The Rose in Winter

Freddie deBoer is hosting an online book club for Umberto Eco's superb novel The Name of the Rose. He plans to begin December 7th.

Fear and Failures of Interpretation

In his post on Islamic terminology, Ned Resnikoff observed:
Whereas Talmudic scholars disagree with one another of the interpretation of their holy text, there’s vast disagreement within Islam about what constitutes the text itself. There’s a reason why you’ll never find a single volume or collection of volumes everyone can agree makes up the whole of Sharia.
Precisely. I’m less than a step away from total ignorance about Islam, having never read the Koran or any of its other major religious writings, but as a Roman Catholic, I’m familiar with this difference Ned notes between disagreements over interpretation and disagreements over what constitutes the text being interpreted. Christians are hardly foreign to both these sorts of disagreements. Catholics and Protestants disagree about biblical interpretation, of course, but we also differ in what books we say belong in the biblical canon. Catholics, furthermore, hold as sacred and divinely-inspired a number of texts outside the Bible, obviously in conflict with Protestant proponents of sola scriptura.

Even within the Catholic world, with its Canon Law, handy catechism, papal encyclicals and council documents, and with Catholics taught to interpret the development of doctrine using a hermeneutic of continuality, there remain and will always remain fundamental disagreements over theology, liturgy, religious symbolism, human nature, and the conceptions of good and evil.

I would like to think that Christians even semi-literate about their own divergent faith traditions would be inclined to recognize such fundamental diversity in the religions of others, and yet, at least in respect to Islam, this hasn’t proved to be the case. How long did it take for the words “Sunni” and “Shia” to enter the lexicon of amateur commentators opining on Islam or alleged experts amplifying their fears about the alleged threat of Muslims to this allegedly Christian nation?

I don’t have a worked out theory explaining this failure to see or acknowledge diversity in Islam, and my gut seems silent on the matter, but I have an ever-so-slight inkling that this failure is partially due to the religion, its practices and its people remaining largely unknown, deeply mysterious and somewhat frightening to us non-Muslims in the States, whose pre-9/11 exposure to Muslims generally expanded little beyond Hollywood characterizations and other caricatures. One mysterious unknown is easier to grapple with than multiple mysterious unknowns, especially when the unknown seems to threaten safety, social makeup, or core national identity. If fear causes us to see potential threats coming from every direction, we find comfort in conceptualizing what we fear in ways that makes our fears manageable.

In other, more technical words, fear has hermeneutic consequences—consequences for how we frame and interpret the world. The drive to escape our fears leads us to simplify what we interpret, and we simplify not only that which we fear, but ourselves as well. We conceptualize the world in clear-cut terms, assigning, for example, the adjectives “good” and “evil” neatly, simplistically and with absolute certainty. It’s us versus them. Against the perceived threats of Islam (or secularism or whatever), we insist on calling ourselves a Christian nation as if “Christian” had a singular meaning, as if Christians in the United States didn’t strongly disagree both about the meaning of the word and about who qualifies as a Christian.

To be clear, I’m not saying that fear is always what motivates people to assign labels simplistically or otherwise. Nor am I saying that the world presents us nothing worthy of fear. Undoubtedly there are terrors we should fear and that demand our fortitude: terrorists and other violent criminals, catastrophic changes to the environment, a resurgence of Rainbow Bright. Whatever the dangers, however, we cannot have a sane conception of the world when our understanding of it is framed and fueled by fear.

(Cross-posted as a guest post at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen)

A Pause to Listen: Schubert 8th Symphony

The remainder here.

The Impossibility of Common Ground

Over at the always enjoyable Bloggingheads, Sarah Posner of Religion Dispatches and Michael B. Dougherty of The American Conservative discuss and amiably debate the Pope's statement on condoms, the political leanings of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in America, Christians who worship America instead of God, the promotion of contraception as a solution to sexually transmitted diseases, and the possibility of common ground in the abortion debate.

On the last point, I find myself in agreement with Michael Dougherty that common ground just isn't possible, though for slightly different reasons than he gives. On the one hand, the pro-choice side wants the government to guarantee a legal right to an abortion.  It wants to make sure that the law isn't used to coerce a woman to maintain a pregnancy against her will. On the other hand, the pro-life side wants the the government to give the same legal protections to the unborn as it does to the rest of us.  It wants to make sure that the law protects nascent human life.  These two uses of the law are mutually exclusive.  The law cannot protect unborn human life without prohibiting abortion. It cannot guarantee a right to an abortion without denying legal protection to the unborn.  There's no place to call common ground.

