Living According to a Story: A Reflection on Faith

(Cross-posted at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen)

I was born to a Buddhist father and a somewhat lapsed Catholic mother, so you could say I had a divergent and confusing theological upbringing. Essentially I heard two different stories from my parents about the almighty and everlasting. One told me that Jesus was a significant but only human prophet; the other explained how God became man. The devil featured prominently in one narrative, at least to this boy’s active imagination, but he never made an explicit appearance in the other.

My parents divorced when I was four, and with their separation came two conflicting accounts of what had happened and why. I grew up hearing incompatible stories about the here and the hereafter, about the visible and the invisible. Being the audience of multiple stories that didn’t add up, I faced a crisis of belief, at least to the extent possible for a young boy: who and what did I believe? What was the truth and who spoke it?

I had trust issues growing up.

As fate or a California court would have it, I spent more of my time with my mom, and so it’s not surprising that she proved to have more influence on my religious upbringing. Besides, my dad wasn’t much for expressing his beliefs. He had a statue of Buddha and would answer my inquiries and curiosities, but he never, so far as I can remember, sought to raise me as a Buddhist. It wasn’t until I approached double digits that my mom got right with the Church and had me baptized and receiving Holy Communion.

Painting by Genece Cupp
I want to say I was in fifth grade, having recently moved from a suburb of Los Angeles to a suburb of Des Moines, that I began to take an active interest in my faith. A good friend who didn’t look favorably upon the Catholic Church would later help push me along. He was a bright kid from a non-denominational tradition, and he was the first to really pose challenges to what I believed. I don’t know if I debated him initially because I truly believed or because he was challenging something that was mine, but my eagerness to defend Catholicism fueled a new fire in my belly to learn and understand what it was I supposedly believed. And so throughout middle school and high school I pondered a lot about God, religion, the Bible, and the teachings of the Catholic Church. I read a fair amount of apologetics and a little bit of theology.

Not surprisingly, my choice for college was a small liberal arts school in Ohio well known in Catholic circles for its dynamic orthodoxy, ardent allegiance to the Magisterium, and unwavering devotion to the faith. It was (and is) a school to which pious Catholic parents feel safe sending their offspring. There was no danger of a theology professor proclaiming something contrary to official church teaching. The student body flocked to one of several offered daily Masses. Lines for confession were always long. While not every attending student felt the fire of the Holy Spirit coursing through his or her veins, the vast majority were enthusiastically and proudly Catholic. Sellers of religious-themed t-shirts loved us.

I studied English during my undergrad years, and while I took only two theology classes in all my time there, I remained persistently smitten with God and Holy Mother Church and in constant thought about both. In my senior year I took a few philosophy classes as electives and, having fallen madly in love with the ol’ flirt Lady Philosophy, made the decision to put off paying down student loan debt so as to pursue a graduate degree in philosophy. What can I say? The love of wisdom leads to unwise life choices.

You can rightly suppose that we read a lot from Catholic philosophers, but, to the school’s credit (or at least to the credit of a professor or two), we studied thinkers who I’d assumed were enemies of truth. I came in time to discover that people who didn’t conceptualize truth the way I did weren’t my intellectual adversaries. I took a keen interest in the thought of Jacques Derrida and Paul Ricoeur, two philosophers whose works have continued to fascinate and influence me over the past decade. I may owe more to them than to any specific Catholic philosopher for how I today understand the world. For better or for worse, their influence upon my thinking has reformed how I think about God and religion and how I live my faith.

Largely because of that ancient head-screw called philosophy, a new crisis of faith whirls like a storm in my unstill soul. While I still strive for faith, hope, and love, I’ve ceased grasping for certainty. While in my younger years I could have professed my belief in unequivocal terms, I can no longer speak of my faith as a sure thing. It’s not that I disbelieve, exactly. Rather, I’m not sure that what I think is my religious belief really is genuine, Vatican-stamped faith. I ask myself questions I cannot answer. Am I really responding to a God who reveals? Or am I rather (or also) engaged in group-think or the comforts of a shared mythology? Perhaps my faith is only an opiate. Perhaps it's my unconscious way of dealing with neurosis. At most, I hope that I have faith and that my faith teaches me to love as fully as one can. That is my hope as I walk in darkness, not really sure but with an inkling that I may have seen a great light.

My current crisis extends beyond my holding hands with uncertainty. While I’ve not given up on religion in general or Catholicism in particular, I have said farewell to a specific conception of God, namely God as explanation, and in so doing have joined hands with the atheists and agnostics, if not for the whole of life’s journey, at least for a section of the walk. To clarify, I continue to call God creator and savior, but for me God is not the solution to riddle or a formula. God’s not an answer to scientific inquiry or the end result of metaphysical speculation. God is wholly other than all these lines of human reasoning, all these constructions fashioned to explain the world. My need for God is not the need of a student seeking to explain a mathematical theorem, or the need of an ethicist looking for a basis for good behavior, or someone searching for the last piece to a grand puzzle. The divine isn’t the intellectual rope that ties the whole system together. God ain’t the Dude’s rug.

As atheist writers have noted, in the course of human history, many a supernatural explanation has been replaced by a natural explanation, but as of yet, no natural explanation has given way to a supernatural one. Given this trend, I find it unwise to hold on to God as an explanation, for sooner or later, what I use God to explain will likely be revealed to have a different basis. If I believe in God because God explains this, that, and the other thing, then I can be almost sure to have a belief that’s not long for this world. When science or philosophy answers this, that, and the other thing, what will be left of God? Nothing may be impossible for God, but a god used to explain the world may well, in the end, be reduced to nothing.

What is left of my faith when I have forsaken this idea of God? Having fled from the crumbling ruins of the unmoved mover and the uncaused cause, where do I go in search of the sacred? What conception of the divine lies ahead of me, having kicked the dust from my feet and departed the cities of certainty and supernatural explanation? In short, why do I still believe?

