04/16/13

Change of Heart: If you’re a senator, you must have compassion for the world

I’m late to the punch on this one, but I was intrigued by the news last month about Republican senator Rob Portman supporting marriage equality and claiming his gay son as the significant reason for his change of heart. He has subsequently been criticized by some saying that the only reason he changed his mind was because he was able to put a face to the issue. And no doubt they are right. An article in Slate commented that since the senator doesn’t have relatives with no health insurance or exposed to the consequences of environmental destruction, he doesn’t care about those things. He argues, “But if Portman can turn around on one issue once he realizes how it touches his family personally, shouldn’t he take some time to think about how he might feel about other issues that don’t happen to touch him personally?”

Caryn Riswold at feminismxianity acknowledges the influence of what psychologists call the contact hypothesis, in which people are more likely to be influenced to change their views on a particular issue when face-to-face with another who embodies the other side. Yet she also laments that people can’t show that compassion as part of the human family, rather than just their own family.

There is a problem with this line of analysis that has caused a misreading of the senator’s actions. The problem is that by making clear his change of heart was motivated by personal influence, he pierced the liberal and religious facade that says we should have compassion for everyone and showed his compassion was much more narrow-minded. Note how quickly the Slate article characterized Portman’s move as one from not caring to caring, which is not warranted by his actions, and allows the article to claim he doesn’t “care” about other issues. But the compassion involved in relationships with family and friends is not the same as that with one’s constituents, or others one doesn’t know. To say that I care about, love, or have compassion for the millions of people I will never meet is a largely meaningless statement. The fact is that most of us care more about our families and friends as well. Yet because Portman admitted the personal factor in his shift, his opponents want to exploit it.

Thus, to construe the senator’s positions on a spectrum of caring and not caring is irrelevant and hypocritical. There is a political facade here as well, one more closely tied with a religious one than we would like to admit, that suggests that politicians are motivated by their constituents and make policy based on what is “right” rather than what gets lobbied for the hardest. Although the corrupt politician is the trope of more movies and television shows than I can count, we yet hold to an ideal of governance in the interest of all—that “all” dependent on ones perspective—and are thus consistently confused by the actions of our government.

Riswold pinpoints the religious character of this wishful thinking, in which we envision people in power caring about all the things that we care about. For her it is no doubt based upon a Christian model of all-encompassing love. That model is impossible to achieve, but stands in the way of moderate and incremental change. This model of compassion, if expanded to its logical conclusion by wider and wider concentric circles, will reach a point where it will make nearly every liberal and Christian heart flinch. When expanded to the poor, when expanded to those of other religious traditions, when expanded to opposing nations, when expanded to “terrorists,” the feelings of compassion begin to shrivel and dry up, or become mere rhetoric. This compassion is based on a religious model that is designed to be impossible and require the intervention of a divinity to complete its action. There are of course some who have served as examples to us all and have cited this sort of love as a motivator. But if I was a betting man, I would not continue to play those odds. Why continue to hold to this model?

The point is that none of us act as compassionate as we think we are. But we can much more easily see that in others than ourselves. This absolutely is not a suggestion that we should all be more like Jesus. Rather, it is a suggestion to put more realistic boundaries around our means of motivation to action. I agree with those commentators who regret that we still live in a world where it is the responsibility of minorities to assert their equality. But it has historically always been that world, and it will always be a tiring fight for minorities. But there are also victories. It is an encouragement to me that personal exposure can break through the dogma of politics, as it can for that of religion. I have not felt the identity crisis that is involved in hiding your sexual orientation, or having the courage to share it and experiencing the fallout from it. But if it is anything like the existential crisis of leaving faith, perhaps I can relate. Dogma is impersonal and universal; it cares little for the individual. Individuals, however, personal relationships, can break through and override dogma, and the way to change beliefs is to show people the possibility of another way.

04/8/13

Smart people can be religious too, can’t they?

Being charitable to the positions, beliefs, and arguments of others is a hallmark of thorough thinking, and it is a good marker to determine the quality of online content. Blogs and comments are often dominated by clear but one-sided opinions on a particular subject, which allows them to gain a quick following by confirming the opinions of their own group. If one’s goal is to start and maintain a community of like-minded people for the benefits a feeling of belonging provides, this is effective. Usually, however, such blogs are constructed as if intending to speak to those on the other side of the fence, in which case their manner of argument is poor and ineffective, because, in the language of Stephen Covey, they seek first to be understood before they understand.

I cringe at these types of arguments, regardless of what side of the fence they land, because they pretend to be something they are not. Being charitable doesn’t mean not making claims of value or judgement; it simply means a considered investigation of the side you are arguing against, putting it in the best possible light. Unfortunately, academic training seems to make one prone to the opposite problem, being so charitable that one is doing little other than summarizing the state of affairs. This may be helpful if the greater public is unaware of a factor that may change the nature of a discourse, and often it functions as a plea for moderation against the more one-sided folks. Only rarely, at least in my field, do scholars make challenging claims. It’s simply the way we were raised.

