Tag Archives: Christianity

I Know What You Mean

There are two divine categories: the philosopher’s God and the popular God. The former is an organizing or rationalizing principle. The latter is a Guy in the Sky. There is a defensible position within the set of concepts which make up the philosopher’s God. It is a pretty narrow strip of intellectual territory to hold, and I don’t see that it matters much to claim it, but it is there.

As for the Guy in the Sky, the point of believing in the Guy is not even believing in the Guy. The point is social cohesion, and thus proselytization. It is very hard to ask others to rally around a set of vague principles, but it is easy to ask others to rally around a flag, or a God.

To the same end, various pundits try to reconcile the philosopher’s God with the popular God. Lectures and debates ad nauseum from learned believers like Zacharias, Lennox, Craig, etc. attempt the trick.  As a strategy (both offensive and defensive), the maneuver is completely consistent and coherent.

The actual arguments constituting the maneuver, however, are neither. Because, the Guy in the Sky is above all, a Guy, and the rationalizing principle is a rationalizing principle with a whole raft of properties which are inconsistent with our concept of a person. So, what comes out of these arguments, once all the threads are swept into a pile and sorted out, is just a jumble.

To the preachers and apologists out there: I know what you mean when you toss these arguments out into the ether. I know that you feel obligated to push your flag forward. But please understand why it is never going to work like you want it to (there are lots of flags, at the very least), and please understand why I might occasionally ask you to give it a rest and shut the fuck up.

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Cutting Up an Ox

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Ben Sasse fears for our youth.

He is a U.S. Senator, and therefore he is a very busy man with little time to spare for side projects. Yet, so great is his concern for our kids’ predicament, that he has taken the time to write a book about it. It is not a bad book, even if you do not agree with what it says. You will have to trust me (or not) on the exact contents, because, “You may not make this e-book public in any way”, is all I will quote directly from it.

His thesis is laid out in the book’s title, The Vanishing American Adult, and he has summarized the gist of his prescription in the subtitle, Our Coming-of-Age Crisis – and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance.

In the text, he depicts a generation afflicted by aimlessness. They have been stunted by coming up in the shade of social media and cultural relativism. Deprived of the harsh choices and bright lessons of social responsibilities and traditional rites of passage, kids have grown passive. They lack the ‘grit’ to sustain our society.

I won’t quibble with his depiction. Social media is a blight. The current generation operates on the assumption that ‘someone will take care of it’. Giving up is always an option for them.

I do disagree with his diagnosis and prescription, however. He seems to think that helplessness and hollowness result from a deficiency of citizenship. The correction would then involve a big shot of citizenship. He is completely mistaken. In fact, emptiness is the natural outcome of citizenship, and helplessness is just a reactive symptom.

On the most basic level, citizenship is a position in which one gets told that one’s life is fungible. One’s time, attention, motivation, and psyche can be chopped up and traded for goods to satisfy certain needs. Of course, Sasse recognizes this situation. He mentions “development of the individual” on a couple of occasions as a worthy pursuit, but only if it is pursued to certain ends (becoming responsible, self-sacrificing, ‘gritty’ – in other words, all those things that make a solid citizen). As far as I can tell, only the ends distinguish healthy developmental activities from selfishness, in Sasse’s estimation. And in a shocking coincidence, healthy ends are those for which the goods of citizenship come in handy.

“Why won’t my blood sugar go down?”

Maybe my analysis is unfair. Sasse contends that we are all a little defective, and our institutions may be a little defective, too. We should not expect a perfect synergy between man and social machine, even though the basic program is sound and actually the best that we can do.

But I hear differently all the time.

“I’m doing all those things that the diabetic educator told me to. I have changed my diet. I am walking every day. I am taking my medications like clockwork. So why is my blood sugar still high?”

This person is in my office every day, wearing a different, outfit, a different ethnicity, or a different gender. Yet they are the same person. They have a sit-down job, or two, in which they spend 40-60 hours per week dealing with an incestuous dataset – something so about itself, whether it is driving a cab or processing claims, that it demands attention to automatisms rather than any  particular skill. To ensure that their attention does not waver, an overseer tracks their activities and rates their efficiency. Their extraneous physiological and psychological functions are regulated by the employer as distractions.

The citizen in my office sleeps 6 hours per night, or less. They drink energy drinks to keep going, and eat foods which the package or the vendor says are healthy, because they haven’t the time or energy to prepare their own food. They are too exhausted to exercise properly.

