Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Faith or Good Works?

If you hold "right" beliefs, are you justified in doing "wrong" things?  I suppose that St. Paul or Martin Luther would judge the question to be nonsensical, since, for them, right belief must necessarily lead to right action.  But that is fallacious reasoning, isn't it? (I.e., since I think right, I necessarily "do" right:  I believe that Jesus is my savior, therefore I am justified in killing my neighbor, who does NOT believe as I do.)  Such a subjective, hermetic, tautological philosophical system allows the person doing the behaving to himself determine the criterion for "correct behavior."  Right you are if you think you are.

That's all very convenient for people who like to feel good about themselves and hate people who are different. Or who want to justify behavior that the "hated" people might consider unacceptable.  But isn't there some kind of external, objective criterion which ALL humans can accept as a valid measurement of moral conduct? A justification of our worth as human beings?

Since no one agrees about metaphysics, that objective criterion could scarcely be FAITH--i.e., the "holy" doctrines of any religion, the "holy" book of any established religion, the "holy" leader of any religion, .

Obviously, too, GOOD WORKS, at least as defined by any of our thousands of subjective legal systems and social contracts, could not provide an adequately universal guide for conduct.

So what objectively justifies me, explains me, guides me, makes me OK?

No, Paul and Martin, I'm quite sure that a "just man" cannot live by "faith alone."  I understand how rotten you both felt about yourselves and how this neat formula relieved you of your anxiety about not being sufficiently good.  But it's a lie at worst, self-deception at best.  I have no idea whether God somehow decided to sacrifice himself to himself in order to pay himself for the debt that he himself was charging you for the shortcomings he himself had identified. But, at the end of your lives, AS FAR AS OTHER HUMANS WERE CONCERNED, you were still exactly what you DID during your lives, regardless of what or who you believed in.  Paul, you were a crabby, arrogant, self-involved man whose obsession with "saving yourself" from your self-hatred resulted in the creation of a whole new mystery religion:  Christianity--and in the seductively anesthesizing doctrine of a man-god Christ who resembles Osiris more than he does the historical Jesus of Nazareth.  Martin, you were a crabby, arrogant, self-involved man whose obsession with "saving yourself" from your self-hatred resulted in the RE-creation of this facile Pauline Christianity--and in the perverse notion that anybody who "believed" in this Christ/Osiris was himself a "priest" and could just decide for himself what was right or wrong.

As much as I am drawn to the mystery cult of Christianity--and as fascinated as I am by mysticism in general-- I don't want to let the "faith folks" get away with such an unverifiable and thus irresponsible conflation of subjective feeling with objective truth. We are not defined by what we believe in or by the "self" that we imagine/wish ourselves to be:  we are what we DO.  And until we die, we can create our true "selves" by doing things. Death, however, fixes us forever, and we remain, in the judgment of this world at least, the sum of our acts.  (Any other subjective criterion--some "uber standard" that might prevail in some other world, some other unknowable plane of existence--in heaven or in hell or in limbo or in hades or in neverland--that "reality" is not, cannot be, evident--and therefore relevant--to ALL humans.)  So I cannot escape (nor do I want to) the conclusion that our WORKS matter more than our FAITH.  Works, at least, are verifiable.

In short, I am confident that, in spite of the book of Romans, in spite of St. Paul and Martin Luther (not to mention Mohammed, St. Augustine, Savanarola, Jim Jones and Peter Pan),  the truly "just" and justified shall live--not by faith, which is subjective, self-serving and self-validating--but rather by GOOD WORKS.

Alas, what still escapes me is any certitude about what constitutes GOOD works. I understand the importance of action.  Works, as I said, are verifiable and objective.  But GOOD action?  The Good?  The Good?  Shoot, philosophers have been yammering about that for millennia--and herein an element of relativism remains.  I'm tempted to yield to the Golden Rule--which seems pretty universal--but even that, in its reliance upon the elusive "as you would have others do unto you," is a rather slippery slope. If I were a praying man (and, occasionally, I still am), I would pray to God to "Show me the Good."

