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Archive for February, 2012

Before/while reading, you may elect to enjoy this piece of New Zealand music from the nineties.

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One argument that I’ve experienced against Christianity has never really sunk in for me. Even in my pre-Christian years I think I would have contented myself with other issues such as whether or not God really exists, the scientific folly of miracles, why there is suffering and why this suffering needs to be extended into eternity with the likes of hell. The last one still holds true for me today. But what really never stuck was the critique of Christianity, the Church, Christians, etc, which focussed on the evils of individuals and groups within Christianity. If God is so good, then why are his followers not so? If McDonalds is so tasty (…), why did this fool undersalt my freakin’ chips? If Inception is such a well-worth-your-while movie, why can I buy it in Indonesia for 20c?

Such inconsistencies indicate a disconnect between the source and its dependent. The later two examples illustrate that the source is in part not responsible for the mistakes (even evils) of its representatives: How can McDonalds take responsibility for every action performed by the mass of individuals it hires? It may take some precautions in the hiring process but what help is that going to do for human caprice?

To say then that God is responsible for the Crusades and witch burnings, etc¹, misses this administrational aspect: People chose to do evil and endorse it with whatever was in vogue at the time.

* * *

Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.

Marcus Aurelius, the favourable Roman emperor often to which this quote is attributed nonetheless engaged in war and territorial expansion throughout his lifetime. Nietzshe was wildly sexist. Darwin’s theory of evolution had a powerful influence on Social Darwinism, the practical approach to evolution that helped justify events such as the Holocaust.

Marcus was loved by the people but in a large way failed to see those beyond his lands as people. In the case of Nietzshe, his sexism² can be separated from the positive legacy of his ideas, or even, quite willingly, from the person himself, as his sexism was a result of the intellectual climate he existed in. And Darwin was a good dude but something went horribly wrong in translation. Surely we can blame him for not preventing the evil-minded from reading his writings and using it to justify their eugenics (Note the etymology of this word, ‘eu’, good + ‘genics’, genes).

Darwin shoos off some investors

In the same way is there not a reasonable 21st Century approach to Christianity apart from its historical evils, or is not God distinguishable from the many evils of his followers? If you as an atheist are not responsible for the persecution of Christians under atheistic soviet communism, because that’s not the type of atheism you adhere to, then why is this Christian responsible for the subjugation of women in the history of Christianity, if that is not a Christianity they adhere to?

* * *

When I was in India late last year I managed to watch a documentary on National Geographic about how a woman and her husband had been kidnapped in the Philippines and taken into the jungle for a year as hostages under violently harsh conditions. The most revelatory and humbling part of the documentary was when she identified a part of herself in the actions of her persecutors. She admitted that she could not feel true disgust for what they were doing as she herself contained the same propensity to do such evil. Their evil was to her, a captive deprived of food, water, sleep, outside contact, etc,  a mirror for her own selfishness. John Bunyan, the writer of the landmark novel The Pilgrim’s Progress, three hundred years ago denounced the persecutions by and the hypocrisy of the Church of his time, which had executed or locked away many dissident voices, also wrote Grace abounding to the chief of sinners in which, as the title suggests, he saw himself as most sinful person alive and undeserving of the grace shown to him.

Did anyone else ever watch Sabrina the teenage witch and realise the sinister pun in the name of her cat?

Evil is not so much something that is found in differing doses among certain individuals and the dark nooks and crannies of our Neanderthal history, but something that we all have capacity for. If I know that so many people in the world are starving then why am I not living on bread and butter, two or three t-shirts max, fasting twice a week, and giving the rest of my time and money to the alleviation of poverty?  If I was a villager at Salem when they had the witch trials, who says I would have spoken against the killings and not condoned them? Or, even if I did speak against them, who says I would have actually done something about them, rather than acknowledging how unfortunate it was for them to actually happen, especially considering I didn’t agree with them? Not I. I am a good person by virtue of my birth. The same argument can be seen in the fact that those who are physically or sexually abused in their youth are more likely to recreate these offences in their adulthood. The evil of individuals has a lot to do with where and when they grow up and who they do that with.