As a result, they are obese, diabetic and hypertensive. As a result, they now require one of the goods for which they can sub-divide themselves: medical care.

Which brings us to where the defense of citizenship as a natural-born fertilizer for human development, breaks down. The trouble with the whole thing is not the palate of goods on offer, their costs, or the means of valuation. The trouble is the chopping, because the roots of experience (attention, motivation, responsiveness, etc.) can’t be cut up for a purpose, especially for delayed gratification of a specific need. The very notion mistakes the nature of needs and the relationship between our needs and our activities. Here, Sasse may have been better served by spending a little more time reading Nietzsche, and a little less time reading Rousseau and the Bible.

For an organism’s needs can’t really be parsed. The motivations underlying our activities are merely aspects of a single motive which Nietzsche labeled ‘will to power’. Even when we try to perform an isolated act of attention, we feel something about it, our neuro-hormonal system responds to it, and it tires us globally.

But Sasse seems to think there’s a neat way around the problem of dividing the indivisible.

Life on the Farm or 8 Pitches Up?

In the latter half of the book, Sasse talks about how he sent his daughter to work on a ranch. The idea was to teach her how to enjoy work – not any particular task, but work itself. Basically, he sought to teach her how to thrive as an instrument. It’s pretty clever, really.

He explains the strategy in a vignette:

Martin Luther met a man who had just become a Christian and wanted to know how best to serve the Lord. He asked Luther, “How can I be a good servant? What should I do?” He expected Luther to tell him that he should quit his job and become a minister, monk, or missionary.

Luther replied with a question, “What do you do now?

“I’m  cobbler. I make shoes”, the man answered.

“Then make great shoes”, Luther replied, “and sell them at a fair price – to the glory of God.”

In other words, find integrity in being a good instrument. I think the flaw in this reasoning is obvious: Why not make great shoes to the glory of Satan? It’s the devotion part that really matters, right? This notion of the human lost at heart and essentially in search of a set of rails (any rails) undergirds fascism through the ages, and it works superficially, so long as the social venue is stable.

But I took another path with my kids, because I learned more from sitting on a ledge, than I ever did from a job.

We have climbed several long routes together. We have looked up, down, and out from ledges in the middle of those routes and soaked in the lessons: however precarious the position, what falls to us is to pass the water around, check the system, and find our way through the next rope-length of terrain; trust your partners as you trust yourself; no matter how cold, hot, tired or thirsty you are, the beauty of the sky and landscape remain; achievement, i.e. ‘ticking the route’, doesn’t really matter – it is only a means to get you to the ledge.

In taking them on those climbs, my hope was to offer them a way of life which put making a living in perspective, rather than telling them that making a living would put everything in perspective for them.

A different vignette illustrates my point:

     Cook Ding was cutting up an ox for Lord Wenhui. At every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee — zip, zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the Dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Jingshou Music.
“Ah, this is marvelous!” said Lord Wenhui. “Imagine skill reaching such heights!”
Cook Ding laid down his knife and replied, “What I care about is the Way [“Dao”], which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now, now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and follow things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.”
“A good cook changes his knife once a year — because he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month — because he hacks. I’ve had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I’ve cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the blade is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there’s plenty of room — more than enough for the blade to play about it. That’s why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone.”
“However, whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I’m doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety, until — flop! the whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground. I stand there holding the knife and look all around me, completely satisfied and reluctant to move on, and then I wipe off the knife and put it away.”
“Excellent!” said Lord Wenhui. “I have heard the words of Cook Ding and learned how to nurture life!”
— Zhuangzi, chapter 3 (Watson translation)

I do not see the current generation as sissified hedonists, any more than previous generations. The hypersensitivity, the passivity, the absorption (self and otherwise) all look like symptoms of a bunker mentality. They see what’s in store for them and they don’t like it, but they don’t seem to know how to resist.

A Sasse-type message has gotten through. The citizenry coming of age does think that it must learn to embrace a social role (little worker, little voter, little contributor) wholeheartedly in order to fully mature, and it just can’t bring itself to do so. The instinct is right. Kids growing up in this era are being asked to pursue a sort of faux-maturity which involves merely “giving up childish things”, and the achievement of that state will leave them empty and utterly dependent on a structure which deals with them on the basis of a flawed methodology.

They need a little less Ben Sasse, and a little more Cook Ding, when it comes to advice about how to grow up. Because maturity means dealing with your situation – not just endorsing it – and dealing with it artfully. It means getting over being The Cobbler, The Christian, The Cobbler-Christian, or even The Cook.

