Thursday, December 25, 2008

This Christmas Day

One could say that much of what has occurred below has been an interesting thought experiment up to this point and nothing more. After all, a lot of it is incredibly speculative - what does it actually have to do with theology? Does it have anything to do with the "real" world? On one hand, hopefully my comments about realism/idealism have at least hinted about what I think about "realism" talk. However, on the other hand, Christmas is about Christ becoming human, according to traditional Christianity, right? An incarnation, a materialization of divinity, an image of God finding substance. On this day, amidst rabid consumerism and wide-spread depression, I'm not sure this is what a traditional Christian interpretation of the incarnation was supposed to be. Certainly, this is a form of materialism, of depressed values meeting flesh, but it is not an image of God finding substance. Or perhaps we are revealing who our real God(s) are.

On this day, as we celebrate the traditional day of Christ's birth, ironies abound. We celebrate a birth on a day it almost certainly did not happen. We pay homage to our religious symbols even while our symbolized values lie elsewhere (capitalism? nationalism? individualism?). Allow such ironies to stretch our literalism on this story just a bit. If Jesus was not born on December 25th, perhaps there is room for more threads to the story. Perhaps there is space to (re)tell the story. After all, haven't we retold the story several times already? For better or worse, Santa Claus was not part of the original story. Allow me to (re)tell a version of this story. I do not claim any more literal authority for this story than any other. This story has some familiar elements to it - a Messiah-prophet was born in the land of Israel, preached and worked miracles amongst the oppressed, took a stand against an Empire and was killed partly because of it. After the Messiah-prophet's death, resurrection. Movements (a plural here is key) spawned to follow this Messiah-prophet. And the world was never the same.

All of this began on one day, in one moment - the tragedy and hope of the world had called out. The world could suffer under an Empire no longer. The ontos prayed for hope. People starved, people died of thirst, people were murdered. An empire stands upon the marginalized. Values were broken. Tragedy abounded. But people could not give up.

I do not pretend to know anything about the Messiah-prophet's birth. Historically, any number of locations and days could have held the Messiah-prophet's birth. Perhaps shepherds were there. Perhaps foreign wise individuals were there. Perhaps it really was in a stable. Historically, I cannot say. But that birth is important - because that birth is a symbol. When we celebrate Christmas, we celebrate a day we do not know, and yet it gives us hope. Hope breaks in on us like an event, we cannot anticipate it (even from the past). The birth of hope is mysterious. This is no weak mystery, a veil to hide behind. This is the kind of mystery that gives hope its character, that gives hope the ability to reach in from the future and build from our tragedy.

All the symbols, however, are inextricably linked. The birth is inseparable from the life, the prophetic work, the miracles, the death and the resurrection. Most (all?) were not aware of the hope given them until after the end (beginning?) of story had been completed. We find meaning only in narrative form - individual symbols and events cannot function apart from a story.

With this network of symbols in mind, let us turn the story on its head. Instead of starting with the "beginning" on Christmas day, let us start with the "end" on Christmas day. My hope is that on Easter I will write about the "beginning" in full form. After all, if a story is tied together, we should find the beginning in the end, and the end in the beginning. But do not mistake - this does not mean that I think Christ was destined to die at his birth-bed. On the contrary - Christ's death only has meaning to me if it was a choice, an undecidable responsibility. As we look for the beginning in the ending, we should keep this radical choice(s) in mind.

The scene is an all too familiar one - Christ on a cross. In many ways, this familiarity has bred complacency. Has the cross become a whitewashed symbol? Perhaps, perhaps not.

The tragedy of the moment was insurmountable. With a life of radical choice(s), Christ had stood for the marginalized, the oppressed, those which-are-not, against structures of power and oppression. Empire stood in the way of the Kingdom of God. The Empire had no compassion, no mercy. With Christ's radical choice(s), the structures of power moved to remove the nuisance. And make no mistake, to a world of empires, Christ and his small band of disciples was a nuisance at best.

