What’s in a Name?: Is ‘God’ in Need of Upgrade or Obsoletion?

I must admit I’m certainly not one of the most original thinkers; a thinker? yes, original? probably not so much. I try to counter-act my apparent lack of originality by at least being well-read. I’m usually reading between 5-7 books simultaneously and I scour the Internet and social media for articles of interest with the hopes of happening upon an unseen connection that may spark a bit of inspiration.

In one of many meanderings into social media and forays into the world-wide-web of information I came across an article on Michael Dowd‘s website entitled, “God is Reality Personified, Not a Person.” A great title for sure and an intriguing read.
In the article Dowd’s primary thesis is simply this: “God is not a person; God is a mythic personification of reality…not an invisible friend or otherworldly entity.” Agreed! He goes on to specify that “ALL images and concepts of God are more or less meaningful interpretations and personifications.” Anthropologically speaking, this point simply can’t be overemphasized.
In this regard, Dowd highlights the fact that “we humans have always been in an inescapable relationship with a Reality that we could neither fully predict nor control.” Similarly, I do think the concept of ‘God’ was an important stepping stone in the evolution of humanity. At one time it was an idea that held an immense functionality (Prof. Lloyd Geering gives a wonderful talk on precisely this point, you can find it here). It served as what Ken Wilber might call a “Theory of Everything”. However, as Wilber explains a good theory of everything is “not fixed or final” but, rather is one “that has served its purpose if it helps you get to a better one” (xiii). In other words, ‘God’ functioned as a kind of a prehistoric/ancient innovative technology, and like most technologies, over time may have become outdated, outmoded, and obsolete. In this regard, I wonder if perhaps theologians, in their total reliance upon what they believe to be the necessary preservation of the ‘God’ hypothesis, are, in effect, trying to force dial-up to function optimally within a Broadband world.
It seems that many theologians and religious thinkers, whether liberal or conservative, radical, orthodox, or heterodox, weave such an elaborate, complex, and, an often contradictory tapestry in an effort to make the idea of ‘God” work, one cannot help but think to ask, “if it takes such an immense amount of effort and strain to justify a particular idea, perhaps the idea itself is fundamentally flawed?” Even though I have garnered much from various theological thinkers and many religious academic or intellectuals, I still wonder if ‘theology’ carries far too much baggage to be genuinely helpful and if ‘God’ is far too value-laden to be of use. Paul Van Buren goes so far as to suggest suggests that terms such as ‘theology’ and ‘God’ are “either meaningless or misleading.” Thus, the more I have ventured into the studies of history, human origins, language, ethology, ethnology, neurobiology, evolutionary psychology, and ecology, the more I think that Geering has a point, perhaps as he suggests ALL ‘talk’ regardless of what it is about cannot be anything other than ‘human talk’, and ‘theology’ is nothing other than anthropology (Geering, 3). (This is not to say, however, that I think that there are not paths to think beyond the ‘human’; see The Ecological ThoughtEcology Without NatureLarvel Subjects.)
It seems then, (although I may be mistakenly oversimplifying) that we have one of three options. Though I can’t say at this time which if any of the three are better or more helpful:
1) neologism  –  in this case that is re-naming ‘God’, inventing new words, phrases, concepts, or ideas to be used in place of ‘God’.  This seems to only offer more confusion rather than more clarity, as it would only be an elite or select few that would maintain any sense of familiarity. Here, I think of Caputo’s “Event”. This is a beautiful concept but, as a friend of mine astutely observed, “what everyday person hears the word ‘God’ and thinks of the event?”
2) re-appropriation – in other words, preserving the verbiage, rhetoric, and ‘name’ of ‘God’ while reformulating its contents and meaning. For example, another friend of mine takes the Paulinian idea, “God IS Love” quite literally, suggesting that whenever and wherever there is love, there is God. In his usage Love is God. Here, he simply uses “God” as a kind of symbolic place holder/synonym for love. While I can sympathize with this move to an extent and while I’m sure this re-appropriation works for him individually. I think it similarly succumbs to the same pitfalls of neologism. There seems to be a break down of practicality, praxis, and performance. We simply do not engage with “god” and “love” in interchangeable ways when observing the realm of everyday religious practice. Love is a verb, not a noun, personal or proper. Love is not and should not be an ‘object’ of devotion, worship, prayer, veneration, or observance. Love is an action, it is enacted, it is performative. (But, in this idea’s defense, perhaps, ‘God’ needs to go through a re-verbing process.)
Dowd, too, alludes to a kind re-appropriation in his article:
[W]e see an enigmatic power operative in our everyday lives, giving us our life and all good gifts yet also limiting us in nearly every conceivable way, and finally taking our lives away. This is real life! This is reality as it really is, whether or not we like it. There can be no argument whether or not this reality exists. If you don’t want to call it a power, call it a force, an up-against-ness, or simply the universe as it really is. As Bultmann points out in his essay, we are not talking about some metaphysical idea here. We are talking about an unavoidable actuality. Words may fail us, but we all know this reality intimately, personally.

Here, Dowd says that “For me to look into the awe-filling fullness of life and pronounce the name “God” means a commitment of my life to reality-based living…Reality is my God, evidence is my scripture, and integrity (living in right relationship with reality and helping others do the same) is my religion.” Yet, Dowd, when quoting Rudolf Bultmann. poses what I think is an important question to consider: “Why call this mysterious power ‘God’? Why give the enigma, the mystery that drives us this way and that and hedges us in, any other name but ‘the enigma’, or ‘fate’?” These are questions I have constantly asked myself when it comes to ‘God’. Perhaps, we should simply let our yes be yes and our no be no, in other words, perhaps, we should simply let ‘Love’ be love, let love stand on its own two feet, unmasked and unfettered. Why can’t we simply let the enigma be the enigma and let mystery be mystery? Are these not strong enough ideas and words on their own? Or am I being hypocritical here? Elsewhere I have written about how much I admire the philosophical use of language, that is, the way in which philosophy dramatical alters the meaning, significance, and content of common place everyday language in ways that are then anything but ordinary.

