Friday, November 01, 2002

If the sky can crack, there must be some way back

So when I posted yesterday I was stressed out, running a fever and drinking grog -- a great concoction for chasing away fever chills, but not for coherent posting. Sorry if I rambled off. I guess most people who think about theology have their little obsessions they keep coming back to; certainly that seems true of most theo-bloggers. I keep coming back to human nature, the problem of evil, and hell.

Telford has periodically told me I focus on the wrong things, and should concentrate on the main Christian imperative: loving God, my neighbor, and myself. But it's not like that command is simple, or like everyone agrees on what it means. As I said yesterday, emotions are not chosen, so I can't simply decide to start loving because it seems like a good idea. First of all I need to know who God, my neighbor and myself actually are, which is why I harp on these questions of human nature and whether God is good. Second, there is the question of what we mean by love. If you're going to say things like God hates by loving, we obviously have to tread very carefully here.

Anyway, I realize that yesterday's post also goes against my general rule not to bring up sex in theology discussions unless it's directly relevant, because it has a way of sidetracking things. I was using it to illustrate a point. What you believe is part of someone's nature and what you believe to be a product of sin goes right to the question of how you love them. It is not a small point.

Thursday, October 31, 2002

Happy Halloween!

I don't have much to do these days on Halloween, alas -- not a kid any more, no kids of my own, no kids even knocking on my door. I think the last interesting Halloween I had was back in college, when I lived in a dorm with three "witches." I assume they were Wiccans; I don't recall them using the word, but they seemed like your basic goddess-worshipping neopagans.

So on Halloween, one of them announced to the floor that they were having a religious festival that night, so we should not be alarmed if we heard any strange noises coming from their room. I spent the evening reading and ignored them. But later another woman in the dorm, who was definitely maturity-challenged, said she got so frightened at the idea of what they might be doing in there that she sneaked over and tried to tape their door shut.

"You tried to tape the door shut?" I asked incredulously.

"Yes!" she said, looking completely freaked. "And then while I was doing it, the door started to open! And I ran away as fast as I could!"

There's quite a contest going on here for which is silliest: being a witch, believing that witches actually have powers, or believing those powers can be stopped with tape. No wonder I don't miss college.
It's a thin line...

It's nice to know that Telford Work's family is in better health -- at least I assume they are, since he's resumed his usual posting rate. It's also nice to know that he didn't cut my previous post to ribbons. In fact, we basically seem to be in agreement:
Camassia's language of being "imprisoned" isn't far away here. What imprisons sinners is love: not the love by which Jesus endured the cross for the sake of his God and his flock, but lesser loves of family, flag, and fortune. Far from strengthening us, these get in the way. They sap our strength to follow him bearing our own crosses. They turn our grand projects of fidelity into half-built monuments to failure. They are inferior troops for the battle. Only by renouncing these encumbrances, as David renounced Saul's armor, do we affirm and participate in Calvary's victory and find the deepest community of all.

Yeah, that was what I meant. But I still think he doesn't directly address the question of why this requires hate. Detachment from your family's emotional and financial neediness would seem to require, well, detachment, but hate is a pretty undetached emotion. Telford's own examples of the word from elsewhere in the Bible imply exclusion, repulsion, abuse, cursing and disrespect, which surely Jesus doesn't mean you to exhibit toward your family forever. Telf says himself a few paragraphs later that he feels "called to show Christlike love" towards his family, which is rather different from hate.

Or is it? In an earlier post, Telford tried to reconcile an Old Testament call to hate God's enemies with Jesus' call to love them:
The inconvenient part of this psalm is actually key to getting the whole thing right. Jesus took on the alienation of sin that has been making us enemies of God and each other, and overcame it through friendship. He identified with this enemy of God, and all the rest of you too, taking our alienation into his very relationships with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, and healing it by the power of his love. He hated me – not just my sin, but my self, twisted by sin, bound by it and a servant to it – by loving me unconditionally and breaking sin's grip.

"He hated me by loving me unconditionally." The snarky secular humanist in me wants to ask if this means that war is peace and freedom is slavery. But on the other hand, I sort of entertained the idea that freedom is slavery in an earlier post of my own, so I shouldn't be hasty.

I suppose the emotion being described here is familiar to anyone who's ever said (or wanted to say), "I love you, but I hate what you've become." Usually we say that to an old friend, relative or lover who's fallen prey to addiction, mental illness or just become embittered by misfortune. There's a sense that the person isn't being his "real" self, what he can be or should be, and is destroying what you love about him. I have felt this, and it's a hard thing. Is it unconditional love? Do you know his "real" self, or is that just what you want him to be? It can be tough to disentangle your desire to help from your desire to control.

In the Christian narrative, this is pretty much the attitude God has toward humanity: we were close once, but we lost our way, so he sends his son to administer some tough love. But it brings up the same question, even bigger: what IS our true nature? This is why Telf and I had this long email discussion, which we have both mentioned in passing, about the story of the Fall. I was trying to understand how Christians can believe that humans could have been created perfectly by a perfect God, and yet fallen so badly. After flirting with an idea that humans were merely "unfinished," Telford finally said that sin cannot have an explanation, because sin, by its nature, doesn't make sense. But wherever it came from, it didn't come from God.

