Friday, October 31, 2008

This Year's Halloween Video

Dracula the Lovelorn

Isabelle Adjani and Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog's Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979)

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Doh! Heading for the Witness Protection Program...

I saw these personalized CNNBC videos bouncing around last week courtesy of My friend Harvey tagged me for one. It's pretty funny, especially the lady with the hip problem. Enjoy.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Predicament

My Vote, an Apologia, and a Plea of sorts

I can't wait for this election to be over. This is sort of a rehash of a post I already got rid of before…

I'm voting for Barack Obama next Tuesday.

Tonight I'm meeting some old friends for dinner and a trivia competition for charity. I know how the conversation is going to go, and I know they'll be shocked and disappointed over my decision. In a way, I'm dreading having to go, because I'll be taking quite a bit of heat over it.

The Sunday morning before last, my wife and I had a huge fight over this election. Colossal. Thunderous. Epic. Legendary.

I've voted for the GOP ticket in every presidential election since 1984, but for reasons that I have documented here extensively, after a serious and arduous examination of my conscience, I am going back to my Democratic home this time. Anne is going with McCain. She's convinced that any new taxes are going to wind up on the middle class somehow, as they always seem to do, and the abortion issue is really heating up the Catholic web and a lot of households like ours, I'm sure.

It makes me wonder why I continue to blog. I can't even convince my own wife and my 12-year old son to see things my way. I don't have much better luck on blogs either.

I guess what frustrates me is the lack of personal and internal struggle I see out there. There's a lot of talk about people following their consciences, even informed consciences, but when I look at the level of polarization out there, it tends to fall along traditionally political partisan lines in a predictable fashion. A handful of high profile bishops have come out and basically told people how they must vote. The argument seems to be, "Sure, you have a conscience, but if your conscience if fully informed, you'll obey us." I get the impression that some of these bishops have the notion that the loss of credibility they suffered as a result of the sexual abuse scandal is far behind them, and it is by no means the case. Once again, in tin-eared fashion, they squander their moral authority with high-handedness.

On the one hand, I see those who are comfortably on the right telling others that they must vote in accord with a single issue, yet I have the feeling that most are not wrestling themselves with the social justice issues. They’re just fine, thanks very much, with the rest of the Republican platform.

On the other hand, I see those who are comfortably on the left feeling as if the bishops and centuries of Church teaching on the life issues can be ignored or simply set aside if they conflict with political and cultural views already held. I ask my progressive friends here (and you truly are wonderful and valued friends to me), do you truly wrestle with these things? Is it hard? Is it difficult?

In the runup to this election, things are getting irritable and tense. One thing I think we Catholics and other people of faith need to ask ourselves, myself included most certainly, is this…

Is our faith informed and shaped by our politics or is our politics shaped and informed by our faith? There are certainly things to be cautious about with the latter, but the former is certainly never a good thing.

One of the best articles I’ve seen on this was by J. Peter Nixon on the dotCommonweal blog - Feedback from the Ecclesia Discens - It sort of sums up how I feel. His post in full:

I’ve been reading and reflecting on a number of the public statements made by bishops about the upcoming election. While some of this writing rises to genuine eloquence at times, much of it comes across as pro-forma: “Hello, election time is upon us, there are many important issues, abortion is the most important, and while I’m not telling you how to vote, you should take this very, very seriously. Goodbye and good luck.”

With all due respect to the ecclesia docens, I need more than this.

The problem is that I–like a lot of people I know–am genuinely angry about the direction my country has been heading in for the past eight years. I’m angry about an unjust war fought on false pretenses that has cost tens of thousands of lives and billions of dollars. I’m angry about my own government detaining people indefinitely without trial, establishing secret prisons overseas, and using torture. I’m angry about the firing of federal prosecutors who refused to become tools of a partisan political agenda. I’m angry about tax policy that has disproportionately rewarded the wealthy while blowing a hole in the federal budget at a time when we are fighting not one but two wars. I’m angry about the incompetence that characterized the federal government’s response to Katrina. I’m angry about how the current administration has bungled virtually ever major foreign policy challenge it has faced, from Iraq to dealing with the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea to the relationship with Russia.

I want these people gone. I want them and everyone who supported them–including their current candidate for president–exiled into the political wilderness for the next 40 years where they can dine on locusts and re-learn some fundamental lessons about governing a country. In my world at least, this level of incompetence and ideological blindness gets you fired.

And I’m not even going to talk about Sarah Palin.

If all you can say in the face of all this is “well, these aren’t intrinsic evils,” then you’ve lost me. I cannot imagine a circumstance in which I would walk into that voting booth and vote as if none of this had happened. It would feel grossly irresponsible.

I can imagine somebody saying to me “Pete, I hear you. I’m angry at these things too. Really angry. I’m frustrated at the choices the system gives us. But I can’t break faith with the unborn, I just can’t. They have no voice. They need ours.”

It’s an argument that continues to ricochet around my brain, because I’m angry about this too. I’m angry that so many in my own party can get passionate about children dying violently in Detroit or Darfur, but want to change the subject when we talk of children dying violently in the womb. I’m angry that so many Catholic elected officials have sacrificed the unborn on the altar of their political ambition and then presume to instruct us on Church teaching. I’m angry that an overwhelming Democratic victory in 11 days could well lead to a rollback of the few legislative protections for the unborn that currently exist.

It’s because of these facts that I can imagine a situation in which the argument I outlined above would convince me to simply walk away from the voting booth in disgust. But the argument would have to come from someone with a degree of credibility, someone capable of outrage over things that should outrage us, not merely as Catholics but as citizens. It’s certainly not going to come from those who have spent the last eight years making excuses for the current administration.

The best thing I’ve read on the election so far this year was an essay in America written by theologian Fr. Brian Bransfield, the incoming executive director of the USCCB’s Secretariat on Evangelization and Catechesis. Reflecting on a passage of Faithful Citizenship that has received a great deal of attention, Bransfield writes:

The application of conscience is often difficult: “There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position may decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons. Voting in this way would be permissible only for truly grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan preferences or to ignore a fundamental moral evil” (No. 35). It should be exceedingly rare that a person discerns, after continued guidance, “grave moral reasons” to vote for a candidate who holds an unacceptable position. Evidence of “grave moral reasons” to vote for such a candidate must be overwhelming. To resort to such a measure means that the voting booth itself becomes an agony, reflective of society in no small way, and is left moist with the tears of one who could otherwise find no way through.
Bransfield’s understanding of the “agony” of the voting booth is what I find missing from the other statements on the election that I have read. He seems to understand how truly difficult and even soul-rending this decision-making process can be. He is able to enter imaginatively into that situation and offer counsel that connects with the individual’s struggle to understand the truth. That is what good teaching does. We need more of it.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Render Unto Caesar...

Dorothy Day's take on today's Gospel reading, Mt 22:15-21

"Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God."

"If we render unto God what belongs to God, there will be damned little left over for Caesar."

Friday, October 17, 2008

John Dominic Crossan: Heterodox Scholar, or Hammerer of Gnostics?

Our corporeal bodies matter. Here and now. In my opinion, Crossan is under-appreciated for his role in combating gnostic heresy.

