Wednesday, June 09, 2010

An Apologetic for Failure

To the previous blog Nic wrote:
It seems a bit reductionistic to conflate Christian spirituality to a rather singular expression, that of taking care of the poor, which is what it sounds like you're doing. . . . I'm not sure if Jesus' life itself is even enough to be able to reduce his message to one of economic justice. As much as Jesus loved the poor and called his followers to do the same, he didn't really do much to change institutional poverty, quite honestly. If the gospel he sought to bring was one of economic sustenance for the world's poor, then his life was a failure, because it just didn't happen.

My views have been fundamentally shaped by two theologians, Hans Kung and Edward Schillebeeckx. Both are in accord about this: Jesus was a failure.

“Thus Jesus’ message, bearing the signature of his death, calls upon us to revise our self-understanding, by speaking of God who silently reveals himself in Jesus’ historically helpless failure on the cross.” - Schillebeeckx, Jesus, 638.

“His public life did not last for decades, but at most three years, and possibly only a few dramatic months before it was brought to a violent end . . . his whole story is ultimately a history of suffering with arrest, flogging and finally execution in a cruel, shameful form. This life has nothing enlightened and perfect about it. It remains a fragment, a torso. A fiasco? At any rate, there is no trace of success during Jesus’ lifetime . . .” Kung, Credo, 55.

I understand well that Christianity is a vastly complex system, and that to emphasize one expression is to neglect another. Yet, I’m also unconvinced that Jesus shared our neat divisions of human experience. To put it better: I highly doubt that Jesus viewed economic justice as a separate entity, or even a respectable subcategory, of Justice. He was the prophet of the Kingdom of God, the realm of God’s shalom. He pursued this Kingdom relentlessly unto his death; the very death that marked his ultimate failure to bring about the Kingdom which he hoped for. I don’t see any point at which he appeared ready to compromise for some half-assed notion of justice which slighted economic equity in the name of pragmatic concerns.

In the first part of his book Christ, Schillebeeckx points out that the origins of the word shalom imply peace that is achieved by what equates to socioeconomic reconciliation and fairness. For shalom to exist there must first be a sense of wholeness shared by all in a society, and a settling of debts. These are the preconditions of the peace that is longed for by all. This sense of peace is ultimately the foundation of the Jewish conception of the Kingdom of God as it is expressed in the New Testament. At the core of Jesus’ identity is the driving hope for a world under God where impoverished conditions are a shadow of history. This tangentially demands us to remember that poverty is not ultimately an economic matter. Poverty is a denial of the humanity of others; humanity implying the conditions by which we can identify a life as human. We frame it in terms of bank statements, but that is simply because it calms the cognitive dissonance we feel at caring more for our own comforts than for the meaningless deaths of millions.

Simply put, ignoring the economic implications of shalom destroys the very habitat in which shalom is even a remote possibility. And without shalom, the Kingdom which Jesus held as his central concern is a farce, making Jesus a peddler for a hoax. I agree that economics was not central to Jesus’ message as he preached it, but to claim that the implications of his message have any meaning apart from economic justice is foolish. Shalom implicates the whole of human existence. To maintain the divisions of our fractured reality, and pretend shalom can be approximated in all other realms while we leave a festering dead elephant under a tablecloth is a blasphemous joke.

So, let’s bring this back to where we started: the miserable failure who is our Lord. A first point is that it doesn’t mean much to say that Jesus loved the poor. Of course he loved them. He was one of them. He was born into poverty, he lived in poverty, and died in poverty. His death is a poor death. A meaningless death. His death is like the deaths of millions in our world, who die out of sight: unheard and unknown in Rome. A common disturbance among the authorities in Jerusalem. If we suspend the resurrection, then Jesus was a failure and so were his followers. Without God’s final vindication and endorsement then there is no other possible interpretation of his life. It was too sad to even qualify as a tragedy. Tragedies generally involve a downfall, but Jesus barely rose in the first place.

Yet this is the audacious and absurd claim that makes Christianity unique: it is in meaningless failure for God’s cause that God will raise us like our Christ.

Jesus died deluded, mistaken, and alone. He died meaninglessly - but for God’s final word. How dare we assume that we can claim to follow him and expect success? You choose the evil that stands in our world and attack with the authority of the Kingdom of God. You attack in the knowledge that you will fail. You attack because of Justice that is not fractured but remains unified under the Shalom of God’s existence. Beyond this expectation, apart from a faith that transcends eminent failure, the “gospel” is empty, dated, and hopefully soon forgotten.

A simpler way of saying all this could go something like this:

“I have fought for my whole life a long defeat. . . . I have fought the long defeat and I have brought other people on to fight the long defeat, and I’m not going to stop because we keep losing. Now I actually think sometimes we may win. I don’t dislike victory. . . . people from our background, we’re used to being on a victory team, [but] actually what we’re really trying to do is make common cause with the losers. We want to be on the winning team, but at the risk of turning our backs on the losers, no, it’s not worth it. So you fight the long defeat.” - Paul Farmer

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Liberation Theology for First World people.

