08/14/13

Elysium: Everybody Loves a Good Death

Don’t worry. I won’t spoil it (all), although you already know the story. I actually enjoyed the movie, even if the preview made the plot look more nuanced than it actually was. You could make a number of criticisms that are not unique to Elysium. They are the hallmark of any action movie. Any action movie that takes on something larger than mano-a-mano combat still has to has that combat to bring about the ultimate resolution. Zizek said as much of The Fugitive years ago, the same was true of The InternationalElysium_Poster (which I watched mostly because of the Istanbul shots over the grand bazaar, but now everyone does that), and it is true of Elysium. Apparently, structural and societal changes are made when people get together and punch each other in the face.

Hey, I watch them frequently, so there’s obviously something appealing to me—and many others—about these scenarios, but I’m probably fooling myself if I think the movie is a deft critique of the growing discrepancy between rich and poor. Certainly it aims to be, but the scenario in which the critique is portrayed allows us to think that social and economic polarization is only due to a handful of clearly insane power-hungry monsters rather than embedded in the Joe Shmoes of society like you and I.

Okay, so this part is a bit of a spoiler. The president of Elysium represents the kind of “let die” response to those living on Earth. We won’t do anything to help them, but we won’t do anything to harm them either, and then we don’t have to feel bad about others’ lack in the midst of our safety and security. That would be a realistic—and certainly more common—representation of how most of us deal with the world. But then comes along the Defense Secretary of Elysium, the tyrant who is delusional with dreams of controlling everything, and we think that it’s evil people that corrupt an otherwise decent system. Yet every person on Elysium knows of the millions who don’t have access to the same level of care and live in relative squalor, eking out an existence.

Oppression isn’t just tyranny. As Iris Young notes in “Five Faces of Oppression,” it “refers to the vast and deep injustices some groups suffer as a consequence of often unconscious assumptions and reactions of well-meaning people in ordinary interactions…the normal processes of everyday life.” It’s not as if we’re talking about a warning for “our” future. For many or most, this is right now.

And like all dramatic tales, how does Elysium make us care in a way that life does not? Through the portrayal of death. But not just any death, and not anonymous death, and not mass death. Singular, important death. As is common in action movies, many who the protagonist considers friends will die. We see his pain, but we think, at least he is still alive. And of course many countless others must die in the terrible conditions we see portrayed, but their deaths are left unnamed and implied. We are made to care about the deaths of the very good, and the very bad, those for whom we are given a narrative, a story.

But it’s not just that we’re made to care about certain deaths. It’s that the death allows us to render a final judgement, to see the final tally and make a decision, since there will be no further evidence. In the case of the protagonist, we can usually decide that it was worth it for him or her to die. We make a martyr for a larger cause. With the adversaries, we grant that they got what they deserved. These deaths have meaning. What of the others, the countless extras and nobodies who perish along the way? They were at best plot vehicles, with no significant meaning of their own. Considering the question of their deaths opens up a question of meaning, and when we cannot encode labels such as hero, villain, or martyr, we must ignore the death, for it cannot but mean.

My takeaways (in no particular order):

  • Death is way more important to us than we like to let on. Plots and narratives are advanced in relation to death, and death is the given against which we make meaning.
  • Certain deaths “count,” and others do not, and our valorization of those who we give the ability to die “well” allows us to ignore the rest who are not afforded the opportunity.
  • Jodie Foster’s accent is…not good.

I am probably thinking of this in ethical terms since I am preparing to teach a course on ethics for undergraduates. My background in ethics was relatively poor until fairly recently, as is the ethical background of many who are given the answers early on. After all, why continue to look for other ways to frame the question when you already have the answers? I guess the question I am mulling over is what criteria we do, and should, use when determining the value of a life. The perhaps well-intentioned human rights approach, based on life’s inherent dignity or human self-consciousness, seems no more tractable than religious approaches. Although we think we do, I’m not sure we really want to solve the problem that Elysium fictionalizes in the first place.

04/1/13

Undisciplined Reflections on Easter

My son informed me in the car the other day that we had better do something for Easter since we didn’t do anything for the last great holiday, St. Patrick’s Day. I asked what it was he was thinking of. He answered that he should get some gifts, or we should go out to dinner, or something to celebrate the holiday. I asked him if he knows what the holiday is about. “It’s about Christ coming back from the dead or something like that.” “Well, you know what most people do to celebrate Easter? They go to church. Do you want to go to church?” I asked, knowing full well what his answer would be. “No.” He has nothing against church other than its boring, just like school, and one should avoid boredom if at all possible.

