Wednesday, June 29, 2016

World War I and the Hell We Create

Franz Ferdinand, Whose Assasination Sparked a World War

I recently read that if we live in a "post" anything world (postmodern, post-colonial, post-patriarchal, or anything else), it's a "post-World War I" world. It's the single most important event in modernity.

It signaled the end of the confidence in the ability of modern technology, economics, national structures, and art to provide solutions in a new world. It reinvigorated old rivalries while bringing new innovations in mass murder. It scarred soldiers and redrew gender and family roles in their absence. The retribution of the victorious nations was so crippling to the losing nation that they welcomed a lunatic dictator who would give the world an unprecedented embodiment of evil.

I don't think that there is a single issue we deal with today that wasn't in some way affected by the First World War. It should shock us still if for no other reason then we don't flinch at mass violence in the media, at least not as much as our parents and grandparents did.

We're constantly swirling around a lot of big issues and controversies and tragedies but when we're in that mindset it's probably helpful to put things in perspective. I think that by going back to "patient zero" and reexamine the circumstances that brought in the era we live in today. It's all there: the weird "cause célèbre" of a scandalous relationship, class struggle, international politics, new technologies, national hubris, a myopic concern for particular issues over and against brotherhood and coexistence.

It's like no one wants to get along unless the other side changes. It's not even like we try to build bridges. We just want our enemies to disappear or at least change their mind (and even if they did they would never be trusted again...I don't think we're as much a culture of "forgiveness" than a culture of protracted penances that seem to ever go on unappeased).

World War I didn't happen because an Archduke was shot. It started with thousands of little things and attitudes that fermented and collided until it almost had to happen. At the beginning of the war it seemed like an adventure until it brought hell on earth. While we cheerfully goad and gloat at the people we don't like and the sides who are always wrong, when we welcome the conflict we shouldn't be surprised when we find ourselves living in a hell of our own creation.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

A Pamphlet War in New Jersey

I just left a parish Mass in New Jersey while on vacation. I was flipping through their fairly innocuous collection pamphlets when I found these little gems peppered in with trifolds about Sacraments and the dignity of all human life.

It's a weak and cowardly move to leave pamphlets instead of talking to people. I hate the passive aggressive Christian pamphlets that masquerade as comic books or fake money to get you to say a special prayer with the suggestion to find a church. But these pamphlets are the opposite side of the same coin. Filled with presumptions, mischaracterizations, and, worse, zero real engagement. It deals with the impression of Christians found in the media or in random family members rather than an entire tradition. The same goes with some Christian mischaracterizations of atheists. Both hardly deal with the real thing because it's so much easier to drop a pamphlet than deal with the real thing, have a good conversation, respectfully disagree or concede each other's fair points, and to find common ground in a world of division.

The really sad part is that both sets DID have a common ground if the person who dropped them bothered to read the others instead of cowardly dropping a couple papers and running away. There could have been a great conversation in that. Both sets of articles affirm the "dignity" of every person. "Dignity" means the inestimable wealth of every person, which involves the complicated amalgamation of thoughts, experiences, values, and understanding that make up each of us. To treat people with "dignity" involves not seeing them as deluded idiots, the kind that can be swayed by a silent, uncaring pamphlet.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

A Parable on False Gods, Faking Faith and Vertiginous Modernity

The best thing I read today:

Secretly Seduced By Science: Hasidic Atheists Lead a Double Life

The essay describes the experiences of Hasidic Jews who have lost their faith in God but who also stand to lose their community and families in the process. Instead of leaving them, they still live their lives within their tradition while trying to reconcile their newfound joy in personal enlightenment with their devastation at having lost something so integral to their identity and personal foundation.

Some of the stories sound bitter, some resigned and others are a little wry. But the theme involves the incruguity of their undeirstanding of the biblical Book of Genesis and modern science. This isn't a new story, though usually you don't see it from a Hasidic perspective, and it's at the crux of many contemporary science and religion debates. It's a crisis of faith and it's overwhelming to have so many doubts yet so few answers.

