zaterdag 14 februari 2009

Broken vessels and bloody bridegrooms. Special Valentine's Day post.

”You see, in the beginning was the Word. And the Word was made flesh in the weave of the human universe. And only the poet can expand this universe, finding shortcuts to new realities the way the Hawking drive tunnels under the barriers of Einsteinian space/time.
To be a poet, I realized, a true poet, was to become the Avatar of humanity incarnate; to accept the mantle of the poet is to carry the cross of the Son of Man, to suffer the birth pangs of the Soul-Mother of Humanity.
To be a true poet is to become God.”
Martin Silenus in Dan Simmons' Hyperion

Thus says Martin Silenus, my favourite character of Dan Simmons' novel series. Lecherous, habitually drunk and foul-mouthed, he is the unlikely chronicler of the seven pilgrims who visit the far-off planet Hyperion, as the epic that has become his life's work curiously foretells the events in the series. The relationship between literature and reality is a recurrent theme in Dan Simmons' work: in his Ilium/Olympus novels, the characters of Homer and Shakespeare literally come to life in a distant post-human future.

In Hyperion, a novel which describes the reverberations of an ultimate fight between two Gods – one an artificial, machine-created Ultimate Intelligence, the other a Teilhardian Omega Point emerging from biological life – backwards in time to the present (a few centuries from now) it is ultimately Love that is found to be the force underlying all of reality, and self-sacrificial Love that is proclaimed by the prophet Aenea in both word and deed in the last two of the series.

More of that in a little bit. The first of the four books describes the travels of seven pilgrims, Silenus among them, to a planet called Hyperion, to petition a mysterious creature known as the Shrike and worshipped by its cultists as the Pain Lord. Each of the seven pilgrims has been affected in some way by the Shrike. And each of them is moved by love in one way or another. The warrior, Kassad, has recoiled in horror from the eroticized bloodlust and visions of cosmic destruction and war to which he was seduced by his dreamlike lover, a woman called Moneta or Mnemosyne, consort of the Shrike (whose nature is revealed later on), and is determined to kill them. The scholar, Weintraub, goes through Abraham's agonies as he is called to sacrifice his daughter to the Shrike (who has caused her to age backwards in time). Silenus himself has come to understand that the Shrike, the Pain Lord, is his Muse, and will sacrifice himself to him (at the cost of his epic remaining forever unfinished) in order for his patron, King William XXIII of Windsor-in-exile otherwise known as 'Sad King Billy' to be released from the Shrike's grasp. All of the pilgrims' fates are somehow tied to an 'other', and all of them involve sacrifice: ultimately of themselves in favour of that 'other'.

There are a few reasons why my thoughts are turned to that novel again. The first is Silenus' remarks on the nature of poetry. I believe they are right on the mark, quite literally. All poetry is divinely inspired. All real poetry at any rate. The Muse is not a metaphor for something wholly within ourselves, but a metaphor for the logos of the universe with which the poet and artist communicate directly. Robert Graves speaks of the White Goddess. I do not think the names or masks we provide her with matter.

But Silenus mentions something else – namely, that to meet the Muse is to ' to suffer the birth pangs of the Soul-Mother of Humanity'. Later on, when he is taken by the Shrike and impaled, with thousands of others, on the thorns of a gigantic, obscene steel tree, he discovers something about the nature of pain:

”Then, in the exhausted times between shouting or pure spasms of pain, Silenus allows himself thought. At first it is merely an effort to sequence, to recite the time tables in his mind, anything to separate the agony of ten seconds ago from the agony yet to come. Silenus discovers that in the effort of concentrating, the agony is lessened slightly – still unbearable, still driving all true thought like wisps before a wind, but lessened some indefinable amount.
So Silenus concentrates. He screams and rails and writhes, but he concentrates. Since there is nothing else to concentrate on, he concentrates on the pain.
Pain, he discovers, has a structure. It has a floor plan. It has designs more intricate than a chambered nautilus, features more baroque than the most buttressed Gothic cathedral. Even as he screams, Martin Silenus studies the structure of his pain. He realizes that it is a poem.”

But more on that in a little bit. I said above that I believe all poetry (if it is to be poetry) and probably by extension all art is divinely inspired. There is an immanence of God in our universe, which manifests itself as beauty: it is the rhythms, the cadence of it, the harmony of the spheres if you will, that the poet listens to. The difference between a poetic metaphor and a bad attempt at metaphor; or between a metre and structure that sets fire to the language and one that falls flat on its face, is that the former is a thought of God.

This means that it is rather easy to concede for me that the Bible is divinely inspired. Just not very uniquely so. I am increasingly uncomfortable with holding Scripture to be God's word in any other sense. God's word, to me, is the self-revelation of God in the universe in general, and throughout human history, culminating in his self-revelation in Christ, the incarnate Word. It is actions, events, that literally happen and are yet symbolical in nature: pointing beyond themselves to God. Scripture, to me, is a witness to that Word, but not more.

I should hasten to add that I also dislike regarding some parts of Scripture as ”more” divinely inspired than others. To accept the parts where God is merciful and loving and disregard the parts where God commands the slaughter of this or that tribe, for example. In doing so, we turn Scripture into a mirror of our own sensibilities. To an extent, this is unavoidable: we always read Scripture with some preconceived ideas about God, with some theological framework; yet I do believe that we should allow Scripture to modify that framework as well. Besides, I always especially liked the more brutal and gory parts.

So, on the one hand, I think inerrant or literalist readings of Scripture risk ultimately substituting Scripture for the subject of Scripture; not to speak of the fact that I think wondering on whether a literal reading of, say, Noah's flood is compatible with our scientific picture of our world is useless. I'm not even saying no or yes to such readings: I think they're utterly beside the point. On the other hand, I'm extremely uncomfortable with regarding Scripture as an imperfect testimony to a historical Jesus, or a historical Jewish people, and that the real object of our quest must be that historical event. I find higher criticism, and the history of the Bible, relentlessly fascinating: but I do not read the Bible as a philologist. I'm almost (yet not quite) at the point of agreeing with Barth and Bultmann that the historical Jesus is irrelevant; that the 'Jesus-mythers' could be right and it would not matter; for it is precisely the myth that counts.

So the Bible should stand by itself, should be allowed to create a reality in which we may immerse ourselves; without either regarding it as a recipe-book for salvation or being distracted to the fascinating but messy details of its creation. Much like art, or poetry, in fact.

I have been reading Harold Blooms ”Jesus and Yahweh” and am interested by Harold Bloom's treatment of the two main protagonists of the Bible (or, of Mark and the J parts of the Old Testament on which Bloom focuses) as literary personae. I disagree in many ways with Bloom, mind you – Bloom is a Gnostic, and while I'm not exactly free of Gnostic tendencies myself, it does seem to me that Bloom has a tin ear for the meaning of the crucifixion and the resurrection (which many historical Gnostics have denied). But Blooms approach, specifically taking into account the wholes of the texts rather than just parts, allows God and Jesus to emerge as coherent personalities. And as I do hold the Bible to be in some fashion revelatory of God, I think this approach is interesting from a religious perspective as well.

Bloom regards Yahweh as a temperamental, rash God, quick to anger and in many ways ”more human than human”, and endowed with an unpleasant sense of humor. Purely on the basis of the text, I do not think Bloom's view is ill-founded. Consider, for example, Exodus 4:24. Yahweh has just patiently gotten a very reluctant Moses to travel to Egypt and demand the freedom of his people. While Moses is on his way, however, something very odd happens:

”At a lodging place on the way, the LORD met {Moses} and was about to kill him. 25 But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son's foreskin and touched {Moses'} feet with it. "Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me," she said. 26 So the LORD let him alone. (At that time she said "bridegroom of blood," referring to circumcision.)”

Note here that first, there appears to be significant uncertaintly as to who is getting (nearly) killed: Moses or his little son, Gershom. The NIV allows for both possibilities; Bloom actually believes that Moses is to be killed. This after Yahweh spent a lot of time and effort to finally get Moses moving. Second, Yahweh is up close and personal here: he meets Moses (personally) and attempts to (personally) kill him. Third, Yahweh allows for enough opportunity for Moses' wife Zipporah to intervene, circumcise their son and thereby call of the killing.

Those are just some odd things about an exceedingly odd passage. It does not do, for me at least, to argue that the passage may be a remnant from another and clearer story: while this may be the case, it should not matter for reading the Bible, as it is. It also does not do at all to argue that by neglecting Gershom's (or his own?) circumcision, Moses had sinned and therefore he (or Gershom?) had to die. It does not make sense in the larger context: in all the negotiations with Moses about him going to Egypt, surely Yahweh could have mentioned the whole circumcision issue in passing?

My own reading, which is admittedly very ad hoc, is that Yahweh is very literally going to kill Gershom to make a point to Moses; probably, to teach him what exactly it means to lose your firstborn son, as Moses is (as is made clear in the previous verse) ordered to tell the Pharaoh. However, Yahweh is somehow mollified by Zipporah's intervention, and decides to let Gershom live.

