vrijdag 19 september 2008

Twenty seconds

Lately my thoughts have turned to such cheerful things as the severed heads of eels, still reflexively snapping. Beheaded chickens running into whatever direction they were running. The rumours that when one is decapitated, consciousness is not lost immediately - you remain aware for twenty seconds or so. Twenty seconds - a disquietingly long time.

Andre Brink's description, in An Act of Terror of crayfish, their bodies crushed, helplessly crawling around in their basin. And through that very futile action it curiously defies death. There is a melancholy inertia to life. When the lights finally go out in my particular case, my cells will continue to go about their business for a little while, not knowing I am dead. I have even read somewhere that the brain keeps on aimlessly shooting about neurons for a while - days, even. Death is a process, not an event.

Systems die too. And ideologies die. And for a while the outward workings, the rituals and symbols, keep going on but the spirit is dead.

The past few days, I have been alternatively convinced that market liberalism was dying and that market liberalism joined Communism and Christianity in the group of ideologies that have not to much failed but never been tried. There is the panicked behaviour of governments - or not so much governments which have been all but absent these past days but government bureaucracies which behave with an inconsistency and a substitution of strategy for immediate survival tactics which bespeaks the absence of any ideology. Reminiscent a bit of maybe Guenter Schabowski, the hapless East German functionary misspeaking on the television news and accidentally causing the downfall of the Berlin Wall. Leadership departed and gone, at the helm a fumbling bureaucrat who lost his rulebook and makes it up as he goes along.

Because that's what happening, isn't it? The ship of fools constantly being patched, jerry-rigged, held together by new threads which fall apart as soon as they are put into place - but the truth is, only the shell of an economic system is left. Only the inertia, the reflexive movements. The spirit has departed. I know a dangerous little about economics. But just enough to see that this isn't capitalism, this isn't markets sorting themselves out however painful the process may be. Rather, there is something of a pretense of a market being kept functioning - or pretending to function - by massive government intervention. (And I know just enough to understand that simply printing money and throwing it at the problem isn't a long-term solution, nor is forbidding investors to bet on stocks going down. Just enough to get a quaint sinking feeling).

I wonder where we're heading. In the end, all the big economic systems - feudalism, the various stages of capitalism, Soviet-style socialism, Western European social democracy - are just various ways of constraining and organizing exploitation and rapacity. So I guess is when the system fails, you end up with a rather less constrained and less organized form of exploitation and rapacity.

We'll see. This is going to be an interesting winter.

donderdag 11 september 2008

Something more cheerful...

Nothing to do with any kind of religious point to be sure, but Tom Waits' God's away on business is in my head a lot these days. The lyrics have this nice uplifting pre-apocalyptic ring to them:

I'd sell your heart to the junkman baby
For a buck, for a buck
If you're looking for someone
To pull you out of that ditch
You're out of luck, you're out of luck
The ship is sinking
The ship is sinking
The ship is sinking
There's leak, there's leak,
In the boiler room
The poor, the lame, the blind
Who are the ones that we kept in charge?
Killers, thieves, and lawyers...

And the video clip is way cool:

An internal exile reads MacIntyre's After Virtue

I've politically described myself as a 'conservative anarchist', which does not make much sense, but makes more sense than just about anything else. I don't feel much at home with left-wing anarchism because it remains focused on direct democracy, egalitarianism, etc. - replicating the utopia of Marxism. And I'm not sure anymore whether democracy is the superior system it is so often thought to be. Or whether people are really equal. I don't feel at home with most right-wing individualist versions of anarchism either. Or libertarianism, or paleoconservatism. Because of the uncritical attitude towards capitalist rapacity, and the notion of the individual and its liberties as the atomic cornerstone of society. I remain too much of an ex-Marxist not to acknowledge that even if individuals may transcend society, they are at the same time constituted by society, social traditions, norms and ideologies. Then there's the national-anarchists, who are right in both rejecting capitalism and recognizing that people are unlikely to voluntarily enter an egalitarian, communist brotherhood of man. It's just that the Neo-Nazistic roots, including blood-and-soil mysticism and antisemitism, are sometimes still showing.

I'm also far from juvenile slogans about "No God, No Master!" There is a God, and there will be masters, too - some perhaps even worthy of service. At the same time, I believe that the modern national state is no longer a serviceable vehicle for human civilization - if it ever really was. The national state is dead - it just doesn't know it yet. Hollowed out by the disintegrative, commodifying forces of capitalism just like the family, the village, and any other civilizing institution (the Church may be a partial exception, but looking from the most secularized country in Europe, a very partial one). And no coherent political alternative to current political conditions can be formulated within the framework of the national state. We need to move on - perhaps by looking back to older forms of social organization. So 'conservative anarchist' is what it'll be.

I've been reading Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue: a study in moral theory. (Notre Dame 1981). It's a persuasive and very disturbing look at ethical discourse in modern society, and at modern society through the prism of ethical discourse. In a (doubtlessly very inadequate) nutshell: MacIntyre argues that the Enlightenment project to find a absolute, universal standard for morality - whether it is in deontological ethics such as Kant's categorical imperative, or in utilitarian formulations of ethics - has utterly failed. The result is an incoherence in modern discourse about ethics - we retain fragments of the moral systems of earlier times, but no way to integrate them - and the rise of viewpoints such as "emotivism" in the 20th century, which regarded ethical discourse as basically emotional in nature: an ethical judgement no different, so to say, than a preference for a particular kind of food. MacIntyre connects the latter with the nature of human relationships in modern-day management capitalism: instead of basing human intercourse on rational argument, we see manipulation of human beings as so much more means to an end on a massive scale (to MacIntyre, the bureaucrat and the manager are iconical characters of the modern age).

In MacIntyre's view, the failure of the Enlightenment project in ethics faces us with a stark choice: accept the moral nihilism of a Nietzsche or go back to a teleological, virtue-based morality of Aristotle. MacIntyre rejects the first alternative, and argues instead for a teleological view on morality in which the concept of 'virtue' embodied in practices, traditions and historically local social and cultural groups is paramount (rather than the concept of a universal and abstract 'rule'). So, the basis of ethics is the self-actualization of a human being as-he-should-be, the development of the human being towards a specific goal: but this requires the integrity and coherence of the human life as a 'narrative structure' (a story, with a 'where do we come from' and a 'where are we going?' so to speak) as well as the integration of that human life within the life of a tradition, a historical community acting as the vessel of basic values and ideals. MacIntyre thus defends the local nature of morality and 'virtue', and their rootedness in the life of a community (for Aristotle, the Hellenic polis), yet this does not imply moral relativism, as it does not imply that there is no basis for a dialogue between traditions and the rejection of one conception of virtues to the other (just the absence of a disembodied rule-based morality).

There is a lot to say about MacIntyre's book (and a lot more for me to think, too). MacIntyre is, as I understand, a Roman Catholic with Marxist roots, and the book is aside from a essay on ethics a trenchant criticism of liberalism which is not afraid of being conservative without being backward-looking. But at the same time, its conclusion is unremittingly bleak.