This seems like sophistry to me, frankly, and I'm not satisfied with it. Telford doesn't care, because he's convinced that Jesus provided such evidence for God's goodness as to overwhelm everything else. But it seems to me that Jesus' extreme goodess is only evident if you already accept the backstory; otherwise, his sacrifice means nothing. And what you believe to be true human nature makes all the difference in how you treat people. For instance, different denominations have wildly different treatments of homosexuals based on whether they think God created them that way or that this is an aspect of sin from which they need to be liberated. We heterosexuals can feel similar, if less severe, sorts of conflict: is it really natural (or possible) to not only avoid sex outside marriage but not even want it?

I am wandering off the original topic here, but everything we talk about seems to come back to this. We do not choose to have our emotions; we can choose what to do about them, but not whether we have them. Yet because of certain of our emotions, apparently, we deserve to burn in hell. The line between hate and love becomes very blurry indeed.
Civilization launched by a bar tab

An interesting page on the history of writing (western writing, anyway) remarks: "It's tempting to claim that the development of a writing system was necessitated by the need to keep track of beer, but perhaps we can be satisfied that it was just part of it."

(Via Jeff Strain)

A glimpse of the male psyche

Jim Henley writes an account of last weekend's antiwar protests that includes this aside:
We joined the march near its head but bailed out to find a place to, well, pee. (A thick shrubbery. There's just something extra satisfying in peeing where you're not supposed to, isn't there, men?)

Oh, the temptation to do a cheap Darwinian analysis about territorial marking or something. But there are some places I'd just rather not go...

Tuesday, October 29, 2002

East meets West

A New York Times article describes briefly how Buddhism as we know it in the West came about through a 19th-century reform movement, and does not resemble the highly ritualized, paganish and theocratic forms that grew up in Asia. This was not a surprise to me, but I was a little thrown off by this paragraph:
Nontheistic, nondogmatic, nonviolent, emphasizing individual practice rather than institutional membership or obligations, the Buddhism expounded by, say, the Dalai Lama fits nicely with a modern, largely Western world view based on science and respect for the individual. Maybe that explains why it seems to attract so many physicists and psychotherapists.

I got to know the Buddhism they're talking about (like any mystical California teenager, I suppose), but I don't know that the fit with modernity is quite as neat as that. Buddhism doesn't conflict directly with science the way that Christian creationism does, but it does conflict with science in a larger sense. To Buddha the physical world is illusion, and to get too entangled with it or interested in it, as science does by its nature, will only lead you down the wrong path. Likewise the individualism isn't the same as Western individualism -- it's true there's not the emphasis on community that there is in Christianity, but the ultimate goal is to conquer your ego.

The affinity with the modern West makes sense though, in a different way. My religion professor in college (who had an interesting perspective, being from Japan but raised a Christian) pointed out that there's a strong resemblance between Buddhism and existentialism. I don't know much about existentialism, but apparently they share the same gloomy diagnosis of existence: it's full of suffering, everything is temporary, and it's basically meaningless. But Buddha claimed you could reach a mental state that would release you from this misery -- a much more hopeful outlook than existentialism offered. So the reformed version of Buddhism resonates with many modern intellectuals' feeling that the world is a godless chaos, but also has a way out.

(Via Eve Tushnet.)

Monday, October 28, 2002

All the honeys making moneys

I don't know why Glenn Reynolds said this Washington Post story was about "angry young white males," or why The Cranky Professor had to play mindread-the-reporter with it. It quotes one expert in passing saying that some men like Ben Farmer, the focal character, are "alienated and angry," but that does not seem to be the main point, since Ben himself is not angry. Instead, it seems to be making the reasonable point that society has become so focused on the college degree that it hasn't left many resources for those who don't have the time, money or inclination to get one.

This is a subject I've been thinking about for a while. My mother used to teach school -- mostly middle school -- and now is a professor of education, and we've talked about this. Strangely enough, despite the fact that we both have graduate degrees, we agree that college isn't for everybody.

Last winter we were talking about Ty Tryon, a 17-year-old golfer who made it through qualifying school for the PGA Tour. For those of you who aren't familiar with golf, that's an astonishing achievement -- that tour is basically home to the top 200 or so golfers in the world. But there was a huge contoversy in the golf world about whether Ty was old enough to be doing this. He was rushing, some people said -- he shouldn't try to grow up too fast, he was too young to handle the Tour, he should enjoy being a kid, he should try college.

The arguments brought into vivid focus for me just how bizarre our expectations of American youth are. If we think Ty is immature, wouldn't holding an adult job among adults help fix that? Where did we get this idea that kids learn to be adults by hanging out mostly with people their own age? Why do we criticize them for being irresponsible and get scared when they actually take on responsibility? Do these people really remember high school as being all carefree and happy? If I'd had an escape route into the adult world when I was 17, I would have taken it in a heartbeat.

