Saturday, April 14, 2012

On True Christians

How much harder, how much more demanding it must be, to be a Christian of love, as opposed to a Christian of judgement and condemnation, a Christian who would forcibly bend the knees of others for the sake of their obedience.  And how much more truly Christian.

What is a Philosophical Id?

A philosophical id is the part of the philosopher's psyche that powerfully manifests its indignation towards falsity, stupidity, dogma, duplicity, deception, and all human idiocy, expressed in a harsh and unvarnished fashion, leaving behind all sober, evenhanded decorum.  A philosophical id attacks the disingenuine, the fool, the willfully ignorant, and the deliberately simpleminded without pause or quarter, because sometimes--all too often, in fact--reason by itself is not equal to the task at hand, especially when employed with cloying irony.  A philosophical id understands this; it still uses reason, but not in the way of the typical lover of wisdom.  It is not interested in seduction, but rather destruction--the destruction of those who blithely profane the true and the good.  Thus, a philosophical id is embittered and resentful, and it wields reason to cut, to burn, to bruise.  In a word, a philosophical id wants to once again make stupidity something shameful.  In times like the present, is there any work more noble?

Monday, April 9, 2012

Orthodoxy is Unconsciousness

"Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? . . . By the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now? . . . The whole climate of thought will be different.  In fact, there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking--not needing to think.  Orthodoxy is unconsciousness."
- George Orwell (1903-1950)

To Posterity (1939)

. . . 
You, who shall emerge from the flood
In which we are sinking,
Think --
When you speak of our weaknesses,
Also of the dark time
That brought them forth.
. . .
For we knew only too well:
Even the hatred of squalor
Makes the brow grow stern.
Even anger against injustice
Makes the voice grow harsh.  Alas, we
Who wished to lay the foundations of kindness
Could not ourselves be kind.

But you, when at last it comes to pass
That man can help his fellow man,
Do not judge us
Too harshly.                                                                         
- Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956)

Against All Dogmas

History is awash with cases of cruelty and absurdity in the service of a dogma or orthodoxy—the mutual slaughter of Catholics and Protestants during the Thirty Years War, the denial of heliocentrism by the Church hierarchy, the Holocaust, the imposition of historical materialism onto Soviet science, the killing fields of Pol Pot—the list is endless. Behind every great indecency and base idiocy is a dogma waiting to be exposed by truly liberated minds.  Contra omnia dogmatia—against all dogmas—and against all dogmatists!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

An Agnostic's Apology to His Christian Companions in Life, Easter Sunday, 2012

On this most holy day of the Christian calendar, it is my fervent hope that you accept this overdue apology from a nominal agnostic with only the most tangential, outsider’s appreciation for your creed.  A lapsed Catholic before even fully formed, my lack of spirituality is something I never explicitly chose for myself; rather, it was something I fell into passively, out of an amorphous cloud of sheer inertia.  From a childhood that lacked a truly religious upbringing, my attitude toward the transcendent eventually morphed into one of purely philosophical curiosity, and as I continued to evolve intellectually, my interests have turned to the richness of the concrete world I find myself immersed in, rather than the possibility of a world that might await me.  In the end, my present attitude towards religious faith lacks the spark required for initiating an authentic spiritual encounter.  I have a strictly academic interest in its metaphysical dimensions, but I remain monumentally indifferent to exploring these dimensions personally.  I hasten to add that it’s not that I inspected the conceptual framework of Christian metaphysics and, finding it deficient, rejected it; it’s more the case that my perpetually wandering mind simply wandered off, and ended up someplace else.

In other words, my interests in Christianity are incidental, and focused on the historical and cultural.  When I travel, I am always drawn to the churches and the architecture; when I read, I find the histories of the early church, the papacy, and the various sects and orders fascinating; when I mingle with those immersed in the faith, I feel as if I am visiting a different culture altogether.  And as a good visitor to any foreign land does, I try to behave myself, and respect the customs and rituals of those around me.

You might think that I have failed spectacularly here, given the tone and tenor of my recent posts, and these are the occasion for the present apology.  In these posts, which I often paste up as quickly as they come across my desktop, it might seem as if I have an indiscriminate hostility to all things Christian.  And I know that of late these posts have been appearing more and more frequently, which I worry you might mistake for a growing disrespect for you, and what you believe in.