Some fairly disconnected fragments and comments:

Before MacIntyre deals with Aristotle, he treats virtue as it appeared in 'heroic societies': the kind of society that survives in epics such as Homer's Iliad and the Icelandic sagas. Specific to heroic societies, according to MacIntyre, is a lack of alienation as it were: there is no way for the individual in society to 'step outside' its role and the ethical precepts and obligations which that role brings with it, which allows MacIntyre to make a contrast between the very close connection to the self and a role (with accompanying ethical precepts and ideals) in heroic society and modern-day pluralism, and thus between a local, tradition-bound virtue ethics and the failed Enlightenment project of socially and culturally disembodied universal morality:

There is thus the sharpest of contrasts between the emotivist self of modernity and the self of the heroic age. The self of the heroic age lacks precisely that characteristic which we have already seen that some modern moral philosophers take to be an essential characteristic of human selfhood: the capacity to detach oneself from any particular standpoint or point of view from the outside. In heroic society there is no 'outside' except that of the stranger. A man who tried to withdraw himself from his given position in heroic society would be engaged in the enterprise of trying to make himself disappear.
Identity in heroic society involves particularity and accountability. I am answerable for doing or failing to do what anyone who occupies my role owes to others and this accountability terminates only with death. I have until my death to do what I have to do. Moreover this accountability is particular. It is to, for and with specific individuals what I must do what I ought, and it is to these same and other individuals, members of the same local community, that I am accountable. The heroic self does not itself aspire to universality even although in retrospect we may recognize universal worth in the achievements of that self.
(...) Nobody now can be a Hector or a Gisli. The answer is that perhaps what we have to learn from heroic societies is twofold: first that all morality is always to some degree tied to the socially local and particular and that the aspirations of the morality of modernity to a universality freed from all particularity is an illusion; and secondly that there is no way to possess the virtues except as part of a tradition in which we inherit them and our understanding of them from a series of predecessors in which series heroic societies hold first place.

(p. 118-119).

MacIntyre explores the problem of conflicting moral claims in Greek Tragedy, and argues that the presentation of this conflict in Sophocles' tragedies is of a very different nature than the presentation of moral heterogeneity in modern society by for example Karl Weber and Isaiah Berlin, in that the protagonist of Greek Tragedy had no way to step 'out' of his role and had no choice but to acknowledge the validity of both claims. There is thus no way of viewing the heterogeneity of virtues as somehow 'relativizing' them or seeing them as being neither true or false:

The interest of a Sophocles lies in his presentation of a view equally difficult for a Platonist or a Weberian to accept. There are indeed crucial conflicts in which different virtues appear as making rival and incompatible claims upon us. But our situation is tragic in that we have to recognise the authority of both claims. There is an objective moral order, but our perceptions of it are such that we cannot bring rival moral truths into complete harmony with each other and yet the acknowledgement of the moral order and of moral truth makes the kind of choice which a Weber or a Berlin urges upon us out of the question. For to choose does not exempt me from the authority of the claim which I chose to go against.
(...) the moral protagonist stands in a relationship to his community and his social roles which is neither the same as that of the epic hero nor again the same as that of modern individualism. For like the epic hero the Sophoclean protagonist would be nothing without his or her place in the social order, in the family, the city, the army at Troy. He is she is what society takes him to be. But he or she is not only what society takes him or her to be: he or she both belongs to a place in the social order and transcends it. And he or she does so precisely by encountering and acknowledging the kind of conflict which I have just identified.

(p. 134)

This subtle and dialectical formulation of the relationship between society and the individual enables MacIntyre, I believe, to assert the localness and rootedness of virtue traditions without moral relativism: moral relativism implies we take a vantage point which we in reality cannot take. We can transcend society in that we can recognize the validity of rivalling moral claims; yet we cannot place ourselves out of society as individuals whose life is a 'narrative structure' which is rooted the social transmission of ethical traditions. The consequence of this is that the good may be something which in practice is unattainable to us: yet the moral obligation remains. In other words, that we may not be able to do something doesn't mean we shouldn't:

One way in which the choice between rival goods in a tragic situation differs from the modern choice between incommensurable moral premises is that both of the alternative courses of action which confront the individual have to be recognised as leading to some authentic and substantial good. By choosing one I do nothing to diminish or derogate from the claims upon me of the other; and therefore, whatever I do, I shall have left undone what I ought to have done. The tragic protagonist, unlike the moral agent as depicted by Sartre or Hare, is not choosing between allegiance to one moral principle rather than another, nor is he or she deciding upon some principle of priority between moral principles. Hence the 'ought' involved has a different meaning and force from that of the 'ought' in moral principles understood in a modern way. For the tragic protagonist cannot do everything that he or she ought to do. This 'ought', unlike Kant's, does not imply 'can'.
(p. 208)

The same recognition of genuine conflict is implicit in the harsh way MacIntyre, through Aristotle's eyes, sees a conflict between patriotism and friendship as put forward by E.M. Forster:

Friendship, of course, on Aristotle's view, involves affection. But that affection arises within a relationship defined in terms of a common allegiance and to a common pursuit of goods. The affection is secondary, which is not in the least to say unimportant. In a modern perspective affection is often the central issue: our friends are said to be those whom we like, perhaps whom we like very much. 'Friendship' has become for the most part the name of a type of emotional state rather than a type of social and political relationship. E.M. Forster once remarked that if it came to a choice between betraying his country and betraying his friend, he hoped that he would have the courage to betray his country. In an Aristotelian perspective anyone who can formulate such a contrast has no country, has no polis; he is a citizen of nowhere, an internal exile wherever he lives. Indeed from an Aristotelian point of view a modern liberal society can appear only as a collection of citizens of nowhere who have banded together for their common protection. They possess at best that inferior form of friendship which is founded on mutual advantage. That they lack the bond of friendship is of couse bound up with the self-avowed moral pluralism of such liberal societies. They have abandoned the moral unity of Aristotelianism, whether in its ancient or medieval forms.
(p. 146-147)

These are hard words, and MacIntyre's emphasis on the rootedness of morality in a historically local society - the Greek city-state in Aristoteles' case - has severe consequences for the survival of virtues in the modern liberal pluralistic society. Hence patriotism as a virtue becomes increasingly questionable:

In any society where government does not express or represent the moral community of its citizens, but is instead a set of institutional arrangements for imposing a bureaucratised unity on a society which lacks genuine moral consensus, the nature of political obligation becomes increasingly unclear. Patriotism is or was a virtue founded on attachment primarily to a political and moral community and only secondarily to the government of that community; but it is characteristically exercised in discharging responsibility to and in such government. When however the relationship of government to the moral community is put in question both by the changed nature of government and the lack of moral consensus in the society, it becomes difficult any longer to have any clear, simple and teachable conception of patriotism. Loyalty to my country, to my community - which remains unalterably a central virtue - becomes detached from obedience to the government which happens to rule me.
(p. 236-237).

Earlier MacIntyre has a sharp characterization of political disagreement in modern society: (...) modern politics cannot be a matter of genuine moral consensus. And it is not. Modern politics is civil war carried on by other means (...) (p. 236). MacIntyre distances himself from anarchism, but his rejection of the modern state seems nonetheless radical:

(...) this necessary distancing of the moral self from the governments of moral states must not be confused with any anarchist critique of the state. Nothing in my argument suggests, let alone implies, any good grounds for rejecting certain forms of government as necessary and legitimate; what the argument does entail is that the modern state is not such a form of government. It must have been clear from earlier parts of my argument that the tradition of the virtues is at variance with central features of the modern economic order and more especially its individualism, its acquisitiveness and its elevation of the values of the market to a central social place. It now becomes clear that it also involves a rejection of the modern political order. This does not mean that there are not many tasks only to be performed in and through government which still require performing: the rule of law, so far as it is possible in a modern state, has to be vindicated, injustice and unwarranted suffering have to be dealt with, generosity has to be exercised, and liberty has to be defended, in ways that are sometimes only possible through the use of governmental institutions. But each particular task, each particular responsibility has to be evaluated on its own merits. Modern systematic politics, whether liberal, conservative, radical or socialist, simply has to be rejected from a standpoint that owes genuine allegiance to the tradition of the virtues; for modern politics itself expresses in its institutional forms a systematic rejection of that tradition.