Do you think I'd have more luck if I asked him to Show me the Money?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

We Was Robbed

The Tea Partiers are, indeed, a mixed "bag," aren't they? They seem to feel that their country has been stolen from them, that Barack Obama and his criminal ilk have forced their way into America the Beautiful and pillaged, plundered and perverted all that was once so special about our country.

What, exactly, do the Tea Partiers want "back"?  Well, they don't all agree, of course, but from listening to talk radio and Fox "News," I conclude that most of these angry folks yearn for the restoration (at gun point if necessary) of a sort of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" world in which...

--all visible people (especially presidents) were white;  inferior races remained invisible and/or in the kitchen or barn where they belonged;
--all women were housewives, all men were wage-earners, all children mowed lawns;
--all good citizens were expected to attend a church, preferably of Baptist or Methodist denomination;
--milk was delivered in quart bottles to front doorsteps;
--Catholics knew their place and mumbled their Latin gibberish in private;
--Jews named Goldfarb changed their name to Blondcheveu and exchanged Christmas presents;
--Spring Break was called by its correct name:  Easter Vacation;
--all men belonged to one of three respectable organizations:  the Masons, the Knights of Columbus, the Ku Klux Klan;
--Negroes and other Coloreds were segregated from real Americans; poll taxes and literacy tests kept those of dubious ethnicity from perverting the electoral process;
--males who had sex with other males were arrested and incarcerated;
--lesbians did not exist--or if they did, they were dumpy elementary school teachers who wore sensible shoes;
--women could be secretaries but not executives or doctors or clergyMEN;
--slutty teenage girls who allowed themselves to get pregnant would just have to have the baby--giving it up for adoption, perhaps--but not to homosexuals or other sexual deviants;
--everyone could have as many guns as he/she wanted, concealed or unconcealed;
--all males had the obligatory privilege of serving for two years in the army, fighting for freedom against any country deemed to be an enemy by the (white) president;
--doctors would accept chickens as payment for treatment; there was no need for medical insurance;
--everybody lived in little towns with  a Main Street lined by businesses named Woolworth's or Duane's Grocery or Del's Diner;
--no Protestant clergymen drank alcohol; however, owing to the vagueness of both their theology and their character, Episcopalian priests were allowed sherry and claret--and Catholic priests, since they couldn't have sex, were patronizingly forgiven for hitting the bottle heavily;
--Catholic priests did not have sex;
--there was no global warming and you didn't need to worry about your carbon footprint;
--there was no welfare for lazy people; if you didn't have a job, you contacted the nearest church and its Ladies Aid sent you a basket of  windfall apples and canned Pork and Beans;
--you could burn leaves in your back yard if you felt like it;
--no nanny state would try to take away your inalienable right to smoke in bars and restaurants;
--you did not have to press (or dial) 1 for English;
--teachers didn't expect to make a living wage;
--children were encouraged to bully and ostracize other kids who were "different";
--young men became boy scouts, not drug dealers;
--all football players wore jock straps (known as athletic supporters);
--all women wore girdles and held up their stockings with garters;
--cheerleaders were the most popular girls in school, not athletes; they had jiggly boobs and dated football players who wore jockstraps;
--women's swimsuits had little "modesty panels" to hide the crotch (see photo above);
--The Girl Scouts of America had not yet become a lesbian conspiracy;
--the government and the FBI labored diligently to destroy the lives of anyone suspected of socialism and/or (if male) wearing a dress to a drag party attended by J. Edgar Hoover (also wearing a dress);
--husbands and wives slept in the same room, but always in separate beds;
--no one believed in atheism;
--no one visited France;
--no one wasted time on vacations;
--no one masturbated!

Well, this list is growing long, and I'm getting hungry.  I have some leftover casserole in the fridge, but I'm afraid the Tea Partiers wouldn't approve of its foreign, socialist ingredients. It's rigatoni topped with gruyère cheese. (Please don't tell.  I'm too old to survive either deportation or an internment camp.)

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Looney Tunes (Pensées from Facebook)

 People's willingness to believe a lie is directly proportional to the outrageousness of the claim. The more improbable it is, the more willing they are to believe.

Now about swimwear and human illogic: men have little to cover, so naturally, they swathe themselves in yards of gaudily patterned fabric. Women, on the other hand, have more to conceal, so just as inevitably, they strive to cover as little of it as possible with the absolute "bare" minimum of material. This defiance of nature is what humans call "fashion."

