Sunday, 30 May 2010

Terribly Belated 7 Quick Takes (XLIV)

1. New hires at work equal lots of work. In case you didn't know. Supervising, notwithstanding the jokes, can be time-consuming and difficult, even when your supervisees are good staff.

2. I finished The Name of the Rose. In typing out the title, I realize that I have no idea why it is titled that.
It did not end as I anticipated, but then I should have anticipated that, what with the postmodernist billing and all. I'm not sure how I feel about it, now that it's ended. At any rate, I might yet see the movie, as it has Sean Connery in it.

3. And I have picked up The Mansions of the Spirit: The Gospel in a Multi-Faith World by Michael Ingham. It's about the interfaith movement, and reconciling this with Christianity. Or at least that's what it claims to be about, though I'm not sure I agree with all of its premises. In its exclusivist-inclusivist-pluralist spectrum, the book seems to favour something between inclusivism and pluralism, whereas I would favour something far more squarely in the inclusivist camp.
At any rate, it's led me to think more seriously about my underlying assumptions about interfaith relations and movements. I would like to work in the interfaith feild at some point in my life, but not if it only operates in the way Ingham describes. It seems to me that any interfaith initiative which hopes for success must be able to incorporate exclusivist positions, and Ingham's model may have difficulty with that.
(I realize this may all be jargon to some of you. I apologize for this, but if I were to explain myself without jargon, that would require more time and space than I can fairly allot.)

4. Yesterday I worked some overtime as we had our Celtic Day event at the Park. We had lots of preparations, and I worked at the barbeque, and I also had to give a speech about the temporary Burns Club exhibit. The Burns Club celebrates Robert Burns and Scottish culture, so I had to Wikipedia Robert Burns to get some basic facts for the speech, which I also had to give. It was only a few seconds long, but still...
And why, if I had put the exhibit together, did I have to research Burns immediately before giving the speech? Because I literally just placed the artifacts in the display in an aesthetically pleasing way, no knowledge required. My only understanding of Robert Burns was one of cultural sgnificance, not of historical details. For instance, I did not know when he lived and wrote (latter half of the 1700s) nor whether he composed or simply transcribed "Auld Lang Syne" (composed). So I had to research.

5. On the topic of overtime, I also worked on Victoria Day last Monday. And I've been putting in extra hours throughout the week. This will make up for future days off.

6. This afternoon I order Epicon by Globus with an gift certificate. I am excited.

7. At church, during the Prayers of the People, the deacon called forward a member of the congregation who was going to the General Synod (and who happened to be his daughter) and asked a few folks to come forward to lay their hands on her while he prayed. Now I normally do not go for the whole laying on of hands thing, but this church likes it a lot and so I've been getting used to it. Not that I'd do it of my own volition or anything, and not like I'd go along with it in the sense of faith healing, but as far as praying over someone goes I guess there's no harm done in putting your hand on them while you pray. As I was serving today, and as I figure the alb means I ought to be leading in this sort of thing, I came forward to participate.

And then the deacon asks us to pray ourselves over her, as the Spirit moves us, when he's finished praying.


I'm supposed to pray spontaneously in public!? What have I gotten myself into? Of course I realize that this alb I like wearing so much signs me up for all sorts of things, but that doesn't make these moments less surprising. I managed to pray intelligibly I'm pretty sure, but let's just say that it's been a while since I've prayed ad lib before and I'll have to get over the performance anxiety again. (This may be worth a post in itself. I'll think about it.)

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Who is the Dreamer of Dreams?

Warning: Long, philosophical post musing on the nature of the self. If this does not appeal to you, don't bother reading it.

Last night I tried writing a sonnet concerning the mysteriousness of the self. I didn't get anywhere on it.

The nature of the self (as a concept more than my own self) has been nagging at me lately. I intend to explore ideas concerning it in my Master's at UBC, if my thesis is approved. So as I've been reading this past year (and watching movies and so forth) I have been keeping an eye open for any ideas or philosophies or information regarding the nature of identity and the self. I am an amateur philosopher, and so this isn't unlike me.

One thing I've noticed, especially following my forays into postmodernism, is that our ideas about what the self is are confused, contradictory, and incomplete. I'm sure someone will want to point me to psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience, but last I checked they couldn't explain consciousness and, besides, I suspect that cultural and non-material forces contribute as much as mechanical ones do. So that avenue provides only partial answers, as far as I'm concerned.

Anthropology is of little help; at least, the different cultures we can study say very different things. Confucianism sees people as nodes in relationship webs; Hinduism sees people as fragments of the divine covered and sullied by karma, attachment to this world; Buddhism sees people as non-entities whose attachments reincarnate until the people finally detach themselves. The followers of Songlines in Australia see themselves as unreal until they re-enact the behaviours of their culture heroes; Native Americans (or at least some of them) see themselves as organs of the organism that is their tribe; Pythagorians saw themselves as expressions of perfect mathematical laws. In the far reaches of any culture's mysticism you start to see similarities with other mysticisms, but at this point also we (or at least I) lose any understanding of what's going on. The insights and narratives each culture expresses might be useful clues to build our own ideas upon, but I certainly don't take any at face value.