This is radical stuff - in as far as MacIntyre is a kind of paleoconservative (and I think it is arguable that he is), he is a paleo-paleo-paleoconservative, and he chides modern-day conservatives for rejecting parts of modernity, liberalism, and the social disintegration wrought by the omnipresent market; but remaining faithfully committed to the market economics that has produced modern liberalism:

The individualism of modernity could of course find no use for the notion of tradition within its own conceptual scheme except as an adversary notion; it therefore all too willingly abandoned it to the Burkeans, who, faithful to Burke's own allegiance, tried to combine adherence in politics to a conception of tradition which would vindicate the oligarchical revolution of property of 1688 and adherence in economics to the doctrine and institutions of the free market. The theoretical incoherence of this mismatch did not deprive it of ideological usefulness. But the outcome has been that modern conservatives are for the most part engaged in conserving only older rather than later versions of liberal individualism. Their own core doctrine is as liberal and as individualist as that of self-avowed liberals.
(p. 207)

Though MacIntyre has some warm words for certain Marxists, in particular Trotsky, he firmly rejects Marxism as a political alternative to liberal individualism as well:

Marxist socialism is at its core deeply optimistic. For however thorough-going its criticism of capitalist and bourgeois institutions may be, it is committed to asserting that within the society constituted by those institutions, all the human and material preconditions of a better future are being accumulated. Yet if the moral impoverishment of advanced capitalism is what so many Marxists agree that it is, whence are these resources for the future to be derived? It is not surprising that at this point Marxism tends to produce its own versions of the Uebermensch: Lukacs' ideal proletarian, Leninism's ideal revolutionary. When Marxism does not become Weberian social democracy or crude tyranny, it tends to become Nietzschean fantasy. One of the most admirable aspects of Trotsky's cold resolution was his refusal of all such fantasies.
(p. 244)

I do not share MacIntyre's positive valuation of Trotsky on this count. Though MacIntyre is right in praising Trotsky's analysis of Stalinism (The Revolution Betrayed, 1937), I am not at all sure Trotsky ever departed from the 'Nietzschean fantasy' inherent in Leninism's emphasis on the revolutionary vanguard with its correct and 'revolutionary' consciousness, etc. Indeed the Trotskyists have always claimed to be the rightful inheritors of the Leninist tradition and as far as I can see, they are correct to do so.

MacIntyre ends his work with a gloomy and disquieting look to the future:

It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead - often not recognising fully what they were doing - was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time, however, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament.
(p. 244-245)

MacIntyre published those lines in 1981, at a time when the Cold War was on its last leg, a wave of neo-liberalism was to set in in the United States and Britain, but at the same time leftist ideology seemed still in fairly good shape and multiculturalism as a political ideal was just being articulated. Now multiculturalism, at least in Western Europe, is something of an expletive: an acknowledgement that there are competing and incommensurable moral systems living side-by-side and that liberal individualism as an ideological basis for the modern state is simply incapable of integrating those systems is setting in. In that sense, MacIntyre was pretty far-sighted.

As I understand, MacIntyre converted to Catholicism not long after the publication of After Virtue. This arouses my curiosity as the Catholic Church has perhaps at least partially constituted a bastion against modernity - never quite accepting the Enlightenment and the concomitant 'dehellenization' (to use Benedict XVI's term) in the sciences and religion, and never accepting modern capitalism and its elevation of greed as a founding principle of society either. I earlier briefly mentioned the disintegrating effects of capitalism on society: the alienation between the worker and its work (currently, now that 'flexibility' is such a buzzword, involving even the dissolution of the long tradition of one person having more or less one trade or profession exercised at more or less one place; capitalism has turned the workforce into professional nomads); the commodification of everything - of art, of sexuality, of religion, and even of political radicalism; the slow but certain dissolution of national states (in Europe, through their incorporation into a faceless and bureaucratic entity named the European Union); the dissolution of the family - I could go on. Marx held capitalism to be a revolutionary force and for good reason. He may have been wrong to have held that capitalism contained the seeds of its own destruction, of its transcendence by a superior socialist order. And if he was wrong, and if MacIntyre's right, capitalism is a force of mere destruction, a 'revolutionary' force that should make us all embittered counterrevolutionaries.

Religious traditions have hardly been immune to co-optation, through the acceptance of religious pluralism, the spread of New Age and other fad religions, etc. The great Protestant churches in Europe stand empty or cling to a dwindling local base such as the surviving reformed communities in the Netherlands. The Evangelical movements in contrast seem to be brimming with life. Though at least some of those movements have embraced modernism and especially capitalism a bit too enthusiastically (I am thinking, in particular, of the hideous 'God likes me, so I have a lot of money' monstrosities of prosperity theology). Though I think there is some kind of genuine vitality among Evangelicals, and also signs of some loss of attachment to the American Christian right. And the Catholic Church exists tenaciously on, almost as if to mock the modern world...

I wonder how the Christian tradition will develop and will survive the 'dark ages' which I agree with MacIntyre are upon us. And especially how the two strains that seemed to have steered clear of theological liberalism best (the Catholic Church and the Evangelicals) will do.

As to the larger political scene, some kind of alliance between the erstwhile political Left and elements of the political Right has developed over the last decade or so, specifically between the anti-globalist and anti-interventionist left and the paleoconservative (to a lesser extent libertarian) strains of the right. I am interested to see at least some elements of this same hybridity in MacIntyre's work: an uncompromising critique of modern capitalism (by implication also involving globalism, imperialism, etc.) coupled with a rejection of some key Enlightenment notions and a revaluation of tradition as the necessary vessel of ethics, virtue and civilization (counterposed to the traditional Left/Enlightenment ideal of progress). In that sense too MacIntyre's book is quite appropriate for times like these.

woensdag 10 september 2008

The Glory of the Useless

So the Large Hadron Collider has been turned on, slowly powering itself up and zapping its particles through kilometres of gigantic tubes. A scare video can be found here.

What really gets my goat is the whining at the end of the experiments not offering any "concrete practical benefit".

At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, some pointy-headed scientists began to ponder on some problems concerning energy and radiation of very tiny particles. Bit by bit, they came up with Quantum theory - something so outlandish that physicists themselves (who are quite a speculative bunch, I think) still don't quite know what to make of it. But the important thing is, it works.

It works so well, in fact, that Quantum theory has led to the development of stuff like lasers. And lasers have, aside from cool science-fiction weaponry, led to nifty things like the DVD. Which has led to wonderful new things such as the enormous variety of, er... nature documentaries you can find on DVD.

I still have a hard time figuring out how a television actually works. Something in me still believes that tiny little guys and letters wring themselves through the cable to put on a show behind the screen. Which is why I can't really fathom wireless internet. Where do the pictures come from? But it works. And it's quite amazing. A whole film on this tiny, shiny circular piece of metal.

Of course, had anyone asked Max Planck or Niels Bohr about the practical benefits of whatever they were thought to be working at at the time, they'd probably just have scowled - but they wouldn't have come up with something like the DVD player. Back then, people still believed that by this time, we would be moving between skyscrapers in flying horse-carts, or conquer the galaxy with gigantic zeppelins. What they wouldn't expect is that we would lock ourselves up in our apartments eating take-away pizza and watching films on personalized cinema's in a box.

And even if they had known, it still wouldn't have mattered. Quantum theory would be worth is just for the sake of the theory itself. For the sake of knowing. For the heck of it.

There are so many ways we can approach the mysteries of the universe. We can look upon it as a puzzle, to be uncovered, as the scientists do. Or as a story spoken to us in an unknown language, as the philosophers and the poets do. And all of these speak to a vital need of humanity. People who would disparage the uselessness of scientific experiments would perhaps be more hesitant to speak of the uselessness of a Shakespeare, or a Rembrandt - but what concrete use has art ever brought the world? And it comes down to the same thing. Without an insatiable curiosity for the world without us, or the world within us, we would be less than human.

