Adventus

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

"Help thou my unbelief."

Pretty much like that....

"Belief," as in "Do you believe in the existence of God?", is only an issue for the church (or Christianity) if the baseline is atheism:  i.e., God cannot exist and cannot be "believed."

But most people are not atheists.  If they are indifferent to the claims of Christianity (for which apparently "belief" is paramount), then they are equally indifferent to the claims of atheism.  Both espouse the centrality of theistic thinking, one positively, one negatively; at least, that's the argument. And then it's just a matter of either/or, of who has the best argument.  And besides adherents to the arguments, who's interested in that?  Yes, there are people on the intertubes whose motivating purpose seems to be arguing about anything and everything, but especially politics.  Even most politicians, however, don't go in to politics to argue (though that seems to be their raison d'être since at least the "Gingrich Revolution"); they to it to serve in government (or line their pockets, if you want to be cynical).  There were once people who served in government to do what was right, generally.  Two names come to mind from the Congress:  Lyndon Johnson, in the Senate, and Sam Rayburn, in the House.  Turns out they were instrumental in helping Hawaii become a state, by overcoming objections from Representatives and Senators from the South.  Of course, they accomplished some other worthy goals, too.

They didn't do it because government was good or evil, was intrusive or exploitative, was a "deep state" or a "derp state."  They didn't do it because government was either/or.  Now, however, everything is either/or, to a pitched degree.  It's not the kind that is different, it's the degree.  There has always been a struggle between believers and non-believers; it's the degree of emphasis that's the issue.

Much as Christianity specifically has taken empiricism as the baseline for human understanding and epistemology (Christianity is on much sounder footing in Western philosophy connecting with phenomenology), so the discussion of religion in Western culture has taken atheism as the baseline, against which theism must assert its bona fides.  That is completely the wrong argument.  In fact, the problem is the diagnosis that an argument is what will "fix" the "problem" of the church.  Contrary to what may be common experience, people don't go to church to argue; and solving the "argument" of atheism v. theism won't bring people flocking back to church as if this were the 1950's redux.

People go to church because church means something to them, and because they find people of like mind there, people they can be friends with.  The Church of Meaning and Belonging can't get a foothold without the Church of Belonging existing first, and the Church of Belonging can't exist if people don't find people there they want to share time with.  Then there is the question of how they share their time, and why they share their time.

But why did "belief" become the dividing line of our thinking?  Why must we stand on one side or the other, with one side "wrong" and the other "right"?

Slate ran an interesting article about the "march for science," which turned on this concern:

Instead, the march revealed the glaring dissonance of opposing that trough of ignorance by instead accepting a cringe-worthy hive-mind mentality that celebrates Science as a vague but wonderful entity, what Richard Feynman called “cargo cult science.” There was an uncomfortable dronelike fealty to the concept—an oxymoronic faith that information presented and packaged to us as Science need not be further scrutinized before being smugly celebrated en masse. That is not intellectually rigorous thought—instead, it’s another kind of religion, and it is perhaps as terrifying as the thing it is trying to fight.

What the article argues for, ironically, is a more scholarly approach to knowledge, but does so in part by citing that Feynman article where the scientist relies on the hoariest of shibboleths (the "Middle Ages" were ignorant, then came the enlightened salvation of the Renaissance!) to make his point.   Talk about "an uncomfortable drone like fealty to the concept."  But that's that point, one drummed into me in seminary more than anywhere else in my education:  what you cling to as certainty is your idol, your false god, your deity made in your image.  It's a useful hermeneutic of suspicion to keep before one, because the either/or of belief (either you do ("fool!") or you don't ("wise!")), is just such a dead piece of silent, eyeless stone.

Jump to the end of the quote there, and "cargo cult" is connected with the broader non-science of Western culture:  religion.   Because religion is not "intellectually rigorous thought."  Except, again, as I said, the most intellectually rigorous education I ever had was in seminary, where every assumption was challenged and no answers were given.  I seriously doubt any student of any science had their assumptions, presumptions, and conclusions challenged as thoroughly as that.  Even law school only challenged how I organized my thought and how I analyzed situations.  Once I learned to "think like a lawyer," I had made it through the barrier between the laity and the learned.  I left seminary knowing much more about the challenges than the certainties, much less inclined to "march" for religion than to consider the place of humans in the world they were busy making.

How many scientists are trained to think that way, trained to actually call in to question everything they have been told in lower-school science classes for decades is true?  I don't mean the basic concept of science v., say, alchemy or astrology, but the conclusions of scientific research, of scientific thought, of accepted scientific theory.  Not to question it because it is wrong, but to question it because you can't truly understand what you don't critically examine.

When it comes to belief, everybody just believes:  that's the real foundation of modern Western philosophy.  Not Descartes' cogito, but his conclusion that he had to rest his thought on his cogito:  if he didn't accept something as a given, he couldn't establish anything.  His ability to think escaped his hermeneutic skepticism only because, without that escape, all he had left was skepticism.  You have to accept some givens in order to postulate a system.  If you insist your ideas are not founded in a belief, then you are insisting it really is turtles all the way down.  How many scientists study philosophy in order to understand empiricism, the philosophical basis of the scientific method?  How many study phenomenology, or world religions, or even take a course in philosophy of religion?  How many study formal logic, philosophy of science, the history of philosophy?  And yet in my seminary studies I studied philosophy, history, absorbed information and thinking from anthropology and archaeology, studied languages and how language affects our understanding, our perceptions, our thinking; examined and developed hermeneutics, systems of interpretation and analysis.  Do scientists study any of this?  Or do they just study the field of science they are interested in?

That paper from Feynman about "cargo cults" doesn't display much more than a muddled, popular understanding of religion, history, and human culture.  Anthropology is the scientific study of human culture, but what Feynman knows about that subject seems to be the pop culture notion of a "cargo cult" being one-for-one mapping of non-scientific, i.e., "religious," thought.  Anthropologists wouldn't even engage that kind of discussion, because it is as ignorant as saying the planets are set in crystalline spheres rotating around the earth.  I know this, Richard Feynman apparently doesn't; yet he is lionized for his "knowledge."  Except, in certain areas, it should be spelled "nollij."

What's happening in modern American society is a dissolution of cultural bands that once held the center together.  At least it seems that way, though I'm not so sure those bands were ever so strong or binding as we imagine.  Most of us either remember the '50's, or take our starting point for American culture from there, and tacitly use it as our starting point for what we believe (v. what we know, in this context) about where we are now.   I've quoted Eliot's "Choruses from 'The Rock'" time and again, about culture falling apart because of motor cars; words he wrote almost 100 years ago now.  Cars mean nothing to us now, now it's cell phones and social media dividing us up.   But, as Howland Owl said of nuclear physics, the situation ain't so new, and it ain't so clear.

We despise ambiguity; we want certainty.  Many a scientist, or one scientifically trained, will outright reject or find reason to denigrate, Kuhn's ideas about science and "paradigms," because Kuhn introduces a conditional ambiguity into science.  Similarly Schrodinger's cat tells us, not that the cat is neither dead nor alive, but that we can't predict with accuracy the reality of the state of the cat, we can only observe it by opening the box.  The ambiguity is inherent in the position of not yet observing the contents of the rigged box.  We want certainty, but the paradox of Schrodinger's thought experiment is that we can't have it without intervening (opening the box).  Kuhn's ambiguity is that science is a human system, prompted and guided by human interests (and by the drunk under the streetlamp).  But science must partake of the divine, the true, even if that "true" is the cosmos itself.  We want to link our understanding of the cosmos to the cosmos so what we know what we know is "true."

We despise ambiguity; we want certainty.  If I say I know God in my life, I'm immediately charged, or understood, as saying "God exists."  We want that certainty because if God exists, then certain things must be true.  But saying "God exists" is not the same thing as saying "A platypus exists."  Surely it's odd to find a platypus in the wild, but the existence of the platypus means nothing to my life, to my culture, to my world.  To say "God exists" is to say something entirely different than to say "My daughter exists," even though that statement has more meaning for me personally (and for her).  I tend to agree with Tillich on this one:  that the concept "existence" or "To exist" can't really be applied to a concept like "God" (and already someone will think I've slipped a card from the middle of the deck by using the term "concept," but it is the right term in this conversation).  My father is dead, but does that mean my father doesn't exist?  If by exist you mean "alive," then no, he doesn't exist.  But his absence creates a presence that is still quite real for my mother, for my family, and the memories of him are no less real than they were when he was alive.  Let's face it, most of what we know about friends and family is memory, especially as they grow older and move on.  I have a large extended family I seldom see anymore, yet they exist for me even as more and more of them pass on. Not only in memory, but in me:  I am who I am because of friends and family.  I am my father's son, just as my daughter is his granddaughter.  "Exist" goes far beyond a name etched into a headstone, or simply still drawing breath.