While we're celebrating our independence, it might not hurt to remember how much we owe Evil Olde England: language, law, political and economic systems--and, perhaps rather less fortunately, ... "culinary" conventions. God Bless America, by all means--but God Save the Queen, too.

Most people will vote for a politician who persuades them that the best solution to every problem is to spend no money, take no action and just let "nature take its course."

Youth: acquiring certainties; middle age: acquiring property; old age: letting go of both.

Why on earth would the dish run away with the SPOON?  If I were a dish, I'd have nothing to do with any kitchenware less well-endowed than a 12" saucier.

Pure democracy is mob rule. Everyone has to become a rhinoceros. No thanks. Let's keep both the 1st and the 14th Amendments.

Alphas=bold but devious liars; Betas=cautious liars; Gammas=fibbers; Deltas & Epsilons= believers. Not pretty is it?

History Channel says that there's an "underwater alien base" in the Bermuda Triangle. This is "history" in the same sense that Fox Channel is "news."

We're told that death and taxes are inevitable. So why are the Tea Partiers protesting only taxes? Shouldn't they be blaming big government for death also?

Conservatives are firm believers in nothing:  spend nothing, do nothing, know nothing.

So, lemme get this straight. The Mayas, who never figured out how to use either the wheel or the true arch, DID somehow figure out when the world was gonna end? Remind me again: what's the name of that bridge in New York that's for sale?

All insinuendo should be refudiated.

Who is the slutty televangelist with big pink hair? She keeps wailing "Jeesuss Jeesuss," Is she praying or has she just broken a nail?

The only way to be happy is to live in perpetual illusion--or stupidity--or denial. The world is flat; Blue Shield cares; Godot is coming.

What is so holy about "saving" money. If God had meant for us to keep our money in the bank, he would not have sent us those credit cards in the mail. Whee!

To brag that one is "severely" conservative is as amusingly redundant as to state that one has received a "hot" water heater as a "free" gift.

What? There are probably a billion billion earth-like planets??? Now that's humbling. Makes me a little less worried about Glenn Beck.

People who have involuntarily lost their reason are insane. People who have voluntarily lost their reason are Tea Party Republicans.

All of my petunias have died, and I'm too poor to replace them. Alas, I am, once again, "impetunious."

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Star-Spangled Church of America

"Excommunication":  an act of official censure severing an individual from a religious community and depriving him/her of the spiritual blessings of membership in such a body.

"Interdict":  an ecclesiastical penalty whereby the population of an entire country is suspended from membership in and denied the services of the established religion (essentially, excommunication of  a group rather than of individuals).

The "(No) Establishment Clause" of the First Amendment:  Congress shall make NO law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.  

I've just been re-reading an old favorite:  Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy.  Asimov is not a great writer--he's not interested in literary nuance--but he's a damned good story-teller.  And I enjoy his "psycho-historical" analysis of the seemingly inexorable forces underlying and propelling human evolution.

Early on in the Trilogy, Asimov's storyline involves the deliberate creation of a bogus religion whose priests are the only individuals having the power to produce and distribute atomic power on the four or five planets ruled by the Foundation. 

Thoroughly inculcated in this religion, the vast majority of the priest-technicians themselves believe unquestioningly in the Galactic Spirit, the Holy Food, the Space Demon, etc. They therefore accomplish their liturgical duties (maintaining atomic power plants) devoutly and meticulously, but without any deep understanding of the actual science involved. Only the high-ranking members of the Foundation--including the High Priest himself--are aware that the entire ecclesiastical edifice is nothing but an ingenious hoax, intended only to maintain control over the "faithful" inhabitants of the worlds dominated by the Foundation.

In the novel, this "government by religion" functions very well, for a very long time.  Indeed, at one point, in order to force rebellious Anacreon into complying with Foundation policy, the High Priest places the entire planet under interdict. And at the stroke of noon, all lights flicker off on the iniquitous planet.  Because, as Asimov drily notes, a religion grounded in physics (rather than metaphysics) actually works.