Crossan on: The Most Pressing Issue Facing Humanity

Actually, “hammerer” is not really an apt description. Crossan is exceedingly polite and mild-mannered, at least in his public persona.

At the Synod on the Bible, Pope Benedict has been cautioning about “mainstream biblical scholarship” that in his opinion has been “reducing everything to the human and denying the divine” and he is insisting on a closer relationship between exegesis and theology. He wants historical-criticism to be informed through faith. I think he has guys like Crossan in mind with his critique.

I used to be in the camp that considered John Dominic Crossan somewhat of a joke, but it was more for what I’d heard about him, than for what I actually knew. What I’d heard was something about his speculation that the body of Jesus might have been eaten by wild dogs after the crucifixion, or something along those lines... I happened to see a few of his articles on Beliefnet, though, and heard a few interviews with him on the radio, and came to a growing appreciation for his intelligence and his serious approach to scholarship. I do think he carries certain presuppositions with him, and I don’t think his reconstruction is the best of the historical Jesus scholars, but he’s very enjoyable to read and he has some pretty cool insights. His book God & Empire was excellent. He does insist on a “bodily resurrection” and believes that Jesus was the perfect incarnation of God’s justice. For whatever else you want to say about him, one thing I really admire is his steadfast opposition to gnostic dualism.

Someone told me in a combox on Liam’s blog not long ago that people don’t have a right to food and to health care, claiming that there is no evidence of it in scripture. I think something like Psalm 82 or Luke 4: 16-21 might come to mind to contradict him on that, but I was frankly amazed by this statement, considering that it came from a prolife Christian. I suppose one can quibble about what the term “right” means. If people don’t have a right to be treated with the most basic of human dignities as creatures made in the image and likeness of God, the rest of us certainly do have obligations towards them.

This is what comes from holding to badly warped, gnostic-tinged theology. If one holds to the doctrines of Total Depravity and Limited Atonement, it is easy to see why the conclusion could be reached that such utterly corrupt and lost Hell-bound beings don’t have the right to food and health care. In fact, if those, who by definition are lost because their beliefs disagree with yours, are perceived as a potentially dangerous threat as well, it becomes much easier to justify simply eliminating them. That must be an interesting way to go through life, by the way, believing that the vast, vast majority of people whom you see and interact with on a day-to-day basis are damned, reprobate, and heading for eternal fire and torment. It must do quite a job on the psyche.

In speaking of the Kingdom of God, Jesus was speaking about a profound change to come about in the world. "The coming of the kingdom of God cannot be observed, and no one will announce, 'Look, here it is,' or, 'There it is.' For behold, the kingdom of God is among you." The Kingdom is “here, but not yet”. There is an eschatological aspect to it, but it is also an undercurrent that runs throughout history. Crossan may err in making the Kingdom of God too much about the here and now, but the Kingdom shouldn’t be all about pie-in-the-sky banalities either. In any case, shown below are a few references to Crossan’s problem with gnostic dualism, which leads to a denigration of the body and a lack of concern for justice being done in this world. Crossan is into a sort of a non-violent liberation theology, and the non-violence is very important to stress because liberation theology is a theology that takes sides. A theology that takes sides always runs the risk of turning towards violence when frustration mounts.

The non-violent message of Crossan is key to understanding where he is coming from. As an NCR reviewer said in summary of one of Crossan’s books:
God’s kingdom is here, among the poor, as radical resistance to the injustice and violence of Roman commercialism. Greek culture, built on a cosmic dualism between spirit and matter, is the poisonous justification for separating people’s spiritual welfare from their physical fate. An unjust world can starve the poor, keep slaves, accept inequality, by compensating victims with religion now, heaven later. Communities that resist such exploitation and reject such dualism, not with force but through their refusal to participate in it at all, threaten the system far more than open rebellion, as Gandhi would later demonstrate in India.
Here are excerpts from an interview with Crossan by Adam Miller of the Journal of Philosophy & Scripture:

JPS: In a paper that you delivered in September 1997 at Villanova University you express concern about what you call the "long slow victory of Gnostic [Christianity] over Catholic Christianity." Could you address the nature of your reservations about the contemporary dominance of "Gnostic" readings of scripture? And do these concerns connect with the reservations you just expressed about fantasy?

JDC: Yes, absolutely. Let me put it in a larger framework. One thing that I noticed in researching for this book (In Search of Paul) is that way back in the beginning of the last century, 1907, two different scholars, a British scholar named William Mitchell Ramsay and a German scholar named Gustav Adolph Deissmann, got on a train and a boat and a horse and went around the Pauline sites and saw the inscriptions that say that Caesar Augustus was divine, was the son of god, was god, was lord, was redeemer, was savior of the world. They saw all that and they said, as it were: Oh, my God! That is what it's all about! They saw that when Jesus was called by those same titles it was not simply the result of picking up the cultural debris of his contemporary world. It was saying, in effect: these are the titles of Caesar, but we refuse them to Caesar and assign them instead to Jesus. They were not simply applying to Jesus ordinary words in everyday language. So in 1907 these scholars saw the implications. But instead of the twentieth century building a theology on this realization - which of course would have been one-hundred percent political and one-hundred percent religious, something capable of pointing to that deep basis where religion and politics coincide - we went off into existential demythologization and it was the last thing the twentieth century needed. We went into a kind of personalized, existentialized individualism when what we needed was the kind of powerful political/religious understanding of Christianity authentic to the first century. I'm not even talking about an application of it. I'm just talking about seeing what was there, seeing why Jesus was crucified, seeing that the Romans got it right. That's part of what I see happening right now. On the one hand we have - though they are only straws in the wind at the moment, they are big straws in a big wind - a growing insistence on the political and religious implications of Christianity. I'm extremely excited. This is not just talking politics but talking about what Jesus called the kingdom of God, what Paul called the Lordship of Christ, which is simply a way of saying who is in charge of the world. And counterpointed with this I find a Gnosticism that coalesces magnificently with American individualism - inside not outside, religion not politics, spirituality not religion - everything that makes the whole thing Gnostic and safe.

The present enthusiasm for the Gospel of Thomas, which I also use as a historical document for early Christianity without any hesitation, is a good example of this. It's very often an enthusiastic acceptance by people who do not have the slightest interest in living its theology, an ascetic theology where the goal is to get back to the Garden of Eden - not working toward the future of eschatology, but working back to the Garden of Eden by means of a life of celibate asceticism. Quite frankly, if I preferred that theology, I would have stayed in the monastery. People get excited about the Gospel of Thomas simply because it is outside the canon. They think that because it doesn't belong to the cannon that it must be better than anything inside the canon. I find that extremely silly. If they say: here's the theology of the Gospel of Thomas, I prefer it and therefore I'm going to live it, I can respect the integrity of that. But here they are with the Gospel of Thomas and they don't genuinely endorse its theology. It would be like me being enthusiastic about Marx while rejecting his view of liberation.

JPS: I'd like, now, to explicitly turn our attention to your new book, In Search of Paul, and ask some more pointed questions about the ways in which these issues get played out in specific instances. First, the issue of resurrection. In the book you address on a number of occasions and at some length the importance to Paul of the notion of resurrection. You argue that Christianity's unique claim with respect to the nature of resurrection is that it is a process begun in this life and in this world, a process inaugurated by Jesus' own resurrection. You then describe resurrection for Paul as being "the normal human body transformed by the Spirit of God" and you refer to the necessity for him of accepting "the materiality of Christ's bodily resurrection." In your opinion, how literal is Christ's resurrection for Paul? Does Paul ultimately conceive of resurrection as a kind of transformative resuscitation of the human body or is resuscitation too strong a word?