"Shadow of the Cross" by Genece Cupp
I continue to believe, to walk the paths of faith, because I believe a story and continue to choose to believe that story. More precisely, I believe in a grand sacred history that has been given embodiment in a plurality of diverse narratives, epistles, and other sacred writings. I interpret these writings in ways literal and figurative and in ways between. While I don’t look to the books of the New Testament for a historical transcript of the life of Christ, I cling to the hope that they reveal a Divine Person and give flesh and blood anew to impossible events, namely the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, and the Ascension. On the one hand, my choice to believe the truth of these writings—writings that don’t perfectly add up, to be sure—is a decision to believe that an underlying thematic truth speaks through incredible, fantastical tales told to me by mostly unknown strangers, and passed down to me by figures holy and insidious, self-giving and power-hungry, saintly and vicious. On the other hand, I find some of those who have told and retold these stories, particularly the early Christian martyrs, to be credible witnesses. Those who have given their lives for Christ did so not merely in defiance of their murders, but as an act of witness embraced in the hope that their enemies would become their brothers and sisters. That kind of love strikes me as the height of love. And it’s been known to work wonders.

What does my faith give me? It gives me a love story. Not a story that explains love, but a story that gives birth to—and directs my heart, mind, and very being to—the fullest expression and fulfillment of love. It is a story that means everything if it means anything at all. It is a story about what it means to be human and what it means to be divine, both of which tell of what it means to love. My religion tells a love story about a humble God who reveals and who gives humanity, through the sacraments and other gifts, the grace to respond in faith, hope, and most importantly love. In this sacred romance, faith and hope are not ends in themselves, or even eternal things, but the temporal means to an eternal end. That end is love. According to this story, there is no need for faith or hope in heaven, and so you will not find them there. What you will find, if there is anything after death to find or a paradise to find it, is love.

Am I, because of my faith, better at love than those with no faith? Difficult to say, but I’m going to guess the answer is “No.” Am I, because of my faith, better at love than I would be without my faith? Also difficult to say. I hope the answer is “Yes,” but then I cannot answer with certainty. At the end of the day, I walk in darkness like everyone else, and I hope that this sacred story, the story of my life, and the stories all around me in what I see and hear are all one in the same, even while they are many and different.

I willingly admit, however, that this story to which I harmonize my life may be a fiction, that my choice to follow Christ may be akin to fashioning my life after Aeneas, Portia, Luke Skywalker or Frodo Baggins. It’s possible that the silence I hear in prayer is not the silent Word, but the voiceless breath of oblivion. Or it may instead be the case that my faith is terribly weak, that I see but do not observe, have open ears but do not hear. Perhaps I’m asleep in the garden or living an endless flight from Jesus’ arrest. Perhaps I am, like Judas, betray him with a kiss and seeking to make amends all on my own. Perhaps I’m not seeking forgiveness at all, and am, like Captain Ahab, poised to strike the sun if it insults me. Hell, I may have chosen the wrong religion.

My faith doesn’t free me from these unsettling possibilities. It doesn’t whisk me away from the battlefield like a protective Aphrodite. Instead, it fills me with fear and trembling and places me in the hopeless situation of not knowing what I love when I love my God. Yet I would not choose to be anywhere else. I’ve no interest in certainty, gnosis, or other false comforts. Nor do I wish to close the book of faith and place it on the bookshelf, unread, ignored and unlived. I intend to live according to a story I love, to share it with those I love, and to allow it to guide my steps and convert my soul, even though I journey to who knows where. And I intend as well to incline an ear to the voice of alterity, to reasons and rhymes that might expose my faith to its undoing. As John Caputo would say, I intend to remain unhinged.

I'd Strike the Sun If It Insulted Me

Couch-ridden with a nursing newborn who likes to snack, my wife has started reading Moby-Dick, a novel I haven't read cover to cover for a decade, but one to which I, like I've come to believe that form is content, that the very structure of sentences carry an almost visual sort of information."  His thoughts are worth reading in full.

I was too immature a reader when I studied the work in college to appreciate Melville's genius, but even then I had an inkling that he was a writer of supreme skill and execution.  You won't find too many hellish hearts on par with Captain Ahab, who's final lines the writers of Star Trek inserted into the whispered curses of the wrathful Kahn: "From hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee."  Here's Ahab near the beginning of the novel, responding to a crewman's remark that his obsession with the whale seems blasphemous:
How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there's naught beyond. But 'tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who's over me? Truth hath no confines.
And I dare you to find me a more darkly funny opening paragraph than this:
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago - never mind how long precisely - having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off - then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

Typical Creeps

While at Kroger the other day, I witnessed an unsavory character whose voice could have been broadcast over the store's speakers it was so loud.  He kept hitting on the young employees, telling them how pretty they were and asking about their age: "How old are you, pretty girl."  One of the store managers stood near him, faking nice casual conversation, clearly perturbed but very professional.  What stuck me most about the scene wasn't the likely drunk, socially-uninhibited customer; it was the nonchalance with which the female employees responded to the guy, even after he left the premises.  I'd have thought they'd at least have commented among themselves about the situation, but instead they carried on with their business as if nothing unusual had transpired, making me think that such encounters with the creepy among us are for them pretty typical and routine. 

Making Nonsense of Hell

Amanda Marcotte, who’s never met an opposing argument she couldn’t caricature, approaches Ross Douthat’s case for the existence of Hell without showing the slightest desire to understand what he’s saying, opting instead to interpret his arguments and analogies in terms of her misguided beliefs about what makes us theists tick and her dismissive view of all-things-not-her-worldview.

Not content to call Douthat wrong or the idea of Hell nonsense, she has instead fashioned a world in which Douthat is a fanatic, morally childish “religious authoritarian,” who, by publicly pondering Hell, has “revealed himself to be a foot-stomping toddler with sadistic control issues, as opposed to someone with a mind sharp enough to deserve a well-paid column at one of the world's largest newspapers.”

