Thursday, January 31, 2008

Why Theology?

I've been a professional student of religion & theology since 1993. Nearly fifteen years now. Somewhere along the way, I stopped believing in God. I can't put my finger on when, but I am consumed by why.

The short answer: traditional notions of God simply stopped making sense to me. By traditional, I mean that of a transcendent, all-powerful, all-knowing Father. As I explored alternative notions of God, first through Buddhism, and then through radical Christian renditions that identified the Father as dying with the Son on the cross, I at first tried to equivocate when people asked me if I still believed. "Sure," I'd say. "Just very differently." Anymore, I'm not sure answering in the affirmative is at all helpful. Any explanation I offer will be involved and require lots of patience on the part of the curious, to the point that I suspect most would just say, "Why didn't you just say 'No'?" So, for all intents and purposes, no, I don't believe in God.

I repeat: I don't believe in God.

And yet, I must confess, it is still hard to write that. This is not because of some residual nostalgia. I do not sometimes wonder, "What if all my evangelical friends are right." I do not, when I think about death, experience fear because of the anxiety of burning in hell or eternal separation from God. My fear, rather, is one of human weakness -- of not being able to face the end of individuality, the collapsing of consciouness to nothingness; and of not being able to comprehend the complex ecology whereby the individuality of my living and dying unfolds into a ever-expanding network of human and non-human, via the constantly changing kaleidoscope of memory, the process of physical decay in which my body literally feeds the earth, or the seemingly infinite tapestry of decisions I've made that connect me to this world, and this world to me, even after my dying breath. It could well be said that the welcoming of this weakness is the reason I do not now believe -- though, I would be lying if I said I was aware of this when I first realized I did not believe. (That is the subject of another post, or perhaps even a book -- the evolution of disbelief.)

And yet, it remains hard to confess this. Not because I fear the reaction of others. My mom's reaction, maybe -- less because of what she would say to me, but because of how she would take it on as yet one more thing to worry about. She is a smart woman, I tell myself. She must know already. Or, like many from my past, suspect it, but wish to think otherwise. After all, the lies we tell ourselves about others sometimes make for the most polite conversation.

No, it remains hard to confess my disbelief in God because I do believe in miracles. Which is to say, I believe in acts of love and heroism. I believe that you do not get simply what you see, and that what you see is what you get. I believe there is more to a body than even the body knows. There is more to the individual, to the body-politic, to the universe untold than its constituent parts -- not that something divine transcends or permeates these parts, that there is anything BUT finite parts, but that the parts themselves are more than themselves. I believe that this is the stuff of creativity -- the creation of potential and possibility and power. The capacity not simply to change or evolve, to become something else, but the capacity to become something more, something that explodes from within expectations fashioned by past use, present desire, and future profit. Indeed, where these expectations alone explode beyond themselves.

I realize this threatens to become New Age mumbo-jumbo, so I'll be more concrete. In thinking things can be different, more than the horizon of expectations allow -- I am not content, for example, with a new president, a stronger Democratic party, a wider social safety net, or universal health care. I will take them all. But they are not miracles. The stuff of theology, as I understand it, of a political theology that matters beyond propping up the moralizing of sex or the extension of militaristic aggression or xenophobic hatred, prevents this from being the horizon, because theology, even without God, is the discourse of miracles.

What kind of a miracle am I talking about? One can only ever venture guesses and estimations, but what about forgiveness of debt ... a worldwide forgiveness whose results we cannot even imagine. It's insane. Horrific, in fact. Economies would crumble, money would become meaningless. In a word, chaos. Miracles, after all, are not always pretty -- they are not always the result of beneficient forces. Debt forgiveness could come through mass legislation, or perhaps revolution; but more than likely through natural forces like environmental collapse. Miracles emerge from the spaces that exceed, but do not necessarily transcend, intention and agency, cause and effect.

What happens after miracles, as we've witnessed in those religions we believe and disbelieve, most of which were themselves borne from miracles, is always unknown and always contingent. To believe in the miracle, though, is not simply to believe in what follows, be it a doctrine or a constitution, but to direct one's attention to what matters: the miracles from which these emerge, which they try to keep from happening again, and to which they ultimately fall. If this sounds a lot like the structure of myth, that's because in a way it is. Attention is paid to miracles in the quality of the myths we create and enact in our daily rituals. The fact that we no longer believes in miracles is indicative of the death of mythology, replaced by the spinning of tall tales and cons.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

What I've Been Reading

I get asked pretty frequently about what I've been reading. I'd like to think this because everybody thinks me to be really well-read, and always seeking to better myself verbally & intellectually. But, the truth is, everybody knows I'm unemployed, and you can only spend so much of your day pouring over Careerbuilder and forging reference letters. Anyway, I've gotten into a really bad habit lately of starting too many books. I have them planted all over the apartment. One in each of the two bathrooms, one next to the bed, a couple on my desk, and one somewhere within groping distance of the couch.

