Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Pop-Pantheist Blasphemy

One of the more prevalent modern blasphemies is that of a sort of pantheism or pandeism which holds that all religions partially and imperfectly apprehend the one true God. In the last few days I heard or overheard versions of this blasphemy at work and from Saul Williams on Twitter. Not long ago, I was in an argument with Immortal Technique on Twitter where he was ineptly defending the position (while not even really understanding that it was his position). And in the case of Saul Williams and Immortal Technique, they had legions of followers expressing general agreement with the stance.

Not many people necessarily consciously self-identify in this way, as those who hold to the position often believe that they have transcended the particularity of confession, doctrine, and -- certainly -- labels. Usually it's a disingenuous posture adopted by agnostics or nominal believers who want to affirm there is a space 'beyond' religion, where all religions are legitimate in their own general way, but where none of their specific confessional details or doctrinal content need be affirmed or denied. But this is obviously impossible: if God is a bland spiritual essence or power, beyond the particularities of religious confession, who is apprehended just as accurately by a Christian as he is by a Hindu, then this god is incompatible with the particular God of historical Christianity (for example), and the specifics of any religion must be denied in favor of this pantheist god who is the "true God".

Or, if God is somehow the immanent all-embracing 'One' of pantheism which all religions vaguely apprehend, then the holocaust, slavery, rape, intolerance, hatred et. al. all become necessary elements of "God's" being -- in fact become part of God him/itself. Once again making this god crucially incompatible with the gods of the Abrahamic religions, and many others besides.

While the incentive to adopt this stance is understandable -- desiring to overcome differences, to promote understanding, peace, and unity across religious divides, to see God as indiscriminately all-embracing etc. -- it is immediately self-defeating. Far from eliminating exclusivist religious claims, it merely introduces another exclusivist claim into the fray i.e. "none of your gods, as you understand them, is the true God, but in your errors of specific confession and practice you vaguely gesture in the true God's direction." Rather than subsuming all religions under the banner of the one true pantheist God, you introduce a new god who is just as in conflict with the historical faiths as any of the gods of those faiths is at odds with one another.

Perhaps this is the reason few people self-identify as pantheists of this sort. On close inspection, the position becomes untenable, evil, or pointless. But many people say and believe things without close inspection.

In the desire to affirm the legitimacy of all religions, you necessarily undermine and oppose them all. The God I believe in is not the god of Islam, Hinduism, Mormonism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism or Pop-Pantheism. This is not the resolution to the 'problem' of religious exclusivity that some naively believe it to be, rather it's proof of the inescapable, inherently exclusive nature of confessions of faith. 

Monday, September 24, 2012

On Symbolism and Sacrament

I recently listened to an episode of Our Life in Christ -- a podcast at Ancient Faith Radio -- which discussed the sacraments of the Orthodox Church and referenced the book I'm currently reading on the same subject, For The Life of The World by Alexander Schmemmann.

The hosts mention that in some evangelical Protestant polemic they cite writings of the early Church Fathers (one example is given in the podcast, but I forget who it was) which refer to the Eucharist and baptism (or one or the other) as 'symbols', in a defense of a lower sacramentology. The hosts of the podcast -- Steve Robinson and Bill Gould -- point out that 'symbol' as used in contemporary English doesn't mean what the Greek word from which it is derived meant.

The Greek word translated as 'symbol' is Σύμβολο (sýmvolo), and it meant 'to throw together' or 'the joining of two things into one.' One supposes that 'symbol' is a cognate of 'symbiosis', but obviously the meaning of these two words are currently different from one another. It seems that 'symbiosis' retained a meaning closer to its etymological origin, while 'symbol' has drifted. Today we understand 'symbol' to roughly mean 'one thing that stands for or represents or images forth another thing.' Not two things coming together in a living, interacting unity, a la symbiosis. The latter understanding seems to describe the nature of a high sacramentology -- the bread and wine becoming the body of Christ, thereby transforming the Church into the actual body of Christ; baptism as an actual death to our old self and actual resurrection to new life joined to Christ and his Church etc. -- more accurately than it does a 'symbolic' (in today's meaning) representation of a decision for Christ, or a mental recollection of the cross.

And it's not as if the Church Fathers didn't have a Greek word at their disposal that could express this idea of two different things beside each other, one standing for the other. They had that word and it was παραβολή (paràbola), which defined exactly that concept. 'Paràbola' meant (roughly) 'two things alongside one another' and is the word from which we derive -- among other words -- the English word 'parable'. A parable being one story that stands for another story or reality, while remaining separate. This is closer to what we mean today when we use the words 'symbol' and 'symbolism', but the Fathers didn't use this word because it wasn't what they meant.