So, why haven't I written in a while? I had a hard semester, which went well. I took my MCAT which went terrible. I'm busy, but that isn't really it. Basically, I haven't written because I've been grossly unenthused by my usual topics lately. I've had a couple philosophy books on hand. I just shelved them the other day, because . . . well, because who the hell cares? That's been my general take for a while now. This stuff (i.e. theology, philosophy, etc.) formerly seemed of great importance to me. Now, my interest has officially waned.

This leaves me with two things to discuss: science and fiction. Neither of which I find to be great blogging material. And, neither of which, I really feel qualified or inclined to speak out as an expert, or even an aspiring expert.

So, I haven't written for a while: not because of writer's block, but mostly due to apathy.

But, yesterday I finished this book:

It's a biography about a doctor/anthropologist named Paul Farmer. I had previously read one of Farmer's works, but this biography put it in context. Farmer has spent most of his life working in Haiti, which continues to rank as the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. It holds that honor because our government decided long ago that a nation of former slaves was only good for exploiting. Thus, we have instituted policies ever since that taken this exploitation to extremes never before seen or thought possible.

Ever since, Haiti has enjoyed the perks of extreme poverty: violence, ridiculous infant and child mortality rates, a median age range that barely escapes the teens, epidemics galore, starvation, lack of education, lack of infrastructure, and, to Farmer's dismay, lack of basic medical services. Not that these sorrows aren't found in other places, but it's simply a fact that to not find them in Haiti would require a combination of blindness, deafness, and lack of tactile perception. This is the gift of American and Latin American foreign policy because, after all, black people should know better than to revolt against French colonialism and torture.

Paul Farmer grew up in America in a poor family, but went to Duke for his Bachelor's, and received his M.D. and Ph.D. from Harvard. He has predominantly worked in Haiti since his early 20's and indeed carried out most of his Harvard education by correspondence on the island. But, enough with the gist, here's why I think he's worth writing about:

Farmer is Liberation Theology incarnated. I hear people discuss liberation theology quite commonly, but it is always discussed among people in the First World. We always lend it our sympathies in theory, and in practice know that we are not actually going to do anything to join its cause. I hear the majority of churches in America talk about poverty the same way we talk about sin: it's something out there, and we should do something to stop it. We take up a collection, and then go home to watch Lost or whatever other 'cultural phenomenon' is demanding our attention. But, throwing money at Haiti only serves to shore up the power-brokers that are continuing to mutilate that country. Throwing money at charities generally serves to give jobs to naive white people, who would rather be a shoulder to cry on than an arm to work for the cause of the poor.

We can throw all the money we want at the poor, but the fact is that the "free" market is designed to steal money from those who are easiest to steal it from. American banks are fantastic at slight-of-hand. They've been using it on the Third World for centuries, and now that most of the Third World has been bled dry, they've turned (in the last 3 years especially) on Americans.

Farmer barely self-identifies as a Christian. Yet, he seems to me the embodiment of Ghandi's axiom, "Go to the poor, they will tell you who the Christians are." He simultaneously shows me three things: 1) That I am not a Christian, and that I don't know any. 2) That there is hope that we all could be if we repent. 3) That a life of service to the poor, in other words a life that follows Jesus' example is indeed beautiful, meaningful, and worth attempting.

In other words, this biography is the first meaningful theology/philosophy book I have read in years. Farmer stands out as a great example of what it is for a First World person to live out the gospel in the wake of liberation theology.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Resignation to Drifting

We've been at sea for some time with our eyes to the horizon. We've longed for solid ground. We've swam towards shores we thought we saw, but none were ever found. Adrift, the question arises: If we haven't yet drown, then why do we long for shadows which resound? Drifting is our destiny.

I guess it's common to human nature to hope for a final arrival. By this I mean to say that we all have some vague ideas about a good that we hope for, and we hope on some level that one day we'll arrive. I've wished for years that I could stumble on a faith community that would meet my vague ideas of what a faith community should be. I've ceased to be surprised that this never happens. I realize that communities are made of individuals, and individuals are flawed. People aren't perfect, so how can I expect churches to be? These are things that I am reminded of every time I express my grievances to friends about the way churches are run in America. Churches are places where we must extend grace to people and their flaws. Yet, so often, this purported graciousness masks an expectation of complacency (perhaps complicity) with the worst evils to which our society clings. A few examples:

Implicit racism/ethnocentrism. In Dallas, churches come in a wide variety of flavors: white, black, Asian, yuppie, hipster, . . hell there's a wide variety of cowboy churches to choose between. The inter-racial churches I've seen all manage this by expecting all races to adhere to certain ethnic/cultural practices. In missions we referred to this as contextualizing, but more and more I just see it as self-satisfied laziness.

