Saturday, April 19, 2014

Useless Man

Bryan Magee.  Confessions of a Philosopher.  Modern Library, 1999.  ISBN: 0375750363.

I have been reading Magee's book slowly since Christmas, when I received it as a gift (and a welcome opportunity to explore modern academic philosophy, the alien universe into which my last job thrust me unwitting but not unwilling).  It is very good.  Here I want to share some passages from chapter 15, wherein Magee describes what he calls his "mid-life crisis" (a mental breakdown which happened after he had achieved some measure of personal and professional success; I feel I have already gone through a very similar experience, though mine comes much earlier in my life and career).

Years before I made it conscious and explicit on this blog, I had the nagging feeling that I don't really value collective human activities that are conventionally very important (e.g. making money, making a name, making a career, being the kind of person people reward with power or prestige).  It is not that I actively hate power or prestige (now or in times past).  I just don't care much for them.  I have never pointedly avoided opportunities to befriend people or do interesting, important things.  I just haven't found "networking" (i.e. looking for useful acquaintances on purpose rather than encounter lifelong companions by accident, which I prefer) or "producing what powerful people want" (as opposed to producing what goods I can as best I can) inherently useful, beneficial, or desirable activities (to pursue as ends in themselves).

This attitude of mine is deep-rooted.  I remember playing on the playground as a kindergartner, usually alone or with one or two other kids, weirdos who decided to leave the group and join the hermit, for some reason.  I was not the kid people chose first for teams.  I was not the kid who cared, either.  I was not really picked on much.  (My only memorable trouble with bullies in kindergarten came from a girl in first grade, who took advantage of being bigger than I was to steal my lunch-box and hold it hostage for kisses.)  When the school asked me to join the gifted class that met during recess, I told them I would rather go out and play in the yard, with the trees and the sunshine.  (I still remember the confused and slightly angry look on the face of the little girl they sent to invite me.  Her name was Bethany.  She was very bright, and very nice to me.)  Magee offers a lucid, adult perspective on this attitude:
I felt I knew with some degree of certainty that if there were anything at all outside space and time we were at our closest to it in the private world of personal relationships, and of art and reflective thought, and were at our furthest from it in the public world of social organization and politics. I abandoned, or so I thought, the idea of becoming a member of parliament, and declined approaches made to me to stand for parliament. In all these ways the centre of gravity of my life shifted from the public to the private, from the impersonal to the personal, away from whatever it might be that was currently going on in the world of affairs to things of a more individual and abstract nature, and of much longer-lasting influence. I knew that many of my friends and colleagues saw me as falling out of life's race in a way that was cataclysmic for myself.  Indeed, some of them remonstrated with me about what they saw as my craziness in blowing a successful career. But the truth is that I no longer regarded the considerations they cared about as mattering (pages 256-257).
This has been my position ever since I was old enough to act with intention.  I did not care what teachers and classmates cared about in school.  When I went on a mission for the LDS church, I went to serve God, not the Brethren in Salt Lake City, who as it turned out had all kinds of impossible (not to mention immoral) expectations of what it meant to be a good missionary.  When I went to the university, I studied to improve Humanity, not to make a brilliant career or impress the bureaucrats in control of education (who are every bit as impossible and immoral as the Mormon leaders, it seems to me, with expectations that make a mockery of mankind and education).  I do what I see as the right thing.  I do it no matter what.  I see that this tendency is problematic (anti-social, dangerous, etc.), and I make efforts to correct it, but so far it is stubbornly incorrigible.  I am not always as keenly self-aware as Magee in this passage: more often than not, I simply don't see what institutions value in some activity that draws me, like a moth to a flame.  Institutions see opportunities for growth, for profit (that can be quantified), for results (that are evident to multiple players in an institutional game for survival outside the scholarly game of solving puzzles).  I just see interesting problems, problems to which I simply must contribute something--a process of personal engagement and development whose outcome is fundamentally uncertain and untrustworthy.

For me the process of study is always useful, always valuable, always to be pursued, even though its fruits are repeatedly, predictably, and predominately utter garbage.  The result of my life's process to date is a pile of stinking shit, hardly the reason I keep waking up eager to try again, to break my head once more against some problem that will not leave me alone.  I don't choose what to research, what to think about when I am not trying to keep my kids from killing themselves vel sim.  Problems simply find me, and I cannot let them go until I have read, thought, spoken, and written them out of my system.  I am not in control of my career, academic or otherwise.  I respond to the problems Life sets me, not the other way round.  This is the way it has always been.  Unfortunately, this means that I am always "blowing my career" (as Magee's friends would put it), failing as a good Mormon missionary or a good professional academic.  I ask the wrong questions, and answer them badly (from the institutional perspective, which I am constitutionally incapable of valuing the way leaders want me to).  Caesar has little or no use for Cato (who kills himself in the end), and I am Cato (esse quam videri bonus malebat).