Finally…
3) rejection/abandonment – letting go of ‘God’, disengaging from its usage, dismissing its utilization, and declining its employment. Many credible thinkers that are steeped in theology suggest just such a route (Geering, Cupitt, etc.). This needn’t be an antagonistic maneuver. It can be reverent as it can recognize that these ‘theorizations’ have been useful in the past but, they have served their purpose.
 As a committed non-theist/atheist I must confess that I greatly lean towards rejection and abandonment, as I have no use spiritual or transcendent aspects of ‘God’ but, as an equally committed academic student of religion I still recognize that there is a kind of ‘power’ and magnanimity in the word and concept of ‘God’, especially in its ability to encapsulate and evoke that which is of ultimate concern.  I cannot say with any absolute certainty that complete rejection is actually the best way forward. I am simply unsure. Consider the immense immanence, materiality, and earthenness found in the following passage by Zen Buddhist priest Brad Warner from his book Hardcore Zen:
 
Everything is sacred. Every blade of grass, every cockroach, every speck of dust, every flower, every pool of mud outside a graffiti-splattered warehouse is God. Everything is a worthy object of worship…Truth announces itself when you kick away a discarded bottle of Colt 45 Malt Liquor. Truth rains on you from the sky above, and God forms in puddles at your feet. You eat God and excrete truth four hours later. Take a whiff—what a lovely fragrance the truth has! Truth is reality itself. God is reality itself. Enlightenment, by the way, is reality itself. And here it is.

Do we replace the word ‘God’? Do we invent whole new trajectories of ‘God’ language? Do we maintain its usage, its structure, and completely overhaul, renovate, and remodel its interior content? Or do we simply walk away, tip our hats, count our losses, and make for the exits, discarding the verbiage by the wayside as mile marker monument to where we have been and how far we have come as a species and culture? I don’t know…

What’s in a name? But, more importantly, where do we go from here?
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The Democratization of Religion pt. 2

 

Below is the second part to a paper I wrote for my Undergraduate Senior Seminar which seeks to explore the deeper connections between religion and technology, each of their innovative processes, and their potentiality for catalyzing a kind of emancipatory democratization. Please let me know what you think! Enjoy!

 

James Gleick writes that “Every new medium transforms the nature of human thought” (12). This has proven true with the emergence of each of the three previous ages that Pagitt proposes but, perhaps, this medium-transformative shift in “the nature of human thought,” which Gleick describes, proves to be an even more accurate assertion in this the present global setting that Pagitt terms the Inventive Age. The Internet, Social Media, smartphones, and countless other advances in information and communication technologies have drastically altered the cultural landscape, providing whole new ways of experiencing and engaging with the world, and bringing about striking and immeasurable changes to social values. The limitations of locality and geographical borders and boundaries have been daringly transcended. Kwame Anthony Appiah explains that “the worldwide web of information…means not only that we can affect lives everywhere but that we can learn about life anywhere” (xiii). This creates a kind of globalized cosmopolitanism, a citizenry (politēs) not merely exclusive to nationality but, of the world (cosmos) (xiv). Here, as well, knowledge and information retain all of their importance, esteem, and regard but only in so far it leads to discovery and innovation (Pagitt, 30). Thus, as Pagitt concludes, the impetus of the Inventive Age is focused entirely upon “inclusion, participation, collaboration,” and creativity (30). The parameters of the Inventive Age is precisely what media scholar Henry Jenkins et al, defines as Participatory Culture.

Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy, James Paul Gee, highlights that “We live in…an age of convergent media, production, participation, fluid group formation, cognitive, social, and linguistic complexity-all embedded in contemporary popular culture” (14). As such, Jenkins et al defines Participatory Culture as “a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby experienced participants pass along knowledge to novices” (xi). In this regard, as Jenkins et al goes on to explain, “Participatory culture shifts the focus of literacy from individual expression to community involvement” (6). This, then, is not a matter of “individual accomplishment but rather the emergence of a cultural context that supports widespread participation in the production and distribution of media” (4). Participatory Culture is highly responsive and extremely reactive, especially in that it is a bold and outright rejection of the largely passive and inactive orientation of consumer culture. Participatory Culture centers itself upon inter-activity and occurs, as Jenkins et al explains, as a result of the absorption of “new media technologies that make it possible for average consumers to archive, annotate, appropriate, and recirculate media content in powerful new ways” (8). Here, Jonathan Fitzgerald rightly surmises that “the meeting of the digital world of social media and the physical world show that what were once thought to be frivolous wastes of time – sites like Facebook and Twitter – actually have the power to change the world” (Fitzgerald).

Indeed, as Jenkins et al explains, “Participatory culture,” with its technological advances in communication, creation, and information, “is reworking the rules by which school, cultural expression, civic life, and work operate” (10). Barry Taylor makes clear that “New technologies have shifted the balance of power in the realm of information,” leading to the full and unabashed democratization of information and culture (12). Taylor adamantly expresses that “Democratization is the key dynamic of our times” (17) as it “seems to be at work in virtually every area of life today” (12), and as a result everyday culture is imminently witnessing both “The Rise of Crowdsourcing” (Howe) and “The Rise of the Amateur” (Rushkoff). As a consequence, the ‘experts’, those vested with centralized hierarchical authority, those to whom Dana Ardi refers to as the Alphas (1), and “institutions no longer have the last word or hold the authoritative sway they once had” (Taylor, 11). In many cases the wide-spread and sprawling confederation of Networked individuals are proving that the cumulative and culminating knowledge of the crowd can surpass that of the solitary specialist. Thus, Taylor states emphatically that “The collapse or loss of faith in traditional forms of leadership and structure combined with virtually unlimited access to information has resulted in an empowering of the masses that is transforming culture” (18).

