Wednesday, May 15, 2013

(#5) A Heretic's guide to the universe

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states:
For Kierkegaard Christian faith is not a matter of regurgitating church dogma. It is a matter of individual subjective passion, which cannot be mediated by the clergy or by human artefacts. Faith is the most important task to be achieved by a human being, because only on the basis of faith does an individual have a chance to become a true self. This self is the life-work which God judges for eternity.
Christian dogma, according to Kierkegaard, embodies paradoxes which are offensive to reason. The central paradox is the assertion that the eternal, infinite, transcendent God simultaneously became incarnated as a temporal, finite, human being (Jesus). There are two possible attitudes we can adopt to this assertion, viz. we can have faith, or we can take offense. What we cannot do, according to Kierkegaard, is believe by virtue of reason. If we choose faith we must suspend our reason in order to believe in something higher than reason. In fact we must believe by virtue of the absurd.
Not only is the proposition of transcendent God/finite human being (Jesus) "absurd" but so is the proposition that by letting in the premise and the reality of God's unconditional love for all, we would absurdly alter the human universe and potentially also the conditions under which we live on the planet.
First, how would that change the human condition?
For starters, we would raise children whose trust of the universe to offer them the basics, including shelter, food, education and health care, not merely as a legal human right, but as an expression of the dignity of the adults who have conceived, gestated and delivered them..and that would require a commitment of all governments of all stripes, political philosophies, cultures and regions to commit to support the child's parents in their pursuit of those basic necessities. That would also require all governments to commit to providing work for all people who are able to work, along with a modest income, clean water, clean air, access to both health care and part of the global commitment to the dignity and worth of each person, irrespective of his or her health, learning capacity, and/or the economic and political status of his family.
If we are not in fact as well as in poetic lyric, "my brother's keeper," then for what purpose are we here?
If we are not in fact, as well as in a utopian vision, our brothers' and sisters' keeper, then what is the meaning of the aphorism? Is it merely a nice riff for a popular song? Is it merely an ideal to which none of us really aspires, because after all, it is so "unrealistic"?.....runs the counter-argument.
Fortunately, there are spots of compassion, and reaching out in completely opposite from the conventional routine, objective and stereotypical ways to select groups, for example in the Beatitudes Care Centres in Arizona, where the treatment of dementia patients has been transformed from one of forced, impersonal and pharmaceutical interventions, to the pursuit of "comfort" for the patient, based on a detailed knowledge and application of that knowledge of the patient's whole person, including activity and taste preferences.
One long-time care-giver called into Tom Ashbrook's On Point radio program today on NPR, dedicated to exploring the changes in treatment of dementia at Beatitudes, to tell the story of a patient of her's who suffered from dementia. For ten years, every day the nursing home staff turned this rather combative woman over, cleaned her and left her, constantly resenting the duty to provide care, because of her combative and resistant nature. Finally, the caller, completely frustrated with the daily regime, found a relative of the patient, called and asked specific questions about the woman's life. The relative informed the nurse that, early in her twenties, the patient was gang-raped, and for the rest of her life was unwilling and unable to be touched, without extreme discomfort, verging on violence. Of course, the caller/nurse, even years later in recounting the phone call began to shed tears, as did all other care providers when they learned the story, and the relationship between caregivers and patient changed from one of resentment and resistance to collaboration and support, because they "knew" the patient!
The nurse/caller has since designed and produced an on-line questionnaire for dementia patients to complete before their illness makes responses too difficult, detailing their preferences in food, music, reading material, activities and good memories. The answers to these detailed questions are then available to the caregivers when the patient finally enters in the nursing home.
That story is not only applicable to the treatment of dementia; it is also archetypal for the kind of relationship modelling being argued for in these pages.
And it begins with a far different premise than starting with the "negative" aspects of the other person.
There is considerable evidence, for example, that dementia sufferers have not lost all of their skills and faculties, at least not all at once, and caregivers in the Beatitudes program search for those skills still available, and provide opportunities for those skills to be used....retaining as much of the autonomy of the patient as is possible. That approach not only assures happier, healthier and longer-living patients, but also happier and more creative and more enthusiastic care-givers.