The second passage from Magee that I want to quote is one I might have written. My own experience is almost identical to his (not quite the same, but close), in terms of what happened to me and the way in which I react to it (so far):
Perhaps I should stress that all this [mid-life crisis, blowing my career] was not primarily an intellectual experience, and was in no sense whatever a reading experience. It was not a matter of studying certain writers and being influenced by their ideas. Books and study had nothing to do with the causes of it. It was an existential experience, one long permanent state of mental and emotional crisis, in which I came many times near to breakdown. It consisted of agonizingly direct experiences, felt feelings, thought thoughts. And it was from this state that I came to my reading. Given the overwrought state I was in, some of what I then read impinged on me as if I had been skinned. For instance, there seemed to be a certain body of doctrine that was common to nearly all great religions and their famous sages, moralists, prophets, and so on, which I found self-evidently (and in that sense platitudinously) true and to the point, and which had an overwhelming impact on me, and yet which the world disregarded. Perhaps I might express it as follows (page 257). 
Let me interrupt Magee a moment here to comment on my own experience.  In the wake of blowing my own career (first as a Mormon, lately as an academic), well-meaning people (friends, advisors, mentors, and so forth) have come to me suggesting that I am just reading the wrong people, following the wrong gurus, attending the wrong classes--that my crisis might vanish in a moment if I just found the right book, entered the right class, dis-identified as a post-modernist (which I am not), got religion (the right one this time!), wrote more stuff in a more pedantic style, etc.  This advice is very frustrating to me, because my experience is not something external.  While it is true that certain authors, teachers, and religious folk have made a big impression on me over the years, personally and professionally, the overwhelming source of my personal and professional angst and its expression has always been myself (my very own self, the identity that I construct every moment I breath with conscious awareness, noticing phenomena to which I respond voluntarily and involuntarily).

How to put this into words?  I lived staring into the abyss and watching it stare back long before I encountered Nietzsche verbalizing that experience--a very harrowing experience that will always shape me in powerful ways, even if I hate Nietzsche and decide to refrain from reading, writing, or thinking of him for the rest of my life.  Even if I don't practice Christianity as a "believer" (however anyone defines that, anyone who is not me), that will not change the truth that Christ has a powerful impact on my existence.  I came unto my own, and my own received me not.  I know these words.  I have lived them.  They are written on the fleshy tables of my heart, in blood that will not be erased--my blood.  In the same way, my relationship to Mormonism is intimate and personal, not impersonal, objective, historical.  For I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it.  I don't especially care what Joseph Smith really saw (anywhere, at any time), but I know my own vision--and like him (in the story, which need not be true history in any sense) I cannot deny it.  Similarly, when I encountered Buddhist teachings like all compounded things are impermanent and all emotions are pain, they stuck with me because they honestly, accurately describe my own experience.  I am like the legendary arhats whose response to the Buddha's doctrine of emptiness was to die.  Like them, I do not experience thinking, reading, speaking, and writing as abstract exercises, separate (or even separable) from the business of life and death (the same business, whatever we call it at various moments that taste different to us).  For me religion and research are intimately bound up with life (and its other face, the one we call death).  I cannot live outside my life, mi camino propio hacia la muerte.  I cannot write outside it.  I cannot read outside it.  I cannot speak or think outside it.  I cannot pretend I care about it in ways I do not.  When I do, the result is obscene--and fools no one.  Even if people cannot put words to it, they sense the reality.  He is not one of us.  He does not get it.  He never will.  He is a witch-doctor, a sorceror, a wolf in sheep's clothing.  Stone him!