In any way, the picture is not very pretty – at least if we like to think of God in terms of omniscient, omnibenevolent, etc. And the God of the Old Testament does seem to have a habit to make a point by killing children: where the son of faithful Abraham was spared; the daughter of Jephtah (who wanted to bind God with a deal and thought his part was going to be easy) was most decidedly not. And then there is the child of David and Bathsheba, killed for the sins of his father. One of the most problematic actions of God in the Old Testament is, of course, God's actions towards Job: I still do not quite comprehend God's answer from the whirlwind. On the face of it, it seems God is simply trying to intimidate Job – but this is too simplistic, and it does not explain Job's reaction, who acts as if he has received a genuine insight. An insight which escapes me. (Arguing that Job's suffering isn't really God's doing, but the Devil's, to whom God has delivered Job, is of course unsatisfactory: and in any way the Book of Job puts less distance between God and Satan than comfortable). Carl G. Jung, in his ”Answer to Job”, seems to argue that God is essentially amoral and lacking in self-consciousness which means that the confrontation with his pious servant fills him with suspicion and doubt; the answer from the whirlwind being bluster to conceal this uncertainty. For now, this conclusion is much too radical for me.

But confronted with the God who seems in various ways complicit in the evils that befall mankind, there are a few possible answers (leaving aside the notion that ”there is evil because we are fallen” which I agree with, in a way, but which is compatible with all of the below and does not explain the morally difficult behaviour of the God of the Old Testament):

1. The God of (most) of the Old Testament is not the real God, but the God proclaimed by Christ is. This is famously the position of Marcion and also to some extent the Gnostics.
2. What we regard as evil and suffering is not really evil; it serves some greater good. This position is found in a lot of Christian apologetics (especially Swinburne; more subtlely, in Plantinga's free-will defence).
3. God is indeed responsible for a lot of suffering, pain and evil, yet he is still God. The right attitude towards God would be a paradoxical one of rebellion, but one not denying his Godhood. If I understand, this notion has been worked out by Elie Wiesel.

Of this, it seems 1) is too simplistic and dichotomistic for me. Yahweh is a highly problematical figure compared to the hellenistic omnibenevolent Perfect Being of Christian theology but he is not a bumbling demiurge either. Aside from which, the dichotomy Marcion drew between the Old and the New Testament seems to me to go against everything Jesus stood for in the Gospel. 2) is at worst twaddle (as in Swinburne's apologetics) and at best it fits very ill with the notion of fallenness. Often, it bears uncanny similarity to the comforters of Job. There are some things we, in my opinion, cannot have. We cannot have a theology in which we on the one hand have total depravity and on the other hand free will which God allows us for the greater good; we cannot have a theology in which we have total depravity and a consequent determinism or bondage to that depravity but also a God who is in any (recognizable) form good and concerned with his creation; we cannot have theology with on the one hand a notion of fallenness and depravity and on the other hand a notion of immanence of God who remains yet untouched by that fallenness (which means there is a tension between the central Christian notion of the fall and process theology). 3) is, I believe, a faithful and courageous stance – but it is a stance, first and foremost, and one which requires a very intense confrontation with evil, of a kind which in my very sheltered life have not had and hope I never will. Elie Wiesel is a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

I cannot read the Bible ultimately without theological glasses on. I can neither accept nor deny Bloom's disturbing Yahweh. What ultimately are my most basic notions of God are:

1. God is transcendent and immanent at the same time. He created the universe, but his creation is part of him.
2. God is concrete. He is the ultimate particular: a particular that cannot be caught by any universals. This I think is implicit in Anselm's argument which argues that actuality, concreteness is an inherent quality of God. When talking about supposed attributes of God, such as omnipotence, omniscience, and so forth, and then arguing about the possible existence or non-existence of that God, we are arguing about the God of the philosophers, not the living and present God; God cannot be characterized by a universal which may or may not be actualized. He is irreducibly particular. I believe the concreteness of God is well presented in the Old Testament, particularly in God's self-revelation to Moses as I am that I am (Exodus 3:14).
3. God is love. Love is a paradoxical self-giving to the Other, in which we become more ourselves.
We are, and can only be, by surrendering and giving ourselves away; we find our lives by losing them. Only in love do we become actual, and real; without it, we are just shadows. Love, I believe, is a (perhaps ”the”) genuinely creative force, it is an eternal ”and yet”, a way in which we are and are not lost in one another, a promise that the relentless laws of this universe, entropy and death are not the last word. I think God's nature as love is primarily manifested in his self-giving creative work – which I think is ongoing, rather than something already finished, and ongoing precisely in the emergence of actuality, concreteness, here-and-nowness. And that love has been revealed by Christ's death and resurrection as a literal symbol of that creative work; which is again symbolized by the eucharist.

In the last two parts of Dan Simmon's Hyperion series, the prophet Aenea (fathered by a cyborg with the personality and memories of John Keats, and raised by the poet Martin Silenus) travels through a far-future degenerate (though, in the end, redeemed) Catholic interplanetary theocracy. The Church promises its adherents eternal life through fusion with a regenerating parasite in a faustian bargain with a malevolent artificial intelligence (still bent on creating a machine God, an Ultimate Intelligence, whose battle at the end of history with the emergent Teilhardian God still reverberates in the today of the novel). The regenerating parasite, however, feeds on the void-which-binds, a dimension of the universe at the Planck scale – the scale of reality where time and space began to lose their meaning and become ”granular” – and which, Aenea reveals, is the repository of memory and empathy in our universe and, ultimately, the place where Love is present as a reality in the physical world. If Love is by its nature self-giving, self-sacrificial, the autistic immortality conferred by the parasite at the cost of destroying the feelings and memories of the deceased is very much the opposite. Aenea must convince her followers to renounce their parasitic immortality and surrender to their ultimate fate which is death – and after death, there is no survival except for what survives in the hearts and memories of others. Ultimately, she herself must surrender to her persecutors, and at the moment of her death, she releases the void-which-binds and creates a collective empathetic conscious, one more step towards the Godhead that, in the Teilhardian cosmology of the book, lies at the end of the universe. Very much like the religious figure which Aenea is reminiscent of (and who is mentioned obliquely in the book as a hypostasis of the emergent God-consciousness, or rather, empathy, fleeing backwards in time) Aenea ”realizes herself” by becoming what she represents, which for her, too, means sacrificing herself and yet living on.

I am the Way and the Truth and the Life (John 14:6) – but what does it mean to be the truth? Surely nothing else than to be true to the divine reality which, as imago Dei, Christ represents, to be Love in his actions, and finally death and resurrection, and in that way be particular and universal, reality and myth and poem, all at once? Are Son-of-God and Son-of-Man perhaps the same thing – Jesus becoming God incarnate by becoming Man-as-he-should-be, Man as God's image, the new Adam? Pilate, ironic for a sceptic towards truth, inadvertantly spoke the truth when saying ecce homo: behold the Man, more human than any other human, more real than any other reality, behold the human compared to which we are mere shades of humans.

Anyway, how does all this relate to the problem I mentioned above, that of the dark side to God as revealed in the Old Testament? I guess you get theological and philosophical systems by taking a grain of truth and running with it, building upon it. The immanence of God and the centrality of creativity is the (experiential) truth behind Process Theology. But the difficulties of reconciling Process Theology with the traditional Christian picture of Fall and Redemption I have noted above. The grain of truth behind Gnosticism is, I believe, the notion that we cannot wholly isolate the Divine reality from the Fall. Gnosticism runs with this and tends to become, in my opinion, way too dualistic and dichotomistic by positing a wholly transcendent God (yet immanent as a spark or an 'inner light' in us, and accessible to us through gnosis) and a creator-Demiurge, who is, if not wholly evil, at least very much less than perfect. I should read more on Gnosticism, for some ideas and groups are absolutely fascinating; such as the Carpocratians, who, if the writings of their enemies are to be believed, held that we must transcend and overcome sin by doing sin (and there may be a grain of truth here, too).

The problem is this: if we hold God to be transcendent being underlying all reality, we cannot at the same time accord Evil its own, independent reality. Unless we want to become Dualists, and oppose an Angra-Mainyu/Satan to Ahura-Mazda/God. The main reason why I wouldn't is basically that my God-is-concrete principle intuitively sits ill with hypostasizing a principle of Evil and a principle of Good as opposing Gods. Also, I see very little Biblical support for supposing Satan as some kind of independent agent of Evil. Put it in another way: if we hold to the metaphor presented in Genesis, in which the first humans were seduced by the snake (nevermind where the snake comes from in a creation that was supposedly ”very good”, don't tell me the snake was really the Devil as it doesn't say anything of the kind) and thereby disobeyed and rebelled against God, auguring in their alienation from God and from the rest of creation (”By the sweat of your brow...”) - then the very possibility of this rebellion, of alienation and sin, would have pre-existed in God's creation. As a universal (as any universal, as I believe God as the ”supreme particular” to transcend the world of universals) it too would have been created by God, or existed as thought, as possibility, in God's mind.

(Some Gnostics apparently believed that the snake was right. In that the snake was an emissary from the original Perfect-Being God trying to release mankind from the flawed creation of the demiurge. At least here the snake has a point being there. Seriously, though, it should be noted that the eating from the tree inaugurated both an elevation and a Fall: by gaining a reflective self-consciousness (note that the first thing Adam and Eve noticed was that they were naked) came alienation – from each other, from the rest of creation – as well. It is what 'elevates' humankind above the rest of creation that also contains the 'fall' of mankind. As a description of the tragic human condition, the Genesis narrative has few equals).