Hell is easy to dismiss as stupidity for Marcotte because, as she declares, “it is true that a god who would allow people to go to hell is evil, full stop. You cannot believe god is good and would allow a hell.” Full stop, now! No consideration of thousands of years of argumentation concluding the opposite. That a well-paid columnist at one of the world’s largest newspapers taps into a long intellectual tradition is just one more revelation (the good kind) that he’s a sadistic toddler. Why? Because Amanda Marcotte, scourge of authoritarianism everywhere, authoritatively says so.

Marcotte continues her creative interpretation in the framing of his arguments. She absurdly assumes that Douthat believes in Hell as a place for people unlike him, but also as a fantastical idea people like him use to control others. And where Douthat sees the possibility of enslavement to glands, genes, and sin, Marcotte sees only an obsession with sex and preventing people from experiencing unauthorized orgasms.

A question for Marcotte: if Hell is an invention of religious authoritarians fashioned to control the masses, why does the chief international rival of Wolfram & Hart, that exemplar of religious authoritarianism called the Roman Catholic Church, not bother naming the names of Hell’s denizens? Sure history has no short supply of public champions of unauthorized sex, and yet to this day the Catholic Church presumes that no particular human person resides in eternal torment. It names saints, yet fails to name the unsaved. Perhaps there’s more to this Hell business than meets the eye of the panda?

If Vizzini Witnessed the Resurrection

He'd have no doubt exclaimed, "He didn't die? Inconceivable!"

Blessed Easter!

A Bloodthirsty Deity?

Mindful of the repulsion critics of Christianity feel towards doctrines of blood sacrifice and atonement, my fellow troublemaker at Vox Nova Brett Salkeld elaborates on the meaning of Good Friday and the sacrificing of Christ:
There is indeed a bloodthirsty deity. And our critics are right that such a deity is not worthy of worship, though that doesn’t stop them or us from paying him homage and sacrificing on his altar to this day. That deity is us.

The crucifixion of Jesus is the final condemnation of man. We who slaughter the innocent because they are “inconvenient” to us killed God’s own Son. Our sin was indeed condemned on the cross, not because God condemned Jesus, but because we did. In condemning Jesus, we condemn ourselves. That is why his death, as essential as it was in God’s plan of salvation, was not enough to save us. If Jesus had merely died on the Cross and not risen, Good Friday would be Black Friday. The gavel would have fallen once and for all, the verdict on humanity final.

Good Friday is only good because it is not the end of the story. Before we could be forgiven we needed to be exposed. Think of Jesus with the woman at the well. He read her like a book. Or the woman caught in adultery, brought out to be publicly shamed. Sin, before it can be forgiven, must be acknowledged; but because we run from the light, the light must search us out. Christ came to us to shine light on our most shameful practices so that we might be healed.

Thou Shalt Not Perform Rituals


That’s a lesson Alex Knapp gleans from several passages of the Bible, namely Jesus’ exhortation to pray in private and in secret (Matthew 6:5-8), his proclamation that the forgiveness of your sins depends on your forgiveness of the sins of others, and his commandment to love and be known by love (John 13:34-35). He’s half right.

Knapp writes: “I consider this concept — Christ’s condemnation of ritual in favor of love; his condemnation of identifying yourself as righteous — to be the central message of the New Testament.” Putting aside whether this condemnation is the New Testament’s central message, it is a mistake to oppose ritual to love. There’s perhaps nothing more antithetical to the Gospels than self-righteousness, but rituals don’t have to be displays of self-righteousness. Ritual can and often does express more about the practitioner’s self-imagining than about his or her deity, but ritual can also be a way of expressing love for others and for the absolute other that has nothing to do with a “Look at me!” disposition.

Reading and reflecting on the scriptures constitutes of ritual—and even a liturgy. The first half of the Roman Catholic Mass is the Liturgy of the Word, a ritual hearing the Word of God that needn’t have the slightest shred of self-righteousness in its practice. The other half of the Mass is the Liturgy of the Eucharist, a liturgy that originated, at least textually, with the scriptural command “Do this in memory of me,” a call to ritual if there ever was one.

Rather than oppose ritual to love, it makes more sense to contrast self-righteous ritual with self-giving (loving) ritual. Focusing the lens of condemnation on self-righteousness, rather than on ritual, in no way removes the subversive character of the biblical idea. It still subverts the history of Christendom, the self-righteous-imbued perversion of genuine Christianity that has been, regrettably, much more prevalent and visible than the real thing.

Public Funding: A Proposal

My proposal pertains to how we use language. Typically, when we speak of money from taxes appropriated for programs or organizations, we say that the government funds these programs or organizations. This way of speaking, of attributing to the government the act of funding, expresses that view of government as something separate from the people that I’ve lately criticized. To say, for example, that the government funds health care suggests that it is not we the people who fund it, but rather an entity “over there” that pays the bills.

I therefore propose that instead of speaking of government funding, we speak of public funding or funding by the people. After all, it is the taxpayer who covers the costs. The advantage of this diction is its implicit acknowledgment that government is a means by which we the people can respond to our social obligations; it is not meant to be something other than ourselves, unconnected and unaccountable to us. That government can become something separate from the people cannot be doubted, but this transformative separation I deem a perversion and an irresponsible divorce. To mend the union, it pays to convey the unity in discourse.

Mounier’s Personalist Socialism

Francis Kissing the Leper by Genece Cupp

The conception of government as an institutional force presents a key challenge to my theory of the State as a means by which the people of a society respond to the obligations of justice to which they are called to meet together as a social body. When the State acts, it acts by force. It compels. The Affordable Care Act, for example, requires people to obtain health coverage by enforcing a penalty on those who refuse or neglect to do so. Because the State operates as a compelling force, it acts as a power of some people over others, and in so doing, it becomes something separate from and other than the people. The State, therefore, cannot be reduced to an extension of the people, as I would ideally like.

