Archive for November, 2009

How, you might wonder, could “happy holidays” have wound up being used as a subterfuge for passive aggression against a major holiday.  The practice might well be akin to the impersonal politeness that some people dish out at others whom they don’t like.  The duplicity involved in using “happy holidays” becomes transparent when all of a sudden after a week of “happy Thanksgiving,” the next major holiday–the next national holiday–is obviated with the generic “happy holidays.”  The referent is never clear, but it is not supposed to be.  The  intended object of the slight is of course Christmas.  

Interestingly, the sheer magnitude of Christmas finally breaks through on Christmas Eve day, when people are able to summon the requisite guts to vocalize “Merry Christmas” in greeting strangers as well as friends and family.  It is as though people know that political correctness is unjustly imposed and say to themselves when the intensity of Christmas overcomes them, “to hell with it (really “them”), I’m going to say it anyway.”  I suspect that they tacitly know that “happy holidays” is something that they tolerate but do not accept.  That is to say, on the cusp of Christmas most people reckon enough is enough.  The force of the Christmas surge overcomes the feckless wall.  Of course, there are the diehard holidays people who insist on their politically correct greeting even on Christmas Eve day when the obvious holiday could only be Christmas.  Such people are utterly fake–they seek to impose a vaccum of cold empty space. Once the front guard has broken through the imposition on the cusp of Christmas, nearly it isn’t long before nearly everyone is wishing a Merry Christmas.  From this standpoint, is easy enough on the day after Christmas to go from “Merry Christmas” on to “Happy New Year.”  Happy Holidays is then only on the tardy television ads–which attest to the utter fakeness of the phrase.   That we don’t go back to “Happy Holiday” after the excitement of Christmas has passed not only points to the force of habit; it also indicates the duplicitous use of the phrase–singling out Christmas.  All of a sudden, it is once again ok to go back to using the holiday’s name.   What we are essentially witnessing here is disfavoritism being imposed in resentment.

To single out one of the national holidays in using the generic term “holiday” in place of the proper name is inherently insulting to those who celebrate that holiday.  Various motives go into the resentment. First, there is the mistaken assumption that Christmas is only a religious holiday; the fact that non-Christianscelebate it can safely be ignored.  In actuality, Christmas is not theologically a religious holiday at all.  The theological events concerning Jesus are his incarnation (i.e., at his conception rather than birth) and resurrection (i.e., Easter).  To treat Christmas as akin to Easter is to make a theological category mistake.   In fact, Jehovah’s Witnesses or Pentacostals (I can’t remember which) refuse to celebrate Christmas precisely because it is not a religous holiday in Christianity.   One need only look at the Christmas trees and gift-exchanges in India and China to realize that millions of non-Christians celebrate “the holiday.”  Ignoring all this, some people who resent Christianity–perhaps even jealous from the mistaken association of Christmas with their own religious holidays–say “happy holidays” as a weapon of passive aggression as if to say “you must ignore Christmas because it is not my religous holiday.”   Such resentement is of and for the weak, according to Nietzsche–who was no anti-semite (in fact, he detested his brother-in-law for being one).

Second, some people are happy not to recognize Christmas because it has become so commercialized.  Among these people are those who mistakenly make the assumption above, and thus want to “put Jesus back into Christmas.”  However, there are non-Christians who celebrate Christmas and yet are turned off when stores are so greedy for business that they put up their Chrismas displays even before Halloween.  As a form of passive aggression, we might try wishing store clerks a such stores a “happy holiday” before Thanksgiving. 

In general terms, I recommend that “happy holidays” be used in general before Thankgiving, after which we should turn on a dime on “Black Friday” to wish people a “Merry Christmas.”  Then immediately after Christmas, we should return to “happy holidays” instead of “Happy New Year.”  Essentially, following this recommendation is to make transparent the duplicity in the current usage of “happy holidays” by using duplicity against the duplicity–passive aggression against the passive aggression.  All of it, subterranean.  