In Kabbalistic thought, the Fall and the emergence of Evil is a consequence of the way reality came into being. This is symbolized by the ”breaking of the vessels”; after withdrawing and creating a sphere within himself where creation could take place, God concentrated the light emanating from him in ten vessels, corresponding to the ten aspects of God symbolized by the Sephiroth (Malkuth, the Kingdom, Hokhmah, wisdom, and so forth) in the 'Tree of Life'. But the vessels could not hold the light and shattered, dispersing the divine light. It is probably too literalistic to ask whether God could not have made stronger vessels; the point of the symbol meaning that evil was somehow inherent to the process of creation, or to God's self-realization in his creation.

What I'm groping at is not the Gnostic dualism between perfect, transcendent Being and less-than-perfect Demiurge with the concomitant dualism between the material world as thoroughly evil and the spiritual one accessible through gnosis as thoroughly good and in fact constituting our original home; but something milder, in which ”Perfect Being” and ”Demiurge” are conceptualized as aspects of the same God, analogous perhaps to Whitehead's primordial (transcendent) and consequent (immanent) aspects in process theology. I do believe, however, that this would entail ditching not only the ”Omni-”s of Omnipotence and Omniscience but that of Omnibenevolence as well. I do not think this is much of a loss.

This does not mean that I believe God to be Evil, but rather that ”Good” and ”Evil” are universals applicable to part of God's creation but not God himself who is transcendent; God is love, but love cannot be characterized in simple terms as ”Good” and ”Evil”; it can (and should) inform ethical choice but cannot be abstracted to a system of ethics (neither can it replace ethics); it is irreducibly situational and concrete. I'm a moral relativist in the sense that I hold it the ethics that govern human societies to be specific to their time and place (and binding to the members of those societies, including, of course, myself) – I dispute the existence of a statable moral absolute. The moment it is stated, it becomes abstract, and thereby relative in its force. So I would forcefully reject any kind of ”Argument from Morality” as irrelevant as most of the apologetic arguments, not in the least because I would dispute the existence of the absolute moral rules and intuitions that are supposed to reflect Divine reason. A nice philosophical concept. Not God. The Divine commandments in the Old Testament do, obviously, not presuppose moral absolutism in that they are parts of covenants specific to their time and place. The one that is, of course, not is the one that informs all: love God and love your neighbour as yourself. And this ”law”, I would argue, is a little higher than any moral law or principle precisely because it is ”lower” in being irreducibly concrete.

Of course, this does not mean I can simply define Evil away and be done with it; if I hold love to be a principle transcending (but not replacing) moral good and bad, then something very much the opposite of love remains: the deterministic, entropic self-unravelling of matter in its natural state but also of people and their interrelationships; the denial of possibility and creative advance by unfreedom, suffering and death. Death. Death (and the many little deaths that precede biological death) ultimately as the foreclosure of possibilities, of the ”and yet...” that is love.

Somehow, I believe Evil in this sense to be a feature of the immanent aspect of God, rather than of a creation wholly seperated from God. The brokenness of our existence, and the brokenness of our creation, thus reflects a brokenness in God as well. The panentheistic notion of God to which I hold does seem to imply it.

The flip side of the coin is that, if God is indeed love, than in his creative activity, he is constantly overcoming and transcending Evil; by ”breathing life” into the universals, the qualia and the mathematics of the Platonic world and sustaining the actual, living world he at the same time overcomes the death-like grip that laws, regularities, etc. hold over the world. ”Transcending” is, of course, not the same as ”abolishing” Evil as much as overcoming Evil much as a seed overcomes the husk it is trapped in; ”Evil is the Throne of good”, the Ba'al Shem Tov reportedly said.

(Is this the truth that the Gnostic Carpocratians discovered?)

Dan Simmons' gentle prophet, Aenea, brought the bittersweet truth that Love does indeed transcend and overcome death, but does not abolish death as a reality. There is, in the universe of Hyperion and its sequels, no personally experienced afterlife. I wonder now if the logic of what I have written above must not lead to a similar conclusion. That to ”lose our lives” as Christ instructed does not mean getting it back later, bigger and better; but quite literally to lose it in order to live on in the hearts and minds of others, and ultimately and eternally, in that of God. But no personally experienced heaven or hell await us. When starting to explore religion, for a long time I specifically denied any afterlife as I did not want my reason to be clouded by wishful thinking: I am terribly afraid of death, of the great blackness, the non-being. Then at some point the Christian notion of the resurrection led me to accept some notion (however vague) of a personally experienced afterlife. Still, I find the idea sketched by Dan Simmons and present in Whitehead's philosophy as 'objective immortality' (being remembered, perfectly and eternally, by God; yet no further personal experience) irrestistably elegant if also harsh and frightening. There is a fragile beauty to temporality, and to the notion of the personally experienced human life as temporal, and sealed, forever, by death.

I wonder now if the resurrection of Christ is not, indeed, symbolical in nature; that the life of Christ is precisely the one celebrated in the Eucharist in the community of Christians, and that to follow Christ means, indeed, to ultimately resign to surrender ourselves to future generations in a similar way.

In Whitehead's philosophy, comparatively little is explicitly said of good and evil, but quite a lot of love and beauty. Beauty, to Whitehead, is the telos of the universe and aesthetic experience is defined as ”feeling arising out of the realization of contrast under identity” (Process and reality, p. 396). It seems to me that what Whitehead describes here is very much the Hegelian dialectic in which thesis and antithesis are overcome by a synthesis without being destroyed, but living on on a higher plane as it were, or more specifically, of the way we become 'more real', we become finally 'human' in love, which paradoxically entails giving ourselves away.

Yet Whitehead states this as an aesthetic principle. And of course it is. Poetic metaphor is precisely the kind of ”patterned contrast” Whitehead describes. And by by embodying its truth in a lie (as Michael Cabot Haley put it in his Semeiosis of poetic metaphor) the metaphor only becomes more true. In becoming love through his actions, his death on the cross, and his resurrection, Christ collapses the divide between literal, propositional and poetic truth and embodies a metaphor. One that signifies, truer than true, the nature of God.

The Bible is a love-story. One that deals with the troubled and difficult love between God and his creation, specifically, his people. I believe that the New Testament is part of the story, though I am aware of the usurpation of the Hebrew Scripture in Christianity which Harold Bloom so sharply criticizes. I am not sure it matters, as I believe the central truths of the New to be present in the Old as well: ”On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" "What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?" He answered: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'" "You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live."” (Luke 10:25-27). And the story has not ended yet; the creation is still ongoing, and the seventh day has yet to come.

Martin Silenus was onto something, I believe. That to be a poet is to listen to the rhythm of the immanent God, the logos of the universe, to the creation of the world as-it-happens. A creation which is love. A creation which overcomes, transcends and defies death through death, not through simply abolishing suffering, darkness and pain – but by a dialectic ”sublation” which gives death and pain its unfortunate due and yet overcomes it by its eternal ”and yet...”. As Martin Silenus experienced with hideous concreteness (and as did his foster-child Aenea), being a poet means to ”suffer the birth pangs of the Soul-Mother of Humanity”. The Greek poiesis means creation. God is the poet of the world. And suffers the birth pangs.

woensdag 17 december 2008

Some silliness

The Dutch Reformatorisch Dagblad has a gushing review of Creationist biochemist Duane Gish's book about dinosaurs. Judging from the review, it seems to be standard OEC boilerplate with a dose of cryptozoology (dinosaurs are, apparently, still with us). I should note that the Reformatorisch Dagblad is in general a quality Calvinist newspaper, if you look away from their quirks such as shutting down their website on Sundays.

Some quotes of Gish I just can't leave alone (my translation):

Have you ever seen the tail of a hippo?

This is, of course, of the Behemoth, which is argued to be possibly a brachiosaur. The article has a helpful article about a man (presumably Job?) staring at three brachiosaurs (aren't brachiosaurs supposed to have been semi-aquatic, though?).

The relevant passage from Job (40: 15-19)

Look at the behemoth,
which I made along with you
and which feeds on grass like an ox.
What strength he has in his loins,
what power in the muscles of his belly!
His tail sways like a cedar;
the sinews of his thighs are close-knit.
His bones are tubes of bronze,
his limbs like rods of iron.
He ranks first among the works of God,
yet his Maker can approach him with his sword.

Now, at I understand, the reading of "hippopotamus" is based on the etymology of "Behemoth" which does seem to be a loan from an Egyptian word for hippo. Also, some of the other verses talk about the Behemoth hiding in swamps and under reeds, which fits the hippopotamus as well. But I agree that the 'tail'-part does not suggest a hippopotamus.

Then again, one might remark that cedars, as trees generally do, grow from the ground upward. Not sideways. So I can't see a brachiosaur reflected in the text either.

And look at the surrounding verses. First, we have amazement at the Behemoth's strength in the loins, then at the close-knit sinews of the thighs. 'Thighs' happen to be 'stones' or 'testicles' or 'male organs' in some other translations. The New International Version has a footnote that the 'tail' might be a trunk (supposing the Behemoth is an elephant) but, looking at the verse in context which reads as a praise to the creature's power and virility, my thoughts are drawn to a different organ.

I do not know whether 'tail' was a usual metaphor for that-other-thing in Biblical Hebrew (and can't be bothered to look up right now) but it seems natural enough (see for example German Schwanz which has both meanings).

