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Posts from the ‘Religion’ Category

Augustine and the Cruel Theology of Absolving God

Why is Augustine so cruel? His argument for free will rests on absolving God of responsibility for evil in the world, ultimately for the suffering of evil that is occurring around him, and to make the case, Augustine again and again notes that God punishes but God punishes justly and so God cannot be responsible for the suffering caused.

I have taught Augustine’s On the Free Choice of the Will so many many times. I used to teach it in every introductory course because it was such a fitting transition between ancient thinking and modern thinking. It stages Descartes’ Meditations nicely since many of his arguments can be found in inchoate form in Augustine, and it shows precisely that to which Nietzsche is responding in On the Genealogy of Morals. I’m teaching it now in a course on medieval philosophy. It’s been some time since I taught it. In the meantime, I’ve encountered alternative possible readings of the sacred texts upon which Christianity is based in the work of people like Ted Jennings who makes the case that Christianity offers a political philosophy of exposing the injustice of empire by exposing the cruelty at the heart of its efforts at law and order (Transforming Atonement, 221). Adam Kotsko similarly makes a case in The Prince of Darkness for the genealogy of the devil who went from being associated with empire by those who were oppressed to being associated with the rabble-rousers once Christianity becomes the empire. When this happens, as Jennings shows, God is supposed to be on the side of systems of domination and division, “the one who condemns and afflicts with suffering and death” (21).

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On Christianity and the Loss of Mourning

My grandmother-in-law died a couple weeks ago.  She was 105-years-old.  She seemed ready to go.  She held on for a long time, but I am glad that she felt like she didn’t need to keep holding on.  Still, I am sad she’s gone.  She would tell us a story about something that happened a long time ago and then she’d say, “It’s funny what you remember.”  We like to say that at our house now.  It’s been a kind of rite to visit her whenever we are in Spokane, a rite that connects us to other parts of the family.  I’ll miss that.  I’ll miss her matter-of-factness about the world.  “I’m not old,” she’d tell us.  Thinking about her now makes me smile.  I am sad that she will no longer be out there in the world.

I was going to tell my parents, and then I didn’t.  I didn’t because I knew that they would ask me, “Was she a Christian?”  And I knew that they would ask because they wanted to know whether she was going to heaven.  And that they would want to know that because they would want to know whether it was really an occasion for mourning or not.  Or at least, that’s how that question always felt to me.  Christianity, as I came to know it as a very young child, was about avoiding death and the need to mourn death.  The Christians I grew up around would evangelize to people who didn’t believe by asking them whether they knew where they were going when they died.  And they would tell them that they would go to hell if they didn’t believe in Jesus.  When someone died, if they were a Christian, it didn’t seem like anyone around me would be really sad about it.  Countless times, reports would come to me of someone dying with the information that they were believers.

I’ve been working through some of the affects of Christianity and one that I think has stayed with me is the difficulty in truly mourning–whether it be loss or injustice.  I briefly discuss the way that Christianity seems to mourn mortality, and structure itself around avoiding death in my post on Christianity Without Metaphysics.  What I have lately come to realize is that Christianity, at least a Christianity that thinks the goal is heaven, has robbed me of the capacity to experience loss or mourning.  And it is only with the end of heaven that true mourning becomes possible.  What I have newly come to see and understand is that I want to be able to mourn.  I want to be able to acknowledge loss, to see the gaps left by the absence of people I love.  Like this last summer when I went to the small town in Montana where my grandmother lived her whole life and where my dad grew up and the whole town felt haunted by my grandparents.  I missed them because they were gone.  I missed them without consolation of a possible reunion.  They were there, waving from the porch until they couldn’t see us anymore, and then they were not.  And they will never be again.

I wonder about what we lose when we lose the capacity to mourn.  I wonder if we lose the capacity to take this life and this world, its pain, the real death of others, seriously.  I wonder whether this inability to mourn is what keeps us from doing something about genocide of the Rohinga in Myanmar and of the harm done by ICE deporting DREAMers and ending TPS for immigrants from Haiti and Syria.  If death doesn’t matter, then killing doesn’t matter.

I’m of the mind that ways of thinking should be considered for how they work in the world, for their use, as much as for whether they can be justified and supported through argument.  This notion that we need not be really sad because someone has gone to heaven seems to work by limiting our capacity to feel loss in the face of death, which then makes us fail to take death seriously, which then leads us to accept the notion that some people are just going to have to die for other people to live the way they want to live.  But it also keeps us from thinking about the decisions we make in life as really real, as really mattering.  The only decision is to do what is required so that you avoid death.  And then heaven is just life stretched out where nothing will lead to the end, the eternal return of the same.

The Greeks had the Eleusian Mysteries believed to be protected by Demeter.  The Mysteries were commonly understood to be about death and to be about preparing for death.  Rumor has it the mystery of death is that there is no mystery.  The Mysteries were closely guarded, and I wonder if it was because if they were made public, then people might take living a heck of a whole lot more seriously.