In Sasse’s terms, I have laid out the Romantic counter-argument to his Realist argument regarding the nature of the individual’s relationship to civilization. But I reject that characterization to some extent. There isn’t an inherent conflict between the individual and the civilization. We are stuck with our civilization. It lies before us like the carcass of a great ox, and it is just as indifferent.

We get chopped up in our interaction with it, but our own hand is on the knife. And I agree with Ben Sasse here,  maturity is the solution. Not the faux maturity which the senator espouses, which is just a form of selling out, but actual maturity which sets limits and carves its own way, not towards some magical future, but like the cook’s knife, in the present where we all reside.

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OK Trump Voters, Grab Them Bootstraps…

…and get ready to start yankin’…Wait, what are they doin’ back there?

Oh, that’s gotta hurt. No lube or nothin’.

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From the start of the current fiasco, two possibilities have existed. Either Trump meant that he subscribed to an authoritarian/fascist ideal (women in their proper roles, it’s fine for the state to torture individuals,  the National Identity is fixed and enforceable) or he calculated that enough people wanted to hear the language associated with fascism to get him what he wanted.

If you voted for this guy, you were either moved by that language, or you were willing to accept that language to get what you wanted (fags in their proper roles, enforcement of your religious preferences, suppression of alternative religious preferences, etc. whatever).

I want to be clear: I am not using fascism merely as an epithet. I am referring to its contents. Because fascism is the idea that the individual is feckless and decadent without a guiding star, and that the nation/state is meant to be that star. It is an idea which appeals to fear and weakness, especially fear and weakness caused by weariness. It doesn’t just get enforced from above. It needs the complicity of a large portion of the population.

That’s what the rest of us are pissed at: not Trump in himself, but your complicity.

And now, it is looking like that may be what’s left to be pissed about. Trump is showing some signs that he was delivering a calculated rather than a sincere appeal to fascist sentiments. Realpolitik, as advocated by Gingrich, may have been the program all along.

The Wall, mass deportation, and repeal and replace have been replaced by caveats, preparing the way for …whatever.

The current whatever looks to be folks like Ryan and Pence. These are the dingleberries  on the bung-hole of democracy. Objectivists at heart, their major concern is seeing Social Darwinism work out as they expect. For them, the nation/state is a farce, and an unnatural impediment to the natural forces (for Pence, natural forces ordained by the Lord) which sort the wheat from the chaff.

So get ready, because guess who these guys think are the chaff? It isn’t just black folks, who are obviously responsible for their own sad economic state because they haven’t been capable of working hard enough to transcend a few paltry centuries of enslavement, or illegal immigrants who obviously came here to sack this country by doing all our highly desirable agricultural work and then scurrying back to Mexico to live like kings on their ill-gotten profits.

Listen closely Trump voters, because Pence & Co. are about to tell you that it’s time to bend over, grab your bootstraps, and start yankin’. When you do, something else is going to happen – the same thing that has been happening.

When it happens again, I want you to think back to that Stones’ song that Trump’s campaign kept playing at his rallies: You Can’t Always Get What You Want. Sometimes, though, you don’t even get what you need. Sometimes, you get what you deserve.

 

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Jesus Christ: Error Theorist

A moral error theory is one form of moral anti-realism; it combines cognitivism with a failure theory, the belief that moral claims, despite their being truth-valued, are none of them true – Richard Garner