Is my theory therefore ruined? Does it face the indubitable doom of so many past political theories? How can I account for this idea of government as force within my political philosophy? To give answers these questions—inconclusive answers, I admit up front—I wish to take a detour through the political and economic theories of the French philosopher Emmanuel Mounier as expressed in his seminal work Personalism, for he deals with this question when advocating for a kind of democratic socialism.

The initial aim of Mounier’s personalism, according to Paul Ricoeur, is a vision of civilization. It is a task of civilizing, a “pedagogy concerning communal life linked to an awakening of the person.” This personalist task shaped Mounier’s economic and political visions. He objected to both Marxism and capitalism and to both anarchism and state monopoly.

In the economic sphere, Mounier called not for a new fully-fledged regime, but for the extension and development of the embryo of socialism that emerges from the economic evolution of capitalism. He defined socialism as the following: “The abolition of the proletarian condition; the supersession of the anarchic economy of profit by an economy directed to the fulfillment of the totality of personal needs; the socialization, without state monopoly, of those sectors of industry which otherwise foster economic chaos; the development of co-operative life; the rehabilitation of labor; the promotion, in rejection of all paternalist compromises, of the worker to full personality; the priority of labour over capital; the abolition of class distinctions founded upon the division of labour or of wealth; the priority of personal responsibility over the anonymous organization.”

Mounier cautioned that socialism can fall asleep, lose its way, or become perverted by bureaucratic, technocratic, or police systems. Socialism, he thought, needs a constant, rigorous, and democratic process of rethinking and reformation. He looked to the workers and peasants and the enlightened portions of the bourgeoisie for socialism’s attainment.

While he rejected an overly-powerful State, he nonetheless conceived an idea of the State in keeping with his personalist socialism. According to Mounier, the State is neither the nation nor a condition that must be fulfilled so that the nation can come to be. He sought the good of the person, not the good of the state, or, as he wrote, “the State is meant for man, not man for the State.” The State, he said, is “that which gives objectivity, strength and concentration, to human rights.” “It is the institutional guarantee of the person.”

With his conception of the State, Mounier faced the same difficulty I do: how to account for government as institutional force: “the crucial problem for personalism is that of the legitimacy of power wielded by man over man, which seems to be incompatible with the interpersonal relation.” For Mounier, the necessity and inevitability of this power do not endow it with authority. One can only found that authority on the “final destiny of the person.” It is an authority that arises from respect for the person as person, respect for the authentic sovereignty that lies in human rights, or what I would call the obligations of justice. “Rights, which constitute the middle term between freedom and organization, maintain the sphere of action in which it is possible for the collective drama to proceed, between individual liberties and the progressive personalization of powers.”

Following Mounier, I propose the following: what gives legitimacy to government as force (which we should distinguish from violence) is neither the will of the people nor the power of the State itself, but rather the common good of persons within society. To remain an extension of the people and a legitimate means of their fulfilling their social obligations, the State must remain not merely a reflection of popular will, which may itself be tyrannical, but also “the institutional guarantee of the person.”

Furthermore, according to Mounier, the people subject to the force of the State need to be protected against its abuses of power through measures including “public and statutory recognition of the person and constitutional limitation of the powers of the State; a balance between central and local authorities; the established right of appeal by a citizen against the State; habeas corpus; limitation of the powers of the police, and the independence of the judicial authority.” The people likewise need to have the power to put “direct pressure upon the government—in meetings of protest, disturbances, seditious groups and associations, strikes, boycotts and, in the extreme case, in national insurrection.” Continued Mounier: “The State, itself born in strife but forgetful of its origins, usually regards such acts of pressure as illegal; they are nevertheless profoundly legitimate if a State is condoning injustice or oppression.”

For Mounier, then, and for me, the State cannot have a monopoly on the use of legitimate force. It must bow to the demands of justice, both those uttered from above and those shouted from below. It loses its legitimacy when it acts against the person.

Applying this reasoning to my own thinking on the State, I would say that, in order for the State’s use of force to be legitimate, it must be a force that ultimately arises from the people themselves and is ordered towards justice. Furthermore, the people, as they act through the force of the State, can wield this force legitimately only if they themselves are ordered toward the fullness of personhood. Their authority to use force (government) comes not from themselves nor from the government they constitute, but from the demands of justice and the final destiny of the person—the person as fully a person. The people themselves need power, but their power, like the power of the State, needs carefully defined limits and a defined destination.

A new challenge meets me here: our society, pluralist and postmodern, does not share a common conception of justice or personhood, so how can the people of our society order themselves toward a commonly held conception? This new problem calls for more thorough treatment than I will give here, but permit me to say in passing that a State that arises from a pluralistic society will not be a permanent institution, but rather one that is temporal, malleable, and de-constructible. Perhaps, though, that is how the State should be.

Mark Helprin Anecdotes

This biographical article is a few years old, but it covers some amusing and fascinating tidbits about the life and personality of literary marvel Mark Helprin.  Can't say I'm wild about the author's ideas about policy, though admittedly he makes me think and rethink my own political opinions and assumptions, but by the Muses can he tell a story.  I can't recommend A Soldier of the Great War or Memoir From Antproof Case enough.  He seems to have lived as strange and varied a life as some of his protagonists.  From the article:
For starters, he has lived in 45 places and six countries. (In A Dove of the East, the author “moves from character to character and from culture to culture,” wrote John Gardner, “as if he’d been born and raised everywhere.”) Now Helprin plans to stay in Virginia. “Another move would kill me,” he says; obsessive-compulsives do not take moving house lightly.