Ty was, of course, taking a much more glamorous job than Ben in the article, but they're both suffering from a cultural prejudice against physical work. As one of Ty's defenders pointed out, if he'd been a computer whiz who'd been hired by Microsoft at age 17, no one would have worried. Yet even though the PGA Tour offers more money and prestige than 99.999% of white-collar jobs out there, people were still worrying that by skipping college he was cutting himself off from something. "The PGA Tour will always be there," remarked Curtis Strange. "What's the rush?"

The answer would be: college will always be there, but his game might not be. I think that another misconception people are laboring under is that what you do in your early twenties will determine the rest of your life. It's based on the old industrial-age model where you go through school, get a job and stay in that career until retirement. But many people's lives aren't like that any more. I finished high school, took a year off, went through college, worked for four years, then went to grad school to get my journalism degree, then worked again. My mother is a more extreme example: she got her master's, was a housewife and raised kids for 20 years, got divorced, became a schoolteacher, got her doctorate, and now teaches college. America is full of stories like that.

But I think the most important factor here is the confused attitude toward young people that I mentioned earlier. As Thomas Hine described in American Heritage a few years ago, the whole concept of a "teenager" is less than 100 years old, as is the idea that a 17-year-old is too young to act like a grownup. It's understandable that you don't want to burden your kids with too much too soon, but the downside to an extended childhood is feeling powerless and ineffectual. My favorite quote from the WaPo story:
"You see these clothes I'm wearing?" he asks. "I bought them. These shoes I'm wearing? I bought them. That car out there? I'm paying for it."

It's a matter of pride and obligation that richer people can't understand.

Au contraire. I'm a doctor's daughter and make a lot more than this guy, but I understand perfectly. I remember when I first started working, the little thrill I got out of earning and spending my own money. Even paying bills was exciting. It wasn't about physical luxury -- my standard of living was and still is below what I grew up in -- it's about power. When you're a kid you have to ask for everything, and hope your parents will be generous. When you're an adult you don't have to rely on generosity: people give you money because you can give them something that they need. And what you buy with the money is yours and yours alone.

Not everybody feels this way. Certainly I know some people who wish college could have gone on forever and see the work world as suffocating. But for me -- and for Ben, and for Ty apparently -- it's school that's suffocating. When you're a student you're always in that "kid" role; you get no immediate reward for your work except the approval of your elders, and just when you master something you're thrown into another class where you're a total novice. Not until pretty late in grad school do you get to be the expert, have the power, or produce anything anyone really wants.

Another quote that struck me was from Ben's girlfriend: "He says when we have kids, he wants to be the kind of dad he never had." How many 19-year-old guys are saying things like "when we have kids"? A lot of them seem petrified at the prospect of making any kind of commitment. Yet precisely because he likes adulthood, preferring work to studenthood and commitment to playing around, people think there's something funny about him. Who's got the problem here?

Sunday, October 27, 2002


I didn't quite mean for this blog to become so preoccupied with theology, but my life seems to be full of it these days. Today I went to church again, but a different one from last week. A friend from San Francisco is visiting to see his girlfriend (and me) and they're prospecting for a church they can both attend if he moves down here. The one we went to today is a local branch of the Evangelical Covenant, which my friend now attends in San Francisco.

The girlfriend has an interesting story in her own right. She's from Indonesia, but her family is Christian and of Chinese descent. Though they escaped the bouts of violence that have sometimes been inflicted on that community, they did suffer mundane discrimination in things like employment. So when she was in her late teens everybody decamped to southern California. They had no idea where to go to church, though. In Indonesia there are Catholics and Protestants, but nothing like the array of sects that live together in America. So they went to every church in the neighborhood, seeing all sorts of practices they'd never seen before, until they finally settled on some generic evangelical church whose name I forget.

Anyway, the Evangelical Covenant gives its local churches a lot of latitude in doctrine and practice, so I expected it might be different from the S.F. version. I was surprised, though, at how much it resembled the Pentecostal church I attended last week. The S.F. church was fairly traditional and restrained, with a structured service and an old-fashioned choir. This church had a rock-type band that enthusiastically led the group in song for about half the service, followed by a sermon and benediction with prayers sprinkled around. The general feel was more casual and emotional than in S.F. It affirmed what I've heard about the enormous influence of Pentecostalism -- even among denominations that don't actually practice it.

We chatted with pastor beforehand. He said this was the last in a series about commitment, and warned that it might be alarming. Actually, I felt he was talking about something like what I was talking about in my last post: the idea of surrendering everything to God. He tackled the strange passage from Luke: "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters--yes, even his own life--he cannot be my disciple." That line does sit uneasily with the Ten Commandments, not to mention Jesus' general emphasis on love. The pastor reconciled it by saying it was a comparison: just as a big building would seems small if you put it in the Grand Canyon, love of family would seem tiny compared to the love you need to have for God.

I wonder. I'm no theologian, I'm not even a Christian, but I feel like hatred is different from "small love." If I had to say what it means, it's that the hatred he speaks of isn't supposed to be permanent. You can't commit yourself totally to God unless you've become dissatisfied with everything, including yourself. You can't seek release until you realize you're imprisoned, and you hate being imprisoned. But once you're free, you're free of the hatred also.

That's my guess. I'll let Telford cut it to ribbons.
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