What do I see, then?  What do I live?  Magee gets it (nails it, makes me hope foolishly that there might be wolf-clan for me out there somewhere, a group that I might not have to despise for having me as a member):
The world is governed by false values. People in all societies seem anxious to do what they think is the done thing, and are terrified of social disapproval. They set their hearts on getting on in the world, being thought highly of by their fellows, being powerful, acquiring money and possessions, knowing "important" people. They admire the influential, the rich, the famous, the well-born, the holders of rank and position. But none of these things have any serious relationship to merit: as often as not they are ill gotten, and nearly always they are partly dependent on chance. None of them will protect a person from serious illness or personal tragedy, let alone from death. And none of them can be taken out of this world. They are not an inherent part of the person himself but are merely external decorations, hung on him. They are the tinsel of life, glittering but worthless. The things that really matter in human beings are things that can matter more than life itself: loving and being loved, devotion to truth, integrity, courage, compassion, and other qualities along entirely different lines. But human beings are all the time sacrificing these true values to the false ones: they compromise themselves to get on, bend the truth to make money, demean themselves before power. In behaving like this they are pouring rubbish over their own heads. If they stopped abasing themselves in this way and started living in accordance with true values their lives would become incomparably more meaningful, more genuinely satisfying. They would even, to put it at its most superficial, be happier (pages 257-258).       
Insofar as I have a gospel to preach, this insight is definitely a very important part of it.  I see it as good news, an evangelion worthy of worship, but my worship is not that of society:
In the Hindu and Buddhist scriptures, in the Old and New Testaments, and almost everywhere I looked in the works of prophets and mystics, wise men and teachers--of any century and any society--some such message as this was to be found. Perceptive people seem to have been saying it since writing and teaching began. Even creative artists: the great ones seldom preach, and are diminished when they do, but, unspoken between the lines of what many of them write, these values are to be discerned. In the world's greatest opera and drama the conflict between private and public values is the most common theme of all, with the artist invariably enlisting the audience's sympathies on behalf of the private. And while the members of the audience are in the theatre, or reading the book, they respond almost universally this way. But the moment they come out of the theatre, or close the book, they revert. It is true that in temples, mosques, synagogues and churches they offer lip-service to true values, and feel better for having done so; and those values may even sometimes be taught in schools; but again, no sooner do people leave such places of instruction than they behave in their old ways. Worse than that; if any of them does not so--if one of them sacrifices his interests to someone else's, tells the truth to his own disadvantage, declines to be sycophantic to people with a lot of power or money--the others remonstrate with him and tell him not to be a fool. If he persists, they lose respect for him: they come to look on him as stupid, someone who does not know how to manage his own affairs, someone making a botch of his life. The truth is, then, that the values people publicly acknowledge and pay lip-service to are in reality values that they not only repudiate but actively despise. It took me a long time to realize this, but when I did I came to understand in a new light the evident frustration and even despair of so many prophets and teachers, their isolation, and their characteristic tone of railing at people who they know are not going to take much notice of what they say (page 258).
This is quite simply the truth!  Whenever I hear the spokesman for some large group saying things I like (e.g. we should express love for our fellowman), I remember the words of God (as they occur in Jewish, Christian, and Mormon scripture--search and ye shall find): They draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.  And they really hate it when you point this hypocrisy out in public, even if you go out of your way to be nice about it.  (Some folks actually believe their own bullshit.  That doesn't make it less shitty, but it does make them decent folk, and I would not wish to dishonor that decency while noticing where it cloaks dangerous hypocrisy.)  What should you do if Life makes you an obnoxious prophet?  Run away?  (That did not work for Jonah, did it?  I get that story much better today than I did as a kid in Sunday school.)  Lean in?  (Or as my non-feminist friends would put it, Eat shit?)  That can be devastating, too.  At this point, I find myself stuck between the urge to run (away from society, away from people, away from all the lies) and the urge to fight (against society, against people, against all the lies, especially those that demand uncritical obeisance--as though they were simply true).  I cannot break my integrity, and every company I work for is determined that for them I will.

Like many people before me, I find myself wandering about in the proverbial desert, lost and hoarse (vox clamantis in deserto), wondering as I wander whether that desert might blossom as the rose (and then wilt of old age rather than succumb to hordes of hungry locusts).  I don't know whether my garden can exist or not, whether my life will yield anything to others besides shit in the desert, but my integrity forces me to cultivate it anyway.  I till.  I plant.  I water.  I avoid the company of those who do not know my desert, those fair-weather gardeners who think I live in Eden and despise my meager harvests accordingly.  And I wait.  I wait to see what lot Zeus casts, where he weighs me in the scales of fate, whether I will live to till, and plant, and water again, another crop of bitter herbs infused with the harsh, poisonous flavor of my wilderness.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Rejecting the Robots

A rant in response to this interview of Bill Gates.  A pertinent quote from the article: "As for what governments should do to prevent social unrest in the wake of mass unemployment, the Microsoft cofounder said that they should basically get on their knees and beg businesses to keep employing humans over algorithms."

What we need are institutions and communities committed to human values over machine values (in the terminology of the late Lewis Mumford).  We need people to build communities redundantly, rather than efficiently, using technology that is old and outdated (from a mechanistic perspective).  We need to make it possible to be happy as a poor person again (fed, clothed, sheltered, and contributing meaningfully to a community that makes this possible without enslavement, i.e. without owing anything to large industry outside the community).  In terms of quantitative measurement, people may suffer or die more in these new poor communities.  The quality of healthcare will be lower (by some evaluations: note that this need not mean that mortality rates rise).  But qualitatively, our life with humanity will always be better than our life without it.

