Saturday, May 3, 2008

You can't make this stuff up

Sorry, I cannot resist.
.... If the state legislates against sexual violence and abuse, as it must, it is because of the recognition that this is an area in which the liberty to make sense of or with one's own body is most often put at risk by predatory behaviour on the part of others.

So: equal liberty is at root inseparable from the equality of being embodied. Rights belong not to the person who can demonstrate capacity or rationality but to any organism that can be recognised as a human body, at any stage of its organic development. If the body cannot be property, it will always be carrying meanings or messages that are inalienably its own. And this opens up the second area in which aspects of Christian theology offer a foundation for a discourse of universal rights. Thus far, the emphasis has been upon the view from within, as it were – the body as carrier of the soul's meaning, the body as 'formed', given intelligible shape, by the continuing self called into being by God. But the process by which the body realises its communicative nature, by which it becomes concretely and actively a locus of meaning is a process in which the body receives and digests communication. The individual communicates meaningfully when s/he is decoding and responding to the meanings that are present to him or her; the full development of the particular body's freedom to communicate is realised in the process of understanding and managing and responding to the communications that are being received.

The human other is thus essential to my own growth as a communicative being, a bearer of meaningful messages that cannot be silenced; my own liberty not to be silenced, not to have my body reduced to someone else's instrument, is nourished by the equal liberty of the other not to be silenced. And, in the framework we have been using, this is identified as the central feature of the community created by the Christian gospel. Slave and owner are not merely bound to a common divine Master, they are bound in a relation of mutuality according to which each becomes the bearer of necessary gifts to the other. The relation of each to the Master is such that each is given some unique contribution to the common life, so that no one member of the community is able fully to realise their calling and their possibilities without every other. Not killing or not abusing the slave is for the slaveowner the necessary implication of recognising that the slave is going to be his or her benefactor in ways that may never be visible or obvious but are nonetheless vital.

The dignity accorded to the human other is not, then, a recognition that they may be better than they seem, but simply a recognition that what they have to say (welcome or unwelcome, intelligible or unintelligible, convergent or divergent) could in certain circumstances be the gift of God. Not every human other is a fellow-member of the Body of Christ in the biblical sense; but the universal command to preach the gospel to all prohibits any conclusion that this or that person is incapable of ever hearing and answering God's invitation, and therefore mandates an attitude of receptivity towards them. Not silencing the other or forcing their communication into your own agenda is part of remaining open to the communication of God – which may come even through the human other who is most repellent or opaque to sympathy. The recognition of a dignity that grounds the right to be heard is the recognition of my own need to receive as fully as I can what is being communicated to me by another being made by God. It compels that stepping back from control or manipulation of the other which we so often seek for our security, so as to hear what we cannot generate for ourselves. And it should be clear, incidentally. . . .
Archibishop Rowan Willams"Religious Faith and Human Rights" lecture.

So gang rape, beatings, torture, and smashing or slashing or exploding people to bits is all about silencing their communicative facilities, their liberty to make sense with their bodies, to code and decode, to speak and communicate with others? Am I missing something here? I'm a lawyer and a literature major and a great lover of words of all kinds, but golly, gee, isn't there more to life, not to mention eternity, than Saussure and semiotics?

I honestly do respect the desire and the effort to struggle to find what the Archbishop calls "robust language" for universal human rights, and I do not pretend I could do any better myself, but... It's not just the squirrely language, it's the impression that bodies and people and human suffering are abstractions, not real, bloody, messy, smelly, hurtful and hurting things, that disturbs me.

Why Bother?

One of the chief hazards of blog reading, not to mention writing, is the speed at which ideas and emotions are encountered and the speed at which one reacts. I am a rather reactive sort to begin with, so I try to make myself slow down, but the difficulty I have focusing makes it hard to resist the temptation to jot things down as they hit me. Then new information floods in, I turn in my tracks, and wonder if I should just say "oops, sorry I missed that!" or carry on and let others figure out that I'm simply off in another direction and let them decide whether it's worth their while to try to follow my current path.

