12/22/15

Holiday Musings: Embracing the Myth

The fall semester is over and today is probably the first day in the last four months that I have thought critically about anything not explicitly related to teaching or grading. Whenever I return to record my thoughts after such a break, I do so with trepidation, fearing that I will have forgotten how to think on paper.

We’re also a couple days from Christmas, which makes present one of the most important questions nagging me since leaving religion: is some sort of myth-making necessary for human flourishing? I’ve been increasingly critical of what I might call the ‘collateral damage’ of religion, and I would suggest that this collateral damage is fundamentally related to the supernatural referent of a given religious tradition. In many ways, Christmas seems the epitome of this damage, so diluted as to be harmless, yet a constant reminder of the hegemonic power of myth to shape our lives.

Setting this connection aside for a moment, however, there are important—also potentially damaging—problems associated with the explicit disavowal of all myth-making. Deconstruction takes a significant amount of work and naggingly reminds us of the arbitrary construction of our realities. In addition, there is an inverse relationship between one’s willingness to tolerate the problems of narrative and the willingness of others to tolerate your presence. In short, the more critical you are, the less fun you are to be around.

I was reminded of this when my choice to forgo eating animals became a topic of conversation at Thanksgiving. While one relative asked me questions about my justifications with incredulity and I attempted to respond in a way that encouraged reflection without being accusatory—a difficult thing to do when everyone has animal flesh on their plates—everyone else sat in awkward silence, hoping the moment would pass quickly and we could move on to less controversial topics—ones that do not challenge our cultural narratives.

Of course the broader occasion for our gathering, Thanksgiving, is legendary narrative as well. It is a narrative that masks exploitation, racism, and religious oppression with thankfulness, a paradox that only coheres if we don’t acknowledge it explicitly, given that we increasingly recognize racism and exploitation as such rather than as part of the natural/Divine order. So, at least for our family, we increasingly just don’t acknowledge the occasion for our gatherings, much less the ethical tensions within them. We gather together for the holidays because that is what people do.

It is in this paradigm that I appreciate the holiday season. Thanksgiving and Christmas are the two times per year that the greatest number of our family gathers together, where the existence of a myth beyond us, reprehensible though it may be, provides sufficient social obligation to draw us toward each other. And of course when we do gather, we—or at least I—am glad that we have. I think, as I always do, how I should attempt to connect with family more often than the holidays, when there is no artifice to externally justify our gathering. Until then, these shared narratives draw us together.

Within my immediate family, we put up the Christmas tree with goofy ornaments, stockings over the mantle, and even a small manger scene. If these used to refer to some supernatural other, their referents are now localized, reminders of the good feelings associated with gatherings in times past and the possibility of creating more in the future. But maybe it was always this way. We first encounter our myths as reality, divorce ourselves from them, and then return to them as actors in a role that we are now more comfortable playing than refusing to participate.

The hypocrisy and duplicity in our broader narratives is still there to be challenged, insofar as myth-making provides structural shortcuts to critical contextual thinking. The challenge is not for its own sake, but to uncover our acceptance and perpetuation of inequity and oppression. It may be impossible to create narrative without ethical violation. If so, then perhaps we must be satisfied with smaller narratives—Lyotard’s petit récit—whose harm can be limited and benefit maximized. Strange though it may sound, this comforts me.

Happy holidays.

12/19/14

No-Filter Living

Nearly once a day I experience a sort of emotional flood that is constituted by the absolute immensity of the world’s problems and my utter inadequacy at even beginning to deal with them. When I experience these feelings, which might be brought on by climate change, cruelty to animals, blind consumerism, discrimination against the homeless, etc., I invariably also reflect on the consistency or inconsistency of these feelings. Have I always been like this?

The short answer is no, because in the past I had a life filter. This filter made it much easier to pursue day-to-day existence because I could justify my place in the world. I was a lowly and insignificant sinner that nonetheless God found valuable enough to preserve for eternity. I never thought much about the practical implications of this scenario; I was too focused on the supernatural ones. But the practical ones are much more important.

This filter drastically limited my concern in a few ways. By focusing my primary concern on my own insignificance and God’s paradoxical fascination with my individuality, my beliefs implicitly assured me that everyone was as self-focused as I was and that this was the way it was. It was not desirable by any means, but it kept shaping the sense of personal guilt that necessitated the existence of a divine being to solve.