The future I see lies in disengagement and dispersion.  Leave the global society, the national power grid, the Internet (as an alternative to the village square), regular international travel, industrial agriculture and medicine as backbones of society (propped up by markets "too big to fail," which really don't exist).  Education should prepare us to live well and cheerfully with minimal reliance on industry and technology, particularly where these make our existence more miserable than not.  If the rise of robots makes men miserable, then we must simply abandon the robots.  Not reason with their masters.  Not beg for more scraps from people who couldn't care less.  Not look for dreams of expensive happiness that we are never going to achieve (many of our parents did not even achieve them, and their generation came closer than ours ever will).  Bill Gates is the voice of a past that I don't want, leading to a future wherein I have no place.  As I write these words using an operating system not designed by Microsoft (which I despise without hatred: it is simply shoddy) or Apple (which I despise without hatred: it is simply shoddy and pretentious), I am glad that Bill Gates and his like can never own the world, no matter how they might try.  Nature is bigger than any of us.  She does not make me live and die as Bill Gates, or as the mindless minion of Bill Gates, not even when circumstances thrust me into a position where it is easy for me to imagine myself this way.

I think my own way to a death that will be mine--unique, uniquely tragic, uniquely comic, an experience I savor for myself with faculties that come to me from something much richer and more ancient than elite snobs with dreams of robots and rigid world-systems (wherein the future belongs to efficiency and algorithm rather than redundancy and imagination).  I think Bill Gates is full of shit.  But as shit-stirrers go, he means well enough, and does his part to fulfil the little measure of that which he conceives to be virtue.  For that I respect him--as a man (not a prophet, certainly not a prophet I am eager to follow, since his heaven looks like hell in my eyes).  In his advice to governments, Bill Gates makes the same mistake that Occupy Wall Street did: you don't beg bureaucrats for anything you really want to get, ever, whether they serve private shareholders or pretend to represent the public.  It makes no difference.  To beg them is to give them power, to feed their dream at the expense of your own, to love the Devil more than God (waxing Christian again).  I do not beg Wall Street for anything.  I do not beg Uncle Sam for anything.  I do not beg Bill Gates for anything.  I expect nothing from them but death (and thus greet each new moment of my life with conscious wonder and gratitude, as the arrival of something blessed that I did not expect, that will certainly end soon).

Facing Mortality

I just found a kindred spirit in Paul Kingsnorth (who incidentally has given me a treasure trove of new writers to explore).  Listen to these words I might have written (maybe even on this blog!):
There is a fall coming ... After a quarter-century of complacency, in which we were invited to believe in bubbles that would never burst, prices that would never fall ... Hubris has been introduced to Nemesis.
I have been slowly, painfully thinking my way into my personal version of Kingsnorth's position over the past decade or so--as I realize the extent of human ignorance, my own and that of humanity in general, and the extent to which civilization as we know it rests on a foundation riven by fragility, exposed constantly to risks of catastrophic blow-up that cannot be undone without death and serious suffering.  No matter what anyone does, in any political or religious faction anywhere in the world, the coming years are going to be tumultuous and destructive.  In the end, everything alive (including the human species qua species) will die.  Maybe we will emerge as something new, somewhere new, or maybe not.  That cannot be known.  The immediate reality is that we are all going to suffer and die.  I see this clearly now (after looking at it through a glass darkly for many years). 

Now I need to find a way to live in the mountains with a scythe, teaching myself and my kids to live without dependence on modern amenities that I see as fragile. I already accept that Social Security and healthcare do not exist for me; but I have to give my kids some way to live that does not presuppose reliance on defunct institutions, that does not demand global solutions that are (to be simple) impossible.  I want to be part of something personal and little, something that isn't the empty worship of material success (especially large-scale political success, economic success, national success, global success).  I have seen the gods of this generation, the gods that everyone worships (even those who claim not to, affecting to love poverty and suffering from positions of relative wealth and ease, itself a kind of decadent suffering and disease).

I don't want to commit suicide, though I see that as a viable option for some people with insights close to mine. But I do want to see my own mortality clearly. I want to die doing something I believe in. I don't think I can believe in politics, or religion, or education, or healthcare, or even civilization as it exists across something as large, fragmented, and impossibly incoherent as "American culture" (let alone global civilization). I see myself as having very little worth to America (the nation), to its markets, to its leaders (in politics, religion, and business, including my own business of education). I don't want to spend my whole life bowing and scraping to people who couldn't care less that I exist, or that the world is dying (while they fiddle and I fetch things for them, listening to music I don't like or feel inspired to play for myself).

I want to mourn the end of the world--and less pretentiously, my own end, my own mortality--in my own way, with my own music. I want to embrace Death as I find her, not as some leader demands (for reasons I have tried hard to see but still cannot manage to respect, to make my own).