* * *

Far from allowing us to separate ourselves from historical evils of the Church and other Christians, this view of evil actually compels us to take them on as our own. Darcy Clay’s Jesus I was evil gives us the chance to see ourselves in Church history and say, “Jesus, that was me; Jesus, I was evil”³. The break from evil does not consist in distancing yourself from fundamentalists and a naive past Christianity, but from embracing them as your own so that you can see them more clearly in your present life and speak and act more clearly against them in the life of the Church and society. The evil person is a product of their environment; the enemy of evil overcomes their environment.

* * *

¹Clearly, the longest etc you’ve seen in some time

²For example, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, a little old woman jokes with Zarathustra, “Are you visiting women? Do not forget your whip?” It’s possible I need a ‘wilder’ example. Also here it is important to note Nietzshe’s misinterpretation by Nazis and consequential use as justification for their crimes.

³Of course, we need to allow for the poetic flexibility of Darcy’s lyrics and the expression thereof here. It’s more likely that instead of addressing Jesus he is using his name as an intensifier to indicate the extent of his evil. What is more, Darcy justifies his current self in contrast to his earlier, evil self, “Now I help old ladies cross the street…”, etc. This, coupled with the mocking, almost boastful, tone of the outro, means a lot of imagination is required in applying Darcy’s song to my point. On the other hand, these lyrical and musical features may also indicate the true extent of the ignorance of our own evil.

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“By the term scientific is understood just what was formerly understood by the term religious: just as formerly everything called religious was held to be unquestionable simply because it was called religious, so now all that is called scientific is held to be unquestionable” — Leo Tolstoy

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Pete Townshend of The Who expressed a similar sentiment with regard to politics:

“I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution,
Take a bow for the new revolution,
Smile and grin at the change all around me,
Pick up my guitar and play,
Just like yesterday
And I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again;
Don’t get fooled again”

Pete Townshend can write thoughtful lyrics as well as play music. Who would've thought?

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With the onset of a more expressive atheism in society comes some new challenges, not so much for the Church, but the atheists themselves. In fact, you could say that a widespread rejection of all things religious in the West, not just any more at the intellectual/political level, as in the Enlightenment, but now much more at a popular level, is a spiritual improvement on former times. No this isn’t any of those Christian linguistic manipulations that claim comradery with the crowd in sharing a rejection of religion, pointing instead to ‘spirituality’ or ‘relationship’. As much as I value the idea of practice of commitment to Christ devoid of all things ‘religious’, I think there is also value in affirming religion, but that’s a-whole-nother post and I’m probably confusing the original intentions of this one. Rather, rejection of Christianity at a popular level is indicative of people actually thinking about and critically evaluating their beliefs rather than sticking with the other sheep¹. This rejection of Christianity is better in some ways than the former situation because instead of people implicitly denying their beliefs yet continuing to attend church and live an outwardly Christian life, the individual now has freedom to act on their implicit denial as explicit, and the Church can now more clearly see and care for those she missed in the first place.

But what makes an atheist a real atheist? One of the oldest forms of Christianity, which has been alive and well for centuries, is known as nominal Christianity. It’s an interdenominational movement that advocates averageness, uncritical thinking and just plain passive existence. Not surprisingly, it has wooed the hearts of many and spurred them all on to mass mediocrity. The real atheist, therefore, is a doctor who diagnoses the sick body they joined, the Church, by virtue of their parent’s faith, and abruptly quarantines their self, lest they too live a life limited by all those limiting factors of faith and unquestioning obedience to some anachronistic ethics system as one of the omni-nominal flock. The real atheist leaves the safe pasture of the sheep-church, to the boundless wilderness where the grass is sparse but the life is real. The real atheist is an individual.