I’m not someone who longs for heaven.  I think I would rather mourn than have the consolation of heaven.  But I do wonder whether really bringing about a world that might resemble heaven requires letting go of our hold on the consolations of death.


Mother! and the Wisdom of Silenus

I saw Darren Aronofsky’s film Mother! when it first came out and I’ve been mulling over it for awhile.  I was hesitant to see it because of reports that it was a horror film, but I didn’t think it was difficult to watch in the same way a horror film is.  It is unrelenting in the Second Act, but the unrelenting nature is purposeful.  Marc Maron had a just awful reading of it on his podcast after he interviewed Aronofsky, but mostly, astute viewers saw the allegory to Christianity and to the price the artist exacts from his material.  What I’ve been mulling over are the ways that the film is a critique of Christianity–of God as the artist and of Christianity as a practice of consuming the creations of the artist.

In what is to my mind the central scene of the film, Jennifer Lawrence’s character realizes that The Poet who represents God is trying to take the newborn baby from her.  So she holds the baby to protect it.  Eventually she falls asleep, and while she is sleeping, The Poet / God takes the baby and presents it to the people who tear the baby to pieces and liturgically eat the pieces of the baby guided by a priest in a clear depiction of Communion. Read more

Anti-Semitism, Misogyny and Protestantism: You Got to Keep the Devil Way Down in the Hole

In the wake of the election in the fall there was a spike in anti-Semitic attacks.  A spate of bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers at the end of January suggest that the threat of violence has not let up.  Until last year with the rise of the white supremacist “alt-right,” I thought of anti-Semitism as something that was largely over.  I realize the naiveté of that position now.  Reading Adam Kotsko’s The Prince of this WorldI’m struck by his case for how prevalent a low-level (sometimes not even very low-level) anti-Semitism is in Protestant Christianity. Read more

‘You Can’t Legislate Morality’: On Punishing Adults to Change Their (legally permissible) Behaviors

I’ve watched a couple episodes of Leah Remini’s exposé of Scientology that has been airing on A&E.  In the first episode, Remini interviews a woman is encouraged to cut herself off from her daughter who has left the Church of Scientology and has become a vocal critic of it.  Remini explains this process of “In Scientology you are also led to believe by disconnecting from your son or daughter or brother or divorcing your husband is because you are helping them to get back in the good graces.  By you saying, “I’m not talking to you,” we’ll straighten you out.  You will come to your senses, and come crawling back to the church to get help.”  I grew up in a church that employed this sort of “church discipline” with the same thinking that the pain of being cut off from people would compel you to change.

These same people would argue against what they called “legislating morality.”  What they mean is, you can’t make people not racist or sexist through the law, and they see laws aimed at protecting people from racism and sexism as actually aimed at changing the privately held views that some people have about others.  By calling it “legislating morality” those on the right make it seems like those laws violate individual rights or privacy in some way.  Those kinds of arguments continue to be made about whether business owners should have to serve customers whose sexuality they think is wrong or provide reproductive healthcare to women.

Through this past campaign season, I began to realize something I’ve personally experienced writ onto a larger scale.  Social conservatives actually want to make the lives of certain people–gay people, trans people, people who have sex without being married–unpleasant, difficult and unhappy following the same logic of Scientologist disconnection or Christian excommunication. Not having healthcare or visitation rights or shared parenting and inheritance rights, not being able to have your driver’s license changed to the right sex, to use public restrooms without harassment, to have your testimony believed by law enforcement will “straighten you out” or make you “come to your senses” about sex and sexuality.  I just want to point out that this approach is akin to parental discipline.  As much as conservatives bemoan the government’s involvement in making society better and call it paternalistic, this approach is more emphatically paternalistic that busing kids to produce desegregation is.  The paternalism that certain people have to have about other people’s lives where they think that by creating difficult conditions in their lives that could only be changed by changing what those certain people find wrong about other people’s lives will actually change those people, discipline them into their view of righteousness, is immense.

The initial concern of those who did not approve of the way they thought morality was being legislated seemed to be that how we think about the world should not be a matter of legislation.  Indeed, while some people think sexism is right and do so with the full protections of the First Amendment, we have decided pretty much that as a community we won’t allow for at least overt sexist policies and practices.  These same religious conservatives who criticize legislating morality want the law to make people’s lives more difficult and painful in order to get them to live otherwise.  This disciplinary strategy–not even in a Foucaultian sense but in a parental sense of disciplinary–aims to use the law to cause people to suffer with the “loving” motivation of getting them to change.  This disciplinary strategy would seem to be a means not only of changing the way that people live but of the way they think about what is good and right, about what they want.

It’s one thing to disagree with people, but another to want to discipline them into agreeing with your view of how they should live by making them miserable.