Clearly the religious implications are also overwhelming. Just as in the periods Pagitt describes as the Agrarian Age, the Industrial Age, and the Information Age, religion in the Inventive age precisely parallels the principles of the time. In 2012 the Pew Research Center released a report demonstrating that in the United States 1 in 5 adults say that they are religiously unaffiliated and a full one-third of those below the age of thirty claim to have no religious affiliation (Taylor, 8). This represents an increase of over 5%, a rise that began at just above 15% in 2007 up to 20% by 2012 (Taylor, 127). Executive Vice President of the Pew Research Center, Paul Taylor, writes that not only are the ‘nones’ (the name given to demographic answering ‘none’ to the question of religious affiliation) disassociated from traditional religious engagement “they are not looking for a religion that would be right for them” either (127). Taylor also goes on to say that “Overwhelmingly, they think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules, and too involved in politics” (127). Similarly, a Gallup poll has shown that two-thirds of American adults believe that religious influence is declining (Saad). Likewise, a 2012 Gallup poll revealed that only 44% of the U.S. population maintains a high level of confidence in organized religion, a jarring low point, and the result of a progressive downward trend since 1975 (Saad). Many would suggest that the process of secularization is finally winning out as predicted by many philosophical and sociological thinkers, thereby proposing that these figures are indicative of the ending reign of religion. However, this would seem to be only partially correct. 68% of the religious unaffiliated still retain a belief in God; 37% are spiritual; and 21%p pray daily (Taylor, 127). Only the most marginal and miniscule faction of the ‘nones’ are atheists. If the collaborative decentralization witnessed in the other areas of culture exhibit anything it is that something else is occurring in the religious sphere.

Just as the values of the participatory culture have dramatically shifted from the hierarchy of institutions, so “Religion has also shifted” and “is no longer found in the institutions and public locations – the churches, synagogues, mosques, and other buildings of wood and stone that have traditionally housed the sacred” (Taylor, 100). Religion, too, is being democratized and entering into a whole “new evolutionary phase in which the power and influence of religious formation” is being taken away from the mediating exclusivity of the clerical class and redistributed to the masses “for whom the task of fashioning a connection with the divine is an intensely personal and creative venture” (Taylor,170). This is a new form of religiosity. This is the beginnings of what Barry Taylor calls “Participatory Theology” (201). It seems that the very same technologies that have set the precedent of the Inventive Age have divested the religious establishment of its monopoly on religious truth and meaning. The creative free-flow of collaborative information has forced the traditional institutions of religion to relinquish their corner on the market, rejecting the inactive passivity of religious consumerism, and bringing about an age of participatory customization.

As technology has advanced so has culture and, as result, religion has as well. Each advancement has ushered in a new era, a new age, a new evolutionary phase, each “completely revaluating and revisiting virtually every aspect of the human condition” (Taylor, 14). The democratizing effects of information and communication technologies such as the Internet, Social Media, and smartphones, etc. have aided in creating a post-religious and a post-secular age. That which at first glance appeared to be an indication of irreligion has proven to be the initiating phases of a new kind of religious innovation. This is a dialectical movement in which as Thomas Altizer writes that “the deepest negation embodies the deepest affirmation” (56). What seems to be an outright negation of religiosity is in fact an affirmation of religion. The black and white binary that dichotomously divides the sacred and the profane, the thesis of religion and the antithesis of secularity are dialectically merging into the synthesis of something far more innovative.

 

 

Works Cited

Altizer, Thomas J.J. New Gospel of Christian Atheism. Aurora: The Davies Group Publishers, 2002. Print.

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006. Print.

Ardi, Dana. The Fall of the Alphas: The New Beta Way to Connect, Collaborate, Influence – and Lead. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013. Print.

Burrus, Daniel. “Predicting the Future.” YouTube. YouTube, 28 Jan. 2013. Web. 15 Aug. 2014.

Davis, Derek and Barry Hankins. New Religious Movements and Religious Liberty in America, 2nd ed. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2003. Print.

Fitzgerald, Jonathan D. Not Your Mother’s Morals: How the New Sincerity is Changing Pop Culture for the Better. Colorado: Bondfire Books, 2012. Print.

Gee, James Paul. New Digital Media and Learning as an Emergent Area and “Worked Examples”as One Way Forward. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009. Print.

Gleick, James. The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood. New York: Random House, 2012.Print.

Howe, Jeff. “The Rise of Crowdsourcing.” Wired. Wired Magazine, June 2006. Web. 15 Aug. 2014.

Jenkins, Henry, et al. Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009. Print.

Pagitt, Doug. Church in the Inventive Age. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2010. Print

Raulet, Gerard. “Critique Of Religion And Religion As Critique: The Secularized Hope Of Ernst Bloch.” New German Critique 9 (1976): 71. Academic Search Premier. Web. 15 Aug. 2014.

Rushkoff, Douglas. “The Rise of the Amateur.” MPI Web. Meeting Professionals International, n.d. Web. 15 Aug. 2014.

Saad, Lydia. “U.S. Confidence in Organized Religion at Low Point.” Gallup. Gallup Inc., 12 July 2012. Web. 15 Aug. 2014.

Slobodkin, Lawrence B. A Citizen’s Guide to Ecology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Print.

Taylor, Barry. Entertainment Theology: New-Edge Spirituality in a Digital Democracy. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008. Print.