We did end up “celebrating” Easter by eating lunch with family. I think we were all satisfied that we took advantage of what the holiday had to offer. I’ll admit I’m not comfortable enough with the secularized holiday to put on an Easter egg hunt or anything like that, but a chance to slow down, relax, and reflect is good in and of itself.

But I’m not sure what to do with Easter as a holiday. Christmas makes sense, because if someone is significant, you mark the day of their birth as a day of remembering their significance, and whether or not one is a Christian, whether or not one thinks Jesus was significant, he certainly has been, both in positive and negative ways. And although it may be cliché to say so, Good Friday resonates with me  more than Easter. Some say it is because one should embrace the doubt of the tradition more, experiencing the absence of God. I get it, and I think I’d choose that over the traditional Easter. Because Easter is the time where Christians celebrate the fact that they’ve got it all figured out, that the doubt is gone.

One of the many fundamental paradoxes in Christianity is the historical separation of the life from the death of Jesus. In short, if the whole point was to die for mankind in the first place, why all the ethical teaching, all the emphasis on loving one another? The more pressing issue for the apostles and the early Church was likely, “How could we have been wrong about this whole deal?” Their answer: the death wasn’t an accident. It was on purpose. It makes sense to Christians now, since the world has been rolling along for a few millennia since then, to strike a balance between personal salvation and loving your neighbor, but the earliest Christians were apparently more concerned with Jesus coming back and inaugurating all the great things promised. A few generations of hope deferred, and it is now largely a rhetorical trope. There is no longer any tension, at least on the surface, because living and dying are kept in separate spheres. We live our lives now, try to be good, and know that we’re going to live forever.

It’s an interesting paradox to me. Had not the stories been told about the resurrection, we would not know of Jesus today. He would have been remembered by a few who followed him, and with their deaths would likely have died his memory. It is to such stories, telling of the god-man Jesus, that Christians owe the ability to argue that Jesus was “really” more about ethics, or love, or whatever. Yet with those same stories has also come an institution that, by its own moral standard, has been responsible for good…and terrible tragedy.

So, we have the stories of a venerated individual transmitted to us through a convoluted and questionable medium. Is there something yet that we all, insiders or outsiders, can learn? I think so. But it is not that we will live forever in heaven or hell. This distracts us from our very real, physical deaths. For me, one important lesson from Jesus is how close to death we all are, and how very much it is both in our control, and out of our control at the same time. If we do nothing but be as accommodating to the world as possible, we will yet die, but we may live longer, and we will probably get a modicum of pleasure from our existence. But we all learn very early on that the extent to which we disagree with the world, with culture, with the ways and means of those around us, is the extent to which we live less comfortably. We all know, in small ways, what happens when we try to change the norm. Others don’t like it, and we are often punished in direct or indirect ways. For most of us, in most parts of our lives, it’s not worth the effort. But for some, it is. And the cost is seemingly high, because what happens if you persist, if you make no compromise on what is most important? You succeed…or for most, you die trying. But to those who push that far and that persistently, the end result is the same, because they create and take responsibility for the journey. They refuse to let the world be anything else but what they want it to be. That is a moral of the story of Jesus, and many other models who live on in memory.

But it’s clear that a moral like that is not one that perpetuates a harmonious society. So rather than take the message, we memorialize the individual, and make the message our own, a societal one. A life is complicated, filled with contradiction and controversy, and after death we can clean it up and make it presentable, sustainable. But that misses the whole point, trading uncompromising authenticity for a modicum of happiness. Not all will follow the same path, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Thoughts?

01/26/13

The End of Love. No, Really.

Warning. This post is longer than my previous posts. For your reading pleasure, however, I will include an intermission in which you can get popcorn, use the facilities, or continue the next day.

As an end, for now, to my posts on love, I came across a short piece I wrote in my last six months as a Christian over four years ago. I had been wrestling with the definition of love, as it had been discussed in my church. Paul’s First Corinthians gives many attributes of love, but never puts forth a succinct definition. I reflected, though, that 1 John provides perhaps the quintessential definition of love in the Christian faith. “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers” (3.16). It seemed to me that the passage suggests a sort of imitation. The critical question is of what kind that imitation is. Essentially, my critique at the time was that we superimpose the literal death of Jesus over our metaphorical deaths and suppose it to be the same thing. In other words, we use the death of Christ to bring life to ourselves. The Christian does not seem to notice how problematic this makes the second half of the verse above. How do we lay down our lives for others if not in the sense that Jesus did? How can we justify believing we have done so if not through the testimony of our deaths? If we love, we do so differently.