That is the argument that is made in the podcast, at any rate, and one that seemed persuasive to me.

Teen Pregnancy, Sex-ed, and Smug Liberal Deception

As Ross Douthat has pointed out on Twitter, this piece by Amanda Marcotte is smugly and sloppily wrong. She flagrantly conflates teen pregnancy rates with teen birth rates, leading to a factual error in the title of her piece which subsequently mars her whole argument.

Douthat cites Guttmacher statistics from 2005 which show that the teen pregnancy rates of Mississippi and New York are effectively the same at 85/1000 and 77/1000, respectively. Marcotte cites statistics about the discrepancy in birth rates between the states as evidence in favor of her argument for liberal sex education. But if the supposed superiority of New York's sex education ethic with regard to birth control, condom use, and other preventative measures explained the discrepancy, then that would manifest itself as a difference in pregnancy rates. Yet there is no difference.

Clearly the missing variable between pregnancy and birth is the abortion rate. New York boasts the highest abortion rate in the country at 41/1000, while Mississippi's is 11/1000. Hence the discrepancy between teen birth rates and pregnancy rates. So it turns out what Amanda Marcotte is actually advocating is for "better" abortion education, not sex education.

The pregnancy rates being the same undermines her entire argument about liberal sex education being efficacious. The only resultant difference -- at least as measured by comparing these two particular states -- is in decisions that are made after sex. If you're the monstrous, pro-baby-killing sort, you might argue that New York teens make "better" decisions after sex and subsequent pregnancy; you can't argue that they do so beforehand. They don't.

Liberal sex education doesn't prevent teen pregnancy; it prevents teen pregnancies from becoming births. At most. Of course, the fact that more abortions reduce the number of live births isn't exactly revelatory information. Additionally, the divergent cultural values of the regions are a better candidate for the root cause of the differences in abortion rates, and these would largely remain even in the face of changes in sex education programs. The differences in the types of sex education are themselves epiphenomena of these more fundamental cultural differences. They are effects, not causes. Correlation is not causation.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire

With a presidential election looming and the most substantive policy debate (to the extent that there is one) being on the topic of jobs and the economy, turning to this text seemed appropriate. In addition, a reader had recommended William T. Cavanaugh to me in the comment section of my review of Introducing Radical Orthodoxy, so I was eager to read some of his work.

If one of the main characteristics of those authors and thinkers who fall within the stream of Radical Orthodoxy is re-thinking traditionally 'secular' realms of thought and practice according to explicitly Christian premises, language, and categories, then this text is a quintessential example of that sort of disposition and method. In considering the field of economics, Cavanaugh lays out parameters for Christians to approach a just economic life that doesn't aim to overthrow or oppose the reigning global capitalist order -- something he thinks is not actually possible anyway -- but which seeks to seize on its legitimacy and respond to it in a transformative way.

Cavanaugh is often perspicacious in his musings on the nature of capitalism and consumerism. He rightly recognizes that the capitalist definition of economic freedom is defined purely negatively: it is the lack of illegitimate coercion or force in the economic realm. While the Christian definition of freedom is ends-dependent; true freedom is understood with reference to the telos of human nature. Freedom isn't the arbitrary, unmolested exercise of will, as it is defined in capitalism, but freedom is found in choosing rightly. Because Cavanaugh doesn't think progressivism offers a real alternative to capitalism, he only really engages with capitalism and one of its most staunch defenders: Milton Friedman. This is the only spot where Cavanaugh stumbles a bit. At times he correctly recognizes that the Christian understanding of freedom, as positively defined, isn't necessarily at odds with the capitalist understanding -- as defined by Friedman -- but is rather a more specific and demanding sort of freedom that can exist underneath and within the capitalist order (though it's obviously destined to transplant it in the eschaton). But then he will turn around and act as if there is some inherent conflict, when there really isn't. That aside, his observations as to the distinct types of freedom are important and thoughtful.

Another example of penetrating insight is Cavanaugh's recognition that the consumerism of our culture is not marked by attachment to things, but by detachment to them. We don't buy things to satisfy particular desires and then rest content in those things, rather we buy things and once we acquire them, start to shop for something else. It is shopping, not the actual buying, that drives us. We desire to desire to desire, and of course the desires of our heart are never more than momentarily satiated by obtaining material possessions.

Cavanaugh goes on to say that detachment from material possessions is an aspect of the Christian life as well, though consumerism is a perversion of it. The Christian model for what a redeemed, healthy mode of consumption ought to be is found in the Eucharist. We consume and in so doing are consumed by God; we consume the bread so that we might become bread for others. And Cavanaugh gives concrete examples of what this might look like, as lived out in the realm of economics; different sorts of business models, nontraditional charitable activities, etc.