We want certainty, and we cheat to get it.  God must "exist" as people do, as trees do, as platypi do; because that is existence as we know it.  Except it isn't, of course; a tree I don't know about still exists, whether I know about it or not (unless you are a Berkeleyian, and I don't think there are many of those left around, though I would never say they don't exist!).  But does a tree have existence?

Ambiguity is the heart and soul of thinking; which may be why we despise thinking so much.  Thinking never leads to certainty; it only leads to more questions.  So, ironically, to march for science is to march for uncertainty; and to not understand that is to abuse scientific reasoning as much as to declare certainty about God is to abuse Christianity.  Am I certain about God?  It is not a question I can answer, because it is not a valid question.  I have faith in God, which is to say I have trust in God.  Does that mean something to you?  Perhaps no more than if I say I love my wife.  I cannot prove that statement, but who asks me to?  People said Bill Clinton could not love his wife, when he betrayed her trust so often and so publicly.  People questioned how Hillary Clinton could love her husband, and in a simpler world perhaps they would have conformed to some expectations and divorced, or at least been publicly miserable about each other.  They didn't, and we all had to realize whether or not they loved each other was not for our determination.  No one asks if my love for my wife exists, but perhaps we could ask if it is true.  Again, how would I prove it?  I've known couples who loved each other even after their divorce, or without any benefit of marriage.  Do such externals prove something that cannot otherwise be true?  How do I establish that truth?  If you say I cannot love my wife unless I prove it, my first question will be:  what does "love" mean to you?  If you say I cannot believe in God until I prove God's existence, I have two questions for you:  what does the word "God" mean to you?  And what is "existence"?  Is it a property inherent in materiality, or a property of being?

You can see where this goes.  We use language too loosely.  We don't like to think about what we are saying, so busy are we to say it.  Buckminster Fuller reportedly spent a year in silence, trying to recover the proper use of language.  I'm not sure language is recovered in silence, so much as the use of it is discovered, perhaps even revealed (surely a revelation is at hand!) in usage.  Rather like life itself; even the desert fathers lived in community, not in solitary isolation.  If they had not contacted some other living soul, how would we know they were ever there?

Do I believe in God?  I do.  Do you understand what I mean by "believe" and "God"?  Probably not.  Do I communicate anything except confusion when I answer the question?  Undoubtedly so.

Such is the ambiguity of the current situation.

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Case of the Non-Practicing Lawyer


I'm trying not to think too hard about the Trump AP interview because Lord have mercy!  Besides, everybody's talking about that, so let's talk about Trump's favorite conspiracy theorist and child custody hearings.

I used to think Dahlia Lithwick knew something about the law.  Now I think everything she knows she learned from Perry Mason re-runs:

What we will have learned in the aggregate is that we were foolish enough to suppose that putting an Alex Jones in a courtroom would force logic and deference and authenticity. This trial was a test to see whether Alex Jones would concede that any truth-seeking mechanism other than Alex Jones himself could be trusted. That’s the same test Donald Trump puts us to every day. What’s left to be determined is not what the truth is. It’s whether the systems that exist to test truth can recover from what we have become.

Only a person who had never set foot in a real courtroom during a real trial (or hearing, in this case) would suppose the courtroom was a "truth-seeking mechanism" that "would force logic and deference  and authenticity."  The courtroom isn't even a "system[] that exist[s] to test truth."  We don't have those in reality, because reality is not scripted.  No one confesses to the crime and submits to the absolute authority of "truth" because the world simply doesn't work that way.  I mean, didn't we all learn this when O.J. was acquitted, or the cops who beat Rodney King to a pulp walked away free?

Lithwick's effort is a muddled analysis, which is unfortunate because she starts off on the right track:

Jones v. Jones isn’t going to be the trial of the century or even the trial of the week, legally speaking. It’s just going to be an excruciating display of what divorce lawyers see every day: parades of experts and paid professionals telling stories about missed visitation and forgotten teacher meetings. There may be an amuse bouche of shirtlessness and chili and ironic pleas for media restraint, but what this jury is seeing, day in and day out, is what it looks like when two wealthy former partners are prepared to spare no expense to destroy the other, with allegations about sex, booze, and money as tabs 1-1,000 in the trial binder.
Yup.  That's what custody hearings are like when both sides have the money for them.  Below that high-priced arena level, custody battles are even more tedious.  More often than not they involve partners with no money for experts, or one partner who has money and the other (guess who?) who has almost none.  I represented a mother who had returned to her career of "adult entertainment" because she needed the money.  Her husband used that against her to get custody of their child.  That's more often the dynamic of custody battles; well, that and trying to get child support from a parent, or blood from a stone.  One grows quickly accustomed to the number of people willing to work menial jobs for cash only, so they have no wages the court can garnish, so they can avoid, at all costs, the obligation to provide support for their children.  Truth?  Logic?  Authenticity?  Alex Jones is a model of probity compared to those people.  But those people aren't famous, and can't afford lengthy jury trials, so we don't use them as our standard for how the courts should work.  They remain invisible.

Alex Jones is anything but invisible; and any sign of comity is a sign of conspiracy:

Lest you think that is a judge trying to penetrate the tedium of a jury hearing with a note of wry humanity, or even gently nudging Mr. Jones' in his excessive concerns, oh no, it's not that:

 This is a performance of Jones-style paranoia in which even the judge winkingly plays her designated part as bartender to the paranoid fringe.
Um...okay.  This hearing is not, as Ms. Lithwick started out noting, about the character and value of Alex Jones as a public figure; it is about whether or not Mr. Jones is fit to be a custodial parent (and the same question applies to his wife).  How the judge's comment compromises that issue is beyond my understanding, but then:  I've actually spent time in a courtroom representing a party to a custody hearing.  Ms. Lithwick seems to still believe law is about Truth, Justice, and the American Way.  A notion even the most starry-eyed law student is disabused of after only a few hours in any courtroom setting.

Ms. Lithwick wants to turn the persona of Alex Jones into an avatar for what ails America, and what ails America most is Donald Trump.  Mr. Jones becomes a representative of the no-accountability model that allowed Donald Trump to win the Oval Office.  Mr. Jones is subverting the legal system the way Donald Trump subverted the political system:

The point of this litigation is not to ever get to the point of litigation. It is to persuade people that the trial is the show, and his authoritative and lucrative radio performance is what’s real.
Except the only people who are going to reach that over-heated conclusion, besides legal analysts who think the legal system is completely divorced from the law itself (which is pure and holy, apparently), are the fans of Alex Jones.  From what little I know about this hearing, I would be happy to be representing Ms. Jones.  Her ex-husband is not doing himself any favors.  Whether he destroys his public reputation or not (a dubious hope under the best of circumstances), he's not helping his claim that he's a model custodial parent.  As for the idea exposure to the light should have made Mr. Jones explode like a horror movie vampire, or reveal him to his ardent followers as the cockroach he is, well:

Welcome to reality.  Word comes today that only 2% of those who claim to have voted for Trump regret their vote this nearly-100 days in.  Quelle surprise?  "A man [sic] hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest."  Alex Jones has a small audience, in absolute terms, and isn't all that important even if his audience includes the President of the United States.  After all, Trump appointed Michael Flynn and Steve Bannon to White House positions, and how did that work out?  Yes, Alex Jones is an incredible yutz, but in the real world even if the murderer did break down in tears in the courtroom gallery and confess to one and all that they did it, someone would still believe the confessor was innocent.

No system of law forces "logic and deference and authenticity" on the people.  The law rests on the authority of the state to decide who is worthy of custody and who isn't, and enforces that decision with the police power of the state, if necessary.  By and large we defer to that power, even as we grumble (someone always does) about the outcome.  But do we all see the truth and acknowledge without equivocation who the "bad guy" is?  In all of human history that's never happened before; why should it happen in a courtroom in Austin now?

"And it's one, two, three strikes you're out!"

Josh Marshall drives the final nail in the coffin of Bill O'Reilly's stint at FoxNews:

In other words, he thought there was a chance that the people deciding his fate would see this email and think “Hey, wait a second! We were going to fire O’Reilly. But now it turns out we’re just being set up, used as pawns by liberals like Mary Pat Bonner to get us to fire O’Reilly, who’s really the victim in all this!”

In many ways, there’s a much, much more important story going forward about the fact that the people deciding O’Reilly’s fate had known for many years about his behavior and happily tolerated it. But why would O’Reilly think that this email amounted to anything? I would submit that in this final moment, O’Reilly was duped by the ‘war on christmas’, liberal media bias dumbshit victimology racket he had been selling on his show for two decades: comically melodramatic, victim-preening nonsense aimed at whipping up feelings of resentment and rage. In other words, he was deluded in these final moments of his cable TV existence by his own racket! His goose had long been cooked. But this was his final undoing.
The context here is an e-mail O'Reilly wrote to his lawyers making this his argument for keeping his job (just before his firing was announced).  I don't care about that, per se, but about that last paragraph.  O'Reilly complained of a campaign to "get him" that was not a secret conspiracy but a public effort, one aimed at unseating O'Reilly precisely by being public about its aims and efforts.  But O'Reilly "was deluded in these final moments of his cable TV existence by his own racket."  Donald Trump complains about "paid protestors" and now thinks they are conspiring to complain about his tax returns which, since he won, nobody cares about, right?  Like O'Reilly, Trump has made his public career, and now his political career, out of "whipping up feelings of resentment and rage."  And it seems fairly clear Trump is deluded by his own racket.