JDC: Alright, back to the first century and a pre-enlightenment world. First of all, the continuity from Jesus to Paul is that each of them, in different theological language, make their claims within the general constraints of a first century eschatological expectation of the great clean-up of the world - that's what eschatology means, it does not mean the end of the world, it means the eradication of injustice and violence and evil in this present world. It means, God's will be done on this earth. Both of them make the claim that this process has begun, not that it's merely imminent, not that it's simply coming. They claim in different theological language that it has begun and that human beings, as believers, are called to participate in it. Both of these are radically new claims. Paul does it in different language than Jesus. Jesus' language is: the kingdom of God has already begun. Paul's language is that the resurrection has already begun. In other words, Paul is thinking within Judaism where the first element in God's great clean-up, the first thing that has to be done is that those who have suffered injustice and died, especially the martyrs, must be raised in their bodies. Because they have suffered in their bodies, they must be publicly justified in their bodies before the world. That is the claim of Pharisaic resurrection and that's the background to Paul's claim that the resurrection has already begun. Now, I do not know (and neither does anyone else - and if they tell you they do, they're wrong) what percentage of people in the first century took that literally in our sense or metaphorically in our sense. But we have a pretty good idea what percentage took it programmatically. The illustration is this: if we collected all the coins in the first century that said that Caesar was the son of god, we do not have the faintest idea what percentage took it literally and what percentage took it metaphorically, but we have a pretty good idea what percentage took if programmatically - that is, Caesar is divine, get with the program, Caesar is running the world. By believing it they didn't think of it as an abstract debate over propositions, but as a program for life. So once again in our post-enlightenment world we cannot understand a pre-enlightenment world by asking whether it is literal or metaphorical. We want to know, inquiring minds want to know, but the proper answer is that there is no way of knowing in our post-enlightenment world. Even today I don't have the faintest idea when people come out of a movie like The Sixth Sense what percentage take it literally, what percentage take it metaphorically. I don't know how you know that kind of stuff, how anyone knows, and I don't trust people who ask me. I know a lot of people came out of Gibson's movie thinking that they'd seen history, a documentary.

And so my original question is, once again, in that first century world where people could come out of tombs - and of course they could - and appear to people (though it may be a little surprising to say that their bodies came out of the tombs, it's very un-Platonic, but weird stuff happens), if Paul went around the Mediterranean saying that Jesus bodily came out of the tomb, the proper first century reaction is not, if you are a polite pagan, we don't believe that stuff. Rather you say: okay, so what? I've head that type of story before. What does it matter to me? Why should I care? And that's when Paul would answer: yes, Jesus has been raised from the dead and God is concerned with bodies. God is concerned with justice. God is concerned with cleaning-up the mess of the world. Here is what we are doing, do you want to join us? That is a pre-enlightenment response. What we prefer to do in a post-enlightenment world is to spend our time arguing about the distinction between literal and metaphorical, which of course they knew in the first century as well as we do, but they were quite capable of hearing the meaning of a story without asking that question. I have no idea if anyone had gone up to Augustus at the start of the first century and said, you must understand, your imperial highness, that you are just a metaphor. All this stuff about being divine, being the son of god, the savior of the world, that's just metaphor. If he managed to say alive, Augustus would have simply said in response: but I am running the world and that's what being divine means.

JPS: Perhaps we could say then that the way to oppose Gnostic readings of scripture is not with literal readings but with programmatic readings?

JDC: I would think that if people like Jesus or Paul had lived long lives and died in their beds, then I would be very uncertain that the kingdom of God had anything to do with this world. I'd be much more inclined to say that it must be about the next life, or heaven, or spirituality. But what I'm really doing is trusting the Romans. I trust empires to know their enemies. I think that this is as true in Washington at the moment as anyplace else. So I trust that the Romans took a look at early Christianity and Jesus first of all and recognized that they were not a violent threat or they would have rounded up all the Christian followers and crucified the bunch of them all together. They recognized however that Jesus was a threat to Roman law and order, an ideological threat, not a violent threat. Instead, Jesus was crucified without his followers. That tells us that Pilate got it right. This was a nonviolent threat to the system. So I am trusting that the Romans got it right.

JPS: If we were to turn back for a moment to the kind of vocabulary that we were using earlier, would you characterize Gnosticism as a kind of false universality? False because it doesn't stick with the particular to the point where the particular becomes capable of revealing its own universality?

JDC: My criticism of Gnosticism would be this: one of the most fundamental decisions we have to make, going back to dear old Plato, is whether the human being is a dialectic, in the same sense as before, of body and spirit, or if somehow that spirit or soul is only temporarily, possibly even unfortunately, joined to what is either a flea bag hotel or a magnificent palace called the body. But in either case the soul is only temporarily embodied until it goes home to its true spiritual abode. I think that this is the most radical question in Western philosophy. Whichever way you come down on this question, everything else will follow. If you think that human beings are actually incarcerated, entombed spirits, that we're simply renting bodies out, then everything else will follow. But if you think along with the Bible that somehow or other the body/soul amalgam is a dialectic, that you can distinguish but not separate them, then everything else will follow differently. So Gnosticism seems to be a perfectly good, linear descendent of Platonism (I'm not certain though what Plato himself would have said), but at the heart of it is the presumption that the material world is at best irrelevant and at worst evil. Those seem to be the fundamental options. You have to pick your position from there.

JPS: A final question. If we, wherever we are at in the world, are interested in opposing empire, does that interest translate into turning our attention to whatever our own particular traditions are in order to look for their fundamental ground? Is the practical formula for challenging empire: stick with your own particularity until it reveals its radical universality?

JDC: Well, yes, basically. Although we are not just opposing, we are replacing. That is how our book understands Paul as Jesus's apostle. You have to have an alternative, otherwise local thugs just take over for imperial thugs. What you need is an absolute replacement and one thing we were trying to do in the book is to make the alternative clear: not just victory, then peace, but justice, then peace, so that people can understand. It must be an alternative program rather than simply an opposition. It's not that we don't like the Roman empire because we want a Jewish empire or an Irish empire or an American empire, or a slightly improved empire. The problem is that every kind of empire is basically violent and now after five thousand years of civilization the violence spirals. It always works for a while, but what is being offered now, as it was then, is an alternative. That is why I insist that we are not making a philosophical statement about human nature. We are not saying that human beings are inherently violent and we must get used to it. We are making historical statements about human civilization and suggesting, with Jesus and Paul, that we had better change it fundamentally if we are going to survive on this planet. The problem is that we have taken it for granted that violence is normal. The question is: where within Christianity and within every other religion and every other imagination can we find an alternative?

Crossan on: The Dangers of Fundamentalism

Thursday, October 16, 2008


It's been a long presidential campaign season. I'm looking forward to it being over.

No matter who wins, it's going to be a deeply divided country.

From Cream's Farewell Concert

Hey now baby, get into my big black car.
Hey now baby, get into my big black car.
I want to just show you what my politics are.