It is important to me that you know this is not the case.  In these posts I mean to militate against a virulent distortion of what I understand Christianity to be, which over the past several months has loudly wounded our body politic.  What I do not mean to do is paint with an overly broad brush, and stain the whole of your faith with this rancid bile that, from my admittedly outsider’s perspective, does nothing but diminish the message of your Christ.  But unfortunately, at times I have done just that; too frequently, I have not taken care to distinguish between the heavy-handed fundamentalism that is once again sweeping over the land, and the more complicated but affirmative Christianity that you have taken into your lives.  And it is for this that I beg your forgiveness, for you are the last people I would want to offend.

What might not be apparent from my posts is that I have been surrounded by Christians since my earliest days in Detroit, over and beyond my teaching post at a Catholic university.  We settled into a neighborhood populated with a number of former Jesuit volunteers, who welcomed us warmly, and my Catholic wife found a well-established and wonderful parish just around the corner.  From these initial contacts we were drawn into a sprawling network of Christian communities, each doing Christ’s work in this most distressed of cities, without fire or fanfare.  A pastor here, a volunteer there, dinners and shelter for the homeless, a playground for a neighborhood’s children, mission work in Haiti, ice cream socials and block parties, the blessing of new children, and, speaking in the broadest sense, the cultivating of a community of love—the rarest of all commodities in our barren, atomized, egoistic culture.

And it was without hesitation that you took this agnostic into your community, inviting me to dinner and other gatherings, where I have broken bread and shared prayers with you, while observing you with an anthropologist’s eye.  Here I see no ego, experience no moral superiority, hear no unearned certitudes about the truths of your divinity.  Rather, I see those for whom faith is demanding, requiring a never-ending reaffirmation in a world of never-ceasing travails, struggles with occasional doubts, and vigorous but extremely thoughtful discussions of doctrinal matters, because, after all, for you this faith matters, and matters deeply.  But all of this is bound together by an unconditional love for all of creation, a simple attempt to live out the love of your Christ in every waking hour of your day, a quiet and unassuming love that is directed equally towards saints and sinners, Christians and non-Christians alike. 

How much harder, how much more demanding it must be, to be a Christian of love, as opposed to a Christian of judgment and condemnation, a Christian who would forcibly bend the knees of others for the sake of their obedience.  And how much more authentically Christian.

I dedicate this to you, my loving Christian companions, in the spirit of thanks, on the day of the rising of your Lord.  

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

An Agnostic's Creed

Belief in a mysterious, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving supreme being is infinitely more rational than faith in a beneficent invisible hand.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Why Our Politics is Not Christian

The most obvious rebuke to the idea that we are or ever were a "Christian Republic" is the total absence of anything in the Declaration or the Constitution that makes reference to God's law, the King James Bible, the Ten Commandments, or anything else that might suggest that the United States was ever intended to be a Christian nation in the theocratic sense.

People point to certain letters of the founders who were clearly Christian and say, "see?" To which I reply, "see what?" It's what is in the founding documents that matters, and they have nothing in them that would indicate the founding of a Christian nation. Go ahead and look for yourself; you will look in vain.  That we are and have always been a nation deeply steeped in a predominantly Christian culture is not to be doubted; that we have never had a "Christian politics" is equally unassailable.

Supposing for the sake of argument that all of our founders were Christians (which was most assuredly not the case), the question that begs to be asked is why they did not avail themselves of a singular opportunity to found in this "new world" a full-blown Christian theocracy from the ground up?

There is an answer to this question, but it is one that those with no grasp of European history have trouble fathoming. A crucial majority of the founders, along with the Christians among them, had fresh in their minds the vast amounts of blood that had long soaked the soil of the old world as Catholics and Protestants sorted out who had the superior interpretation of the same holy book. The vast majority of the founders were from the British Isles, which had also been infected by the disease of religious intolerance. No doubt many of them had ancestors who suffered persecution at the hands of the state, depending on the religion of the person seated on the English throne, be they Protestant or Catholic. They wanted to inoculate these shores from the same vile disease, and so they eventually produced the brilliant first amendment to the constitution.

To my mind the term "genius" is far too often applied to the founders, given the significant number of very good ideas they took from the Enlightenment thinkers of England and France, as well as some of the very best ideas of antiquity.  But here, with the first amendment, they struck a Solomonesque balance between freedom to worship according to one's conscience, and freedom from the imposition of religious orthodoxy at the hands of the state, thereby rightfully earning this accolade and securing their legacy.

But sadly, it is this legacy that is currently under renewed attack by self-described piests and "patriots" who remain willfully and stubbornly ignorant of this, the founders' greatest achievement. 