Consider the following collection of snapshots from Helprin’s unwritten memoirs. His godfather was the celebrated photographer Robert Capa; Helprin served briefly in the British Merchant Navy and the Israeli army and air force; he can voluntarily raise or lower his pulse, he says, by 20 beats per minute; he met Malcolm X twice, and Martin Luther King Jr. once—the latter at Christmastime, alongside an enormous bowl of shrimp (“We talked about shrimp,” Helprin says). In Copenhagen, a violent, screaming Judy Garland occupied the adjoining hotel room; in Montreux, his balcony was next to that of a gentlemanly Vladimir Nabokov. In 1987, Helprin was in Los Angeles to sign a motion-picture deal for Winter’s Tale with Columbia Pictures president David Puttnam. He let Jane Fonda go in before him and lost the deal because Puttnam was fired just as Fonda left the office. (Helprin has small esteem for the Hollywood business model, which he calls “equal parts wild animal, tyrant, agitated psychotic, and the kind of snake that is rumored to enter the house through the toilet.”) He saw the Queen Mother process down a seedy back street in Ossining; in 1973 he warned, through channels, of the impending war against Israel, but Moshe Dayan wasn’t listening to an enlisted man. He disarmed a huge, drunken, knife-wielding lout on the New York City subway. His languages include Latin, French, Italian, Hebrew, Arabic, and German. Helprin’s hero is Winston Churchill, and in 2001, when he and family traveled to London, within 15 minutes of arriving in South Kensington they found themselves waiting to cross a street alongside Winston S. Churchill III, the hero’s grandson and namesake. Helprin used to do dangerous things, like mountain climbing, parachute jumping, and running along the tops of moving freight trains. He once ran a double marathon of more than 50 miles. In addition, “He attracts madmen,” says his wife, Lisa. “If we were separated while shopping and there was a commotion somewhere in the store, it always involved Mark. Horses will rear up when they see him.”
Hat Tip: Stephen Hollingshead

Remembering Deacon Daniel

The morning my wife and I went into labor and delivery at the hospital, I received news that my friend Daniel Covarrubias, a deacon assigned to my parish, had gone into a coma.  He had for some time been battling cancer, and there was much hope for recovery, but unexpected complications from a recent procedure had suddenly ushered in new fears.  That same day, a few hours after my daughter was born, Daniel passed away.

My thoughts have turned a lot to Deacon Daniel these past few days, particularly to the passion with which he read from the Sacred Scriptures.  On this Palm Sunday, I can well image Daniel entering Jerusalem with Jesus, yet also staying awake in the garden and remaining with his Lord when most of his followers have fled following his arrest.  Daniel was a true witness to the Gospels.

You are missed Daniel, and my heart goes out to your family.  Pray for us.

Why John Cole Will Never Read This Blog

Whenever he reads the word "hermeneutics," his eyes glaze over.  Poor guy. 

Should Government Ever Provide Social Services?

Over the past few days I’ve been engaged in a cordial debate with a stranger on the thread of a link a friend posted on Facebook. Our topics of discussion have centered on the purpose of government with respect to social services. We both agree that our differences of opinion boil down to a difference in how we understand the nature of government. My sparring partner speaks of government as something other than the people of the country, as an entity separate from them, and as an institution inherently ineffective and inefficient. While I grant him that government can become something separate from the governed, an authoritarian or totalitarian system, for example, I don't see government as necessarily that way. Rather, I look upon government, when structured and done well, as an extension of the people, a means by which we —and not merely "someone else"—can respond to our social obligations—the obligations of justice to which we are all called to respond together as a social body.

In other words, in my view, government doesn't have to be a substitute for people's justice and charity; it can be a means by which we practice those virtues. Government has to be free, open and accountable for this to work; and its power has to be defined and limited, of course, but I don't buy the narrative that government can't do social justice well. Nor do I buy the narrative that it is inherently ineffective and inefficient. It can be, but it doesn't have to be. Yes, it suffers from its necessary bureaucracy, but any institution has its bureaucracy and the accompanying evils. Look no further than the Catholic Church for those. On the occasions I've had to work with government agencies, I've found them to be helpful, professional, and more than satisfactory.

It came out in our discussion that the two of us both profess the Catholic faith, and upon learning this shared tradition, I turned to the Catholic understanding of government as outlined in papal encyclicals and the catechism. I specifically wished to address whether or not the Church sees a legitimate role for the State to provide social services because this was a point of contestation between us. I had posed a hypothetical: “Suppose a newly pregnant woman discovers that she needs extraordinary prenatal care in order to maintain a pregnancy, but she cannot afford this care, and friends, family, and her local church, while able to help some, still cannot cover all the necessary costs to keep her baby alive; does government have a role and/or responsibility to help her with the healthcare costs so that her baby is able to survive?” My debate opponent had answered, “Simply, no, it does not,” and explained that it was our responsibility and responsibility of the doctor, and not the responsibility or role of the government, to step in and save the baby’s life.

What is the Catholic thinking on this question? The catechism states: “Economic activity, especially the activity of a market economy, cannot be conducted in an institutional, juridical, or political vacuum.... On the contrary, it presupposes sure guarantees of individual freedom and private property, as well as a stable currency and efficient public services. Hence the principal task of the state is to guarantee this security, so that those who work and produce can enjoy the fruits of their labors and thus feel encouraged to work efficiently and honestly. . . . Another task of the state is that of overseeing and directing the exercise of human rights in the economic sector. However, primary responsibility in this area belongs not to the state but to individuals and to the various groups and associations which make up society."

What are these human rights in the economic sector for which the state has, if not primary responsibility, as least some responsibility? Pope John XXIII listed some in his encyclical Pacem in Terris: "Man has the right to live. He has the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services."

The catechism, interestingly enough, promotes the redistribution of wealth that’s necessary for the government to respond to these rights in the section covering the Seventh Commandment: "Political authority has the right and duty to regulate the legitimate exercise of the right to ownership for the sake of the common good." Why? Because "the right to private property, acquired or received in a just way, does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind. The universal destination of goods remains primordial, even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise."

I should note that quoting the catechism, encyclicals, or other authoritative church documents doesn’t end the discussion for Catholics or others. After all, church teaching develops and even changes, and not everything is says it says with the same level of magisterial authority. And all of its teachings, from the most fallible to the infallible, should stand the test of reason. That being said, to hold absolutely that government has no legitimacy to ever provide social services is to hold a position contrary to Catholic teaching. It is also, in my opinion, a position opposed to reason and prudent judgment.