Im a political man, and I practice what I preach.
Im a political man, and I practice what I preach.
So don’t deny me baby, not while you’re in my reach.

I support the left, though I’m leaning, leaning to the right.
I support the left, though I’m leaning to the right.
But I’m just not there when it’s coming to a fight.

Hey now baby, get into my big black car.
Hey now baby, get into my big black car.
I want to just show you what my politics are.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

La Madre

October 15 is the Feast Day of Saint Teresa of Ávila

The walled city of Ávila de los Caballeros, Spain

Baptized as Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada, and also known as Teresa of Jesus... Bernini sculpted her in limp, lanquid ecstasy, but that's not the way she was commonly known. She was one tough woman, who when asked about the threat of having to possibly appear before the Inquisition, indicated that she might "go and pay it a visit of my own accord." In the process of reforming her own Carmelite order, she ran into the like-minded Juan de Yepes Alvarez (aka St. John of the Cross) for the first time in the company of another Discalced Friar. Teresa took one look a the five-foot-three Fray Juan and the other man and quipped "The Lord has sent me a monk-and-a-half." She came, however, to develop an great love and respect for him. Other quotes indicating the steel of the author of The Interior Castle:

“Strive like strong men until you die in the attempt, for you are here for nothing else than to strive.”

"Rest, indeed!" I would say. "I need no rest; what I need is crosses."

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Bill Maher's 'Religulous' and Biblical Interpretation. Part II

The Martyrdom of the Holy Innocents, by Gustave Doré (1868)

There is no historical or archaeological evidence that this event ever took place, other than what we've read in the Gospel of Matthew.

That, in and of itself is not sufficient evidence to prove that it did not occur. Whether it actually happened or not, it is "true" nonetheless. Just within recent memory, we can simply ask the residents of the small towns of Darfur and Rwanda, of Ossetia, of Sabra and Shatila, Samarra, Srebrenica, etc..., etc..., and they will tell us.

Bill Maher, of course, would simply lay all of this kind of violence and wanton killing on the madness of religion, but as war correspondent Christopher Hedges points out, it is not as simple as that. He's seen the evil up close and personal many times before.
The ethnic conflicts and insurgencies of our time, whether between Serbs and Muslims or Hutus and Tutsis, are not religious wars. They are not clashes between cultures or civilizations, nor are they the result of ancient ethnic hatreds. They are manufactured wars, born out of the collapse of civil societies, perpetuated by fear, greed, and paranoia, and they are run by gangsters, who rise up from the bottom of their own societies and terrorize all, including those they purport to protect.
Enough of Bill Maher and Religulous anyway. I like how Mike McG. summed up the whole flap over it on dotCommonweal and asked the appropriate question:

Seems like we're in for a reenactment of a well-worn script:
- Iconolast mocks religion.
- Traditionalists, as embattled literalists, are wounded, outraged.
- Progressives, as liberated sophisticates, 'get' the iconoclast and contextualize his critique.
- Traditionalists denounce the mockery and exaggerate its import.
- Progressives display disdain for those who seek 'security through certitudes' and affinity for iconoclast who seek a more amorphous 'truth.'
- Solidarity narrowed.
- Polarization magnified.
- Time for a new script?
Well said, Mike.

In Part I, it was questioned whether or not the Bible, supposedly the product of an ancient "honor-shame" society, is still relevant for postmodern society today.

Have we ever considered it strange that so many of us put such faith in the inerrancy, infallibility, inspiration and wisdom of a small, obscure desert tribe of antiquity, surrounded by powerful neighbors, struggling to hold their nation together and to meld the tribal Gods of the Canaanite El (Elohim pl.) and the Hebrew war-god YHWH into one God in which to pledge unflagging fidelity, in opposition to Baal and other members of a pantheon?

The Pope and the bishops are currently meeting in Rome for a Synod on the Bible. As I said in Part I, I wanted to post up some of the thoughts of Australian Auxilary Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, author of Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church: Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus. I've read most of the book, and it's a fascinating critique and self-examination of the Church. I'm not sure I agree with 100% of everything he says, but I thought that at the very least I'd post up what he says about properly understanding the Bible. I'd be interested in hearing what other people think of it.

The bible is one of the two great sources of our religious knowledge, containing abundant treasures of divine wisdom of great grandeur and beauty. There is a problem, however, in that the divine wisdom that is reflected there is inextricably mixed with the human wisdom (and lack of wisdom) of the human authors of the bible, and it is a most difficult task to separate the two.

Alongside the stories of good people, the bible contains stories of bad people as well. Together with sublime religious thought, it contains many insights that were at best partial and much that is far from sublime. A poem that begins as a profound spiritual longing,

By the rivers of Babylon -
there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion,
can end as a bloodthirsty call for revenge,

Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock.
It contains examples of good deeds we are meant to imitate, bad deeds we are meant to avoid, and mixed deeds where we must distinguish the good from the bad. It contains profound sayings that are reflections of divine wisdom, and sayings that reflect no more than human and even worldly wisdom…

The bible is, therefore, a dangerous book on which to base claims of divine authority for human words, and the practice has done untold harm.

Replica of an Assyrian bas-relief showing Hebrew captives playing harps

The Story of a Journey

God could have chosen a group of people who lived at an oasis in the desert, a people separated from all the movement of the times by the desert that surrounded them. Under the influence of divine inspiration, this group of people could have contemplated the grandeur of the heavens, plumbed the depths of human nature and written a book of sublime spiritual poetry. But God did not do this.

Instead, God led a particular group of people to a narrow strip of land, Israel, blocked by the sea on one side and the desert on the other. Because the desert blocked other routes, all land traffic between Asia Mid Africa, and Africa and Europe had to pass through this narrow funnel. The inhabitants met a constant migration of peoples, armies, merchants, ideas and religious beliefs passing from one of those continents to another, making it one of the most turbulent places on earth. For almost all of their history they lived under foreign domination.

If God wanted a book that contained only pure divine wisdom, unmixed with any human ideas, God might have chosen the tribe at the oasis. But if God wanted a book containing a mixture of the divine and the human, and the story of a god who spoke to people, less by divine oracles from heaven, and more in and through the turbulence of the world around them, then Israel was the perfect place.

The bible is the story of 'a people's long and painful spiritual journey through a world of turmoil towards a deeper understanding and a higher morality. It does not present us only with the perfect end- product, but contains the beginning and the middle of the journey as well, the false paths as well as the true ones.

Scholars of the bible believe that the people who fled from Egypt were utterly convinced that they had experienced a genuine action and presence of their god in their escape and in their coming into the land of Israel. Most scholars now believe that they then told the story of this escape, not literally, but in vivid, imaginative, powerful and highly effective stories. What we find in the bible, therefore, is neither a literal account of exactly what happened nor pure fantasy, for the authors told of a real and divinely-assisted escape from slavery, but they did so by "talking in pictures". "Ihe evidence we can gain from all sources supports this view and is so strong that it can no longer be sustained that Christians must believe that each one of these stories tells the literal truth of what happened. The ancient Hebrews, like many other peoples, told their factual history through pictorial stories, and many Christian problems began only when people began to reverse this process and take the stories as factual history.