Moving away from perceptions and attitudes that reduce the other to a 'thing' to be cared for, or a 'thing' to be disciplined, or a 'thing' to be controlled, or a miscreant to be punished....or a caged animal, in the case of most individuals housed in the prison systems, no matter how egregious their individual attitudes and perceptions that explore, in fact determine the person's history, story, biography, including all of the smack-downs, the rapes, the beatings and the traumatic experiences through which each has come, can and will only generate both compassion in the person discovering the hidden layers of deep and profound meaning and pain but also empathy, understanding and a sense of self that can only lead to collaboration, co-operation and healing for the person whose life is taken seriously.
And this does not apply only in situations where there is a care-giving relationship. It applies to the workplace, the classroom, the family dinner table, the games fields and gymnasia, and even to the coffee shops, the bars and the casinos. And it applies not only to the female gender but just as, if not more importantly, to the male gender.
Wherever people gather, there are feelings of alienation, separation, loss just waiting to be healed. In fact, Bowlby, an English psychiatrist, did considerable research into the experiences of children and documented his findings in his three outstanding books, each bearing one of those three words: Alienation, Separation and Loss. Bowlby's thesis is that each of us has suffered from those experiences, and is and will continue to spend the rest of our lives attempting to heal from those experiences.
That's psychological/psychiatric research findings and the theory gained from them. However, imagine the difference that would result if we were each imbued, immersed, incubated and raised in the incarnated belief of God's unconditional love, regardless of the specific loss, alienation, separation that has befallen our early lives. Imagine if, instead of weekly rituals of competitive pursuit of college admissions, scholarships, athletic victories leading to scholarships, business deals and the profits flowing from those deals, competitive comparisons of our children's success with those of the family nest door, competitive comparisons of our neighbourhood with the neighbourhood across town where incomes are much lower, and police engagement more necessary, and personal security more in doubt, we were all willing to suspend our prejudiced comparisons that really underline and potentially exacerbate the feelings both of superiority and inferiority that divide people from establishing common perceptions of universal brotherhood, support and sharing.
Not only have we failed to set examples of such "agape" love, we have colluded in a kind of commodification of each person, as a revenue stream for others, a customer, and a repository of saleable skills, energy, muscle and insights. And our churches too are complicit in this reductionism!
Too much of their energy is focused on the pursuit of revenue, the saving on expenditures, the trimming of both visions and costs, and the politicizing of each of those activities, as a measure of the "success" of each parish. The church has, in fact as well as in symbol, morphed into just another corporation, whose political clout is dependent on its fiscal and numerical standing in the community, just as is Ford Motor Co. dependent on its capacity to generate dividends for shareholders. In the case of the church, however, the shareholders are the large benefactors, the 'status' figures in the political community, and  inside the ecclesial organization chart. And there is a significant and dangerous migration of corporate leaders into the lay leadership of the church, both as an inexpensive way to import 'new ideas' into the church operation, and as a way to market the church to others of the social establishment, whose spiritual lives may already have atrophied into dust given their individual and family pursuit of the goals of membership in that establishment.
So the kinds of values and attitudes that make a corporation "successful" on the stock exchanges, including the avoidance of public scandal and ridicule, the pursuit of "brand" symbols from the establishment ranks for executive positions, the anal and obsessive attention to the details of the balance sheets of profits and losses, without regard to the level of ministry, or the degree of spiritual training, discipline and spiritual practice that could and would only enhance the personhood of each of those corporate 'suits' that enter the pews, (fewer each day for obvious reasons!).
And the gap between those attitudes, values and perceptions is very wide. Corporations make sales, deals, investments, and they recruit the highest performing graduates from the best "branded" universities as part of their continuing and relentless pursuit of public respect, reputation, trust and loyalty. All of these values they purchase, with various types of "payment" is a completely cost-benefit-driven system whose goal is the profit of the corporation and through that profit, the dividends of the shareholders.