But Trump is the President of the United States, not some guy pulling a cable audience of 4 million (which still isn't that much of an audience on broadcast TV).  As fell O'Reilly, so too will Trump fall. His latest fantasies are that healthcare reform is happening, even though nobody has seen the proposed bill, and that he's accomplished great things in his first 100 days, although nobody can name two of those accomplishments.

O'Reilly was kept on-air by his audience, which was aging along with him (and aging faster than the general population, in the sense they were the "old old" who, not coincidentally, voted for Donald Trump).  But it was the Millenials (and younger) who got so man advertisers to drop O'Reilly's program that the fix was finally in, and O'Reilly the quintessential angry grandpa, was not allowed to return to the stage.  That point actually bears noticing:  the young people, who so despise sexual harassment, unlike Boomers who grew up on it (let's be honest), brought Bill O'Reilly down.  And O'Reilly never saw it coming.

Donald Trump's approval rating has been underwater since he took office.  It should really be stated in negative terms (the difference between approval and disapproval), since the disapproval consistently runs higher than the approval.  Bearing down on the vaunted "100 days," he has nothing to show for his tenure, except an extraordinary number of days playing golf (surely a record!), and an equally extraordinary number of weekends at his own resort in Florida.  His "comically melodramatic, victim-preening nonsense aimed at whipping up feelings of resentment and rage" got him into the White House; it clearly isn't helping him there now.

As fell O'Reilly, so too will Trump fall.  However, O'Reilly just took $25 million of Rupert Murdoch's money with him; what damage will Trump's inevitable collapse do?

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Has it only been 100 days?


Well, that's definitive, isn't it?

The "100 days" ends on Friday (or Saturday, or Sunday, or next week, I really haven't counted) and the government hits the debt ceiling that day, too.  So Mick Mulvaney, who apparently slept through the last two months and doesn't understand the legislative process any better than his boss, thinks Congress can walk, chew gum, dance a jig, and recite the Gettysburg Address all at the same time.  And pass a continuing resolution to fund the government a bit longer (how long?  A week?  a month?  Six months?) and reform healthcare (because we don't need committees and hearings and a legislative process, we just need a "bill" and a "vote"!) by Friday.

Trump needs an accomplishment!

Oh, and if the Dems don't agree to pony up at least $1 billion for the "border wall," Trump will shut down the government.  Given that the President's approval numbers are still under water, and that he's proven a tower of Jell-O in negotiations (anybody remember who pulled the last attempt at healthcare reform off the floor of the House at the last minute?), Congress trembles in fear.  Well, except for:  the Democrats; every Congressperson in the four border states (Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California), including four GOP senators.  Trump can't get that border wall through the House, much less through the Senate.  And he has all the clout of a wet noodle, anyway, so his efforts to get it passed amount to the demand "VOTE NOW!"

Because he has no clue how the legislative process works.

Honestly, this isn't even a clown show anymore.  This is just children in a sandbox pretending to be adults.  And of course the last redoubt is Trump's decision to pull the plug the last time:  he didn't really want that bill passed anyway.  Sort of like AG Session's claim this morning that he was just kidding about that "island in the Pacific" stuff.  Except he wasn't, because he reiterated his complain that "one judge out of 700" could thwart the will of the President, as if the only purpose of our legal system is to stand behind the POTUS and genuflect in the direction of D.C.

Well, when the POTUS is an extreme right wing Republican.  Otherwise:  states rights!

Count backwards from 100....


I'm going to paraphrase this run down of what Trump has done with his first 100 days (10 to go!  Never too early to celebrate!)  from Slate, because it is so good.

a)  still not even a bill on health care reform, and Ryan is now telling the House to focus on not shutting down government by Friday.   Which means:

b)  tax reform?  Not so much, and no time soon.

c)  Rollback Dodd/Frank?

I got my hopes up that I'd have something to cover when I saw that Trump had signed some executive orders relating to the rollback of Dodd-Frank financial regulations. But it turns out those orders, which the president made a show of signing, were just instructions to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to "review" the regulations.
d)  North Korea?  China's problem.


And of course,

 the powerful Navy armada he'd bragged last week about sending to the Sea of Japan to intimidate Kim Jong-un turns out to have been 3,000 miles away from the Korean peninsula at the time. So the U.S. isn't really doing anything in that area right now either.
e)  NAFTA?  Let it be.  China a "currency manipulator"?  See North Korea, above.

f)
The Russian hacking/cybersecurity report that Trump said would be done within 90 days of his taking office is not only not done, it hasn't even been started and it doesn't seem like anyone knows who's even supposed to be doing it.
g)

The "major investigation" into voter fraud that Trump said Mike Pence was launching two months ago has never been heard from again.
h)
The Iran nuclear agreement—whose dismantling Trump called the "number one priority" of his administration—remains intact. But—and stop me if you've heard one this before—the administration just announced this week that it would launch an "interagency review" of the Iran deal! It "did not say how long the review would take," Reuters reports.
i)  Remember the "wiretapping" of Trump by Obama?  Or Susan Rice spilling the beans and "unmasking" people?  Yeah, nobody else does, either.

j)

Israel/Palestine, the opioid crisis, veterans' health care and a number of other issues have been assigned to Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law, who has no policy or political experience and reportedly developed a foreign-policy position during the 2016 campaign by looking up the word "China" on Amazon.com and calling one of the authors whose names came up.
k)  The Muslim travel ban?  Over to you, General Sessions!

And the cherry on the sundae:

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump told reporters that he wanted Congress to vote on “both” a spending bill and revised health care legislation by the end of next week.

“I think we want to keep the government open, don’t you agree?” Trump said. “I think we’ll get both.”

On Friday, however, Trump walked that timetable back, saying there was “no particular rush.”

“It’ll happen. You’ll see what happens,” he said. “Doesn’t matter if it’s next week. Next week, doesn’t matter.”
It's the weekend.  He needs to play some golf.  Maybe next weekend, too.

Friday, April 21, 2017

My mommy? Or Umami?

That's me in the spotlight....

I was actually hoping the word was going to be something slightly more elegant, like "umami."  Umami is the preferred word for taste, now; sweet, salty, sour, and bitter are so passé (as is "passé").  All flavors now revolve around "umami," even if we aren't quite sure what that flavor is (the four basics at least had the virtue of being distinctly identifiable).*

Instead, we get something that sounds like a new puzzle fad:  "tsundoku".

Apparently I'm not that bad; I don't pile stacks of books on the furniture (the Lovely Wife won't allow it).  I do leave books scattered about the house, but singularly, not in piles.  I do have seven sets of bookshelves in four rooms, and left to my own devices would probably put shelves in every room in the house.  Except then I'd have that many more books and shelves to dust, so it's probably just as well.

I have books from my graduate school career, from law school, from seminary, and just from my own predilections.  I have fewer and fewer novels, although at one point that's all I read.  I hardly read any more, not compared to the consumption of books in my youth.  I read my way through everything worth reading (which was a lot, but not everything) in three libraries in my hometown (two at school, and the Carnegie downtown, long since no longer a library.  *sigh*).  I was quite sure, in my youth, that I'd end up like this:


I may yet.  But my problem is I don't have more books than I could ever read; I have more books than I want to read.  "And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh."  I finally got old enough to think the Preacher might be on to something there.

*yeah, I know, "meaty," "brothy."  Just go ahead and say it tastes like chicken.

"A government of laws, not of men"

Isn't that the idea?

“I wasn’t diminishing the judge or the island of Hawaii, that beautiful place, give me a break,” Sessions said later in response to Velshi, who asked about criticism of Sessions’ remark. “I was just making the point that’s very real: one judge out of 700 has stopped the President of the United States from doing what he believes is necessary to protect our safety and security.”

It only takes one judge; that's how the system works.  Any imputation from the Attorney General or his office that the judge's decision was invalid per se marks that office holder as unfit for the office.  It also raises a question of simple competence:  why is this man still talking?  Why does he continue to defend an indefensible statement, because every response is more risible than the original statement.

It doesn't matter where the ruling came from; it doesn't matter how many judges signed off on it.  If AG Sessions thinks the executive orders of the President he serves are superior to the legal opinions of a judge in a court of competent jurisdiction, he thinks so little of our legal system he should not be heading the Department of Justice.

"Where's all the people?"


So here we go, again:  Christianity and the problem of "belief".

