Wednesday, March 30, 2011

“Of Gods and Men”

Last night, we saw the new movie, “Of Gods and Men.” More than any movie I’ve seen, it illustrates Bonhoeffer's concept of “the cost of discipleship.” Eight French Cistercian Trappist monks living in an abbey in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria in the 1990s became pawns in that country’s civil war after the French colonialists left. Although the monks have the goodwill of the people in the area, tending to their medical needs, the monks are a reminder to the militant groups, vying for power, of recent European oppression. The local authorities are keenly aware of the militants’ feelings and repeatedly urge the monks to leave because the authorities will be unable to protect them from the violence that is an everyday occurrence. Much of the movie is devoted to the monks’ often anguished discussions about leaving or not. Some think it prudent to leave; others feel the need to continue their peaceable presence as friends to the people nearby who have endured continual bloodshed for so long. Their discussions and daily monastic tasks are interspersed with beautiful sequences of their singing the Mass and the Hours. Many of the psalms seem achingly pertinent to their debate, such as this excerpt from Psalm 91 (verses 5, 6): “You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday.”
Eventually, even as the possibility of their death becomes more likely, they all decide to stay. Soon, of course, the terror arrives in the night in the form of an insurgent group opposed to the Algerian government, and the monks are taken hostage to be negotiating tools with the French government. But to no avail; as the film ends, the monks are led off into the winter mist never to be heard of again. They are killed; their killers unapprehended.
The monks choose to stay – a very unwise choice. They could have been helpful elsewhere if they had lived. They choose to stay, because, as the prior says to one of the wavering monks, they had already died in Christ (Romans 6:4), and frightened as they were, their life in Christ was at the Abby. They were “fools for Christ,” as Paul writes in I Corinthians 4: 9, 10: “For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, as though sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to mortals. We are fools for the sake of Christ, ….”
The monks’ death was folly, but it wasn’t useless. They “become a spectacle to the world” (the movie was a sensation in France) and, as Tertullian wrote, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
Their deaths – and their lives – challenge us, especially those of us in the Church, to follow the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 and Jesus, the Gospels’ writers’ embodiment of the Suffering Servant. If we follow him into a life of peace and service, some will see the wisdom of our folly and find their life in Christ.
If, after you see the movie, you want to learn more, “The Monks of Tibhirine” by John Kiser is “A richly detailed and moving account of (the prior’s) life and the fate of his abbey,” writes A. O. Scott in his “New York Times” review.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

“'The Kids Are All Right' and 'Sex at Dawn'”

We saw the new movie, “The Kids Are All Right,” the other night on DVD, and I thought of “Sex at Dawn,” the book I’ve been blogging about lately. The movie is about a lesbian couple, Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic (Annette Bening) with two teenage kids, Joni (Mia Wasikowska), 18, and Laser (Josh Hutcherson), 15. Joni searches for the man who was their sperm donor; she finds him nearby, and the plot thickens, mainly around Jules. She is the stay-at-home mom, who begins to work as a landscape designer for the donor, Paul, (Mark Ruffalo), and also begins to have sex with him. Jules is horrified by what her body is doing. She doesn’t love Paul; she doesn’t even like him very much, but she can’t stop. But, of course she does stop, and abruptly, when, at Paul’s during a dinner party with the whole family, Nic confronts Jules after finding Jules’ red hair in Paul’s shower and bed. With much weeping and gnashing of teeth, Jules admits her affair, but also blames Nic for being busy at work and distant.
At this point, I yelled at the TV, urging Jules to get in touch with her inner ape and proclaim that she came from female ancestors who had multiple partners and who called for more by their female copulatory vocalization (FCV) (The sex scenes were fairly noisy). Not surprisingly, she didn’t do this but continued to apologize and seek forgiveness from the family. Also, not surprisingly, they were very angry at her and furious at Paul, who is portrayed as a guy just going along for the ride. Although in the end, Jules and Nic seem to reconcile, Paul apparently is thrown into outer darkness and will never again be included in the family despite his reaching out to the kids. So, we’re left with a bruised quartet, rather than a possible quintet that might have included Paul. How sad.
And how sad that the five didn’t have insight into their ape natures, as discussed in “Sex at Dawn.” If they had realized that Jules was behaving naturally, they might have acknowledged similar feelings in themselves, understood, forgiven both her and Paul, and have begun a tentative search for an expanded family that included him.
Perhaps the moral is that we don’t always have to act out of our biology, but if we don’t know and accept our biology, we are likely to act, like Jules, without understanding and with much grief.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