 I suppose the issue is whether a minority opposed to a holiday should be given such power that the rest of us feel ashamed to refer to the holiday by its name.   The weak use subterfuge in order to dominate beyond their means, out of resentment.  They are herd animals who want to dominate the herd, but they are not strong enough. We unwittingly give the resentful power beyond their means when we stop ourselves from saying Merry Christmas and Happy New Years.”  In effect, we feed their resentment and become weak ourselves. 

Just to be clear: Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years are national holidays in the United States.  After Thanksgiving, Christmas is the only gift-giving official holiday.  So “gifts for the holidays” is needlessly opaque (besides being passive aggressive).  Also, there is no such thing as a holiday tree.  Will we sit back and permit some people to redefine terms as per their ideological agenda?  I suspect we will because we are too vulnerable…not paying sufficient attention. 

And, now, as you might be expecting, permit me to wish a Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

For more, pls see http://twitter.com/deligentia

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A rabbi, a minister and a sheik are at a baseball game, one of them cries “foul”,…

So is there a punch-line or have I struck out?  (I would never ask such a question or be so punny with the comments feature on, so I’ll just assume you find my sense of humor emetic and move on to the more serious business of trying to make a point)

The NYT does a better job: “It sounds like the start of a joke: a rabbi, a minister and a Muslim sheik walk into a restaurant.  But there they were, Rabbi Ted Falcon, the Rev. Don Mackenzie and Sheik Jamal Rahman, walking into an Indian restaurant, and afterward a Presbyterian church.”  Here is their family photo:

Rather than reducing their conversations to the lowest common politically-correct denominator, “the three say they became close not by avoiding or glossing over their conflicts, but by running straight at them.”  I find this to be rather important.  But they do not charge headlong into the others’ religions; rather, they balance self-criticism with honest feedback on what they don’t like about the others.  I have found this mixture to be useful in discussing politics with people from other countries–my self-criticism often times being surprising to my interlocators.   But whereas in politics criticizing one’s own country or leaders can almost be a pasttime, at least in the US, it is generally taboo for a religionist to criticize anything in his or her own faith. 
There seems to be, moreover, an assumption that for a religion to be viable, it must be accepted without erasure or amendment.  Eviscerating a passage in a scripture is particularly verboten, and even traditions can reach the status of being a given.   In my opinion, this rigidity is not justified by the process by which scripture (and tradition) are begun or formed because human beings are involved in it.  I suspect that with time a given scripture or tradition come to be treated as “a given” whereas it was not so treated when it was formed.   The distance of time, in other words, is transformative–and not necessarily for the good.   Lincoln, for example, is today a mythic figure who freed the slaves.  But the truth is, he exempted the five slave states that remained in the Union (MI, KY, WV, MD, and DE), and he considered exiling the freed slaves.  What Lincoln has become–and without justification we presume this was how he was then–is far different than what he was.  In Christianity, this same dynamic might be involved in the “From Jesus to Christ” idea (as well as that of the historical Jesus as distinct from what he is taken to be today).   In any case, a certain “hardening of the arteries” seems to be part of the aging process of a religion.   As a given religion becomes increasingly artificial, it becomes more of a dead letter rather than a living spirit…and thus eventually dies. 
From this perspective, I am particularly impressed with our three amigos.  First, they declare what they most value as the core teachings of their tradition. At one gathering,  minister said “unconditional love.” The sheik said “compassion.” And the rabbi said “oneness.”  They also give honest feedback on what they don’t like about the others’ religions, but then, they do something almost unheard of.  The NYT suggests as much in reporting, “the room then grew quiet.”   Each stood and recited what he regarded as the “untruths” in his own faith. The minister said that one “untruth” for him was that “Christianity is the only way to God.” The rabbi said for him it was the notion of Jews as “the chosen people.” And the sheik said for him it was the “sword verses” in the Koran, like “kill the unbeliever.”  The instinct in line with how we tend to understand religion is to immediately hedge.  For example, the sheik immediately added, “It is a verse taken out of context,” and he pointed out that the previous verse says that God has no love for aggressors. “But we have to acknowledge that ‘kill the unbelievers’ is an awkward verse,’ ” the sheik said as the crowd laughed. “Some verses are literal, some are metaphorical, but the Koran doesn’t say which is which.”  Well,the verse isn’t just awkward.  One could argue it ought to be expunged from the Islamic scripture.   The problem is, we tend to assume this would render the entire scripture somehow null and void.  It either hangs together or falls together. 
Well, I beg your pardon to differ.  At the very least, because human beings are involved in at least the copying, it is possible, even likely, that errors are made, which do not render an entire work null and void.   The problem is, given that interpretation involves the subjective assessment of whether a given passage is literal, symbolic, figurative or metaphorical, deciding on whether a given passage should be extracted does not have the certainty as in “2+2=5 is incorrect and thus should be erased.”  There is a “what if we are wrong?” element in “messing” with a scripture.   We tend to focus on the human element that would be involved in editing a scripture while ignoring the fact that human beings were involved in the writing of it.  This asymetry points to a basic flaw in religion as it is typically understood and practiced by mankind.  That is to say, we could improve religion itself.  It can be advanced, as can technology or political systems.  
To be alive, of spirit, a religious text (and tradition) must be able to breath.  Of course, removing mistakes or cultural artifacts that are no longer fitting (e.g., slavery) does involve the risk of making a mistake, but the chance of making one is mitigated, or worth the risk, where it is pretty clear that a given passage is problematic or wrong.  If nothing else, the practice of a religion, which typically involves compassion or love, involves removing the source of pain to another.  This alone justifies removing passages deemed offensive by others.  However, even here, one must discern a legimate beef from over-sensitivity.   In any case, self-criticism (without caveat) and compassion ought to override the current view of what being a scripture means.  Ironically, by admitting the human element in religion, we can make our religions more closely approximate the divine, and the more we treat our own handiwork as divine the further we fall from our ideal. It is our choice–not a given. 