The Passion of the American Christian in the 21st Century

One would think from the regular shrill complaints emanating from predictable quarters that someone had declared a war on Christianity in the United States.  The grievances often radiate out from the more sober precincts of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and waft across the terrain of American Christendom to make common cause with a more highly-pitched narrative of woe and resentment emanating from the more fevered minds of those that reside in the stranger parts of that land.  According to this narrative, Christians in America are under siege and have been for some time, ridiculed and mocked for their beliefs on a daily basis, unable to practice their faith in accordance with their conscience, harassed by the state and scorned by the culture.  The Roman entertainments at the Coliseum are often invoked, the martyrdom of the saints, the passion of the Christ, etc.  All of America's Christians, it seems, now suffer, at least metaphorically if not literally, the stripe, the slings, the crown of thorns, and the scourge and arrows of their forbearers in faith.

This perpetual Sturm und Drang is irksome in the extreme.  Let us take a quick, off-the-top-of-our-heads account of how false the notion is that contemporary American Christians are being persecuted.

Every one of our presidents has been a Christian.  Every one of them, as far as I know, was sworn into office with his hand on a Christian Bible.  It has long been practically a requirement for office to publicly proclaim your Christian piety, and to this day the vast majority of our elected officials are Christian.  It’s important to note, however, that you don’t have to actually act like a Christian; you simply have to proclaim your Christianity, again and again (e.g., Gingrich), and so long as you do this, all is forgiven and you can stand in the Congress and loudly beat your chest in the Lord’s name and serve the good people of your state until the end of time.  No one will burst through the doors to take you away.  However, when a Muslim was somehow elected to Congress a few years back, many Christians viscerally responded with spasms of outrage when it was rumored he might be sworn into office with his hand on a Koran, not a Bible.  Such is the profound respect for freedom of worship in this fine land.

Away from the seats of power, Christian houses of worship have been a ubiquitous feature of the American landscape for almost 250 years.  Christians wear symbols of their faith without fear of censure or imprisonment, and their most holy days are national holidays.  The original, de facto motto of our country, E pluribus unum, was changed to "In God We Trust" (widely understood to refer to the Christian diety) in 1956, which was placed on our currency shortly thereafter.  In an environment like this all an atheist has to do to earn the overt scorn of his pious neighbors is to simply admit to her lack of belief.  But a Christian can publicly proclaim the most outrageous bigotry under the cover of his faith without raising any eyebrows.  Sometimes he is even praised for his moral fortitude (e.g., Santorum).

One could go on, of course.  But what is striking about this kind of Christianity is how unchristian it is.  These people don't love the poor, the unwashed, the outcast, the true victims of this fallen world, because they are too absorbed in the fiction of their own persecution.  The only victimhood they love is their own; they are endlessly engrossed in it.  It's a victimhood based on demonstrably false premises, but it enables them to imagine themselves in a position where an unjust world owes them.  It’s for this reason that this kind of Christian so loves Mel Gibson’s blood-spattered piece of cinematic agitprop The Passion of the Christ.  In the horrifically abused figure of Gibson’s Christ they can see in themselves a kind of spiritual Rocky Balboa, perpetually beaten down but always rising from the mat, despite pleas that they “stay down” and wait for the count.  This is a Christ they can cheer for, and in this cheering they cheer themselves.

Except Christians in America have never experienced anything remotely like this, and have instead enjoyed a level of religious privilege that has approached that enjoyed by believers in a theocracy.  Instead of viewing Gibson’s Passion as a parable for their own supposed suffering, such Christians should try to recall to their historically myopic minds the actual persecutions suffered by their Christ and his disciples, and the real violence and bloodletting suffered by the early Christian community.  The Christian in contemporary America has had no real ordeal to suffer; the first Christians suffered them all.

In sum, American Christians should please spare us the pretense about their persecution in this, their promised land.  As Easter approaches, such a spectacle is a bit much, more than a little unseemly, embarrassing to witness, and in the end, sickening.

The Pratfall of the American Empire

Countless empires have fallen over the centuries, but never as ridiculously as ours.  None of the manic poetry of Nero's fiddling, no decisive defeat at the hands of a greater adversary on the field of battle, no megalomaniacal flame-out of a "great leader," no heroic last stand as barbarians hammer down the gates, no tragic betrayal, no long and wet death rattle of a tired and worn out ideology--none of this.  Instead, the relentless and satirical self-parody of a political class of absolutely no account, clownish ciphers all, comically deaf to their own hubris, blind as bats and stupid as asses.  American is no longer a serious country, by any measure.  It only exists to the extent that it still amuses history.  Decline as comedy, played as farce.