Ebert Shrugged

I feel like my arm is all warmed up and I don’t have a game to pitch. I was primed to review "Atlas Shrugged." I figured it might provide a parable of Ayn Rand’s philosophy that I could discuss. For me, that philosophy reduces itself to: "I’m on board; pull up the lifeline."

- Roger Ebert, reviewing the new Atlas Shrugged movie
Awesomeness.

A Challenge to the Left

Writing at Balloon Juice, Freddie deBoer challenges a form a liberalism that focuses on social safety nets at the expense of the empowerment of workers and the poor. “The idea” says Freddie, “is that, if you get the economy going well enough, you can redistribute enough money to the poor that they’ll be alright, even while you’ve undermined their ability to collectively bargain, raise the value of their labor, and exercise power.” He doesn’t think this idea works, in part because establishing a long-term welfare state isn’t politically feasible in our political culture, and also because it results in an obscene dependency. He writes:
Even if you could guarantee a certain minimal welfare state, the idea of poor and working people depending on the largesse of the rich and powerful is obscene. Sometimes, people have to live under the charity of others. But nobody wants to in perpetuity, because they then are not in control of their own lives, and because having to do so leaves many feeling robbed of personal dignity. As long as economic security is a gift of those at the top, it can be taken away. And if the last several decades have shown us anything, it’s that for the richest, what they already have will never be enough. No matter how income inequality spirals out of control, no matter how absurd the gap between those on top and everybody else grows, they’ll look to take more. And the more that you make the people on the bottom dependent on charity, the less they’re able to protect their own interests.

Forgive the Marxian cant, but politics is about the competition for power, and economics the competition for scarce resources. Democracy doesn’t presume some cordial relationship between people of different social classes and levels of power; it sets them against each other in balance so that no group captures the process. Giving up all checks on the moneyed classes won’t satisfy them. It will only ensure that there is nothing to stop them when they decide to take more.
I particularly liked this bit: “If the left is not fundamentally in the business of empowering workers and the poor, as well as improving the material condition of their lives, it not only has no business calling itself the left; it has no business, at all. It might as well close up shop.” Freddie’s answer to the charge that the welfare state can result in dependency isn’t to deny the charge or to abandon redistributive programs and systems, but rather to see to the empowerment of the poor and the oppressed so that they can exercise self-determination, share the means of production, and have power over their livelihood. He’s calling for something much more radical than permanent well-funded social safety nets.

As a postscript, I note that Freddie’s vision of liberalism is pretty consistent with Catholic Social Teaching, which shouts to the heavens in support of both the universal destination of goods and the dignity of the worker. It proclaims both that “political authority has the right and duty to regulate the legitimate exercise of the right to ownership for the sake of the common good” (redistribution of wealth!) and that “everyone has the right of economic initiative; everyone should make legitimate use of his talents to contribute to the abundance that will benefit all and to harvest the just fruits of his labor.”

Banning School Lunches

A Chicago school doesn't allow students to bring lunches from home, and unless a student has food allergies or a medical excuse, he or she has to eat the meal served by the school's cafeteria.  I'm sympathetic to the motivation behind this policy, but it serves up more than my digestive track can handle.  What people eat affects their behavior and development, and so schools have good reason to be concerned with what students ingest and imbibe.  As a former teacher, I can testify to the difference in behavior that food dye and other junk make.  Rather than ban homemade or other lunches brought to school, though, I might, we're I a principal, consider banning particular "edible food-like substances" such as food dye and high fructose corn syrup if a campaign to educate parents about healthy eating habits didn't adequately do the job.  Schools shouldn't take away parental responsibility, but they have their own responsibility to maintain a healthy environment conducive to learning, and that responsibility includes a say in what students eat.

From the Annals of Adorableness

There's nothing quite as sweet as holding your sleeping infant daughter, watching her open her loving eyes and look at you attentively, and then smiling as she closes her little tired eyes and returns to delicate slumber, confident and comfortable in your gentle embrace.  Minutely less adorable is seeing her stretch, groan, pucker her lips and poop.  The miracle of infancy: even a bowel movement is just neat.

Here's the little lady with her mommy, photographed by our friend of Bella Mia Portraits:

Compensations for Lost Lives

Peter Singer compares the compensation paid by the U.S. and British governments to the Afghan families after the accidental killing of a family member with the compensation given to families of 9/11 victims and the amount paid by the National Health Service to extend the life of a British citizen. He finds finds that latter far outweigh the former, even taking into consideration the real value of the compensation for those to whom it is given. Singer concludes that the U.S. and British governments value American and British lives more than the lives of Afghans.

He may be right, but his comparison doesn't really work. Even if we assume the valuation of life by America and Britain has a monetary correspondence, Singer isn't comparing the same people making the same calculation of value. The people deciding how much to compensate the families of killed Afghans may not have the same budget total or authority as those making financial decisions regarding healthcare in Britain or the families of those murdered on September 11th.

Still, the fact remains that there is a big difference between the compensations, and Singer is right to call for "equal treatment" through an increase in the compensation given to the people of Afghanistan. They are owed nothing less, and truly a great deal more.

Can You Have a University without a Philosophy Department?


Short answer: no. Philosophy professor and chair of his department Todd Edwin Jones responds to news of his department's impending elimination with a fine defense of his profession.  He also argues that Americans can, in fact, afford to have their universities offer philosophy classes, if they're willing to pay more in taxes.  A sample:
Philosophy has prompted confusion and anger ever since Socrates, one of the first practitioners of the discipline, was sentenced to death in 399 B.C.E. for “corrupting the youth.” Puzzlement over why people study philosophy has only grown since Socrates’ era. It is not surprising that in hard economic times, when young people are figuring out how best to prepare themselves for the world, many state college administrators and the taxpayers they serve believe that offering classes in philosophy is a luxury they can’t afford.