It's also avoidable. For ministers it is easy to trade in difficult questions -and the far more difficult realities that they force you to face - for pious platitudes. I do not believe that God is interested in pious posturing. I do not believe that God is asking a person who is imbued with, animated by, and themselves embody the same rationality that sustains His creation to accept absurdities. It's not fair to people who have serious questions to give them riddles if they're looking for answers. Yes, challenge a worldview that is radically materialistic, even to the ontological level. Yes, insist that divinity cannot be reduced to atoms and particles any more than it can be divided into turns of phrases and the accidents of grammar. But more than anything, challenge your own understanding of God because anything other than God Himself is an idol, a false representation, a concept masquerading as the real thing.

What's heartbreaking in all of these stories is that the people who they went to for answers didn't seem to engage with the real problems that they faced. If you're not willing to accompany them down a road that can challenge your own view of things then at least know enough to at least point them in the right direction. If a friend asked me to get them to Los Angeles I might not be able to personally get them to California but I can at least drive them to the airport. I think the greatest experts don't see themselves as experts. They see themselves as students who know where there own understanding of things ends and are honest about it.

When I began studying the Bible seriously -serious enough to learn the main biblical languages, serious enough to learn everything I could about the world that produced the people who made it, serious enough to make it my life's work (and I am by no means an expert)- I found that I had a pretty huge choice to make early on. I could either be an apologist for a bunch of things I didn't quite understand at the service of things that I thought would be challenged by asking hard questions, or I could just be open to what I was hearing. When I tried to the former, I learned nothing, confirmed suspicions, and became arrogant. It never worked and I would skim through the difficult stuff and posture an agonizingly putrid sense of authority. Maybe no one noticed it but I sure did. It's poisonous.

But I did a couple things that I think helped me learn more and, I believe, afforded me a much greater faith.

  • Keeping an open mind - For every potential "deal breaker" that could potentially destroy my faith I found an opportunity. Realizing that the first chapter of Genesis isn't a science textbook doesn't destroy Genesis. It allowed me to learn more about the conceptual world of the priestly writer who saw creation as a great Temple to God where mankind is imbued with a great dignity. The idea that perhaps the early Israelites were originally Canaanites gave a whole new hope in resolving religious conflict. Dealing with the most violent stories of the Bible helped me see how those instances weren't granting permission to do likewise but cautionary tales whose consequences would have been missed without a proper perspective. 
  • Trying not to be defensive - If my faith is so fragile that it can't withstand some difficult questions, then maybe I need to learn some more. If I can't handle being wrong, then I'm never going to find the right answer. If I can't keep my cool in a dispute then I really am being irrational. 
  • Not mischaracterizing people who think differently and not mischaracterizing their opinions - What I love most about Pope Benedict XVI as a theologian is that he would always refuse to be anything but fair to other people's points of views. He could spend pages recounting an opinion before criticizing it and it would be done in such a way that the person who he was criticizing could hardly accuse him of being unfair. If someone puts an idea out there, it's intellectually dishonest to reduce their ideas just so you can deal with it better. You can't get to the heart of an argument unless you are willing to deal with it as it's presented. Sometimes an argument is framed poorly and needs to be reoriented. But if your going to venture having an opponent at least be fair to them. 
  • Being fair but critical - ...and while you want to be fair to someone you disagree with you also have to be able to question assumptions, clarify loaded terminology, point out biases and so on. 
  • Be okay with feeling dumb and being wrong - I read a quote attributed to Al Pacino that said "If you are the smartest person in the room then you are in the wrong room". Maybe it was Madonna. Either way, it's right on. I've been lucky enough to be around lots of smarter, older people with way more experience than me and I've always been better for it. In biblical studies you'll find yourself in the room with people who might know a few dozen languages between them all and have more abbreviations appended to their name than you could possibly discern. If you want to be the smartest person in that room then you'll have a lot of work to do. 
  • Enter the debate - For every idea, there is someone else who can debate it. For every great point made by a Richard Dawkins there are a hundred responses that you owe to yourself to read if your going to take his as the right one. And those responses have responses. And so on. It doesn't end. If you hold up one quote or one meme or one bad example as an exemplar without offering a challenge to it, then you are no different than someone who uses the Bible to justify the belief that the cavemen rode dinosaurs. You got caught up in your thing and stopped there. It doesn't stop and you'll learn a lot more from the debate.
  • Concede a point, even if it conflicts with yours - being right is severely overrated. The truth matters more and no one says you have to be the one that has it. The obsessive need to be right pales in comparison to being lucky enough to be around to hear or witness the truth for yourself. 
  • Respecting those who came before - GK Chesterton referred to the "democracy or the dead", those people in history who are silent simply because they were too busy preparing the world for you. I think mostly of those respectable and kind members of our families who have passed on but left a tradition of faith and core values. I simply refuse to believe that my great-grandmother, who was one of the greatest witnesses to my Catholic faith in my life, was simply deluded at best or a fool at worst. As a kid I could tell that she had something precious and I'm still trying to understand it. 
  • Not being the center of the world - My worldview is not the world. The way I see things is not the way. I am not the way, the truth, or the life. Only one person dared say that He was and that's a role I'm most happy to relinquish. Just because something doesn't make sense to me doesn't mean it's wrong.
  • Praying - God is not a character in a book. My faith is not in a book. The "book" isn't even a proper book. It wasn't written in one sitting. It's the product of an entire tradition engaging with the real world and wrestling with their understanding of God, so feel free to do the same. They had powerful experiences of God and they didn't want you to read the book so it would all terminate in the book. That would be like a book on dating hoping to rope you into its pages instead of engaging a potential mate. Engaging God directly means being unafraid to shatter your idols, even if that idol is a lovingly recreated version of Him.