For more, pls see:  http://twitter.com/deligentia

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/24/us/24amigos.html?_r=1

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Hanna Rosin has written a piece called, “Did Christianity cause the crisis?” in The Atlantic (vol. 304, issue 5, pp. 38-48).  She describes the current prosperity gospel, which, it seems, contributed to the sub-prime mortgage collapse and ensuing financial crisis.  Unhinged from their economic realities, many evangelical Christians who had hitherto only been able to rent decided to go for huge houses because “nothing is impossible with God,” and “God makes the true believers wealthy.”  These Christians could cite 2 John 2: “I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health.”  Unlike the Christian emphasis on virtues such as self-discipline and industriousness that characterized the evangelical titans of the Gilded Age such as John D. Rockefeller, the modern evangelical relies on grace as a kind of spiritual luck applying to risky financial activities.  Little attention was paid to the predatory mortgage-lending industry, which would make contributions to the megachurches for each congregant who signed up for a sub-prime.  Hence pastors preached the believer’s right to the good life as if Jesus had been a friend of money (ignoring what he did to the money-changers).   In any case, the irrational exuberance of the housing bubble may have had in it a component of irrationalism from religion–people taking leave of their senses (and their responsibilities) and being utterly blind to it under the subterfuge of a divine sanction. 

Stepping back to grasp the phenomenon from the perspective of the religion, it strikes me that the too close a friendship between Christianity and the good life eviscerates the distance between the faith and the world.  In other words, the Kingdom of God penetrates the world rather than acts as a check or alternative.  No longer are the last first and the first, last.  No longer is there an eye of the needle for the camel–rather, the doors are wide open.  And no longer must the rich man walk away from his treasure to follow Jesus.   God and mammon effectively fuse,  adding power to self-centeredness by clothing it in gilded robes.   This is particularly evident in the preachers–the scandals alone, such as that of Jim and Tami, attest that something has been amiss.   In other words, there is something downright odd about a minister or pastor living in luxury: Christianity become too convenient for its own good. 

Stepping back even further: Is it inevitable that a religion goes through a life-cycle of sorts during which it becomes decreasingly distinct and increasingly feckless vis a vis the world?   If so, are we witnessing perhaps the final centuries of Christianity?

For more, pls see:  http://twitter.com/deligentia

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“While I greatly respect the Catholic Church and its leaders, like many Rhode Islanders, the fact that I disagree with the hierarchy of the church on some issues does not make me any less of a Catholic,” Rep. Patrick Kennedy (a son of the late Ted Kennedy) wrote in a letter to Tobin, agreeing to a sitdown. “I embrace my faith which acknowledges the existence of an imperfect humanity.”