So I don't think the problem is that we haven't been working on this issue. The problem is that there are too many solutions and no way of discerning which is correct. Or, alternately, there hasn't been sufficient attempt to synthesize the assorted solutions. Or we've been working at it in the wrong way. Or something.
Postmodernism's destructive tendencies become useful in dismantling whatever clunky precepts we had before, and some postmodernists have perhaps surprisingly offered alternatives. At the moment these alternatives seem fairly reasonable, but I must add a caveat to them. I am, after all, a Christian, and therefore an essentialist. (Or perhaps I am an essentialist and therefore a Christian?)

There are, as far as I can see, two models of the self supported by postmodernism. We can think of them as the "mask theory" and the "component theory."

1. Mask Theory

The mask theory states that we are composed of masks. In different situations we wear different masks, which is another way of saying that we play different roles. Usually we wear these different masks, or play these different roles, when around different people. A submissive intern might be an aggressive conflict-monger on the soccer field. We can be a goof at times, and at times respectable. We can be a father or a son, a mother or a wife. Different people, in different situations, have different expectations of us, and we try to live up to those expectations. This is why we (or many people) feel anxious if friends or acquaintances from different contexts meet and interact with us simultaneously: we don't know which mask to wear.

The final point in this idea is that there is either nothing beneath the mask, or nothing we can ever experience.. including the wearer. If there is a true, authentic self, it is hidden. So says this theory.

We can trace this idea back to Confuciansim and to social psychology. In fact, I think it was from social psychology that this idea was born.

2. Component Theory
I've never heard this called the Component Theory before, but I think it's an apt name. It's been refered to as the Artichoke View of the Self before, if the culinary arts help you process things. This idea holds that people are composed of different bits: desires, emotions, fears, physical sensations, memories, gaps in memories, dreams, aptitudes, beliefs, neuroses, and so forth. You can imagine these either as functions of different parts of the brain, or you can imagine these as nebulous non-material entities. Whatever. Put these all together and you get a person, a self. But none of these alone makes up the self, and you can replace all of the parts over time, like the atoms and cells in your body are replaced. There is no single lasting thing that holds it all together. There is no core. There is no dreamer; there are only dreams.

(That's why it's called the Artichoke View of the Self. If you pull off all of the surface pieces of the artichoke, there's nothing left. Except that artichokes have hearts, which seems to undermine the whole image. It's also sometimes called the Onion View of the Self, I think.)

Descartes famously said, "Cogito ergo sum," meaning, "I think, therefore I am." In experiencing thoughts, he reasoned there must be a thing that thinks. The Buddhists disagreed. (Perhaps their language allowed them to do so; Descartes was using Latin verbs, which come with subjects built in, so the process thinking requires a thinker. I know nothing about Sanskrit, so I can't say whether their language is freer to have a verb without a subect?) In experiencing thoughts, they sought that which generated these thoughts. All they found were memories and sense impressions. They found no thing, no self, which experienced them. They therefore deduced that sense impressions arise and give birth to memories and desires; memories and desires, interacting, give birth to thoughts and emotions. This is all we are, a bundle of components which come and go, without permanency.

Did you know that the word "individual" means "that which is indivisable"? In this view, the word "individual" refer to a person or self is erroneous.

As I've revealed already, this line of thinking can be traced back to Buddhism and to the cognitive and neurological sciences.


I think these ideas are intriguing and revealing, but incomplete. I do wholeheartedly agree that we do wear masks and that not doing so is unhealthy. I also wholeheartedly agree that we are built of components: thoughts, drives, desires, fears, boundries, memories, abilities, language. But I cannot accept that this is all we are. I also can't convince you to believe me, and that's not my aim.

As it stands, then, this is my conception of the self:

There is a core self, buried deep within us somewhere. I would call it a soul. You may prefer thinking of it as a shard of Sophia or a little Buddha or an Atman or a life essence or neurological predispositions (or basic programming, if you're a Cylon). In doesn't matter. I'm talking about the indivisable element unique to each of us. (Or not unique, if you prefer.)

Around this are these self-components: thought, fears, feelings, drives, neuroses, and so on. The core self is buried beneath these.