I concluded that the discrepancy highlighted in the verse was due to a distinctly different understanding of love—one formed in the wake of Jesus’s death and necessary to Christian institutionalization—as an identity-forming, life-sustaining relationship between the believer and Christ, rather than laying down life. First John later states that God is love, and since God loved us, we ought to love each other. I argued that one cannot love in the way suggested by this verse in First John with our current definition of love. I suggested that another paradigm for understanding love, such as that of Thich Nhat Hanh, might be more appropriate. In Living Buddha, Living Christ, he suggests that one cannot love one’s enemy, because in love, any distinction between self and other is collapsed, making it impossible for the enemy to be enemy, or even to be ‘other.’ I suggested that our desire to limit and qualify love, as does the man who asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?,” is contrary to the open and excessive model of love defined by John’s Jesus. At the very least, it seemed to me that we should recognize that our definition of love was really not that of John’s Jesus because taken in a literal sense, it would entail our deaths ‘for’ one another, or in a more metaphorical sense, an open-ended outflowing of self. John’s two examples, love as death and love as God, are intimately connected. Thus, I reasoned, love, death, and a search for divinity are there in the death of Jesus, but our imitation is something entirely different.

Looking back now, I was clinging to what seemed to me to be the most important element of Christianity, the death of Christ, while expanding the definition of Christianity beyond the Western Protestant boundaries I had grown up in. Love, I was trying to say, is bigger than Christianity, and part of the love that First John actually implies (though I certainly don’t think this is what the author intended) means exceeding and destroying the Christian boundaries within which the verse is brought to our attention. At the time, I was still very invested in those boundaries.

INTERMISSION

My investment, some four years removed, has lessened but has not been completely liquidated. Nor will it likely ever be. My field of study, over and above my three-decade-plus social inculcation, ensures that my reflection on Christianity and the Western tradition will be a lifelong habit. In any case, the verse in First John seems even more revealing than it did to me years ago. I would now locate the nature of the problem in the first sentence of the verse above. “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.” The first and definitive act of interpretation is inherent in conveying the nature of the act itself. The author conveys the historical and existential fact of death, but does so in a non-empirical way. Jesus’s death is given an equivalence. It was a loss for our gain. The excessiveness of the act of death is given the status of an economic exchange in order to explain it, to circumscribe its meaning. I do not suggest the author was being intentionally deceitful here; nonetheless, his explanation attempts to render uncontrollable death controllable once again.

Death is the ultimate paradox: the limit of life, a finality to be avoided as long as possible, yet an inevitable and existential reality. There have been innumerable responses to the mandate of death, yet all exhibit a notion of control over it, or at least an attempt to lessen its sting. Thus, when someone embraces death, even welcomes it before absolutely necessary, it thwarts the very ground of our existence and demands a re-equalization. The language of sacrifice becomes prevalent. Jesus sacrificed himself, gave up life in order to benefit ours. In the Christian tradition, Jesus’s death removes the sting, the finality, of our own deaths. In one fell swoop, we thus have explained the unexplainable and rendered all of life under our control, because even in the beyond of death, where we have no being to explain, we have established continuance of life. This is what we call faith. And while it may very well be a form of faith-as-imitation, it is not love.

It is not love because such a paradigm conserves, it preserves; in short, it does the opposite of death. Even when death comes, as it does to us all, we tell ourselves, that it has only altered our physical form, but not our lives. We use the example of Christ to do exactly the opposite, despite the words of First John. As a result, both love and death become the language of commonplace exchange. Christians conquer death and love everybody all the time.

Consider the act of death from the perspective of Jesus, from the perspective of many a charismatic leader. It does not flow from the logic of economic exchange. It is motivated by such an excess of quality that death comes as a byproduct and a surprise, and yet is irrelevant. If we are to believe that love is God, and that its epitome is the death of Jesus, then Christianity has little ground on which to stand. Why? Because the institution exists to preserve itself, to preserve those whom it protects. The model of Jesus is an excess of love, a giving of oneself that ends inevitably in death. We see evidence of this throughout history, and we immortalize it in literature and film. Yet in our everyday lives we conclude that those tragic figures were subject to some sort of temporal equation, when their deaths were actually evidence that they exceeded temporal mathematics all together.