One of the problems with the familiar scene of Christ on a cross is that it is always singular. The Empire had no patience for criminals, revolutionaries and nuisances, however, and typically crucified them all, with thousands being crucified in a day being common-place. Christ was one among thousands, one tragedy among many. The tragedy of the moment only increases from this - one lost voice, bound to be forgotten like all the others. A lost voice...

The death would not have been pretty. Crucifixion was brutal enough by itself. However, carrion birds would typically swoop overhead waiting (sometimes) for the moment of death. Burial simply was not allowed. Dogs would wait at the base of the cross ready to feast on the corpse. The Empire was thorough - it would remove all traces of its enemies from this earth. Keep in mind that burial and death rites were incredibly important in ancient societies - to be denied either was seen as pure dishonor and tragedy (think Antigone).

Absent from this death was any magic of any sort. By magic, I do not mean parlor tricks - there was no magical vindication in Christ's death (or anyone else's death) on the cross. No substitutionary atonement. Any God that needs to be appeased for the sin of the world by death (of any sort) is no God. No one (including God) did anything to vindicate Christ's death. There was no magic in the moment, only tragedy. Christ's death was like all the others, totally unremarkable and absolutely tragic.

Can a storyteller stop the story there? Can the narrative end there? No. We must be open to God's in(ter)vention. The story cannot end there because we cannot let it end there. We hope because we must. Christ was resurrected in the gospels because tragedy is no ending. We cannot live in absolute tragedy. Zizek once wrote that if the crucifixion should have taught Christians anything, it is that God does not use magic to save us on the brink of disaster. We only have ourselves, our own act(ualizations). Zizek was only partially right, we have our own act(ualizations) and we cannot pray for magic, but in the end we do have our stories. Or perhaps, I should say that on this Christmas day, in the beginning, we do have our stories. And there our hope lies.

May hope find you all on this Christmas day,

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Value Images: Hope

The last value image I presented was of tragedy. Tragedy has a twin sibling, however, which is always chasing after (and before) it. Where there is tragedy, there is hope. The tragedy of our world gives us a gift - live your life in the imperative. The world is not as it should be. No one's values match what occurs. This is partly the case because of what was discussed last time - our values are always contradictory, and as such we are always pulled in separate directions by our conflicting values. Such contradictory moments are particularly tragic when two (or more) of our most important values crash into each other. The cliff scene is a perfect example of this, although there are countless situations which are of a less artificial nature which happen all the time. Should an American Christian be loyal to his faith or his religion? What should an individual caught in-between family and a loved one do? We simply cannot escape these contradictions.

However, there is another element within our tragic horizons. The world (ontos) changes. Our values simply cannot keep up. This prevents our values matching up with how the world is consistently. An American Marxist's values clearly do not match up with what American politics results in. When our values are not incarnated in reality, we find tragedy. When I value everyone being provided with food, housing and healthcare and those values do not match up with what-is (ontos) I am confronted with tragedy. However, notice that even if someone were to match his values to the world as what-is (ontos), the moment the world changes from those values (which of course will happen in our mutable world) my values will not match up with what-is (ontos) and I will be confronted with tragedy. For those that value what-is, what-is does not persist and we are confronted with tragedy. For those do not value what-is, what-is often does persist and we are confronted with tragedy. What a complicated way of stating that we don't always get what we want! :)

It is important to note a particular byproduct of this view - our values are incarnated in our time, in our locality. The tragedy of our situation will always, to some degree, depend on how our values match up with what-is (ontos). Notice however, that this value-incarnation is driven by our tragedy. When we confront a world where our values do not match what-is (ontos) we are driven by our determination to act towards vindication - praxis. If we do not slip into terror, the tragedy of our present situation drives us to actualize our values. If I value everyone being provided with food, housing and healthcare and those values do not match up with what-is (ontos) I will act towards the act(ualization) of my values. I will hope because I need to hope. I will believe my values are possible because the tragedy of my situation demands that tragedy is not the only essence of reality. Tragedy does not let us give up. We hope because we must. Thus, our values pull us both towards tragedy and hope simultaneously.