The components shift in re-arrange in patterns. Most often they react to the situation, surfacing or burying depending on the social role the person is playing. Those components fitting to a father or son or lover rise in the times the person is called to play that role. (And, of course, some components come up when it's unfitting, too, and we feel the need to control these. This feeling may also be a self-component.) These are the masks we discussed previously; the components arrange to become masks.
But the core self is capable of exerting some influence over the whole system. Sure, the self-components are unruly and often rebel against that influence (which I think we can conveniently call willpower). This is self-control. Exerting it improperly will screw up the patterns of the system and may lead to distress; exerting it properly will allow the system to play at roles better and, even more importantly, defy those roles if morality calls for it.

And of course it may become necessary to purge certain components. That cannot be easy, and you may need to turn to outside help (medication, therapy, the Holy Spirit).

There are numerous ramifications of this theory, and I'm not done working through them yet. In particular I'm thinking about people with DID, about ethics, about dying to oneself to become a little Christ (seems to me like purging the "bad" components), about playing roles to avoid stagnation. It seems to me important to develop an idea of what the self is in order to practice self-control properly.


But I don't want you to walk away with the impression that I am certain about this theory. I'm not at all. I suspect it's wrong, actually. It's just the best I have so far. Which means that I'd like you, if you've read this far, to tell me where you think problems may lie. Either you may have personal experiences which invalidate this, or you may have read psychological or theological treatises which dismantle it, or you may be a keen logician capable of seeing some sort of contradiction. Lay it on me. This is provisional; this is what I have so far.

Friday, 21 May 2010

7 Quick Takes (XLIII)

1. Birthday stuff did occur, primarily involving eating at a local diner, visiting a museum in town (the one I don't work for), and eating vanilla cake. That is my favourite kind of cake, incidentally; one with a really nice vanilla cake part and plain-old vanilla icing. No fruit, no frills, and certainly no chocolate.
And I got a few presents, but, oddly, most of them are inaccessible at the moment; one is a gift card, one is a DVD set that is ordered but not yet released, and one is a computer game that depends upon my buying that new computer I keep meaning to get. Well. I did get the final season of Battlestar Galactica, which was superb.

2. I should also mention that my mother and I walked in the hills behind Abasand Heights. I've never explored that part of the Fort McMurray woodscape (I made up this word, by the way, which means that it is, alas, not yet real), and was happy to do so, as it's absolutely beautiful. First, it means that I got to see how Abasand, as a neighbourhood, is put together, which I've never really looked at before. Second, it means that I got to kick around the Horse River which, again, I've never done before.
Abasand Heights sits on top of a ridge, the eastern length of it defined by the Clearwater River floodplain in which Fort McMurray's Downtown (or Lower Townsite, or Old Town, whichever you prefer to call it) rests, and the western length of it defined by the Horse River's valley. Abasand approaches but does not quite reach the edge of this ridge, so that there's bush on the top, on the sides, and at the bottom; that's an OK amount of exploring with an open afternoon, a water bottle, and a camera. And bear bells, because Mom insists that the bears won't settle for hugs and perhaps a belly rub. I beg to differ, but I do what I'm told.

3. Work, with the influx of new summer students, has become all of a sudden busier. This is not true just of being rush-rush-rush, though what with my now being part of training staff I do have more responsibilities than before. No, the physical space is also busier, with more bodies moving around and more stuff in the staff room and more people to account for (ie. in seating around the lunch table, in ensuring I don't lock anyone in any of the buildings). It's exciting and exhausting.

4. I am reading The English Opium-Eater, a biography of De Quincey by a professor I formerly had, and The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco, a murder mystery involving monks in mediaeval Italy. Opium-Eater is not in my opinion a 'work book,' as I don't want patrons seeing staff reading about drug culture. Not that it's about drug culture as much as about the life of a poet (One River or lullabies for little criminals are more about drug culture that Opium-Eater, but you'd never know by the titles.) So I read Eco's mystery at work. I've read that The Name of the Rose is actually a parody of a murder mystery and one of the earliest self-consciously postmodern novels, and in this light I'm finding it far easier to read. I'd attempted it before but couldn't crack the first few chapters. Now that I have a better framework for it, I'm making good time, really enjoying it, and getting into the historical, metaphysical, literary analytical, theological, and sociological discussions in it. The Name of the Rose has been adapted into a film starring Sean Connery. I have not seen the movie, but I have no trouble at all picturing Connery as the lead.

5. It seems my takes are hardly quick this week. Apologies; what I've been reading lately must be ornate and complex, as my sentences reflect. To too much of an extent do I chameleon other writers' language. I must control that impulse, or at the very least direct it.

6. A death in the family has my folks out, attending the funeral. So I have been on the buses and have been having the house to myself. I have taken advantage of this by watching Battlestar and Corner Gas and by writing letters. Such secrets I hide.

7. These past few days have been gloomy and rainy. I have usually said that those in British Columbia should not complain about their rainy winters; those winters are nothing compared to the Fort McMurray cold. However, I realize that I might prefer the cold to miserable wet cold sloppy rain, which is said to be the standard weather in British Columbia. Well, for the sake of not being a hypocrit, I must not complain, but I may also ease up on my judgements now, too.