After reading here and there this morning (prompted by Rowan Williams latest foray into philosophizing ("Religious Faith and Human Rights" lecture, aptly summarized in different ways by Mad Priest in "Grand Tufti argues that gay people are not recognizably human" and by Fr. Tobias in "Embodied Fel(in)icty"), I have discovered that Jonathan's earlier inquiry "Why bother?" (from "Is there Moral Atheism?") regarding the search for a reason for universal moral principles with or without a concept of God is at the heart of what Rowan Williams was trying to address -- the questions posed in particular by the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre in his books After Virtue and Whose Justice, Which Rationality? and other writings (see also article links here). Now, let me quickly say that the fact that some ex-British Marxist now Thomist philosopher and the Archbishop of Canterbury have addressed Jonathan's question does not suddenly make it more credible or worthy (on the contrary). However, seen in the context of what I've been able to glean briefly from MacIntyre's writings (as summarized by others), I now think I understand it a lot better.

The basic premise of Whose Justice, Which Rationality? is that the Enlightenment ideal of universal philosophy is unachievable, that no moral philosophy can stand outside its particular sociological and historical context. As Matthew Ray described it:
... Whose Justice, Which Rationality? argues that certain social traditions - such as the Christian religious tradition - embody conceptions of rational enquiry within them, so that what makes for a rational reason to act, for example, can only be answered by accepting the philosophical commitments of a given tradition in the first place. On this view, what justifies a theory is 'the rational superiority of that particular structure to all previous attempts within that particular tradition to formulate such theories and principles', Whose Justice, Which Rationality? There is thus no conception of rationality to be found over and above any tradition, no possibility of an objective rationality outside - and therefore able to adjudicate between - all traditions.
(From "Philosopher of the Month") October 2002, The Philosopher's Magazine). This work builds on earlier work, including After Virtue, which draws upon Nietzsche and Thomas Kuhn, and the notion that contemporary Western moral philosophy is mutually and sometimes internally incoherent.

In this context, I can better appreciate the thrust of Jonathan's question. I would still maintain my skepticism, at least about what can be gained through such inquiries other than the satisfaction of intellectual play, while meanwhile culture and politics grind on, with little or no regard for what the philosophers or theologians may say. But dropping names like Nietzsche and Kuhn is enough to whet my intellectual appetite, even though I suspect that I might do better listening to the likes of Augusta Victoria and Clumber++. While "moral relativism" is often a red herring, I am intrigued with anyone's efforts at exploring how one can or should work with traditional notions of ethics and morality in the context of one's own culture and dare to seek to impose them (preferably with more persuasion than force) on others. I also ponder something of the reverse of Jonathan's question (insofar as it asks how can it be done without reference to God), in terms of whether the church, as an institution, inevitably must fail (see Theo Hobson's "Oh thou great irredeemable") -- never mind MacIntyre's apparent great faith in St. Thomas Acquinas as the beacon for us all.

I will have to read further to see if I can discern what Williams and MacIntyre are talking about, or at least whether I want to inquire further. However, one summary of MacIntyre that gave me pause was the following:
MacIntyre wants to overthrow the liberal capitalist ideology that currently dominates the world both in the realm of ideas and in its manifestations in political and social institutions and actions. He seeks to achieve this not through the use of force but by changing how people think about, understand, and act in the world. To show that the changes he wants are possible and desirable, he returns to an older conception of morality, derived from the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas and ultimately, through Aquinas, the philosophy of Aristotle and the way of life of the Athenian polis. He portrays this older conception of morality as both superior to and fundamentally hostile to the modern order, and his philosophical arguments are meant to help restore it to the world. On the other hand, he understands that liberal capitalism has tremendous power and appeal both in the world of ideas and in the power it has over people in the social, political, and economic spheres. Ultimately his recommendation is that the particular conditions of the modern world require that those who agree with his arguments should, to the greatest possible degree, withdraw from the world into communities where the old morality can be kept alive until the time is right for it to re-emerge.
(from Introduction, "The Political Philosophy of Alsadair MacIntyre" by Ted Clayton, Central Michigan University, for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Personally, I could care less what boxes of Left or Right, Liberal or Conservative, in which anyone's thoughts might fall. There are both silly and thoughtful comments about MacIntyre's books over at speculating as to whether MacIntyre is reactionary, left or right. But there does seem to be an alarming trend among the radical left turned whatever. I wrote earlier about Phillip Bobbitt in "Rowan and his shadow" -- another former British Marxist gone to U.S. academia, taking an odd turn far left to what might be viewed as far right (or simply off the map). I find it intriguing, though not surprising, that these fellows hold such fascination for Rowan Williams. While I can empathize with those on the left (as well as the right) who yearn for certainty, stability, and hope, I wonder whether all of us who have been plagued at various times with a burning sense of righteousness (especially but not only us Baby Boomers), really expect too much of both ideas and the people who hold them. Instead of retreating into the relative safety of communities where the "old morality" reigns (as did those renegade Mormons in Texas?), maybe we should set aside our fears and our arguably petty need for fixing everyone's world view and instead work on feeding the hungry, spend some time in the local soup kitchen and see whether the demons that plague us all are not sprung from modernism, relativism, or philosophic incoherency, but rather the same old, same old problems that have plagued humanity from at least the dawn of history, which no religion, ideology, or science has yet figured out how to "fix" (at least without creating a whole new set and, in the meantime, ignoring how we may be destroying our physical environment in which we continue to muddle and experiment, and the new ways we find to treat both human and non-human creation with disrespect). Why does not Original Sin humble us and lead us to the practical good we know we can do if we put aside our hate, intolerance, and arrogance in thinking we can preach our way out of it, if only we can find the right words, or books, or leaders to guide us?