For the record, I think it is fairly useless to speculate on what creature the Behemoth is supposed to mean. When the Bible talks about Behemoth, or Leviathan, it does not do so in quite the same way as it talks about sheep or camels - we do not find any Biblical figure encountering a herd of Behemoths. Rather, they are very specific monsters in the Biblical narrative as well. And I think that's what they basically are: monsters.

Elsewhere in the article Gish is quoted against the existence of transitional fossils:

None of the animals is on its way to change for 25, 50 or 75 percent; they are all complete 100 percent. Fossils are strong evidence against evolution.

The point of transitional fossils is one I have never understood.

It seems self-evident that if species A is the ancestor of species B (after a number of evolutionary changes) and that species B is an ancestral form of species C, that then species B is a transitional form between A and C, and fossils of it are 'transitional fossils'. Thus Homo Erectus is a transitional form between Homo Habilis and ancestral modern man. Which does in no way have to imply that species B (say Homo Erectus is in any way incomplete. It is only from the perspective of its ancestors and its descendants that it is a transitional fossil. As far as Homo Erectus was concerned, it probably was the pinnacle of creation. And of course Homo Erectus was a full-blown species, interbreeding with its companions, and persisting over a given quantity of time (perhaps some time after its modern descendants entered the scene. Most any creature is a representative of a species.

Likewise, from our contemporary perspective, we might state that Middle English is a transitional form between Old and Modern English, which does not mean Middle English was in any way an 'incomplete language'. Alternatively, if Monk A copies a Bible, makes a few mistakes, and leaves the copy to Monk B who adds some copying mistakes of his own in the copy he, in turn, is making, the intermediary form is a 'transitional form' from a historical perspective. It's still a Bible, too.

What has always remained entirely unclear to me is what, if my reading above is wrong, 'transitional fossils' are supposed to look like? Dinos with feathers? Check. Hairy reptiles? Check. Ape-men? Check. Ah, but all those are species in their own rights! But what else would we expect?

zaterdag 13 december 2008

This ain't the summer of love: Marxism, Christianity and the glorious nature of suffering.

This ain't the garden of Eden
There ain't no angels above
and things ain't like they're supposed to be
and this ain't the summer of love

Blue Öyster Cult

One of my favourite blogs in the Swedish blogosphere is Bloggelito's. This is because the writer is a heretic against what I regard as the "Swedish ideology" - the weird mixture of Social Democracy and moralistic feminism. And on many single political issues, I find myself in wholehearted agreement with him. With regard to worldviews, however, the distance could not be greater: being a libertarian secular humanist, the writer has an understanding of Christianity which makes Christopher Hitchens look like a subtle thinker. One example is Kristendom är fascism ("Christianity is Fascism").

The title is a response to a piece written by a Christian called Självmordshjälp är fascism ("Assisted suicide is Fascism"). I don't want to go into the question itself. I am rather leery of the state either banning or legislating euthanasia and assisted suicide.

Rather, I want to go off on a tangent based on the sneer at the end of the post (my translation):

Christianity is the mother of all fascism, with its insane emphasis on suffering (its symbol is a tortured carpenter on a cross). Whereas euthanasia is at home within the domain of humanism, with its outspoken aim to alleviate suffering..

Yes. YES. Y E S. Exactly. Guilty as charged! (Not about the fascism, mind you. That's nonsense of course. But on the suffering).

Suffering and the celebration of suffering lies at the heart of Christianity. We do indeed worship a tortured and wounded carpenter executed in one of the nastiest ways the local authorities could come up with. And depending on the exact denomination, we also worship a whole regiment of saints who faced down suffering, torture and death with death-defying, insane courage.

Again, there's various kinds of Christians. Some protestant churches are adorned with an empty cross, something I've always been puzzled at. The Roman Catholic and Eastern churches are an entirely different matter, of course. And then there are the Anabaptists, who have a glorious (and I mean precisely: glorious) history of martyrdom stretching into early modern times.

But Christianity, at heart, is about suffering and dying. It is about God, in the person of a carpenter from Galilee, showing us what it means to be human. Which as it happens includes a lot of suffering and dying. There's no way out from that. Christianity provides no spiritual painkillers, no escape from the harsh realities of the world. If you dream of immortality as a ball of pure life-energy circling the planets around Sirius or some such dross, join the New Agers. Christianity is about the suffering and dying. Which is serious business. Sure enough, as a matter of faith and hope, we may believe we will be resurrected before God - but as Christ himself showed, the suffering and dying has to be gone through first.

(The case of the Dutch Anabaptist Dirk Willems has baffled me since I first read of it. In 1569, Dirk Willems tried to escape the Church authorities across the ice. His pursuer fell through the ice, and apparently without a second thought, Dirk Willems turned around and helped him out. According to some reports, his pursuer was unwilling to arrest him but ordered to do so by the bailiff who stayed safely on the land. Dirk Willems was duly burned as a heretic.

Willems' case baffles me because he does not exemplify what a good man, or a morally upright man, or a "good Christian" should do. Only an utterly insane version of ethics would prescribe Willems' actions. Rather, through his actions, Willems transcended the logic of action and benefit, of practical rationality itself.

Willems' case keeps me awake at night. Because he exemplifies what I must intellectually accept what Christianity is about. At the same time, there's no question I'd have left the guy in the water. I'd probably have never gotten myself in that situation in the first place. It's not so much that I would break under torture, but that the mere suggestion of torture would be quite enough. And give up my friends and loved ones in the process. Because in the end, witnessing or causing the pain of others would be easier to bear than suffering oneself. It's not nice, but there it is.

This causes me to be quite hesitant in my own embrace of Christianity. Because if to be a Christian means to be a "follower of Jesus", I want to read the small print. Others may think of the miracle healings, the Sermon on the Mount, the parables. My thoughts are immediately drawn to nails.)

Back to the point: Christianity is about suffering and dying. It's about learning how to suffer. There's no way around it.

At the basis of Christianity is the understanding that the world is somehow radically not-as-it-should-be. There is a wrongness about things which goes right down to our cells, to the very heart of our being. Things are not as how they are intended to be. We are not as we're supposed to be. For the Christian, living in the world as it is is pretty much like holding a mirror which cries out: "Look at you! How hideous!".

This is of course not unique to Christianity. Marxism has a notion, in estrangement or alienation, which very much mirrors the Christian notion of the Fall.

Secular liberals are a different story. Secular liberals have a notion of wrongness, to be sure, but not radical wrongness. The wrongness of the world, in the mind of the secular liberal, often seems to lie in the rest of the world being reluctant to accept the political and social ideals formulated during the Enlightenment and exemplified in Western Europe and the U.S. But through the gradual approach between nations through free exchange of ideas and material goods, through the gradual emancipation of the autonomous, rational individual in China and Afghanistan as it is in America or Sweden, or, alternatively, encouraging the process along through U.N. sanctions or carpet-bombing, the values of the Enlightenment may yet spread around the world.

The Marxist and the Christian would probably find common ground in rejecting this notion, for not entirely dissimilar reasons.

In any event, there are a few possible responses to the radical wrongness of the world. The first would be to utterly reject and renounce the world, or to regard the world as ephemeral and illusionary, the underlying reality being a much better spiritual and ideal world which we may approach through religious ritual and contemplation. This is pretty much the road that the Gnostics took.

Another alternative would be to accept the world, but reject the self that sees the wrongness of it all. The ultimate ideal would not be an ascension of the self to some kind of better, ideal world, but an elimination of the self. My understanding of Buddhism is very limited, but I believe that there is at least some of this in Buddhism.

For the Christian (or the Marxist) neither alternative are open. We cannot liberate ourselves from this particular universe in favour of a better one. But neither can we eliminate our sense of the wrongness of things. The solution lies in the world-to-come. For the Marxist, this means the end of the alienation between man to man, and between man to nature, through abolishing the economic circumstances (methods of production, etc.) which perpetuate such alienation. For the Christian, the world-to-come is the Kingdom of God as announced and exemplified by Christ, which is at the same time here (in a community of followers of Christ) and not-yet-here - but contains the promise of reconciliation between us and the Creator which we, in our inherent 'wrongness', are estranged from.

At first sight, the Christian notion of Fallenness appears more thoroughgoing, and the notion of the Kingdom more radical. This may be true, but the decisive break in history which the advent of socialism would bring with regards to basically all human history that went before should not be underestimated.

I am reminded here by a quote of Marx presented by the blogger "Lenin" in a discussion following a post on the "New" Atheists. A discussion which demonstrates, in my opinion, why the Marxists are so much more serious and interesting intellectual opponents than secular-humanist atheists such as Dawkins or neocon atheists such as Hitchens or Harris. (No less than both my favourite philosophers - Collingwood and MacIntyre - got a mention). Anyway, the quote:

Atheism, as the denial of this unreality, has no longer any meaning, for atheism is a negation of God, and postulates the existence of man through this negation; but socialism as socialism no longer stands in any need of such a mediation. It proceeds from the theoretically and practically sensuous consciousness of man and of nature as the essence. Socialism is man’s positive self-consciousness, no longer mediated through the abolition of religion, just as real life is man’s positive reality, no longer mediated through the abolition of private property, through communism.

Briefly, to the Marxist, both religion as well as atheism as a stance occurring in modern society are products of alienation. Religion, the 'heart of a heartless world', will no longer serve a function when that alienation is overcome - but neither will atheism, i.e. the denial of God. Truthfully, I am not sure whether, from my own religious viewpoint, I disagree with this.