And that was my week. Please visit Jen, the host of this fine meme.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Once Again, On Hope

The days seem ever dark'ning; ev'ning sweeps
In earlier without a sign of solstice.
Fluorescent lights in living rooms are poultice,
Perhaps, to growing gloom, but ever weeps
The war-time widow; martyrs' mothers cry,
And oaks fall groaning down, while minds are frayed
And newborns' parts are badly misarrayed
And genes with last and lonely beasts will die.
But if we find a light sufficient strong
To pierce that dulling darkness, would it blind?
Would we who see that beam therefore not find
The horrors still alive, and hope in wrong?
Activity sees clearer worn with care,
But hope's a better star than cold despair.

Karen asked me to write another post on hope, and, lacking much to say about the matter, I decided to write a sonnet on it. The sonnet's structure (octet, volta, sestet; 8-4-2; abbacddcefefgg or variant) often helps me give structure to my own thoughts on a topic. Anyway, what I produced perhaps gives the feel as well as one can hope in an hour's endeavour, but it doesn't much illuminate the logic, which I feel I must go into here. I warn you that my discussions of hope are not as "hopeful" as Karen's or Jon's.

I am of course indebted to Yolanda for my current thoughts on hope; specifically, she linked an article which discussed the pros and cons. The fear I have is three-fold: first, that hope is in the end vain, as we're doomed; second, that hope blinds us to problem errors which we then don't address; third, that if we give too much to hope we rely on it, and on luck, to make things better, and not work ourselves. The trouble is that despair or apathy don't do much good, either. As Karen points out, attempt is a prerequisite to success, and as Jon points out, hope is sometimes all that gets you out of bed in the morning. (A sense of duty, actually, is what gets me out of bed, but I recognize that some people might need something a little less old-fashioned.) Despair is blinding, too; either we give up altruism and become selfish, or we give up entirely and await destruction.

I was discussing this with a friend in Ontario, sitting in the sun and drinking a Chai Latte. In the face of defeat, do we give up? What is our cultural drive? Tolkein thought that we lacked the Scandinavians' determination, the sheer will that allowed Thor and Odin to plunge into Ragnarok, the final war, knowing full well that they would lose. He tried to elaborate on this ethic in The Lord of the Rings. My friend said she thought this was not absent but in the cultural mindset, a persistance inspite of overwhelming odds, and I wonder if perhaps this means that Tolkein succeeded. At any rate, I think that there is something to be said for trying utterly despite entertaining no hope that you will succeed. Trying in spite of defeat. The trouble is that we will survive our defeat; Odin had the luxury of dying at the end of the world. We may live to suffer the consequences of environmental apocalypse, continuing war in the Middle East, continuing tyranny in China, etc. We cannot afford to let hope to blind us to the possibility that we may fail, and we must be prepared to deal with failure when it comes.

But Huston Smith said that heroic fortitude is not something you can prescribe upon the masses, and I must agree. Many of us--myself included--need hope to let us go on each day. What we then must do is be aware that our hope is perhaps misguided, that our hope can blind us to real problems, that our hope can convince us to relax when we can't afford to. If we are aware that hope can do this, if we can hold hope in one hand and urgency in another, perhaps we can manage to do what we need to and remain sane. I'm not sure.

But note that it must hope and urgency, not hope and despair. Despair is destructive. It can therefore destroy our complacency, but just as we mustn't let it keep hold on us. It is only good if it destroys what is deadly to us and allows us to build anew, build with hope.

Friday, 14 May 2010

7 Quick Takes (XLII)

1. So we were at the Valley Zoo on Saturday. There were tigers and Arctic wolves and capybaras and an elephant and sea lions and wallabies and other things. It's not a terribly big zoo, but it's nice enough. I'm always concerned about caging animals at all, but in general these are animals that could not survive in the wild.
Oh, and did you know that once upon a time capybara were classified as fish by the Catholic Church? This means that they could be eaten during Lent; apparently large populations of South American peoples live primarily on capybara, and banning these delectable rodents would guarantee the starvation of whole indigenous peoples, or something like that. The RC Church was therefore under considerable pressure to declare that the world's largest rodent, being amphibious, was in fact a fish. I'm not sure what the status is now, other than that it's OBVIOUSLY a super-awesome adorable rodent.

2. Sunday was Mother's Day, but my own mother was at work. This means we did the mother's day stuff on Saturday, while at the zoo and in Edmonton.
I finished reading Paradise Lost and this edition's introduction, and then commenced The English Opium-Eater.

3. Due to basic workplace confidentiality, I can't really say any details or anything, but I got some bad news on Monday which made Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday rather miserable for me. At points throughout those three days I really felt like I couldn't trust my own memories and I was pretty eaten with shame and guilt. At other points I was incredible nervous, to the point of nauseau. It felt like I had a large sticky earthworm writhing in my stomach. But I got some sort of resolution on Wednesday, and it's been pretty much better from there.