On the other hand, the church, if it is to be worthy of the name, is the antithesis of the corporation.
It does not seek to be wealthy, nor to brag of a substantial trust fund, nor to claim the bragging rights of the social elites as the core of its membership or adherents' lists. It is not the recruiter of the graduates with the highest marks, even in theology necessarily, given the significant difference between corporate pursuit of profits and dividends as symbols of power and success, when compared with lives transformed into fully developed, fully functioning, fully creative and fully responsive, reflective, disciplined and even courageous proponents of agape love, as witnessed in the New Testament.
The christian church, especially, but certainly not exclusively, could be the instigator of an approach to human beings, their lives, their character, their history and biographies, as part of an overt, and nuanced approach to the practice of ministry. It says here that the church is the single most pivotal organization whose "spiritual" tradition includes the option of really getting to know the people who risk taking the step of entry.
And this is not an argument for "greeters" in the WalMart sense, where a smiling face and an outstretched hand attempt to generate a "good mood" for more purchasing in the customer. Nor is it an argument for a two-by-two home visit to "get to know" the newcomers, for the purpose of soliciting additional cash. Nor is it an argument for more pot-luck suppers to demonstrate that the church leadership is actively promoting "the social side" of church membership. Nor is it an argument for a contract between the parish and a professional photographer to come into the parish hall and take photos of all members and adherents, in order to publish a "book of snapshots" in order to introduce the rest of the community to its members, especially the newcomers.
There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these approaches,  ethically or culturally, except, for the purposes of this argument, they all suffer from a kind of superficiality, a glibness, and a politeness that keeps the institution at bay, avoiding the charge that the expectations are much too high for my taste to even consider entering, let along joining such a parish.
Getting to know another, in real terms, is something that most christian churches fail to accomplish, and even fail to set as a legitimate and sustainable goal, given the contingency of the spiritual life of each person on such a "being known" fully, and appreciated fully.
And, frankly, the superficiality, glibness and politeness of too many church affiliations renders the spiritual development of each individual crippled by the coldness. Anglicans, especially, suffer from what is known as an identity as "God's chosen frozen" (people) but the disease is clearly not exclusive to Anglicans/Episcopalians.
Some traditions practice a deep commitment to specific meals, specific celebrations of events in this history of the tradition, bringing all participants into the circles of those foods, those celebrations, even those traditions of critical self-examination, as a route to ensuring the community's commitment to itself, and to the individual members of that community. Others, through various forms of teaching (perhaps training would be a more appropriate description) in order that the young people "learn" certain dogmatic principles, call them the teachings of the church fathers, including the liturgies that celebrate turning points in the development of those young people, and then reinforce those teachings through another form of inculturation in elementary, secondary and post-secondary schools, culminating in a graduation ceremony accompanied by a "school ring" which is worn for the rest of the life of those graduates, and visible to any other graduate from the same school who just happens to be responsible for recruiting in the company/organization to which the recent graduate has applied for employment.
Needless to say, the ring almost virtually assures the recent graduate will be offered employment by the graduate of the same alma mater.
And, there is some validity to the observation that both graduates, although perhaps as many as two or three decades apart, will have experienced a similar path, complete with liturgies, rituals, camping trips, course guidelines and curricular expectations along the path and will therefore be "known" as representatives of that faith community, and thereby worthy of the trust that accompanies that "known-ness".
However, once again, there is a kind of "old-boys" club about that kind of being known.
And, while there is a significant pragmatic element to it, a kind of insurance policy for employment in an economic recession during which university grads are finding it difficult to find employment, while simultaneously carrying a heavy debt of student loans.
There is something dangerous about the passion of which Kierkegaard speaks, as the sine qua non of one's faith, as a Christian. In fact, passion in the first two decades of the twenty-first century, is generally something that is relegated to romance novels, 'chick-flick' movies, and occasionally, a fight or brawl in a hockey match....or more recently, the expression of violence of some 'midguided' terrorist who happens to believe that some parts of the world, including their support of and loyalty to the Jewish community and to Israel specifically, are anathema to the practice of the interpretation of the Islamic Koran that has been taught to these terrorists. There is also considerable negative passion attendant to much of the gun violence that characterizes too many communities in North America, and too many missile/drone slaughters from the skies over too many outlying regions where real people, mostly innocent, are being killed.