In any event, neither Christianity nor Marxism can be easily reconciled with the Enlightenment discourse of inherent rights and disembodied moral principles, as it figures rather prominently in Bloggelito's post.

For the Marxist, the ideology of any given epoch (such as the ideology of secular liberal individualism) is the ideology of the ruling class of that epoch, and serves the interests of that ruling class. The eternal principles of the Enlightenment - such as the universalist notion of human right, of eternally valid moral principles which we have access to through a 'moral instinct', etc., are to a Marxist part of a historically and culturally specific ideology which serves a specific notion of society and a specific class interest. The Catholic (ex-?)Marxist Alasdair MacIntyre, in his Whose Justice? Which Rationality? makes this clear in tracing the development of property as an a priori, untouchable principle in Hume's thought. This does not mean, obviously, that Marxism needs to be implacably hostile to Enlightenment principles. The bourgeoisie was progressive in its time, and the development of a universal notion of human rights at the end of the 19th century was progress. However, the bourgeoisie is not progressive anymore, and it is its 'ruling ideology' which needs to be overcome.

Christianity is, I believe, neutral to the specific ethics and 'rights' accorded to people in a specific society. Because for the Christian, the ultimate end and goal of the human being is Christlikeness, the standard presented to us by God; and the example of Dirk Willems should make pretty clear what this takes. It is obviously impossible to dictate Christlikeness as the prevailing norm in a given society (if you doubt this, consider the example of a perhaps rather less admirable Anabaptist, namely John Bockelson van Leiden). Aside from this, there is a strong disengagement from political power in the New Testament:

The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, "I will give you all their authority and splendor, for it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. So if you worship me, it will all be yours."
Jesus answered, "It is written: 'Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.'"

(Luke 4: 5-8).

(I think that, arguably, 'Christendom' as the notion of a Christian polity represents Christianity's own 'fall from grace', regardless of the benefits it may have brought society, or the probable inevitability of the historical process).

So Christianity has been combined with Enlightenment-based notions on morality and rights as happily as it has been with virtue ethics before. An example of the former is the employment of a 'moral instinct', an apprehension of eternal moral principles, in apologetics. Mind you, I believe this may well be wrong; that an underlying notion of ethical traditions which may differ a lot in time and place may be superior, and that the basic Christian notion of Christ-as-human-telos may have validity in a variety of such traditions. There is not one single Christian politics, or one single Christian morality; and the moral-political vision often represented by political Christianity often seems to go back to just the conventional morality of the turn of the 19th century. In other words, the 'Christian right' are just as much children of the Enlightenment as their secular opponents.

In any event, my understanding is that, from a Christian viewpoint, God owes you nothing. He created you in His image, and for every instant of your life, you depend on Him totally. What He has given you He can take away, just like that - and you have no cause to complain (which isn't to say you can't complain - there is a long and honourable Old-Testamentic tradition of complaining to God - just that you don't have any inherent right to). You may have rights granted by the society you live in - but before God, you have none.

And on my understanding of the Gospel, 'alleviating suffering', which Bloggelito regards as a hallmark of humanism, figures rather low in the whole plan. To the contrary, suffering and the endurance and overcoming of suffering and death through suffering and death figure rather prominently in the New Testament and early Christian history (as well as later Christian history if you're an Anabaptist). This puts Christianity at odds with a kind of humanistic utilitarianism which regards the maximum of happiness, or the minimization of suffering, as the moral standard of an action. As indeed it should be. If the purpose of life, for the Christian, is to follow Jesus, and to 'glorify God' through his actions, such utilitarian concerns should fall by the wayside.

These are not very pleasant thoughts. I believe that Christianity can co-exist with a lot of varying political viewpoints. David Heddle is a libertarian; a position that to me seems indeed to naturally flow from some New-Testamentic passages, notably those on the renunciation of political power. Others may be conservatives or socialists. I myself find myself drawn back to the hard left and to a Quixotic radical conservativism at the same time. And as it is, I happen to agree with a lot of the individual standpoints the secular libertarian Bloggelito takes. But from a Christian standpoint, I must put my hopes for the world-to-come in the Kingdom of God, and acknowledge that there will be suffering and death before.

There's the old notion of 'Lunatic, Liar or Lord', in that an honest appraisal of Christ must come down to one of the three. But perhaps a good way to put it is that to understand the New Testament, one must in a way adopt all these viewpoints. Because a lot of it is quite insane, offensive, scandalous to modern-day sensibilities. And it should be. There is nothing particularly comforting about the lines Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it. (Luke 17:30). And the more I think about it, the less comfortable I feel. What does it mean to be human? The answer is right there, right in front of me. And to be honest, I don't like one bit of it. But I nonetheless think it's true.

zondag 9 november 2008

The demise of the Netherlands

I want my country back. Venerable and anarchic Amsterdam, the glorious arse-hole of Europe, seedy and hungover, blinking at the harsh morning light. Or suspiciously modest Groningen, ill at ease in a countryside most of its denizens never see, bathing in the waft of tobacco factories, marijuana, and the scent of Surinam groceries. Or my hometown of Oude Pekela, teenage pregnancy capital of the country, jovial and violent, the dirty water of the river a deep and warm green in the afternoon haze. Living in one of the most orderly and squeaky-clean countries of Europe, I miss all that. And while I'm at it, I want my Guilder back, too, with the face of the Queen (a friend of mine reminds me that the Euro has the face of the Queen, too. But it's not the same). And the smoking sections in the trains. And a Communist Party which I can vote for once in every four years and rail against for the rest of the time.

I write this post after having read that the Christian Democrat Party wants to shut down the Coffeeshops, that most Dutch of Dutch institutions. First, they take away our real money and substitute it for fake money. Then, the moralist Mayor of Amsterdam starts a crusade against the red light district (okay, it's more complicated than that, but allow me to vent my spleen). Then, the Christian Democrats ban smoking in pubs - destroying the bruine kroeg, our Dutch equivalent of the British local pub. From now on, pubs in the Netherlands will be trendy hell-holes with abstract art on the wall, filled with non-smoking twits eating sushi and drinking drinks that glow in the dark. And now, they come for the Coffeeshops. For clarity: this is not going to happen. I do not believe it will be possible to introduce a prohibitionist mentality in a culture congenitally hostile to prohibitionism. But the very idea is enough to arouse my anger (ever-simmering as of late) at the direction the Dutch government has been taking.

Dutch culture has always had its own dialectic, a covenant between pencil-pushing bureaucracy and anarchism, between vicious social control and toleration, between finger-wagging moralism and libertinism. But the covenant has now been broken, and for the moment, the prigs and prudes and puritans seem to be in the ascendancy.

Secular-minded leftists often rail against communalism, the viewpoint that religious and cultural minorities in the West should be left, to a large extent, to handle their own affairs. The irony is that what is still the most liberal society in Western Europe is also deeply, thoroughly communalistic. After the reformation and the foundation of the Dutch republic at the end of the 16th century, Dutch Calvinism became the state religion - which it remained until halfway the 19th century - but Protestantism never attained the absolutely dominant position it did in Scandinavia. The Catholics remained a very sizeable minority (and currently, a majority among the religious part of the nation). The Calvinists very quickly fractured into orthodox and Arminian factions and continued to fracture. And Calvinist protestantism was never alone to begin with: the Anabaptists were the first organized protestants in the Netherlands, and the Doopsgezinde congregation remains (even if small).

Coupling this with the fairly weak state during the Republic (Orange-minded groups and institutions constantly competed for power with republican groups and institutions) goes a long way in explaining the Republic's tolerance for outsiders and dissidents. Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews came to the Netherlands and were left alone; philosophers and scientists such as Descartes and Linnaeus studied and worked in the Netherlands; protestant Huguenot refugees from France found a refuge in the Netherlands in the 17th century as did Catholic refugees from Germany in the 19th century.

The system that would gradually emerge in the Netherlands has been called pillarisation: any particular religious, cultural or political community had its own institutions, media, political organizations, etc., creating a 'pillar' of clubs and institutions surrounding the individual from birth to death. A Dutch reformed boy would go to a Dutch reformed school, join a Dutch reformed football club, work most likely for a Dutch reformed boss, marry of course a Dutch reformed girl, and would quite likely end his life in a Dutch reformed nursing home. For individuals, the system may well have been quite suffocating: at the same time, it worked - there was very little violence or strife between various religious groups (outside from maybe the traditional village-to-village brawls in the countryside). And communities would work together when needed. During the Second World War, the Communists and the hardcore Calvinists were both very active in the resistance, and they developed a curious respect for each other.

The system began to crumble and decline in the 1960s and later. The ruling Christian Democrat party is itself a symptom of that decline: being based on a 1980 fusion between a Catholic and two Protestant political parties. My own youth is pretty much a picture of the survival of 'pillarised' institutions in a secularizing society: I visited a Catholic primary school, a ecumenical (but largely Protestant) high school, played in a Dutch reformed marching band and attended meetings of the Communist Party.