4. I got some good writing done. I'm also finally liking the style or sound of the prose I'm writing, which has been so rare lately.

5. At work, we have a whole bunch of new summer students. I now have people to meet. That is always exciting. There may be more coming, too.

6. I'm supposedly supposed to be (read that out loud! such fun) writing another post about hope because I had the folly to mention that Kay and Jon have both recently written posts of that topic. I'd be lying, though, if I said I had any good ideas at the moment. I'm trying, though.

7. Somehow the people at work figured out that it's my birthday this weekend. Facebook likely told them. Anyway, there was cake, which I accidentally left at the Park. I hadn't thought they'd know, but, well, I suppose I was wrong on that one. I was out of the Admin building all day, so they did have lots of chances to scheme and plan and get cake.

I encourage you to visit Jen, host of this meme.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

A Protestant Sort of Angst

I am titling this "Protestant" because it seems to me that this is a particularly Protestant conundrum... but perhaps Catholic people struggle with this, too. Please take no offense at any exclusion I may inadvertantly imply through the title, and also let me know of my error.
I also realize that not all Protestants will share this experience. It's a free will versus determinism sort of thing.

Angst, when used in English, is a term drawn from existentialism. It refers to the feeling (often of horror) that accompanies a person's realization that she is utterly free to self-destruct. Nothing is stopping her from leaping off of a metaphorical (or literal, for that matter) precipice. As much as we all seem to desire freedom, when coming face to face with full free will we experience this angst, a psychological shock. The fear is not that we might fall of the cliff's edge, but that we could leap off of it. This wasn't a feeling I was familiar with. I could imagine it, but I couldn't recall experiencing it.

Many people who were raised Christian, especially those who've had a falling out with the church, report that they feared damnation. This, too, is not something I'd ever felt. (I know. Lucky me.) I have, since I've known the concept of Heaven and Hell, felt fairly sure that I was bound Heavenward. Fearing damnation never made a whole lot of sense to me, since if you believed in such a thing as Hell (enough that fear of it would be worth reporting), you wouldn't have any reasn to think you'd be going there; if you didn't believe in Heaven and Hell, you may well be headed to the latter, but you wouldn't think you were, so why be afraid?

Well, ladies and gentlemen, I have news: I can now report firsthand the feelings of angst and the fear of damnation.

I was reading the Bible the other night (this was a few weeks ago; I've taken my time getting to this post) and I came upon one of the numerous difficult Old Testament passages. I don't mean "difficult" in the sense of being a cure for insomnia, though there are a few of those; I mean "difficult" in the sense of God-sponsored genocide. If you're not much of a Bible person, that's going to sound a little indicting. Unfortunately, mass murder does come up every so often. In reading, I was faced with the necessity of reconciling the God described here, who insists that every living thing in Town X be slaughtered without mercy (women, children, livestock, pets, pests, and infants all included), with the God I worship weekly, who built a wonderful world and endorses love so much that he underwent humiliation, torture, death, and damnation to redeem a bunch of ingrates. On the one hand, murder; on the other hand, love. How?

Theologians throughout Christendom have given explanations and reconciliations on this point, but that's not what I'm talking about here. The important thing is that the only reconciliation I knew of at the time was Bonhoeffer's, and I haven't found this one convincing. So I could believe that God did this thing, God sponsored hatred and destruction, or I could believe that the Bible is wrong on this count. Not wrong through and through, of course, but wrong about this. Maybe Joshua did kill a bunch of people, but in actual fact God was all like, "Dude, go easy on them, ok?" and Joshua just didn't listen. This last choice is a popular one.

It's also, apparently, a dangerous one. Because if the Bible is wrong about this, how do we know that it hasn't got the rest of it wrong? How do we know it isn't wrong about Jesus, too? How can we be sure?

I've said before and I'll say again that not many people come to Christ through the Bible; usually, they come to the Bible through Christ. It's because they believe in God and Jesus that they believe the Bible has authority. But then what this means is that we believe in Christ by hearsay and by faith alone. Which sounds good when we know that "faith" is invested with such high standing, but is that enough? Very quickly our whole support system begins to fall away. What can we rely on, after all?

So I believe in Jesus not for any reason, but merely because I do. If this is the case, then there's nothing stopping me, nothing at all, from going apostate. I could become an atheist in seconds. The possibility exists, the door is open, and all I need to do is step through. I suddenly recognized my freedom to become an atheist. This was angst.

It horrified me. I felt extremely uncomfortable. I could even see things on the other side of the door, see how life as an atheist would begin. I could see the gateway into that territory, and I already had quite a few of the maps in my back pocket (His Dark Materials, The God Delusion, and suchlike). To an extent it would seem like such a relief to walk through that door. It would be easier, for sure; I wouldn't have to constantly worry about the door being there. The decision would be over. But if I stayed on this side of the door, the temptation would always be there. It would never go away. Never.

