Wilco’s “Theologians”


Originally posted on Five-Cent Synthesis:

I admit ignorance about Jeff Tweedy as a person, and only know him through his music. The long time frontman of Wilco has proved time and again to be musically curious while well moored in traditional folk, country and rock; a serious songwriter that occasionally has a touch of the chaotic. He also seems to have an eye on the divine, with songs spanning decades that at least tangentially muse upon the subject: Jesus Etc.Theologians, and I’ll Fight.

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Lip Service Is All You Ever Get From Me…


(Disclaimer: Elvis Costello likely would not support this post, but this song has a handy title. It’s a gem from 1978.)

One hears these days, more and more, pronouncements along these lines:

Religion is ok and everything, you know, it’s good for when you have problems and that sort of thing. But not when it permeates the rest of your life.

What drives this tepid endorsement? Can one be too Christian for his own good? It is actually a rather odd statement, because it seems religion is particularly not good at solving problems, if that is construed as giving you what you want. This attitude, which amounts to lip service, would seem to be a cocktail mixed from several prevalent spirits: an underlying theme that religion causes evil, a fear of being a “fundamentalist”, the acceptance of moral relativism, and the idea that religion curtails the individual’s freedom and pursuit of happiness. Starting in reverse order… Continue reading

For the Simple Life


IMG_0248The world is a thing of beauty

A big ball of blue in a vast sea of black

And on this ball we live

O how we live!

 

I watch the children play in the garden

Creating worlds ex nihilo

From nothing they craft a great adventure

The world their canvas

Their minds their brush

Too young to face corruption

To have lost the ideal

Still enough belief in reality

To believe dragons still roam the earth

 

We are destroying this world

With our regressive progress

“Science will save us!”

O the blind optimism of ignorant fools

“Science has damned us!” I yell

But I am the madman

And retreat back to the mountain top

 

In my solitude I find that beauty

Away from all of you

 

Sex, glory, power: The unholy trinity

We’ve sold beauty in all things

To obtain these trifles of vanity

We want sex without love

Glory without dignity

Power without self-control

A living without a life

We want, we want, we want!

But we will not give

 

Observe the clouds

O modern

They form and collapse

And give no worry

They birds sing and live

But we remain silent

 

In this silence let us find ourselves

Let us return to Reality

in earnest meditation

Clear our minds of our own pollution

Find beauty, and just live

Thinking With the Wrong Head or, Richard Dawkins on Altruism


As many of you are well aware, the existence of genuine love or altruism is often leveled against the naturalistic worldview as evidence of its implausibility.  But those who buy into such pathetic argumentation simply don’t understand the richness of the Darwinian perspective.   You may be surprised to learn that the New Atheists, especially Richard Dawkins, are actually romantics at heart.  I dare say that the conception of altruism explicated so eloquently in his acclaimed work The God Delusion would move even the hardest of hearts to start composing Shakespearean sonnets! 

Like many great romantics, Dawkins begins his discourse on love with a rousing passage on the ontological foundation of love itself:       
“The most obvious way in which genes ensure their own ‘selfish’ survival relative to other genes is by programming individual organism to be selfish.  There are indeed many circumstances in which survival of the individual organism will favour the survival of the genes that ride inside it.  But different circumstances favour different tactics.  There are circumstances – not particularly rare – in which genes ensure their own selfish survival by influencing organisms to behave altruistically.”
In this stirring piece of prose Dawkins skillfully uncovers the underlying foundations of naturalistic anthropology.  Through it we learn that man is but a passive composition of matter blown and tossed by the mindless and purposeless wind of biology (please note that you should ignore the teleological language he employees; words like “tactics” and the like).  We see that, at its core, altruism is rooted in pre-programmed instincts involuntarily thrust upon us by our “selfish” genes.  From this foundation he weaves a beautiful tapestry of possibilities–sure to make many a fair maiden’s heart pound with passion:     
“We now have four good Darwinian reasons for individuals to be altruistic, generous or ‘moral’ towards each other.  First, there is the special case of genetic kinship.  Second, there is reciprocation:  the repayment of favours given, and the giving of favours in ‘anticipation’ of payback.  Following on from this there is, third, the Darwinian benefit of acquiring a reputation for generosity and kindness.  And fourth . . . there is the particular additional benefit of conspicuous generosity as a way of buying unfakeably authentic advertising.”
In order to fully appreciate the profundity of the kaleidoscope of Darwinian explanations offered here we must pause to consider exactly what kind of love is being presented to us. 