Dutch television is still largely 'pillarised': public television airtime is divided between a Catholic station, an Evangelical one, a Social Democrat one, etc. But marking the demise of pillarisation, for example, is the fact that the liberal protestant television, after the 1960s, turned into the most artistically radical and countercultural station (the first to show full frontal nudity, etc.). We would watch their children's television when we were little, which was pretty edgy (I recall one show where the Monster of Frankenstein underwent a sex operation). But my parents preferred us watching that than watching the American children's animations on the other stations where people would be shot up and so forth. In any event, the station is currently protestant in name only - and where the other religious stations maintain a stronger identity, even the Evangelical one has been under pressure to secularize.

But even as the individual 'pillars' crumbled, the Dutch policy of leaving people pretty much alone to settle their own affairs flourished. A verb that entered politics was gedogen, literally 'tolerate' but specifically referring to the policy of neither legalizing a particular area of vice, nor prosecuting it. Prostitution has been 'tolerated' for a long time before legalization which meant simply that it remained technically illegal but the state refused to prosecute. The same still goes for the possession of small quantities of most drugs (quite aside from the regulated sale of marijuana in Coffeeshops). The policy remains, in my opinion, a fairly brilliant one: I still wonder whether gedogen is sometimes actually preferable to full legalization. Legalization is a double-edged sword: it tends to favour larger operations and companies which can deal with the regularizing and state intervention inevitably following rather than, say, the individual grower having a backyard full of weed plants or the individual prostitute. Also, legalizing a sphere of activity such as prostitution and bringing it under government control may lead to policy decisions not necessarily in favour of the persons involved: in the city of Arnhem, the red-light district (central, well-attended and therefore quite safe) was shut down with the official 'prostitution zone' removed to some kind of industrial zone at the edge of town.

In any event, the Dutch political equilibrium, and its toleration policy, was decisively disturbed with the meteoric political rise and murder of Pim Fortuyn in 2002. Fortuyn's movement channelled immense unrest and discontent about multiculturalism, the problems of which had been covered up with a suffocating blanket of political correctness for decades; with softness on crime; with globalization and the European Union which remains highly unpopular in the Netherlands; with the government constantly crowing on about economic good times which, somehow, surprise surprise, did not really trickle down to the poorer layers of society, etc. Fortuyn's jerry-rigged political 'party' did not survive his death for very long, but right-wing populism remains a force to be reckoned with in Dutch politics.

(As does, incidentally, left-wing populism: the Social Democrats have been bleeding supporters into the hard-left, economically socialist and culturally conservative Socialist Party, which is on the verge of overtaking them).

Basically, the feeling is that the Dutch policy of gedogen has also extended to 'tolerating' crime, vandalism, youth gangs and the ghettoization of parts of the big cities. At the same time - and this is a peculiar and interesting feature of Dutch right-wing populism - there is a (not unjustified) feeling that the muslim minority does not share the general Dutch tolerance for gays, alternative sexual lifestyles, etc. Pim Fortuyn was much more a libertarian than a conventional European nationalist.

Toleration in Dutch society has never been an enshrined principle in the way secularism is in the French republic, or constitutional values and individual liberty in the United States. Precisely because the Netherlands for such a long time has been a collection of various cultural and religious groups, living their own lives and pulling together as needed, depillarisation and its consequences have left us, I believe, grasping for such a basis: liberalism and toleration itself is not enough when dealing with the integration of a minority which has in some aspects quite illiberal values. At the same time, one might state that the integration of islamic minorities has been mismanaged from day one: guest-workers from the 1960s were discouraged from assimilating too much into Dutch society in order to discourage them from staying - and yet they stayed, leaving a second generation to grow up with one foot in a culture which is not theirs anymore, another in one which has never been quite welcoming and is currently utterly hostile.

The 2006 elections were, in some way, a revolt of the 'countryside' against the political elites of the big cities. The winners were the hard-left Socialist Party, with its base in the Catholic south and also strong support in the traditionally socialist/communist North-East; the culturally conservative and economically leftist Christian Union (itself a fusion of two denominationally different Calvinist groups: another example of depillarisation) which has its support in the Dutch Calvinist 'Bible Belt' from Zeeland in the Southwest to Kampen and Staphorst in the East; the Christian Democrats which always have been strong all over the countryside; and the hard-right Freedom Party of Geert Wilders, which has strong support in Limburg where Wilders is from. Losers were the Social Democrats, the liberal democrat D66, the right-wing liberals of the VVD - all parties with their power base in the big cities and the suburbs.

The resulting government has for the first time involved the Christian Union. I actually like the Christian Union (and the openly theocratic SGP) as opposition parties: they are excellent conservative watchdogs. I am less enthusiastic about their participation together with the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats in government, which has driven an increasingly illiberal line. The apex of which are justice secretary Hirsh Ballin's efforts not just to preserve but to broaden Dutch anti-blasphemy laws (which were last used sometime in the sixties). As well as his efforts in having a Dutch cartoonist lifted from his bed and arrested by 10 armed coppers for violating 'hate speech laws'. Interestingly, there seemed to have been little pressure from the supposedly offended muslims at work here - rather, the Christian Democrats are using them as an alibi for their own campaigns.

What they want is turn the Netherlands into just another squeaky-clean, nannyist European country in which any actual discontent is covered with 'hate-speech' laws, we all step in line, obediently filter our internet, do not indulge into such unhealthy activities such as smoking joints, and correspond perfectly to the Brussels bureaucrats dreams of what Europe is supposed to be. It won't work of course. The illiberalism of the Christian Democrats is, ultimately, foreign to the Dutch mentality as a whole. Laws people don't see the sense behind are simply ignored. The same is already starting with the smoking ban, which is openly ignored by an increasing number of pubs.

On an optimistic note, here's rap group THC's patriotic hymn to Amsterdam:

vrijdag 7 november 2008

Another very long post on sexuality

Forged in Jesuit logic and tempered in the cold bath of science. I nevertheless understood at that second the ancient obsession among the God-fearing for another kind of fear: the thrill of exorcism, the mindless whirl of Dervish possession, the puppet-dance ritual of Tarot, and the almost erotic surrender of seance, speaking in tongues, and Zen Gnostic trance. I realized at that instant just how surely the affirmation of demons or the summoning of Satan somehow can affirm the reality of their mystic antithesis - the God of Abraham.
Father Paul Dure in Dan Simmons' Hyperion

This is a post that I've been woolgathering about for a while. It's going to be one of those long chaotic ones. It's about sexuality, pornography, prostitution and sadomasochism. And religion. Consider yourselves warned.

Up front: I have no issue at all with homosexuality, am in favour of legalizing prostitution forthwith in the rest of the world as it is in the Netherlands, my main gripe with pornography is the poor quality of a lot of it, and I find sadomasochism relentlessly fascinating. This put me at odds, in part or in whole, with the mainstream of Christian opinion, as well as with the feminist-influenced Left (the standpoints of both overlap to some extent).

By 'mainstream of Christian opinion', I mean that body of opinion which tends to relate critically towards homosexuality and gay marriage, pornography, and legal prostitution. I am thinking here in terms of generalities which of course may belie the complexities of individual thoughts on the issue. Also, the underlying ideological basis of criticism is very different in case of the Protestant and Evangelical right than it is in case of the Catholic Church (or mainline Protestants, or Evangelical progressives, etc.), which tends to anchor its criticisms of, say, porn, into a general criticism of the commodification of humans and of human sexuality which relates to the Catholic Church's latent uneasiness with capitalism (in contrast, the Protestant right, especially in the US, seems to be extremely fond of capitalism).

Especially the Protestant and Evangelical right seem to be, at times, obsessed with such things as the photographic depiction of the girly parts of girls and the tendency of some men to scorn the girly parts of girls for the manly parts of men. As an example, take this letter from the Christian right group Focus on the Family warning about the horrors an Obama presidency would have inflicted on the United States by 2012. A remarkably large part of it is, you guessed it, about gays. I would bet that, regardless of their actual position on homosexuality, most European Christians would wonder why the gayness issue receives so much attention in comparison with, say, economic hardship and exploitation, environmental destruction, warfare, etc.

The unpleasant truth, I suspect, is that organizations such as Focus on the Family do not really mind such trivial issues as the slaughter of hundreds of thousands in Iraq, the legitimization of torture and dehumanization of prisoners by their own government, and so forth – not as much as the paramount issue of gays doing gay things with each other and wanting to get married.

The question which presents itself to this particular socialist-minded Dutchman is to what genuine extent James Dobson-style Christianity is 'Christian' and to what extent it is a rather idolatrous legitimization of American aggressive militarism and laissez-faire economics. It is, in any event, of rather slight religious interest to me, and my internal ideological 'sparring partner' in the sections below would be, instead, a Roman Catholic or a representative of traditional Protestantism or maybe a Christian feminist.

There is very little, if anything, about sexuality in the Gospels – only that Jesus seems to have been extremely critical towards divorce. The main passage in the NT which can be used to support a conservative sexual morality would be Paul's first letter to the Romans:

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.
(Romans I: 21-26).

As basis for condemnation of homosexuality, I find it unconvincing. Paul was commenting here on sexual libertinism in Roman society, which cannot be unquestioningly identified with homosexuality in modern society – concepts such as ”homosexuality” as a sexual orientation in addition to heterosexuality did not really exist for the Romans and Greeks, but sexual relationships between men were widespread in addition to male-female marriage, rather than exclusive of it. Male-male relationships often enough involved a slave on one side of it (who did not necessarily have much say in the matter). The modern conception of homosexuality as a lifelong orientation was quite foreign to this mentality.