“Sorry, you can’t chalk it up to an ‘imperfect humanity.’ Your position is unacceptable to the Church and scandalous to many of our members. It absolutely diminishes your Communion with the Church,” Tobin (Catholic Bishop of RI) wrote.  It is disputed whether the bishop has barred Kennedy from receiving communion in RI, or simply asked him not to do so.  The bishop claims he did not tell his priests to refuse to give Kennedy communion.

Analysis:  There is perhaps an interesting question regarding the reference of an “imperfect humanity.”   Is Kennedy referring to those people who accidently get pregnant or to the men having ecclesialastical positions in the Catholic Church?  Kennedy could be saying that differing from the men who run the Church on particular societal issues ought not put one’s salvation at risk.  If so, then Tobin’s claim that imperfect humanity does not apply to him involves a conflict of interest.  Moreover, the fact that he and Kennedy had gotten into a public spat means that Tobin’s act to barr Kennedy from receiving communion also involves a conflict of interest.   Tobin’s first mistake was in violating his pastoral role by getting into a brawl with Kennedy.  Any subsequent “pronouncements” are tainted by Tobin’s self-interest as a party to a brawl of sorts, and thus illegitimate.    Given human nature, none of us can properly vaunt himself or herself above others in terms of that nature.  The best we can do is to try to help each other.   I don’t see that happening in this case.  Instead, I see the antithesis of what Jesus evinced and stood for.   To try to say that “loving thy enemy” means barring him demonstates the extent to which Christianity can be bent to fit one’s interests in the guise of something else.  More than anything, transparency is needed in how Christianity is abused.  That it can happen by those presumably closest to it may be why Jesus points to the outsider and the stranger as having greater faith than those we would expect.  Christianity needs to be applied to Christianity.   “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matt 20:16).   There is also Matt 23.  “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses. … And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.”   The extent of mental gymnastics that has been involved in finessing that line is truly amazing. 

For more, pls see:  http://twitter.com/deligentia

Source: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/34091312/ns/us_news-faith/

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“Speaking at the conference on Thursday, Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican’s point man for relations with the Anglicans, said ecumenism was strong but he alluded to problems. He acknowledged in a recent interview with the Vatican newspaper that Archbishop Williams had called him “in the middle of the night” after finding out at the last minute about the new Anglican rite. In the future, Cardinal Kasper said, such delicate issues “should be undertaken in the greatest possible transparency, tactfulness and mutual esteem in order not to entail meaningless tensions with our ecumenical partners.”

My reaction:  So Rowan Williams calls Walter Kasper at night after hearing that the Vatican intends to make it easier for Anglicans to convert and Walter is complaining about the call, as if that is the cause of the tension?   I raise this point because it illustrates a modern brain sickness of sorts.  The malady goes as follows: I insult you but I ignore the insult and treat your reaction as the problem.  The true culprit?  The principal sin, we are told, is pride.  What is particularly sordid is when the prince wears the aureole of self-righteousness as he points his fingers down.  How distant is Paul’s admonition not to make things harder on your brother.  That is to say, stop fighting, boys; it is quite unbecoming, particularly given the vocation you seek to claim for yourselves.  Having it both ways is not at all respectable. 

For more, pls see:  http://twitter.com/deligentia


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Empty Your Cup

Three students from North America visit Japan to learn from a Zen master.  When the students arrive at the temple, the religious sage meets them at the gate and invites them to sit with him near the garden of stones.   “Let me pour you some tea,” he offers.  Impatient to learn from him, the students try to get right down to business.  “Thank you,” one confides, “but we came all this way and we have a schedule that we have to maintain.”   Not surprised in the least, the old man gingerly hands each student a small cup.  The students acquiesce and hold out their small cups as the master reaches for the kettle of hot tea.  The old man begins to pour the steaming tea in one of the cups, only he does not cease when the liquid reaches the top.   With hot tea on her hands, one of the students cries out, “Stop pouring!  You are burning my hands.”  The Zen master calmly puts down the kettle and replies, “Like this cup, you are too full to take in any more.  Empty your cups and I will teach you.”