Taylor, Paul. The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown. New York: Perseus Books Group, 2014. Print.

 

Kierkegaard and the Absurdity of Religion

 

Kierkegaard, himself, stresses the centricity of religion, specifically Christianity, within his project. Kierkegaard (1998) writes, “[W]hat I have wanted and want to achieve through my work, what I also regard as the most important, is first of all to make clear what is involved in being a Christian” (p. 129). Kierkegaard (1998) goes on to stress this goal, saying that his aim is “to present the picture of a Christian in all its ideal, that is, true form, worked out to every true limit” (p. 129). Here, one can see the immense importance of Christianity and all that it entails to the work of Kierkegaard but, this still does not answer the question of precisely what Christianity is to him.

To be sure, Kierkegaard is no orthodox Christian nor, does he have any interest in preserving or maintaining the organizational systemizations of the traditional Christian structures and institutions. This, Kierkegaard adamantly abhors. This is not Christianity to Kierkegaard. Here, Kierkegaard makes a clear distinction between what he refers to as Christendom, that is, the systemic institution of the Christian religion, and what he believes genuine Christianity to be.

Kierkegaard contrasts his view of Christianity sharply with that of Christendom. Christendom is marked by its overwhelming concern for objectivity, an objectivity that worries itself with seeking answers to questions such as “is this True?” and “is this Real?”  This kind of objective Christianity seeks to make the doctrines and tenets of religion rational. Christendom searches for methods of validating the ultimacy of its truth claims. In effect, the objectivity orientating Christendom makes great efforts and attempts to reconcile irrationality, to explicate faith, and to make religion reasonable.

To Kierkegaard all of these efforts attempting validity, ultimacy, rationality, and objectivity are vain and misguided. Paul Strathern (1997) writes that Kierkegaard “didn’t write about the world, he wrote about life – how we live, and how we choose to live” (p. 7). Strathern asserts that “Kierkegaard philosophizes about what it means to be alive” (p. 7). Kierkegaard focuses in on the orientation of one’s life and the necessitation of subjectivity, inwardness, and passion in all endeavors and especially in religious engagement.

As such, Kierkegaard is wholly concerned with the individual and the individual’s relationality, the way in which the individual subjectively engages with and relates to religion. Kierkegaard (1996) writes that “The problem we are considering is not the truth of Christianity but the individual’s relation to Christianity (p. 32). Christianity is not about “the scholar’s systematic zeal to arrange the truths of Christianity in nice tidy categorizations but about the individual’s personal relationship to this doctrine” (p. 32). The doctrines of Christianity, in and of themselves, are of little import. What is of the greatest consequence is the individual’s subjective relationality to those doctrines. Kierkegaard (1996) emphasizes this point further summarizing that “The objective problem is: Is Christianity true?” whereas, “The subjective problem is: What is the individual’s relationship to Christianity?” (p. 33). For Kierkegaard, subjectivity is the truth.

In this way, as Frederick Sontag (1979) explains, “Christianity ought not to be understood (p. 105). According to Sontag (1979), Kierkegaard proposes that “Christianity entered the world not to be understood but to exist in it and provoke a response (p. 105). Thus, any attempt to “rationalize it away” will “rob it of its power to challenge us” (Sontag, 1979, p. 105). Reason has no place within the individual’s relationship to Christianity. Christianity’s purpose is to confound the intellect of the individual, eliciting existential action, provoking a performative posture of impassioned response, and challenging the individual to more fully confront, embrace, and inhabit their subjectivity.

Here, Kierkegaard is a thoroughgoing fideist, seeing reason and religion as ends that cannot and must not ever meet. Faith, like existence itself, is simply an irreconcilable risk. Kierkegaard (1996) writes that

Without risk there is no faith. Faith is precisely the contradiction between the infinite passion of inwardness and objective uncertainty. If I can grasp God objectively, I do not believe, but because I cannot know God objectively, I must have faith, and if I will preserve myself in faith, I must constantly be determined to hold fast to the objective uncertainty, so as to remain out upon the ocean’s deep, over seventy thousand fathoms of water, and still believe (p. 40).

Faith and doubt, belief and uncertainty, these are not polar opposites. They are not mutually exclusive. They are not antithetical. Faith and doubt are synonymous. Belief and uncertainty are one and the same. They are all dance partners, swaying endlessly. Never fully knowing which one leads, they pirouette in a perichoretic synthesis, hoping against hope, believing in spite of belief.

Here, Frederick Sontag (1979) explains that, for Kierkegaard, “to be a Christian is to maintain faith in spite of the impossibility of being certain” (p. 33). Faith defies certainty. Yet, according to Kierkegaard, what is it that belief believes in and what is that faith has faith in? For Kierkegaard, belief is nothing short of belief in the “absurd”. Faith is faith in the “absurd”. What, then, is the absurd?

The absurd is that the eternal truth has entered time, that God has entered existence, has been born, has grown, etc., has become precisely like any other human being, quite indistinguishable from other humans. The absurd is precisely by its objective repulsion the measure of the inwardness of faith (Kierkegaard, 1996, p. 42).

The absurd is the un-reconciled merger of the finite and the infinite. It is the dissonant harmony of incarnational being. It is the discordant amalgamation of God become man. The absurd is the oppositional union of timelessness and time, the noumenal and the phenomenal, the temporal and the eternal. Yet, this inconsistent and incongruent conglomeration is not only representative of a conception of divinity but, of the very existence of humanity itself. This comingling is the center of the subject and axis of the individual.

What is religion for Kierkegaard, or more appropriately, what is Christianity for Kierkegaard? Religion is the ultimate contradiction, necessarily nonsensical, and utterly irrational. Christianity is the absoluteness of the absurd, the completeness of uncertainty, and the totalizing of antithesis. Religion is madness. Christianity is the perfect paradox and the paradox is the truth.