Sometimes this deadening utilitarianism comes from unexpected corners. Take one Richard Dawkins who for reasons increasingly unclear to me holds something called the Simonyi Professorship for the Public Understanding of Science:

What has theology ever said that is of the smallest use to anybody? When has theology ever said anything that is demonstrably true and is not obvious? I have listened to theologians, read them, debated against them. I have never heard any of them ever say anything of the smallest use, anything that was not either platitudinously obvious or downright false. If all the achievements of scientists were wiped out tomorrow, there would be no doctors but witch doctors, no transport faster than horses, no computers, no printed books, no agriculture beyond subsistence peasant farming. If all the achievements of theologians were wiped out tomorrow, would anyone notice the smallest difference? Even the bad achievements of scientists, the bombs, and sonar-guided whaling vessels work! The achievements of theologians don't do anything, don't affect anything, don't mean anything. What makes anyone think that "theology" is a subject at all?

When I was studying in Finland many years back, a friend of mine would often raise a self-coined derogative, ääliöpragmatismi, or "idiot pragmatism". I don't know if something like Dawkins' statement above was what he meant, but I think it well might, and "idiot utilitarianism" (in order to not associate the great Charles Peirce with this line of thinking, see below) would do quite well.

Of course, it is obviously false. Regardless of one's attitude towards religion, it does affect individuals and communities in an efficacious manner - it "works", for good or bad. And a very big part of theology is precisely concerned with how and why it "works". Aside from this, I am not sure how my own field of study - philology - would be doing without the methods of textual criticism developed in theology (especially protestant theology). Hermeneutics, the art of interpreting text (and by extension culture) which forms the central methodological foundation in the humanities, was developed largely through the theological preoccupation with Scripture. And this doesn't even begin to touch the points of contact between theology and philosophy in a more general sense such as existed in the Middle Ages and the Rennaissance, and continues to exist (Ernst Bloch's work on eschatology from a Marxist perspective, for example. Or Alasdair MacIntyre's work on Thomistic perspectives on ethics).

The thing is, I would have no doubt that the Oxford Professor of the Public Understanding of Science would not hesitate to proclaim such disciplines as philology, linguistics, and philosophy equally useless. Or at least his more enthusiastic disciples. Human progress reduced to scientific progress, reduced to technical progress, reduced to a greater abundance of... stuff. A sad comment on the spirit of our age.

And likewise, even to ask the question of utility is to fall into philistinism. Because regardless of the benefits that science and art can bring, may bring, the question of utility should never guide scientific research itself. It is never about those benefits. It's always about the puzzle, or riddle, or the story, or however one puts the big question that the universe and our own place within it seems to pose. It's always about Truth, with a capital T.

I often find myself returning to Peirce. A singularly useless individual, never held down a steady job for very long or cared very much for the conventions of his time, who through his stubborn dedication to studying useless things for the heck of it, to thinking for the heck of it, broke new ground in metaphysics, semiotics, epistemology, and incidentally theology as well. And as the vast majority of his papers, as I understand, have not been even published, I suspect the true import of Peirce's works in semiotics and linguistics has yet to materialize.

Peirce had no time for "idiot utilitarianism" in the sciences:

The old-fashioned political economist adored, as alone capable of redeeming the human race, the glorious principle of individual greed, although, as this principle requires for its action hypocrisy and fraud, he generally threw in some dash of inconsistent concessions to virtue, as a sop to the vulgar Cerberus. But it is easy to see that the only kind of science this principle would favor would be such as is immediately remunerative with a great preference for such as can be kept secret, like the modern sciences of dyeing and perfumery. Kepler's discovery rendered Newton possible, and Newton rendered modern physics possible, with the steam engine, electricity, and all the other sources of the stupendous fortunes of our age. But Kepler's discovery would not have been possible without the doctrine of conics. Now contemporaries of Kepler — such penetrating minds as Descartes and Pascal — were abandoning the study of geometry (in which they included what we now call the differential calculus, so far as that had at that time any existence) because they said it was so UTTERLY USELESS. There was the future of the human race almost trembling in the balance; for had not the geometry of conic sections already been worked out in large measure, and had their opinion that only sciences apparently useful ought to be pursued, [prevailed] the nineteenth century would have had none of those characters which distinguish it from the ancien régime.

True science is distinctively the study of useless things. For the useful things will get studied without the aid of scientific men. To employ these rare minds on such work is like running a steam engine by burning diamonds.

(Collected Papers 1: 75-76)

maandag 8 september 2008

The End of the World. Wednesday, That Is.

Or perhaps not.

That's when the Large Hadron Collider comes on-line. Don't ask me how it works. Though the idea to smash elementary particles together at virtually the speed of light just to see what happens when you do that sounds interesting enough.

Some worry it might mean the end of the world, though.

Apparently, it's been argued that there is a tiny change that the experiment will create a miniature black hole, which will then proceed to gobble up the earth while it turns into a very voracious not-so-miniature black hole. Concerns have been dismissed, though, as Stephen Hawking's theories suggest miniature black holes should quickly evaporate.

There's the parts that I don't like so much though. Phrases such as "According to standard calculations...", "The consensus of the scientific community suggests...", and so on. I'm aware that the existence of black holes has been convincingly demonstrated, that we've indirectly observed them through watching stars being ripped apart, seeing tendrils of gas sucked into their, well, blackness, and so on. Yet the idea of a singularity, an infinitesmal point with infinite mass, sounds so cosmically obscene to me that I cannot wholly trust it. A small voice inside me suggests that if theory comes up with monsters like this, perhaps theory should be reconsidered.

Yet, I'm convinced that if any serious fraction of the scientific world were genuinely concerned that there was any practical chance that LHC would lead to Armaggedon, they'd be all over Discovery Channel describing said Armaggedon in glorious detail. Look at all the programs about dinosaur-class meteorites lurking in the interplanetary junkyard waiting to take us out, about supervolcanoes belching ominously underneath Yellowstone, etc. etc.

There's few groups in society so hyper-aware of possible Apocalypse scenarios than natural scientists themselves. I recall that when the hydrogen bomb was going to be tested, Edward Teller, hardly a chicken little, was seriously concerned that it would ignite the whole atmosphere.

Then again, they tested the thing anyway. That gives me pause.

We'll see Wednesday, I guess. I wonder what would happen if they inadvertantly create a stable black hole. I guess there'd be titanic earthquakes as the world slowly falls into itself, oceans boiling, the ground turning to jelly and some such unpleasantness. But I wonder how long it would take. Would it be a matter of minutes? Months? Or would we have years before the earth becomes uninhabitable?

One of my favourite SF-novels, Hyperion by Dan Simmons, involves precisely such a scenario: in the far future, Earth has been destroyed by a LHC-like experiment gone wrong and a mini black hole wolfing down the insides of the earth, precipitating humanity's flight to the stars. Thing is, we don't have the spaceflight technology that Dan Simmons expected we would have around now, or in the near future around now. If this one goes bad, we have nowhere to turn to. We're stuck. On a literally crumbling planet awaiting the inevitable spaghettification. Save some friendly alien species organizing a mass evac. And it'd be a rather embarrassing way of entering the League of Space-Faring nations.

Come to think of it, didn't Asimov's Foundation Trilogy feature black hole ashtrays? Or my memory may be playing tricks on me. Makes me think though, my room at uni could do with a stable mini black hole waste disposal unit. Just goes to show, the natural scientists may come up with gargantuan machines smashing elementary particles at near-luminous speeds just to see what comes out, but it takes muddle-headed humanities figures like me to find some actual utility for them.