The Four Loves

Classically speaking, there are four kinds of love.  The Greeks distinguished between the different forms of love using four distinct words: agápe, éros, philía, and storgē.  Dawkins’ elaboration on altruism seems to fall within the realm of éros, and storgē–the forms of love that come upon us in waves of emotion entirely outside of our control.  For we undergo these forms of love as mere passive receptors.  They are the product of a diverse range of factors including our environment and, yes, even our biology.  Storgē is quite simply the feeling of affection that we have for our kin—e.g., the “fluttery” warm feeling experienced by a mother holding her child—and éros is the feeling of desire—e.g., a wave of sexual longing, or craving a succulent piece of steak.  While, according to the classical understanding, we can make choices that intentionally direct our lives toward things that engender these types of love, they are ultimately brought on by forces outside of our volition.  Thus, they stand in marked contrast to agápe (self-giving love), and philía (friendship) which are rooted in the will.
 
But Richard Dawkins, in a stroke of poetic genius, turns away from the classical veiw and paints a picture of a world in which true agápe and philía are but an illusion.  For him altruism can only be explained in terms of éros, and storgē: 
         
“What natural selection favours is rules of thumb, which work in practice to promote the genes that built them.  Rules of thumb, by their nature, sometimes misfire.  In a bird’s brain, the rule ‘Look after small squawking things in your nest, and drop food into their red gapes’ typically has the effect of preserving the genes that built the rule, because the squawking, gaping objects in an adult bird’s nest are normally its own offspring  The rule misfires if another baby bird somehow gets into the nest . . .”
He goes on to explain:  
“I am suggesting that the same is true of the urge to kindness – to altruism, to generosity, to empathy, to pity.  In ancestral times, we had the opportunity to be altruistic only towards close kin and potential reciprocators.  Nowadays, that restriction is no longer there, but the rule of thumb persists.  Why would it not?  It is just like sexual desire.  We can no more help ourselves feeling pity when we see a weeping unfortunate (who is unrelated and unable to reciprocate) than we can help ourselves feeling lust for a member of the opposite sex (who may be infertile or otherwise unable to reproduce).  Both are misfirings, Darwinian mistakes:  blessed, precious mistakes.”
In other words, true acts of love are glorious (?) mistakes; accidental properties of nature brought about by instincts and passions mechanically instigated by our genes.  Now, I don’t know about you, but this moves me to tears every time I think about it.  If you don’t feel the same, stick with me and I think you’ll change your mind.    

The Blessedness of Darwinism

Contrary to what some might think it’s clear that Darwinism, with its robust foundation of unintentional self-edifying desire, warm fuzzy feelings, and brute instincts, is a powerful platform upon which to build and explain deep, meaningful, expressions of love.  Take, for example, the Catholic priest in North Africa who is currently harboring nearly 700 Muslims in his church.  He’s literally risking his own life to protect them from an extremist group attempting to eradicate the Muslim population in their country.  Thanks to Dawkins we now understand that he is not intentionally laying down his life for his fellow man because they are made in the image of God and therefore intrinsically valuable.  And he is surely not acting in accordance with the virtues of courage or fortitude.  Rather, and I say this in the most beautiful and uplifting way imaginable, he is undergoing an evolutionary misfire.  Just dwell on that notion for a moment.
You see, in a strange and (to use the adjectives so aptly employed by Dawkins) blessed and precious quirk of fate this priest is mistakenly extending charity to Muslims.  Mind you, this is ultimately a meaningless and quit unintentional happening in the life of the universe–and I really don’t have to explain to you how heartwarming that fact is—but we can all appreciate the beauty of this utterly futile event!
Herein lies the real magic of Darwinism.  No matter how meaningless our actions are, we can make them sound nice by attaching uplifting adjectives like “blessed” or “precious” to them.  This is especially helpful when considering a variety of seemingly “self-less” acts performed my people every day.  Consider the gentleman who cared for and eventually married his invalid fiancé.  We all know the real reason he tenderly cared for her, after she had that unfortunate fall and became paralyzed from the waist down, is because of an irresistible sexual impulse built into him by his “selfish” genes.  You see, his brain mistakenly thought he needed to preserve her to bear children and preserve his genetic code (and possibly do his laundry).  The folk way of viewing love might have mistaken his actions as being actual acts of self-giving and service; sacrifices he intentionally chose because he valued her and recognized her personhood.  The folk way would even have us thinking he was acting in accordance with the virtue of charity.  But, in truth, he was just thinking with “the wrong head”—as my grandfather’s drill sergeant might have described it.  Now this might sound crass but there is really no need to despair because if we close our eyes and click our heels . . . we’ll soon see that this evolutionary misfire is the stuff of poetry.        
     

The Invisible and Otherness


It hardly is worth repeating that Socrates spent a lot of time in dialogue with others. However it is worth repeating that he spent much of his effort to point out the difference between appearances and reality. As Plato’s interlocutor, one suspects his distinction tends toward the vertical relationship between the forms/ideas and matter that the former eventually articulated. The excesses of that conception excepted, the distinction between what appears and what really is is a perennial one that drives our striving to understand and to live well.