“A New Great Story”

Humans are story-telling apes. We tell each other stories to share our “world” with one another. Sharing our stories and experiencing others’ helps us understand, explain, and change our stories, which are our realities, our lives. The most useful stories are those that take our existing narratives and re-tell them with new information and new insights so that we are compelled to re-examine our old stories and to change them to accommodate the new material. In making these changes, our “world” changes, and we experience it in new ways. Leaving our old “world” behind may be painful, but if we are to move forward with life, we must accept the pain and let the new insights create a new “world” for us.
I’ve recently read two “stories” that have caused me to re-examine my “world” and to begin to create a new story and a new “world” for myself. One is “Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality” by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, which I discussed in my posts on December 11 and 18, 2010 and on January 18 and 25, 2011. The other “story” is “A New Great Story” (Salem, Ore: Polebridge Press 2010) by Don Cupitt who writes: “In this book I aim to set before the general reader a fully-modern alternative to the traditional “Grand Narrative” theology of Latin or “Western,” Christianity…” (p1) This traditional narrative, which guided the West from the time of Constantine in the 4th century to the Enlightenment in the 18th, was set forth most notably in Augustine’s (CE 354-430) “The City of God.” It was “… a huge story of Everything that began and ended in eternity…” (p1) It tells of God’s creation of our world, our fall and redemption, the Last Judgment, and the triumph of the blessed. The Creeds summarize this story.
However, with Newton, Galileo, and Darwin we have new stories that, as the mathematician LaPlace said to Napoleon, have no need of God as a hypothesis. We are still coping with these new stories. Cupitt writes: “… the West found it extremely painful to relinquish its old faith, and extremely difficult to state its new faith with full philosophical clarity. Even yet, we have still not been able to settle into a lucid, confident and paradox-free secular-humanist world-view.” (p5) A major reason for this is our loss of “Objective Truth.” These new stories, specifically Darwinism tell us that “…our cognitive abilities are just survival-skills…” “…we cannot distinguish between ‘real’ truths and biologically useful fictions.” “All our knowledge is practical or ‘applied,’ and none is ‘pure.’” (p5) We are painfully learning that “There is no ready-made Real World, out there and fully independent of our language. There is only the historical succession of world-views, and of understandings of human nature, within the ceaseless motion of our language.” (p75)
Cupitt’s new grand narrative is based on these ideas. It “…will be a secular story about the whole process by which we have come to be what we are now are.” It will try to show how the world in our heads “…is made up of linguistic usages, myths, deep cultural assumptions, Gods, spirits, saints, our parents and our mentors, commandments prohibitions and valuations.” (p8) For most of human history our stories were predominantly religious, and they guided our progressive development. However, with the Enlightenment and the new scientific narratives, “…how are we to understand the queer fact that in the modern period religion seems to have led us beyond itself and become redundant?” (p9) As a result of this strange situation, Cupitt wants “a Christian narrative, and a story that makes religious sense, about the birth, the life, the death, and the afterlife of God.” (p9)
This new story is not about Fall and Redemption “… but the strangely-roundabout story of how we have become ourselves. It starts in the violent chaos of animal experience. Language irrupts, lighting up the chaos and beginning to make things intelligible and to shape life. The history of religion then develops as the story of how through language a world can be built, its law laid down, values posited, and long-term plans of action devised and carried out. Everything is first worked out at the supernatural level: the gods pioneered everything for us. Eventually, the fully developed Bronze-Age religious system produces a new breed of ‘enlightened’ individual critics – prophets, philosophers – who criticize it all and bring it all back down into the human beings for whose sake the whole process has been going on. The Grand Narrative then culminates in the Galilean preaching of Jesus, and the launch of a new divine-human way of living. The whole story is then surprisingly repeated into the history of Christianity, which also goes out into mediaeval elaboration, and then through its criticism in the Reformation and the Enlightenment gradually returns into the individual modern human being who at last feels able to accept contingency and to build a life of love without any remaining fear or bitterness.” (p9)
This progression of human religious development parallels to a remarkable extent the evolution of our sexuality described in “Sex at Dawn,” which outlines the evolution of our ancestors over the millions of years when they lived in foraging bands with multiple sexual partners. The rise of agriculture about 10,000 years ago led to, at least for women, monogamy. Monogamy grew out of agriculture, because a farmer wanted to be sure that his son, who was to inherit the farm, is indeed his son. To ensure this, the son’s mother had to have only the son’s father as a sexual partner. She must be kept from other men and to accomplish this, the father takes her as closely guarded property.