The Prophet Jonah (Sistine Chapel), by Michelangelo, (1508-1512)

Three Stages of Understanding

Most of us have gone through three stages in our understanding of the stories recounted in the bible.

The first stage occurred when we first heard the story as children and probably believed it literally. Thus I once actually believed that a prophet named Jonah was swallowed whole by a large fish and spewed up onto the shore three days later. Children have a good understanding of the word "story", and I would hope that in the future children will not be told anything that must later be contradicted.

The second stage occurred when we came to understand that the stories were not to be taken literally. Thus my increasing knowledge of science led me to understand that the presentation of the universe in the first chapter of Genesis is not intended to be scientific, e.g. that one cannot speak of "days" before there was even a sun. For many people this stage is experienced as liberation: "I no longer have to believe all that nonsense I was told. I'm free." As a result, many never reach the third stage.

The third stage occurs when we realise that the writers of these stories would have been quite disconcerted to think that anyone would take their stories as literal accounts of exactly what happened. They were always nothing more and nothing less than stories designed to tell important truths.

Thus I have come to understand that the person named Jonah in the book bearing his name was not a real flesh and blood person but a symbol, a personification, of the whole Jewish people of the time, and the book is a powerful message about the obligation of this people to hand on to other nations the message of God's love that had been given to them. In the story Jonah was told to go to the hated Assyrians and tell them of God's love for them. But he believed in a god in whom justice came before mercy, so he was convinced that the Assyrians should be punished, not loved. He took ship and headed in the opposite direction in order to avoid God's command. The storm, the fish and the later visit to Nineveh are a story, including deliberately comic elements (e.g. cattle repenting), about God bringing the people of Israel back to their obligation to reach out to other nations, even the most hated.

The inspired message of the book was that God loved all people and that the people of Israel were meant to share with others the gifts that God had given to them. The whale was nothing more than "talking in pictures", a story designed to convey this inspired message in a manner that was both powerful and easy to remember.

Because of the way in which the Western mind has been trained to think, there is the danger that some people will be unable to move to this third stage of understanding, where story and symbol reign. They will conclude that, because many bible stories are not "true", that is, accurate literal accounts of what happened, they are, therefore, "untrue" and can be ignored. We must always try to move to the third stage and ask why the story is contained in the bible and what the people who put that story there might be trying to say to us.

Bill Maher's 'Religulous' and Biblical Interpretation. Part I

Abraham and Isaac, by Rembrandt Van Rijn (1634)

Last year I bookmarked a post from Loren Rosson's blog The Busbody called "It's the End of Biblical Studies as We Know It, and Chris Heard Doesn't Feel Fine." The title was in reference to some remarks made in review of the biblical scholar Hector Avalos' book The End of Biblical Studies.
"Hector's thesis is that the Bible is—despite all the rhetoric to the contrary—irrelevant (and maybe even harmful) to life in today's world, but biblical scholars 'conspire' (in a sense) with religious and media organizations to keep an illusion of relevance alive."
Here I'll quote Rossen's observations on that topic verbatim, maintaining that "the bible will never lose its vibrancy for all of its irrelevancy."
The most fascinating thing about the bible is that it comes from a culture which many of us find alien and unpalatable (honor-shame), and that it can provide only limited support for modern agendas, however liberal or conservative. That's what makes the book so vibrant on its own right, even to me as a non-Christian. Ironically, I find it easy to warm to the biblical writers in all their flawed and convincing personalities. They were struggling to make sense of the world as they knew it, sometimes commendably, sometimes not. Funny thing is, I don't know that we do much better than they did.
It's an interesting issue to ponder, especially considering that Hector Avalos was once a child evangelist and Pentecostal preacher, and is now lecturing on topics such as How Archaeology Killed Biblical History. Is it true? Is is true that a whole slew of biblical scholars in the academy who write not only for other professors but for the mass market as well, have taken form criticism to the extent that they have deconstructed and critiqued themselves out of their own faiths? If so, is it disengenuous of them to hang onto their tenure teaching books they find to be at best irrelevant for today, but perhaps even harmful, thereby making a shipwreck of the faith of their students and other readers? Do they keep on doing this... just because they invested so much time and money into making a living this way, and don't know what else to do with themselves?

Is this a fair indictment, or is there a different way we can look at "healthy" forms of biblical criticism? Do certain types of literalism invite ridicule?

While there has been a rise in fundamentalism, there certainly has been more and more pushback these days too. Atheists and agnostics are becoming more vocal and militant concerning the Bible and its contents. Bill Maher has made a stir recently with his new movie Religulous, sharply ridiculing those "who believe in talking snakes."

I've never cared much for Bill Maher, going all the way back to his show Politically Incorrect. I think his puerile and dismissive ridicule of religion and people of religious faith does tremendous harm to the progressives who've associated with him and to their causes. Besides, there is hardly anything original about what he's trying to put across. Voltaire was doing this with far better intelligence, satire, wit and humor with his Dictionnaire Philosophique and Candide back around 1760.

What I was really surprised to learn, when about a month ago I came across Kerry Kennedy's new book Being Catholic Now: Prominent Americans Talk About Change in the Church and the Quest for Meaning, is that Bill Maher is a lapsed Catholic. I had no idea. I'd always assumed that he'd been raised in a Jewish household. I thought I'd heard him once say on his show "I was never a very good boy at Temple." As it turns out, though, his father was Catholic and his mother was Jewish. His father took him to Mass every week until the age of 13, when Humanae Vitae was issued. His father stopped going after that.

I haven't seen the film yet, but in a way, I'm curious about it. One thing that I heard about the movie is that Maher interviewed the Vatican's best Latinist, the affable Carmelite Fr. Reginald Foster, and the former director of the Vatican Observatory, Jesuit Fr. George V. Coyne. According to some reviewers, these two men came across "better" that everyone else in the film, and this causes resentment in certain other quarters. I saw this for instance, on a fundamentalist blog:
Way to Go Vatican!

10/03/2008 - James White

Roger Ebert mentioned the following in his review of Bill Maher's Religulous:

His two most delightful guests, oddly enough, are priests stationed in the Vatican. Between them, they cheerfully dismiss wide swaths of what are widely thought to be Catholic teachings, including the existence of Hell. One of these priests almost dissolves in laughter as he mentions various beliefs that I, as a child, solemnly absorbed in Catholic schools. The other observes that when Italians were polled to discover who was the first person they would pray to in a crisis, Jesus placed sixth.
···Yeah, there you go. Rome in all her glory.
I haven't seen the movie, seen a transcript, or seen any video clips of those interviews yet, so it's hard to say what my reaction would be. Denying Hell would certainly be problematic. I don't know what they said about the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection, if anything.... To suggest, however, that the world wasn't literally made in six days, that the story of Jonah being swallowed by a whale is allegorical, and that dinosaurs and people weren't walking around together on the planet 5,000 years ago is not problematic. As was noted here:
Coyne patiently explained that the Bible offers, not a modern scientific explanation of the origins of the universe, but rather a theological cosmology and that Catholic belief is therefore perfectly compatible with the theory of evolution. After this brief sensible clarification, Maher cut away and we never heard from Coyne again. I’m convinced that a half hour with him would have cleared up much of the comedian’s confusion. A telling point: when Maher introduced Fr. Coyne as a “Vatican astronomer,” he quipped that that description seemed an oxymoron. But why should it? For Catholics, there is no conflict between the truth of science properly laid out and the truth of religion properly interpreted, since both come from the same divine source.
How should we look at literalism? How should we do biblical interpretation? Some thoughts below from the late Fr. Raymond Brown, S.S. What may be problems for others may not necessarily be problems for us.
Q. Surely it scandalizes people to hear that not everything told us in the Bible happened literally?