It also shaped everything else in the world that wasn’t “me.” First, it told me that these things weren’t fundamentally my problem. Disasters, pollution, deforestation, and factory farming among others were not things in my power to change, and God had them in control anyway, so why duplicate the worry? Any problem in the world was up for negotiation based on this paradigm, but the anthropocentrism of Christian belief removed most non-human concerns from the picture.

The problems of humanity were indeed problems, but as I’ve mentioned before the problems were not poverty or hunger or preventable disease but unaccounted sin. Therefore the Christian diagnoses only one primary problem, sin, with myriad different faces. Once it has diagnosed, it prescribes, and the prescription is as uniform as the diagnosis: salvation.

Here’s the interesting thing, though. I’m come to believe that it’s not the sense of guilt that is wrong. That guilt really isn’t imposed by religion; religion just capitalizes on it, controls it and then promises to dull the pain. That guilt, that primordial “sin” is a constitutive part of being alive.

On this view, institutional religion has the problem fundamentally backwards. In its efficient manner, the institution notes that it is much more practical, effective, and satisfying (to the individual) to treat the symptoms than to perform the endless labor of searching for causes and addressing root economic, political, and social problems. But alleviating the pain of “sin” through the tantalizing promise of eternal existence removes the consistent invariable link we have to the world, that sense of guilt, of accountability for the injustice we face.

We are cowards in that regard, and often justifiably so. But we have an addiction that justifies our cowardice. One cannot expect the religious adherent to behave according to the interests of broader secular society. Why? Because the believer faces the constant concern of their drug being diluted. Follow this process. The individual experiences feelings of helplessness, aloneness, inadequacy, fear, inability, etc., and seeks a remedy. The religious tradition diagnoses these as problems that can and should be remedied and provides a “pill” for it. This pill, however, comes with a long list of instructions and counter indications, one of which is that the accommodation of other treatment frameworks, or even less alternative understandings of the nature of the problem, will lessen the effect of the pill, or perhaps prevent it from working entirely. Fear of withdrawals from addiction are strong, usually strong enough to override external concerns or alternate ways of thinking. If one drug solves all your problems, then it should solve everyone else’s as well.

It is an uncomfortable thing to recognize the extent to which you are not only inextricable from the world in which you live, but accountable for its ills. When I teach ethics, I find that student beliefs about the world are not really motivated by a sense of right and wrong, even though they will profess maxims and truths as if they are the source of their ethical behavior. Rather, their views are often shaped by their perceived ability to do something about the issue. The more distant they feel from an issue, the less able to grasp it, the more students are likely to utter phrases such as, “That’s just the way it is,” or, “It’s our nature.”

When dealing with poverty and the question of social supports like welfare, the concern invariably arises that there are those who take advantage of the system. It is difficult for us to imagine how those, when provided with some modicum of financial and/or social support, don’t immediately throw away their addictions and coping strategies and throw themselves wholeheartedly into becoming productive citizens like the rest of us know we are. Yet we are abusers too. We abuse in a much more socially acceptable way. Comparatively we may do no great harm, but few do, on their own. The system does not brook dissent or difference well. The difference between the lower and the upper echelons of society is that the latter have elaborate and well-established institutional means to mask their exploitation of societal norms, and the former do not.

We are intolerant of substance abuse in impoverished communities because it has no veil to hide behind. You earn the right to alter your consciousness only to the extent that you can lie to yourself about what it is and convince society to go along with the ruse. Which is a more powerful drug, the one that allows you to escape your problems for a day, or the one that rearranges the entire world in your image and eliminates your concern for things beyond yourself? Perhaps in the end, they all perform the same function.

I note this all because if we hadn’t the institutional support of a conflation of symptom and cause, more would be able, in the rawness of pain and obligation, to encounter contemporary issues and work toward effective solutions. Not only would we understand symptoms and causes appropriately, we would not be side-tracked with protecting our own addictions, and mistaking them for the solutions.

11/17/14

Forgetting What It Feels Like…

I became a Christian when I was around 7 years old. It was at a summer camp for elementary schoolers. I wasn’t quite old enough to attend the camp, but my parents were part of the staff. I remember sitting around a campfire with a few dozen other kids singing songs and hearing stories about Jesus. The night ended with the typical “altar call,” one of many during the week I’m sure. It represented the culmination of the week’s efforts and the ultimate reason a group of adults would take kids out into the wilderness: to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior.