And that's really at the center of my heartbreak over that article. We make idols of God all the time. Any concept of God is ultimately an idol because a concept is your mind's way of reducing something so it's understandable to you. It's like someone who is obsessed about getting married and thinks they understand it without actually being married. The idea is not the reality. It's an invitation to the reality but it can also mar any meaningful engagement with that reality, especially when the object is the relationship itself and not the person that it is supposed to link you with.

Lastly, we have more access to information and more possibilities than anyone in history. With that comes a danger: we can confirm any suspicion or validate any bias. Working in ministry, I am tempted by laziness to gather a collection of platitudes and factoids as though they were snake oils in a charlatan's bag, promising to salve cancers and serious maladies with simple postures that ultimately offer no real solutions. They won't work for the day it matters most and my faith in a living God won't allow it. I can't face Him having faced modernity so poorly and having offered no real contribution to helping people to understand Him honestly.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Dissolving the Habit of Faith

I posted this a couple years ago, but it's still worth thinking about...


The passage above might not seem like a big thing, but it's been gnawing on my mind this last week.

This passage is from Ludwig Ott's Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, a book from 1952 that presents Catholic teachings with the weight that each teaching has in the Tradition. For example, "de fide" teaching has the strongest level of authority and that includes things that deal with things that either God has Himself revealed in this tradition (either through the life of Christ and Scripture or through the wider Tradition, or something more or less "direct") or that has been declared with the formal teaching authority of the Church, which the Church understands as something given to it by God. This probably makes no sense if it's not your thing, but it's a 5-cent overview of dogmatic theology (dogma is a very dirty word in this culture, which should be unusual because it's etymology is basically related to the idea of a weighted teaching).

Other teachings carry a different weight. Some are theological opinions with varying degree of consensus, some are pious opinions, some are merely tolerated, and so on.  Knowing this stuff gives you a sense of how Catholic theologians think, agree, and even disagree about different teachings.

