at the other one of negotiation and cooperation, or something in between. The glory, respect and even admiration that comes from running a successful bake sale campaign is the sought after prize.

To circle back around to the prayers and promptings of the Spirit, arbitrarily self-limitation to a rigid set of symbols, doctrines and beliefs makes it is impossible describe and understand one's own behavior and the behavior of others. The certitude one has of one's own rightness excludes consideration of the experiences, thoughts and views of others when it might prove corrosive of one's certitude.

Regardless of whether Christianity is an aggregation of half-baked profundities about Humanity, God and History, or a precise system of rational argumentation and rigorous logical deduction that would put St. Thomas of Aquinas to shame, or something in-between, the difficulty remains: it is impossible to describe behavior in the pews as anything other than a battle of the forces of Light against the forces of Darkness. With Satan occasionally appearing as an Angel of Light, it is impossible to determine through self-inspection, prayer and Bible Study the purity of one's motives. All commentators agree on the point of the vast superiority of his diabolical intelligence to merely human faculties.

What does this mean for life in the pews? The only argument that remains after banishing discussion: force and violence. If the uses and abuses of Christian talk is foreclosed as a matter of principle, faith becomes a smoke screen behind which passions, instincts, emotions can run amok with a clear conscience. The person is most proficient in using the language, symbols and doctrines of Christianity in articulating & describing their intentions and desires is the one most assured of success in the local congregation and beyond.

The alternative obviously enough requires admitting that the language of Christianity is because of intrinsic limitations incapable of describing, Christian, and human behavior generally as other than as a battle of Good vs Evil. I expect that most Christians would find This entirely unacceptable. Conciously or not, they sense that it is the beginning of a long road, at the end of which stands the a sphinx with her riddle, "Does Christian talk do anything other than express approval or disapproval of the speaker?" This in turn raises the uncomfortable question of whether Christian talk is of any use at all in describing and understanding the human world, and does its own insistence on the supreme value and utility of Truth itself impede truth and Truth?

* * *

Lest the reader be too smug, the logic outlined above applies just as well to Soviet Marxism, Scientology, or any other prepackaged world view. These thoughts grew out of considerations of the petty and spiteful behavior of my ex-wife (as well as my own on occasion). The certainty of one's own rightness closes one's and ears to alternatives. This is the mustard seed of that willful and principled stupidity better known as fanaticism. This defect of the soul remains the same whether considered as a problem of individual psychology or as of a fatal institutional defect as in the collapse of Soviet Marxism, or something in-between.

* * *

The lazy charms of believing oneself to be right make for a poor appreciation of the subtle charms of irony.

I had wanted to work in a hunch that I have that day-to-day life in 21st Century requires at least a rudimentary capacity for irony and Vieldeutigkeit. Trump's appeal to mostly authoritarian-minded voters strongly implies that not everyone is happy about this fact.

The old ways of negotiating and containing ironies and ambiguities don't work. They themselves have become bit players in larger narratives, instead of defining the boundaries of what it means to be American. It is impossible to watch a cowboy movie any more without also wondering about what Native Americans are up to. And when discussion turns to US History and the History of the West generally? Trump's presidential campaign marks the explicit overflow into American electoral politics that has raged for some time in Academia.

Is the Great Theme of American History White Privilege versus Equality before the Law?

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