This was no Jesus Camp, but there were certainly heavy doses of emotional “encouragement” involved. A beautiful outdoor night, a warm fire, soft music playing in the background, a heartfelt narrative about how we were probably feeling guilty for all the sinful things we had done in our lives and how great it was that a Jewish carpenter turned deity was able to take care of all that. It is acceptable to manipulate the variables to “help” impressionable, malleable children draw a particular conclusion—that they need to give their hearts to Jesus—when it is something Christians approve of, that affirms their own worldview. Further, when a child, unable to vote, drive, or make any other significant decisions by him or herself, makes what is supposed to be the most important decision of his or her life, this is presumed to be wholly autonomous and respectable, whereas nearly any other decisions made by a child at this point are likely to be dismissed as the product of immaturity.

In any case, I was feeling sufficiently guilty and emotionally depleted. After most of the kids had left, I remained at the campfire and a few leaders led me through the ‘Sinner’s Prayer.’ I was emotionally relieved at not having to carry around the burden of my own sins anymore. Of course, having grown up as a pastor’s kid, nothing much really changed. In the scope of things, I was a pretty good kid, and I already was at church Sundays, Wednesdays, and other times in between. But I’d gained two things: freedom from sin, and an eternal guarantee.

I remained a committed Christian for over twenty years. One of the things I find interesting about my exit from religion was that it was not nearly so dramatic. Of course, conversion is made instantaneous, at least in evangelical Christian circles, by the narratives we use to accompany it, ones that seem to emphasize the power of God to change people immediately, if only they are willing. Maybe it is God’s reluctance to let go, then, that marks the process of deconversion. Looking back, I can see at least a yearlong process of exiting from the faith, and if I consider all the variables involved, it was probably more like four years.

What surprises me now is that, several years removed, I am forgetting what it felt like to be a Christian. Those outside Christianity typically critique it for its logical contradictions or its collateral damage, but the advantage of the former Christian is that they lived the religion. As many evangelical Christians note, it is not a set of doctrine or dogma—at least not just these things—but a relationship. Misunderstanding the sincerity of this belief is understandable, if one has not experienced it, but it should be taken seriously, no matter how wrongheaded it ultimately is.

When encountering religious obstinance, over same-sex marriage for example, I increasingly find myself to willing to dismiss it as ridiculousness or hardheadedness. This may be the external result, but it also maintains the internally coherent worldview for many Christians. When a Biblical literalist notes that ignoring Scripture in one place means the entirety of Scripture is threatened, he or she is not making an argument about interpretation, but about the foundation of his or her existence. It is saying, “my world may crumble if I accept that change, and I’m not willing to take that risk.”

To a certain extent, that is true. The world as I knew it did crumble when I left the faith, but not in apocalyptic fashion. It was more like a building that, damaged through significant storms and left unprepared, gradually weathered to decrepitude and ultimately collapsed under its own weight. I don’t think the debris will ever get completely cleaned up, but it no longer serves a functional purpose.

05/26/14

Reflections on last weekend’s tragedy in Isla Vista

As I reflect on the actions of one young man to intentionally end the lives of six others, I have no frame of reference. There is literally nothing that I can call on in my own experience or the experiences of others I have known to “understand” what happened. And what needs to be understood? What refuses understanding? As far as I can tell, it is how one human could overcome seemingly insurmountable psychological and emotional prohibitions and end the lives of other human beings. But is that really so surprising? This happens on a regular basis. It’s not as if we don’t know the ways that this can be accomplished, even orchestrated on a large scale.

There is something more that catches my interest. My family and I lived at the edge of Isla Vista for six years. I spent time near all the locations where Rodger killed. I have many fond memories of the beautiful environment in which I grew and changed as a scholar and an individual. I also know that these details are meaningless in relation to the weekend’s tragic events. That these render the event more significant to me points at a certain egotism. Yes, things happen elsewhere, but not here. Not close to me or to a place that I love. The unfathomable is based in part on my arbitrary location in the world.

Yet surely even those not personally connected with the events struggle with their seeming absurdity. It is not just a geographic location that we are invested in, but a socio-economic or cultural location, as others have pointed out. When life is lost on the battlefield, in the Third World or in the ghettos, there is an element of anticipation that softens the blow. This anticipation itself is often revealing of our prejudices. Yet we are surprised, or more so, when tragedy strikes in a movie theater, at an elementary school, or in a beautiful community by the ocean. Why? Because we believe that the socio-economic backdrops against which the latter events and activities take place provide protection against murder. Comparatively, that is true, but when that pretense of protection is violated, we feel vulnerable and exposed.