Interestingly, this relationship between our values and our tragedy/hope is not monodimensional. Our values shape what our tragic/hopeful situations are, but our tragic/hopeful situations in turn shape our values. After all, our values are nonsensical apart from our moments. What would the statement "I feel it is right to feed the starving" even mean apart from what it means in its locality? However, our values are not simply determined by our context, they are created by our contexts. My past has played a significant role in what I value. It has not determined what I will decide (since, as mentioned in the last post, every decision is undecidable) but it has given birth to what I value. I value family, for example, because of my multitudinous tragic/hopeful experiences of family. It would be otherwise if I had a different locality.

Our particular locality does not simply shape our values, however. In turn with our values, it allows us to see what-is-preferable from what-is (ontos). An act of vision. Let us call such what-is-preferable, potential. Again and again, I will return to this notion of potential. However, for now it is simply important to note that what we see (potential) both informs and is informed by what-is (ontos). This image will become more vivid with time.

Let's notice that a number of traditional interpretations of certain concepts break down at this point. The distinction between realism/idealism breaks down. No matter what our potential is, our potential is both grounded in what-is (ontos) and is also reaching towards the future as an ideal. We all have realistic image-inations. The realism/idealism distinction is a polemical tool generally designed to privilege one's own image-inations over another's. Even when such a distinction is used without an intent to harm, the designation effectively just presents the distance between the two individuals. When someone who identifies themselves as a realist designates someone else as an idealist, what is primarily expressed is a significant gap between not only their envisioned potentials, but also between their localities of what-is (ontos). We have fallen into an individualistic trap if we assume that someone else is somehow detached from reality if their envisioned potential (or locality) is different from ours. We all live in world(s).

The powerful element within the interaction between potential and what-is (ontos) is that every moment is a blend of hope and tragedy. To some degree our potential always remains unfulfilled, and so we hope because we must hope. Tragedy gives us no other choice. The tragedy of a past moment(s) gives us the push to act out of hope in the present moment. We act because we see. We hope because we are presented with images of tragedy. As long as hope and tragedy are united, hope is an active verb. We act because we hope for a better world. We hope because we must.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Value Images: Tragedy

One of the byproducts of living in a pluralistic world of mutual contradictions is that we live in a world of tragedy. Tragedy, unfortunately, is an essential part of our values. If you find this hard to believe, consider this - without our values, tragedy would have little effect on us. One of the very valuable insights of Buddhism is that we suffer because we value things, people, the world and images. Death would not be a tragedy if we did not value life. However, contra traditional Buddhism, detachment is not the solution. What are we without our values?

Tragedy is an essential part of our values (no matter our values) because so many of our values have a powerful claim on being just. However, our values are never unitary and non-contradictory. Walking contradictions, all of us. This mutual contradictory authority of our values inevitably leads us to choosing, from action to action, one value over another. One of the archetypal tragic situations is where one is on a cliff side with two loved ones hanging on the edge by their fingers laced through each of your hands. You don't have the strength to pull both up so you have to choose which person to save. Perhaps the ultimate tragedy is when you don't choose - for all your values and valued suffer, then. Before one thinks that such is a very artificial situation, consider that our lives are filled with such choices, just on a lesser scale. Even a decision on what I will eat today contains a conflict of what foods I like. We usually don't consider such decisions tragic simply because our food values are usually fairly low on our value hierarchy (although I have seen people get upset for not getting chocolate before!).

Part of the tragedy of our values contains what Derrida called the "undecidability" of responsibility. When we have different values, both with effective authority, pulling us in multiple directions, rationality will not save us. There is no "rationally" better option. Our actions contain an element of undecidability. This is not absolutely miserable, though, since our very responsibility depends upon a certain undecidability. If our actions were resolvable in a simple fashion (say like a simple math problem) we would not be human, we would have no responsibility - we would be mechanical beings in a mechanical world. When one has two loved ones hanging on a cliff side, there is no responsible choice, but responsibility calls us to choose. Responsibility calls us to not let go, to not give up in the fact of tragedy. This is why we cannot detach from the world - the very tragedy in our own values demands action. We know tragedy will come from our actions, but the tragedy that precedes us drives us to act towards our values, to build a better world. We cannot give up because tragedy has a hold on us at the cliff side, even as we have a hold on our loved ones. We cannot give up because undecidability forces us to take responsibility for our actions. We are the ones responsible (for tragedy). And yet, our responsibility comes from our tragedy.

