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Archive for June, 2012

In my yet tiny survey of continental philosophy I’ve now and again encountered the dichotomy of possibility and necessity. A corrupt definition may be something like possibility being that which could be and necessity being that which must be. But notice my imposition of time onto the definition, even if I change tense. Maybe there’s a simple definition of possibility and necessity that goes beyond something which could have or must have been. Notice also that could be and must be can be used in reference to present or future? But there are further imperfections in the choice of language. To say that something must be is not pure necessity; there is a tinge of possibility in the word must. Pure necessity is better represented by is. Something that is is much more necessary than something that must be, and with that the shortcomings of necessity as a word are also exposed: The purest necessity actually is actuality, because something that is actual is ironically more necessary than something that is necessary.

But here also time confuses things. Is only makes sense in English when used in the present. To describe something necessary in the future we can say that it will be, but we have no designation for actuality in the future. This is probably because our conception of time doesn’t allow for actuality in the future. The future by definition, in referring to something that will be, necessitates that something to not be presently. For example, to say that Terminator II is an awesome movie and it will still be awesome in the future requires us to differentiate between present awesome and future awesome, although they may be qualitatively identical. Because there is a future for the awesomeness of Terminator II to not yet be means that presently Terminator II is not future-awesome, but only present-awesome. Time has required awesomeness to make reference to it, a kind of acknowledging of the sponsors. Terminator II is always awesome. If something is, then it always is.

Even simply prefixing is with always, however, makes it impotent. Always, though expressing it means there is no operating exception, necessitates the possibility of an exception. To say something always is is to defend it against the accusation of sometimes-not-is, sometime-past-not-is (not-was-is) and sometime-future-not-is (not-will-be-is). The only half-satisfactory word for actuality in English is is, and it must be expressed without qualifiers, in its pure isness.

This kind of thinking has probably led some theologies to conclude that God is outside of time. Take for example this verse from the psalms:

Lord, you have been our dwelling place
throughout all generations.
Before the mountains were born
or you brought forth the whole world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

(Psalm 90:1-2 NIV).

The psalmist contrasts their human conception of temporal linearity (Before the mountains were born) with a transcendent conception of God (you are God). God’s actuality cannot be diminished by any idea of past, present, future, yet his actuality, his isness, is poetically intertwined with our understanding of time.

* * *

Actuality is purest necessity. What is pure possibility? Possibility I have found to be a much harder concept than necessity. It requires a much more violent overhaul of language than a definition of pure necessity. If we can constrain must be by naming it is, what can we do to free could? There is some necessity in saying that you could be a closet appreciator of geraniums. The necessity exists in another possibility: In postulating your abominable appreciation of geraniums I make reference to the possibility that you are indifferent to them, or better, despise them. These examples might be more comprehensible with numbers. Say there is a 0.98 probability/possibility that you could appreciate geraniums. The other 0.02 denotes the infinite number of ways in which you couldn’t. To say could recognises this other possibility, the 0.02, as a necessity which holds it back from being pure possibility. Notice how probability restricts us from understanding pure possibility. To say either there is a 1 or a 0 probability that you enjoy geraniums is to lean very heavily into actuality. At both ends of the scale of possibility there is only actuality.

There exists no opposite of is. Something can not-is, be non-existent, but non-existence is a form of actuality. There is no freedom in is, nor is there in not-is. Does the lack of a kind of superlative for could indicate a lack of imagination on part of the English language? Can we imagine a condition of complete freedom, or is our freedom always understood in reference to that which is not free?

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Recently, a flurry of viagra spam has been filling up behind the scenes on my blog here. Consider this post a kind of viagra spam. You might not want to hear about it, but, as in my experience, it’s no longer something you can easily avoid.

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When I first became a Christian, one of the heaviest reservations I held was the denunciation of homosexuality. In school, you could say I was ‘indoctrinated’ to believe that everything gay was a good thing, that same-sex attraction was just as normal as liking girls, so much so that after five years of high school I had no objections, other than my still dismissive attitude towards homosexuality. All that I had a problem with was overtly homophobic attitudes, expressed predominantly by Christians, and old people here and there, and people that lived on farms.

After a becoming a Christian late into my seventeenth year, my views on the homosexual question gradually began to change. My dismissive attitude passed (mostly), as I was more aware of how offensive it could be to refer to something I didn’t like as ‘gay’, yet the underpinning stance, that which I used to understand as homophobic, now became more acceptable to me: It was alright to oppose homosexual marriage and support ideas such as gays being ‘healed’, that is, becoming straight (and later on down the track I accepted the idea of homosexual celibacy), but it was not alright to direct any hate or bad jokes towards homosexuals — only this was homophobic.