I am not certain how universally true that is, since increasingly we are getting a more sophisticated audience, at least in the First World. I suspect that by osmosis from elementary and high school education, people have already realized that parts of the Bible are not literal accounts of factual history. Whether it scandalizes them when that is said under church auspices probably depends on the way in which it is said.

I have never thought it helpful for someone to get up in a pulpit or classroom and announce that this or that biblical incident never happened. My favorite example of bad taste, bad pedagogy, and perhaps bad theology, is for someone in a church setting to proclaim, "There were no magi." I know quite well that there are serious reasons for doubting the literal historicity of the incident of the magi in the Matthean infancy narrative. Nevertheless, the statement made with absolute surety that there were no magi goes beyond what biblical scholarship can prove. It is very difficult to support with evidence such an absolute negative, and so even on a purely scholarly basis one should not state it. Pedagogically, I do not see how such a negative bit of knowledge can be spiritually helpful to the audience, and making statements in a church setting presumably has the purpose of helping people to grow in knowledge of God. How would they be brought closer to God by knowing that there were no magi? Theologically, such a negative statement distracts from the true import of the story and by implication conveys the idea that this story is primarily concerned with communicating facts.

In my judgment, the way to preach or teach the magi story in a religious setting is to present the beautiful Old Testament background of wise men coming from the East bringing God's revelation about Israel. (I'll not go into that background, but it lies in the heart of the Balaam story in the Book of Numbers.) In this way the audience can come to understand Matthew's message that these Gentiles, drawing upon a source of knowledge available to them, namely the reading of the stars, have come to adore God, even if they still require guidance of the Hebrew Scriptures to find out precisely where the King of the Jews has been born. When one shows the audience the extent to which the Matthean infancy story is retelling symbolically stories from the Old Testament, one may be conveying to them by implication that this story of the magi is not literal history. But one has not made a point of the lack of historicity, and one is not distracting from the story's theological value. And so to answer your implied question, I think there is nothing scandalous about preaching or teaching each biblical book in its proper literary genre, history as history, parable as parable, when the preacher or teacher has sensitivity to both the purpose of the book and the purpose of the communication.

Let me point out an implication of this, even if it may not have been an implication of your question. Sometimes, because they fear scandal, some would say that it is better to treat a nonhistorical narrative as history and thus cause no problem. That is a dangerous misconception. God's truth should be served by nothing less than the best of human perception, and we endanger acceptance of divine truth when we teach anybody something that by our best scholarly standards is thought to be false. Sooner or later, those who hear the preacher treating Jonah as if it were history, or the first chapters of Genesis as if they were science, will come to realize the falsity of that presentation and, as a consequence, may reject the inspired divine truth contained in those chapters. In treating any passage of Scripture one need not raise problems that the audience has no way of understanding or of suspecting; but a discreet silence about extremely complicated issues is not the same as teaching or preaching something thought to be false. In preaching the infancy narratives (as distinct from giving a course in a university) I do not go into all the complications of historicity. But neither do I explicitly or implicitly suggest that all the incidents therein are history and must be believed. We probably need to be careful about underestimating the sophistication of the audience. I wonder if one were speaking to a fifth grade grammar school class about the star that rose in the East and came toward Jerusalem and came to settle over Bethlehem, would there not already be on the lips of the children a question as to whether all this happened, or is it "just a story." The challenge to the teacher or preacher may be to walk a middle line between affirming that all this happened literally and suggesting that it is just a story. It is a story in which God's inspired truth is communicated to us.

Q. But how far do we go in not taking biblical stories literally? I don't have much problem about the world not being created in six days and life developing by evolution, but what about Adam and Eve? I've heard my pastor state that we have to believe that those are real people.

While sometimes I would like to give pastors equal time by offering them the chance to clarify what they stated, it may well be that your pastor did state exactly that. Certainly when I was in the seminary, I was taught a very literal approach to the existence of Adam and Eve. In part that was because of a response of the Roman Pontifical Biblical Commission at the beginning of the century specifying that certain parts of the Genesis story should be taken literally, including the appearance of the devil in the form of a serpent. We were told that we had to accept as factual that the first woman was formed from the first man and there was a unity to the human race in the sense that all human beings were descended from that first set of parents. If your pastor was trained before 1955, that is probably what he would have been taught. But in 1955 the secretary of the Roman Pontifical Biblical Commission announced that Catholics now had "complete freedom" with regard to those earlier responses of the commission except where they touched faith and morals...

The genuine religious concern in the Adam and Eve story is that, whether there was one set of parents or more, they were all created by God in the sense that God breathed into them a living soul. Furthermore, they were created good, and not evil, even as we are created good and not evil. Nevertheless, there is in human beings a basic sinful tendency which goes beyond personal sins we may commit; and this basic tendency toward evil is part of the corruption that human beings have introduced into the world, not an endowment by God. Thus we could preserve the core of the concept of "original sin" (even if that terminology is not technically biblical but reflects more the articulation of St. Augustine and other early Church Fathers). We could also recognize how well the ingenious biblical story of Adam and Eve conveyed the idea of sin and its origins and not think that we will find a better modern substitute for telling that story. There is a middle position between what you heard your pastor to say by way of insisting on the literal historicity of the Adam and Eve story and a destructive and inaccurate statement, "There were no Adam and Eve."

While Catholics would share the concern of the fundamentalists about the essentials of the Christian faith, we would be able to distinguish between holding on to the doctrine of creation and a view of creation that rejected evolution. The last would not be seen to us as a fundamental of the Christian faith. Moreover, since this reaction came within the confines of Protestantism, some of what Roman Catholics would have called upon as support for these doctrines, for instance, creeds and the traditions of the church, could not be invoked. The whole effort was to prove the doctrines from the Bible, with the understanding that the only way this could be done was to maintain the literal meaning of the Bible. The contention was that any departure from the literal historicity of all parts of the Bible opened the way to a loss of faith in the fundamentals.

I have intended to be brief in my response to this question, so I do not wish to go into the differences between fundamentalists and evangelicals. For all practical purposes, what your question presupposes and what my answer presupposes is a literalist reading of the Bible to support Christian doctrine. I applaud some of the doctrinal stress of fundamentalists but I disagree thoroughly with the method they employ. In my judgment, a literalist reading of the Bible is intellectually indefensible and is quite unnecessary for the defense of the basic Christian doctrines.
In Part II, I'll be posting about biblical interpretation according to the Australian auxilary bishop Geoffrey Robinson, author of Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church: Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Late Medieval Piety, Vision, and Iconoclasm

Archangel Michael, by Pere Garcia (ca. 1470)

Last Friday was our 16th wedding anniversary, so I took the day off from work. Anne and I went into town and put in a couple of hours at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. I hadn't been to the Gardner in a long, long time, primarily because it's so difficult to park around there. The Gardner is pretty well-known worldwide because several priceless paintings were stolen from there back in 1990 and have never resurfaced since - including Rembrandt's Storm on the Sea of Galilee and Vermeer's The Concert.