We cannot give up our values. We also cannot try to harmonize our values. This was made clear by the role pluralism plays within any value system. So, we must live with the tragedy of our values. We should also not attempt to formalize and hierarchize our values. The single-issue voter is a perfect example of someone who has hierarchized his values - they have sacrificed the considerations of all of their other values for the sake of one value. Consider the issue of abortion. One who identifies themselves as a pro-life voter (or pro-choice voter) all too often is exactly that - a pro-life-voter. The act of voting is inseperable from the value of pro-life (when it comes to abortion). Perhaps the most glaring inconsistancy here is that many pro-life voters are not pro-life (since they are often pro-war or pro-death penalty). However, the fear of such a singular-voting-position is this - the individual has become terrorized by a value, such that the individual is frozen in his stance for the position. Since all our values are without any foundation, the only possible way to shift in our allegiance to certain values is by appeal to other values. For example, one might be able to convince a patriotic christian that their christian values are in conflict with their patriotism (particularly over a certain issue, say, like being pro-war). This ability for the conflicts in our values to be teased out prevents us from living in terror from a singular value, from the gravity of a singularity. This tension prevents us from acting out of that terror, from terrorizing the world with our singularity. For, after all, when we live out of one value, we decieve ourselves. We value too much to pretend that only one thing matters.

Perhaps the greatest terror here, however, is the ability for humans to rationalize against the tragedy of the moment. It is so hard to live in the tragedy of the moment. When I was a child, and I looked upon the motionless body of my mother, I wanted to be any place else. I couldn't live within the tragedy. This was not how the world should be.

Instead of living in the terror of the moment, however, we must live in the tragedy. I remember quite clearly that I remained in the room for an hour or so where my mom died, but not out of my own strength. I had looked into my Dad's eyes, and the mutual tragedy we shared gave us strength to honor the tragedy. We would not give up on a tragic world, a world of tragic relationships. I would not have had the strength to stand against terror if not for my dad in that moment - our relationships are what hold us to stand for the tragedy of the moment instead of the terror of the moment. Our relationships are what reveal to us the multidimensional realities to our values as opposed to the terror of the monolithic value we so often wish to rationalize over the others. After all, sometimes the tragedy of the moment is beyond our control (such as with my mom's death) and sometimes it is of our own creation (when we live within the terror of a monolith). Perhaps, all too often, it is both.

The most frightening element of the way our monolithic terror defines us all too often is not only the ability to rationalize our own singularity, but the way we can place the gravity of that singularity over others as well. When I refuse to recognize the authority of others' values because of my own singularity, I remove their humanity. For we are human because of our ability to value. I deface the other. Terror becomes totalitarianism. This is why we must always be open in our relationships with others. We must allow others to transform our terror into tragedy.

However, as omnipresent as tragedy is in our lives, it is not the final reality. Tragedy won't allow itself to be the final statement. This is one of the differences between tragedy and terror. Terror is self-reflective - terror continues on (without being broken in relationship) in inertial reciprocity. Terror eggs itself on. Tragedy, however, does not allow us to leave it as the final piece in our story. When we are confronted by the tragedy of the moment, we are forced to confront that this is not how the world is supposed to be. We cannot live eternally in the tragedy of the moment. Instead, our will to justice and hope comes from the tragic moment. Confronted with the tragic moment, we cannot reject responsibility. Instead, driven by our values, we must move onwards, into the next moment. We must act into the next moment, driven by the tragedy of our last moment. We cannot give up. Tragedy will not leave us. We should not allow it to leave us. For if the tragedy of the moment leaves us, we will be dominated by our terror. For we must not forget that as we live in our tragedy, our cry for justice will not leave us. Our cries for hope will lead us into the next tragic moment.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Value Images: Pluralism

After my last post, it might seem as though the next step would be to lay out a definition for a "value" and then argue for that definition. Instead, I am going to move in a different direction. I'm going to illustrate a number of verbal images I believe are contained within our value system. Note, however, that unlike a definition, I am not pretending that these verbal images exhaust the meaning of value-language. My next few blog posts will attempt to give a number of these eidos/eikons. This post will begin with pluralism.