At most, the two sides can reach a compromise.  The law can be used to protect unborn life and guarantee a right to an abortion, but each to only some extent.  This compromise, however, isn't common ground.  Both sides remain standing apart, usually far apart, and each contesting where the line should be drawn, if it should be drawn at all.

In Thanksgiving

Almighty and everliving God, we most heartily thank thee for that thou dost feed us, in these holy mysteries, with the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son our Savior Jesus Christ: and dost assure us thereby of thy favor and goodness towards us; and that we are very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy Son, the blessed company of all faithful people; and are also heirs, through hope, of thy everlasting kingdom. And we humbly beseech thee, O heavenly Father, so to assist us with thy grace, that we may continue in that holy fellowship, and do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost, be all honor and glory, world without end. Amen.

- From the Book of Divine Worship

An Awakening?

Yes, the new invasive inspection procedures brought to us by our friends at the TSA seem relatively insignificant and hardly something over which to make a fuss compared to the long train of abuses and usurpations, the tortured, the unjustly imprisoned, the displaced and the dead that our "War on Terror" has delivered.  Nevertheless, if it takes the routine examination and touching of our private parts to get the American public to care about civil liberties, I'm not going to complain just yet.  Those of us who would rather hold dear to our civil liberties than to a cuddly, comforting teddy bear named Safety (made in China) have been given an opportunity with these recent infringements, a basis on which to build a case that civil liberties matter, and that while threats to our security are very real, we risk losing ourselves in our fights and defenses against them.  What we're doing to ourselves now might serve as an awakening to the incalculable harm we've inflicted on others.  Personally, I'm much more comforted that Ann Coulter and I are on the same page of this TSA debate than that TSA agents are thoroughly examining passengers at our nation's airports.

Don’t Understand It; Just Call It Weird

While in Mexico, the aspiring patron saint of smugness PZ Myers made a pilgrimage to the Basilica of Guadalupe to witness what displays of religious ritual might tickle his theist-sensitive funny bone. The "horde dressed as Aztecs" that charged, chanted and danced among the pilgrims took him by surprise, but even this unexpected addition to the rituals he did expect didn't elicit any inkling of his wonder. Myers is a skilled writer, but what he witnessed here he can describe only as "weird" and "bizarre." Hardly penetrating adjectives, these.

Andrew Sullivan thwacks him on the forehead:
"Bizarre", "weird": the adjectives reflect Myers's projection, not the "fluid and flexible and complex" phenomena he also sees in front of him. You could, of course, inquire further into the resilient, mysterious and clearly powerful rituals he is witnessing. But that would require his admission that there is much human conduct here he doesn't understand - instead of the assertion that it is religion and that he therefore knows all he needs to know about it.

A Pause to Listen: Bach's "Little Fugue"

Bach's "Little Fugue" in G Minor:

Glorifying Enemy Casualties

Has the Medal of Honor been feminized because it hasn’t been awarded lately for killing the enemy? Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association answers in the affirmative, lamenting that the medal has, during our recent conflicts, been given only for saving lives, rather than for taking them. The heroism of inflicting casualties has become passé, he says.

Adding sacrilegious insult to verbal injury, Fischer uses the image of Jesus on the Cross to support his glorification of enemy casualties: “The significance of the cross is not just that Jesus laid down his life for us, but that he defeated the enemy of our souls in the process.” Yes, Jesus conquered sin and death and defeated the enemy on the cross, but Fischer’s use of this image of the Cross as a weapon fails. Fischer misses the theological significance of the defeat of evil achieved by Christ’s passion, death and resurrection. He achieved his victory through sacred and loving self-sacrifice and not by killing the bad guys or sending a legion of angels into battle. He offered his own life in love and humility. Christ conquers evil by lovingly suffering violence, not by inflicting it.