Christianity Without Metaphysics

There’s a debate swirling in the PCA circles I grew up in about how one should respond to doubt in Christianity.  It started with Nicholas Kristof’s interview with Tim Keller in the New York Times that led to this response from Pete Enns, a dispute that was written up here.  Enns is concerned that Keller does not take seriously the questions sympathetic sorts have for Christianity about things like the virgin birth and the resurrection.  As Enns argues, these aren’t just questions about the compatibility of such claims with science but more the inconsistency of the Biblical texts themselves on these points.  The problem for me was never these particular points but with the account of the specific workings of a substitutional atonement understanding of Christianity.  Why was God restrained by a formula that demanded the death of God in order for things to be right with human beings?  How could a cosmic formula or justice or call it what you will constrain an all-powerful God?   How did believing or failing to believe certain things about what happened two thousand years ago have a metaphysical effect on the destiny of my soul? Read more

Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World, A Review

One of my side projects has been thinking about how the shift from polytheism to monotheism parallels a shift from politics to philosophy in ancient thought, as I discussed here awhile back.   I am particularly interested in how the dichotomy between the false and the true god only becomes possible with monotheism, just as the dichotomy of false and true knowledge only becomes relevant with the introduction of philosophy, the arena of being and knowledge, against politics, the arena of appearance and opinion. I was looking forward to what Whitmarsh could add to the discussion in his new book, Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World.  I was interested in how ancient atheism fit into this production of the true.  If Assmann’s account of polytheism as a domain of shared opinion and shared gods is accepted, it would seem that denial of the existence of gods put people outside the realm of even those who had political opinions. While there is a brief discussion of Assmann (26), Whitmarsh does not attempt to think atheism within that structure.  In fact, this lacuna points to a larger problem with the book: it makes the case that there were ancient atheists, but it does not lead to further insight about what that might mean for the social and political world.  Instead, the point seems to be, atheism is fine because it is not new.  And also, “clever people could not possibly believe in gods,” as Barbara Graziosi reads Whitmarsh.

In this post, I discuss the ways that Whitmarsh’s treatment of mythology, Plato and Socrates, and Christianity lead to flatfooted readings that fail to consider the robust complexity of Greek thinking about the gods. Read more

Philosophy and Monotheism, Politics and Democracy

In his book The Price of Monotheism, published in German in 2003, Jan Assmann argues that monotheism changes the shape of religion by construing the one god as the only true god among false gods.  Assmann argues that a certain kind of monotheism–revolutionary monotheism–finds its one god incompatible with any other god, because the god is not only superior but true, real, existent in a way that others are false (this is the position of the Deutero-Isaiah faction of the Old Testament).  This incompatibility stands in contrast to pagan polytheism and its evolutionary monotheism which saw gods as compatible, eventually recognizing that there were many different names for the supreme god, who was a chief god, but not any more a god than the other gods.  The compatibility of the pagan gods allowed them to make binding agreements with one another, which they made by swearing each to their own god(s) who was compatible with the others’ god(s).  Revolutionary monotheism’s incompatibilty explains why they could not contract with other peoples. Read more

Day 18: Grace without Debt

Grace: it’s not about life after death, it’s life after debt.

By some lucky happenstance (grace?) I finished reading David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years and Marilynne Robinson’s latest novel Lila in the same week.  In his book, which is discussed at length in this seminar at Crooked Timber, Graeber attempts to establish that human relationships are not reducible to and do not originate in economies of credit and debt.  Graeber argues, as I have long thought, that Nietzsche’s exercise in taking the calculability of all human relations to its logical conclusions in his Second Essay in On the Genealogy of Morals is not meant to defend but to mock such a schema.  Graeber points out that there is something insulting about considering your relationships with others in terms of debt.  To consider a relationship one of debt suggests a calculability to it, a way of measuring what is owed, a way of holding one another responsible because of the IOU between you.  When I was in junior high and high school, my mother did not like us getting rides from our friends’ parents because she felt like that obligated her to give rides to our friends.  She didn’t like giving rides.  Fine.*  I think about Aristotle talking about how friendship is the opportunity to exhibit virtue to others, to have someone to be generous to.  But still, human relationships are always in excess of debt, irreducible to what is owed, made obscene by the sense that it is merely the keeping of obligations and demanding that they be met (this is likely why I’m not a Kantian).**  It is this element of human relationships that Graeber calls communistic. Read more

Day Three: Conversion Practices

On New Year’s Day, I visited my Uncle Jon in Chicago.  He is a member of JPUSA, a Christian commune in Uptown.  He’s a feminist progressive Christian who is more aware of his white male privilege than any Christian man I know, so it’s refreshing to spend time with him.  He was telling us about his changing views on evangelism.  He described a certain perspective on efforts at conversion that he called, “dive bombing.”  “Dive bombing” is when you come from above and attempt to strip your target of their (false) understanding of the world so that you can then replace it with yours.  This approach, he pointed out, is very condescending.  And it works by establishing that someone else is wrong.  So it’s basically gaslighting evangelism. Read more