Two themes I have come to notice in Christianity, no doubt belatedly, is the importance of the invisible and presence of otherness. By invisible I mean those realities and their aspects that are essentially beyond our sensible recognition. Are these real? By otherness, I mean the emphasis on that which is beyond our control, the objective nature of the world we live in. It is in light of these two themes that life as a Christian can come into and remain in focus; following the Way, the Truth, and the Life only makes sense when one recognizes there is reality beyond which our eyes can perceive, and the swollen pride that deceives one into subjugating that which cannot be subjugated must be bled (or iced, if you prefer). Continue reading

Empathy Goes a Long Way or, The One Where Matt Walsh is Wrong (Again)


DSC01434I’ve done quite a bit to avoid writing about Matt Walsh, mostly because I really don’t want to give him the time of day. His posts typically consist of the following pattern:

[Sarcastic strawman of position he's going to argue against]

[Saying, "Yeah, but that position is just wrong, and you're stupid if you believe it, let me show you how]

[If you believe x, and I don't believe x, then you're a moron. QED]

Go through most of his writings where he’s contra-anything and you’ll see that tends to be his typical pattern. Recently, he wrote about how he thinks white men can have an opinion on any issue and that one cannot be dismissed simply because one is a white man. To be fair, he’s mostly right; being a man, woman, black, white, straight, homosexual or anything does not preclude one from forming an opinion on any issue. After all, if I read that Nigerian terrorists are kidnapping women for simply going to school, I do not need to be from Nigeria nor a woman in order to form the opinion that what these terrorists are doing is wrong. Likewise, on the issue of abortion, I need not be a woman in order to make the argument that killing an innocent human being is wrong, nor do I need to be a woman to make the argument that a fetus is an innocent human being. There are far too many people who simply dismiss an argument by saying, “Well, you aren’t a man/woman/military member/pacifist/etc, therefore you cannot make a valid argument on this issue.” It’s not just liberals that do this either; argue that the war in Iraq was unjustified and someone will might argue that since you’re not a veteran, you can’t have an opinion on the matter.

Had Walsh decided to make a well-reasoned argument, showing that it’s a logical fallacy (poisoning the well, ad hominem, and so on), then good on him. Sadly, of course, you don’t get to his level of popularity without polarizing the issues (which is probably why we at The Christian Watershed will happily hover in our current readership). Thus, instead of saying, “I get where you’re coming from, but here are some good reasons as to why you’re wrong,” we get, “Man, you’re an idiot and it’s stupid and you’re a liberal and I’m right and I’m white so I’m going to mock you and never make an actual point.”

However, Walsh then explains why he’s chosen to write about this specific issue, and it’s in this moment that I realize he’s wrong. He states,  Continue reading

Against the Entropic Hope


IMG_0954Look at the glow of their faces,

glued to their phones and computers

They do not even see their hopelessness,

no questions asked, marching to their futures

 

What has become of my generation?

We are lost in our quest for money

Promised the world but too afraid to take it

We will not cross to the land of milk and honey

 

Work! Obey your masters! Slave away!

Toss aside your dreams and questions

of existence and meaning, they bring no profit

Hide behind technology, retreat to your bastions

 

O life how we have failed you

Not to conquer you, but embrace you like a lover

An invitation to reality you sent us

But we’ve chosen to run into the arms of another

 

Was it the shooting in the mountains?

Was it the crashing of a plane into our prosperity?

Was it the collapse of a broken system?

Was it the lack of our leaders’ transparency?

 

What caused us to lose our courage to live?

Have we surrendered to the commodification of our essence?

Did we even know to put up a fight?

Surrounded by stuff we feel a distinct lack of presence

 

How I wish we could live once again

and pursue life as a lover and friend

To see life with our eyes and not a lens

To truly live before our inevitable end

 

We are broken children from broken homes

Estranged from ourselves with no known identity

“Who am I” is a scary question to ask

A hazy people so desperately seeking clarity

 

Love is what we want, to find meaning

But ignorance of love is our curse

Lost to us like Atlantis, a myth never known

Condemned to live an undefined life, so terse

 

Beautifully ignorant of what it is we hunger for

We stumble through life drunk on entropic hope

A hope that will never pass or come to be

It is a reality with which we cannot cope

 

I see not a sunrise, but a sunset

Tomorrow will be tomorrow, no better or worse

I will face it and hopefully survive

If necessary, I will drink and curse

 

But life still continues to thrive around us

It is still waiting for us to partake

in all that it has to offer

For us to go out and make

 

Embrace life you ignorant fools!

For what will we do otherwise?

I turn from this apathetic generation

I take life and mundane death I despise

 

I look for hope and I find none

And now I am forever undone

And now I am forever undone