In contrast to Fischer soteriology of violence, I offer Sr. Elia Delio’s refection on the mystery of Christ from her book, The Humility of God:
The mystery of Christ and our human lives are intertwined. Because we humans complete the fullness of Christ by our participation in the Christ mystery, we are called to be co-creators of the universe, to “christify” the universe by our actions of love. We are, as we said before, “little words” of the Word of God. So when all the little words of creation (us humans) come to the truth of our identity in Christ, when we allow God’s image to shine forth in us, then the mystery of Christ grows because God becomes enfleshed in us—until eventually God becomes all in all. We are called to “put on Christ,” so that the God who bends low in love bends low not in the historical person of Jesus alone but in Jesus risen—the Christ—in you and me in whom Jesus lives. God is humbly present among us because God is intimately present in you and me.
H/T: Andrew Sullivan

Toys, Guilt and Adulthood

I well remember feeling both awkwardness and a little guilt as I entered my teenage years.  No, I wasn’t experimenting with drugs, booze, or other less than wholesome activities for a young adolescent.  It was the boxes of my Lego toys that elicited these emotions in me.  To be specific, it was the writing on the boxes that specified the toy’s age range.  If memory serves, most of them said the Lego set was appropriate for ages 8-12. Becoming a teenager meant that I was too old to play with the building blocks.  Constructing mighty castles, police stations, and interstellar space ships was suddenly, for me, inappropriate.

I was generally a good kid, as my parents will tell you, but the feelings of guilt didn’t prevent me from continuing my adventures in play past the indicated age range.  I don’t recall when, exactly, I set aside the Lego sets and devoted more of my time to more age appropriate toys like the Nintendo and Super Nintendo.  I remember having both a Commodore 64 and an Atari as well, but my time with these gaming systems was shared with my Lego constructions, M.A.S.K. vehicles, micro machines, transformers, Thundercats, SilverHawks and Star Wars action figures.  Anyhow, I do remember continuing to play with toys into my teenage years.

Now that I’m a thirtysomething dad (who also remembers his parents watching Thirtysomething) with a son entering the age at which Lego sets are on the horizon and action figures are already collected and enjoyed, I find myself sometimes eager to bring an imaginary world to life through the manipulation of moveable plastic.  Not only does the boy ask me to play with him, I ask him to play with me.  I have only occasionally continued to play with his Playmobil knights after he has left his room in search of a new activity, usually an effort to get his mom’s attention, but, if honestly should dictate my words, I am forced to admit that those occasions will become less occasional and more frequent, especially when we—I mean he, obtains more Lego sets.  Yet even now I have my favorite toys of his. I’ve given names and imagined back stories and playable plots for his figures.  I’m an adult, at least nominally speaking, and yet having a son has provided me with guilt-free opportunities to once again take up the toys in play.  I eagerly wait for the day when my youngest siblings, no longer possessive of their Lego creations, pass the blocks of a million possibilities on to me—I mean, my son. 

As an adult, I feel no guilt about this, and I wonder why I ever felt guilty for wanting to play.  Why do we frown on adults playing with toys—the non-naughty, Toys R Us sort, I mean?  Should I still be feeling guilt or awkwardness or some other emotion indicating social unacceptability for my willingly-met desires to re-enter “childhood” activities? 

In other news, my son woke up this morning upset after a bad dream in which we wouldn’t let him drive the car.  Maybe we’re just a backwards family.

Novels and Adulthood: A Quote

"There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs."

- John Rogers

(H/T: John Médaille)

Journeys in Facebook

Readers who use Facebook can now follow Journeys in Alterity on the Levinas-inspired social networking site. Click here to go to this site's official Facebook page and, once there, click on everyone's favorite concise term of affirmation: Like.   I've also added a link in the sidebar for easy access.  Hope to see you there!  And, as always, thank you for reading and contributing to the discussion!

No More Star Wars for That Boy

After being told what to do this morning, our four-year-old son chose to respond by channeling the assertive words of Han Solo:
"I take orders from just one person: me."
I wanted to retort with, "It's a wonder you're still alive," but a disciplinary measure, not available to the recently-rescued Princess Leia, seemed the more appropriate response.

Texas Lawmakers Considering Medicaid Withdrawal

Emily Ramshaw reports that some Republican lawmakers in Texas are considering withdrawal from the federal Medicaid program in response to the state's budget shortfall. As 3.6 million children, expectant mothers, people with disabilities and other Texans are enrolled in Medicaid and CHIP, this withdrawal would have a major impact on the lives of many people.

Budgeting is serious business, of course, and asking where the money will come from to pay for expansions of Medicaid is more than fair, but a change of this magnitude, one that could literally have consequences for people's lives, demands that those proposing the withdrawal offer a workable alternative for providing care for these millions of people.