My unashamed homophonic enthusiasm for puns, however, never changed.

Five and a bit years later I’m ready to come out of the closet¹: This post will examine two aspects of my Christian worldview, these two which I think many Christian friends will share in common with me, and demonstrate some of the intellectual hypocrisy in my thinking these last years.

* * *

As I began reading the New Testament, some deep internal changes were going on. I was totally taken aback by Jesus’ words on loving your enemies, and Paul’s similar exhortations to overcome evil with good. The centrality of love in these writings presented me with no difficulty in affirming their divine origin. On this basis did I read the passages concerning the subjugation of women in the church: The only thing subjugatory about them for me was under circumstances where people would desire otherwise, but if God had desired that men should lead the flock and head the family while women accepted their natural roles as child-bearers and nurturers then why not be obedient? For those unfamiliar with the passages, I’ll cite a few:

“I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ” (1Corinthians 11:3 NRSV).

“Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, in modesty” (1Timothy 2:13-15 NRSV).

“Husbands, in the same way, show consideration for your wives in your life together, paying honour to the women as the weaker sex, since they too are also heirs of the gracious gift of life–so that nothing may hinder your prayers” (1Peter 3:7 NRSV).

With these and other passages in mind, I began to notice discrepancies between biblical teaching and church practice. What gave Christians the right to pick and choose which passages they would abide by? Some Wikipedia funded research here and there, some searching online, and good conversations with good friends began to provide me with another perspective:

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28 NRSV — I especially like how the NRSV repeats the ‘there is no longer’). Probably the most popularly cited verse for the egalitarian view, Paul powerfully presents the Gospel as a way of life that transcends socio-cultural qualifiers.

The weaker sex, Ms Truchbull

Because of space, I’ll only summarise the other points. Adam and Eve were created equally (Genesis 1:7) but after sin, gender roles/distinctions came about as a result of the Fall (Genesis 3:16-19). Women in Jesus’ ministry held a privileged place, one of the most commonly cited examples being that a few women Jesus knew were the first to find out he had risen from the dead and then go and tell the disciples the good news (Luke 23:55-24:10) (other examples can be found here). Lydia is the first recorded convert in Europe, who boldly offered the apostles a place to stay, against social norms of the time (Acts 16:14-15). Paul refers to ladies in leadership in a few of his letters, including Junia, whom he refers to as an apostle (Romans 16:7).

Any attempt to harmonise these two very different strands of New Testament stances on women leads necessarily to complementarianism: That is that men and women were created with the intention of playing different roles in society. If we don’t acknowledge that then the first lot of cited verses hold no sway. It must be acknowledged by those who support women in church leadership, as do I, that we give priority to some verses over others. To hold a properly egalitarian view, neither can the words “the husband is the head of his wife” be explained away by appealing to their First Century context: They always meant what they meant and therefore must instead be passed over.

Earlier this year there was some controversy considering Margaret Court, ex-professional-tennis-player turned Australian pastor. Her opposition to gay marriage was in every sense ironic. She clearly ignored Paul’s advice for sound ecclesiology, “Women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says” (1Corinthians 14:34 NRSV). Her pastorship was based on the denial of passages such as these. If we allow a Christianity that does not discriminate according to birth, that women who desire to be leaders and have equal standing with their husbands in family matters should be allowed to, then why not allow a Christianity that does not discriminate against homosexuals for desires they did not choose themselves?

Yet, there are many complementarians out there. This argument holds no sway. Let’s move on.

* * *

Catholic theology will always hold a much more justifiable stance against homosexuality, in relation to other Christian worldviews. This is because Catholic theology has a much better understanding of what is natural. It is natural that men lead and women nurture. It is natural that people of the opposite sex are attracted to each other. It is natural that sex leads to babies.

Consider Paul’s words on what is natural, probably the most cited passage supporting Christian rejection of homosexuality:

For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

(Romans 1:26-27 NRSV).

Yet, the well-read interlocutor raises this point: Paul’s reasoning may easily be disregarded by an appeal to modern day science: All sorts of animals enjoy all sorts of sexual practices, including homosexuality. How then can it be unnatural? I’m sure there is something we can say to this. Homosexuality in animals is as unnatural as it is in humans, in the same way, as Christians taking note of the Fall would mention, that it’s unnatural for animals to kill each other. Just because something happens in nature, this does not provide evidence for its being natural. But we need to take Paul more seriously. Homosexuality in the bedroom is unnatural precisely because it does not fulfill the foundational natural aim of sex: reproduction. Two horny male rabbits in isolation will always find it difficult to ‘bear fruit’, even if they are rabbits.

