Friday, 15 November 2013

Church in the Catacombs?

In the article "Church in the Pub?," Hans Boersma from Regent College discusses what he thinks is wrong with the recent phenomenon of holding church in pubs and other secular spaces. His argument boils down to his dislike of holding Holy Communion in the pub, because the distinction between the supernatural and the natural ought to be marked. I think this might be a little inconsistent with his nod to a broad understanding of sacramentality--that is, that all the world's sacramental--but I'm inclined to think that 1) he isn't really invested in broad sacramentality and 2) you could argue that precisely because of broad sacramentality you need to perform specific sacraments in a marked manner to heighten the experience or awareness of their specific sacramentality (he doesn't make that argument, but I could comfortably supply it for him).

The core of his argument isn't really what caught my eye in the article, though. This did catch my eye:
It’s not as if we need cathedrals to worship God. However, I do take issue with the dismissive attitudes that comes across in the article [describing churches in pubs] toward celebrating the liturgy in church buildings. When, because of persecution, we celebrate communion in the catacombs, we’re suffering. Meeting with God in such environments is incongruous with our understanding of who he is and what we’re doing together in this liturgical celebration.
Catacombs seem, to me, to be the worst example he could have chosen to make his point. If you couldn't hold the Eucharist in a cathedral, I can't think of a better place than the graveyard to hold it. The Eucharist, after all, is a celebration of a botched death, an execution that didn't take. It's a promise that death will not be meaningless, and that it will not be permenant, but that it will happen, and that's a promise that only means anything at all amid the dying. Catacombs seem to be exactly congruous with a robust understanding of the Eucharist. (And, in fact, this should become truer the more conservative you are: Chesterton speaks of tradition as democracy with the dead, after all.) For goodness sake, lots of Christians, even now, hold celebrations in graveyards on purpose.

I'm a little bit convinced that the atmosphere matters to the proceedings, and for this reason I'd be inclined enough to eschew pubs, but if you really want a setting that is congruous with the sacrament, then I have some settings I'd which to suggest to Regent College: Hastings Street, Vancouver General Hospital, and Riverview Hospital. I don't think there's anything wrong with suffering a little when we celebrate Communion (so long as that suffering is something we've chosen ourselves), if only so that we can appreciate the fact that we're celebrating communion with the suffering.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Which is the Genre for You?

I used QuizFarm to make a quasi-personlity test to determine which genre would give you the most opportunities to express your worldview and explore the questions that you find most interesting, as per this point (link). It's not, of course, supposed to indicate which genre you prefer; I submit that you might actually be more inclined to dislike examples of your best genre because they'll touch on the questions you're interested in, and there's a good chance they'll do so in ways that bug you. (For instance, Philip Pullman dislikes the Narnia books because he thinks they address the right questions in terrible ways.)

In general, I tried to make questions about the kind of beliefs you have--what the beliefs are about, how you think about them--more than what your opinions are. After all, coming-of-age novels usually have something about protagonists adopting or rejecting their society's conventions, but the author could prefer either adoption or rejection. Westerns have a spectrum of stances on morality, from very grey morality to black-and-white morality, but they are almost always interested in whether people do (or can) make moral decisions in tough situations. So I tried to make sure my questions were about the general shape of that opinion rather than its specific content, unless that content really is a part of the genre (for instance, if you're going to write a horror story, you must think that something is worth being scared about).

Months ago I wrote a version of this quiz which you'd score with pencil-and-paper. It was a much different format (multiple choice), so I hope no artifacts from that previous format interfere with the one QuizFarm gave me. This new format has yes/no questions keyed to one particular result each. This means that you could, in theory, get 100% on all eight genres (or 0% on all eight), which wasn't true of the other format. In this case, I had to try to make sure there's enough differentiation between the genres that a participant would be highly unlikely to prefer more than, say, three genres. Hopefully giving a spectrum rather than merely Agree/Disagree will add a bit of differentiation. I guess if you get 0% on all of the genres, you likely have nothing to say.

If you take part, bear in mind that any score lower than 50% counts as negative. Of course, this is supposed to be for fun, not a diagnostic test. And this is not supposed to indicate what kind of story I think you should write, if you want to write one; the point is to figure out more about your own (or another's) worldviews, not to determine what a good story is!

The quiz is here: link.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

An Apology to Authenticity

I have perhaps been unfair to what I've been calling the Polonius virtue. While, when I started out writing about it, I said that I thought you could likely build an argumentative robust version of it, I haven't been doing the best job of keeping that in mind. Instead, I've generally been thinking of people who adhere to the Polonius virtue as being pretty seriously mistaken. Of course even thinking that they're mistaken might be kind of strange, since I first came up with this idea in the context of Moral Foundations Theory, and there are real questions about whether moral foundations (or values) are even opinions anyway, at least in the sense that we think of them; we don't seem to choose which foundations matter to us. But I still want to make a case for valuing authenticity to oneself, in some shape or another.

To recap, I suspect that authenticity is value that a statistically significant proportion of humans care about. One version of this is the Polonius virtue, so called because of this line from Hamlet, spoken by Polonius: "This above all: to thine ownself be true, / And it must follow, as the night the day, / Thou canst not then be false to any man." To whit, it is a moral good to be true to yourself, a proclamation taken to mean many things. I think the problem, in fact, is that it's taken to mean so many things, and so many of those things are silly that I forget that some of them may not be so silly. For instance, I won't apologize for thinking that acting "true" to your every impulse is a good thing; hardly anyone can believe that if they keep in mind how many times people have conflicting impulses. But I think there might be one possible reading which isn't so silly: you shouldn't lie about yourself to yourself.