In 1208, Pope Innocent III--in a nasty mood about King John's refusal to appoint Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury--imposed a similar interdict on all of England.  Innocent, of course, did not actually control the power plants (or, should I say, the windmills) of England, but as the outcome of this confrontation proves, ACTUAL, physical power--in THIS WORLD-- is not necessary, provided control over human imagination about the NEXT WORLD is strong enough.  Thus, the king's barons and subjects, fearing that the loss of "holy food" would condemn them to hell in the afterlife, exerted enough pressure to oblige the sovereign himself to submit, albeit grudgingly, to the pope's will.

In European history, that episode may have been the high water mark for confrontations between religious and temporal powers. In any event, the religious authorities soon thereafter began to understand that conflict with civil authorities was really rather inefficiently messy and that their "spiritual" interests could generally be advanced more bountifully by ALLIANCE with their erstwhile adversaries.

How did this work? Simple.  By "Establishment" and "Establishment Clauses."  I.e., the CEOs and practitioners of a particular religion simply cajoled and fulminated to get a ruler to "establish" their doctrines as the official cult of the state.  This was relatively easy to do when the kings themselves took seriously a threat of excommunication (i.e., no holy food and hence no salvation).  Pope Gregory IX's famous confrontation with Emperor Frederick II is a good example of such religious intimidation.  And so, in the early days, the church may have been the senior partner in these establishment covenants.  But rapidly, the kings girded their loins--this was never a lovey-dovey alliance, after all--and then, the two "establishments" moved forward, expanding their mutual control over a) the physical (external) landscape of conquered lands and b) the psychological (internal) landscape of conquered peoples.

But to what end, you might ask?  It's clear why the temporal leaders wanted to extend their influence:  power means wealth and wealth means...well, more power--dominion, superiority, self-gratification.  Why, though, would the supposedly disinterested (nowadays we might say "non-profit") religious authorities seek to extend their influence?  The conventional answer, of course, is "to ensure salvation to those not yet saved:  'holy food' for more people." A verbal sop to the theoretical altruism of organized religion.

But I think that empirical evidence permits us to doubt that most religious establishments desired outcomes much more altruistic than those sought by their temporal brethren.  The churches, too, wanted land, wealth, dominion, superiority, self-gratification in the HERE AND NOW.  In short, they, too, wanted political power.

And so, conflicts sometimes arose between the two allies, since, in fact, they were BOTH after the same thing:  wealth, power, dominion (i.e., "profit").  And, very occasionally, such conflicts provoked an actual breakup of one alliance and its replacement with another:  we inevitably think of Henry VIII ("Defender of the Faith") and his new covenant with the conveniently-concocted Church of England.

But, in general, as the spiritual powers became less sincerely spiritual and ever more avid for real-world privilege and security, they grew increasingly willing to operate as the ostensible "junior" partners in the enterprise--always present, always pulling strings, but in the background--the eminences grises behind the throne--thereby ensuring that they still received a good chunk of the pie, but at a significantly lesser cost. Cool! The kings and princes had to pay for everything!  

And so, for centuries, "Christendom" was rent by wars that were essentially political in nature, but that were justified and sanctified by established religions.   The last of these--the Thirty Years' War--destroyed so many lives and devastated so much territory that, at its end, most of central Europe lay prostrate.

I suspect that it is the horror of that war, together with the inconclusive bloodletting of the English Civil War (again, a combination religious/political conflict), that led many Enlightenment thinkers to denounce ALL alliances (overt, covert, whatever) between political institutions and religious institutions.  Might such a revulsion have prompted Thomas Jefferson to ponder the advice of Voltaire to crush the "infamy" of established religion?

Unlike Glenn Beck, I cannot pretend to understand exactly what was in the minds of our Founding Fathers.  But one fact is very clear:  for whatever reason, the framers of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights DID decide to FORBID any alliance between religion and government! Obviously, they feared the possible consequences of a partnership between civil and religious authorities.

In theory, then, since the United States has no established religion, there is NO religious Grand Pooh-Bah who can dictate or share in temporal law-making.  No high-priest or pope or archbishop or ayatollah has the authority to declare our people, our president or our leaders "outlaws" and "unAmerican" by imposing some sort of excommunication or interdict. No one has the constitutional right to switch off our lights.