The martyrs of early Christianity understood the excess of love perhaps better than most. But I think that even the martyrs, though they have taken the weight of the verses of First John more seriously, fail to grasp the divinity of the equation. Under the social influence of Christianity, they accept that the love to which the author refers is located, not in the excess of life resulting in death itself, but in relationship with Christ. As a result, they reach for divinity after death instead of seeing its equivalence in death itself, in the act of loving. If the death of Jesus is a byproduct of love, is a godly status, there is nothing in the act to suggest to us that it is historically unique. Instead, we can see it in the beauty of many a leader, an artist, a philosopher. Single-minded dedication, unwavering desire will result in death because it loves too much. It exceeds all social norms and must be controlled for society to function properly. Yet our appropriation of such excess as the standards of normativity, the prime example of which is American Christianity, deviously corrupts excess, perhaps lessening the anxiety of death, perhaps preventing some of the violence that results from divinity, but certainly placing limits around our understanding of love.

I would “love” to hear your thoughts. In fact, if you post a comment, I’ll put you in a drawing for an only slightly used copy of Living Buddha, Living Christ. Shameless, just shameless.

01/24/13

Love after Death (but not like in Ghost)

I intended to write about the relationship between love and death on a theoretical level, but the bloggers over at Patheos, Libby Anne at LoveJoyFeminism and Daniel at Camels with Hammers, have posed another values question that also addresses death. As it is much more practical, I’ll address it here. The question is: “If it were up to you to design one or more basic models for messaging and for ritual through which people were to regularly mark deaths together, what would such ceremonies be like?” It’s a more sociable version of the question, “What will your funeral look like?” I’ll get to practical shortly, but first, a little abstraction.

Like the previous generation with the Kennedy assassination. I remember exactly where I was on the morning of September 11, 2001. The alarm clock must have been set to the radio. Otherwise I can’t remember what prompted me to turn on the TV and watch the initial footage of the tragedy as it unfolded. It was a shock to me, and although I wasn’t devastated by it, I certainly wanted to know why it happened. In the month or so after the tragedy, the media reported many times on the distinct increase in religious attendance as the country attempted to deal with their grief in a variety of ways. As after the more recent Newtown tragedy, spiritual and political opportunists attempted to use the momentum to foster change. Even apart from the fundamentalists like Pat Robertson who concluded that 9/11 was God’s response to our immorality, many religious leaders saw the tragedy as a potential turning point to bring the nation back to God. President Bush and his entourage harnessed the same desire for answers to move us toward wars we are still fighting.

I did not attend a funeral for any 9/11 victim, so I cannot speculate as to the mix of emotions involved for those trying to contemplate the loss of a life both on a personal level and a national one. The reason I bring this event up is that most of us have related to it in some way, and because most are unconnected to it on a personal level, we may be able to see more clearly the common elements of our processing of death.

There are two elements that factor into our thinking about death. The first is the agent of death, and the second is the “death-for.” The agent of death is the thing responsible for the death. It might be a gun (or the person holding it), a drunk driver, or an accidental fall. It might be something more gradual and perhaps less shocking, such as cancer from smoking or simply old age. (Interestingly, we tend to think of slow death in old age as “natural,” when it is as much a product of modern medicine. Past generations were better equipped to deal with the inexplicability of death.) In the case of 9/11, it was terrorism, at least according to the national narrative. The agent of death becomes the backdrop against which we construct the second element, the death-for. The death-for is the retroactive purpose we claim for a life that our love might not have been in vain. It might be for freedom, it might be for America, it might be for family, it might be for God. But it allows us to balance the equation, so to speak. The clearer the agent of death, the clearer the death-for can be. But the more ambiguous the agent, the more expansive and supernatural the death-for has to be. The death of a soldier in combat has a standard set of explanations, of deaths-for, while the freak accident of a loved one or a natural disaster requires an ad-hoc and typically spiritual compensation. The proximity of the death to us dictates how well-fortified the death-for needs to be.

I don’t intend this assessment to be insensitive. What I am suggesting is that the ceremonies of death are enacted about the dead, but they are for us. The particulars matter little to the dead. Those who remain, though, are faced with death and, for someone close, faced with a loss of love. Our love must be adjusted because it no longer has a dynamic object. The death-for becomes a place holder against which we deal with the hole left behind from the death of another. The problem comes when we use the death-for as a means of avoiding the inexplicability of death.

I have often thought that once I’m dead I won’t care what people do with me, so they can have whatever ceremony they feel like. But while I’m still alive, I’ll make a few suggestions as to more accessible death rituals. A ceremony in celebration of a life should include high and low points that remind us of a common humanity. Pleasant memories should be spoken from friends and family. (If the person was not a happy or pleasant person, or came to an unplanned end because of poor choices, then an honest assessment of his or her life is in order, without condemnation, but also without sugarcoating. In other words, don’t do it like that creepy Robin Williams movie where he splices peoples lives together on film.) Objects the individual loved, such as songs, paintings, pictures, movies, experiences, could be experienced by those gathered as a way of affirming the validity of the individual and our love for them. Also importantly, set aside a time for silent reflection, and a brief time for conversation, perhaps among smaller groups, about the deceased but also a candid assessments of one’s own feelings, actions, and reflections in light of the event shared by all present.