Even if it is true that American liberalism would flourish if it returned to the churches, the prospects for that happening are slim. The biggest reason people have left the mainline is not sociological. It’s theological. People simply don’t believe what the churches teach about God. No social or material inducement may make a difference. In that sense, secular liberals are more sincere about belief than are adherents to the prosperity gospel, which promises riches to the faithful.

No, I'm not going to argue with definitions of "belief," as if that would make a difference to anybody; and I'm not going to attack the "theology" of the idea that people are leaving mainline churches because of theology.  In fact, I think that's true.  I think the problem is the age of churches, v. the age of "millennials."  As the article points out a few paragraphs earlier:

Half of American Presbyterians are age 59 or over; half of atheists and agnostics are under 34.

(No, we're not going to argue the boundaries of 'atheist' and 'agnostic,' either.  Take them as read.)  Valid or invalid, the statistic is arrestingly accurate, and puts me in the median age of Presbyterians, if not of most mainline denominations.  And take it as read my millennial-aged daughter, who loves me dearly, would not get out of bed on Sunday morning to come to church if I still had a pulpit.  Because I would be one of the younger people there, and she would be one of the youngest.

Age does matter.

So the problem is still not theological, otherwise Joel Osteen's services would not be packed with younger people, and so many non-denominational and non-mainline churches would not be flourishing (in the parts of the country where they do.  Granted this is as much cultural as anything else.).  But in another sense, it is.  When I was preaching the gospel according to Dom Crossan (well, strictly speaking, I never was, but might as well have been for the elder members of my flock), the young people (teenagers then; adults with children of their own by now) liked it.  It was the "old people" who didn't.  (They didn't, as it turned out, like a lot of things.  Let's keep this simple for the purpose of discussion, okay?)  I knew there was a theological component that appealed to the "olds" and one that appealed to the young.  Let's set "atonement" as the line of demarcation.

It's a dangerous line, because it's the surest way of getting me labeled an "atheist," if not at least a "non-Christian" or at best a "liberal Christian," meaning too liberal to be trustworthy in matters theological.  Again, the fight over my theology is not the issue:  that this theology provokes a fight, is the issue.  Is such a theology, then, to be dismissed, quelled, kept quiet, discarded?  Am I throwing out the baby with the bathwater to preach it as a valid Christianity suitable for a new generation, as new wine to be put into new wineskins?

The interesting thing about that metaphor is that the wine is always wine; it is not fundamentally altered from the traditional definition of "wine" by being new.  It's still wine, and wine still needs wineskins, or in modern parlance, bottles.  The metaphor now might be:  do we need corks, or are artificial corks acceptable?  Tradition says only cork will do; but cork was only used because synthetics were not available, and synthetics to do the job cork did, without the problem of supply and destruction (since so many more people like wine today than did before) are now actually superior.

You can tell already, if you didn't know, that I'm not interested in arguments about conserving traditions.  In my experience traditions do quite well on their own.  I find liturgical worship far more interesting than "modern" worship, or even the Reformed tradition of worship so many Protestants are familiar with.  This is not, however, a universal pleasure, as well I know.  Still, I find it a tradition with virtues, with life, with adaptability, as opposed to the modern forms of foolishness I saw in videotapes in seminary.  Or the dull, rather lifeless forms I sat through in the Reformed tradition, forms beloved by some but deathly dull to me.

But what about that issue of "belief"?

I suspect that for many of the spiritual liberals Jain and Levites are talking about, there is just one problem: belief. According to a Pew Research Center study released last year, the most common reason adults gave for disaffiliating from the religion of their childhood was that they no longer believe. Only a quarter of them identify as atheists or agnostics; the rest are, religiously speaking, “nothing in particular.” These non-religious Americans do tend to be politically more liberal than religious ones. They are Douthat’s audience.

Even though his argument is mainly sociological, Douthat acknowledges that belief is the key obstacle. But where Pascal invited the nonbeliever “to convince yourself, not by increase of proofs of God, but by the abatement of your passions,” Douthat browbeats the atheist. “Sure, your flying spaghetti monster joke makes you a lot smarter than Aquinas, Karl Barth, Martin Luther King. Sure.” This glib approach only makes skeptical readers dig in further against faith. Belief is no trivial matter; you can’t taunt someone into it.

Going back to Christianity’s origins, Paul taught that it was belief, not ethnicity or social status, that made someone a Christian, and faith, not deeds, that made a Christian worthy of salvation. The Protestant Reformation and, later, the growth of Evangelical churches reiterated this emphasis on belief as the core of Christianity and the prerequisite to belonging to the church. In the gospel according to Prince, now a year departed, Jesus assures his listeners, “All I really need / Is to know that you believe.”

As any number of atheists who attended a seder for the Jewish Passover last week could tell you, belief is not inherent in all organized religious practice. But it is in Christianity. The teaching that Christianity is first of all about belief was intended to open church membership to any person. In a skeptical age, it may be the biggest impediment to greater Christian affiliation and the broad-based civic Christianity Douthat wishes to see.
I think there are as many different definitions of "belief" in those paragraphs, as there are uses of the word.  But that analysis doesn't approach the fundamental problem.  The question is not "What do we mean when we use the word 'belief'?"; the question is:  "Do we need to define 'belief' in a way that makes sense to people today?"  Because I don't even agree that belief is the core of Christianity; in fact, I think the insistence on the point is the problem.

Then again, I'm an atheist; or a closeted agnostic; or a "liberal Christian."

Younger Americans who have left Christianity are simply taking a longstanding Christian doctrine at its word. The churches told them they had to believe in order to belong. They don’t believe. So they left. In doing so, they may well have left a vacuum in their lives and communities. But in an important sense, they may also have taken Christian teaching more seriously than the Times’ official believer does.

Belief was once the cement that held together the church as a pillar of society, the argument goes.  It doesn't anymore, and frankly it hasn't since at least the 1960's.  None of this is new, it's just an ongoing change in Western culture that dates back to the Enlightenment.   Then again, was it belief that made the grandparents of my German-descended church members say "You must go (to church)!" in German? (It sounds so much more imperative in that language.)  Was it belief that made my alcoholic grandfather sober up and get to church every Sunday morning?  Was it belief that made my father go to church, even as he grumbled about every pastor the church had but the one he liked, long ago?  There wasn't much belief in my parents' reaction to my decision to leave a failing law career with a 1 year old daughter in tow and move away for one more post-graduate degree and yet another career, this one in ministry (except a belief I was making a mistake).  How much belief have I ever seen in any congregation?  How much was belief a motivator for any of the people I pastored, the ones who loved me and the ones who despised me?

I don't think any of them were motivated by belief at all:  neither in the certainty of the existence of a Cosmic Judge who would weigh us and find us all wanting, nor in the assurance of a loving God who wanted only the best for us.  That was background; but it wasn't foundational.  Something else was foundational, and I'm not sure at all that something else was theological.

People found in church what they wanted, what they needed.  My fondest church memories are of people my age being there.  I had friends in church that I didn't have at all in junior high, and new friends in church in high school.  My parents had friends in church we socialized with frequently:  Sundays after church, Friday or Saturday nights; Christmas and birthdays and New Year's and 4th of July.  They had children my age, we were all friends because of the church we all knew each other through.  Did belief really matter?  We said it did, when questioned; but was that just a socialized response?  That church no longer exists, either for my daughter or for me.  The church I grew up in was the church of my parents, and they persisted in it long after I was free to go, and then I moved away.  I found churches with people my age, but fewer and fewer with people my age and religious preference (not a "mega-church," thank you very much!) or, later, with children the age of my daughter.  Then I became a pastor and churches kicked me around and I left altogether (again, recapitulating early adulthood), and there the story becomes too personal to be universal.  But what happened to that church of my childhood?  Did we lose our belief?  Did we lose our theology?

Or was the change sociological?  Some left the church of my childhood over perceived matters of theology, but it was really no more important (or valid) than leaving because you didn't want the church by buy new carpet for the sanctuary, or you didn't like the new pastor.  It was never because of "belief."  Why is it now?

I suspect because belief is an easier target to aim at.  Of course, I can understand why people want to think it's about "belief" when you have office seekers wandering in front of microphones to say stuff like this:

"I personally believe, as many Montanans do, that God created the Earth. I believe that God created the Earth. I wasn't there, I don't know how long it took, I don't know how he did it exactly. But I look around me at the grandeur in this state and I believe God created the Earth."
I don't believe what that guy believes, but what theological position am I going to take that's going to fix the perception that his belief is my belief?  Preferably something I can fit on a bumper sticker or sing in a hymn, because nobody wants to come to church to read my theological arguments.   I don't think, however, arguing about my belief v. his belief, or even about the subject of belief at all, is going to do a thing for mainline Protestantism.

Establishing churches where people feel welcome and are among people their age, will.  What kind of church would interest people as young as my daughter?  How would I know?  I'm an old guy, and I'm sure my beliefs about it are a very secondary consideration.  There are reasons to continue the work of the church that are far more concrete than "belief."