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But how effectively can society/humanity handle the onset of ‘real atheism’? Is not the ‘real’ aspect of any ideology symptomatic of its pre-institutional form? Many Christians who know one or two things about church history will be quick to tell you of a pre-Constantine, organic, non-state, ‘real’ Christianity; Christianity before it became an institution, Christianity as a movement. The difference between a movement and an institution is dynamics: The movement is true to its name; it is fluid and striving against some ‘greater evil’, etc. The institution is stagnant; it is an establishment. The only movement the institution engages in is defending what it has already established.

Atheism as a popular movement is valuable as it questions Christian stances on ethical issues such as homosexuality and abortion, it critiques Christian theology such as that which puts more emphasis on the life to come than our current life, and provides alternate sources of meaning for people who have not found their place in the Church. Contrariwise, atheism as an institution sets up the same values it initially sought to dissemble: Following the crowd and an unquestioning acceptance of the new sacred knowledge, the scientific².

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I'm a closet Neo-Lamackian. True story.

During high school we had a science teacher who was a Christian. He made it clear to us that he would teach us the theory of evolution, but that he didn’t hold to any of its fundamental tenets. There is a depth of insight to be gained from the intellectual crisis that this situation presented me with in my adolescence. Imagine turning up to church on Sunday and the preacher saying that she was really an atheist so she’d deliver the material but she doesn’t really believe in it. Though now I accept evolution as it has strong scientific backing and I can’t see how it clashes with anything in the core of what it means to follow Christ, this science teacher epitomises the rebellious spirit of movement in the movement/institution dichotomy. He represents a dynamic denouncer of knowledge held sacred by the institution. It may be to the point here that there is so much evidence for evolution that any dissident voices can be classed as madmen, but this overlooks the spirit of the act. The point may be that to denounce evolution is counter-intellectual, but the spirit in denouncing evolution is counter-institutional³. How many people in society accept evolution not because they have examined the evidence and read a couple of textbooks on the subject, but because everybody else accepts it? Their is widespread consensus in the scientific community on the validity of evolutionary theory. The dissident who bemoans this is verbally lambasted rather than commended. Therefore the real atheist does not read about evolution to find evidence for what they already believe, but to examine the evidence and proceed from there.

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¹The use of ‘sheep’ here is intended as a pun.

²The scientific is just one example. Numerous liberal ideologies could also be included such as egalitarianism in all forms, which invites naysayers to a world of counter-criticism. Ironically, secular egalitarianism has a lot in common with Christians forms of the same.

³This is not to say that Young and Old Earth Creationism, Intelligent Design, etc are all anti-institutional as these movements often aim to set up another institution. In the same way that the scientific layman uncritically accepts evolution, the Christian may uncritically accept Creationism “because it’s in the Bible”.

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Thinking of leaving church? Do so in style! You have probably already considered:

-Taking up work on a Sunday and whichever other day one of those church groups wants you to attend some group to do something churchy;

-‘Forgetting’ to turn up and hoping that others will return the favour by ‘forgetting’ to ask you to do so;

-Issuing a semi-formal and, over time, rehearsed statement of why going to church is unbiblical or just hasn’t worked for you, etc;

-Relocating to the mountains, or some pagan country;

-Telling former-fellow churchgoers you don’t speak their language (any more), in a thick heathen accent;

– Or, seeking out a new church where everyone spends their time playing Nintendo instead;

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The thoughtful apostate of the church (no! not necessarily of their faith) considers all of these options and more. I can very honestly¹ tell you that I have scraped the bottom of the ecclesiastical barrel looking for a church that spends their time playing Nintendo.

Ocarina of Time is a genuinely spiritual experience

Now pose I a question to the thoughtful apostate: Is it indeed possible to leave church while remaining physically there?

Returns the Querdenker: Yes, in the same way somebody who attends a lecture elects to absent their mind in favour of sleep, yet why sleep in a lecture if you can sleep in a bed?