In the section on the 'global and the local', Cavanaugh evaluates the process known as 'globalization', in the context of the ancient philosophical problem of 'the one and the many'. Turning to the doctrine of the Incarnation, Cavanaugh convincingly argues that it is only in Christ that this problem can be solved, as Christ is the 'concrete universal'. Drawing heavily on the thought of Hans Ur von Balthasar, Cavanaugh believes that the Church's catholicity is the living out of this reality of the nature of Christ. The church is catholic -- whole and complete -- in each particular, local church, with Christ as its head. So in the Incarnation, in Christ, the particular, the concrete is redeemed and taken up into the life of the Trinity. The Many need not dissolve into the One, and the One need not disperse out into the Many, but Christ's work infuses the particular with the infinite, without the infinite ceasing to be infinite. And this reality for God is the reality for the Church, which becomes a model for how the Church can engage and affect the economic realities it inhabits, specifically in a time of 'globalization'.

As I've said, Cavanaugh makes these connections -- which I'm somewhat glossing over -- explicit in tangible examples. It isn't all abstraction, and when it is, it's abstraction about concrete, physical realities. One of the examples of an outworking of his premises are supporting certain sorts of local farms, where the relationship between production and consumption is at least a more intimate one, where a communal relationship among parties can develop, rather than the way globalized capitalism tends to set production off in some far corner of the world where workers can be exploited. Another example are business models which themselves incorporate an ethic of gift by having employee ownership, or a certain percent of profits going directly to charitable causes in the community. None of this undermines capitalism and can take place within it, but it also frees those engaged in these mini-markets from some of the more harsh, inescapable realities of the pure self-interest of the global market.

Though Milton Friedman might note that, in decreasing the market for extremely cheap labor in foreign countries, for example, you take away some of the poor-paying jobs those people are glad to have, perhaps making their poor quality of life even worse. There are always trade-offs, and the solutions Cavanaugh offers often have hidden costs. But, to be fair, his examples are not intended to be an exhaustive explication of everything that would need to happen to bring economic justice to the world.

The book is written in a highly readable fashion at a popular level. Cavanaugh seamlessly transitions from appropriating the Trinitarian theology of Balthasar and contrasting Augustine with Milton Friedman, to contemporary implications and pop-culture illustrations and references. The result is an illuminating investigation of what it means -- and what it should mean -- to be a Christian 'consumer' in the modern world of economics.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

'The Master' and Catholicism

I've been a big fan of Paul Thomas Anderson since Magnolia came out in 1999, and with the epic, brilliant There Will Be Blood he cemented his spot as one of the best living American filmmakers. Along with The Tree of Life, There Will Be Blood is my favorite film to come out in the last decade or so. With that in mind it should come as no surprise that I've been eagerly anticipating Anderson's latest opus The Master -- loosely inspired by the life of L. Ron Hubbard and starring Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman -- which arrives this Friday in limited release. I've already purchased my tickets for a Friday showing in Arclight Hollywood's Cinerama Dome, where the film will be presented in the 70mm format.

I've been reading some reviews and generally following the hype surrounding the film for the last few weeks. Today an interview with Anderson appeared in the Huffington Post and one bit stood out to me:
I know you were raised Catholic. Do you see similarities between Scientology and Catholicism as you're researching the film?

Not really.

There were times watching the film when I thought, Boy, Dodd is just making up any old thing, but then you're in church and they're saying stuff that got made up 2,000 years ago.

Yeah, sure, I think a lot of people can make that argument. I don't know. I don't really think about it.
There are a couple things to notice here. First is the fact that the interviewer is asking such buffoonish questions at all. What is he thinking? This is juvenile atheistic drivel of the first order. What similarities between Scientology and Catholicism, exactly? Beyond the level of the extremely superficial, there are none whatsoever. Because there are such things as quasi-religious hucksters and charlatans, therefore Christianity was the product of religious charlatans making things up? It does not follow, sir. And, as a matter of fact, such a thesis is virtually impossible to defend given the historical record and logic. Oops.

The great thing about the exchange is Anderson's curt rejection of the initial suggestion and the subsequent polite dismissal of the follow-up. This juxtaposed with all his other responses to questions, where he generously elaborated if he had even the slightest idea what the interviewer was getting at. There's something wonderful about a petty atheist extrapolating a sweeping rejection of all religion from a narrow-minded reading of a film, only to have the auteur respond with the equivalent of a blank stare.