 

 

References

Kierkegaard, S. (1996). From Concluding unscientific postscript.” In L. N. Oaklander (Ed.), Existentialist thought: An introduction (2nd ed.) (pp.32-46). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Kierkegaard, S. (1998). The point of view (H. V. Hong & E. H. Hong, Eds. and Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Sontag, F. (1979). A Kierkegaard handbook. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press.

Strathern, P. (1997). Kierkegaard in 90 minutes. Chicago, IL: Ivan R. Dee, Inc.

Well, H. G. (2003). When the sleeper wakes. New York, NY: Random House Publishing Group.

Religion and Jazz…

 

I’ve been reading through Daniel Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell. In the book Dennett attempts to offer an explanation of religion as a Natural, or perhaps even an evolutionary, Phenomenon. So far I’ve found Breaking the Spell to be very readable, intriguing, enlightening, and incredibly insightful. I came across a few passages that I found to be particularly interesting and while I may only have a few comments to interject, I thought they would certainly be worth sharing.

Dennett makes a great analogy between music and religion.
[F]olk religion turned into organized religion much the same way folk music spawned what we might call organized music: professional musicians and composers, written representations and rules, concert halls, critics, agents, and the rest.
As both religion and music became more organized they each in turn became increasing formalized, each undergoing a kind of canonical concretization. The boundaries were drawn by the institutional edicts of key, meter, scripture and liturgy. The Commons began closing.
Dennett goes on to say that,
Every minster in every faith is like a Jazz musician, keeping traditions alive by playing the beloved standards the way they are supposed to be played, but also incessantly gauging and deciding, slowing the pace or speeding up, deleting or adding another phrase to a prayer, mixing familiarity and novelty in just the right proportions to grab the minds and hearts of the listeners in attendance.

Robert Mesle has made a similar analogy suggesting that

[P]rocess theology…becomes like music improvised by a jazz combo. The musicians have some idea where they are going, and the choices they have made so far suggest directions for the future. But the whole point of improvisation is that they are making up the music as they go.

For me the analogy breaks down, not because it doesn’t work but, perhaps, because it works too well. Though not quite in the way Dennett or Mesle intended. The analogy as it has been presented is something of a fictionalization, not because it isn’t true but, because the truth is greatly exaggerated, overinflated, and made grander then what it is in actuality.

I think it is accurate to liken religion to music. I also think its accurate to portray ministers of every faith as Jazz musicians but, it must come with the understanding that not every ‘church’ or house of worship is great music dive or a hip jazz club. More often than not, religious institutions are just that, institutions, and as such they are more like a conservatory than an eclectic venue. Musical conservatories and religious institutions are more interested in instruction, rehearsal, and repetition than experimental performance. The church, rather than being a hot bed of collective collaboration and creativity, has extinguished the fire of passionate improvisation and, instead, has embraced the cold and methodical calculations of technical proficiency.
This analogy must also come with the understanding that though every minister may be like a Jazz musicians, not every minister is John Coltrane, Miles Davis, or Dizzy Gilespie. Quite the contrary, ‘minister’ musicians are more like lounge band or cover band musicians. They do not grasp the hearts and minds of listeners but, merely conjure nostalgia by providing background music, atmosphere, and ambiance. There is no novelty in their performance. There is no bravado, no tension, no danger. They are only replaying the greatest hits, clinging rigidly to what has been, emphasizing the past.
It seems to me that there is something of a polemic here. Recounting the radicality of the past is not the equivalent to assigning subversiveness to the present. Reminiscing of what once held disruptive capabilities is not an affirmation of radical capacities but rather a deeper negation of them, as it more implicitly emphasizes dormant latency. It is passivity cloaked in nostalgia. It does not reclaim radicality but systematically subverts it. In this capacity remembrance is functioning as a mechanism for the maintenance of the status quo and the perpetuation of complacency. We revel in the controversy of what once was but in actuality our doing so is the means by which we concretize the continuance of conformity. It is the one hit wonder, the washed up music star remembering the glory days of times gone by at the top of the charts, now wallowing in the mire of mediocrity. The Lion domesticated and complicit in captivity, barely a threat, no longer the mighty predator, the King of the jungle deposed and dethroned.
Thus, when we discuss radical origins it should not be done in a way that preserves the tradition that perverted what was once its radical core but rather as a confrontational call to it’s confession, a demand that we admit our addictive assent to an unquestioning acquiescence. If we are serious about surveying the site of where subversion once stood we must equally welcome the revelation of the loss of the radical. The veil of the holiest of holies was rent in order to reveal the emptiness it hid. We must aggressively resist the desire to piece back together the fabric that hides the abyss. We must boldly stare into the void knowing that the nothingness stares back. We must not avert our attention from ‘the man behind the curtain,’ we must unmask the charade of Oz. Baptism, Communion, sacraments, liturgy, regardless of their past, in their current forms are not disruptive. They are no longer radical. What is needed is a violent and catastrophic overturning of the structural tables. While the question of what made these things radical in their earliest forms is an important question it is not as important as asking why they are not radical now, and not nearly as important as asking what would make them radical again. For communion to be uniquely disruptive in our era it would necessitate something more graphic than simply bread and wine and a radical 21st century baptism would require something far more menacing then sprinkles of water and the names of an Oedipal and impotent absentee father, an insurrectionist son co-opted and striped of all his revolutionary rebellion, and a Holy spirit exorcised and cast out of our houses. Sacraments were initially scripted to be of service to their time. We must begin to wonder…What would it look like for sacraments and liturgy to be truly radical here and now?
The best musicians, those that are the most creative, the ones that leave a lasting revolutionary mark, the musicians that make the greatest impact, are the ones that know that the rules are meant to be broken. While the ‘standards’ may be their launching pad, these improvisers are unafraid to depart from them, knowing that they must be abandoned if something new is to emerge.  What is needed then is the radical embrace of this kind of improvisation and experimentation, becoming unafraid to relinquish reliance upon the ‘standards’. Let go of tradition and grasp tightly to the Blue notes, the wrong notes, all the wrong notes, and only the wrong notes.