I do not expect to be rescued.  I do not expect salvation.  I do not resent its absence.  I see that I am futile, helpless in the face of destructive forces I could never hope to control or bend to my will (pray as I might, do what I will).  I see that and I go on living anyway, enjoying each moment as something special and unique, a gift I can never repay (let alone understand).

This poem from Kingsnorth is really moving to me:
when will i be free saes the cilde to the stag
and the stag saes thu will nefer be free
then when will angland be free
angland will nefer be free
then what can be done
naht can be done
then how moste i lif
thu moste be triewe that is all there is
be triewe
be triewe
I also really appreciate his perspective on the Norman conquest of England (quoted from the article linked above, like the poem):
When he was a schoolboy, Kingsnorth told me, his teachers described the Norman Conquest, in 1066, as a swift transformation. An army of Norman and French soldiers from across the channel invaded England and swept away Anglo-Saxon civilization. The old ways vanished, and a new world emerged. He was surprised to learn, much later, that a resistance movement bedeviled the conquerors for a full decade. These resisters were known as the Silvatici, or “wild men.” Eventually William the Conqueror drove them from the woods and slaughtered every last one of them. They were doomed from the start, and knew it. But that hadn’t stopped them from fighting.
Personally, I do not fight to make the world better.  I am not sure what a better world would be (though I suspect the quest for it lies through piles of dead corpses).  I fight because I do not want to be involved in the process of making it worse.  I don't care that my struggle is useless (useless to progress, as I am: I represent the face of those who turn away from progress, who do not desire to live forever or drive in flying cars or otherwise escape the limits of human mortality).  Silvaticus sum.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Religious Freedom and Related Matters

Dallin Oaks is at it again, saying stuff that sounds crazy to me.  Of course I no doubt impress him (and others) much the same way.  In proof whereof I offer the following disjointed observations.

1.  How are religious people being abused in contemporary Western society (especially American)?

Religious people are being abused by having their private lives turned into weapons that large corporations (that may identify as religious or secular--es macht mir nichts) can use against one another to jockey for market share.

The problem is that we hav
e hordes of people who cannot find religious identity without forcing themselves unconstitutionally on other people, against the will of those other people. When you break the hordes up into individual personae, you discover that most of them don't actually want to engage in litigation, culture war, etc., against "the enemy" in some individual, personal way. Peter does not hate Paul and want to destroy him. But Rome hates Antioch. Christianity hates Islam (and vice versa). Religion hates secularism. Science hates ignorance. Republicans and Democrats hate the other party (not their aunt who belongs to it, at least not the same way). The individual feels powerless to exist without a community (legitimately), and all communities (or the loudest, most politically active ones at any rate) are currently led by people who demand that he must join their fight against rival communities to have a place with them. I must force you to wear my burkha because if I don't, then you will force me to wear your cross. Religious freedom does not exist in this contest. It has become an oxymoron, a dead letter that people invoke as cover for what they are really saying: "My god has a bigger dick than yours, and I am going to prove it."

Think of Elijah challenging the priests of Baal. That is how we do religious dialogue in the modern fashion. I pray to my god, you pray to yours. We go to court. We duke it out. If the court fails us, we go to the battlefield (and kill terrorists). Freedom in this context is just Nietzsche's will to power. Having told myself that I am painted into a corner, that I must fight for my religion or be crushed ruthlessly by yours, I lash out and try to destroy you before you destroy me. I don't see your humanity. I don't see your vulnerability. I don't see that your motivation, your movement, is fractured, fragile, fragmented, and falling apart (the same way mine is). I put my chin up and charge into the fray.

2.  Is religion failing?   

It is not the failure of religion or science that confronts us today, it seems to me, as much as the failure of leadership. We have forgotten, if we ever knew, how to contend well with those around us (be they of our culture or not). We don't deal in dialogue, compromise, inaction, etc. We are all business, all about making decisions and then doubling down when they prove bad. We are fighting dogs that value gameness over survival, over anything really, because we think that loss is impossible (inadmissible, evil, cowardly, wrong).

I don't personally believe that religion is dead or losing anything. What is changing in society is what has always been changing. Religion is simply changing its clothes, putting away the frock it wore yesterday and making (or buying) something new to cover human nakedness (itself a garment, the clothing of Nature). Religion will only really die with the last human being (who will be religious, on my view, no matter what he thinks about anything or does with those thoughts).

Secularism is just another kind of religion, with a new pantheon of gods (that like different rituals). And it is not really that new, from my perspective. (The very word "secular" comes to us straight from Roman religion, which lies close to the heart of our Western political culture, historically very much a religion. A religion that strives to be ecumenical, sometimes, but that does not make it any less religious.)