UPDATE: So, they're going to turn the doomsday switch at 9:30 AM, European time. That's another reason why I view my colleagues at the physics department with suspicion: their tendency to deploy activities at ungodly hours in the morning. The owl of Minerva spreads her wings at dusk, as Hegel wrote, and I cannot but agree: I'm at my most productive in the afternoon and early evening. But 9:30 is in the middle of the dreamtime for me, and even a black hole crashing through the centre of the earth isn't likely to wake me up.

I guess that would be in character, though, dying in the harness so to speak: oversleeping for the end of the world.

There was thunder
There was lightning
Then the stars went out
And the moon fell from the sky
It rained mackerel
It rained trout
And the great day of wrath has come
And here's mud in your big red eye
The poker's in the fire
And the locusts take the sky
And the earth died screaming
While I lay dreaming
Dreaming of you...

Tom Waits, "Earth Died Screaming"

zaterdag 6 september 2008

Theological post-it notes. Or the love-story of the universe.

The below is an attempt to articulate for myself where I currently am, theologically; which is somewhere quite different than I was a year or two years ago. The theme is pretty similar to the preceding post, but hopefully less rambling and more systematic. Part of it is pretty much consolidated, in other parts I am still grasping at something I cannot yet quite articulate.

A side-note: I'm amused to find that I'm still decisively influenced by Whitehead and Hartshorne, but not so much anymore by their philosophy of God: I pretty much repudiate the primordial/consequent distinction as they put it. But more in the non-overt import they assign to creativity, novelty, as a central feature of the universe. And while I was re-reading the below, it struck me that what Whitehead regarded as the telos of the universe and named 'beauty', namely, (...) the mutual adaptation of the several factors in an occasion of experience which involves that: the subjective forms of these prehensions are severally and jointly intervowen in patterned contrast (Adventures of Ideas p. 324-325); alternatively that All aesthetic experience is feeling arising out of the realization of contrast under identity (Process and Reality p. 396) pretty much conforms to the somewhat-Hegelian notion of love which I am grasping towards: the free self-determination of 'Others' yet united, emptying themselves into the other and determining themselves 'through the eyes of another'. Without gobbledygook: love is the self-giving, self-emptying which adds, rather than destroys, one's individuality.

And it is the secret to existence, to "what is", and the nature of he-who-is. The telos of the universe. This is a new thought for me, and one I still need to chew on.


Science cannot be in a conflict with revealed truth of religion. Science deals with the general, external, quantifiable aspects of reality; where revelation deals with the particular, irreducibly individual aspects. ”The heavens proclaim the glory of God”, and the scientists chart the heavens, but to see the glory of God in them is a function of personal revelation; a gift of the Holy Spirit.

The kind of truth (natural) science deals with is likewise general, abstract and in a way ultimately circular: for a correspondence between a proposition and reality to become intersubjectively verifiable, falsifiable or even communicable, it has to be to a degree abstract and then will become part of a more or less coherent system based on certain basic propositions, and validated through that system. The kind of truth art, poetry and perhaps the human sciences deal with is particular, concrete and cannot be abstracted beyond the involvement of a subject, it involves an ”understanding” in analogical and metaphorical thought, rather than induction and deduction. It is by its nature dialectical and paradoxical.

The truths of religion are truths of the second kind – and both are truths. Art, poetry, religion and history convey truth about the world just as much as the natural sciences do. To the extent that they convey truths of great existential import, and deal with the particular, concrete and actual aspects of reality which lie beyond the purview of the natural sciences, they can even be said to be dealing with more fundamental, ”greater” truths.

Scripture is inspired witness to God's self-revelation in human history, culminating in Christ's revelation of God in death and resurrection. This self-revelation is the Word of God: a series of events which symbolically refer to a deeper reality. Christ is the incarnate Word. Scripture as text is not the Word of God but its witness. The meaning of Scripture is the Word; however, a Word conveyed through the language, cultural traditions and frameworks of its human witnesses. This said, Scripture is the only witness to God's self-revelation we have.

An implication of this would be that at least some of the supernatural events recounted in Scripture must be regarded as symbolic in nature and having literally occurred at the same time: they are symbolic precisely in virtue of having occurred as historical events. This would go at least for the resurrection and probably the healing/exorcizing activities of Christ.


God is a necessary being: conceptually, he is either actual or conceptually impossible. This implies that God is not an instantiation of given universals: by his nature, he is irreducibly particular, individual, concrete and perhaps particularity, individuality, concreteness in itself. This also implies God is transcendent, meaning that his reality is greater than the visible and invisible world we live in: he encapsulates the universe.

God the Father: God-as-God, God in himself and for himself. God the Son: God as revealed and as self-revealing for us, as the Word, in and through his creative work. God as the Holy Spirit: God as immanent in his creation and in that sense understandable to us through reason, the analogy between our human consciousness (created in the image of God) and the order of the universe. There is some similarity to Whitehead's primordial (transcendent) and consequent (immanent) natures of God, but God the Father would actually involve both the primordial and consequent nature, as would God the Son: God the Son would be the revelation of God through God's immanence, his interaction with and creative work in the universe.

The conception above is problematical: it seems to be somewhat Modalistic, though it does not imply a sequence of Divine natures (God the Father as turning into God the Son) as Modalism is generally taken to do. It is extremely difficult to regard the three sides of the Trinity as three Persons as in traditional Trinitarianism. However, I feel that in Trinitarian conceptions of Deity the focus has all too much been on what God is, and not on what God does; with its substances and Persons, it tends to become overly abstract and perhaps wedded to a late Hellenic framework of thought which we now have lost. The Biblical answer to the question who God is is very simple: ”I am who I am”: God is He-who-is, the supreme and sovereign, ultimate individual. For the rest, the focus should be on what God does, and what does what God does tell us about God?


Creation may best be seen as creation out of chaos, rather than creation out of sheer nothingness: this would fit the Biblical narrative better (”Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”), and it means we are not wedded to a view of the universe having had a temporal beginning. Even if the general acceptance of an eternal universe appears to have subsided in favour of a Big-Bang picture, religion should not make itself dependent on this. Creation is ongoing: creation is another aspect of God's 'eternity' breaking into time, but not at any particular point in time. God wrestled the Leviathan and still wrestles it: right here and now.

The question ”Why does anyone exists at all?” in as far as it helps to understand God's creation is not so much a question after the existence of space, time, matter (with all its features) as apposed to sheer nothingness: but rather a question after raw actuality. What is it about existence that evades all scientific description? It is the ”thisness”, the ”here-and-nowness”, the particularity of things, and it is in these that God's creative activity reveals itself.

Rather than seeing God as the supreme author of scientific laws, God should be regarded as present in the contingency and novelty of what escapes the laws of nature. The notion of God as a lawmaker who is otherwise unconcerned with creation is Deistic and also wedded to a notion of laws of nature which may well be wrong: the laws of nature may well be statistical and emergent out of the basically non-deterministic goings-on of stuff, petrified ”habits” as Peirce and Sheldrake have it.

God's creation-out-of-chaos would mean creation of life out of death; of freedom out of deterministic law; of genuine novelty. God relates to his creation as to another subject in which he (as activity) ”pours himself out”, and which he yet allows to determine itself in freedom. This is revelatory of God's essential nature: that of love. God empties himself in his creation as an act of love, and yet he remains; God's creation likewise remains individual and other, though hopefully at the end of times, united with God.

Thus, God creates the universe to respond to him freely: the individual behaviour of his creatures is not determined and therefore not known by God; and it is besides the point to wonder whether God could 'force' his creatures to act in a certain way as doing so would go against his essential nature (love). So God would be neither omniscient nor omnipotent – even though he remains transcendent, and is unsurpassable by any of his creatures in both knowledge and power. Better, perhaps, would be not to speak in abstract qualities such as omniscience and omnipotence but in relational concepts: awesome, fearsome, glorious, merciful.