Melancholy as Mitzvot

Last semester I took a course in Modern & Contemporary Judaism. I found it to be intriguing and enlightening. As someone who has devoted a considerable amount of my own personal studies to understanding the specificity of  the Jewish faith, I relished the opportunity to engage with it in an academic format. Below you’ll find a short paper I wrote for the class exploring the ways in which Judaism both embraces and welcomes ‘melancholy’ within the very fabric of its praxis. Enjoy!

In October of 2010 the Dalai Lama, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr all came together to join in a public conversation, dialogue, and debate surrounding the meaning of happiness (you can find the audio and transcript here). In the course of the evenings proceedings a question was posed to Rabbi Sacks in which it was pointed out that large portions of the Hebrew Bible, including sections such as Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, etc., “really wallow in sadness and suffering and anger” (Tippett). Rabbi Sacks responded by stating:

It is true that if you read the Jewish literature and you read Jewish history, happiness is not the first word that comes to mind. We do degrees in misery, post-graduate angst, and advanced guilt… And yet somehow or other when all of that is at an end, we get together and we celebrate…And that to me is how I have always defined my faith as a Jew (Sacks).

Sacks elaborated saying,

The definition of a Jew, Israel, is, as it says in Genesis 34, one who struggles, wrestles, with God and with humanity and prevails. And Jacob says something very profound to the angel. He says, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” And that I feel about suffering. When something bad happens, I will not let go of that bad thing until I have discovered the blessing that lies within it (Sacks).

This is truly something quite profound and unique within the Jewish tradition. In an age of consumeristic, satisfaction driven, seeker-sensitive culture, most Western centered religions have promoted themselves as sources of comfort, consolation, satisfaction, joy, and happiness. Judaism, however, rather than seeking to overcome or subdue the angst and anxiety that is inherent within the human existential condition, has contrarily allotted ample room within its rituals, practices, and observances to these dark and pensive moods, choosing instead to embrace and to more deeply abide within sorrow, suffering, mourning, and grief.

It seems that from the abstinences of Yom Kippur, to the extensive mournful customs and sorrowful liturgy marking the Ninth of Av, to the deeply imbedded observance of sitting Shiva, Judaism has constantly seen “melancholy [as] an authentic response (‘positive’) to accurate perceptions of life experiences that are incongruous” (Frost, 82). Rather than seeking merely to cope by partializing experience, or by dimensioning expectations in order to achieve a homeostatic state of balance and equilibrium, the Jewish faith has instead sought to “learn to live with the gaps between one’s expectations and what life actually offers,” seeing “incongruity as intrinsic to the human condition” and “melancholy as an authentic, positive response to these conditions” (82). Thus, it should be noted that this “religious melancholy is not considered an answer, a solution, either to incongruity in general or to questions without answers in particular” (83). The Jew is one who does not see tension, ambiguity, or contradiction as problems to be solved, incongruity requiring resolution, but instead sees them as mysterious perplexities to be experienced and inhabited. “[M]elancholy is a response to such conditions – an active, lively response that, given the alternative safe and comfortable illusion, is freely chosen by the [Jew]” (Frost, 83). Even more so, within Jewish praxis, it is “a highly creative and visionary response to the most terrible events to which human beings can submit each other” (Dudley, 89).

Through these Judaic rituals and observances, one purposefully and decidedly submits themselves to the trauma and solemnity of authentic human existence, sacrificing comfort and consolation in exchange for the authenticity of grief and distress, fully living within “the gap between the promise and the real” (88). It seems then that by expressing a “willingness to experience incongruity” and by “refusing to erect premature arbitrary boundaries regarding life possibilities” these practices allow “one…to experience a wider swath of life” and to “approach life in a state of perceptual openness” (Frost, 83).

In contrast to the absolutist answers offered by the claims of many other religions, Jewish practice avoids such finality and totalizing notions. Embracing darkness and melancholy in ritual and observance, word and deed, comes with it the understanding made clear by Elie Wiesel:

All ready-made answers, all seemingly unalterable certainties serve only to provide good conscience to those who like to sleep and live peaceably. To avoid spending a life-time tracking down truth, one pretends to have found it (239).

Works Cited

Dudley, Michael. “Melancholy or Depression, Sacred or Secular?” International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 2.2 (1992): 87-99. Academic Search Premier. Web. 27 Jan. 2013.

Frost, Christopher. “Melancholy as an Alternative to the Psychological Label of Depression.” International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 2.2 (1992): 71-85. Academic Search Premier. Web. 27 Jan. 2013.

Dalai Lama, Seyyed Hossein, Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. “Pursuing Happiness.” Interview by Krista Tippett. On Being. American Public Radio, 28 Oct. 2010. MP3 file.

Wiesel, Elie. Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982. Print.