Image #1: Our values are pluralistic. I don't mean pluralistic in the weak-relativistic-everything-goes-sense which gets attacked so often. Weak-pluralism is such a tempting straw man for so many public figures and academics to attack. Total relativism certainly has its problems, but I think its critics often have other targets in mind when they attack it. While weak-pluralism is almost certainly a problem (particularly among college students, I have noticed), all too often the diagnosis and solution presented by its critics falters. It is as though an archer aims an arrow at two separate targets, intending to hit both (weak-pluralism and opponents of mono-absolutism) and ends up missing both targets. Later on, it will become clear why these are two separate targets. For the moment, however, this illustrates one of the elements of the kind of pluralism I have in mind.

Pluralism has many features. The first is obvious - many elements. On the world community scale, this multiplicity of values is obvious. However, upon further reflection, it becomes clear that we as individual localities also are made up of a multiplicity of values. Everything from something "abstract" like love to something a little less "abstract" like "Nationalism" to something even more "concrete" like valuing the "desire to eat." I hesitate to separate values along abstract/concrete lines for several reasons, but for now I merely wish to illustrate the point that we, as human beings, are made up of a near infinitude of values. Which brings me to the next aspect of pluralism I'd like to highlight.

All too often the philosophical enterprises have attempted to "reduce" our near-infinitude of values to a few. As valuable as the words "love" or "good" are for example, they often become whitewashed by out attempts to mash our irreducible values into a single whole. Our desire to be made whole may be understandable in the end (as we are clearly broken creatures at least in part) but that very desire ends up doing us a disservice. Obviously, for example, "Patriotism" cannot be reduced to "love" but neither can "altruism" be reduced to "compassion." As theopoets we must affirm that each word has a purpose, each word a surplus of meaning. Each word paints a slightly different picture.

Even without reductionism, we can compare/contrast values through synonymy. In fact, with our near-infinitude of values (imagine, for the moment, that I value typing the letter "l" for the word "letter" in this sentence at the very moment I type it, and one can easily see the absurd amount of values we as human localities contain even moment to moment) in order to function we often have umbrella terms which attempt to encompass many different irreducible values. Sometimes this works with more success, sometimes not. Usually these larger terms function best when we acknowledge their fluid nature and that they only reach partial success at encompassing multiple values.

Part of the fact that these umbrella terms fail at total success is that our values are often contradictory. It is easier to see this on the larger scale of "big" values. We see this in the terms one describes one's self - American Christian related to such and such family, etc. No matter how much some public figures wish us to believe that American patriotism and Christianity are mutually supporting (and non-contradictory) an American Christian is a walking contradiction. The history of "just war" is a perfect example of the tensions created when christian faith is placed within a national context. Whether "just war doctrine" is a wise idea or not it is hard to imagine how one can go from Jesus to war of any kind. Heck, even in our own moment, it is hard to imagine how one can go from praying in church on Sunday to a justified war of any kind. And yet, humans have such an amazing ability to rationalize. We have an amazing ability at ignoring tensions in our values. Part of the role I feel the theopoet/prophet is to play in today's society is teasing out the tensions that live within our values and letting them live in the open. American Nationalism has gathered a serious amount of power while rationalizing faith and other possible checks into its bubble. The best way to denounce an idol is to reveal it as an idol. Let us unveil our other values for what they are - contradictions. Lovely contradictions. Consistency is overrated.