Pose I another question: What if this kind of leaving church is an active leaving rather than a passive?

Concludes the apostate: I think you’re just trying to trick me into going back to church through your linguistic manipulation, fool.

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How, then, could it be that the most styly way to leave church is to actually remain there? The Old Testament prophet Elijah exemplifies this.

Firstly the Spirit calls him away from his community to live in Zarephath, north of Israel in Sidon (1Kings 17:9). This is a physical departure, and I am sure people before have felt the call to leave their community physically for reasons such as being of better Kingdom use in another community, taking some time to look at the world through different lens or just finding it important to move on from any hurt they experienced in their former community. In Elijah’s new community he ministers to a widow by restoring her dead son to life. While he is gone, God is doubtless working in the hearts of his former community, as God also worked in the heart of the widow before Elijah met her.

After three years of being away from his community, the Lord calls Elijah back there (1Kings 18:1). The situation is dire: There is a three-year-long drought throughout the land, causing animals, people and crops to suffer, and much of the nation has turned to Baal, a foreign god. Prophets of Yaweh (the God of Israel), of which Elijah is one, are enthusiastically persecuted as the monarchy encourages Baal worship. Elijah’s community is fundamentally different to him in both ideology and practice. He can leave again to avoid persecution² or assimilate a large portion of himself to the new community identity. Instead, he chooses to do both and neither. He leaves the community by remaining with them and assimilates himself by retaining his prophet-hood. His value to his community is not as someone who contributes positively to their focus, but as a thorn in their side, an attendee who contributes to his community by steering it in a direction against that in which it is already heading.

Elijah leaves his community in a mini cooper

The story goes that Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal to a divine showdown: Both are to prepare a sacrifice to their g/God and call upon him to burn it up³, a way of acknowledging and receiving the sacrifice. You may know that the prophets of Baal recite their prayers and do a little dance, etc, of which Elijah later makes light after they get no response. He then soaks his sacrifice in water and prays to Yaweh, who licks it up with fire from heaven, along with wood, stones and water that made up the altar. Thus begins among the people a return to their Lord.

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You may not find the faith to call fire down from heaven to prove your point, but the Spirit can still call people to ‘leave’ a church by remaining there. Your value is in insisting on more prayer when the congregation spends too much time in their heads. Conversely, you may bring to the light the glaring inconsistencies in the faith your community professes. If everyone feels alone, don’t leave because you feel lonely, but be the point of contention in your community. And if you’re among Calvinists, well…

This is not to say that you are the only wedge in a bowl of chips, but that your heterodoxy or counterspirituality may make you mindful of what others at work among your friends have been doing for a long time before you. Moreover, you may reignite some celestial fire in another’s heart or kindle in another a new one. You are not going to lecture because you are required to and then electing to fall asleep; rather you are going to the lecture and electing to be the only one who doesn’t fall asleep. It is better to leave church than remain there.

A further point is not to outline that all gatherings have faults and that you can better remedy those faults by leaving intellectually/spiritually instead of physically, but that departing a church is necessary to its heterogeneity, its life! Although some may be called to specific prophet-hood and steer the church in a particular direction, this departure for all to attend. Each of us is one of the many. Just as Moses said, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:29).

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¹Au contraire dear reader, I am lying for the sake of poetry and possibly irony.

²Later on in the story Elijah does leave, a mix of no results and fear of persecution, but this time his leaving is not initiated by the Spirit.

³This is especially significant as my annotated bible notes that Baal was a god of fire and lightening. The story may therefore be akin to some retired politician (who no-doubt worked out and attended the gym regularly) wiping the floor with David Tua in a boxing match. Tua and the politician switch places and we find that Tua was all talk in the first place.

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“Love seeketh not itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care,
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a heaven in hell’s despair.”