Two questions have always puzzled me: How and why was Jesus born? I don’t mean birthed by Mary, I think I understand how that happened (at least the last bit). I mean divided from the father. Something must have prompted this ultimate schizoid break; Jesus is clearly depicted as the son of god, and physically or metaphorically, the single defining characteristic of a child relative to a parent is coming after. The impetus had to come from outside of the father, as events, such as procreation, must occur in time and not strictly within the timeless deity. It is impossible to be sure, but I believe I may finally have the solution to this mystery. I believe Jesus was born of god in response to a human error concerning morality. Jesus was then born to woman to correct that error – man’s moral realism.
Morality was subjective from the start in the Christian narrative. I don’t see how god could coexist with objective moral entities. When we speak of objective moral terms, we do so in terms of obligations, whether those are obligations to carry out certain moral acts or to bring about certain morally right conditions. In other words, “good” and “evil” are real entities and morality is the set of conformist obligations which the existence of good and evil entails. I don’t see how god could be beholden to something external, if he is eternal and universal. Even if we say he created these principles, I don’t see how he could be obligated to them. As humans, our creations may demand things of us, but they do so on the basis of our identifying limitations and the relations which those limits entail. For instance, I’m obligated to be a good parent by, at minimum, the history I share with my children, my parents, my culture and my species. Good parenting is something I can learn about, and something for which I am responsible only after I have children, even if I have some nascent moral sense demanding that I be a good parent. The obligation is circumstantial. An eternal, universal entity can have no such obligatory relationships. There is no venue in which to have them. There can be no history of an eternal, universal god; he is it.
If we want to preserve objective moral terms then, we must place them within the deity. But now the situation is indistinguishable from moral subjectivity, with god being the singular subject of moral terms. By moral subjectivity, I mean the situation in which moral terms operate only in reference to a subject. To use J. L. Mackie’s language, moral terms operate “within the institution” of a subject’s identity, “such as to satisfy the requirements (etc.) of the kind in question”. In the light of moral subjectivity (with god as the singular subject), the biblical narrative begins to come together in a more coherent fashion, beginning with the Fall.
The tree had to be, if it represented the differentiation between what is, for the created, and what may be “within the institution” of god. When Adam and Eve ate the tree’s fruit, they did not learn the details of good and evil things which had surrounded them in the garden all along. They learned of the possibility of distinction, deficiency and failure. They were exposed to their own inadequacies, and were thereby exiled. The remainder of the old testament can be seen as a divine project of re-education, and a human project of reconciliation, aimed at herding the descendants of the first couple into the institution of man which apple-eating had created.
The initial formula had two elements: external focus (obedience) and right action (rules). The institution was defined. Even in the remedial program, god was pushing his followers toward an understanding of moral subjectivity. In the story of Abraham and Isaac, for instance, Isaac was spared from sacrifice. The lesson was obedience in principle, not simply reconciliation with good through right acts. If it were the latter, Isaac should have died. Instead, god delivers the message that sacrifices and the right actions which they represent will not avail Abraham, only devotion will. In taking his son off the alter, Abraham relinquished any hope of goodness through right actions, of conformity to an objective set of obligations to goodness. He began to act according to the requirements of personhood, fulfilling the requirements of personhood rather than those of the singular subject, albeit under direct supervision.
Despite all the talk of rules and obedience, the primary lesson of the rules-and-obedience program was that of devotion. Devotion focused the mind on one’s own business – the propriety of one’s own relationships and actions relative to those relationships. That was the point, and one which needed making before people could make the next step toward reconciliation. However, a project based on rules and obedience is easily corrupted. Rules invite arbiters and before you know it, a food chain of authority develops, as it did in the biblical narrative.
In the Christian story, the food chain was a preparatory element as much as was the devotional lesson, in the rules-and-obedience regime. Jesus would have had a much harder time making his point without the Pharisees, scribes, Sadducees, and all the other arbiters of duty-binding rules. The arbiters were used to represent a “do as I say, not as I do” vision of morality. This is in contrast to Jesus, who sought to lead by example. His entire project was aimed at demonstrating the principles of goodness within the institution of personhood. Here was the reason for the man/god chimera. The chimera was a means whose rationale lay in an understanding of morality as subjective, pertaining to individual subjects and their circumstances. To explain such a system, as opposed to one grounded in some objective moral terms, god couldn’t simply hand down edicts by way of instruction; he had to provide an example. But beyond bringing god’s followers around to a subjective system of morality, Jesus presented a moral error theory.
There is no “good”, there is only god. How else are we to interpret Jesus’ message of salvation through him and him alone (assuming his divine half is the one doing the saving)? When we speak of good within personhood as a ‘kind’, we actually refer to all those individual activities within their circumstances which satisfy the requirements (etc.) of, not divinity or creation, but personhood, which Jesus was supposed to exemplify. So when we make claims about ‘good’ simpliciter, none of those claims are true, as they refer to nothing in particular.
In the old days, disruption of the food chain by proposing this sort of error theory could get you killed. It still can get you killed (or at least marginalized) by the same lot who would have done the killing in the old days. For that reason alone, the story merits attention, from those who consider it allegory and from those who consider it fact, but especially from those who consider it fact. They are natural parts of the food chain and so are most at risk of being persuaded by the arbiters of morality that objective good exists. If they don’t get the message, they may be the soldiers in future pogroms, crusades and inquisitions carried out as obligations to good ends.

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