Saturday, September 9, 2017

Rational Self Denail

The term Kenosis as adapted from the Gospels and St. Paul can be read as incarnational theology in which Jesus "empties himself" of divinity to become fully human and to suffer and die. There are also those disturbing injunctions to followers of Jesus "take up the cross". These have been spiritualized by mystics, ancient and modern, to mean a metaphorical self denial that leads to growth, renewal, rebirth, enlightenment, divinization, etc. In some cases, they run counter to the incarnational conception of becoming more human.

In the early church self denial often meant persistence in faith while being rejected by family, friends, and even attacked or made into a literal martyr for the kingdom of God (there's another gem to try to understand). Martyrs were venerated and even emulated. The ascetics tended to spiritualize the severe teachings of Jesus to the degree that "mortification of the flesh" seemed the most noble attempt at godliness.

A lot of good came out of the efforts of spiritual athletes, but it came mainly after the era of desert hermits and stylites. The mature monks created communities with rational boundaries. The monastic orders became centers of scholarship and industry. They founded universities and did scientific research based on their erudition in many cultural traditions.

There have been many attempts to draw parallels between the idea of Christian kenosis and Hindu, Buddhist spirituality. Again the Eastern mystics say or imply that emptying the self, even annihilation of the self, leads to spiritual growth or divinization. I think to the degree that this makes sense it is similarity of the ascetic overreach of Christian mystics and ascetic overreach of Eastern mystics.

I think self denial can induce spiritual growth if it is rational: that is to say, it serves some purpose, other than an attempt to be god. People deny themselves for many reasons. Parents deny themselves many pleasures to raise children well. Artists deny themselves to pursue their music or literary careers. Married people sacrifice a certain autonomy to live together harmoniously. In this sense, self denial is more self discipline. Christians have the severe teachings of Jesus that call them to sacrifice for the kingdom of God (again, try to decipher that).

I'm pretty verbose on this subject, so I'll refer to more than you'll likely want to read in a couple of places. The opera Thais is an artistic rendering of the battle of flesh and spirit: http://sacredopera.blogspot.com/.../a-meditation-on-thais...
Also, the "self denying receptivity to God's formative power" is a considerably feminine virtue. Don't blame me for the title of this one; that was the editor's cute idea: http://www.newoxfordreview.org/reviews.jsp?did=0200-dodaro


Finally, there is the question of whether there is anything left if one succeeds in self denial.  To succeed at anything requires discipline, but self denial, in some sense, could negate the object of the discipline.  Ayn Rand, the advocate of selfishness, notes that a woman who denies herself a new wardrobe to support the expense of raising her child is not sacrificing much unless she values a new dress more than her child.  An musician trying to sustain his art doesn't sacrifice self by living in penury to continue being a musician.  Sacrificing self would be giving up the music to deny what he most wants in life.

Who we are is what we have to give to other people and to the achievements to which we strive.  It's a delicate balance at times, trying to make everything we are and what we hope to achieve fit into one lifetime.  The mystical impulse to become a spiritual athlete by mortification  of the flesh and any and all aspirations is likely to lead to some quandaries.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Ideology as Law

Culture Eats Ideology for Lunch

--attributed to Peter Drucker

In our era of polarized disputes, partisans on the left and on the right tend to develop their arguments using conceptual frameworks premised on social justice versus free enterprise; personal autonomy versus the right to life or biologically normative form; the global economy and open borders versus the nation-state and rational self interest.

Advocates for social justice support government regulation of the economy and redistribution of wealth against people whose ideology is based on axioms about private property that are as old as Thomas Paine's 1776 pamphlet Common Sense.  Paine's ideological framework posits freedom of conscience that clashes with the current reading of Thomas Jefferson's statements about separation of church and state.

Is there any way out of the culture war these frameworks provoke and through which we interpret the issues?  For people of faith an analogy can be drawn between ideologically based thinking and St. Paul's discussion of justification of the law versus salvation by faith.
Romans 4: 13-16
The promise to Abraham and his descendants, that they should inherit the world, did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith.  If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void.  That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants--not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham, for he is the father of us all.
Early Christians contended with Judiazers who insisted that their coreligionists follow the Law of Moses. Paul distinguishes adherence to the legal code from comprehension of a more profound ethic of the heart and conscience.
Romans 2: 13-16
For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.  When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.  They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. 
For this this analog to be of use, it helps to acknowledge that ideology can be rigid and intolerant on both sides of the cultural/political divide.  Advocates use ideology to simplify issues into false dichotomies and create stereotypes of their opponents.  The religious right vilifies the politically correct dogmatists in academe and academics return the "compliment".  From either perspective the stereotype seems justifiable, and the culture war becomes a religious war. It should help to acknowledge that thinking in dichotomies and stereotyping groups of people are the methods of propaganda.  Stereotypes are the hard core of prejudice.