But who am I to say, sitting here on a Saturday morning in front of the computer with my hyperlinks, open web windows, and stacks of books and papers on the side? Time to shove it all aside for awhile until maybe someday some sense may emerge (or at least until the household chores get done). But here's to Mad Priest for keeping track of the Big Questions and speaking bluntly to all.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

If you love me you will keep my commandments

Today's Gospel reading was as follows:
If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of Truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you. I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you. Yet a little while, and the world will see me no more, but you will see me, because I live, you will live also. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love and manifest to him.
John 14:15-21

This struck me as speaking directly to some of the issues raised by Mad Priest about morality (see below). It also reminded me of an exchange Mimi and I had awhile back about reading St. John as a poetic expression of deep and profound spiritual truths rather than a theological tract.

I think that people look for meaning or purpose in their lives based on what they've already internalized as to what is right and wrong, good and bad, purposeful and frivolous. What religion gives is not simply morality and ethics (though indeed religion may be the means by which a society or culture collects, records, and teaches some of its most important values), but rather hope and courage to persevere.

The sermon I heard this morning spoke about motives for seeking and doing God's will. It spoke of the mix of obedience and love, recognizing that limiting and restricting our behavior out of obedience to those rules and commandments that are for our own good is part of what is involved, but what is essential is love, love which brings us opportunities to serve God and others. The fullness of life lived in love is what God truly wills for us all.

When I read these words of John, I know the love Jesus has for me and for all people. I know if I love him, devote my life to him and the good that is with him and is him, it will bear fruit, as it is his love and mercy and grace that will help me keep his commandments and love others, the best I can in light of not only his example but the light he shines into my heart and soul.

That's all. I honestly don't think John is about the business of sorting out what happens to the atheists and those of other faiths. He is urgently speaking to what Jesus can give us, the embrace of his love and the love that may infuse us if we only let it. It's not about giving us some kind of sorting hat. It's about the love of Jesus and how that love can transform lives, despite death and suffering. Jesus will not leave us desolate. He will sustain and hold us up, help us to keep seeking and doing the Father's will, even when we feel weak, discouraged, and despairing. That may sound like nonsense to some, but it's not meant to offer a reasonable philosophy of life or the means for persuading those who want logic or arguments. If only we can let Jesus enter our lives, to know his love, then maybe others will see something in us that resonates with the Good News, and they will hear and understand as well.

None of this precludes teaching and modeling moral behavior in the secular world, studying science, enacting and enforcing civil and criminal laws, and working across religions and cultures to advance fundamental human rights. I think all that is vitally important with or without any particular sectarian religious context. I'm also not sure in today's world whether secular notions of morality and justice are not heads above what most religions offer, or at least the majority of their practitioners. That's why as I endeavor to work and live in a much wider world than that inhabited by my fellow Christians and those of similar social and economic backgrounds, I try to think in terms that can contribute to all different kinds of people working together to accomplish things that may not ever happen if we try to first come to some kind of consensus about religion or philosophy down to minute details. While being part of a local and extended faith community is important as well, it cannot be all simply because even within my city, state, and country, such communities are too fragmented to be all that there is in terms of social and political life.

But in the end, there's just me, the only person I can begin to control, doing my best to love Jesus and hoping that, with God's grace, I can indeed keep his commandments. It is hope that I have in Christ and the warmth and assurance of his love that keep me going. And it is keeping going, picking up when I stumble and starting over, persisting in trying to do what is right, that is the toughest part of all.