3.  Should we invoke politics to strengthen religion?  (No!)

I would argue against Oaks (and others who agree with him) that the strength of religion must be built outside the US court system. To the extent that religion relies on civil law for its strength, it loses that strength, conceding that we do not make important religious decisions outside the courtroom, a move that makes our only really powerful religion the US government. I hate that idea.  I see that idea as one to avoid legitimizing at all cost.

Religion is stronger and more powerful as it needs less external civic intervention, not more. The religion that must invoke violence (politics, court orders, police, military) to assert its strength has already conceded incredible weakness, practically admitting its own moral bankruptcy.  If I cannot strengthen families, live a decent life, love God and my fellowman, etc., without charging into the courts and demanding that you live my life against your will, insisting that I make no concessions to your weakness and you none to mine, then decency becomes impossible.  Dialogue becomes impossible.  The open society dies, and we get yet another iteration of Plato's kallipollis (a theoretical utopia on the books, and in courtroom babble, that manifests in reality as hell on earth).  Eso no quiero, no busco, no deseo jam
ás.  Mejor en pie morir (o en la cruz, los que queramos ser Cristianos auténticos).

"My kingdom is not of this world." As a Christian, I invoke these words from the Lord to justify my decision to walk away deliberately from Elijah's stupid quarrel with the priests of Baal.  "Depart from me, ye that work iniquity."

Friday, April 11, 2014

On Radicalism

The following are some thoughts I jotted down that seem worth preserving (as stimulants to further cogitation).

An authentic radical looks to his radices, seeking to know them, to acknowledge them, to incorporate them as intimate and familiar parts of himselfMost people don't go the very roots of their existence. They are happy to identify with externals that they can purchase without really owning. Shall I buy this jacket or that one? (It never occurs to me that I might make my own jacket, with materials I create from an environment I live in.) Shall I vote for this Tweedledum or that Tweedledee? (It never occurs to me that strengthening my family, strengthening community values, etc., might require more than voting--especially when the same T and T are always running for office.)

The true radical is someone who sees his roots, the roots that nourish his life, as most of modern society in the West simply does not. Not only do we fail to see our roots, we make a virtue of this failure. To be ignorant of our roots (in the countryside we visit only on vacation, in the foreign factories where our goods are produced cheaply, on the battlefields where our security--ignorance?--is defended by people we never meet) is a sign of culture, civilization, sophistication, even education (what is the university? many things to many people, but for too many it is a set of blinders shutting out reality, e.g. the reality that its life is built out of death: too many folks eat at the table without noticing where the food comes from, or where the shit goes after we are finished digesting it). People want to appear engaged, busy, productive, useful, etc., and that is understandable (even something good, at least as an aspiration). Unfortunately, the appearance of value (degrees, cvs, certificates, quarterly profits, money) is much easier to create than the real thing (value that endures, that respects the death that its existence causes--and makes that death apparent rather than hiding it where people can ignore or avoid it).

"Radicals" in society are mostly just adolescent poseurs (who resent their parents for being stodgy and dull and mean, etc., but still expect regular checks in the mail to pay for weekend benders with their fellow "radicals"). The real radicals are too busy living to waste time posing.

"Radicals" camp out on Wall Street and complain that it should be a garden. Radicals move to the country, get a job (ideally from themselves), and make a garden, forgetting that Wall Street exists (because they couldn't care less: they don't need it, for anything).

"Radicals" complain that healthcare is too expensive. Radicals round up doctors to found healthcare co-ops (and/or charity clinics that they themselves will patronize, waiting their turn in line with the homeless).

"Radicals" complain that education is too expensive. Radicals don't go to school (unless you count the school of hard knocks).

"Radicals" think that the solution to every problem involves lots of talk (angry talk, happy talk, sad talk, solemn talk, papers, conferences, symposia, social media, journalism, political meetings, religious gatherings, etc.). Radicals think that talk is cheap, even when they speak.  

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

On the Impoverished Worship of Evil Gods

The comments to this thought-provoking article (forwarded to me by a friend) included a statement that gives me pause:
Sadly, a great many people die feeling as Anne did, but without a voice, and without a suicide parlor. They simply abandon the will to live, and fade away. Maybe they still their inner voice with drugs or alcohol, and maybe it takes them a while to die, but they are suicides, as surely as I am sitting here typing this. Thus is the great service our godless society has done.
It strikes me that the problem I have with society is not its godlessness, its lack of things that might answer meaningfully to words like god, but the way in which it conceives and creates gods and then worships them.