Since writing this post, I have found a version of this story in the film 2012–only there it is in a Tibetan Buddhist setting (between an old and young monk).

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In my posts regarding the Bible, some readers have sent me messages  stating that my statements are subjective–very suubjective in fact–while the person’s own biblical views are objective.   Such commentators are assuming that their own views simply reflect what is in the text, and that the Bible is objective fact.   I want to suggest that we tend to enable the cloak of religion to essentially excuse such presumption and utter rudeness–what is in actuality passive aggression.  On the street, were another person to say, “your view is subjective, while mine and that of my favorite book are objective,” one would quite understandably feel insulted and wonder how such presumption could have gone unchecked (presumably the other person is an adult physiologically).   In actuality, it is quite childish behavior.   Even if the person believes his or her favorite religious text to be objective, and therefore superior to any mere opinion, the objectivity is not something that can be proved, for it is itself a matter of opinion.  

For example, when I suggest that the biblical writers or the people written about in the Bible (assuming historical personage here) might have been influenced at times by their vested personal interest in writing or saying something religious (rather than it coming from God), I find it a sort of brain-sickness (to use a Nietzschean term) to suggest that I’m just being subjective and so my view should be dismissed while the person disagreeing with me is representing objectivity.  The sickness is in the extent of the presumption and passive aggression, as well as in the person’s blind-spot concerning it.  The corrective feedback loop is inoperative.  It is perhaps physiological/neurological in origin.  It is a bit like the street person who claims to be Julius Ceasar.   The guy has no clue, and yet presumes to be above everyone else. 

I assume that every human being is subjective, so even if one views his or her favorite book as objective, that claim cannot go beyond that person’s subjectivity.  In other words, we can’t possibly be objective about objective truth (which is not to say that it does not exist).  I also take it as palpably insulting to tell someone that they are subjective while the person himself claims to have an objective source.  As I mention above, it is really a case of passive aggression.  Why there is so much of it in religion, I don’t know.  However, I suspect that the phenomenon of religion has a vulnerablity to it, and may even facilitate that sort of brain sickness–under the rubric of superiority, of course.   Confronting such a sickness with itself assumes a strength that does not exist in such fecklessness.   In my subjective opinion, the only reaction I can recommend is to treat it as an attack and walk away (i.e., state your decision not to continue, based on the insult–calling it what it is).   Trying to get the other person to confront their sickness is like trying to get an active alcoholic to confront his or her disease.  Both, I submit, are mind diseases.  Both defend themselves by the presumption that they can’t be wrong about themselves and others.   In dealing with such illnesses, dialogue is impossible.  Typically anyway, the person presuming to be objective will view the notification of the insult as the insult and will find it convenient to walk away rather than to confront the possibility of what may lie within himself.

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I would like to call attention to the conflicts-of-interest and element of self-interest that are often glossed over in religious matters.  I submit that making transparent these elements would improve religious discourse and religion itself because the infected pronouncements and declarations could be “re-calibrated,” or revalued, in terms of their credibility.

For example, say I was holding an office in a religious organization and I said, “Any member who leaves this religion risks losing their salvation.”  Even if my religious organization taught that membership is required for salvation, the conflict-of-interest both for the institution and myself renders this teaching or pronouncement null and void unless made by someone of another religion (i.e., who does not have the conflict-of-interest).  At the very least, we ought to make a footnote acknowledging the conflict-of-interest.  Yet how often do we insist on this?  My point is that self-interest, either collectively or individually, is not absent from religious discourse, and the related conflicts-of-interest ought to be recognized and treated as such in pronouncements that are tinged by them.

This criterion could be applied to religious texts just as well as religious functionaries (and laity).   As an experiment, someone might go through a religious scripture, identifying all of the passages involving a conflict-of-interest for the writer or the religion itself.  Removing all those passages, how would the text look?   This is essentially a hermeneutic designed to make religion more honest–to hold it and its sponsors more accountable, given the salience of self-interest in all of us.

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