God's creative activity is creating life out of death; actuality out of possibility; genuine novelty out of determining antecedent conditions. He does not nullify death and necessity, but rather works through and beyond death and contingency. And the seventh day has not yet come, God's work is still ongoing. Hence, there remains raw contingency in the universe, including that of natural evil and natural disaster.

God has also endowed his creatures with a certain freedom to determine themselves and the form of their own actuality: a very small amount of freedom in case of small particles, perhaps, and more in the case of living nature and intelligent life. This freedom is only meaningful as contextually limited: a freedom which is unconstrained by any antecedent conditions is meaningless as a creature thus ”free” would be unable to affect its own circumstances, and its own course of development, in any way. This restriction is in itself a source of evil in that the same restrictions that make free action meaningful also imply the possibility of partially determining and constraining the self-determination of the rest of creation.

More specifically, free creatures have the power to assert themselves over other and enter into manipulative relationships with the rest of creation. This is seen in biology, biological evolution and specifically in human society. Specific to the human consciousness is that we have a power to shape our surroundings to our own will unmatched among the rest of creation, but that hand-in-hand with this comes a sense of alienation, from the rest of creation (to which we relate often very destructively) but also, with our peculiar consciousness of self, of other minds and other people. The fall of Adam and Eve describes this in mythical terms: Adam and Eve eat from the forbidden fruit, and suddenly become aware that the other is an Other, a stranger (and yet so similar), and of their own irreducible selfhood and loneliness, and with that comes shame and the desire to hide from God. From the Garden of Eden, where people and God walked together in bliss, comes a terrible and unbridgeable chasm between us and God. The story of Adam and Eve is mythical, but its subject-matter, original sin, is not.

Original sin is a feature of human nature; one which affects everything we do, and one from which we cannot escape. We cannot perfect ourselves, not by moral law, not by cultural evolution or by political ideology. In our alienation, we cannot refrain from building up walls to God and to others; to enter into manipulative relationships with others and to sway power over them (or come under someone else's sway) and even the love that may grow between people is shackled and blinded by a foreignness to each other that can never be quite overcome.

Individual sin, over and beyond original sin as a condition, is always an offense against God, which is an offense against love. Sin should not be abstracted into the breaking of a particular law: as the Sermon on the Mount makes clear; it is always the intention, the heart, of any particular action that matters. Sin is a turning away from God and the self-sacrificial, freedom-bestowing love that God represents for other things that seem so much more important: power, fame, wealth, all those small transitory glories which are inevitably sealed by death, which only God's love can conquer.


Jesus Christ is the incarnate Word of God: he reveals God through his actions, his healing of the sick and the lame, his association with the poor and the wretched of the earth, and finally his shameful death and his triumphant resurrection and victory over death. I do not want to speculate in whether or in which manner Jesus' consciousness combined the human and the divine: this focuses again too much on state, and it is process what we should be worried about: what did Jesus do, and what do his actions mean? Yet it should be perfectly clear that there is no room for demythologizing Jesus, or supplanting the New Testamentical Jesus with a ”historical Jesus” of our own making: the revelation of God in Jesus is God's eternal nature 'breaking into' the temporal world through a sequence of events that reveal that eternal nature; and the resurrection is essential to that revelation. To put the matter starkly: we stand or fall at Emmaus. For if Christ was not resurrected and did not appear to the twelve in a very real and literal fashion, then all is lost; the reality we confront is wholly a reality of sin and of death, and there is no hope beyond that.

Christ's narrative is paradoxical: he appeared as a carpenter's son in an outlying area of the Roman Empire in a province, Galilee, that was even seen as somewhat dubious among the Jews at the time; he offended just about any religious or secular power that he encountered during his short mission - and offended the radicals who wanted to fight that power (and, presumably, supplant it with another one of their own) as well, by gratuitously forgiving sins, associating with the scum of the earth at the margins of society, and proclaiming a Kingdom of God that transcended any moral law as well as any human sense of justice and tit-for-tat (the prodigal son; ”the first will be the last”); eventually was ingloriously nailed to the cross only to be miraculously resurrected after three days.

(Note: a good test of religious progress is whether you find Jesus ridiculous, whether you find him offensive, or whether you find your saviour in him: but there is no third way. It's either one of the three. To the philosophically somewhat literate atheist who approaches the gospel, Jesus cannot be but ridiculous. To the awakening religious consciousness which still likes to think highly of himself and his own moral standards, and likes to retain his tidy and well-organized views on the cosmos, on morality, and on justice, Jesus is utterly offensive. And maturing from that to a Christian religious consciousness is a messy and painful process, which involves quite literally that what the Dawkinistas like to think they do: Questioning everything. I'm not quite there yet. There are quite a few things about Jesus that I still find quite offensive. Which means my internal life at the moment resembles a peaceful fishing village after the Vikings decided to pay a visit. I am not sure how that reflects on the readability of these last few posts.)

Christ was love incarnate, and the standard he proclaimed, in his overt sermons as well as his parables was one of love – and as such almost offensively gratuitous, bestowed upon the undeserving as well as upon the deserving, rooted in the particular and concrete in a way that made a mockery of moral law and righteousness and justice. And in his life, death and resurrection, Christ embodied love: for it is love, God's creativity, that creates life out of death, raw and vibrant actuality out of abstract possibility, that ”makes everything new” and that made Jesus - nailed upon the cross and in that fashion embodying, symbolizing our sins, our brokenness, the grip that death has over us – alive after three days.

There is a dialectical movement going on here. Christ did not replace the old moral law with a new moral law; rather, he proclaimed a standard which transcended morality. He did not replace the old kingdoms and principalities with a new and better one; rather, the Kingdom he proclaimed transcended and transcends all temporal powers. And he did not simply deny death and suffering, stepping off the cross as he was challenged to do; rather, he underwent suffering and death only to pass through them and arise from them in triumph. Transcending death and suffering, and in that way, achieving a victory much more complete than any simple denial could be. ”Death, where is thy sting?”

The particular sequence of event in 1st century Palestine that is at issue here happened in time, but was not of time. In that they embodied God's eternal nature. And in that sense, Christ's victory over death was not something that happened back then, and is over and done with now. It has – Christ has conquered death – and yet at the same time, his suffering, death, and triumph, is happening here and now and at every point in history, in God's eternal present.

But as a particular sequence of events, what they reveal is a reason for hope: that the suffering and death that await us will not be the end of it; that sin, temporal powers, alienation that chain us may not have the last word. That regardless of our wretchedness God may - on the seventh day, the big Sabbath of the world, the end of history – restore and renew us. The same, yet different. That creation as a whole may thrive in the union with God that Christ attained, united in love yet individual and free.

woensdag 3 september 2008

God is love. Some perplexed notes.

In love the separate does still remain, but as something united and no longer as something separate; life in the subject senses life in the object
Hegel, Love, in: Stephen Houlgate, The Hegel Reader, p. 31.

First, an irony connected to the subject of this post. I believe that in many of our ventures, we seek somehow to undo, to roll back the curse of Adam and all that the eating of the fruit brought him: sense of self; alienation from God, from the other, from nature; an apprehension of a great chasm between us and God. In answer, we seek to lose ourselves, in mystical experience or in mass movements or in sex or love or material wealth. There's something gnawing at us in the depths of our hearts that we seek to flee from, yet can never escape. A sense of being ultimately and irreducibly alone. Of never being able to share or pour out all of our being into the other; there is always something that remains hidden, unshared, and it gnaws.