With agriculture, religion also changed. It became centralized and mediated by priests. Before agriculture, foragers and hunters moved about looking for food, with no fixed abode. Their gods moved before them, leading them into the future. In contrast, farmers settled down and needed markets for their produce. Markets developed into cities with the god’s temple on one side of the marketplace and the palace of the King, anointed by the god, on the other side. “By the priests, agriculture, religious cult, and culture were all woven together. And in particular, God invented markets, money and fair trade. God invented ‘centred’ life, and the city-state: politics, routine, law, and taxation. The first taxes, tithes, were paid to God the first landlord.” (p35)
The rigid hierarchy of this state religion could not completely eliminate the “…older type of religious professional – the charismatic, imaginative individual shaman or prophet …” (p61) We know best Israel’s prophets, who “…looked back to the simplicity and freedom of the old nomadic way of life…” (p63) These prophets sought “… a return of some form of religious immediacy. This in turn required democratization: God must decentre himself, coming down from heaven and distributing himself as spirit into human hearts…” (p64), as in hunter-gatherer times. This movement of our perception of God “…from the external socially-constructed world…” (p65) into ourselves comes to be known as “the Kingdom of God…”, and “…the old mystical yearning for union with God was also a demand for the disappearance of God as objective being, as Other. Instead, God becomes at last fully and completely internalized.” (p65)
Of course, this is the core message of Jesus: “… ‘the Kingdom of God’ was near, or had already arrived. The ancient prophetic hope was fulfilled. The divine world and the human life-world were at last coming together and becoming one.” “…God ceased to be an objective being. He had emptied himself out into human hearts. God and the human self were no longer two; they were now concentric. It followed that the difference between the pure and the impure, and between good and evil, was no longer imposed upon human beings ‘heteronomously’ – that is, in the form of a code of divine laws revealed to Moses and received thenceforth from tradition – but depended solely upon the autonomous human heart. Living well was not a matter of keeping rules: on the contrary, rule-morality does not produce and never could produce the kind of person Jesus wanted to see. No: for Jesus – who in moral philosophy was a straight emotivist and expressivist – you live well if you live in a ‘solar’ way, out from the heart, without any duplicity, so that your expressive life pours out upon a current of open, direct, generous and affirmative feeling. Jesus makes his point here by insisting that law-morality makes us mean-spirited. We are forever looking sideways at our neighbors, and feeling aggrieved if they are doing better than we think they deserve. He insists, paradoxically but brilliantly, that unless you are ready to go beyond mere justice and perform acts of ecstatic, excessive generosity, you are not a truly moral person at all.” (p68) In at least some of the sayings of Jesus, we can see: “…The superior human being (who) lives without resentiment or reactive feeling: he is purely affirmative. He does not nurse any kind of grudge or ill-feeling.” (p69) My post of Sept. 15, 2009 on Cupitt’s “Jesus & Philosophy” discusses this further.
Some of those who heard Jesus must have liked his message. “Otherwise, his memory and some of his words would not have reached us at all.” (p69) Of course, the synoptic gospels also preserve much sharp criticism: He was crazy, in league with the devil, kept bad company, lax about ritual purity and keeping the Sabbath, and he enjoyed feasting. He was eventually charged with being an all-out blasphemer and executed by the state. Cupitt thinks that the charges are historical; no one would have a motive for inventing them. He also thinks them justified. “Jesus was after all announcing the end of (his hearers’) world, and in many cases their livelihoods. St. Matthew tries, rather absurdly, to claim that Jesus endorsed the Mosaic Law in full (Matthew 5:17-19), but the fact is that not long after Jesus’ death the early Jewish Church did resolve not to impose the Law upon Gentile converts.” (p70)
“…the ethical teaching of Jesus in Galilee, approximately – and perhaps best preserved in Q/Luke … is Act Four of our new Grand Narrative theology and completes the main story. The plot is complete: everything has come together and there is only the endless, purely-contingent flow of things in our language-formed human life-world. … After Galilee there is no further or greater reality for us to aspire to.” The 1980 years since Jesus have seen repeated circular movements: a going out into catholic elaboration and the return into immediacy. “So, in a certain sense, we made God, and then God made us, completing his work by dying into us. Religious thought has been a laborious business, but it has somehow brought us a very long way. We are only a lot of dumb apes who have somehow been able to dream strange dreams that have lifted us out of the relative darkness of animal life, and made it at last possible for us moderns to say a whole-hearted Amen to our world, and to our own lives in it.” (p 75)