Many or perhaps most of these things are already done. What could be left out is the rhetoric that accompanies the ceremony for the deceased, an understanding paradoxically achieved by saying we don’t understand.  Anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one knows the initial inadequacy of any explanation to compensate for the loss. Resorting to platitudes about only God knowing the reason for a death, a “death-for” God, in other words, refuses to confront the fragility of life and the certainty of death. It instead explains it with the indefensible. An openness, instead, both to the vulnerability of our love and the tenuousness of our existence with reference to the life of the deceased provides the opportunity for a non-sectarian solidarity and a more authentic commitment to our own lives.

01/20/13

And We Created God in Our Image…

What if humanity was not made in the image of God, as Genesis tells the reader, but God was made in the image of man? I was confronted with this question by the first thinker I read who directly challenged the “truth” of Christianity. Now it is commonplace in evangelical Christianity to highlight the difference between man-made and God-made elements of religion. There are postmodern theologians who do this so well I can’t even tell what it is they are still hanging on to, or why they continue to use Christianity as a life narrative (I’m thinking of some aspects of the Emerging Church movement here, and this is the camp I identified with for a couple years). Even within broader evangelical circles, though, it has become easy for the postmodern Christian to dismiss long-standing ritual aspects of Christianity or traditional stances on political hot-button issues, declaring them to be concerns of man and not God. This has more to do with contemporary cultural trends than actual study of Christian history or the Bible.

Discerning between authentic religion and historical accretions is not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the core, God himself. If it were the case that theology was anthropology, that the study of God was actually the study of man, how would this have happened? (You’ll notice the gendered language here that passes unnoticed more often than not in religious circles. It seems much more important to me to draw attention to the strongly patriarchal orientation of Judaism and Christianity by maintaining the use of masculine pronouns for God and humanity than softening the blow with gender-inclusive terms.) In this paradigm, man exists and becomes aware of his existence. With the knowledge of that existence, he also becomes aware of its finite nature; in other words, he was born, and he will die, without exception. He sees the limitations and possibilities within himself compared to others. Some are stronger, some weaker. Some are more intelligent, some…not so much. Within that social environment, man sees the potential for what he can be. He envisions the ideal, the potential of the maximization of all these variable qualities that make him up. This ideal provides both a goal and an image for self-reflection, because the ideal is a perfected image of himself. It negates or minimizes the limitations of finiteness.

In the founding of any great institution, however, the arbitrary nature of its foundation, the fact that its principles are unjustifiable in any universal sense, is erased. So the anthropological connection between God and society is lost, and when the individual contemplates the ideal, he thinks himself to be contemplating something wholly other. Rather than thinking of God as the perfection of all the qualities of humanity, he thinks of God as the opposite of himself. He is all-knowing, my knowledge is finite. He is perfect, I am imperfect. He benches infinity, I can only bench 225. In contemplation on God, then, the individual can feel reinvigorated, imbued with a sense of value or self-worth, or ashamed of the discrepancies between himself and God.

Ludwig Feuerbach wrote the Essence of Christianity in 1841 at the age of 37, where he expounded these ideas, explaining Christianity (the only significant religion on his radar at the time) as a mirror of the ideals of mankind. Man, he claims, needs an object, and those we revere in history devoted their lives to the realization of that object, which in all cases was an objectification of their own natures. For most, however, to know God and know him as other is a source of disunity, causing unhappiness. Feuerbach’s aim was thus that we should uncover the mask under which we separate the idealization of man and pursue it directly, not as theology, but as anthropology.

There is much more to Feuerbach’s work, as he engages many of the major theoretical and ritual aspects of Christianity to test his general theory. I will return to some of these later. However, it is worth noting that even if one refuses the idea that God could be created in the image of man and concludes that God must exist, the practical result is much the same. We engage in a continual project of reconstruction, driven by the influences of our social and cultural environment, to maintain an image of what this wholly other divinity is like. The emotional significance, the emotional “proof” of divinity, is far more influential than its lack of verification. In other religious traditions, different deities exist for different functions. Consult Mars for war, and Venus for love. In Christianity, God must take all those qualities on himself. You will notice how the god of a particular denomination strongly reflects the group who worships him. The god of Pat Robertson or Fred Phelps keeps score and kicks ass. The god of others is more flowers and puppy dogs. Are they the same god, different gods…or creations of God in our own image?