I would like to think that people who study religion have to be more charitable than most, because they are often dealing with the impact of beliefs and actions that are self-founding; in other words, they cannot be verified or justified by outside reasoning. I have come to wonder, though, whether touting the pluralism of religious scholarship is not simply bad faith. Perhaps scholars use arguments against bias to avoid upsetting their audience, or even more critically, to avoid upsetting themselves. I know this was true in my case. I survived as a Christian for at least two years only by maintaining a separation between my religious life and my academic life, even though the latter deals almost exclusively with the religion I practiced. It eventually became an untenable separation for me, the exact reasons for which remain a mystery, especially as many others are able to operate in both worlds, the religious and the academic.

Indeed, I have had numerous conversations with friends who are believers about the fact that there are many intelligent people, many intelligent scholars even, who hold very strong religious beliefs. It may seem silly even to have that conversation, but the nature of the majority of the discourse, in which atheists think Christians are stupid, or at least Christians think atheists think they are stupid, and Christians think atheists are all the devil’s servants destined for hell, or at least atheists think Christians think they are, makes it a practically inevitable conversation. In addition, because I quit religion while in higher education, friends often assume I think that my current position is the “smarter” one.

Many different names come up in the conversation about smart Christians, with C. S. Lewis always high on the list. I’ll return to him another time, but I came across another brief argument by a Christian academic that reinforces my contention that one cannot justify religious belief from a non-theological scholarly methodology. Gary Cutting, a philosopher from Notre Dame, wrote an opinion piece “On Being Catholic” in the New York Times, where he says, “I try to articulate a position that I expect many fellow Catholics will find congenial and that non-Catholics (even those who reject all religion) may recognize as an intellectually respectable stance.” What follows is part personal testimony and part justification of a liberal approach to an orthodox tradition.

Cutting argues, as liberal Christians often do, that while the church may not provide fundamental truths, it is a helpful tool for understanding the human condition. While he doesn’t go into detail here, the “tools” that other Christians cite are primarily explanatory ones, such as man having a sinful nature, which then explains why people do bad things, reinforcing the idea that if there were only more Christians, there would be less evil in the world. Cutting also aligns with other liberal Christians in highlighting the ethic of love as a “powerful force for good” and the lens through which Biblical teachings should be interpreted. He anticipates the counterargument that he is promoting a watered-down version of the faith by contending that the Catholicism itself makes room for such diversity of belief.

None of this is a clear justification of his belief as a Catholic or a reconciliation with his life as an academic. In the end, he offers two reasons why not to abandon the flawed institution of the Catholic Church. First, the Catholic tradition is, as he says, “the only place I feel at home. Simply to renounce it would be…to deny part of my moral core.” This is where the heart of Cutting’s argument lies. He can’t give up religion because it would be giving up part of himself. I understand his argument and have felt that way myself, but it is not the intellectually respectable stance he claimed it would be. It is rather a conversation-stopper, an argument that maintains a foundational ground without question out of (a very real) fear.

By holding both that the church is flawed and yet that its ideals are right or that its heart is in the right place, Cutting keeps those flaws at a distance from himself. Yet he is left with two choices. One would be to articulate more clearly what are those beliefs that constitute his moral core and why exactly they are best served in Christianity. If simply because that is the tradition he grew up in, fine, but that is not the reasonable argument he is making. The other option would be to seriously question whether the flaws in the Church are also deeply embedded in his moral core as well. The change in my life, from a place where I felt like Cutting to where I am now, was facilitated by the realization that my moral worldview was not, in practice, supported by the theological underpinnings I had been told it was. It was then that I realized my moral core was tied more to the particularities of my social world—which did include Christianity— and my dispositions rather than a divine Creator.

Cutting’s second reason not to abandon his belief is contingent upon the first. He doesn’t want to abandon his faith to the conservatives. Again, I recognize the position, and it is one I held for a period of time. The lines are not as clear here. I am not willing to say, as many nonreligious folks do, that all religion does more harm than good. So I understand the sentiment of wanting to reclaim a rich tradition from seeming perversions. But it could also be that the unwillingness of “liberal” religious folks to abandon their tradition helps maintain the space that allows conservative and extreme factions to enact their violence against others who think differently. Think for a moment what would happen if all liberal Christians abandoned their Christianity for another system that was centered around love and morality, but without the theological underpinnings? I know it’s far-fetched, but where would that leave conservative factions? Without enough support to survive.