Yet people think of philosophy as a luxury only if they don’t really understand what philosophy departments do. I teach one of the core areas of philosophy, epistemology: what knowledge is and how we obtain it. People from all walks of life—physicists, physicians, detectives, politicians—can only come to good conclusions on the basis of thoroughly examining the appropriate evidence. And the whole idea of what constitutes good evidence and how certain kinds of evidence can and can’t justify certain conclusions is a central part of what philosophers study. Philosophers look at what can and can’t be inferred from prior claims. They examine what makes analogies strong or weak, the conditions under which we should and shouldn’t defer to experts, and what kinds of things (e.g., inflammatory rhetoric, wishful thinking, inadequate sample size) lead us to reason poorly.

This is not to say that doctors, district attorneys, or drain manufactures cannot make decent assessments without ever taking a philosophy class. It’s also possible for someone to diagnose a case of measles without having gone to medical school. The point is that people will tend to do better if, as part of their education, they’ve studied some philosophy.
I would go further than Jones' utilitarian argument. You simply cannot have a university without the study of philosophy because the very idea of a university, implicit in the word "universitas," necessitates institutional study of the universal.  A university with no offering of philosophy is only nominally a university, a school which doesn't deserve the name.  It may be an institution of higher learning, and a beneficial place to study, but it's not a university.

War: Possibly Justifiable, but Never Just

The Apotheosis of War by Vasily Vasilyevich Vereshchagin
I have for some time held the position that the criteria of just war theory cannot knowingly be met, but I’ve lately come to the conclusion that there can be no just war. There never has been a war that was just, and there never will be. War cannot be just, even if it can be justified.

To say a war is just is to say that it embodies—in its devastation and dismemberment of bodies—justice. To say a war is just is to say it is morally good, and this I cannot say. The reasons for which a war is fought may be just reasons—self-defense, for example—and, yes, honorable actions of heroism and virtue may accompany the bloodshed and ruination of lives, property and environments; but the mass destruction that indelibly marks the war and gives it breath and blood and body cries out not for the word “justice” but for the word “evil.”

When assessing particular wars, I intend to speak no longer of just war theory, but maybe, regrettably, of justified war theory. If by some tragedy I conclude the criteria of the theory are met, I will see not a just and righteous endeavor, but a justified yet nonetheless nightmarishly evil failure.

I must admit that this conclusion places me in a morally problematic position, for I seem to be saying that one may legitimately commit evil for the sake of some good end. I seem, in other words, to have accepted consequentialism in rejecting just war theory.

One way I can escape the consequentialist view is to say that a justified war is a physical evil, but not a moral evil, but I’m not willing to say this. That war can be undertaken only as a last resort, and then only with the meeting of other limiting criteria, implies that war is not merely a physical evil, like surgery, nor indeed a just and righteous undertaking, but something to be avoided morally. I have to say, therefore, that war is a moral evil. Yet in saying that this moral evil may be justified, I seem to be embracing the idea that evil may be done for a good end, a position I have up to this point rejected.

I’m wondering if the case of justified war discloses us to a difference between types of moral evils, some that may be justified and some that never can be done licitly. To speak in religious language, are there moral evils that are not sins? If there are such evils, I’m not sure what to call them. Justifiable evils, perhaps? Tragic evils? I don’t know.

Moral theologians and philosophers have throughout history given moral cover for doing horrible things. They’ve made distinctions between formal and material cooperation with evil, and posited principles such as double-effect, but these comforts to the conscience don’t appear to help me here. I’m willing, I think, to go the route of denying even the justifiability of war, of giving myself wholeheartedly over to pacifism, but I’m still far from certain that this course is my only option.

Whichever step I take and in whatever direction, I remain, as a religious man, haunted by this reminder from John Caputo: “Just-war doctrine is already a failure of faith, treating unconditional peace and forgiveness as simply impossible, even while repeating the words of Jesus that with God all things are possible.” The very idea of just war, Caputo says, was “the result of sitting down to the table with the powers of this world.” The idea makes sense, but it “weakens and attenuates what St. Paul called the folly (moria) of the cross. It adopts the views not of Jesus but of Cicero, not of the Kingdom of God but of the Roman Empire.”

“Just imagine the challenge Jesus would have faced trying to work “just war” into the Sermon on the Mount!” Caputo exclaims.

Joy Urinates Inertly

That, friends, is an anagram of Journeys in Alterity.  Thanks to Jaybird for the mindless diversion.

In other news of the expected unexpected, a bible study ends in a bloody nose and an arrest.  It's a violent book, you know.

Oh, and did you know you can follow this non-violent and non-urinating blog on Facebook?  Yes, it's true.  Go and Like!

Philosopher Sign FAIL

I want to know where this is.

Attention North Texas Philosophers

The 44th meeting of the North Texas Philosophical Association begins today in Denton.  Daddy-duty to a newborn prevents me from attending this year, but the lineup, which includes John Sallis, Steve Crowell, J. Baird Callicott, Nathan Bell and David Utsler, promises rich nourishment for the mind. The schedule of events is here.

Losing Your Identity in a Story

When an ideology — a story, really — becomes entwined with your identity; entwined with your very self, then challenges to your ideas and changes in the world around you aren’t great new experiences — they’re an attack.

- Alex Knapp
I wouldn’t dare dismiss the danger involved in giving oneself over to an ideology, a danger Alex Knapp poignantly illustrates with a story about a father’s obsession with objectivism, but I disagree that the problem here is of allowing a story to entwine with one’s identity. The self can be swallowed by an idea or a narrative, and a person can be lost in groupthink and ideology. This cannot be said enough. Nevertheless, our identities do in fact take the form of a narrative, a story, and that form is nothing to shy away from.

I can’t tell you who I am without telling you my story. To do the one is to do the other. I am my story in a very real way. I also cannot tell my story without telling the stories of others, others whose stories have intertwined with my own. My story couldn’t begin without the story of my parents. Every person I’ve ever encountered has added threads to my identity, some grand and some minute. Finally, I can’t tell my story – answer the question of who I am – without incorporating into the narrative the ideas that I’ve held, the philosophies I pursued and abandoned, and the religion I’ve believed. My ideas have shaped me and moved me and given meaning to my life’s tale.