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Nicholas Kristof, Don Cupitt, and the Sermon on the Mount

Nicholas Kristof writes in his “New York Times” column today of the differences between the Roman Catholic bishops and Catholic hospitals around the country which are sometimes not as strict in their abortion policies as the bishops would like.
As I read his column, I was struck by this passage:
“To me, this battle illuminates two rival religious approaches, within the Catholic church and any spiritual tradition. One approach focuses upon dogma, sanctity, rules and the punishment of sinners. The other exalts compassion for the needy and mercy for sinners — and, perhaps, above all, inclusiveness.”
This echoes almost uncannily Don Cupitt’s reading of the Sermon on the Mount in his “A New Great Story” (2010), which I quoted in my post on January 25th. He points out that The Sermon on the Mount is a mixture of passages that call for the “…almost existentialist ethic of open whole-hearted expression, and freedom from anxiety or calculation” (Matthew 5:13-16, 38-48, and 6:25-34). and others that “…take for granted the value of a strictly-interpreted religious Law, and a piety of secret good works and hidden inwardness which pursues and expects a heavenly reward after death.” (5:17-33, and 6:1-20 and 24) (p81, 82)
In Kristoff’s interpretation, the actions of some leaders of the Catholic hospitals could be seen as existentialistic and whole-hearted with anxiety and calculation taking the hindmost. While the bishops’ position values a strictly-interpreted religious Law with heaven as a reward for obedience to this Law. Cupitt writes of the Sermon on the Mount: “The difference is astonishing. In the two groups of sayings we find two entirely different, indeed opposite religious personalities.” (p82) He also points out that these different approaches are “…deeply embedded within the best texts we have”. (p81) What Cupitt calls “Church Christianity” had begun, by the year 50, shifting the focus “…from Jesus’ teaching to his person – and in particular his exalted status in the cosmic hierarchy”. (p79) It is this latter position that the bishops are defending today. Kristof writes about one such instance of “Church Christianity”: The bishop of Phoenix demanded that St. Joseph’s Hospital there never again terminate a pregnancy to save the life of a mother. In contrast, Linda Hunt, the president of St. Joseph’s responded, “St. Joseph’s will continue through our words and deeds to carry out the healing ministry of Jesus.” Two starkly different positions each rooted in different parts of the Sermon on the Mount. You pays your money, and you takes your choice.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