We suffer not from atheism, on my view, as much as we do from lack of gods worth worshipping, and (perhaps even more important) lack of opportunity to offer meaningful worship.  What does it mean to respect something in modern society?  What do we hold sacred?  As a group, we have never held the same things sacred the same way, in all our history.  Unfortunately, many of us attempt to solve this dilemma by doing violence to worship, actively punishing those who worship gods as we would not.  We do not cultivate our own garden of service to God and fellowman because we are too busy burning down our neighbor's (who is gay or Muslim or Democrat or something else we are not that we loathe, for some reason: any reason will do).

Humanity needs the freedom to imagine gods it can believe in.  These will not all be the same, even to those who agree to share with one another--to imagine together some ideal of moral excellence that they can honor in community and alone with worship.  Likewise, human worship is not infinitely malleable or universally prescribable.  We will not all worship the same god the same way.  At some point, we need the freedom to separate our worship.  You need your sacred space apart from mine, your private life before God that does not include me as an active or intimate partner (even if we worship the same god in ways that are remarkably similar).

The great tragedy of many modern gods is that they are so universal as to become either impossibly bland (when we all try to get along without acknowledging our irreconcilable differences) or impossibly destructive (when we assert those differences with the intention of destroying anything or anyone that will not submit to worship our god the way we want him to be worshipped).  Really good gods are local gods, small gods, gods that individuals and communities create and respond to without aspiring to write large all over the world (as though we could all worship the same god the same way, speaking one language, eating one food, living one life, sharing one death).

We need ways to value gods that are not all-inclusive, that do not respond to other gods with jealousy, hatred, and war where these are not productive.  We cannot keep conquering one another for God without impoverishing him and ourselves, until we become so weak and incapable of meaningful personal worship that our only sacrament is to come together and celebrate how much better we are than others who refuse to worship with us, as we do, rendering homage to whatever idol we have decided must be adored as the One True God.

People will always fight for their gods, it seems to me.  But we need not make the fight more hostile than it must be.  We need not spend all our energy worshipping God with fear and hatred for others who worship him differently (and conceive him as some thing or things that we cannot recognize or worship for ourselves).  We need not actively embrace and love gods we cannot worship, either.  Ecumenism has its limits, too, I think, that wise people must learn to respect (as they move away from trying to create impossibly universal forms of religion and focus more on making small communities work better without growing too big or powerful to serve inherently limited human needs).

The worst gods are like the worst human beings.  They acknowledge no limit to the worship they are willing to receive.  They demand absolute obedience from all and sundry to standards that human beings must enforce with violence.  Such are the impoverished modern gods of the nation-state, the global corporation, and the mega-church (with hundreds or thousands or millions or billions of members actively trying to convert the world).  There is no such thing as worshipping safely or well with a nation, a corporation, or a worldwide religion.  Their gods are all predatory, as they are, built to suck the life right out of individuals and smaller communities that they parasitize (under the banner of heaven, which they erect to protect some sacred cow impossibly remote from most human experience--like Wall Street, which the American taxpayer must worship willy-nilly because "it is too big to fail").

From such demons masquerading as angels of light, deliver us, O Lord. 

Monday, April 7, 2014

Women in Church

Random notes.  Do not mistake them for settled views (or dogmatic ones).

I have been thinking about the role of women in Mormonism in light of recent interest in ordaining them to the priesthood.  I definitely think that there needs to be an evolution in Mormon culture that makes women peers to men.  I don't think they are at present, and I don't think they can be made such without some serious adjustments to the status quo (adjustments that people will notice and react to, not always with appreciation or unmixed happiness).

That said, I am not sure the best solution to the lack of parity between the sexes in LDS Mormonism (specifically) is female ordination to what has historically been a very male priesthood.  I know many people (male and female) are stubbornly against such a move, and it would require a kind of re-orientation in priesthood culture that could be extremely disruptive (not necessarily in a good way, unless your goal is to undo or unmake the LDS church, as mine is not).

I have been thinking it might be possible to make women the peers of men in Mormonism without sending them to priesthood meetings together.  What we need is a conscious, sustained, and sincere effort to make the role of women and female leaders as important to the church as male ("priesthood") counterparts.  For every dollar the bishopric gets, the Relief Society presidency should get one.  For every non-priesthood meeting the bishopric conducts, the Relief Society should conduct another such (trading Sundays?).  For every priesthood ritual that involves women, there should be a female ritual that involves men (as the objects of female blessing, female leadership or presidency, etc.).