But I didn't cross the door, and so I also saw--or at least suspected--the yawning throat of Hell lay that way, too. I'm not certain that Christ offers the only path to salvation, but I'm not certain that there are others, either. From this side of the door, I knew I didn't want to take that risk. But what if, years later or weeks later or minutes later, I went through anyway, a sort of spasm of the will? Could I come back? No longer believing in hell, would I come back? Does the door slam shut? What would happen to me? (You might note that at this point my sense of free will started ebbing away... I feared that I was not in control of my own will. I have to wonder whether this is an element in any feeling angst, this subtle, quiet suspicion of free will's existence even when our realization of that freedom is what brought us to this point.)

It was a fast slope to this point; I was reading the Bible, and bare minutes later I was on the naked edge of apostasy. Was it all this fragile? Was it all this frail?

A passage from Rick Warren's The Purpose-Driven Life came to mind, one which I had previously had trouble with, one worth quoting in full: "In the early years of his ministry, Billy Graham went throuh a time when he struggled with doubts about the accuracy and authority of the Bible. One moonlit night he dropped to his knees in tears and told God that, in spite of confusing passages he didn't understand, from that point on he would completely trust the Bible as the sole authority for his life and ministry. From that day forward, Billy's life was blessed with unusual power and effectiveness." In the next paragraph, Warren writes, "Decide that regardless of culture, tradition, reason, or emotion, you choose the Bible as your final authority."

I could have tried something like this, but it didn't appeal to me at all. I've been skeptical too long to do something as (I thought) deliberately hamstringing as this. Why pray to God for blind belief in the Bible if the Bible does turn out to be ridden with errors after all? I don't think God would want that of me.

I did pray for help, though. I can't recall if I specified what kind of help I wanted. I don't think I did. I think I just asked for help. And, whether it was an act of God or my psychology's refusal to entertain cognitive dissonance, I suddenly felt peace. Free will or no, I realized, I would never give up belief in God. I may have to live forever with atheism a step away, but I would never cease to believe. This doesn't mean that I'll believe in any earthly authority at all, but God... no, God's here to stay. My faith might be lukewarm, too, which isn't a good thing, but it would always be there. Elizabeth Esther has observed of herself that she simply can't not believe, and I feel the same. To an extent, this unrootable belief bothered the skeptical corner of my mind almost as much as Warren's prescription did: was the sense that I couldn't disbelieve justification enough for belief? It's really poor apologetics, barely more than a tautology, but it's there nonetheless. Every a priori premise in philosophy is similarly a tautology, but somehow this is what makes them such reliable proofs.

So I believe, even though that door may always be open before me. I believe, even though I don't know why. I believe, even though I don't always know in what, exactly. What seems in the end to matter is that I believe.

Since that night, I've read more apologetics and am feeling more comfortable with belief. FYI. And I'm also aware that a number of these experiences argue for determinism of some degree... something to think about.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

7 Quick Takes (XLI)

1. I can't remember what happened last Saturday. Odd. Likely nothing important. Which is a little sad, I think.

2. I didn't serve on Sunday, which I thought was strange, considering that I've been away so long. I do serve tomorrow, though. This means I won't be sitting with the sun in my eyes, which will be nice. The time of year has come around that the sun shines directly in the front upper window and hits you square in the face. I was holding my hand at my forehead to see the lyrics and responsive readings. (Which are on a projector screen, for those many folks for whom this set-up is unfamiliar.)

3. Then, Sunday afternoon, I went to see the African Children's Choir perform. They were quite good for how young they are, and absolutely full of energy. I'm too cynical, though, to give unreserved support for the organization, but not well-informed enough to know how to go about researching it. Anyone know anything about the ACC?

4. At work I've been with children again, which is a joy. Among other things, I have learned that the first people to live in Canada was God; that five-year olds weigh on average seven pounds; that penguins, gooses, crocodiles, fish, and cats all have waterproof fur; that your aunt's daughters are your children; that Aboriginal people used beaver claws as can openers; and that we skin skunks and platypi to make hats. Also, somewhere in Fort McMurray is a little girl from India who is likely now of the impression that her people were the first in Alberta, thanks to her classmate's patchy knowledge of political correctness. When she went home to explain this to her parents, I imagine her father said, "Stupid white people."

5. Furthermore, regarding children, if I had not already known that they have a very weak concept of personal space, I certainly would have learned it again this week.