We started by quoting St. Paul.  It is interesting to mention a couple of ideas from Saul Alinsky's book, Rules for Radicals:
5. "Ridicule is man's most potent weapon. There is no defense. It's irrational. It's infuriating. It also works as a key pressure point to force the enemy into concessions." 
13. "Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it. Cut off the support network and isolate the target from sympathy. Go after people and not institutions; people hurt faster than institutions."
The terminology of these tactics--weapon, enemy, target--leaves no doubt that the objective isn't truth but inflicting damage on opponents.  It doesn't take much imagination to find examples of this strategy in contemporary politics.  Broadsides attacking Mitch McConnell or Nancy Pelosi come readily to mind.  For Donald Trump these methods are stock in trade.  To be clear, St. Paul also talks about spiritual warfare, but Christians have applied the metaphor literally to opponents whose differences were doctrinal or demographic.

The first thing to note about Alinsky's rules is that they reduce to the logical fallacy known as ad hominem argumentation.  Attacking or discrediting the person instead of the concept or position they hold doesn't prove anything. Illustrating the ways that Trump can be a jerk doesn't mean his campaign was wrong about trade policy, immigration, or foreign wars.  Even if corrupt politically connected investors made Solyndra into a crony capitalist scam on taxpayers' money, it doesn't prove that government funding for research and development is destructive of free enterprise.

We all want to win arguments, but what is it that disposes some people to believe Trump in spite of his character flaws?  Many of these people see corruption in every government program regardless of evidence that is contrary to their expectations?  The ideological framework of our thinking includes premises that can determine the conclusions that we will reach and how the evidence will be interpreted.

Lest we neglect the obvious, some people refuse to see corruption in government programs even when it is indisputable: drugmakers led by Pfizer agreed to run a very significant public campaign bankrolling political support for the 2010 health-care law, while the Obama administration promised to block provisions opposed by drugmakers worth 80 billion in tax savings and discounts.  The administration's stated, noble intent to provide health care for uninsured people has been sufficient to keep millions of people in support of the Affordable Care Act, continuously assuming any opposition is irrational if not immoral.

Vested interest is surely one of the reasons people's thinking tends to be constrained by ideological preconceptions.  Upton Sinclair, who advocated socialist views, is credited with the statement, "It's difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it." This quote comes from Sinclair's 1935 book about his campaign for governor of California, subtitled, How I got Licked.  Now, eighty years later, California has armies of people vested in jobs represented by public employees unions, who understand the arguments for socialism very well.

Another way to dissect the monstrous stereotypes created by the culture war is to ask not "who is harmed by the problem?", but rather, "who benefits from the problem?"  Many advocates make careers of controversy.  The writer's dilemma is getting readers past the first paragraph.  Selling out to one faction in a dispute can be good for ratings. Maybe in the process you create fake news. Speaking one language in the political tower of Babel may be widely unintelligible, but those who understand can make a polemicist's career.  Ask Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter about anything in the news and you know what kind of answer you'll get, but they're doing very well financially.  Ask CNN executives how their attacks on Donald Trump have been for the bottom line, but don't ask whether they think Russia-gate is anything more than a "Nothing burger", as Van Jones put it in a moment of candor.  Jones' point was not necessarily that the Russian collusion narrative is false, but that it is a distraction from substantive issues such as joblessness, drug addiction, and crime, and not likely to lead to impeachment of a President, even if he is insufferable to progressives.

All this is a prelude to saying that ideology is inadequate to understanding, much less solving, the kinds of problems that evoke our bitter disputes.  St. Paul's discourses distinguish between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law.  The law can be helpful, but in the difficult cases, that is to say, the important ones, the rules don't fit the game.  Paul goes as far as saying, "the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life."  [2nd Corinthians 3:6]

Another familiar passage from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians includes this gem: "Our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect."  [1st Corinthians 13:9]  This is a startling admonition from the man whose epistles are read authoritatively every Sunday.  The church has historically relied on scripture, tradition, and reason to establish doctrine and polity.  Paul had all these and a personal encounter with a man risen from the dead, yet he conceded that his knowledge was imperfect.  An honest appraisal of our disputes and our failures should lead to acknowledgement that the law and, for people faith, even prophecy can't eliminate uncertainty in our encounters with other people's minds.  For Christians, whose prayers affirm faith in the Holy Spirit and providence, it's theologically incoherent to assert that the formulations of socialism or laissez-faire capitalism can resolve our arguments about economic policy and its effects on business, labor, or the poor. 

Pope John Paul II made frequent references to "a preferential option for the poor".  And social justice is a fine metaphor.  But historical evidence indicates that capitalism has lifted more people from poverty than any other economic system.  Ideals, metaphors, and facts comprise our thinking and our discussions. They motivate and mobilize advocates and adversaries.  Eventually these cultural artifacts become the foundation for ideologies and institutions.  Human rights and constitutional government are built on ideas that took centuries to develop in civilized society.  We ignore the ideas that generated them at our peril. But ideas are not absolute.  We need all the perspectives on the issues, especially on those that lead to conflict, because, as St. Paul wrote, quoting an earlier prophet, "None is righteous, no, not one".