This is not at all to trivialize the pain and loss that comes from death, although to a certain extent any socio-cultural analysis cannot fail to trivialize the individual death. Rather, the access points of my reflection tell me that their function must be considered. They say as much about me and my interests as they do about the invaluable lives involved.

There is no tidy equation that will return us to stasis. We cannot add up the contributing factors and predict this terrible outcome. As others have noted, while we can and should explore all the elements of this event, from masculine culture to mental illness to population density, we should resist the reductionism that usually accompanies these conclusions. In the aftermath of tragedy, the public conversation is usually reduced to a squabble over the one response we should have. Shouldn’t it be possible to maintain multiple conversations, multiple avenues of improvement? It is clear there is no quick fix. It is also clear that whatever approaches we take should not be about reestablishing our illusions, but working toward substantive change. Demonizing Rodger provides the quickest end to the pain felt by many, and the quickest societal end to the uncertainty of disruptive events. But it does nothing aside from quickly patch the hole left by the tragedy so we can bide our time until the next.

On the other side of the coin, we should not confuse our frustration at the slowness of change with the ability to change. I have seen this already in many fatalistic responses that bear the influence of Western Christian epistemologies. As this story goes, gun control or mental health work or fighting a misogynistic cuture won’t ultimately make a difference. These things will happen again despite our best efforts. Of course these assertions are correct. I have seen a version of this response often in the classroom when dealing with huge issues deeply embedded in our culture. Nothing I do will make a difference…so I can do nothing. I argue that this reasoning is implied by our reading of the supernatural.

I grew up understanding that the biggest issues in life were resolved by a simple conversation with God. Even in the thoughtful philosophy of Kierkegaard, God inhabits the place of the absurd, the limit of my understanding. Rather than continually struggle, I simply submit and the uncontrollable is controlled. With that divine standard, the mundane inch-by-inch progress that is the hallmark of change in our world seems fruitless. Just as with the individual contexts that mark the importance of these events in our minds, the issue is not really about others, but ourselves. If I am convinced that true change only happens by supernatural intervention, lesser slogs through the social and political mud of the American landscape is too much work. But this is also how, viewed in the lens of history, any earthly change is made.

Thus, a couple things I can take from the events. First, our meaning-making has more to do with ourselves, though we engage in it against the foil of victims and perpetrators. Second, it is counterproductive to tout these events, whose meaning refuses to be contained, as reducible to trite slogans or policy changes. Yet we must engage in our communities. We must take action without providing solutions.

What can we as a society begin to control? We cannot force folks into mental health services before they have committed crimes. We cannot force (though we continue to try) a traditional version of the ideal nuclear family. We cannot systematically shut down all sources of misogynistic culture, nor those of fetishization or commodification. We cannot limit or control access to firear…wait a second. That might be a good start.

Access to firearms would not have prevented at least three of the deaths in last weekend’s tragedy as they occurred. Or perhaps they would have. In his written manifesto (that I confess I skimmed but did not read) Rodger reflects on the feeling of power, a feeling he had been longing for, that came from the acquisition of firearms. If he had been unable to obtain these weapons, would he have carried out his plan? Guns are guns and people are people, but the combination certainly seems to enhance the power of both, and it undoubtedly enhanced the confidence of Rodger to go forward with his plan.

Yet whether access to firearms would or would not have made the difference is not the really the point. The question is whether limiting access would be a step in the right direction. Quite possibly. Would it infringe on the rights of upstanding individuals to purchase, own, and discharge certain weapons? It certainly would, if such rights existed. Even if that were the case, though, we would want to ask how many victim’s lives would outweigh the pleasure of these upstanding individuals and the relative ease with which they can procure their weapons. Some would say that the loss of even one life outweighs the ability of many to own and use firearms. I don’t think that is the case. There is no easy answer. But I think we can have a smarter conversation about it than the one that currently dominates the political landscape.

I struggle to say something meaningful in the face of meaninglessness without resorting to trivial or banal statements. I have no prayers to give. My heart has hurt as I thought of the tragic events, but that means little. We balance what we can do, and what we should do. For my part, I will continue to seek authentic conversations about the factors that contributed to Rodger’s tragic actions, both to process and to help make changes for the better.