Believe me.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

How many shovels does the DOJ have?

Has no one in the Trump Administration heard of the first rule of holes?

“Hawaii is, in fact, an island in the Pacific – a beautiful one where the Attorney General’s granddaughter was born,” Justice Department spokesman Ian Prior said in a statement. “The point, however, is that there is a problem when a flawed opinion by a single judge can block the President’s lawful exercise of authority to keep the entire country safe.”

Whether or not the judicial opinion is flawed, the very basis of judicial review is that one court can, in fact, block the President's exercise of authority when it is deemed unlawful.  There's a lot of special pleading and begging the question in that statement, but that's not the worst part of it.

The worst part is, it sounds like something Sean Spicer would say.  It's an ignorant defense of an ignorant statement that draws more attention to what a backwoods boob our current Attorney General is.

And every good lawyer knows the first rule of holes, so this doesn't say much for the people running the Justice Department.

Even Though Elvis Made a Movie There?

Does the appellate brief begin with
 "The lower court's ruling is invalid because it sits on an island in the Pacific"?

I'm old enough to remember Cokie Roberts chiding Barack Obama for going home to Hawaii for a vacation (IIRC), because it was too "exotic."

“We are confident that the President will prevail on appeal and particularly in the Supreme Court, if not the Ninth Circuit,” Sessions said in a Wednesday night interview on “The Mark Levin” radio show, first flagged by CNN’s KFILE. “So this is a huge matter. I really am amazed that a judge sitting on an island in the Pacific can issue an order that stops the President of the United States from what appears to be clearly his statutory and Constitutional power.”

And I do know of people who still confuse "New Mexico," the state between Texas and Arizona, with Mexico, the country, so that people who hale from New Mexico are considered foreigners.

Which I guess is some kind of comfort.  Validity depends on geography, or something.  I mean, no judge from the Old South would dare oppose the President's "statutory and Constitutional power," now, would he?

Adding:  that island in the Pacific has two U.S. Senators.  Who knew?


I was just kidding about the "death".....

"Words matter."  Didn't Rush Limbaugh used to say that?

This is why the POTUS shouldn't get history lessons from foreign leaders:

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal last week, Trump said Xi told him during a recent summit that “Korea actually used to be a part of China.” The comments sparked outrage in Seoul and became an issue in South Korea’s presidential race, prompting the foreign ministry to seek to verify what Xi actually said.

“It’s a clear fact acknowledged by the international community that, for thousands of years in history, Korea has never been part of China,” foreign ministry spokesman Cho June-hyuck said at a briefing in Seoul on Thursday.
The gob, she is smacked.  But, as I said, Trump loved hearing Xi read Trump's own words back to him about the missile strike on Syria as if they were Xi's original sentiments.  So this isn't surprising, so much as it is much, much worse.  And yes, there is a context, as Josh Marshall provides:

On Wednesday, after it was revealed that the carrier strike group was actually thousands of miles away and had been heading in the opposite direction, toward the Indian Ocean, South Koreans felt bewildered, cheated and manipulated by the United States, their country’s most important ally.

“Trump’s lie over the Carl Vinson,” read a headline on the website of the newspaper JoongAng Ilbo on Wednesday. “Xi Jinping and Putin must have had a good jeer over this one.”

“Like North Korea, which is often accused of displaying fake missiles during military parades, is the United States, too, now employing ‘bluffing’ as its North Korea policy?” the article asked.

“The 50 million South Koreans, as well as many common-sensical people around the world, cannot help but feel embarrassed and shocked,” said Youn Kwan-suk, spokesman of the main opposition Democratic Party, which is leading in voter surveys before the May 9 presidential election.

And yes, Trump really did say what he's reported to have said:

He then went into the history of China and Korea. Not North Korea, Korea. And you know, you’re talking about thousands of years …and many wars. And Korea actually used to be a part of China. And after listening for 10 minutes I realized that not — it’s not so easy. You know I felt pretty strongly that they have — that they had a tremendous power over China. I actually do think they do have an economic power, and they have certainly a border power to an extent, but they also — a lot of goods come in. But it’s not what you would think. It’s not what you would think. 
So here we are, making America Great Again, and putting America First.  And it's working out almost precisely as predicted; or at least as foreseen.

Old times there are not forgotten....


Maybe the $400 juicer is an object lesson in hubris:

Juicero is a juicing machine and service that secured about $120 million in funding from the likes of Google and other venture capitalists before it rolled out to 17 states this week. The pricey machine is built to squeeze the subscription-only Juicero bags of chopped fruit and veggies, which it reportedly “cold-presses” using four tons of force. Some have called the machine a Keurig for juice.

But there’s one teeny problem: It turns out you don’t need the machine. Bloomberg reports that recently, “some investors were surprised to discover a much cheaper alternative: You can squeeze the Juicero bags with your bare hands.” Hand-squeezing the bags for 90 seconds, they found, rendered almost as much juice as using the $400 machine for two minutes.
Or, as the article points out, you could just eat a piece of fruit.

We are told technology will change our world in profound and "disruptive" ways.  So it seemed reasonable to conclude that Donald Trump had "disrupted" American politics.  Like the $400 juicer nobody needed, however, it may be we don't need any theories of "disruption" or "fake news" on social media to explain Trump's success.  Turns out Trump won the "old old" vote:  "He won 53 percent of voters ages 65 and over, but only 37 percent of voters ages 29 and younger. Trump is the Twitter-using president, not the president chosen by Twitter’s users."  Put a bit more particularly:

The only age group that overwhelmingly voted for Trump were Catholics age 75 and older, who went for Trump 57% to 44%. The age groups roughly corresponding to Baby Boomers and Gen Xers split narrowly, with Boomers favoring Trump by two points (49% to 47%) and Xers favoring Clinton by two points (46% to 44%). But Millennial Catholics favored Clinton by a whopping 31% (59% to 28%), by far the largest split of any age group.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the white Catholics who heavily favored Trump in 2016 are what the gerontologists call the “old old.” With life expectancy hovering around 81 for white females and 76 for white males, it doesn’t take a math wiz to figure out that many of these Trump voters won’t be around in 2020 and most will have gone to that great election booth in the sky by 2024.
Patricia Miller focusses on the religious categorization of voters, Ezra Klein focusses on their likelihood to use social media.  Either way, the basis is age, not communications technology or even religious belief.  The older people get, the more likely they were to vote for Trump.  But that's not even the issue:  the issue is age.

People are living longer and longer.  It may soon be normal for Boomers to reach retirement age and still be responsible for caring for their parents.  It is a glimpse of what Millenial surely have to look forward to.  These aging patterns are distorting society in ways the Baby Boom never did.  I've seen it in church congregations, where the average age is still my parent's generation (as it was when I was a child).  The effect is to squeeze out younger adults (one reason for the success of mega-churches.  You don't see a sea of grey heads in Joel Osteen's congregation on TV, or in any other TV and billboard-dependent pastor's church).  This is an issue the institutional church has to deal with, but one it is not equipped to deal with.  And I don't know what the answer would be, anyway

But it is now the elephant in the room in our politics.  Miller thinks Democrats just have to wait for these "old old" to die off, but that's the vulture theology of the undertaker:  sooner or later they all have to come to us, or in this case, in the long run we're all dead.  And an aging populace is going to be the elephant in the room in more ways than one.

What about the fact that Boomers are next in-line to become the "old old"?  And they went for Trump by 2 points; and it was enough, in context.

This situation is not going to magically reverse itself when my parent's generation finally shuffles off the stage.  At least Ezra Klein is more circumspect, and wiser in his insights:

Social media is new, it is transformative, and it is certainly changing American politics. But it’s not the only force at play, nor even the main one. And while it’s hard for news junkies (myself included) to remember, most people’s media feeds tilt more toward baby pictures, wedding announcements, and funny videos than political punditry. Those of us who follow lots of politicians and politicized news sources are outliers, and we shouldn’t extrapolate too much from our weird experience.

Whatever is tearing our politics apart is deeper and more universal than the digital filter bubbles that get so much attention — and it seems to be most powerful among the people least likely to get their news from social media.
That's a fault line that's going to be around for a long, long time.  Maybe we should consider the power of simply eating a piece of fruit, rather than spending millions to produce an expensive machine that doesn't do the job any better than human hands.  Rube Goldberg knew a thing or two about that, but maybe you have to be at least "old" to get that reference.

"Old School"


"You're my boy, Blue!"

That should be what I mean by the title.  If you still don't get it, just move on.  I have low tastes sometimes, best not to dwell on it.  But I'm putting something together here, gathering bits to twig and straw to build a kind of nest; I'm getting old, it seems the appropriate activity somehow.

It turns out Trump won because of the "old old", not because of "fake news" being devoured by devotees of social media. That's crucial background as we observe the professional passing of Bill O'Reilly, a man news reports say was championed and defended by Rupert Murdoch, but finally forced out by Murdoch's sons.  That generation gap, as we Boomers used to say, is significant.