If you want to navigate the world with much hope of success, it will be much better if you are honest about yourself. This isn't a claim that there is some deep, immutable self to which you might be honest, nor is it even a claim that there is a temporary but nonetheless coherent self-of-the-moment about which you might be honest. I can fully recognize that I'm conflicted, that I'm partially opaque to myself, etc. and so forth, and still say that I tend to feel certain ways about certain things (so, for instance, I am afraid of heights, I have depression) and that I tend to do certain things (so, for instance, I usually articulate inchoate emotional content in logical, procedural ways). If I'm going to make it, I ought to know all of this about myself.

Another take on it: I need to recongize when people around me are making demands of me which don't honour the ways in which I differ from their ideas about what humans are. I typically see drives for authenticity as being a little anti-conventional, and I think this insight--that people do make demands of you which just don't mesh well with your personality, your needs, your cognitive style, etc.--is where that anti-conventional attitude might come from. Sometimes the dominant narrative just won't work for us; we aren't all or always so easily caught up in our culture's folkways. Being honest about this does seem rather important, at least as a condition of other goods.

And, for goodness sake, this is precisely the sort of thing I've been hoping other people would start adopting (particularly ones I think of as being uber-logical, disembodied rational types, like the Less Wrong people--and that may be unfair caricature, as well). I guess I've been an advocate for particular version of the authenticity ethic and I didn't even know it. Which is ironic in the technical sense. I'm a perfect example of what can go wrong if you aren't aware of yourself: I spent most of my life with dysthymia and I didn't even know it. Had I known it, things might have gone much better for me. And I'm also a decent example of what can go well if you are aware of yourself: I knew in advance that I was going to have a depressive breakdown, and I got a medical leave in time to weather that storm without damaging my academic career. So this specific kind of authenticity ethic is one I'm deliberately cultivating.

I think there are a few ways the Polonius virtue can go wrong, however. The first is when knowing yourself becomes an excuse to remain static. The second is when people start generalizing about what people are like; this can be a case of thinking other people are more like you than they are, or in can be a case of reasoning out from beliefs you have about human behaviour, even when it does not correspond well with the evidence/other people's experiences. The third is using an authenticity ethic to support selfish behaviour. The fourth (perhaps a superset which contains the third) is privileging authenticity over other goods. I'd explicitly disagree with what Polonius actually says: you can be true to yourself (whatever you take that to mean) and still be false with other people. (The most obvious example is that you could lie, and know you're lying.) And I think a lot of the metaphysics or anthropology that people build around the authenticity is unfounded .As an example, you could say that Freudian psychoanalysis is a huge and erroneous mythology built out of the valuable recognition that we are opaque to ourselves and spend a lot of time trying to repress/suppress our desires so that they correspond with societal norms.

Another way it can go wrong, too, is that we can fool ourselves into thinking that we know ourselves when we don't. Smart people prone to introspection are, apparently, really bad for this: smart people are terribly good at rationalization, and trick themselves into thinking they know their own mind. I'm inclinded to think that a fairly good knowledge of psychology--maybe not formal education but at least some commitment to following academic psychology, rather than folk psychology--would help people in this, but maybe not. That might just improve the plausiblity of their rationalizations, not improve the accuracy of their rationalizations. Really, awareness of the limitations of self-awareness is a kind of honesty to oneself, isn't it?

So in future I will try to be fairer to this ethic, and recognize that it probably has a place, when articulated in a certain way and when it is not burdened with baseless metaphysics. In retrospect, it seems appallingly obvious that, at minimum, being honest with oneself about oneself is pretty important to proper functioning. We've just got to pair that with the twin insights that 1) we can never really know ourselves entirely and 2) we are constantly in flux.

And I'm sorry if I offended anyone with my callous dismissal of authenticity as a moral good.

Monday, 4 November 2013

"American suburban fantasies of manliness are used by real killers"

I have no time really to write a blog post, but I thought some of you might want to read this article: "Jesus, meth, and masculinity." Andrew Brown of the Guardian explains how John Eldredge's Wild at Heart, an American evangelical handbook to normative Christian masculinity, has become the official handbook of La Familia Michoacana, an especially brutal Mexican drug gang known for decapitation. It makes sense; the logical end of normative masculinity is unfathomable violence. But of course Eldredge is horrified by this turn of events. I don't have time right now to talk a lot of about how masculinity and Christianity make terrible bedfellows, but I don't have to: I've done it before ("Feminine Christianity"), and a bunch of people have done it better than I have ("Mark Driscoll makes pacifists fighting mad"). And of course it's nothing new that the somewhat silly daydreams of privileged people are horrific when acted out: I love pirates, for instance, except when they're real and contemporary.

Wild at Heart does happen to be on my bookshelf, though I haven't read past perhaps the fifth page or so. It is the only book I've actually flung across the room, and I made a point of leaving it where it landed for a few days before putting it away. I do not want to own it anymore. I want to be rid of the thing. But I do not know how to get rid of it. Donating it to a used bookstore seems like a bad idea because then someone might read it, and this seems like a worst-case scenario to me. Destroying the book seems like the best alternative, but the idea of book-burning gives me serious willies. Perhaps I should try to make some sort of craft out of it, but I'm not really sure what I'd make. (I'd like to make something like this, but I haven't the skillz.)
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