This passage is the one that's been getting to me. The big line is highlighted: "The habit of the light of glory dissolves the light of faith." It's an explanation of an oft forgotten Catholic teaching: that one day faith will become unnecessary and obsolete for us. In the Catholic tradition, faith is a way of "knowing", a way to get to a certain kind of "knowledge". "Faith" is synonymous with "trust", but just as we act on trust in our every day life (trust that certain people love us, trust that trains run on time, trust that our money has some kind of value, trust that traffic lights are programmed properly, etc) and we allow that trust to become a sort of knowledge (or at least a working hypothesis) that allows us to live our lives, so it is with our faith in God. 

But when our life is through, we no longer know God through trust or faith, with something that allows for the possibility of uncertainty. After this life, we know God through His glory (this is what the passage in the picture is saying). What is glory? We've more or less ceased to use this word in our every day lives (and have begun to lose the concept), but glory is an absolutely tangible expression of greatness. For example, I could refer to real things that I've done that I'm proud of as my "glory" or even my children (who I love greatly and am most proud of) as my "glory". God communicates His glory in ways that are both tangible (like in nature or in the presence of great Love or in the presence of His Son) or seemingly-intangible ("seemingly" because they refer to the metaphysical underpinning to reality, things that we think are less real but are in reality more intensely real).

If that last point is true (that being-as-such represents the ground, the basis, of everything real) then to be in the presence of God is to be in the presence of a Being who is "more real" than the reality we know. This life is the shadow, the next is the real deal. Because of that, we'll know God differently and it will be a far more immediate experience than anything we experience here. God will always be mysterious, whether in this life or the next, but we'll have a better grasp on what all that means.

Sometimes we get hints of this here in this life: when we experience a love that takes us out of ourselves, when we "transcend" ourselves in prayer or even meditation, when we come to a knowledge of something profound that shakes how we see the world, when we experience purpose. When its real, it's not an opiate or masking of reality. Rather, it uncovers reality. And the beauty of it is that most of us have had those experiences, whether we are religious or not, whether we acknowledge them or not. No matter what we make of those experiences, they most definitely point us to someplace and it would be wise to take a step in that direction.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Ghosts of Latham

The lines blur between where we stand and where they stood. Summers shouldn't have to be so cold.

Compendium Absurdum (6/9/2016)

Compendium Absurdum (6/9/2016)

  • Band/themed cruises: Everything is absurd and life is meaningless.

  • Live music (in general): The tedium of convincing yourself that it's all worth it.

  • Bank-sponsored concert presales

  • Elderly metal

  • Middle aged metal

  • Weird Cirque du Soleil-esque (and probably publically funded?) satantic rituals to dedicate a bridge

  • Old lady memes taped to the walls of secretaries and phlebotomists: This happens a lot.

  • Theological myopia

  • Two-party sorting: You are Slytherin because Slytherin exists. Even Hogwarts had more options than we do.

    • Seasonal activism

    • Election-related atavism

    • The early history of man and what it would be like to be eye to eye with a Hobbit-like anthropoid: I can't comprehend what would it feel like to look at a prehistoric ancestor that would fill in the gaps between and ape and us, but I think it would make me light-headed.

    Thursday, June 2, 2016

    An Emoji Bible and the Art of Biblical Interpretation

    I wanted to dismiss this right out of the gate.

    A Bible composed in Emojis is a little more than, say, a book of Bible stories for children or a comic book Bible. What might have seemed like a quaint Twitter project raises up very important considerations for biblical translation.

    (Skip past the second line if you want to skip the historical and philosophical end of it)


    The Bible is the product of oral transmission. The first recitations of Biblical passages by and to a congregation happens in the books of Deuteronomy. The words of the prophets come in the form of oracles spoken in the name of the LORD. Before the exile, the Judahite king Josiah reads the newly-found book of the Law (likely the book of Deuteronomy) to the people of Jerusalem as a precursor to the re-establishment of their Covenant with God that was ratified in a similar manner some 800 years before on the plains of Moab before entering the Promised Land (2 Kings 23:1ff, Deuteronomy 29:1ff). The reading of the law out loud to the returnees from the Babylonian Exile by the priest Ezra once again re-established the Covenant with God around the time their Temple was rebuilt and rededicated and their fortunes restored (Nehemiah 8:1ff). 