Sorry that none of this was actually about The Master or Anderson as a director. If you're interested in that kind of thing, I'll probably be blogging about it this weekend. Stay tuned.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Case For Mitt (and Conservatism)

A friend of mine recently asked me directly why he should vote for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama. It admittedly caught me somewhat off-guard since I so rarely think about that question. My blunt and somewhat tongue-in-cheek answer was that "He's a Republican." And given the platforms of the two major parties and my own values, it really is that simple to some extent. Still, I felt (and feel) compelled to give a more thorough response to the question.

My answer will be written with an audience of wavering or uncertain Republicans, independents, and perhaps some unusually open-minded and moderate Democrats in mind. If you're a fairly committed liberal or progressive, I have nothing in the way of persuasion to offer but this: stop being a committed liberal or progressive.
The Case For Mitt is the Case For Conservatism/Republicanism

Personality politics is what drives many national elections, but it usually massively obscures the fundamental issues at hand. The personality and idiosyncrasies in policy proposals and ideology of presidential candidates is exceedingly more important to consider and weigh during the primary process than it is in a general election. The reason for this is that during the primaries you're winnowing down from a pool of candidates who share many of the same basic values and beliefs, and so the finer distinctions between them become important.

Once we are into the general election, this is no longer the case. We are now dealing with two candidates whose fundamental ideologies are often drastically opposed to each other. And, to get to where they are, each has to have shown some significant level of fealty to the party (and that party's values) which has nominated them for the presidency. Which is a loyalty that usually carries through into their presidency and how they will govern. With this being the case, the real critical distinction isn't between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama but between the Republican party platform -- its values, policies, and vision for the country -- and that of the Democratic party. Mitt Romney is a fairly ordinary Republican; Barack Obama is a fairly ordinary Democrat. What sets them apart as a Democrat from other Democrats or as a Republican from other Republicans is no longer relevant, for the most part.

This is something that many on my own side, myself included, sometimes forget. It is about Obama's failures as a president, sure, but it's important to note that anyone who shares the values of the Democratic party could not have done significantly better because their ideals preclude success.

So, while so much of the national dialogue in the media is focused on things Romney or Obama have said or done, the really savvy voter can mostly short circuit all such considerations by looking at both the Democratic party platform and the Republican party platform. Also helpful would be to compare these platforms to previous platforms and see what direction the parties are headed in. And, in the case of Democrats, taking a look at their attempt to 'remedy' the platform and re-insert some of the language that had been extracted (and shiver).


  • If you value the protection of the lives of the unborn (over a woman's "right" to kill), vote Republican.
  • If you value the Constitution's vision of a limited government with enumerated powers, and don't think it's a 'living document' (beyond the fact that it can be amended) that can mean anything the prevailing spirit of the times deems it to mean, vote Republican.
  • If you value equality of opportunity, self responsibility, and see the dignity of hard work, vote Republican.
  • If you think a robust capitalism, with limited constraints, is the best way to organize an economy and lift the conditions of all (and you correctly recognize, contra ubiquitous propaganda to the contrary, that 'too much market' didn't cause the economic crisis of 2008), vote Republican.
  • If you believe in fiscal responsibility -- that both individuals and governments should not live beyond their means -- vote Republican
  • If you believe in a social safety net for the most helpless in society, but believe that the primary responsibility for them should fall to families, local communities, charities, and local governments, with the federal government playing a very small role, vote Republican.
  • If you believe in a strong national defense and peace through strength, but that war should always be a last resort, vote Republican.
  • If you believe in choice -- and therefore quality -- in education, vote Republican.
  • If you don't believe in socialized medicine -- with its harmful effect on quality and availability of care, and its economic havoc-wreaking -- vote Republican. 
  • If you believe we should care much more what our allies think about us than about the fickle opinion of the world as a whole, vote Republican. 
  • If you believe that the entitlement system is broken and unsustainable, and must be addressed so as to bring the debt under control, vote Republican. 
  • If you believe people should keep the vast majority of the money they make, however much that is, vote Republican.

If you don't broadly agree with these values, then it's my humble submission that you at least abstain from voting, rather than do the unconscionable and vote for Barack Obama.

If I wanted to be really thorough, I would go through those bullet points and argue why you ought to assent to them all, but that is a tall task indeed (in terms of effort and number of words), so I will defer that task to if and when I'm challenged -- in the comments or elsewhere -- on specific points or asked for elaboration.

Sure, it's true that sometimes parties and politicians don't strictly adhere to their expressed ideals and go astray. But by and large, they do sincerely subscribe to the broad values contained in their platforms and will generally govern in the same basic vector of their party. I think this is the case for both Romney and Obama. With that in mind, forget about the men. They are ciphers or icons for ideologies and visions that are diametrically opposed, and should be approached as such.