A sin is not a simple infraction of any specific rule from the Old and New Testament – the message of the New Testament is indeed precisely that it is not. Sin as a turning from or alienation from God is both condition and activity – and as an activity, it much more refers to one's intentions and motivations rather than the outward features and consequences of that activity. Love between persons cannot be sinful – but to the extent that sin as a condition prevents the lovers from loving each other perfectly, that some of the alienation between us and the other can never be quite overcome. But nonetheless interpersonal love is a heroic attempt to overcome sin-as-condition and in that sense revelatory of God (regardless of whether you believe in Him or not). I am convinced that love for gay men or lesbians is not of a different nature than that of heterosexual pairs and that's the end of it, as far as I am concerned.

This is an interpretation. I am not sure if it is the correct one (though I hope it is). But there is no level of reading the Bible without interpreting it in some fashion – and it is better to do so explicitly. The Bible is not a recipe-book with abstract rules and generalities (and it seems to be that Christ's message was precisely one of moving beyond such an understanding of Scripture).

My imaginary sparring-partner would have an immediate reply ready, and state that where I exempt safe, normative and socially acceptable homosexual relationships, the Pauline condemnation of sexual debauchery still stand – and with it, pornography, prostitution, darkrooms, a pretty significant part of the inner city of Amsterdam, etc. The above would be quite compatible with an interpretation of sexuality as a symbolization of interpersonal love but a simultaneous rejection of lust as a perversion of such a symbol. With my fondness for symbolism in concrete life and acts, my sparring-partner would suggest, I end up at an interpretation of sexuality which is quite compatible with that of the mainline Protestant Churches such as the Swedish Church, which are quite ”sex-positive” in that they will celebrate sexuality as a gift from God, will abandon moralizing about, homosexuality or, say, masturbation or premarital sex - but will still tend to resist pornography or prostitution as commodifying and objectifying.

I would answer that in this sense, the mainline Protestants follow general secular liberalism in looking at sexuality through rose-tinted glasses. In other words: sex is great, as long as it's consensual and safe and so forth – but let's not look at the seedy sides, the sex industry and its objectification of women, prostitution, etc. I think this is precisely idealizing sexuality too much. I do not believe ”lust” to be a sin in any kind of simple sense, but neither do I believe sexuality and sexual lust to be in any simple sense a gift from God – except for all the bad stuff.

Pornography is notoriously hard to define and I am not going to make any bad jokes about defining it. But the depiction of sexual acts and naked human beings in picture and text goes back quite a bit (though the cordoning off of such from mainstream society as precisely pornography may well be a very modern phenomenon). I generally have little time for feminist objections against pornography: I agree, to a large extent, that pornography deals with the commodification of sexuality, and of the human body, and that in this sense pornography very well reflects the values of modern capitalism (just as the sex industry itself is part of a capitalist economy, though still a fairly marginal one with a strong countercultural element at its more ragged edges). I want to be careful here for taking an overly Eurocentrist view (the Japanese had a flourishing pornographic culture, complete with the trademark tentacles and monsters etc., before Japan's forcible ”opening” to the West) but this is simply the way it looks from my neck of the woods. Where I would disagree is whether pornography is just that, or indeed, whether the focus on objectification, humiliation, etc. in some pornography (mostly the one focused on the most by critics of pornography) is even a bad thing. A liberal Christian take on pornography mentions that ”The critical feature of all pornography is not that it deals with sexual themes, but that it eroticizes violence, humiliation, degradation and other explicit forms of abuse.” and that no images are neutral. Indeed, they are not – but images have also a habit of meaning more than they mean at face value, or are intended to mean.

Opinions on pornography are often formed on filmed and photographed stuff from the post-Deepthroat era. But before that, of course, there were the erotic comics of the 50s and 60s such as the bondage-themed comics of Georges Pichard, erotic novels such as the hilarious 1907 slapstick Ten Thousand Rods of Apollinaire, etc., etc., etc. - I'm not interested in objections to the extent of ”this is not porn, it's art!” since I don't see how the two are mutually exclusive, and if the objection means that pornography should be more artistic, well, yes, that would be nice. In any event, go back to the end of the 18th century and you meet with Sade, who was both a pornographer as well as an artist and a philosopher. In fact, I think Sade is probably my favourite atheist philosopher, and this relates very much to the contradictions inherent in the man – which I believe is reflected, to an extent, in the contradictions inherent in pornography as well.

I've never been able to read Sade's classic 120 Days of Sodom from beginning to end. The book contains a catalogue of perversities and cruelties which is still utterly ”out there” (it is probably for the best that videocameras were not yet invented in Sade's day). But in all its relentless focus on dehumanization, objectification, cruelty, something interesting happens. The villains of Sade's texts (usually members of the aristocracy, or priests, which are depicted with slightly more venom) are pretty much empty shells. To the extent that they have internal worlds, that is not what Sade is interesting in. He's interested in the internal worlds of the victims, in their thoughts and feelings. Sade remarked rather darkly somewhere that women are capable of more refined cruelty than men because of their more delicate nervous system. He hit upon something important here: the basis of cruelty and sadism is indeed empathy. The ability to identify with the other, and with the other in pain (and I've wondered whether at least in some cases, sadism may not be a variety of masochism). And the fascinating thing about Sade is that he relentlessly criticizes conventional morality and conventional religion in his novels (seeing it as simply one more way of keeping the weak and oppressed in their place) precisely through exploiting the titillating, prurient aspects of cruelty and oppression. For all the bloodthirstiness in his novels, Sade detested the very real bloodthirstiness of the French revolution (and succeeded in averting quite a few executions during his time as a functionary in the revolutionary government).

This humanistic strain in Sade's writings is captured very strikingly in Pasolini's film adaptation of the 120 Days, Salo. The Marxist Pasolini's version is the best film I will not want to see again in the foreseeable future. By which I mean that the film (in which the plot is transplanted to Fascist Italy: four Fascist functionaries round up boys and girls to a remote mansion for a final debauched escapade before the inevitable defeat of the regime) is brilliant but quite hard to watch. It is ultimately strangely optimistic, in that a certain essential ”humanness” is shown as surviving against terrible odds. The four predators force two of their slaves to get married in a perversion of a marriage ceremony; then, they sit down to watch the boy rape the girl. It doesn't happen: the two shily shuffle towards each other, try to cuddle, but to not follow their masters' script. One of the guards starts an illicit affair with a servant at the mention: they are caught and their sexual action is of an all-too-human, all-too-affectionate nature for the four masters. As they put the boy against the wall to shoot him, he makes a defiant raised-fist salute before he is riddled with bullets, and in that fashion exposes the weakness of the masters: they can kill him, but they cannot defeat him. And most strikingly at the end of the film, as part of the slaves are brutally murdered in the courtyard, two of the guards find a record of dancing music, put it on, and start dancing. One of them asks the other what his girlfriend's name is. The answer is ”Margerita”. Here, ”humanness” survives in a place where the four Fascists are not even looking. For all their trying, they cannot stamp it out.

There is an element – explicit in Sade but often potentially in a lot of pornography – which subverts traditional gender roles, oppression, humiliation and dehumanization precisely through its depiction of it. Of course, a great deal of it is dross – but the part that is dross is often the safer, softer kind, the surgically or digitally enhanced American beauties of Playboy (and even Playboy retains a love for the subversive and countercultural in its writing, if not in its photography). The dross is not the focus of much of the criticism against pornography. Anti-porn activist Nikki Craft's pages are adorned with bondage pictures and Hustler cartoons. Which, to me, suggests that Craft has a tin ear for the media she rails against.

Sadomasochism (and here, for clarity, I am speaking of consensual sadomasochistic practice) plays with some very dark symbolism – the ropes, the display of power and submission, the controlled infliction of pain etc. - but in doing so, it tends to subvert and transcend that symbolism. Being bound up and gagged may, if taken at face value, signify loss of freedom, loss of agency and objectification – but for the participant, it may also signify the deep trust put in the partner. Love may be the ultimate end of sadomasochistic practice just as of any ”normal” sexual practice – precisely because the symbols involved sometimes seem to mean very much the opposite of love. By acting them out, they are disarmed. It need not be that serious of course. But even when Max Mosley went around spanking prostitutes while dressed up in a Nazi uniform, the meaning of the ritual was not that Max Mosley is, or wanted to be, a Nazi. Instead, he was making fun of authority figures (another mainstay in ”kinky” sexual practice as well as in pornography). Which is a rather anti-authoritarian thing to do.

Another example: mainstream pornography has been criticized a lot for the supposed racism inherent in its depiction of blacks. Suffice to say that 'interracial' is indeed a subcategory in pornography and that there are whole lines of movies whose title I shall not mention but refers simultaneously to the blackness of the black actor's member and the whiteness of the female actor. Here too there is no simple, face-value ”message”. It can be seen as reinforcing the stereotype that blacks are well-hung and sexually active. At the same time, it should not be forgotten that this is depicted as desirable from the white female actor's point of view. I think the bottom line is that stereotypes about blacks do exist among white males, and that these stereotypes focus on various aspects of the supposed masculinity of black men. What pornography does here is not so much create the stereotype as take it and make a joke out of it.