6. I also learned a fair amount about river transportation in Alberta. Did you know that people lived in cabins in remote areas along the Athabasca River, north of the Grand Rapids, where they cut wood and stacked it along the riverbank for the woodburners (stermwheelers, paddlewheelers, riverboats, whatever you want to call them). There was a whole complex of people hired by the Hudson's Bay Company to do this. The craziness of the Canadian northwestern fronteir, I tell you. Like any region's history, it's exciting and fascinating once you know where to look.
I talk about this because for work I was reading Paddle-Wheels to Bucket Wheels, a book about the history of the Athabasca region, which is unfortunately out of print. My workplace has one of the few copies I know of.

7. We went to Edmonton again this weekend, this time to visit the Valley Zoo. I include it because we left of Friday (hence the post coming today), but I'll describe the trip in the next one.

Yo. Visit Conversion Diary, host of this fine meme.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Listening and That Kind of Atheist

Sorry. This is a long one.

Jon and I were sitting down in the Lazy Scholar. This was on my most recent--and final--trip to Ontario. We were talking about one hundred and one related things, and Jon brought up a girl I will call Sally Drew. (This protects her privacy a little bit, but Jon and Cait will recognize immediately who I'm talking about.) I've never to my knowledge met this Sally Drew. Jon implied that she is my intellectual match, and the thing about Jon is that he often and vocally overestimates how intelligent I am. It seemed as though he was suggesting that she is in a way my antithesis (or I suppose that we are antitheses of one another), in that she is a vociferous and evangelical atheist, frequently waxing upon the irrationality of religion. This is a girl who has committed a lot of her not insignificant mental resources to supporting atheism. She has the arguements all worked out, and she's honed them well (or as well as you can if you're under twenty-five). Jon in effect said that Sally Drew is certain of her atheism and tries to convince others to follow suit.

I said, "That makes me so sad."

Jon said, "That's what she says about you."

I was shocked by two things: the first was that Sally Drew knows of my existence and is judging me somewhere; the second was that I was judging her in exactly the same way that I did not want to be judged. To say we were antitheses was perhaps truer then than at any other point; we were mirror images, judging each other through Jon.

What does really make me sad, and I said this to Jon, is that while I am more than willing to try to see things from an atheist perspective, to understand why other people think what they do and to participate in our common humanity, I do not see atheists attempting the same. I quite literally cannot think of a single atheist who has done this. This is what makes me sad. I am sure that there are atheists who do. There must be. But those I have met do not, or at the very least I cannot tell that they do.

And I do try to understand things from an atheist perspective, in the same way that when I look at situations I sometimes think, "What would a Buddhist think of this?," or "Now, a Taoist would say such-and-such in this situation." I follow an atheist blog, I have read atheist books, and I do a smattering of research on-line. I try to listen when non-Christians talk about spiritual things (truth, meaning in death, morality, and so forth), and not just so I can make an articulate response. Trying on different perspectives--within an epistemological quarantine,* of course--is something I have trained myself to do. It's a very postmodern ability, of course, but it is an important one even to an absolutist like me.

(Of course I fail to practice it all the time. Such are we dusty creatures.)

It is perhaps this ability's postmodernism that makes it so unattractive to rational materialists. After all, most of these vocal atheists I encounter are not just atheists, but a specific kind of atheist. That is, they believe not just that there is no God (an atheist existentialist, a Buddhist, and a nihilist would all agree with that), but also that the world we experience is rationally understandable and can be understood strictly in material (ie. physical, scientific, empirical) terms. No existentialist, Buddhist, or nihilist would agree with rational materialism, however atheist they were. Rational materialism has little time for postmodernism because rational materialism requires reason and experience to be universal. Different perspectives do not matter because what is true is true for everyone. Maybe perspectives matter for social issues, politics, culture, and so on, but when it comes to what the universe looks like, there's no point wondering how other people see it. All that matters is logic and science.

(I find trying rational materialism on comparatively easy because I used to be a rational materialist. I was amateur status, and I tried to reconcile it with Christianity, but it's still a mindset that I'm familiar with.)

Whatever the cause, I have not found a vocal atheist willing to try on my perspective to the same degree that I am willing to try on theirs. This is clearly true of my antithesis, Sally Drew; this is clearly true of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and the rest of the New Atheists; this is true of the atheists I encounter at Perhaps it is untrue of those atheists who are quiet, whose atheism I do not encounter. The trouble is, I wouldn't know.

This is what makes me sad. If, of course, "sad" is defined as "scared, angry, and despairing." It's also true that I'm sad about her being an atheist, but that's not something you go around saying out loud. That sort of thing makes you sound arrogant and condescending, which are things Christians need to steer away from.** Also, how I feel about her being an atheist is beside the point; what is the point, at least to the conversation I was having with Jon and to this article, is that it upsets me when people like Sally Drew refuse to see things from another point of view.