It’s Not You, It’s Me (‘Unbelief’ is not a failure)

I recently came across an article on Patrol Magazine written by editor Jonathan Fitzgerald entitled “We are the Reason They Don’t Believe.” Fitzgerald is also the author of a book I’ve recently begun reading entitled, Not Your Mother’s Morals. The book explores the ways in which modern popular culture is changing the very ways in which we engage with and understand morality. Fitzgerald terms this new permutation of morality that now seems to be permeating through current films, art, music, and other mediums, the New Sincerity. This is something of a call to authenticity and a rejection of cynicism.
In the article Fitzgerald shares his reactions to the growing numbers of the social demographic now referred to as the Religious Nones, a subject that I myself have also been quite drawn and have written about previously as well (you can find the post here). Fitzgerald expresses his heartbreak over the angst and “unbelief” of the Nones stating:
I sat up in my bed staring at the ceiling and listening to people my age discuss how they stopped believing, how they’re trying to fill their lives with other things to replace religion, and most heartbreakingly, how they still want to believe, I couldn’t help but feel like I failed, like all Christians fail, to provide a space for the these sincere doubters.
Fitzgerald emphasizes his point stating over and again “We’ve failed them.” He also goes on to say that “As a believer, I want to win those ‘Nones’ back.”  Even though I identify as an Atheist and would certainly have to be numbered amongst the Nones I can sympathize with his point and I appreciate his honesty and sincerity. However, I can’t help but feel that he’s leading off from what I find to be inaccurate assumptions.
To begin with, the religiously unaffiliated should not necessarily be synonymous with “unbelievers.” As an unbeleieve myself I realize that I represent a minority within the Nones. Amongst the Religious “Nones” there has not been an overwhelming abandonment of theism. While this demographic has adamantly rejected religious identification, the clear majority have retained their belief in God. The largest group of nones (68 percent) say they believe in God or a universal spirit. Within that group, 30 percent of them are certain God exists and only 27 percent of nones say there is no God. Clearly, most of those that claim no religious affiliation have not ceased to believe.
Nor have the Nones ceased to believe in ethics and morality. They are drawn to activism and rally around the mobilization of social issues. They care deeply about equality, human rights, as well as social and economic justice. In many regards they have actively embodied “religious” ideals more thoroughly than most religionists. Perhaps here, Nietzsche was more right than we realize when he said that “Christian dogma was destroyed by Christian ethics.” Theologian Don Cupitt explains further that “Christian scrupulosity eventually forces people to admit that they can no longer believe Christian dogma.”
What is it the Nones don’t believe? It’s neither God nor ethics that is most adamantly being denied. They don’t believe in institutions, be they religious or non. They reject the concretizations of hierarchy and bureaucracy. But this is to be lauded. They have sought an autonomous authenticity outside the walls of formalized structures.
In Entertainment Theology, Barry Taylor highlights the that “this anti-institutional posture toward religion does not result in a rejection of the sacred[…] What is advanced instead is a new understanding of the relationship of the sacred and the profane, the spirit and the secular. The sacred and profane are blended into new configurations.” The old binary ways in which we have sought to order ‘reality’, society, experience, and the world can no longer suffice.
In a Big Think video technology futurist Daniel Burrus discusses what the occurrence of “linear change”, that is, change that is distinctly one way, unidirectional, as Burrus says, “Unlike cyclical change, when linear change hits we’re not going back.”
Once you got a smartphone, you’re not going back to a dumb phone. Once the people in China parked their bicycle and get a car, they’re not going to say, gee, lets get rid of the car and go back to the bike. Once people in India get refrigeration for their homes, they’re not going to say we don’t need refrigeration. Now these are one way – they’re not cycles – one-way linear changes that had profound…consequences.
While some of the Nones we may still feel a desire to “believe”, the simple fact remains that, because of the rapid exponential changes of technology, communications, globalization, social media, and the free flow and exchange of information and ideas, Nones are seeking to upgrade from the outmoded technology of the church and can no longer “believe” the way we once did.
Yet, if you look deeper I think you will see that they are reinventing belief, redesigning what it means to believe. Perhaps this is post-religious thought, whole news ways in which one can be “religious” are being innovated. In his article, “Critique of Religion and Religion as Critique: The Secularized Hope of Ernst Bloch, Gerard Raulet calls this “Dialectical Secularization.” Raulet writes that “Dialectical secularization does not abolish religion and its themes, but instead, inserts them into a dialectical secular practice where they retain their interpretative potentials.” He goes on to say that “Secularization, according to Bloch, is defined both as a break with and as the continuation of Biblical hope.”
In many regards, then, you could say that the church has not failed the Nones. The church has failed itself. It is has consistently failed to live up to its own designs, systems, and models. It is not because the church or religion has failed that the Nones became so. Rather religion and the church has failed to keep up with those who have become Nones. Religion has failed to make the strides that the Nones have made on their own.
In response to Fitzgerald’s article I must be clear, I did not choose to be religiously unaffiliated because you have failed me. You are not a failure because I am an Atheist and a None. You have failed me because you have seen my atheism and my religious disassociation as a failure.
 Paul Tillich drew upon such a distinction in his idea of the “latent church.”

In its prophetic role it is the Church which reveals demonic structures in society and undercuts their power by revealing them — even within the Church itself.. And in doing so the Church listens to prophetic voices outside itself, in judgment both on culture and on the Church in so far as it is a part of culture. Most such voices come from persons who are not active members of the manifest Church. But perhaps one could call them participants of a latent church[…] Sometimes this latent Church comes into the open. Then the manifest Church should recognize in these voices the spirit of what its own spirit should be and accept them even if they are most hostile to the Church.

This begs question what if the Nones are in fact the best example of the New Sincerity, what if the most authentic progression of religious scruples is religious disavowal?
What if instead of the church seeking to get Nones to join the church, the church sought to join the Nones? What if religion itself became religiously unaffiliated?