So sung a little Clod of Clay,
Trodden with the cattle’s feet,
But a Pebble of the brook
Warbled out these metres meet:

“Love seeketh only Self to please,
To bind another to its delight,
Joys in another’s loss of ease,
And builds a hell in heaven’s despite.”

The clod and the pebble by William Blake

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The cover of Songs of innocence and experience

William Blake was an English poet writing in the Romantic period. Romanticism, was a literary/arts movement that reacted against the over-rationalisation and machinations¹ of Enlightenment thinking². My understanding of Romanticism is that it gave priority to the emotional and subjective, valued a return to nature³, placed worth on folk traditions (though many (most?) of Romantic writers/artists still came from the higher classes), and created an ideal world apart from the reality of everyday life.

This last aspect of Romanticism is particularly important in understanding Blake’s verse. Throughout his childhood he experienced visions and visitations that largely affected his work. His material life was also characterised by suffering, enemies and financial strain, a life that one would want to escape from. A quote of his encapsulates his Romantic orientation: “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s”4.

This poem, The clod and the pebble, is included in Blake’s collection, Songs of experience. The collection, written four years after his Songs of innocence, was in part a reaction to his previous work. The two were later collated as a single work, Songs of innocence and experience. Whereas the poems around innocence paint a picture of what it means to be naive, innocent and young, taking joy in all things, being without responsibility and approaching life spontaneously, the later poems focus on those who are ‘experienced’, that is, knowing the struggles of life and the responsibility that comes with it.

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What follows now is an analysis of the poem. If you don’t get the poem yet, you may want to read it a couple more times and try your hand, otherwise I’m giving you all the answers. One of the sad reasons that poetry isn’t as valued by modern society as it has been in the past is that people no longer work for it. You need to work to understand and appreciate poetry so if I’m going to give you all the answers then you’re only perpetuating its death…

Poem as it appears in an illuminated edition of Blake's works

For me this poem speaks of love in a rational sense versus love in an experiential sense. Notice that the smooth-bodied Pebble, having a clearly relatively easier life than the betrodden Clod, is pessimistic towards love. His love is a selfish love, love for one’s own means only, a love which he, in his comfortable lifestlye, would have long been a part of. The Clod, however, having not only a rougher life of being continually stood upon, but also made up of a less noble substance, can testify that love is good and it is selfless. The poem brings to light the discrepancy between the ideal and the real. In the ideal sense, love does not exist: Everyone is out to serve their own interests and anything purported to be loving is only the substance of myth. Nietzshe writes along similar lines in Thus spoke Zarathustra, “You crowd together with your neighbour and have beautiful words for it. But I tell you: Your love of your neighbour is your bad love of yourselves. You flee to your neighbour away from yourselves and would like to make a virtue of it: but I see through your ‘selflessness'”. The real, the actual loving, cannot be justified by words, because the world of words is dominated by idealists. The Clod has no time for the ideal; he rather spends his time in the real, in the action of loving, and if anyone wish to contend with him, they must contend also in the real. They must show by their actions that love is nothing, else their words are nothing. The cattle will not listen to the Pebble’s definition of love; rather they know the Clod’s definition of love through experience as he has given himself for them to tread upon day in and day out.

A very interesting structural feature of the poem is that the Pebble has the last word. The poem opens beautifully, giving us a definition of what it means to love. Why does Blake choose the counter-resolution of ending instead with the Pebble’s cynical definition of love? Firstly I think this is indicative of the silent nature of love. The Pebble’s voice gives the lasting impression of the poem while the Clod retains his sacrificial love. He has no time to debate on the meaning of love; he is too busy loving. His opening dialogue was not reactionary; rather he was spontaneously speaking out in joy of the love he had experienced in giving. The Pebble, on hearing this, then reacts with pessimism. Secondly, this indicates the persistence of the ideal in our thinking, persistence because the poem ends on this note, when our real lives run counter to what we think or idealise.