The irony being that I think it is precisely in loneliness, in solitude, that we may intimate that we are not alone at all. Christ approached the poor, the marginal and the sick; but not because being poor is good, or vice versa that the poor and the marginal and the sick were more sinful than the rich and powerful and hence needed him more. The reason, I think, that they lacked the barriers that we build up between us and God as soon as we can, the noise that we immerse ourselves in that drowns out His presence. Christ went to the poor and the sick because they were able to hear and understand him.

The God of Israel is a God of the desert. To approach Him, you must go to the desert. Or make a desert in your heart.

I have been moving towards Christianity sideways like a crab, with a lot of misgivings and a lot of hesitancy. Someone was hammering at my doors, at the edge of my consciousness, but for a long time I was not sure who. I was afraid it was not Him, but the other one. The bad one. Not joking: I am not sure whether I believe in an actual Devil, but I very much believe in temptation. And I am not particularly difficult to tempt once you know my weaknesses (and there's plenty of those). Eternal life? I am so utterly afraid, horrified, cowering at the very idea of death that I could not believe it, afraid to be led into wishful thinking. Hence, I could not but distrust a Gospel, Good News. Because some Good News was precisely what I was longing for.

But now I have no doubts anymore - and I am no longer afraid that I am led to worship a Devil, real or one of my own making.

God is love.

And no demon, nor any creature of my own making could lead me to begin to grasp a sliver of the truth behind those three words.

I am becoming some kind of an existentialist or a pragmatist about truth. Mark Twain at some point wrote that the difference between the right word and almost the right word is like the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. Of course, this is about metaphors, words which convey poetical truth, but the matter is the same: as it is precisely poetry that conveys individual, existential truth that we live by. And there is a similar kind of difference between understanding something as an abstract concept, and understanding that same something as something of fundamental, enormous subjective importance. A kind of understanding that makes one's legs go to jelly, that makes one feel as if pierced by arrows, and light shining through the holes.

I don't want to sound presumptuous here: I think I understand very little. At the same time, in my own crab-like manner, I think I'm slowly getting somewhere.

God is love.

An alternative way to put Anselm's argument, or other ones trying to explicate God as a necessary being. When we talk, say, about a tree, we talk about an instantiation of a set of universals: a tree (as any tree) has stem, branches, leaves or pines, etc. All of these universals embodied concretely by the particular tree we talk about. Yet there is something about any particular tree that is not exhausted by any set of universals we may use to describe it. Something about the "thisness", the raw actuality, the "here-and-nowness" of the tree escapes any determination in terms of universals. In other words: existence is not a predicate, or better, actuality is not a predicate, and we cannot reason from universals to actual existence.

However, God is not an exemplification of any set of universals such as the tree, or my hat, or any other contingent object. Just as we can talk about unicorns in a world which lacks unicorns, we could talk about trees in terms of certain universals in a world which happened to lack actual trees. But we cannot talk, in similar fashion, of God as a set of universals (omniscience, omnipotence, etc.) which may or may not be instantiated in the actual world. Such a being would lack in the transcendence we ascribe to God. It would maybe be a god, but not God. We can only refer to God as to a concrete and actual being, a particular that transcends all universals - because otherwise we would no longer be referring to God! So God is either a necessary being or utter nonsense - but what he is not is a set of properties that fails to be instantiated. In God as a necessary being the opposition between universal and particular is collapsed as it were: necessarily actual, "here and now" He lends actuality, hereness or nowness, the "fire" in the equations of science and all abstract thought that will forever escape scientific and abstract description, to the world and everything in it.

Moses said to God, "Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' Then what shall I tell them?" God said to Moses, "I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: 'I AM has sent me to you.'
Exodus 3: 13-14

In Whitehead's philosophy of process, the basic 'building-block' of the universe is an actual event, a concrete little happening, a little 'flash' of experience, which defines itself with the universals it instantiates and against its own past of actual events, thus reflecting in a way its whole past universe - yet is not determined by it. There is always something undetermined, something creative, something genuinely new, about actuality. The ruach, Spirit, breath of God.

He who was seated on the throne said, "I am making everything new!"
Revelations 21:5

As human beings, it is precisely in our thisness, in our utter individuality, that we are free. We may be partially determined by our biological make-up, by our past experiences, but never wholly so. Our own concreteness, like the rest of the actual universe, remains underdetermined by universals, defies exhaustive description, and this is what makes us free.

God is love. And love is that mysterious force between the subject and the other that allows one to pour oneself out fully, to give oneself wholly to the other, without losing one's individuality and actuality. That allows one to behold oneself and become a self through the eyes of another. To ground oneself, one's whole existence, in the other while yet remaining free. Difference in sameness: it is paradox, Hegel's dialectic made flesh, laughing at identity, mocking cause and effect. The making that does not break, creativity and genuine novelty, creatio ex nihilo right here and now, as impossible as it sounds.

God is love - it is not a metaphor, not a hackneyed phrase from a pop song. It is literally, blindingly, astonishingly true. Love is not a human feeling, it is more than that; it is not a physical force, it is more than that; love is the more than that, the principle underlying the existence of all, me, you, trees and rocks and gas giants.

In Peirce's terms, law is 'thirdness', regularity, persistence. As such it is opposed to 'secondness': concrete actuality with all its interrelatedness with the rest of the actual universe, and 'firstness': the bare universal.

Regularity which in the case of moral law becomes an abstract norm, which we may obey or rebel against. But love, as God has revealed Himself to be in Christ, remains pure actuality, 'secondness', or rather, is 'secondness', a concrete, situational here-and-now which curiously transcends any regularity, abstract norm, law, or 'thirdness'. Christ as the incarnate Word is the eternal, God, 'breaking into' the temporal, history, and revealing Himself therein as the ground of all being, love. Just as God is not an instantiation of an abstract universal 'Godlikeness', so Christ-as-history is not an exemplification of a moral law. In as far as Christianity means following Christ, striving after Christlikeness, it is antinomian in that love relativizes any moral law including that of the old Covenant.

Yet, as Paul made clear, this does not lead to a license to sin:

What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Don't you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.
Romans 6: 15-18

Sin is a turning away from God, a failing of the two Commandments that remain: to love God with all one's mind and strength and all one's heart, and one's neighbour as oneself. If God's self-revelation as love and the new Covenant is an invitation to (in Kierkegaard's words, if I remember) ground ourselves transparently in God, then sin is a failure to do so, and thus the substitution of the moral law with love as an absolute standard hardly makes sin meaningless - it only makes it even more acute.

Some of the above may have sounded a bit neo-orthodox. I am attracted to some neo-orthodox notions, particularly that of the Word of God as embodied by the events, God's self-revelation in human history as witnessed by Scripture, rather than Scripture itself. Likewise, I think that it is helpful not to understand Christ's Godhood as a "thing", as a "substance" like wine in a bottle. The Word is not a thing. The Word of God is not a given text. It is precisely the way in which God reveals Himself in what he does in human history: and the apex, the absolute centerpiece of this is precisely the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. And the notion that God is love is the key to making sense of it. The ultimate and total self-sacrifice of God-in-Christ in death and His consequent triumph over death after three days reveal who God is.

God is love. And as love, he approached the ones who, in all their wretchedness, recognized Him for who He is. Love is the curious force that creates without destroying, heals without breaking, allows the lovers to be grounded in one another while yet remaining themselves, and more than themselves:

A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.
Isaiah 42:3

And thus alone transcends law, the barren, mute cycle of cause and effect, and death. Conquers death. Breaks the barriers of our loneliness, alienation, sucks out the venom of sin.