The empty frames still stand in the places where those paintings were stolen from, but what struck Anne and I (and this is something I never noticed about the museum before) is how much of Mrs. Gardner's collection consisted of religious pieces from both the Early and High Renaissance. As we looked at the various paintings, altarpieces, triptychs, candle-holders, vestments, monstrances, stained-glass windows and other liturgical artifacts, we were thinking to ourselves that many of these objects belonged more properly in a church, and we were wondering how the various collectors whom Mrs. Gardner had bought the pieces from had originally happened to come by them. We asked one of the museum guides, and she explained that a lot of them were obtained in private hands after the stripping of the altars and the destruction of churches that occured during the religious wars that swept through Europe following the Reformation.

A few years ago, Catholic apologist Patrick Madrid debated a Calvinist apologist in front of a mixed Catholic/Protestant audience on The Communion of Saints, including the topic of the veneration of saints and images. At one point in the debate, Patrick held up a crucifix and invited anyone in the audience who felt as if the object was idolatrous to come up on stage and to spit on it or trample it underfoot. Nobody took him up on the offer. Their forebears in the 1500s were not so shy about it. Why is that?

I posted once about Paula Fredriksen and her caution concerning the dangers of anachronism. When we look back at the events of history, we shouldn't always assume that people who lived centuries ago saw things in quite the same terms that we do. There are things that concern us today that were of little or no interest to them and vice-versa. In fact, they often perceived reality itself quite differently... I happened to notice today a Cambridge Journal abstract of an article by Christopher Joby of the Theology Department at the University of Durham (UK). I found it to be very interesting, and it may shed light on the question. I don't know enough about it to know for sure.
There are several ways whereby medieval theories of vision may have contributed to the rise of practices some saw as idolatrous. A feature of much medieval art is the rise of naturalistic representation. This process was facilitated by the use of linear perspective, based ultimately on Euclid's visual cone. We are told its application led viewers to confuse a representation with its object.

The theory of extramission influenced medieval piety profoundly.

First, by suggesting that the eye emits a ray and ‘touches’ its object, it led worshippers to believe that seeing the Eucharistic host had a salvific effect. This may have led them to think that seeing images of saints or God had a similar effect.

Second, by implying that the subject was active in the process of seeing, it underpinned Augustine's theory of vision, whereby one trained the eye to access the invisible through the visible. However, as he was aware, the untrained eye could linger on physical objects and want to possess them.

Finally, there was much debate about how visual information was mediated. Some argued that it was transmitted by intermediate bodies. The parallels between their language and that used by iconophobes to describe the images they rejected are striking and merit further investigation. Others argued that the viewer had direct access to the object. This understanding, when combined with the idea that seeing equates to knowing, may have led worshippers to believe that seeing an image of God meant they might in some sense know him.
View works by various artists at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Pronounced Skill-a-Bakes

Edward Schillebeeckx is still hanging in there, just shy of 94 years old

Edward Schillebeeckx OP, at Vatican II

Isn’t there a crisis of faith, a crisis of authority and a crisis of morals? Isn’t there a financial crisis with all it’s bankruptcies, failures, and bank moratoria? It seems to me that these are simply the result of a crisis of faith, authority, and morality and of the mistrust and despair among the nations, which are nevertheless all children of one and the same Father, our Dear Lord and God.
Schillebeeckx at the age 18, in a letter to his father
Edward Cornelis Florentius Alfonsus Schillebeeckx (pronounced Skill-a-Bakes) is one of the last surviving members of the more prominent group of periti who were present at the Second Vatican Council. He was an advisor to the Dutch bishops at the Council at the invitation of Cardinal Alfrink. He was considered either a pioneering and progressive hero of the Council or a modernist devil-incarnate, depending on who you ask. Those in the latter group would certainly point an accusing finger in his direction when they decry how the Dutch church supposedly went off the reservation in the late sixties and early seventies.

He was born in 1914 in Antwerp, the sixth of a Flemish family of fourteen children. His older brother Louis became a Jesuit and served in India. Edward was attending a Jesuit boarding school and was expected to follow Louis, but he chafed under the rigidity of the school and what he considered to be a Jesuit dictum that "a principle is a principle"; that principles took precedence over pastoral concerns, and it put him off. He found himself more drawn to the Dominicans because...

The constant allusion by St. Dominic, in faith, to concrete historical circumstances, out of an intellectual reflection on the faith which so characterizes the theological inspiration of St. Dominic, was most attractive to me.
This fascination with the historical aspects of the faith and the historical Jesus would continue for him and would become a hallmark of his work. That, along with an emphasis on the importance of "orthopraxis" (right practice), of service, in the life of a committed Christian. When he was in the Dominican novitiate, he wrote to his father of his admiration for the friars who got up at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning to pray while most of the world was still asleep. What his father wrote back to him stuck with him permanently:

My boy, mother and I get up three of four times a night to calm a crying baby, and that is less romantic than your nocturnal worship. Remember it: religion is not a state of feeling but an attitude of service.

Early on, he began to question, along with many of the other theologians who would later become influential at the Council, the usefulness of the theology being taught in the dry neo-scholastic manuals in vogue at the time. He was an ardent admirer of the German theologian Karl Adam, until he became disillusioned when Adam began to show too many signs of sympathy for the Nazi regime during the 1930s. In time, his work took on it's own character.

After the Council, he was the author of the monumental tomes Jesus (1974) and Christ (1977), which were considered the cutting edge historical-Jesus works of their day. He also wrote The Church with a Human Face (1985). He got jammed up with the CDF around 1980 or so, shortly after the CDF got though with Hans Kung. Schillebeeckx was called to account for using language in his two major works about the divinity of Jesus and of the resurrection that allegedly conflicted with the Chalcedonian Formula. He was never censured, however, and was known to have made a few acidic remarks at his hearing regarding the misrepresentation of his work and the qualifications of the theologians sitting in judgement of him.

Some excerpts from various interviews...

Jesus’ death on the cross is the consequence of a life in radical service of justice and love, a consequence of his option for the poor and outcast, of a choice for his people suffering under exploitation and oppression...

Why has God become a problem for western people? Firstly, there are outward factors. Sociologists of religion speak today of social credibility structures of faith in God in a secularized world. In such a society, personal convictions no longer have a social confirmation. The inwardness of the person is no longer strengthened or encouraged by the concrete society but rather is alarmed and unsettled. Since modern times, every western citizen speaks of the inner side of the person and the more superficial side of human existence, namely its conditioning by social and economic situations. The individual ego appears in dominant western philosophies of subjectivity and most forms of modern sociology as something outside society while society on the other hand lives in an inner space, sometimes hostile and outside individuals: as two independent greatnesses which have contact with each other...