Unlike Knapp, I’ve no qualms about saying things like “I am a Catholic” or “I am a pluralist,” just so long as I can also say that I am otherwise than all these things. There’s more to me – to my story – than is dreamed of in all the world’s philosophies. I don’t look upon challenges to my ideas and changes in the world as attacks on who I am, but as opportunities for my story to develop and take unexpected directions, to explore new themes and meanings. The deconstruction of my story provides me with a chance to be otherwise than I am.

Rather than caution against permitting a story to intertwine with one’s identity, I would warn against anchoring who one is in an ideology with an anchor that permits no sailing or flight or escape. The self should remain in motion, in flux and play, even, dare I say, after death. I say let our stories and our selves remain flying unfinished in the turbulent wind even after our bodies are buried in the hard ground. For this to happen, others have to tell our stories and define who we are. The trick to avoiding losing oneself in an ideology is to welcome others who are really otherwise than us to contribute to who we are. If people remember us, this will happen after we’re dead. There’s a joy to be found in letting it happen while we’re alive.

But Our Violence Goes to Eleven!

St. Paul had it right when he said he was the worst of sinners. Not because he was the worst, mind you, but because he looked inward instead of just outward for an unflinching sight of raw, simmering villainy. He was mindful and critical of the moral failings of others, obviously, as his letters testify, but he didn’t consciously allow the faults of others to distract him from his own vices or assuage his guilt. He knew he was capable of the horrors of which he accused others.


His words exemplified the proper Christian disposition toward evil: the awareness and awe that, without grace, we are each and all capable of anything. There’s nothing inherently special about the souls of the damned: the wages of sin is death and we are all sinners. Salvation is an option only because of God’s gratuitous mercy. Grace and Heaven are gifts, not entitlements.

There are few things more antithetical to this Christian disposition than self-righteousness. Exceptional is about the last thing Christians should call themselves. For all the silly talk of America being a Christian nation, we people of these United States generally do not share Paul’s disposition toward evil. For us Americans, evil is mostly something exterior to ourselves, located mostly in others, especially in people with foreign sounding names belonging to institutions that start with “al.” We drop our jaws at the atrocious violence in the Muslim world, and yet fail to recognize our own predilection for violence for the barbarity it is. Instead we make excuses for it or champion it as civilized and righteous and just.

Am I saying that there’s no moral difference between al-Qaida and America? No. The former is a terrorist organization of Islamist fanatics; the latter is a country founded on a promise of justice and freedom that sometimes lives up to its stated principles and sometimes falls far short. Both institutions, however, use large-scale deadly violence to achieve their ends, and both take pains to legitimize their violence through master narratives about God’s will or Freedom’s March. The violence of both has resulted in dead children, lost mothers, murdered fathers, butchered brothers and mutilated sisters. Americans have no basis for self-righteous posturing.

Appreciating Rebecca Black's "Friday"

Echoing the remarks of others, my wife observed that Rebecca Black's catchy Internet hit isn't any worse than a lot of what passes for listenable music.  At first I agreed, but then I got to thinking, and I realized the opposite might be true. "Friday" may be an eloquent poem of philosophical profundity cleverly disguised as a stupid pop song.  I've now listened to Black's version, Mullet Guy's sad take, Bob Dylan's classic rendition, and Stephen Colbert's celebrated performance, and I've got to say, there's some depth, depth, depth, depth here.

Take the initial description of the teenage singer's day:
Seven a.m., waking up in the morning
Gotta be fresh, gotta go downstairs
Gotta have my bowl, gotta have cereal
Seein' everything, the time is goin'
Tickin' on and on, everybody's rushin'
Gotta get down to the bus stop
Gotta catch my bus, I see my friends (My friends)
We're treated here to words of time, routine, demand, and momentum; each expressed in concise symmetrical clauses that capture the constrains (time and otherwise) experienced by the singer.  The words paint a typical picture of the morning schedule, but the rhythm conveys a tragic image, a slave stepping left and right, under the tyrannical control of society (school and family) and its brutal expectations (being fresh, riding a bus). The steps taken down the stairs call to mind the descent of Dante into the Inferno.  But then there's hope: she sees her friends. Virgil and Beatrice drive a convertible. 

Our hero has broken free, opting for a ride with friends rather than a trip in the yellow-painted portable prison. It's Friday. A day of hope and expectation.  And yet, though seemingly free of the earlier constraints, the singer now faces the tragedy of choice:
Kickin' in the front seat
Sittin' in the back seat
Gotta make my mind up
Which seat can I take?
There's no easy answer to this dilemma, which works majestically as a mirror of the moral life. This choice isn't between good and evil, and yet it may have consequences for her Friday, if not her whole weekend.  What will the back seat bring her that the front seat won't?  What message does she give to her friends in the back if she forsakes them for the front?  These questions weigh heavily on the soul. 
Yesterday was Thursday, Thursday
Today i-is Friday, Friday (Partyin')
We-we-we so excited
We so excited
We gonna have a ball today

Tomorrow is Saturday
And Sunday comes after ... wards
I don't want this weekend to end.
While the song begins with Time, it turns to Death, to an end unwanted and feared.  These lines are Black's version of Martin Heidegger's Sein-zum-Tode, Being-towards-death. "Friday" is ultimately a song of Dasein, in which the singer can, if only for a day, break free of the torments of the week, and experience joy in gelassenheit, an openness and availability to the uncertainties and mysteries of life.  "We so excited," she sings, omitting the verb to bring the predicate adjective and its so passionate adverb closer to the subject, to her and her friends.

Yes, the lyrics of "Friday" border on the simplistic, but in so doing they expand our hermeneutic horizons and make present, if in mediation, the existential experience of hope amidst Sein-zum-Tode.  

I'm Not Ignoring You

I've just been a tad preoccupied...