In theory.

In actual practice, though, I wonder.  I think there's dirty work afoot, and I'm going to try to get to the bottom of it.  That means scraping the very depths of the politico-religious barrel, of course--and it's there that we dredge up the icky remains of that rottenest of rotten apples, Richard Nixon.  

You've heard of him.  He's the self-declared non-crook who dreamed up the Republicans' "Southern Strategy" and managed, by incorporating both explicit and implicit racism into the Republican "ideology," to convert the majority of southern whites from Dixiecratism to Republicanism. Though Nixon's principal strategist, Kevin Phillips, might disagree with me, I'm persuaded that Tricky Dicky also realized that the Republican Party, in order to reinforce its dominion in the South, would have to ALLY itself with the fundamentalist, evangelical Christianity that so often justified such Bible-based racism (not to mention homophobia, antisemitism and anti-feminism).

Thus, Nixon--and his Republican successors--Ronald Reagan, certainly--but most notably, the two Bushes--by pandering to fundamentalists and by ALLYING the temporal power with the religious power of evangelical divines (e.g., Billy Graham)--these latter-day Defenders of the Faith managed to perpetrate an incredible boondoggle on the American people.  Devoutly distracting us with Sunday-School soporifics and patriotic sanctimoniousness, they simply circumvented the First Amendment's No-Establishment Clause.  They just ignored it!  And thereby, in effect, they established a state religion!!!!  The Star-Spangled Church of America!

Oh, I know that the actual wording the Constitution was not altered a tittle. I suppose that's the "beauty" of the scheme. But a constitution is what common consensus (and five judges) say it is. It is a society's "default setting." And alas, as I write this, I believe--I truly do--that thanks to the machinations of the Republicans' cynical strategists, the United States now has a de facto official religion:  fundamentalist, evangelical Christianity.  It's become our default setting, our ESTABLISHED church.

In a sense, then, contemporary Americans CAN be excommunicated (declared ungodly and hence unAmerican), even entire regions can be interdicted (e.g., wicked San Francisco) by the religious authorities and, accordingly, punished by the civil authorities for--well--impiety! Of course, the religious justification, like the Established Church itself, is de facto, shrewdly hidden beneath a veneer of insipid, star-spangled de jure language  

Evidence to support my claim is not lacking.  Gay couples usually can't get married--because the established religion forbids it (*in June 2015, the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in all states--but most southern states continue to impede full compliance); Muslims are told they can't build mosques where they wish--because the established religion forbids it; embryonic stem cells cannot be used for scientific research--because the established religion forbids it; Muslim immigrants are harassed and demeaned--because the established religion encourages it; the Pledge of Allegiance requires school children to acknowledge God--because the established religion demands it.  Oh, it's too depressing to go on.

I realize, of course, that the Church of America has not yet fully accomplished what appears to be its ultimate, albeit inchoate, goal:  the de jure overthrow of the First Amendment.  Holdouts exist, fortunately, and continue to give some hope to leftover Jeffersonians.  First-term abortion remains, tenuously, legal--despite the opposition of the C of A.  A few states obstinately allow same-sex marriage and/or forbid capital punishment--despite the opposition of the C of A. (*same-sex marriage is legal as of 2015, by Supreme Court decree, not legislation)

But WHY (in GOD'S NAME) have we ordinary, freedom-loving Americans tolerated this all-too-obvious sabotaging of the First Amendment?  Do we really wish to return to the "good" old days of the Crusades, the Muslim Conquests, the Spanish Reconquista, the Thirty Years' War, the English Civil War? Any decent historian will acknowledge that the alliance of religious authority with political authority has almost always been a means of restricting the authority and autonomy of individual human beings.  

For instance, what if some self-proclaimed High Priest of the Church of America works himself into a veritable old-testament snit about America's supposed abominations (the usual perversions plus, perhaps, gluttony and gambling) and proceeds to place the whole damned country under interdict?  

Will the lights go off in Las Vegas? 

Oh, it DOES seem far-fetched, doesn't it?  Perhaps it's time to stop worrying and be happy.  Tomorrow IS another day, after all.  And tonight, I could go and get myself supersized at MacDonald's.  

With holy food.