Whatever the problems of faith in God in the pre-modern age, people live, marry and die differently today. What was experienced as socially inevitable was interpreted as necessary. In contrast, modern life is pluralized. This multiform nature appears in a great variety of institutions. The modern person encounters a world with many elective possibilities and is thrown back more than ever on his own inwardness. How long can one maintain a protected milieu in a pluralist society without falling into a ghetto? For every person sharing and really participating in a modern society, the other possibility is a fragment of his own personality structure: an undisturbed security of remaining in truth while others err. This doesn't exist any more. That modern persons including believers spontaneously reject the theory that "salvation is found only in the church" points to a spontaneous opinion and a particular personality structure. Modern people think pluralistically and know that no one owns the truth. Indifferentism - everyone has his own truth - threatens...

As recognized at conferences of Third World theologians, believing and exploited people in the Third World face the secularized and exploiting West. Both problems are connected and cannot be separated. The existence of the "non-person" of the poor and the oppressed in a subcontinent like Latin America or in countries which for centuries have been under the rule of Christians is a scandal for all faith in God. This scandal makes faith in God incredible for many people. Therefore we in the West can no longer speak of God without relating our ideas of God with the massive suffering of people anonymously among us and elsewhere. Western believers have often joined this pressing problem with an appeal to the coming and different better world and with the so-called mantel of love which doesn't dare take sides but through a false concept of reconciliation sides in reality with the oppressive system which is at best disqualified by words, not by deeds.
The following quote about the salvific meaning of Jesus might have been the sort of thing that put him under suspicion. What do you think?
Thanks to the sending of the Spirit, there is salvation for all people apart from personal, Jewish or Christian election. During my whole theological life, I have fought inwardly against the Christian term "salvific significance of Jesus' death". I reject the interpretation that Jesus' death represents universal salvation. Jesus' message and conduct must be included in his life. Within the context of a violent evil world, Jesus' death was in fact the supreme consequence of his life, message and praxis, his charity and service in his sending by God. The assertion of faith that Jesus is the universal Redeemer implies that Christian actually produce the "fruits of God's reign" in our history through their praxis. Otherwise the so-called objective redemption is a speculative slogan or cliche. We must go Jesus' way of life ourselves if our proclamation is to be credible for others. Jesus' way of life is marked by two characteristics which must be found in his disciples to make his message and praxis concretely universal. the first is that Jesus resolutely refused the way of life proposed to him in three temptations as a form of triumphalist messianism and chose the way of vulnerable solidarity with threatened people. As a second characteristic, Jesus' way of life includes the cross and is a way of the cross. "The cross" is not cherished in itself. On account of his solidarity with violently thretened persons, Jesus was expelled by the world powers and accepted by God as a permanent presence on account of his solidarity with rejected persons. Such a way of life has God's blessing.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Is This the End of the Second Gilded Age?

Is the Reagan Revolution Over? I'm Skeptical

FDR at his first inaugural address, March 1933

I've had a couple of different financial advisors over the years, and I've always made a point out of voicing my concern to them about not wanting to invest in risky derivatives, if it could be at all helped.

Over time, the reaction I've increasingly seen from them is a blank look and a shrug. Eventually, almost all mutual funds became loaded up with them. We don't make anything here anymore, so investment houses have invented ways of pushing paper around bearing numbers that don't represent real industrial output, thereby creating one bubble after another. The housing bubble was the last bubble left to exploit in this casino-like environment.

In the midst of this financial crisis, I've heard several commentators claim that the era of greed and excess on Wall Street is over, and that things are never going to be the same again.

I'd like to think so, but I tend to doubt it... Even if they have run out of bubbles.

I remember how everything was supposed to be different after the attacks on September 11 too, and it was different. It lasted about a month or two.

I think I've probably cost myself the occasional reader or correspondent here with what looks on the surface like class warfare... Am I jealous? No, we are comfortable. We want for nothing. So far. What does get under my skin, though, is bullying and injustice. I hate bullying. The bullying of the powerless by the powerful in particular.

Even though a lot of Americans like to deny that there are class distinctions in this country, they are real. Here's my take on the evidence of class warfare that I see... Those at the bottom tend to worship the ones at the top, and the most vicious of class hatreds in the history of this country have tended to flow down. Evidence of this is illustrated in a book I've been reading recently called In Reckless Hands: Skinner v. Oklahoma and the Near-Triumph of American Eugenics, which is about the lively eugenics movement that existed in the USA during the first half of the 20th century, which advocated the forced sterilization of those who were considered congenitally "feeble-minded" and "a burden on the rest of society." National Socialism and the Final Solution took the gloss off of eugenics and its open advocacy and discussion in polite society, but I'm convinced the underlying sentiment is not far under the surface, and that the Sam Harrises of this world need to be kept an eye on. Social Darwinism is flourishing here.

I was watching Warren Buffett talking to Charlie Rose a couple of nights ago. Buffett was saying that 20% of the people in this country are living on $21,000 a year or less, which sounds almost impossible to me. When you absorb a fact like that, along with the knowledge that the investment houses now facing financial catastrophe have been paying out approximately half of their revenues over the past few years to their brokers and managers in salaries and bonuses, it puts a whole new spin on just who's been practicing class warfare.

I believe that libertarian Reaganism is still deeply imbued in the country's consciousness. Will this credit crunch undo that? I remain skeptical. I think it's too deeply entrenched. Just last night, Sarah Palin was repeating Reaganite lines about "government being the problem instead of the solution." Why do such people run for office? If most Americans have no faith whatsoever in government and consider it an enemy, what future is there for democracy? Why are we surprised to discover that we have been sliding into a plutocracy?

One thing I find especially telling... The bailout bill that just passed the Senate was full of tax-cuts for various targeted businesses and business sectors, and other sweeteners. All in all, the whole bailout approach seems to be centered around the saving of the skin of lendors. When FDR took action in the banking sector during the Great Depression, his interest was on saving the skin of depositors.

Precious little discussion is taking place right now about helping to restructure people's loans and mortgages so that they can be paid and so that people can stay in their homes. Very little discussion about changing the bankruptcy laws either. Doing so "would encourage the wrong kind of behavior" you see...

I had a post back in 2006 called FDR's First 100 days and the Saving of Democracy. A few remarks from his first inaugural address in 1933 are worth repeating again.
The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.

Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.

Recognition of the falsity of material wealth as the standard of success goes hand in hand with the abandonment of the false belief that public office and high political position are to be valued only by the standards of pride of place and personal profit; and there must be an end to a conduct in banking and in business which too often has given to a sacred trust the likeness of callous and selfish wrongdoing. Small wonder that confidence languishes, for it thrives only on honesty, on honor, on the sacredness of obligations, on faithful protection, on unselfish performance; without them it cannot live.
Was this class warfare? After his first term of wrestling with the enormous challenges posed by the Depression, Roosevelt gave an address announcing the Second New Deal in October of 1936. By that time, he knew a lot about class warfare, because it had been largely directed at him...
For twelve years this Nation was afflicted with hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing Government. The Nation looked to Government but the Government looked away. Nine mocking years with the golden calf and three long years of the scourge! Nine crazy years at the ticker and three long years in the breadlines! Nine mad years of mirage and three long years of despair! Powerful influences strive today to restore that kind of government with its doctrine that that Government is best which is most indifferent.

For nearly four years you have had an Administration which instead of twirling its thumbs has rolled up its sleeves. We will keep our sleeves rolled up.

We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace--business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.

They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.

Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me--and I welcome their hatred.
Would we ever hear such speeches today? If not, I suggest that the Second Gilded Age is by no means over.