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This is a note on metre in Blake’s poem. Most people will find this part quite boring (there are no pictures) so I give you full permission to skip ahead of it =)

The majority of this poem is written in iambic tetrameter, having four feet per line (tetrameter), each foot consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (iambic): “Love SEEK-eth NOT it-SELF to PLEASE”. Blake however omits the unstressed syllable at the beginning of line two, three and four in the second stanza. This does not greatly interrupt the flow of the poem, as each line still contains the same number of stressed beats. I don’t think it would’ve have been difficult for Blake to include some unstressed syllables in the stanza either, for example: “Be-TROD-den WITH the CAT-tle’s FEET, /But HEARD a PEB-ble OF the BROOK /And WAR-bled OUT these MET-res MEET” (The extra syllables to complete the iambs have been indicated in bold).

I would conclude that Blake either omitted the syllables out of carelessness or choice. If choice, then possibly he is indicating action in a break from the dialogue by focussing on the distinction between the Clod and the Pebble. This affect is achieved because the absence of the preceding unstressed syllable speeds the lines a up a tad and begins them more aggressively. Also contributing to this is the fact that two of these lines begin with a verb. On the other hand, carelessness I think is more probable. But maybe that’s not the right word. There is a simplicity about Blake’s verse in the volume in which this poem is included, Songs of innocence and experience. Blake was probably not too concerned about meeting metrical convention as he was in communicating his ideas through his metaphorical aphorisms. Perhaps ‘carefreeness’  is more aptly applied in this sense than carelessness. This possibility is reinforced by the extra unstressed syllable in line two of the third stanza: “To BIND a-NO-ther to ITS de-LIGHT”.

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I have a few poems in mind that I would like to explore. I am open to requests, depending on the depth and quality of the poem! Ha!

* * *

¹A clever pun

²While it’s still fashionable to bag the Enlightenment, I will remain on that bandwagon

³Wordsworth, a true lover of nature, epitomises this tenet of Romanticism. His famous poem, The world is too much with us, is a good example of this.

4This for me has a similar ring to Voltaire’s “If God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him”. Blake refers to Voltaire both directly and indirectly in his poetry. This poem of his addressing Voltaire is an example of the anti-rationalist heart of Romanticism.

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A friend once relayed to me, “What happens if Pinnochio says that his nose is about to grow?”

Of course, Pinnochio’s nose only grows when he is lying. But if his nose does grow then he would be found to have been telling the truth, so his nose shouldn’t therefore grow. But if his nose does not grow, then he would be lying, and the natural consequence of Pinnochio’s lying is therefore avoided by his cunning linguistic manipulation.

So… what actually happens? I would say that his nose grows. Pinnochio’s default state can probably be said to be one of truthfulness rather than deceit. I say this because his nose is more often not growing than growing. This means that at any given moment in time, we can say that his nose in the next moment is going to be the same, contingent on his current state of truthfulness. Yet Pinnochio at this time breaks the non-consequential nose. His statement makes an assumption about the future, contrary to what his current state of truthfulness necessitates the future to be: without nose growth. If so, he makes an incorrect statement about the immediate future, therefore breaking the state of truthfulness and entering into a state of lying. His nose will grow because at the very moment he said “My nose is about to grow” he was lying; his nose in the state of truthfulness was never “about to grow” and he is only found to have been speaking the truth in retrospect of the consequences of his words¹. The paradox can therefore only be understood when placed in time.

* * *

¹If the paradox has a solvable consequence, beyond time and space imploding at the whim of Pinnochio’s thoughtless words, then it therefore creates the new paradox: Pinnochio is simultaneously lying and speaking the truth. Why does he only receive the consequences of a lying Pinnochio then? Why does his nose not meet him half way and grow sideways or at half the speed or into his face instead of out, in some way acknowledging that he is at the same time truthful? This is because at the moment that he lied his nose had not yet grown. In retrospect he was truthful and his nose had not yet grown. In the present he lied, as his nose also grew in the present.

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