The unquestioned sexual practices of many Christians the world over need first be examined before any decisive opposition to homosexuality. Contraception is by this criteria unnatural. It is only possible in various Christian worldviews by a redefinition of the meaning of sex: God’s gift to husband and wife to express their love for each other. Sex as purely reproduction is too old-school. Orthodox Catholic theology is one example of a worldview which still upholds the sanctity of sex and family purely for its reproductive value, for natural sex, and therefore one of the only solid worldviews for opposing homosexuality. If you would like to oppose homosexuality yet are currently using or intending to use contraception then you must consider: Giraffes don’t use condoms².

* * *

The discussion is in no sense yet over. I welcome all comments and will do my best to reply to them, as I neglected to do so last time. One word before continuing though. Just because something has always been accepted, it doesn’t mean it’s rational. When ideas change in society, people have the tendency of looking for ways in which the older ideas were rational. The reasoning seems to be that if people believed something for so long then there must’ve been some rationality behind it, just as there was rationality behind slave trading, racism, sexism, persecution of religious minorities — the list goes on. Issues continually need to be re-examined in a new light.

* * *

¹I recommend that every Christian heterosexual male (you don’t need to be white or middle-class) entertain some mystery concerning their sexual orientation, as a kind of living sacrifice. If every ready, willing and able, Spirit-filled female thinks you’re gay then every effort you have hitherto made to secure the ideal marriage is now effectively in God’s hands.

²Admittedly, my assertion lacks the academic research to support it. I acknowledge that their could be contraceptive practices out there in the wild, but these must be subjected to same criteria as homosexuality in the wild, that is it has no natural reproductive value.

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It’s like how they used to swallow whiskey before bed so they could sleep better. Maybe that was why I used to read my bible before bed. Sometimes it even worked.

* * *

I’m still pulling quotes out of Zizek’s Violence left, right and central because there’s a bit of profundity times infinity contained within those pages. Here’s what he has to say on suffering:

Opposite such a violent enforcement of justice stands the figure of divine violence as unjust, as an explosion of divine caprice whose exemplary case is, of course, that of Job. After Job is hit by calamities, his theological friends come, offering interpretations which render these calamities meaningful. The greatness of Job is not so much to protest his innocence as to insist on the meaninglessness of his calamities.

(p.152, Big Ideas series, 2006).

And:

This legacy of Job prevents us from taking refuge in the standard transcendent figure of God as a secret Master who knows the meaning of what appears to us as meaningless catastrophe, the God who sees the entire picture in which what we perceive as a stain contributes to global harmony.

(p.153).

Zizek here presents suffering not as a question that we look for answers to, but as a question of which answers are unworthy¹. Job asks God a whole lot of questions. God asks a whole lot back. Contrast this with a couple of verses from the New Testament. Paul writes to persecuted Christians and helps them deal with their suffering by attributing some eternal meaning to it: “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2Corinthians 4:17 NIV). Jesus warns his disciples of martyrdom and in the inevitability of the death of sparrows must attribute it to God’s purposes: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care” (Matthew 10:28-29 NIV). How seriously should we take Job’s existential struggle with suffering?

Peewee Herman is no fool

If we view suffering in this guise, as a question, then the answers which diminish its value are shown to not actually be answers at all; the person who answers the question of suffering immediately negates it. To give an answer to the question of suffering is to attempt to say “Suffering doesn’t exist” because now the word suffering holds a meaning entirely different to that which we first understood it as. To suffer is, with regards to Paul, to brighten the light of eternal life by providing an earthly contrast. To suffer is, with regards to Jesus², to accept the will of God. We no longer read suffering as it is, a question. That there are answers actually says something fundamentally different to the answers themselves. Whereas the answers themselves by implication say that suffering doesn’t exist, the existence of the answers, and the need for the answers in response to a question, show that the question does exist, that suffering is a reality as a question without answers.

Right about now it would be meet to engage Zizek in the classic critique of nihilism, as his understanding of suffering is literally nihilistic, that is, without meaning. The critique goes that to say our existence is without meaning is to actually make a meaningful conclusion regarding existence. Therefore, to say suffering is meaningless overlooks the fact that you’re actually saying something about suffering — by designating it as a question you’re actually providing an answer.