04/7/14

“Getting Things Done”

In the last few months, I’ve read more “life organizing” literature than I ever have before. I read and reread Getting Things Done, a book my wife read years ago and had on-hand. At the time, I probably poked fun at her, but I’ve been surprised to see how typical (and ineffective) my task management is. I’ve always been resistant to having a book or a method tell me how I should organize things. What I typically tell myself is that I really know best how to do everything, from planning my daily activities to knowing what my long-term goals are and what progress I’m making toward them. What I’m consistently finding, however, are that the things I think are important to me are not the things I spend the majority of my time on.

When I was in my late-twenties, I hosted a college-age small group at our house. As a Christian group, we would usually be reading through some text such as The Purpose-Driven Life or Wild at Heart. Of course, we also read frequently from the Bible, trying to discern what life lessons we could learn from the reorganization of the temple under Hezekiah for our contemporary existence.

We held the group for a couple years, and the most recurring theme in our discussions was the question of what we were all going to do—what we should do—with our lives. I was in my late-twenties, working at a good job that I was nonetheless unsatisfied with. We owned our house, we had just had a child, we had a dog, etc. We had followed the American dream formula, and it had seemed to work out well. Yet I, like many others, found myself constantly asking, “Is this it?”

The other group members in their early twenties were at the beginning of that same spectrum. The future was open; they could do anything they wanted. But what should they do? Depending on which paradigm one followed, there were ready-made answers. If the middle-class response was go to college, the evangelical response was “Go on a mission.” Most of us there were to trying to reassure ourselves that it was okay that we didn’t want to abandon everything and move to Africa for six months.

The great conceit of the small group was that if we came together and talked about and to God, we would get that clear vision of our lives’ goals and purposes. Or at least we would get the next step. Yet we kept returning to the same questions. On reflection, the group wasn’t large enough or fervent enough for any of us to convince ourselves that we could get a revelation from God about our lives. Instead, we fumbled around with the questions but supported each other along the way with the more practical aspects of life. When I needed to build a fence around the yard, for example, several of them (who knew more than I ever will about construction) came over and helped out. When someone moved, we all showed up to help. But we never got any bigger answers. We just lived life and moved on.

When faced with the innumerable choices and directions our lives can go, we are overwhelmed. Religious traditions fill a definite need in that respect, providing a simulation of knowing what you do not know. That is not to say faith cannot provide psychological/existential relief for people; it can. It does so, however, only to the extent that you ignore the very tenuous connection it has to the way we actually live our lives. If a divine being is ultimately in control, then I am relieved of the burden of ultimate concern about the environment or the consequences of my consumption.

For my part, I exited one system, thinking myself much more authentic for having gotten rid of it. However, at the same time I was being inculcated into the system of higher education, which provides a rival structure for goals and purpose. For six years, I had the goal of earning a degree. It was only near the finish that I began to experience the openness that accompanies life with no tradition, no trajectory, to tell you what to do and where to go. I can’t yet speak to what comes next.

It is, in these cases, easy to allow yourself to go on auto-pilot, so to speak, and let the roles you are in dictate my day-to-day existence. That seems to be what many of us do. While on the outside it looks like an organized life, it is only a coordinated backdrop that overlays an uncertainty that never really goes away. Why? Because there really is no certainty other than that which we construct.

The key, then, seems to be to construct purpose for life or for the day’s affairs that has as little collateral damage as possible, either for your own life or the lives of others. There will be collateral damage, and it must actively be minimized. Anxiety will remain, and it is managed with the systems you set up arbitrarily for yourself. There is more Nietzsche than Sartre here. We establish roles for ourselves, all the while knowing that it is just a play. And yet we must play.

There were several years where, when I realized that I was merely playing a role, I resisted playing it because it was not “real.” But not all roles are the same, not all require the same depth of self-deception about oneself and the world. I have always relied on the top level to dictate the actions for everything underneath, but this doesn’t create a life. If followed unthinkingly, it extinguishes life. We often know this, but we prefer the familiarity of traditions, with all their contradictions, to uncertainty. Uncertainty, however, is a level playing field. We will make mistakes, but they are conscientious ones, and not the unthinking destruction of traditional institutions. In the end, we must actually get things done.