Sally Drew likely has not met a Christian willing to see things from her point of view. Or, if she has, that Christian has not made it clear that he is trying to do so. I suspect that there are many atheists who do honestly try to understand how Christians and other non-atheists see the world. But, as I've said ad nauseaum, I have not recognized this in them. Which makes me wonder whether it is visible that I attempt to otherstand things from other people's points of view. Do people know that I try to do this? I have reason to suspect that they do not, and this is what really scares me.

I wondered for a while why religious-themed conversations I had with a certain agnostic former housemate tended to go sour. Each one seemed to end worse than the last, until some unkind words were spoken and we never had those conversations again. It wasn't until after that last conversation that I realized what was happening: he understood my justifications of my beliefs to by assaults on his beliefs. This was mainly my fault. I did not bother to explain that I see no reason for my experiences and philosophizing to make a difference to someone else's belief system. This is why I believe; it does not mean that I think you have to. But I never told him that, and so I think he felt threatened. In response he tried to "disprove" my justifications and beliefs, and then I felt defensive, and it turned into an argument. Somehow I never noticed it happening as it happened. It was only in retrospect that I could ever see what went wrong.

The thing about rational materialism, though, is that any justification must hold universally true. If I give reasons for believing, they must by necessity apply to whoever I'm speaking to (according to rational materialism). So giving an account of my belief is an attack on theirs, from their point of view. I wish I was better at communicating that that's not how I see it.

How is this important? Good question. It seems to me that we as a world need to get along a little better. One of the ways we might go about doing this is listening to each other. And I mean really listening, not getting down enough of the points to make a decent rebuttal. I am trying to get better at doing this. I want to hear your journey, and I will try not to take your experiences as a direct assault on the validity of my own. But I want the same from you. I want the same from everyone. (That I will not get this is likely one of the crosses I must bear.)

We cannot attempt peace without listening. We cannot love without listening. We cannot listen if we are unwilling to understand. From what I have seen, very few people of any worldview are willing.***

* "Epistemological quarantine" refers to quarantining beliefs so that they don't interfere with the rest of your belief system; I try these ideas on without allowing them any sticking power. I do not really believe these things. I just pretend that I do so I can get a better idea of seeing what it's like.
** Not to throw stones or anything, but I'd like to tell atheists that arrogance and condescension look just as bad on you as they do on us.
*** Let me be clear that in order to listen we must be willing to understand. Successfully understanding is unnecessary. It must be so, for I doubt that full understanding is possible.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

The Saturday Evening Blog Post, vol. 2, issue 4

As per Elizabeth Esther's blog carnival, I am choosing my favourite post from March and my favourite post from April.

For March I must pick Hope?, not because it was my favourite (for that I'd pick my Planaria sonnet), but because it seemed to engage the most people, or at least provoke a more vocal response (include some blog posts in response).

For April I pick the introduction to my foray into Postmodernism, largely because I haven't written much else this month. Eee. (If you read the Postmodernism post, make sure you read the second part, too. Especially if you're coming here from Elizabeth Esther's, as the second half will interest you most, I think.)

7 Quick Takes (XXXIX)

1. Kingston. Saturday, met with folks about town. Sunday, went to Bethel (school church), discerned that I like St. Thomas' better (ie. Tom's has responsive reading, prefer deacon Dave's oratory), headed to Oakville...

2. Airport, airplane. I get to Pearson very early because I discover while in the cab to the GO station that it would actually be cheaper to take the cab all the way to Pearson, so do that instead. It also takes far less time than getting the GO to Union, walking to the Royal York, and getting the Express bus. Buy Saturday at a bookstore because I wasn't feeling the Miltonic verse that morning. Get through most of it on the plane(s).

Also, assorted experiences on the plane and in the airports give me the germ of a short story idea...

I get home Monday afternoon.

3. I got a Flickr account. I'm not sure how I'm feeling about this Flickr account. While I like looking at other people's pictures, I feel like posting my own is a waste of time and bandwidth and server space. It's not like anyone looks at them. This blog sees far more traffic than my Flickr does. Then again, my Flickr account isn't even a week old yet.

4. I returned to work on Tuesday. It wasn't as bad as I feared. I was tired, but work's not bad if you're busy. Though of course there's stress if you're too busy...

5. I applied for residence at University. I think it's finally sunk in that I'm going to be a student again. Yay!

6. We were robbed at work. Technically, it wasn't robbery, because in Canadian law, robbery means that the perp was armed. Anyway, a guy driving a (stolen) taxi snatched the till, but the Mounties got him. For those American readers, you can stop picturing Mounties as wearing the red blazes. That's their dress uniform, yes, but when they're on the job they wear the regular blue-white-grey vested uniforms that most police wear. I'm sure I could make the story more interesting-sounding, but, let's be honest, I'm tired.

7. The folks and I went to see Gunless and How to Train Your Dragon last night. They were both excellent movies. I recommend strongly.

Go see the 7 Quick Takes host, y'hear?
Blog Widget by LinkWithin