And Christ took sin upon himself, and shame, and pain and savage death, and yet he rose. He poured himself out into the world, sacrificed himself, and yet he rose. The "and yet" goes to the essence of love. The "and yet" that whispers that the curse of Adam was not the whole of the story, that something yet follows, that there is an answer to death and sin and the hold they have over us. And what an answer!

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: "Death has been swallowed up in victory." "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Corinthians 15: 54-55

This is why the one Biblical miracle which I unconditionally believe in is the Resurrection. The walking on water, the sharing of the bread, the healing of the sick - I can accept them as symbols or metaphors (though I do not mind literal interpretations of them as well). But the one truth which they point towards, as symbols, is precisely encapsulated in Christ's death and resurrection. The basis of our hopes that the "sting of death" is not the end of it all. That there is an and yet in God who is love. Were I to demythologize the event, to regard it as a mythological expression for our hope, I would undercut precisely the basis for that hope.

God is love. And those three words are the key to my slow, piecemeal understanding, and my all-too intermittent, hesitant faith in the God of Abraham and Jesus. I'll continue my sideways, crab-like movement to Christianity. Peer at it shyly and carefully, nose pressed against the window. But I am grateful beyond words, beyond expression to have gotten where I am now.

dinsdag 2 september 2008

Some quick jots

I'll be back to serious blogging soon. Meanwhile some quick thoughts:

- A podcast by James Howard Kunstler on tattoos and what passes for clothing style among people these days. Kunstler's cheery view on modern American (and by extension, given some minor changes, Western European) culture is summed up in this quote from his blog:

Frankly, I don't want that version of America to survive -- the America of chain stores, and muscle cars, and grown men obsessed with video games, drugs, and pornography, and women decorated like cannibals, and the vast, crushing purposelessness of it all.

I had been wondering about the suprising prevalence among tattoos as well as the general "gangster-like" clothing style of young kids (baggy clothes, hat the wrong way around, etc.) earlier yesterday. When I was in high school during the mid-nineties tattoos were still something new and edgy. Nowadays just about everybody sports them, even people who look otherwise civilized. And most of the time they're ugly and unoriginal as well. Things like barbed wire, "tribal" flame-like patterns, Chinese characters and especially those awful little stars. I mean, if you want something inked into your skin which you can never get off, ever, shouldn't you want something more personal, more individual than tribal flames or barbed wire? Something more meaningful?

So to a big extent, I share Kunstler's dim view of tattoos. According to Kunstler, both the tattoo rage as well as the prevalence of "hip-hop" style clothing (hoodies, baggy jeans, hats the wrong way around, etc.) reflect the general hopelessness and purposelessness of modern-day life in that they combine the marks of a warrior culture (tattoos) with those of infantilism (the baby-like clothes). Fitting for a society which has little place for warriors or indeed responsible, individualist adults - in response to a Nanny state which abhors any healthy kind of warrior instinct, people dress like babies and decorate themselves like warriors. Or, in Kunstler's words, like "violent clowns".

Countercultures are good, and healthy (even if the social discord and marginalization that produces them may not be). At best, they're havens of artistic creativity, genuinely subversive thought, and progress in the realm of ideas. Christianity at best is the counterculture to end all countercultures - the Kingdom of God. But there's something rotten with a society in which countercultural values, codes, symbols instantly get commodified and adopted by mainstream culture, where the borders between "high" and "low" culture have been breached to the extent that culture as a whole seems to survive parasitically on "low" culture. And that's what you are seeing, I think, with the proliferation of tattooing, "gangster-like" dress style, the popularity of music and song that glorifies crime, thuggishness and violence, etc. That's not good for "high" culture which seems to have all but lost its bearings, and not good for countercultures either.

- The liberal interventionist Hurry up Harry is busy denouncing VP candidate Sarah Palin for apparently supporting Pat Buchanan in '99. Now, the general purpose of a blog like Harry's place is to indignantly denounce anyone on the left or right who breaks the cherished taboos of the babyboomer/armchair bomber left, so if it is indeed true that Palin at some point endorsed Buchanan, this increases my interest in Palin considerably. I like Pat Buchanan. He writes well, though occasionally with some pathos; he's predictably ultra-conservative, though happens to be correct a lot more often than the proverbial stopped clock.

Everytime there are American elections, the Western European media, pundits, etc. will en masse support the Democratic candidate, no matter how incompetent or crooked, to the point of shamelessness. A low point of this during the last election was the Guardian's "Operation Clark County" or "Write a letter to a stupid American to vote for John Kerry" - which may well have been a small factor in George W. Bush's eventual victory. One of the prominent participants in this project was none other than Richard Dawkins. Incidentally, this changed my opinion about the man and his attacks on religion forever. Dawkins doesn't have the hatred and bile of a Hitchens. He's disarmingly and embarrasingly honest and sincere. It's just that he has no capacity at all to understand a viewpoint radically different than his. Something which explains both his misunderstandings of religion and his participation in that risible campaign.

But in any event, the same state of affairs concerning Obama (McCain is all but boycotted in the Dutch media) arouses my contrarian instincts. I'm now wondering whether a McCain presidency would be all that bad. And I cannot but like some of the things I read about Palin. Some socially conservative leftists, such as David Lindsay and The Exile feel the same.

- For a good example of what's wrong with the European right, go no further than this article by the Brussels Journal's Fjordman. It starts off very interestingly by breaking down some of the politically-correct taboos surrounding cannibalism and human sacrifice in primitive societies. But then it devolves in an equally politically-correct harangue against any attempts to relativize the alleged superiority of European cultures as well as against the usual postmodernist bogeymen. This leads him to miss some very interesting points. For instance, commenting on a writer seeing analogies between Aztec human sacrifice and the institution of highly ritualized public executions in the Europe of the same period, Fjordman sneers:

So, the Aztecs were a sophisticated bunch of natural philosophers who were great lovers of food and had good health care. They were presumably at the brink of developing microwave popcorn, interplanetary travel and laser eye surgery when the Europeans showed up and invented racism and global warming.

It is undoubtedly true that there were brutal aspects of early modern European culture. It was a brutal age. However, whatever Europeans did at this time, they didn't eat other people's internal organs on a regular basis. I know of indications that human sacrifice was once practiced in Europe, China, Egypt and elsewhere, but that was in very ancient times. By the sixteenth century AD, human sacrifice was not an established feature among any of the major Old World civilizations, but it was quite common among New World peoples.

The thing is that one would think that the prevalence of cathartic sacrificial practices among people - whether the actual killing of actual humans or the driving off of a vicarious one such as the scapegoat of the Old Testament - is of interest to conservatives. Because they tell of a basic need in human society: the one to purge itself of sin and evil, and to ritualistically re-establish loyalty, social cohesion, and the ideal basis underlying society. The theatrical aspects of pre-Enlightenment public executions in Europe are obvious, and the scapegoat mechanisms at work in the purges and show trials of the Communists even more so. Sin and evil are not outside forces to be conquered and defeated, as liberals might believe. Human nature is what it is. And evil is right there in the middle of it.

In general, the problem of the European right as exemplified by the Brussels Journal is that it is a thoroughly secular right in a thoroughly secularized society - one which thus lacks the symbolic means to examine itself and its components (the human individual). As well as to understand other societies. Rather, the European right strongly defines itself against religion in the form of Islam, and gathers itself around politically-correct shibbolets of its own, such as women's rights and gay rights. And don't get me wrong here: I'm in favour of both. But I see little hope for a political attitude that, when confronted with the practices of other cultures, cannot even understand them and the language they speak, but instead scoffs and says: "See? We are not that barbaric. And in fact, we never were."

In other words, we have the old myths of progress and perfectability of man, clothed now in a "conservative" and slightly xenophobic garb. I'm not that optimistic. We were that barbaric. In our hearts of hearts, we still are. And we may yet be.