Protest of the “Nones”: Religious Disavowal as Social Critique

Due to the incredulous pace of my normative work-a-day life, between wife, kids, work, school, and all that comes with them, there is often an immense gap between the event in which an idea for a post is sparked and its actual construction. The negative of this is that sometimes the post verges upon being outdated before it is ever published, however, interestingly enough, what often occurs as a result of this delay is that the initial event and the originating idea begin to correlate and connect themselves to other unpublished thoughts and events that otherwise may have appeared to be unrelated. This writing is certainly one such example. With that in mind, I hope you will excuse the fact that portions of this writing are based on news stories that are now almost a month or so old. Yet, I hope you will alos still see the relevancy that they still maintain. Enjoy!

A few months back I was reading a fantastic book by Jenifer Michael Hecht called Doubt.In this work Hecht offers an in depth historical overview of the greatest doubters of the world throughout the ages. There were so many elucidating passages that years worth of blog posts could be composed of all the impacting snippets.
One such passage that was particularly striking came from a section of the book highlighting the work of Fredrick Douglas. Here Hecht quotes a portion of a speech Douglas gave in 1852 entitled “The Meaning of Fourth of July for the Negro.” Douglas states the following:
The church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors…. For my part, I would say, welcome infidelity! Welcome atheism! Welcome anything! in preference to the gospel, as preached by these Divines! They convert the very name of religion into an engine of tyranny and barbarous cruelty, and serve to confirm more infidels, in this age, than all the infidel writings of Thomas Paine, Voltaire, and Bolingbroke put together have done!
Douglass then goes goes on to say that the antislavery movement will cease to be an antichurch movement as soon as the churches join the antislavery movement. So far, he howls, “YOUR HANDS ARE FULL OF BLOOD.”
These words penned by Douglas are stirring to say the least and they have remained stored in the back of mind since I read them. Douglas’s critique gets to the very heart of the way in which many religions, and Christianity in particular have blatantly betrayed the tenets of its own tradition, favoring power, exploitation, and oppression over compassion, equality, and justice. In his own words this is precisely why the antislavery movement was also an antichurch movement, because the church had failed to stand on the side of the antislavery movement, choosing instead to remain complacently tucked into the deep pockets of the powerful. Though slavery has been abolished his words are no less cutting, no less poignant, and no less relevant. The church has continued to neglect its duty to serve those that are the refuse of a greedy capital driven society, choosing instead to continue its apathetic stance within the comfort and security of consumeristic civilization.
The prick of Douglas’s commentary became all the more clear when I came across a news article several weeks ago describing how activists from the Occupy London movement chained themselves to the pulpit in St. Paul’s cathedral. It seems that during a Sunday service on the anniversary of the forced dismantling of the Occupy encampment formerly located outside the cathedral, four women dressed in white entered St. Paul’s and chained themselves to the historic pulpit. Written upon a white umbrella held by one the protestors were the words “throw the money changers out of the temple.” Simultaneously similar signs and banners were held outside of the cathedral. Surely such measures would have pleased Douglas, as it seems to be a performative enactment of his brand of  protesting a/theology.

If this were not enough of a correlation, when the Occupy encampment was forcibly removed by legal means the protestors released a statement “accusing the cathedral authorities,” in Douglasian fashion, “of neglecting their Christian duty by siding with the rich and powerful.” The Occupy activists stated, “In the fight for economic justice, Jesus threw the money changers out of the temple, but you invited them and instead evicted us.” Rather than unite with those that could very well be they’re greatest allies the Church once again chose to align itself with the elite idols of the empire. In a centuries old occurrence of Stockholm Syndrome the church continues to hold the hand of its captors, embracing tyranny, inequality, injustice, and playing the part of a harlot, going to bed with capitalism.

Is it then any wonder that a group that is on its way to becoming the fastest growing, and the second largest, religious affiliations is a group that adamantly claims no religious affiliation. This demographic known as the religious “Nones” now account for one in five American adults. One article also points out that “Now, more than one-third of those ages 18 to 22 are religiously unaffiliated. These ‘younger millennials’ are replacing older generations who remained far more involved with religion throughout their lives.” These under-thirty individuals have no interest in identifying themselves religiously and no desire to “label themselves in any way when it comes to their faith or lack thereof.” They do not see themselves as being a part of any religion. While “Nones” are not necessarily antagonistic towards religion(many do in fact think that churches as well as religious and faith based communities can and do make positive contributions to society), the common consensus voiced by 70% of the “Nones”, however, is one that remains suspicious and distrustful of religious institutions, stating that they “believe…religious institutions are too focused on money, power, rules, and politics.”
In an interview in September of this year even former Catholic Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini himself stated that “Our culture has aged, our churches are big and empty and the church bureaucracy rises up, our rituals and our cassocks are pompous.” Martini went one to say that “The Church must admit its mistakes and begin a radical change.”
This seems to sharply coincide with Gallup poll findings which indicate that U.S. confidence in religion is at an all time low and that most Americans believe religion is losing clout. Its seems now that some 56% of Americans express having little to no confidence in religious institutions. Though this should come as no surprise, especially given the rapid and dramatic rise of the “Nones”, it seems remarkable when compared to the statistics of just seven years ago when 50% of Americans believed that the influence of religion was on the “upswing.” Yet, as one reviews the near five decade span of this question being posed, one will unavoidably see the indication of a distinct downward trend. This could be indicative of not only a further move into a post-Christian and post-ecclesiastical world but, potentially a movement towards a post-religious world.

Perhaps then, revisiting the critique of Fredrick Douglas, Occupiers, Activists, Millennials, Protestors, and “Nones” will all cease to be anti-church movements when the church becomes part of anti-capitalist, anti-hierarchical, anti-authoritarian, and anti-corporate movements, joining the fight against the social and economic inequality and injustice rather than supporting the systems and structures that perpetuate and uphold oppression and exploitation. I would venture so far as to say that those who oppose the church and other religious institutions will cease to do so when the church begins to oppose itself, dialectically negating its own structures and traditions and in essence becoming anti-church itself.