I'm not saying here that in no way pornography reinforces conventional role-models and sexual stereotypes. It does, but at the same time pornography in the West has always been countercultural, has always developed in opposition to the sexual mores of the day, and even with the commercialization and growth of the porn industry in recent decades, it cannot entirely lose that edge. It is part and parcel of the attraction. This point has has not been lost on some of those discontented with conventionalized gender roles and their reflection in pornography.

What, then, of the dark stuff? What of the quoted liberal christian notion that pornography ” eroticizes violence, humiliation, degradation and other explicit forms of abuse”? The bottom line is, that I am a complex person and I assume other men (hetero or gay) are no less complex. There is part of me that likes the eroticization of power-play, violence, humiliation and degradation. And if these are indeed as prevalent in pornography as claimed, I am hardly unique. At the same time, I am more than a collection of turn-ons. The dark sides of my and others' sexuality are not in themselves, I believe, sinful, but a relentless focus on them to the exclusion of the other person as a person, to approaching of and sharing with the other, which is love, which is very much the opposite of sin – rejecting all that is indeed sin.

At the same time, if the demonic side of me is not a place where I want to live, neither is the angelic. I also reject the high-minded sex-positive notion of sex as a simple and straightforward symbol of love. Because, things aren't like that. Things aren't that simple. I am simply not the person that the sex-positive but anti-pornographical liberal christians claim that I am.

(I'll have to save working out my position on prostitution for sometime later. But it flows pretty naturally from my somewhat jaundiced view on sexuality. And here, at least, I have tradition on my side).

zondag 2 november 2008

An unusually atrocious New Scientist article

Via Victor Reppert, a pretty atrocious piece in New Scientist about the looming threat of Creationism to neuroscience.

First, I have to state I intensely dislike both the big pop science mags, New Scientist and Scientific American. For two reasons. First, they seem to be attracted to pseudoscience like flies are to shit - at least in as far as non-physics subjects such as linguistics are concerned. And I can only state this because I know nothing about physics. About subjects that I do know a bit about, both mags seem to have a tendency to colossally mess up. This is worrying.

Second, both of them represent the suave American liberalism that is the intellectually least interesting and most superficial of stances - coupled with a good bit of self-congratulatory "brave scientist saves the world from Republicans" nonsense. Which reached its apex in SciAms disgusting hatchet job on Bjorn Lomborg.

And if the "Global Warming Denialist" is the one perennial bugbear of suave American pro-science liberalism, the other is certainly the "Creationist". Both keeping the not-quite-highbrow sometimes-thinking left-leaning-but-not-too-far part of the population perpetually busy with their attacks on Science and Reason.

It is the latter that is the bad guy in this particular New Scientist article. Apparently, Creationists are now mounting their attacks on Reason and Science through neuroscience and philosophy of mind:

Schwartz and Beauregard are part of a growing "non-material neuroscience" movement. They are attempting to resurrect Cartesian dualism - the idea that brain and mind are two fundamentally different kinds of things, material and immaterial - in the hope that it will make room in science both for supernatural forces and for a soul. The two have signed the "Scientific dissent from Darwinism" petition, spearheaded by the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, headquarters of the intelligent design movement. ID argues that biological life is too complex to have arisen through evolution.

The first problem with the piece - and it's a very big one - is that dualism or the position that "matter and mind are two fundamentally different kinds of things" (which does not necessarily imply Cartesian dualism, but anyway) has been a respectable minority position within philosophy of mind for God knows how long. I assume it is a minority position; my subjective impression is that most philosophers of mind hold to some kind of property dualism or emergentism which in effect acknowledges mind to be irreducible to matter while at the same time holding to some kind of ontological materialism. Then there's a minority of hard-core materialists (the Churchlands, Daniel Dennett) and a minority of dualists, panpsychists and idealists (Galen Strawson has defended a panpsychist account, which he regards as a kind of materialism, in a special issue of Journal of Consciousness Studies).

Briefly, the viewpoint that there is a "hard problem" of consciousness, that mind cannot be scientifically explained or reduced to matter is pretty widely accepted. And various arguments go back a long way. The argument that the (normative) ground-consequence relationships of reasoning cannot be reduced to the (non-normative) spatiotemporal relationships of matter in a manner that is not self-refuting has been proposed with great clarity by Popper in The Open Universe back in the fifties but goes back to, as Popper mentions, to Descartes and Augustine.

The second problem is that the article stays firmly within the framework of "neuroscience". There is an irony here, in that in doing so, it repeats the main conceptual error of the ID/Creationist bogeymen (assuming that it originates with them):

To properly support dualism, however, non-materialist neuroscientists must show the mind is something other than just a material brain.

(Aaargh! No they don't!!! Conceptually, the mind is something other than a material brain! The challenge is precisely to argue that dualism, or non-material causation, or whatever is explanatorily more comprehensive than materialism)

To do so, they look to some of their favourite experiments, such as research by Schwartz in the 1990s on people suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. Schwartz used scanning technology to look at the neural patterns thought to be responsible for OCD. Then he had patients use "mindful attention" to actively change their thought processes, and this showed up in the brain scans: patients could alter their patterns of neural firing at will.

From such experiments, Schwartz and others argue that since the mind can change the brain, the mind must be something other than the brain, something non-material. In fact, these experiments are entirely consistent with mainstream neurology - the material brain is changing the material brain.

The crux of the issue is, of course, that the relationship between mind and matter - the problem of qualia, intentionality, and so forth, and how these are to be placed in a material world of law-governed spatiotemporal entities, or the other way around - is a philosophical problem, not a scientific one. The natural sciences (such as neuroscience) must by necessity stay within their naturalistic, non-teleological explanatory framework. The human sciences (such as semiotics, linguistics, psychology) must by necessity stay within their teleological non-naturalistic explanatory framework. And neither science is able to justify the basic philosophical framework by itself. So looking for neuroscience to provide for a justification for materialism is an exercise in question-begging.

Just one example of this is the way in which Libet's experiments have been regarded as either an indication for the illusory nature of consciousness, or for the existence of retrocausal, non-materialistic phenomena with regards to the human mind.

Because, of course, things go both ways. For biological ID to succeed, it would need to argue for a shift in metascientific perspective: that a framework borrowed from the human sciences is more explanatory for biology than one borrowed from the natural sciences. It is often forgotten that there is a whole body of inquiry, in some areas at least as old as the natural sciences, in which "supernatural" concepts such as free will, goal-directed agency and so forth are methodologically presupposed even by those who would philosophically reject them: linguistics, history, psychology and the like.

The irony I referred to lies in the fact that scientism and it's ID/Creationist opponents often tend to take the same kind of post-Enlightenment one-dimensionalism for granted: there is a single world, and a single set of facts (scientific facts). Creationism tends to simply substitute the Bible as a replacement for the results of scientific inquiry.

But back to the article. I have a nasty feeling that at least some of the thinkers mentioned in the article as Creationist enemies have a viewpoint on some of the issues I mentioned above quite a bit more subtle than reflected in the writer's myopic focus on neuroscience. I haven't read J.P. Moreland, but glancing from the contents of his book, I would hazard a guess his place is within fairly mainstream philosophy of mind, rather than within some ID fifth column of neuroscience. And of Henry Stapp I know that he is working on a Whiteheadian process-philosophical interpretation of quantum mechanics, which has again everything to do with philosophical and metascientific frameworks and absolutely zilch with ID or Creationism.

Not to mention that process philosophy, which has been applied to mind-matter problems by others as well, such as Stuart Hameroff, is as far from Cartesian dualism as you can get. Farther, at least, than eliminative materialism. (Not to speak of conservative Christian theology).

And ultimately, upon the basis of what I can only see as an exercise in non-understanding, the article devolves in familiar scare-mongering. The ragtag bunch of non-materialist neuroscientists, quantum physicists and philosophers mentioned in the article are a Danger to Science and Reason, no less:

And as Clark observes: "This is an especially nasty mind-virus because it piggybacks on some otherwise reasonable thoughts and worries. Proponents make such potentially reasonable points as 'Oh look, we can change our brains just by changing our minds,' but then leap to the claim that mind must be distinct and not materially based. That doesn't follow at all. There's nothing odd about minds changing brains if mental states are brain states: that's just brains changing brains."

(Presupposing a materialist conception of the mind-matter issue, yes. Which is precisely the issue. See previous remarks about blatant question-begging.)

That is the voice of mainstream academia. (No. It. Is. Not.) Public perception, however, is a different story. If people can be swayed by ID, despite the vast amount of solid evidence for evolution, how hard will it be when the science appears fuzzier?

What can scientists do? They have been criticised for not doing enough to teach the public about evolution. Maybe now they need a big pre-emptive push to engage people with the science of the brain - and help the public appreciate that the brain is no place to invoke the "God of the gaps".

I have a better suggestion. On second thought, it would be too obscene to mention here. (I need to get outside and calm myself down with a cigarette).

(Back). I have a better idea. Neuroscientists should study neurology and not pretend they do philosophy. Philosophers of mind should study philosophy and not pretend to do natural science. Incidentally, I have a feeling that most of either group are already doing this and not need my advice.

Popular science journalists, on the other hand, should try their hand at reporting science. Not pseudo-science. Not politics or the intellectually barren perspective of left-liberal culture warriors. Not distort genuine, and interesting controversies through the lens of anti-religious hysteria.

Things like this almost make me root for a McCain victory, out of sheer spite.