Though Cutting claims Christianity is not the only way to truth, I don’t see him taking the route I suggested. But that means that he and others like him, have a lot more work to do than making generalizations about “love” and “my belief,” which excludes nearly all of what religious traditions have historically been about. His argument is not justifiable in the manner he proposed it in. Rather, it is evasive precisely where it needs to be specific. It takes for granted both the theological propositions and the social conditions required for him to profess such a faith. I don’t think it is necessarily impossible to make a reasoned argument that takes these factors into serious account, but I have yet to see one.

03/7/13

“By acting like a man in love, he became a man in love again.”

These are my favorite lines from a short clip out of the movie Paris Je T’aime (Paris, I love You). The film consists of a series of different scenes filmed by a number of directors in different arrondissements (districts) of the city. There are several good ones and some that are a little strange. (A vampiric Elijah Wood?) I have used one particular clip from the film, “Bastille,” many times to illustrate the complexity of ritual. It’s also a beautiful sequence in its own right, and I always feel a bit guiltily using it to exemplify something else. Watch it below:

Aside from the insights the clip gives about the fragile nature of love, which deserve further exploration, we can extract at least two important points about ritual in our lives. The first is seen in the rituals of the wife. I mentioned yesterday that rituals are sometimes developed with an eye toward efficiency (ease of remembrance, etc.) Yet there are many times when ritual is not efficient; it is seemingly extravagant or wasteful. Particularly in these cases it looks illogical to the outside observer. The protagonist was annoyed by the fact that his wife kept items she didn’t need, planned to do things she did not do, and repeated activities that irked him. These were the things that had attracted him to her originally, but they had become a bother. We could give several explanations for this, one being that only because his feelings had changed, the actions of his wife bothered him. In other words, it was not her actions that were annoying but his changed attitude toward them. While true on one level, this is only part of the story. The rituals themselves underwent a change as well. For the man, the meaning of the symbols was transformed, and he did not participate in them the same way. His change in relationship with his wife’s rituals, and by extension his wife, involved a change in both his thinking and his acting, but it is not easy to say if one or the other came first. It is very difficult to understand, in fact, how exactly his attitude changed. Indeed, he had fallen in love with another woman, but was that the cause or the effect of his relationship with his wife? He experienced, in a sense, a sort of conversion, and its location cannot be precisely marked. We tend to mark it with the subject (“He fell out of love,” “He got selfish,” etc.), but that overemphasizes one—albeit important—variable at the expense of others.

The second point about ritual begins with the key quote I noted in the title. In hugging his wife, taking pleasure in and with her, enjoying an action that he had previously disliked, he narrates, “By acting like a man in love, I became a man in love again.” Much to our chagrin, love, in terms of its felt emotional presence, is not always or often the prerequisite for its cognitive appearance. To put it another way, one is not usually “struck” by love. This only takes place by obscuring the context of its appearance, failing to see the social and psychological markers that coincide with an emotional response of surprised attraction. Whenever movies depict an impending arranged marriage, the male figure inevitably says to the female something to the effect of, “You will learn to love me in time.” That strikes us as artificial and more than a little creepy, but it is in fact quite probable. It is certainly as probable as the lastingness of marriages that are born out of “falling in love.”

The point is that by “acting” in the particular way that I think one does when expressing a type of relationship, the feelings that accompany that relationship can subsequently appear. It is perhaps for the sake of simplification that we often make decisions based upon what we like, or what we surmise we like based on previous experience. Yet we also know that we can dislike something and then grow to like it. For a trivial example, when I was in my early twenties I thought coffee was the most disgusting drink ever created. I thought to myself, “If you have to make yourself like it, why drink it in the first place?” Then, somehow, in the span of a year I went from drinking no coffee to being a daily coffee drinker. I participated in the actions of coffee drinkers, all the while thinking myself not “really” a coffee drinker, and somewhere along the way became one. While we would like to prioritize the mind as taking the primary role in these processes, it is usually not the case. I did not wake up and decide to like coffee one day; the man in the clip did not set out to un-love his wife, much less love her again, yet by participating in the actions of a man who loved his wife, he came to embody that role again.

What this tells us about ritual activities is that it is inaccurate to suggest that if one is “acting” out the ritual, if one does not possess the right emotional state or the correct knowledge about it, that it is somehow artificial or insincere. On the contrary, it is actually when ritual becomes static, when its meaning is determined and fixed for the individual without possibility of change, that it becomes meaningless. When the symbol becomes equivalent to the thing signified, the mystery of their dynamic is exposed and they lose all potency. The signified ceases to exist. It is precisely this reason that ritual is so important to religion. It helps create and maintain the divine. But it is the possibility of the ritual not signifying correctly that gives it its power, and ironically, the attempt to prevent some possibilities is the closure of possibility altogether.

Your thoughts on the clip? Which came first: the ritual or the feeling (or thinking)?

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.