    The New Testament emerged from the oral proclamation of Jesus' saving action for mankind: "For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received; that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures..." (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). The letters of St. Paul largely predate the final form of the Gospels and are themselves written exhortations, written in light of the Apostle's inability to be present among the community, and were meant to be read aloud (Colossians 4:16, 1 Thessalonians 5:27). The Gospels first found their form in the stories told about Jesus after his death and resurrection with most scholars accepting that it was his the spoken words remembered among the early Christian communities that were first collected. Afterwards, attempts at a complete narrative were also attempted (Luke 1:1-4, John 21:24-25).

    The connection between what is written and what is read aloud cannot be severed without damaging the integrity of what was intended by those who composed the different books of the Bible. In written Hebrew, manuscripts were preserved without any markings for vowels until around the 6th century. Before that, the vowel sounds of certain Hebrew words were preserved here and there in transliterated form in Greek and Latin translations of the Bible, both of which had a vowel system.

    How did readers know how the words were supposed to sound? Memory and the regular use of the language within a community. What was spoken, what was read, and what was heard were weaved into one another.

    So what's the big deal of an Emoji Bible?

    Think of what occurs when you read a word. Language itself is a system of symbols. We use them to approximate and organize certain concepts and they allow us to communicate with each other in a shared social arrangement. A word like "apple" invokes approximately the same image to anyone who speaks English. We associate the word "apple" with shape, colors, texture, etc. It is such a powerful word that if we are hungry then its very utterance can stoke hunger pangs. The word "apple" by itself is arbitrary but emerged from a long evolution of associating things with sounds in order to organize our understanding of reality and to communicate it with others. All of this is possible through our capacity to remember. We remember that certain words arranged in certain ways can mean certain things. Furthermore we have the ability to recall certain arrangements of words spoken by another, or to recall actions that have already passed in a narrative that describes what has already happened. 

    So what is spoken both relies on memory and can itself be remembered. 

    The written word adds an entirely different layer to the process.The word "apple" is an arrangement of 5 symbols that have been given a meaning as to reflect certain sounds in a firm but still somewhat flexible way. The written word is an extension of the concept of communication and, in particular, communication through speaking. Because of the more permanent nature of the written word, a concept can then be objectified and reflected upon in way that does not require a sustained attention span. The duration of its permanence determines its enduring value. Because more concepts, words, and actions can be reflected upon beyond the capacity of ordinary memory, new and deeper meanings can emerge.

    It's something we take for granted but it's a big deal. With the Bible, an entire series of books are collected in one book that was itself dependent on the spoken, written, and conceptual language of the culture its writers emerged from. Its enduring value has been demonstrated in its continual transmission from an oral culture to a literate culture. The preservation of written documents and their continued propagation reflected its spreading influence and ability to transcend a particular culture (Israelite/Jewish) and its varying historical developments. The Hebrew Bible itself was a major contributor to the conceptual matrix of first century Palestine at the time of Jesus, along with several other historical, sociological, and religious considerations.


    At the heart of an Emoji Bible is the relationship between the written and spoken word and how that corresponds to our reception, internalization and subsequent externalization of these forms. 

    So check it out!

    Psalm 19:14-20:3

    Besides abbreviated words ("b" for "be", "&" for "and"), entire words (and concepts) are approximated in a symbol.

    The shiny heart (πŸ’–) in 19:14 approximates the Hebrew word ΧœֵΧ‘ (leb). For a moment, let's ignore the surrounding English of the verse and see how well a πŸ’– approximates the Hebrew word and the corresponding concept standing behind it. 

    The word leb is more than just the organ that pumps blood throughout the body and rarely is it used that way in the Hebrew Bible. It's an expression of our inner life and emotions. It reflects those unthematic and difficult to define aspects of our emotions and our deepest understandings. In fact, here it is clear that the word leb is very much something beyond words.