O'Reilly, it seems, stayed on the air because of old people:

The first was typical of the cultural conservatism of our age, and generally consisted of free-floating anger at any figure or institution that didn’t uphold what O’Reilly called “traditional values.” A college professor would call America a fascist country, or a retailer would announce that it would greet customers with “happy holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.” O’Reilly would rant and rave; he would call for people to be fired; he would bemoan that America was becoming less religious and less white. (One of his many silly books was called Culture Warrior; the latest is Old School.) Sure, Limbaugh and Hannity would occasionally focus on culture instead of politics, but for O’Reilly, it was what fueled the show, and what really got him exercised. (Much was made of his Levittown upbringing and disdain for snobby elites.) Even better, he didn’t appear to be faking it in the way one often suspects of certain right-wing hosts. All of the details that have leaked out about O’Reilly—from the harassment claims to the violent way he behaved toward his ex-wife—strongly suggest that he was not playing a character when he fumed on the air.

But the aspect of The O’Reilly Factor that always shocked me was a different kind of resentment, which took the form of the anchor’s unrepentant solipsism. It’s simply impossible to overstate how much of each night’s show was consumed by O’Reilly’s own grievances. He skirmished with everyone from Matt Lauer to Rosie O’Donnell to Al Franken, and those fights would invariably become the topic of the day on his show. He spent countless hours talking about himself—usually as the victim of various conspiracies. (Frequently, George Soros was the conspiracy’s prime mover.) He would drone on about the New York Times and how it was out to make him look bad. It was endless, and it was exceptionally boring—to everyone except his legions of viewers and fans.
Grandpa Simpson without the charm, in other words.  And not coincidentally, perhaps the secret of Donald Trump's success:

I never really had a theory for how this supposed man of the people got away with talking about nothing but himself. Then Donald Trump came along. Here was another rich guy who built a following speaking up for the working man. Like O’Reilly he seemed entirely driven by resentment: at President Obama, at the media, at the people who doubted him. And like O’Reilly, he spoke almost entirely of himself. His stump speeches were shocking, in part, because they were rarely about anything other than Donald Trump. When I would see him talk to a bunch of working-class voters in the Midwest and appeal to them by describing his own battles with CNN, I was surprised. But not as surprised as I would have been if I hadn’t been watching O’Reilly all these years.
I was surprised, maybe because I never watched O'Reilly (really couldn't stand him, for reasons I'll get into below).  None of his schtick ever appealed to me, but it's practically the dictionary definition of "Cranky Old Man."  Trump is 70 (older than your humble host, but only by a few years, and those years begin to matter more and more as age turns adults into children again), and it's no real surprise he sounds like O'Reilly.  O'Reilly has always struck me as preternaturally old, especially in his FoxNews incarnation.  So what's going on is the aging of America, and the last gasp of the "old old" before they, in large enough numbers to matter to the body politic, shuffle off their mortal coils.  It's been building since FoxNews went on the air, and now it has reached its apotheosis in the man in the White House.

It's no surprise, by the way, that O'Reilly is being replaced with Tucker Carlson.  It's also doubtful Carlson will ever have the audience share O'Reilly did.  He's too young for the crowd that watched O'Reilly, but he's young, too; compared to O'Reilly, anyway.  He's more Nelson than Grandpa, too; but that's another story.

This seems to me to be a pretty good description of O'Reilly:

That was O’Reilly, though: a man who built an empire pretending to be something he wasn’t. He was a smug rage-volcano who spewed cant and bluster, who called his shtick common sense, and who yelled at dissenters until they backed down or changed the channel. For 20 years, he was the biggest bullshitter on television. *
It's also a pretty good description of Donald Trump; and the evidence is slowly mounting that Donald Trump's schtick is already wearing thin.  The Texas Lyceum says that Joaquin Castro polls ahead of Ted Cruz for the U.S. Senate already, albeit by a narrow margin.   It's too early to make much of such things, but then again, Joe Ossoff just won a 48% majority in a crowded field for a House seat that has been GOP since 1979. and his nearest GOP competitor only won 18% of the vote.  Joaquin Castro is known to some in Texas, but Ted Cruz is known to everybody.  And looking at Donald Trump in the White House, even Texans aren't so sure they want Ted Cruz back in the Senate (and hasn't he been subdued lately?  Wonder why that is, huh?)  Cruz appealed to the same cohort as Trump, even though Cruz is much younger than yours truly.  But Trump has sucked all the air out of that particular room, and he may well be damaging that brand as soundly as George W. did the Bush political name.

A lot of the country is looking around and deciding old people, the "old old" especially, really shouldn't be left in charge of things.  We have to clarify this isn't a 'never trust anyone over 30' movement; Bernie Sanders is older than Trump, but he stays remarkably popular.  He has his cranky side, his "old man" qualities, but he doesn't rely on them the way O'Reilly did and Trump does.  I think, quite seriously, Trump is running the Nation's Cranky Grandpa routine into the ground, and burying it.  Rupert Murdoch would haves stood behind O'Reilly, despite $13 million on payouts and more stories of harassment coming out daily; it was his sons, hardly Millenials themselves, who forced the issue.

Not all of the nation's "old old" are guilty of being Grandpa Simpson or Bill O'Reilly or rabid Trump supporters, of course.  We don't need to vilify any individual or group of individuals; but if the concept serves to rally more people younger than the most elderly of the elderly to get involved in politics and actually vote against the gerrymandered districts that are supposed to guarantee one-party success in perpetuity, then maybe the times they are a changin' after all.  Maybe the good thing about O'Reilly being forced out is that, like the special elections to come after Georgia, the public may be paying attention to the Cranky Old Man and realizing we don't want him in charge, that having a bullshitter in the White House is no way to run a country.  O'Reilly's fall may be the result of Trump's rise; but his fall also presages Trump's fate.

*If you really feel like chasing that down, read about O'Reilly and the "Paris Business Review."  It's a Trumpian example of the utility of pure fantasy.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Ummmm.....





This election was for the seat held by Newt Gingrich for years, and then by Tom Price.  Three counties were involved.  The Democrat, Joe Ossoff, won DeKalb county by 58.6%, Fulton county by 47.6%, and Cobb county by 41.3%.  He won the overall vote, in a field of 11 Republican candidates, 4 Democrats, and 2 independents.  He failed to win outright by 1.9%.  His opponent in the June runoff won only 19.8% of the vote.  The next nearest Democrat won only 500 votes; Ossoff won 92,390.  Handel won 37, 993.  Handel's best showing was in Fulton County, where she won 22.3% of the vote.  This is pretty much an unprecedented showing by a Democrat.

Keith Olbermann is right:  the President is getting crazier.


(and it's the official White House line:  Ossoff lost, because he didn't win outright.  And it's a HUGE loss!

“They were clear going into this election, they said their goal was to get over 50 percent. They came up short,” Spicer said during the daily press briefing when asked about the race. “I think this was a big loss for them. The bottom line is they went all-in on it. They said that they — their goal was to get over 50 percent. They came up short.”

In a district that's been a safe Republican seat since at least Newt Gingrich was in the House, and that Price abandoned precisely because it was "safe."  This gives "whistling past the graveyard" a whole new meaning.  Then again, Trump had bigger crowds at his inauguration than Obama ever did, right?)


Eastertide 2017: Notes Toward a Wider Theological Insight


If you are a non-believer, are you also a atheist?  All atheists are non-believers; but are all non-believers atheists?

The term is a slippery one.  In a theistic culture, where believing in a god is considered de rigeur, to openly not believe can get you branded as an atheist.  In modern usage, an atheist is a person who denounces others who believe in gods, and argues against belief and the people who hold them (although usually those arguments come up in a Western culture context, so the god referred to is the God of Abraham, who is also the God of Mohammed.  Seldom do Western atheists inveigh against Hinduism and its pantheon of gods, or, for different reasons, against Judaism.)  An atheist is usually associated with someone harshly critical of religion, like the late Madalyn Murray O'Hair or Christopher Hitchens, or the still alive but largely silent Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris.  They are the contemporary models for an atheist and a nonbeliever.  But doesn't that mean there are many non-believers indifferent to the question of whether the God of Abraham is real, or religion is reliable or detrimental?  All atheists are non-believers; but are all non-believers atheists?

I ask this question because of this study, purporting to show there are more atheists now in America than there ever have been; or, perhaps more accurately stated, there are more than allow themselves to admit to strangers they are atheists.  But are atheists merely people who don't believe in God?  Is that the threshold?

Of course, that's a cultural threshold.  Buddhists, as best I understand, don't believe in gods.  Are all Buddhists atheists?  What about Hindus, who recognize many gods?  Are non-Christians atheists?  Or non-Muslims?  Some members of both group think so; which definition is correct?