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Progressive Ethos of the Episcopal Church USA

This morning, Trinity Sunday, as I waited with other choir members for the processional hymn, a man, whom we heard was today celebrating his ninetieth birthday, walked past us with his wife on their way into the sanctuary.  The woman next to me, grey-haired, grandmotherly, a veteran choir member asked me if I had attended the talk by Father Antonio Illas about immigration, and if I had heard “Dean’s rant”.  Ninety-year-old Dean is one of a few conservatives in the parish who have ever come out of the closet.  I was not too surprised by this question, but I wasn’t expecting it from this woman.  Of course I had heard Dean’s question about the legitimacy of the immigration restrictions attempted by the Trump administration.  I have some opinions about how Dean’s suggestion that immigration restrictions might be legitimate was disallowed in the discussion.  It was anything but a rant, more a question, very tentatively asked.


It’s difficult not to notice how the Episcopal church ethos empowers a monotonous perspective on certain issues.   Compassion for undocumented people and assistance in their dilemma is a fine Christian impulse.  The politics of sanctuary cities and open immigration are other matters entirely.  An aristocracy of shepherds in all the mainline churches indoctrinates people in the reigning ideology of the Democratic Party.  Wolves in bishops’ clothing, they conflate personal ethics and government, and advocate policy that transmits a blight already covering the wider culture. Their high sounding rhetoric about “social justice” and “structural evil” maligns Republicans and the “privileged”.

What is privilege? White privilege? Male privilege?  My opinions are partly born of experiences growing up in the now derided 1950s. I knew women with children who struggled.  My aunt lived with an alcoholic husband and had six children.  Her husband, Scotty, was a bricklayer.  In the early years of the marriage the growing family lived in a mobile home, a trailer thirty feet long and ten feet wide.  The location I remember was in the backyard of a house along a highway, surrounded by weeds.  

As I recall, when there were five or six children, the family rented several rooms on the upper floor or an old house adjacent to a parking lot.  The inevitable divorce was stormy.  Scotty showed up at our house and assailed us with language that was then shocking.  Now twelve year old girls spew the F-word as liberally.  Irma and the younger children moved in with my widowed grandmother, into a house of maybe 800 square feet.  There was room for a garden in the back yard and Grandma made good use of it.  Grandma didn’t have much either because my grandfather spent much of his paycheck buying drinks for railroad officials, and he often didn’t come home.  Dad remembered finding him sleeping off his drunken binges in somebody’s garage or at the train station. He died in his early fifties. Grandma kept votive candles burning under bleeding-heart paintings of the saints.  The church excommunicated Aunt Irma.  She voiced her criticism of the holy fathers when the thalidomide babies began creating an early controversy about abortion.  I recall the wounded tone of her voice when she held up the pictures in Life magazine of deformed children born with the blessing of the church.

Irma lived with Grandma until several of the children were out of high school.  She worked at a beauty salon and other low-skills jobs.  I have a friend, who on his first job as a teenager, worked with her in a supermarket bakery.  He remembers her fondly, especially her cynical sense of humor.  After a while she remarried.  The man had a ranch and money, but he was no prize.  When Grandma died, he ransacked the little house, looking for money or jewelry, tearing apart the frames of family pictures, dumping things on the floor that had intangible value to the rest of the family.  Irma survived another divorce.  She never had a house that amounted to anything.  But she took out the garbage.  She ended her days in a small rental where she could invite us to dinner without embarrassment.  She read, with amusement, magazines featuring Elizabeth Taylor beyond her prime.  But her children did well.  They worked. Their marriages succeeded. They didn't forget their mother.

What is the contemporary plague that puts women, and often enough, men, into a downward spiral that eviscerates their chances for a life of self respect?  I don’t think it is unrealistic to assert that what is missing in the current scenario is community.  Without connection to family and/or community, the infection that takes hold, after some years, is so virulent that love, compassion, practical assistance, and subsidized health care can’t remedy it.  

But, community is motivated by economic interdependence.  Dysfunctional behavior is dysfunctional.  Subsidize it and it continues.  It metastasizes.  The community of the church can provide companionship and moral support, but the global economy has cut people off from the sources of their basic needs.  It’s bad enough that Walmart has supplanted local businesses in Great Falls, Montana, Boston, and Seattle.  Add a welfare check to this already pervasive alienation and you have a drug that is fatal to motivation and human ecology.  People used to rely on one another to build and plant.  Not anymore.

The statistics about poverty and dependency are not ambiguous.  There are more fatherless children and hopelessly dependent women than there have ever been in America, this in an era of unparalleled affluence and after fifty years of the “War on Poverty”, the “Great Society”, AFDC, and now the “War on Drugs”, which is a fire fueled by money poured into the others. The truth about fatherless children is also indisputable.  They have more problems getting an education, making successful families, staying off drugs, and out of jail.  The difference in Irma’s case was community and family support, which she had to find to simply survive.  The plague destroys incentive and obliterates the resourcefulness that makes us human.  There have been times when the church has provided assistance without unconditional financial support.  Now the church has become another megaphone for demagogues shaming people into continuing trillions of dollars in government subsidies.  

The last time I saw Irma, I didn’t even have to know her address to find her.  Then in her sixties, she was working as a waitress in a small town coffee shop.  I started to ask around town, but the first person I talked with could tell me where she lived.  We had a pleasant afternoon together in her small, threadbare house.