Historically, the functioning order of the (male) priesthood is fluid.  It was not obvious from early Mormon history that the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (Q12) would control the church as it does today--unchecked and pretty much uncheckable by any other priesthood quorum.  It would be possible to disrupt the Q12's empire, I think, without thereby demeaning or destroying its priesthood (let alone the church as a whole: I think the church would do better if the Q12 consciously let go of the universal mandate it has held over the church since Brigham Young).  What would it require to make the General Relief Society Board (or Presidency, though I am conceiving that as a peer to the First Presidency right now) functionally the peer of the Q12?  We would need to give the women independent access to church resources (their own equal say in the church's business, for-profit and non-profit as well as liturgical).  The "women's conference" would need to take place as the equivalent of "priesthood meeting" (in General Conference), and we would need to see more women speaking in General Conference.  This could all be accomplished with relatively little pain, it seems to me, even when it comes to traditionalists who dislike anything that seems like change.

The hardest thing to deal with would be the maleness of prophets, seers, and revelators in Mormon institutional history.  We cannot easily make women prophets.  Many of us don't want to.  So what to do?  From my perspective, we are currently confronting a kind of crisis in traditional Mormon leadership, a crisis in which prophets, seers, and revelators are questioning their role in the church and society at large, and increasingly shying away from the kind of prophecy, seership, and revelation that defined the careers of men like Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.  While insisting that the prophet must speak with authority to the world, the Q12 are careful to keep him from making the kind of bold, personal assertions that historically define his role.  The old Mormon prophets said whatever they wanted, as the Spirit inspired them, accepting and admitting that the results were occasionally disastrous (a trial from the Lord, a chance to learn humility, etc.).  They were not above offering personal apologies from the pulpit (where they also pursued personal vendettas against one another, on occasion).  They were colorful and accessible as the modern CEO prophets, with a PR department managing their press releases, cannot be.  I wonder whether it might be useful here to create some kind of female executive (a "prophetess" to balance the prophet, though that need not be her title, and her role need not be constructed overtly as priesthood).  Could there emerge some kind of Mormon Delphic Oracle, with a Mormon Pythia receiving revelation applicable in some fashion to the entire LDS church?  I think so.

Mormon and Christian history together offer all the pieces we would need to create a theological justification for female authority.  In the Old and New Testaments, female leadership is rare but there: other Christians have found it when they needed it, and we can too.  Mormon history, meanwhile, shows us women performing ordinances (blessing, healing, laying on of hands, speaking in tongues, prophecy) since associated--as a matter of policy more than doctrine, it strikes me--with male priesthood (which increasingly ignores much of its mandate in the Articles of Faith: when was the last time you went to a temple meeting like the dedication of the Kirtland Temple?).  Perhaps in expanding the active roles available to women (without simply offering them male priesthood, a gesture I don't see the church making, personally), the church might escape some of the artificial stiltedness that has infected its priesthood (and made modern Mormon rituals so unlike their nineteenth-century counterparts: again, I cannot help thinking of the Kirtland temple, or of Nauvoo, for that matter, where going to the temple to dance all night was not unheard of--what happened to that sacred ordinance? when did we replace it with snacking on jello in carpeted gyms, sitting quietly in front of a movie screen at the temple?).  The old endowment was something extemporaneous--a drama that actors performed to be contemporary.  If we were old-timey Mormons, it would involve Satan in the guise of a bankster (or perhaps a "liberal" university professor in some Utah towns, a Utah businessman-bishop in the Northeast, etc.), and the dialogue would be updated to reflect current trends and issues.  It would incorporate talks from local temple presidencies or presiding authorities (why not include female speakers?) and would evolve from performance to performance (the way a play does).  One temple would not be exactly like another.  People would not go to the temple to fall asleep listening to yet another iteration of an old script that is increasingly read to justify the very kind of unrighteous dominion (see Doctrine and Covenants 121) that early Mormon leaders decried (even if they also succumbed to its allure on occasion and became unjust tyrants: at least they saw this as something wrong, something to resist with passion rather than the will of God that all must embrace).  I cannot help feeling that women might make a really good contribution here, as newcomers and outsiders to the increasingly dull traditions of the male priesthood.

I think the male LDS priesthood has some goods that should be preserved (as unique to manhood).  I don't think that leadership is one of those goods: women need leadership; they need to rule as well as be ruled.  I wonder whether it might be good to imagine ways of letting women lead that don't involve committing them to the kind of leadership that has come to define LDS priesthood, a kind of leadership that I personally find quite disturbing (not necessarily because of its gender).  As a man looking back upon my time as an active Mormon, there are pieces of "priesthood" that I don't want for myself, for my gender, or for anyone really (friend or foe, black or white, male or female).  I wonder what opportunities the future will offer us for restructuring our idea(s) of what it means to lead, to have authority, and to submit (to one having authority).  I do not think that Deity (whatever one understands that to be) demands male leadership to the exclusion or subordination of female.  This thought is not one that I can give over easily, since I have come to it by long pondering and observation (of my own experience and that of others).