There’s something else to consider here: Our experience with religion can’t really be boiled down to one question — “Do you believe in God?”
Many of us have a complicated relationship with religion. There are plenty of people celebrating Easter and Passover this week not because they have devout faith, but because it’s a cultural tradition they cherish and identify with.

Pew regularly finds data that supports this multifaceted view. When people in their surveys say, “I believe in God,” Pew will often ask a follow-up question: “How certain are you?” And they find that not everyone is so sure.

About a quarter of the US population say they believe in God but are less than absolutely certain of it, Smith says.

The lesson: Belief in God doesn’t exist as a binary. Not everyone is certain about what they feel; many people have shades of gray. “There are gradations of belief,” Smith says. “It’s not that it’s wrong to ask ‘yes or no,’ but it’s not the whole story.”

And Gervais admits: His measure doesn’t capture the complex and contradictory feelings many people have about religion.
If you asked me if I believed in God, I might well say "No," just because I reject the premise of the question and the assumptions about the nature of "belief."  If you ask me if I have faith in God, I would say "Yes," and then you would probably be confused and think I was playing games or I was a closet atheist who wouldn't come out of the closet, or a "believer" who wanted to hide my "belief."  And that's just one way of stating the problem:  people do have complex and contradictory feelings, as well as thoughts, about religion.   And some of them only seem "complex" and "contradictory" because we have rather loose and vague ideas about what "faith" and "belief" mean, even though they are common enough English words.  This seems like an exercise in sophistry; but this is where the historic Christian creeds came from.

If you recite a creed in a profession of faith, the words of the creed say what you believe.  Reciting the creed already presumes a "belief in God," but when the creed says "I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth," it's not the same thing as saying "I believe in God."  At least not to people who believe in God, but don't accept the words of the creed as their own.  The modern question "Do you believe in God" is not necessarily answered by the first words of the creed.  If I answer the question with those words, I assume you understand what I mean by "Creator of heaven and earth."  But what I understand and what you understand are probably very different things, especially if you think my belief depends upon an anthropomorphic deity fashioning the earth (or the cosmos, if we start with the first story in Genesis) with something like "hands" and breathing divine breath directly into nostrils of a human shaped from clay, then later removing a rib from that human to fashion the first woman; and I don't mean anything like that at all.  What I mean might well get me branded an atheist by some Christians; and then where are we?

Complex and contradictory ideas and feelings about matters religious?  Have you ever been to a seminary?  At least there you wouldn't get arguments like the Dawkins Foundation posted a few years back concerning the liturgical season (or the holiday just past):

Last year, the Dawkins Foundation posted an Internet meme claiming that Easter is named after the Babylonian goddess Ishtar, which was dragged out again by contrarians who reposted it to remind everyone what Easter is “really” about. This secret history of Easter is a bit like the childhood myth that consuming Pop Rocks and Coke at the same time causes your stomach to explode: It doesn’t matter if it’s true, it’s fun to tell people because it makes you feel smart. These smug proclamations are not only irritating, they’re a disturbing index of our level of discourse about religion. Surrounding the Easter/Ishtar conspiracy theory is a toxic brew of anti-intellectualism, heresiological claims masquerading as historical ones, and simple sadism and incivility facilitated by new media.

"Last year," in that quote, would be 2015.  There are serious problems with the information in the Dawkins Foundation post, but the most important one is this:  "Easter" is an English word.  It isn't the word used in almost any other language where Easter is observed.  It's a word the Venerable Bede attributed to an otherwise unknown German goddess, claiming it was taken from a celebration of that goddess at the same time of year, and so the word "Easter" found its way into English (Bede relates this in the context of the ecclesiastical history of the English speaking people, so the point deserves emphasis).  But no scholar has ever been able to find any evidence of Bede's Germanic goddess.

"Easter" is an English word.  There is no direct connection between English history and Babylonian history that would connect Ishtar to Easter.  The claim that there is such a direct connection is absolute nonsense, a product of the absence of both reasoning and knowledge.

Now, are atheists the only people who are rational and knowledgeable because they reject any belief in any god?  Or are they simply Westerners who argue about people who profess Christianity or Islam (it's not done to question the religious bona fides of the other people of the Book, the Jews)?

The study itself returns me to my oft-cited-to-the-point-of-cliche statistic from early in the 20th century, when only 40% of Americans admitted to a stranger that they attended church regularly.  Maybe they didn't admit to being atheists, but then atheism was not yet connected to Aldous Huxley and Bertrand Russell, much less Madalyn Murray O'Hair or Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens.  Except for the last, of those contemporary three, whatever happened to them?  Evangelists for atheism, they seem to have fallen silent.  They were very public atheists, left their stamp on atheism; but did they define atheism?

All atheists are non-believers; but are all non-believers atheists?  If we are going to declare a rise in the percentage of the population that doesn't declare any belief, we not only have to define our terms, we have to set a baseline.  Are we becoming more atheistic?  Or simply less interested in categories of religious belief?  The latter seems truer about American culture:  the fundamental Protestantism that led to the creation of churches like the Congregational Methodists.  I saw a sign for such a church in deep East Texas recently, far back in the woods away from civilization.  I have no idea who they are, but suspect they didn't like the merger of the Methodists with the United Brethren, yielding the United Methodists. Or maybe they predate that merger. My father, who grew up a Methodist, used to say they were anything but "United."  There are Congregational congregations that never joined the UCC in its merger in 1957.  Fractioning and splitting and going your own way in matters religious is as American as violence and cherry pie.  Whenever we act like religious belief in America was once placid and unitary and as solid as a slab, we distort our history and imagine ourselves more special and unique than we really are.  Mark Twain would walk among us and wonder where the freethinkers went.  We take recent history as the history of the country; we are as anachronistic as buggy whip makers, yet we keep cranking out buggy whips convinced they are both useful, and that no one has ever done this before.  Unmoored in history, we imagine it all started with us.  Thomas Jefferson's "Bible" would get him labeled an atheist in some circles; the Deists among the "Founding Fathers" (they were not unitary either) would be "atheists" to many of the more concerned-with-your-creedal-statement religious "leaders" today.   The more relevant question than "more atheists than when?" might well be how many Christians are mere baptized pagans?  It may be that it is more socially acceptable to announce one's non-belief in Christianity (it is an act of courage to declare yourself a Muslim) than it presumably was in the 1950's (the time of the greatest rise in church attendance in American history), but "Even the pagans do as much, don't they?"  (Matthew 5:47b, SV).

The more interesting question is:  who is really a believer, and why?  Indeed, there might be value in considering who is pagan, and who is Christian, and what they can learn from each other:

Here at home, we are now faced with the prospect of modern Americans seeking to be honest and honorable pagans. If Johnson is right, we can draw a non-polemical conclusion that does not deny faith and truth claims, but places the most important differences in a religious and not secular context. American pagans and American Christians have much in common as we seek to live out our spiritual lives in well-being, and we accomplish nothing good by reducing paganism to immorality and superstition. Our Christian distinction will then lie in our core commitment to Jesus Christ, not in the superiority of our morality or spirituality or hierarchy. And if young pagans are now theologizing their traditions, we may soon have the opportunity to reconsider our own pagan-Christian relationship, not by way of polemic but through wider theological insight. (Emphasis added)

"And they'll know we are Christians by our love."  Not by our answers to poll questions.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

"Have you seen the little piggies?"



This ad was the "game changer" that won Sen. Joni Ernst her place in the Senate.  So now how does Sen. Ernst "make 'em squeal"?

An audience member at a town hall in Wall Lake, Iowa, asked Ernst about Trump’s “weekends in Florida, costing us $3 million-plus in 100 days.”

“When you talked earlier about not a lot of money, deficits and everything, we’ve got to keep accountability,” he said.

“I agree with you,” Ernst said. “I do wish that he would spend more time in Washington, D.C.”

Ernst said she has “had the same concerns.”

“That is something I think that has been bothering not just me but some other members of our caucus,” she said.
The cost of these trips is in dispute; estimates range from $1 million per trip, to $3.6 million per trip.   Either way, Trump has spent far more than $3 million this year on trips to his estate alone.  I can't find any estimates that break out what Mar-a-lago charges the U.S. government for state visits (meals, housing, security, etc.), but no doubt the bill is larger than the bill already being paid to maintain the White House and a full-time kitchen staff who, apparently, has weekends off.  He has made 7 trips there since taking office.  He's been in office 12 weeks.

When does Sen. Ernst decide this is pork she has to cut, and not just something on her "if wishes were horses" list?

Eastertide 2017



I had ignored the White House Easter Egg Roll except for noting it apparently wasn't well planned.  But it clearly isn't going to be ignored.....

Joshua Gone Barbados


This is a call for revolution from someone who won't be involved in the revolution.  This is a call for "let's you and him fight!"  This is the cowardice of the academic, one who won't take a pulpit or be called to lead a popular movement (the main reason Dr. King's succeeded, aside from calling the prophet that the SCLC did).

This is kinda funny, and kinda pathetic.  Starting with the bottom and working up:

What did you think of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment?