My Response to David T.'s comment

David T. has commented on my post on January 18th. Below is my response to his comment.
Thank you for your comment. Monogamy and the nuclear family are often bound together in our culture, and, as you point out, children’s loss of stable relationships within the fragile nuclear family can be very hard on them. Of course, the more complex webs of adult relationships you write of are a good remedy for the shortcomings of the nuclear family and probably reflect to some extent the relationships within our ancestral foraging bands. In the case of my own family, my children had extended relationships. This was especially true of my younger son who found great strength within the family of his best friend, whom he met in second grade. My son and his friend initiated this relationship, and all that the rest of us needed to do was to encourage it. I think that families would do well to be on the lookout for the possibilities of such ad hoc extended families and then to foster them.
What can be said about fundamentalists? Not much except to emphasize that if you start with a false premise, you get a bad outcome. The rest of us have to keep on offering other positions in contrast to this lust for certainty. One good alternative is Cupitt’s solar living: Give yourself away like the sun, shining for all, doing your best without regard for reward or the assurance of success. This is difficult, but it is a lot of the reason why Jesus is such a compelling figure. As Cupitt points out, his “…almost existentialist ethic of open whole-hearted expression, and freedom from anxiety or calculation” (p82 in “A Great New Story,” 2010) can be found in some of Jesus’ sayings in the Sermon on the Mount, (Matthew 5:13-16, 38-48, and 6:25-34) but not in other passages (5:17-33, and 6:1-20 and 24), which are mixed in with the other sayings. These “…take for granted the value of a strictly-interpreted religious Law, and a piety of secret good works and hidden inwardness which pursues and expects a heavenly reward after death.” (p81, 82, “A Great New Story”) Cupitt draws attention to the fact that “…the conflict between the original outlook of Jesus himself and the remodeled Jesus of the emergent Church is already deeply embedded within the best texts we have, making it very difficult in all periods for people to hear Jesus’ own voice. (p 81, “A Great New Story”) Obviously, these two opposing views are still with us. No wonder we struggle to follow Jesus. It’s either extremely difficult or just a matter of “faith.” May the Spirit be with you in your struggle.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

My Response to Bob Y’s comment on “Sex at Dawn”

Thanks for you comment on my post on "Sex at Dawn" (December 18, 2010). Here is my response.
Yes, modern sexuality is complex and bewildering, because, as “Sex at Dawn” maintains, we don’t recognize that we are apes, or, more to the point of your comments, we are still apes. Sexually, we tend to act like apes, specifically our closest ape cousins, chimpanzees and bonobos, and we chafe at the restrictions of monogamy. We and these two other species evolved to live in foraging bands, in which all is shared: food, sex, and the perils in the environment. Before the rise of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, our ancestors had to depend for survival on the other members of the band with what Ryan and Jethá call fierce egalitarianism. Nothing like that exists today in our agricultural or post-agricultural world. We left interdependent foraging bands behind for the advantages of agriculture, namely a steady food supply and a settled existence that in some ways was less dangerous than foraging, which necessitated fending off predators.
However, agricultural societies have features that can be viewed as disadvantages, especially compared to the dynamics of foraging bands. Perhaps most important is the loss of equality between the sexes. Although equality in the bands is not complete, males and females have sex with many partners within and outside the band. As a result, the paternity of offspring is both not known and not an issue; the offspring are members of the band and are raised communally by the band.
However, with agriculture came the concepts of paternity and of private property. Farm land is possessed and passed down from father to son. The land becomes the most important possession the father has, and he wants to be sure that it is passed down to the one who is without doubt his son. Paternity must no longer be unknown, as in the band, and, in order to insure that the son has one father, known without doubt, the mother must have only the father as a sex partner. In order to enforce this arrangement, the woman becomes the father’s property, controlled as strictly as the land.
Also, with agriculture, came produce. With excess produce came trading, and with trading came trading centers that became cities. Cities developed a ruling class of administrators to regulate trade and priests to mediate between man and a distant, exalted God who was worshipped in the hope of ensuring good crops and peace. Or not. Because land was of ultimate value, agriculture also led to armies that waged war to defend property or to gain more. So, agriculture has much to answer for: patriarchy, monogamy, private property, cities, armies, and war, for starters.
However, as you point out, today most people live in post-agricultural, urban societies, but these are still defined to a large extent by private property and war. Although you’re correct that in many societies, especially outside the U.S., traditional extramarital arrangements have eased the strictures of monogamy, this easing chiefly benefits males without much disturbing the primary monogamous marriage. What clearly threatens monogamy, as you also point out, is the rise of women’s sexual liberation. At least in theory, women need no longer be dependent on men for support, nor do they need husbands to have children. Moreover, as with men in modern urban societies, their work outside the home can become their primary focus, and their relationships with their colleagues may become more important to them than their relationships with members of their families. With these changes, the important question today becomes how do these changes affect children? Most studies point to the advantages to children of parents who are present for their children throughout their lives. How do we insure continuity for our children while the traditional structures of patriarchy and monogamy are disappearing, and while wars continue unrelentingly? Going back to foraging bands clearly is not the answer, but in our post-agricultural, “liberated” societies, what is the way forward?