    Here, what the Psalmist is presenting to God is their very self, that it is that self, in all of its undefinable dynamism, that is being submitted to God for acceptance. It would not be economical, never mind possible, to articulate the ever-constant nature of our deepest reflections: God here is my love, conflict, brokenness, awareness, understanding, convictions, righteous yearnings" - and so on. So much more would have to be left out than could ever be included.

    Our shiny heart emoji is itself a curious translation of the Hebrew "leb". It is an interpretive choice, chosen above others: ❤️πŸ’›πŸ’šπŸ’™πŸ’œπŸ’”❣πŸ’•πŸ’žπŸ’“πŸ’—πŸ’˜πŸ’ . Would not one of these better encapsulate the meaning of leb here? I think that πŸ’ž better expresses the dynamism of the human heart while πŸ’— captures the layers and depth of the human experience. In this regard, I would consider πŸ’– to be a weak translation. In emphasizing the inner depth of a person as sparkling, it seems strangely self-centered.

    Yes if the twinkles of the πŸ’– are indicative of an impeccability, it would best express the desire of the Psalmist: to submit a righteous heart to God. The Psalmist may be saying that his heart is truly πŸ’– and that God will rightfully accept such a heart.

    The verse itself is poetic and in Hebrew poetry a doublet within a verse is meant to support similar concepts: "the words of my mouth and the hegyon of my heart" (אִמְΧ¨ֵΧ™־Χ€ִ֡Χ™ Χ•ְΧ”ֶΧ’ְΧ™֣Χ•ֹן לִΧ‘ִּ֣Χ™). The πŸ’– is expressed by the hegyon (Χ•ְΧ”ֶΧ’ְΧ™֣Χ•ֹן), which in the above is translated as "meditation". Χ”ִΧ’ָּΧ™Χ•ֹן/higgayon itself is a dynamic expression that perhaps could have been translated as πŸ™, which denotes reflection or πŸ˜– which can reflect difficult contemplation.πŸ‘“ could denote clarity, which is how the acceptable heart perceives. But higgayon denotes the expression of an internal quality, and in some instances can be translated as "melody". An Emoji might better express the concept than the word "meditation".

    In some ways, the image breaks down an otherwise unseen barrier created by our language, which can limit the possibility of the concept as it is expressed in its original language. Translation requires a great deal of consideration, one that is not unknown in choosing an Emoji in communication. Clearly, the "shiny heart" Emoji is not the simplest choice and, if chosen for reasons beyond the aesthetic appeal of a shiny heart, reflects how the translator internalized a profound concept.

    So is Emoji a proper way of doing biblical translation? Our language is always changing, whether we like it or not. Every year, the Oxford Dictionary adds new words with recent additions being: manspreading, vacay, humblebrag, and tweetable...none of which register as correct within my web browser's spell check. It isn't absurd to think of Emoji not as an end to itself but as an indicator of a transition to a new symbol system. Languages with less words have to make do with ambiguity, where multivalence trumps a wide, nuanced vocabulary.

    There's a great scene in the comic series "All-Star Superman" (written by Grant Morrison and illustrated by Frank Quitely) that illustrates this in a stray communication from an imagined 24th century. A scientist from the future expresses his gratitude to Superman for something he did in his own time, using a version of the English language that is an evolution of the way many people communicate now in the use of symbol substitution, stylistic and alternate spellings, and invented onomatopoetics and slang that could be possible when the freedom to invent or modify language finds its way into spoken language (think of how words like "lulz" have found their way into everyday speech).

     It's good to remember that the King James Bible is a masterpiece of the English language because it walked the fine line between dynamic and formal equivalent translation methods: between being true to the perceived meaning of the text and being true to the more formal aspects of original word choice and syntax. The original languages let us work back to the original mode of expression in hope of finding the heart of what was being expressed. This hopefully leads to a participation of the original experience, one that is extended to us today and unites us not only to God but to every person who helped transmit that message to us as well, explaining and translating in ways they hoped would convey the heart of that message to us. When heart speaks to heart, it is hoped that lives are transformed and gladdened enough by that encounter that their heart can do no other than to sing.