Wednesday, June 06, 2007

About the Ferret Posts

Although the occasional appearance of ferret-related posts might seem surprising on a blog dedicated to philosophical and theological concerns, anyone who knows me knows what an important role ferrets play in my life, and how liable they are to make their presence known at any given time. Ferrets have their own spirituality (quite irreverent, not conventionally religious, and frequently profane) and even their own intellectual contributions to make (see the work of Mme. Peaches, the 18th century Dutch ferret, on the topology of tubular spaces.) Think of the ferret posts as deconstructive pauses. With ferrets around it is impossible to take oneself too seriously.

Because I Do Not Hope To Turn Again

I enjoyed reading Gary Kamiya's recent article published in Salon, entitled "I'm Younger Than That Now," in which he struggles with the questions that life poses to him through the aging process. It's certainly instructive to compare today's "mid-life crisis" with Dante's "dark wood" or the "dark night of the soul" of St. John of the Cross, and to see how far we have come since then. Kamiya recognizes that there's a deep spiritual disconnect in today's culture around issues of aging which comes across in our endless affairs of vanity and denial (the immortality industry, etc.) but he can't quite put his finger on what's behind it. Why does our modern society lack understanding about the most basic truths of life and death? What gives us the illusion that we could have complete control over our passage through life, including its end date? Kamiya seeks consolation in the imaginative spirit of literature and religion, but can't quite bring himself to take the risk of accepting it. Instead he hesitates over whether religion is a "fairy tale" and a "childish consolation" or something that "restores the tragic sense of life" before dismissing religion for personal reasons he prefers not to speak of: "For many of us, God isn't an option." Yet without faith of any kind, it is exceedingly difficult to execute the turn which Kamiya recognizes, to his credit, as absolutely necessary. And this is the turn towards freedom. There is a kind of exhilaration in aging as old preoccupations fall away, leaving behind only the sheer satisfaction of life itself, of experience brought to its deepest fulfillment. Kamiya reaches towards this when he writes about the comedic nature of aging, the hilarity that ensues when one realizes there is nothing left to lose. Such joyful moments can also lead to a place of serenity and acceptance, which is the subject of Eliot's Ash Wednesday. Kamiya's failure to understand this poem (he writes of the "terrible line" that opens the poem) is suggestive of his deeper unwillingness to engage with matters of faith. What Eliot discovered through this poem was the liturgical structure of time, its ceaseless ebb and flow, its strange exceeding of limits, concepts, best-laid plans, and above all, its eternal return to origins, its endless flowing forth from eternity in the form of the primal spirit of nature. If religion and the arts are a cultivation of this wildness, then they can also lead us back towards it, can open up the way into it which is also our way forward in the world. I have a feeling that what Kamiya really is seeking isn't the contradiction of a hopefulness without hope but rather a way beyond the bureaucracy and marketing which consumes every inch of our lives and promises false hope for our own deepest fears. The real problem with aging and death in our society is our insistence on thinking of ourselves as agents of consumption, and the answer is to realize once again that we are agents of creativity, of life, and of love.

Monday, June 04, 2007

The Evasion of Reality in a Post-Modern World

In a powerful address delivered to graduates of the UC-Berkeley Department of Rhetoric and published here, Mark Danner exposes the moral quicksand into which the Bush administration has plunged this nation. We have entered an age of epistemological crisis, in which facts have become malleable, reality has been elided, and the very notion of truth is considered old-fashioned. I am tempted to name this the fulfillment of George Orwell's dystopian prophecy of 1984, except for one crucial difference. Orwell remained wedded to the old model of centralized distribution, in which the message is distributed and maintained through rigid channels of communication. He never envisioned the rise of the new media and of popular culture. In fact, the run-up to the war in Iraq was an example of a new kind of propaganda, made possible by a new psychology which has become the bedrock of a new form of political organization, the media-state. As the spectacular success of the pre-war campaign demonstrates, such propaganda far exceeds in its capacity to deceive that of the classic campaigns of the 20th century. It is now possible using the organs of the media and of popular culture (for a cinematic example of this kind of fusion, watch Barry Levinson's "Wag the Dog") to mass market political messages to a national audience in carefully orchestrated fashion, and in so doing, to completely control public opinion. This was how the Bush administration managed to achieve its revolutionary political objectives from the period of September 2001 to September 2005, right up until Hurricane Katrina blew up its fabricated image and restored the possibility of a legitimate opposition party. One need only recall the routine "terror alerts" in 2003-04 to see the effectiveness of this type of propaganda. So in an age of sophistry, truth has become an extremely precious commodity. To speak the truth in an age of deception is a powerful act of justice-making. The lies of official power deserve public scorn. The charlatans who speak them deserve disgrace. We must preserve the truth where we find it, and never cease to promote its cause at every opportunity.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Response to Christopher Hitchens

Recent years have seen a resurgence of works devoted to skeptical themes, including Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion," Daniel Dennet's "Breaking the Spell," and Christopher Hitchens' "god Is Not Great." Given the modest contributions which atheism has made to society over the years, this counts as news, and the sight of these dogged intellectuals butting heads with fundamentalists in public debates has at least made for an entertaining spectacle. It also provides thinking Christians with an opportunity to talk about our faith in a meaningful way, as encompassing the full measure of the spiritual and intellectual life. Hitchens' argument can be summed up in his phrase, "Religion poisons everything." This means that everything religious, insofar as it is religious, is bad, and that everything which has been affected by religion would be better off without it. Now as a statement of fact this is simply wrong and almost anyone not blinded by ideology can see that. Yet the argument also fails on a deeper level and it is on this level that the argument is of interest to religious minds. What Hitchens is proposing is a fundamental separation between what faith holds to be true and what reason knows. Therefore, we ought to be able to see this separation at work in a history of cultural achievement. A survey of Renaissance painting, for instance, should clearly reveal an absolute distinction between the contents of faith and the achievements of reason, such that an atheist could clearly point to the difference and identify where the purity of rational achievement ends and the "poisoning" of religion begins. Hitchens himself claims to be a great lover of the arts and even cites the religious poetry of John Donne and George Herbert as among his favorites. Yet this is bizarrely inconsistent, to the point that I would actually question the mental competence of anyone who claims to believe it. To try and separate the "religious" from the "rational" elements in Herbert's poetry is akin to trying to surgically remove the soul from a living creature. There is a kind of suicidal impulse in Hitchens' argument which is by no means peripheral to the "new atheism" which he represents. Dawkins and others have speculated about what would be the best means of "curing" the so-called virus of religion, and all options are on the table. This is not the first time a plan to get rid of either a single religion or all of them has been proposed. I would simply say that whenever public intellectuals begin discussing plans to purify the culture of foreign or undesirable elements, this is cause for concern. It is certainly reason enough for Hitchens and others to reconsider their position.