This is my way of doing justice to Zizek, by misunderstanding him. The only authentic engagement with suffering is impossible, because it requires that sufferer only suffers, without reflecting at all on their suffering. This too, is the problem with Nietzsche’s amor fati, which although a central idea in his philosophy has probably not exerted as much influence on contemporary thought as his other ideas. Nonetheless, I’ll make use of my liberty and attack it. Amor fati, to love fate, that is to accept everything in life as your lot and not just bear it, not bemoan it, but embrace it and love it, including suffering, is in this sense also impossible. You can have your amor or your fati; you cannot have an amor fati though. To love necessitates a subject that loves; fate necessitates no freedom on part of the subject, and therefore no subject. You can have your amor by ceasing to live according to fate and deciding you embrace all that you have no control over, a kind of limited conception of fate, or you can have your fati by engaging with fate as fate dictates you. Already the words amor fati are pure tautology because they introduce a reflection into an existence that depends on the absence of reflection. To live literally according to this philosophy we must be as rocks coming down a landslide who are subject wholly to physical factors. Conscious rocks, somewhat hurt by the landslide, yet deciding to embrace the suffering regardless, are no longer subject wholly to physical factors because of their decision to embrace. Their reflection, amor, destroys their fati.

Carpe diem.

So I’ve pointed out how every reflection upon suffering, every answer to the question of suffering, is fundamentally the same. To avoid further caricatures of great minds, there remains the possibility that all reflections we impose on suffering, though fundamentally the same, are functionally and qualitatively different. I cannot yet say anything authoritative regarding philosophy, but please humour me. What if all misunderstandings, all accusations of a circular argument, have rested on a confusion of the terms fundamental and qualitative. There has been some universality in what everyone has said at any point in time because they speak through the medium of language, but that everyone has said something different at any time is also assumed. If all truth is subjective and I cannot say ‘truth is subjective’ because I am subjectively presenting a truth as objective can I then really not say it? What if my truth is fundamentally subjective, but qualitatively objective? And with this assumption, Nietzsche and Zizek can put forth alternative readings on the nature of suffering, even claim that they are not readings at all, despite fundamentally being readings, because qualitatively they are different readings.

To illustrate the point further, a few posts back I wrote on Nietzsche’s critique of selflessness: True selflessness is impossible because your desire to help someone is always a response to a desire within yourself. But Nietzsche misses an important distinction. Although every action is fundamentally selfish, slapping someone with a fish and cooking them a fish are qualitatively different.

With these thoughts in mind we approach suffering. Whether you define it as an opportunity for anxious engagement with meaninglessness or hope, either choice inevitably acts as an opiate or a crutch, only that each is qualitatively different.

* * *

¹I think Zizek’s point in his reading of Job nonetheless stands, but it is a little wishful. Although God doesn’t give Job direct answers, he still rebukes him, and when I read the text I get the feeling that it assumes there are answers behind suffering, only that they are unintelligible to us.

²Neither the quote from 2Corinthians nor from Matthew should be seen as a statement indicating Paul or Jesus’ overall interpretation of suffering; these are just examples.

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A couple or so days ago I came across Christopher Hitchens’ The Portable Atheist. It’s amazing how someone can be so well-read, where Christopher is both the subject and the object of that verb (which is functioning as an adjective). The book opens with a couple of quotes from Primo Levi, an Italian who survived Auschwitz. Hitchens dedicates the book to him. Here’s one of the quotes:

Silence slowly prevails and then, from my bunk on the top row, I see and hear old Kuhn praying aloud, with his beret on his head, swaying backwards and forwards violently. Kuhn is thanking God because he has not been chosen.

Kuhn is out of his senses. Does he not see Beppo the Greek in the bunk next to him, Beppo who is twenty years old and is going to the gas-chamber the day after tomorrow and knows it and lies there looking fixedly at the light without saying anything and without even thinking anymore? Can Kuhn fail to realize that next time it will be his turn? Does Kuhn not understand that what has happened today is an abomination, which no propitiatory prayer, no pardon, no expiation by the guilty, which nothing at all in the power of man can ever clean again? If I was God, I would spit at Kuhn’s prayer.

And that’s it. On this haphazard visit I foolishly ended up buying a collection of Heidegger’s rightings. I am gradually beginning to experience the gap between owning books and reading them. My soul too is society to an ever-increasing gap between the rich and the poor. Just to let you know, my over-engagement with reading material and good friends has crippled my usual enthusiastic blogging machinations. Something decent will arise out of this. In a few weeks or so. Unless I read Heidegger and realise out of pure deduction from his plethora of perspective that everything to say has already been said and in some sort of cliché despair turn to writing dark children’s books. And with that I leave you with a quote from my second favourite Arminian, Roger E. Olson (although he did not write it but “Someone” did):

“Someone has said that no theology is worth believing that cannot be preached standing in front of the gates of Auschwitz” (Against Calvinism, 2011, p.25).

This is a picture of Heidegger

This is a picture of Marlon Brando

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