So attempting to integrate the passion of a faith, including the getting to know and the being known within the faith community, of a christian church, is, from some perspectives, a daunting task, if not fundamentally utopian, and therefore beyond the consideration of normal parameters of logic, reason, maturity and empirical pragmatism.
However, is it not the case that the 'west' has made idols of logic, reason, maturity, empiricism and pragmatism, (not to mention the accountants' ledgers) to the denigration of the human being's spirit, soul, psyche and even the body's health and to the denial of any real consideration of the meaning and implications of the church and its adherents' relationship, or potential relationship to God, and to the Christ Resurrected. And is it not also the case that the christian church has fallen for this seduction, where the parish treasurer is 'the gate-keeper' on the cash, on the level of ministry that can be contemplated, and on the kind of people that can and will be permitted to "join" the flock. Have you noticed how strident church treasurers become when they learn, however secretly, that an openly gay clergy will be administering the eucharist on Sunday morning. It is not only treasurers that become apoplectic at that prospect; it is also many of the "old timers" who may have chosen to attend that parish because previously it followed a different 'theology' and refused to grant ordinations to gay and lesbian clergy aspirants.
Have you noticed how annual meetings of parishes are little more than a replication of an annual meeting of a local service club, or perhaps even a local private school, or perhaps even a small board of directors of a small-to-medium-size corporation? The only difference really is that in parish meetings, there is often an opening "invocation" and a closing "benediction" the only times when the existence of a God, and a Jesus, as the central heart of the operation is even mentioned. And if you really want to open your eyes to the degree to which the corporate-think mind-set has taken over, just attend an annual meeting of a larger region, a convention of sorts, where people "break bread" together at breakfasts, and then pile into a large auditorium to listen to the "leader's 'state of the union' address, skipping over the positive highlights of the last twelve months and delivering a regional "goal" of a select percentage increase in both recruits and cash. Of course, there is the ritual invocation and benediction at the larger gathering, and there may even be a discussion of some 'troubling' issue in the church, like the question of whether or not to permit gays and lesbians to marry, or to be permitted to be ordained. Often, there is an opening and a closing eucharist, for which some up-and-coming clergy has been invited to deliver the homily, as would an up-and-coming politician deliver the key-note address to a political convention.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is sheer and unadulterated politics, and clearly is not the development of the faith, either of individuals nor of the faith community. Gossip pervades the hallways, the dining areas, the bar areas, and the hotel rooms, and that gossip is not benign, as in "did you notice the wardrobe of the bishop's wife?"...but more likely, "Did you notice the single male clergy having breakfast with that female clergy...they have to be having an affair?" And the degree of care about the truth of this kind of malicious gossip is virtually absent, while the degree of impunity with which the participants engage in such gossip is almost total. And this is not the convention of one of the tabloid newspapers, whose job it is to flash scurrilous material across its front pages, either of the mishandling of money or sex, in order to generate both ratings and sales. This is the convention of the christian church! And it happens in all regions, dioceses, and faith communities.
And, of course, the targets of such innuendo and malice gossip are never offered the opportunity to refute, nor to correct the record, nor to integrate a different 'story line' to the one that best feeds the lowest basal needs of the most needy and most neurotic of the participants.
And if anyone were to shout: "This has to stop!" to the public gathering of the parish or regional meeting, he or she would be shouted down, and ushered to a private room for counselling, by some political operative whose job it is to minimize public expression of conflict, the absolute "no-no" of corporate "think".
And as Attorney General Eric Holder said earlier today, in a press conference in which he discussed the justice department's subpoena of the phone records of Associated Press reporters, for two months in 2012, following a leak of classified information from a government source, "The leak endangered the American people, and this is not hyperbole; it is fact." Well, these stories are not hyperbole either; they are based on facts!

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