Pope Francis, I think, is an amazing figure in the sense that he’s providing, I think, a new narrative for the Catholic church. If you can do that with Roman Catholicism and you can do that from the position of the Vatican—I don’t know how successful he’ll be—I think that it can be done in a lot other places as well.

I am shocked that the Spirit gave the Church a pope that is this revolutionary at this moment. He’s not a revolutionary in the sense that I as a Protestant would pick as a revolutionary. But these are Catholics. This is the Vatican, so it’s a different kind of revolution. But I can recognize it when I see it. So whereas I would be tearing down the walls of the Sistine Chapel (No! I love the art in the Sistine Chapel; I wouldn’t tear that down) but I would be opening up the Vatican in all sorts of ways.

I would have women priests within five minutes.

In the encyclical, which I read pretty closely, he works to maintain that Creator-Creation distinction. He says at several junctions, “We cannot confuse these two things.” Those are the places where I went, “Darn it!” He came this close to a theological revolution in the Catholic church, and he backs off at the last minute.

God is with us: what difference does that make? It makes a huge difference. Maybe we’ll treat each other better. Maybe we’ll treat the planet better. That was the missed moment of that encyclical.

But that’s my revolution.
Yeah, that's it; it's your revolution, and no one else's.

Not to pick on Professor Butler Bass too harshly; two years later we now see what it looks like to have a revolutionary in power who wants to "deconstruct" institutions.  Trump declared China a currency manipulator, made it a tentpole of his campaign to have that declaration made official when he took office.  One meeting with the president of China, Trump finds out how complicated the situation in the Koreas is; and decides he can 'do business' with China, who is NOT a currency manipulator after all (it's only words, right?).  Steve Bannon sat on the National Security Council with no warrant except the President's say so (and a supine Congress that allowed the law to be flouted, yet again.  IOKIYAR!).  Now Bannon is off the NSC, and his role sharply diminished as the old hands at getting things done in government take over (on national security that's an improvement, slightly; in the AG's office it will prove a disaster).

Whither Trump's revolution?  Is he the most powerful man in the world, or not?  Repeal of the ACA won't even happen, much less its replacement.  Does anyone really think the tax code is going to be re-written this year?  Ever?

Darn it!  He came this close to a revolution in the government, and he backed off!  Or maybe he was never that close, and governments can't be revolutionized; or deinstitutionalized; or deconstructed.  Or changed radically (from the root) at all.  No more can institutions.

And while we're on the subject of changing institutions, Bass strikes at the branches, and ignores the root:  the root is people.  People in America like the way government works, by and large.  They intended to vote for divided government, Clinton in the White House, Republicans in the Congress; each controlling the excesses of the other.  The shock of finding out the best laid plans had gang agley shook them out of their torpor, but doesn't yet seem to have awakened the grass roots (special elections are not turning out the bastards; not yet, anyway).  But the people got what they wanted, except they didn't.  Be careful what you wish for.

So do you wish for revolution?  Then you want someone else involved in it, or you want to be the leader when the dust settles.  Bystanders to revolution are the worst cowards of all.  Light the torch and burn it all down, or scatter before the chaos unleashed by others; but you don't get to roast marshmallows at the bonfire of the vanities.

The Pope, Professor Bass says, whiffed a chance to start a theological revolution.  But the Pope doesn't run the Catholic church, he leads it.  He leads, but the Church has to follow.  Any pastor will tell you that much; any politician will, too (especially those attending raucous town halls just now).  The problem for the revolution is not the institutions, it's the people in them.  And the people in them are living longer and longer and longer.  It's the Generation Gap of the Boomers now writ into a rapidly aging society.   New analyses of the Presidential election indicate Trump won, not the crowd on social media absorbing all that Russian-directed "fake news," but the "old old":  people who watch FoxNews and listen to Rush Limbaugh, who don't spend their time on Facebook or Breitbart.   I heard a statistic yesterday (veracity not determined) that 114 teachers in the Texas Teacher Retirement System are over the age of 100.  That's an obvious issue for pension plans set up to pay people to live on retirement for 10, maybe 20 years.  We have churches that kowtow to the elderly because they must be respected; but one reason those churches are dying is that they don't respect their youth, their young people, their children's children.  Husbands can't tell wives what to do; parents can't tell children what to believe, or how to worship, or who to worship with.  In my last church, at the age of 45, I was one of the youngest people in the room.  Many in the congregation resented me simply because I was not of their generation; I was of their children's generation.  They wanted the old pastor back, the one as old as them; but he, like them, had retired.  They didn't resent me personally so much as the fact of me.  I was different, I thought differently, I saw the church's mission and purpose differently.

The problem with the church is people.  The problem with the church is age; not of the institution, but of the people in the pews.

No Pope can change that.  No revolution can change that.  Indeed, that's the revolution we're facing, and no one wants to talk about it because no one can claim to be leading it.  Revolutions that we can imagine ourselves leading are good; revolutions that happen because of changing circumstances no one person or institution can control, are the problems the preferred revolution are supposed to fix.  Except it doesn't work that way.  Consider the French Revolution, which improved France eventually, but only after the Reign of Terror; or the Russian Revolution, which really didn't improve Russia much at all; or the American Revolution, which has come to the present with Donald Trump in the White House, Paul Ryan the 3rd most powerful person in government, and Mitch McConnell running the Senate.  Maybe Chou En-Lai was right, and it's too soon to tell about any of these revolutions.

Ms. Bass is right when she comments on the nature of most churches:

We have these churches that have been proclaiming complete equality of all humankind—theologically—while when you look at the institutions themselves, it’s a different story. Just this summer there was a Pew survey on religious diversity in America and it was sad. It was just sad. There were only a few that were genuinely diverse as religions: Jehovah’s Witnesses, one Pentecostal group, Muslims, and everybody else was not very diverse.

You start asking those questions, and sometimes people will say, “Oh, well, we really try!” or “Our church is open to everybody.” What’s happened is that churches have failed to ask the really deep questions. The church has just never dealt well with race. To ask deep questions of churches regarding race is one of the surest ways to get yourself kicked out of a church meeting—it’s a really sure way to get a conversation shut down.

That raises the question of empire. In a very really sense, many churches have played the hand, over and over again, of a corporate culture that privileges rich, white people, a political culture that privileges rich, white people, and a military culture that uses poor people of color in order to keep rich, white people safe.

And we don’t want to look at that, or we don’t have the eyes to look at it. Because the institution has kept us locked in a place that wants us to justify our niceness, but has failed to ask us to address the questions of poverty and class and color that really do advance the privilege of white people at the expense of other people in our society.
But it's not a question of "empire."  Ask any pastor, she will tell you, it isn't an abstract question of empire; it's sociological question of who we want to associate with.  It's an existential question of personhood.  It's a personal question of who we want to sit next to in worship, at covered dish suppers, in council meetings.  "Niceness" is a gloss on all that, but it isn't about politeness, it's about acceptance.  And Protestants, especially, don't do acceptance very well.  If we don't accept you, you can leave, or we will.  Catholics have the universal Church; Protestants have their congregation.  And that congregation must be protected at all costs, against enemies both foreign and domestic.  I reflect on the call to personal risk related in Dr. King's famous jail letter.  He describes the process used to prepare marchers to march peacefully for civil rights.  They weren't asked to oppose "the privilege of white people," which certainly existed more blatantly then than now.  They weren't asked to oppose a political or corporate culture, which is what was driving the police to use dogs and water cannons.  They weren't asked to question "empire."  Here's what Dr. King put to them: "Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?" "Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?"  You don't ask a church member to overcome empire and privilege and culture; you ask them to accept a stranger in their pew:  perhaps a black person, or an Asian, or a "Mexican."  Perhaps a gay, a lesbian, a transgender.  You ask a person, to accept another as a person.  That's what the church should do; and it's not revolutionary:  it's what Jesus told us to do.

Jesus told us to do a lot of things we don't want to do.

"Revolution" should be a tired trope by now.  The U.S. kicked off the idea of the virtues of revolt in the late 18th century, helping make the idea of "revolution" an attractive one in the 19th century.  As it played out, nothing really changed:  the U.S. didn't give up slavery until the "revolt" of the Southern states (which revolt failed).  The French didn't give up their monarchy entirely, not for a while (Proust still lived in a time of peers, although they had about as much influence as peers in England do today, a century after Proust).  Russia went on being Russia, and has gone back to being Russia.  The "Industrial Revolution" just upended the source of wealth; it didn't make the first last and the last first, or the first of all last and servant of all.  The "Silicon Valley" revolution has done nothing more radical than change the hands on the reins.  Whose getting rich from Uber:  the drivers, or the people who run Uber?  Is Google sharing the wealth, or gathering it?  Do we really want a revolution?  Or do we want a change of heart?

Do we want, in other words, to join the Church of Belonging?  Or the Church of Meaning and Belonging?  Aye, there's the rub.....