This is not to say that contradictions in our values is a bad thing. For starters, our local horizons of experience are often so confusing that contradictions are unavoidable even if we are aware of them. Unchecked values of any kind are also generally quite destructive - it is amazing how genocide can often be rationalized as an act of love. That is not to say that we should scrap the wonderful power in our best symbols. However, our best values will be made more complete by other contradictory values. I dream of what American patriotism would actually will in the world if Christianity actually stood against some of the present values within American patriotism. What would our Christian faith look like if we let it be informed by (contradictory) dialogue from our other values (even things as simple as our experiences of other religions, etc.). Value conflicts not only prevent us from doing harmful acts, but they also help us to reform and act in beneficial ways as well. With all of this said, I am proud to acknowledge myself as a Buddhist Christian Derridean Theopoet Existentialist Postmodern... (the list could go on for a while) without attempting to reduce any one of these dialoging-values to the other. Each has a valuable part to play. Notice, however, even though this is a clear break from mono-absolutism, we have also taken a step away from relativism. Behind all of this conversation (behind the veil) is a ghost. For by acknowledging that dialogue and value-conflicts are "good" things I have run against the ethical problem all over again. The ghost of ethics haunts on. Ghosts generally haunt for a reason. However, perhaps our ethical ghost has a little more form now... as we live our lives of mutual-contradictions. One more contradiction... a ghost with form. An ethic and an idea.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Pascal's Wagered Values

While I really should not be making a blog post right now (busy, busy, busy) something in one of my philosophy classes today sparked a thought. For my own sanity (and success) it'll probably end up being a short post... we'll see, you never really know with me.

We were talking about Pascal's Wager in my Modern Philosophy class today. For those of you that haven't encountered it, the argument (in one of its many forms) goes like this - if you believe in God you have everything to gain (if you are right), i.e. eternal life, and if you are wrong you won't lose anything (or something finite). If you don't believe in God you have everything to lose and only something finite to gain if you are right. Therefore, a wise individual should believe in God. There are a number of problems with this argument that have already been pointed out by a number of astute individuals (many gods, etc.) but I actually want to use Pascal's Wager here to illustrate something about ethics. We'll call it Pascal's circle.

Pascal created the wager as an aid for believers since he did not believe that one could "prove" God existed by reason. Reason was not sufficient to reach God. Pascal's wager is built upon the deontic realm (i.e. the "ought") as opposed to the realm of fact. What ought we to do/believe? As such, Pascal's Wager is within the ethical domain as opposed to the metaphysical domain (the difference between asking "what is?" and "what ought we to do?"). However, Pascal could not leave his wager as an unsupported foundation - if he had, his wager would have been completely unpersuasive. Why should one be persuaded by Pascal's Wager if his ethical system has no justification?

To make this talk more concrete, consider the parts of the wager itself. If, within my ethical system, I do not view my own life as important to eternalize (or if I don't view the self as important to the ethical domain) then Pascal's Wager holds no merit. Why should I care that I could gain eternal life? Here, Pascal slips a bit on the foundation for his wager. Pascal could have claimed that enlightened self-interest should be self-evident enough for one to accept his ethical system that serves as a foundation for his Wager. Claiming self-interest is self-evident seems like a pretty absurd assertion to me. Even if one were to go in that direction though, my guess is that Pascal actually wouldn't want to. Instead, my bet is that Pascal would place God as the foundation for his ethical system. Why is it important to choose God? Because God is important. Of course, now Pascal's circularity has revealed itself, and while Pascal might be right, he is less than convincing.

So why does this thought experiment matter for Momentary Theology? Pascal's Wager reveals that at the base of our ethical worlds are our values. Pascal's Wager functions only if we either already value God or if we already value ourselves (as individuals). However, we can't justify those values with anything like Pascal's Wager (or any other means of gauging utility) since such an argument would, in the end be circular. Which, of course, doesn't mean such values would be "false." It would simply mean that arguments from "utility" ultimately are unconvincing. Pascal's argument would only be convincing to those that already value God as basic for their ethical universe. But why would one need to convince someone to believe in a God that is already basic to their ethical universe?

This thought experiment, though, has not only illustrated another way of looking at our (very) unstable ethical foundations. It also reveals the way our ethical values serve as the heart of our ethical world. Since it was also mentioned in my last post that our ethical system serves as primary for how we function as human beings, our values reveal themselves to be the core of how we function as humans. Our unstable values make us who we are. But what is that nature of these values? How do we choose what to value? What does the world "value" even mean? These are all some of the questions which I will hope to story-tell about next time. Blame the homework (or thank it!) ;)