Whatever its inefficiencies and weaknesses, Medicaid has done a tremendous amount of good. It enables expectant mothers, especially those who need extraordinary care to maintain a pregnancy, to get that prenatal care and those other necessary health serves. It also helps keep from bankruptcy those with and without insurance who are faced with six-figure bills for life-saving surgeries, therapies, and medical equipment. And, of course, it allows those who are uninsured and under-insured to get the care they need.

The program is not beyond critique, and perhaps there are alternatives that would prove more cost-effective and provide better care, but the Texas lawmakers proposing withdrawal from the program had better be sure that their alternative meets those needs now being met by Medicaid. They have a moral responsibility to do so.

Debate on the Nature of Atheism, Christianity, and the State

After a heated exchange in a comment thread, Joe Carter of First Things and Barrett Brown of The League of Ordinary Gentlemen agreed to debate the nature atheism, Christianity, and the relation of both to the State. Carter argues from the standpoint of Christianity, Brown from the position of atheism. Looks to be an interesting discussion, especially with the conversations that have erupted in the comboxes. The opening posts are here and here.

"Stories" by Genece Cupp

"Stories" by Genece Cupp - Oil on canvas - 2010

Voting is Complicated

Or Why I Dislike Voter Guides

When preparing to cast an informed and prudent vote, I, like most concerned citizens, study the stances each candidate takes on the vital issues of the day. I want to know where they stand, why they stand there, whether they’re swaying, and what direction they propose to step. I want to see that they’re standing tall, proud, like an actor auditioning for a role in Glee, and not uneasy, like the fans of the Texas Rangers. As some issues are more important than others, I also pull out my trusty scale and weigh the heaviness of each issue before making my decision. In short, I follow the basic path laid out by the typical voter guide.

The thing is…I really dislike voter guides, especially those that lay out simplistic criteria for morally correct voting. I avoid those guides that tell me how I must vote as a good citizen or as a good person or as a good whatever. These voter guides may be accurate as far as their assessments of the issues go, but if they direct me to make a choice based strictly on the issues, which most seem to do, then they fail to consider everything I should be considering when making an ethical decision.

When I vote, I’m usually voting for a candidate, a person, and not on the issues themselves. So while I want to know where candidate x stands on foreign and domestic policies and on all the issues therein, this knowledge by itself isn’t sufficient for me. I also want to know the strategies and tactics the candidate plans to take in addressing issues, whether the candidate is trustworthy with power, and whether he or she has the competence to effectively legislate, judge, or govern. And even if I find a quality candidate who has every desire to do the right thing, this dream public servant may face circumstances, such as an oppositional political party, that prevent him or her from fulfilling those desires.

Furthermore, a number of voter guides point out that a candidate’s position on negotiable matters such as the economy shouldn’t motivate my vote as much as his or her positions on a few (emphasis on few) non-negotiable issues. I get the thinking of this analysis, but it likewise fails as a sure guide. Let’s say I’m looking at two candidates for the U.S. Senate, one of whom lines up much better on the “non-negotiable” issues than the other, but who also has a preposterously poor economic philosophy that would ruin (further ruin?) the country if implemented. Now the issued-focused voter guide will tell me to support this candidate because he or she is right where being right counts the most. This seems sensible at first, and may work as a short term strategy, but if the candidate's economic views prove a disaster for the state of the union, then the candidate's victory may transition into long term loss for candidates of his or her stripe.

Social conservative opponents of President Obama often call him the most pro-abortion president of all time. They viewed his victory over McCain as a tragedy for the country, and they hope that tomorrow brings hope for the future. What allowed Obama to become president? Yes, he may have lost to McCain had more people voted with the designs and desires of social conservatives, but he also may have lost had the economy not tanked or had the Iraq War proved well-founded and more successful. It’s reasonable to conclude that events during Bush’s presidency that had nothing to do with abortion lead to the election of the strong abortion rights advocate Barack Obama. Moral of the story: where a candidate stands on some issues will have consequences for other, unrelated issues.

Prudent voting isn’t as simple as finding the candidate who is best on the issues I find most significant. I cannot simply weigh the gravity of the issues without also considering what each candidate desires to do about them, whether he or she has the ability to act on them effectively, whether the circumstances will allow the candidate’s will to be done, and what the long-term consequences of his or her overall plans are likely to be. When I vote, I vote for people of varying talent acting in a complex political arena. Voting strictly on the issues risks being an exercise in nominalism.