In the upstairs bathroom, I have a copy of Cormac McCarthy's Suttree. Unfortunately, I only ever use the upstairs bathroom to shower and pee. So, I've only gotten through the italicized meditation that takes up three pages. So, no review to offer. In the downstairs bathroom, I generally keep Thomas Pynchon's massive, 1,100-page Against the Day. I'm about halfway through it, and I'm still really liking it. It's definitely not for everybody, so I can't say everybody should dive in. For me, though, I find that I love to sit and read the prose out loud. I've yet to find a dull section, even with the ever-shifting narrative and writing styles. My IM away message is even from it: "It was the U.S.A., after all, and fear was in the air."

On my desk are two books, one I've just finished and the other I've just started. On Monday I finished reading George Monbiot's Heat: How to Stop the Planet From Burning. I can't recommend this book enough. A very quick read, Monbiot approaches the issue of climate change from a British perspective. Which is to say, he approaches it from a perspective that is a) unafraid of science and b) isn't committed to finding minority voices in the scientific community to call into question generally established findings, contrarian voices who happen to be heavily funded by the likes of Exxon. Monbiot, more or less, in short, takes it as a scientific given that our carbon emissions have the potential to kill a lot of people due to rising temperatures. Instead of making the argument that there is a problem, he describes the actual problem itself. That is, by 2030 the world's temperature will likely have risen 2.3 degrees (celcius) above pre-industrial levels (1.4 degrees above what it is now) -- which is the point at which really bad shit will probably start happening ... granted, mostly to people who are already poor and/or already neglected. This last part kind of gets in the way of his call to arms against global warming: a 90% decrease in Britain's carbon emissions by 2030. He very capably shows how this might be possible, but in the end concedes that the political & psychological obstacles actually to do so are enormous. (This is even more true for the U.S., where a 97% decrease would be necessary.) BUT, in spite of this, it's a really great book. Monbiot offers an enthusiasm and fresh perspective to things, and his cynicism is always tempered by, not really hope, but a willingness to show that there is another way even if we don't take it.

The other book on my desk, which I've only just started, is Philip Goodchild's Theology of Money. For me, Goodchild is one of the best thinkers out there right now. This is a really difficult, often very technical book. But, I think it can be translated, and at some point I hope to do so here. From what I gather, about fifty or so pages in, he is looking at money as the force by which we order and identify our individual lives and our political/governmental entities. Money is not just something that resides in your wallet, or in your bank account -- it is the mediating element of what passes for reality. To change ourselves or our collective will, we have first to identify how money does this. Only then is an alternative even thinkable.

Next to my bed is Donald Barthelme's disturbing book, The Dead Father. I'm only about ten pages from finishing this short book, but I've not really read in bed for a while. Fortunately, it is remarkably easy to jump in at any point, and know exactly what is going on. The title says it all. The father -- God, authority, creator -- is dead, kind of. The process of getting rid of the dead father, however, is a bit more difficult.

And in the living room, Gary Giddins' Visions of Jazz. Basically just a collection of Giddins' essays and reviews about the classic jazz greats, from as far back as the '20s, to more brief discussions of contemporary acts in the early '90s, this book is a nice one to read when I get a chance to load whatever new CD I've discovered, and just get into the vibe of things. I learn something new each time I flip through it.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008


Oh ... and Happy $100 Oil Day! Celebrate this historic occasion in style.

Happy New Year!

I've long had a problem with those misguided souls who go on about the world's "overpopulation problem." Mostly, this is a not-so-subtle way of saying that poor people really should stop breeding. Even more misanthropic critics will say, behind closed doors, after a few drinks, that AIDS will sort things out in Africa. Most would cringe at this sentiment, and rightly so, but they would likely not have a solution beyond a mixture of more education and/or liberalization of the Third World. If only we could teach them to become like us!

Unfortunately, the reality on the ground doesn't support this general assumption. In fact, if anything, the reality on the ground exposes the outright flaws both in the assumption and the perspective that came up with it in the first place. First, the assumption that everybody should be like us; and second, the self-perception that our way of life is the prize everybody's eyes should be on.

The fact is, the American dream isn't even a nightmare. No, there's too much that is tangible to it even to sustain that particular metaphor. It is, rather, a bordello fantasy straight out of Ben Franklin's Parisian nightlife. Ah, but here's the thing -- we're convinced that a) the role-play is real, and that the jizz jar bent before us / rancid piece of pulled pork dangling over us really speak in love when they say, "You fuck me better than the rest," and b) that those pox marks on our genitals will heal themselves (and if not, why not, spread the love!). Our national myth of prosperity is a role-play that never stops. We will, we're assured, figure out ways for it to continue -- be it, blindfolds, Viagra, novelty costumes, clowns, ponies and and rubber balls. Oh, and yes, extending the invitation that others can play along!

So, we present the Third World with the Third Way, an illusion of our own illusion, that is, the means to consume as much as we do, if they but embrace democracy and its open markets, and then snicker mightily at the tragedy that the Earth cannot even sustain our own present levels of consumption. To embrace our illusion, and even to openly propogate it, is one thing; but to believe in it is another thing entirely. Such is the damnable offense of religion and marriage and education and liberalism, etc.

So, you're right, Jared Diamond. No, the problem isn't them. The problem isn't the real sex and overpopulation of others -- as patriarchal and problematic as their sex often is. The problem is our wet dream turned real: an erection that never stops at an orgy that never ends. The American way of life, at its finest.