Failure of socioeconomic reconciliation. Perhaps this is evidence of me being a socialist, or perhaps I just find it to be the most blatant example of how "Jesus-followers" have no intention of following Jesus' teaching. I find that churches bear much of the guilt. We would rather pay for pews and stage lights than justice and righteousness. Were the salaries of ministry staffs across our nation diverted to pay for food and medicine, I imagine poverty could be wiped out in the Western hemisphere along with a good portion of the East. It seems that every church I attend views justice for the poor as an accessory. There's a bureaucracy that must be maintained, so that secondary functions like justice can be kept up. I find this to be a prioritization of values that is not compatible with Jesus.

Monologue. Sit in a pew, face forward, and swallow what your told. Let someone declare their own ideology to be the "Word of the Lord", and you follow with "Thanks be to God." We live in a world of monologue: TV, radio, editorials, pundits, movies, commercials. Where is the voice of the congregation heard? Where is the crowd given a chance to express doubts, its vague feelings, or hopes? If churches cant respond to these things, or allow them space to be voiced, then what precisely is its purpose? I'm not talking small groups, or wo/men's bible study. I mean genuine dialogue that shapes the face of the community; that determines its course. If there's anything good I see in the Emergent church movement, it's that at least they have this understood. The last thing our society needs is another place to have ministerial opinions and ideological stances projected at them.

These are three aspects, endemic among churches, that I've decided I cannot tolerate, and that I don't think anyone else should either. Thus, I've basically given up on finding a church. I now hope merely that some day by striving to "become the change I hope to see in the world", I'll find a community around me.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The University of Texas at Dallas: Land of Enchantment!

If you know anyone considering an education at UTD, look them in the eye and with a British accent say, "On second thought, don't go to UTD . . . tis a silly place."

Why? A few photos may suffice:

Behold the UTD geyser. . . .or hot spring. We're not sure what it is yet, but for close to a year we have watched this utility box go from a steaming block of cement, to what is now a bubbling, frothing mess. It has resulted in an alluvial flood plain that has shut down a significant chunk of sidewalk (get ready this is a theme we shall return to), and required the instillation of wooden bridges to traverse the muddy mess.


Ladies and Gentlemen, you might be mistaken into thinking that you are looking at a new project. Don't be. They claim this is to be a new campus "mall", on par with the national mall in D.C. Yet, after a year and a half of pardoning their progress, it appears that the trustees of my school are really just fascinated by dirt. It appears to be an ideological fixation to clear their campus' beautiful dirt of all that cursed greenery as far as the eye can see. We are a science school after all, so what could be more scientific than recreating the moon here on the earth? Progressive no?

As previously stated, moonism here at UTD has the annoying side effect of consuming all sidewalks. Therefore to transport oneself from one building to an adjacent one, requires a 15 km journey for every 5 meters that separate the buildings. Thus since the student center is 50 meters from the library, to proceed from one to the other requires no less that 150 km of hiking, (otherwise known as 93 miles). The amazing thing about such statistics is that UTD is confined to 3.5 square km of land. How, you might be wondering, is it possible to force 150 km treks across a campus that barely spans 3.5 km? . . . . Yeah. I get that question a lot, and I always respond the same way: "What else do you expect all these Nobel laureates to do with their time?"

Go science!

Lastly, the bathrooms.

To make the kids with gender issues feel more comfortable, UTD has installed gender-ambiguous toilets. Is it a urinal or a pot? No one knows. Therefore whatever confusion you may be feeling, science loves you anyway. Woosh.

Honorable mention:
- The new native forest at campus entrance. Have a 20-ft drainage ditch messing with your campus' aesthetic? Just replace ugly with . . . ugly BUT environmentally sound!

- The sidewalks that are lined by construction worker Port-a-Potties. If your day isn't crappy enough, just try to breath while walking down the only functioning sidewalk on campus.

- The mermaid (google image "UTD NSERL"). The only visually non-depressing object on campus, which one must be a research graduate student to even walk into. Confirming the UTD motto, "If it looks good, you're not allowed."

- If you wikipedia UTD, they refer to the campus architectural style as "Brutalism" . . . a shoe that fits.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Now who can swim any day in November . . ?

Every other month I get an invitation to join a Facebook group to stop global warming. I never join. The prospect that a Facebook group is a sufficient means to achieve any social goal seems a bit comical to me.

The polar ice caps are melting. The paper had an article a few days ago that cargo ships were now considering routes through the arctic circle, since ice was no longer blocking their path. That seems a bit definitive to me. One of my fellow pre-med students is a staunch Republican or Libertarian (those categories grow more interchangeable by the day), and informed me that it was all natural. The world is constantly going through warming and cooling cycles, and this is just a warming cycle. He may be right, or the environmentalists may be right. Either way I find the whole discussion to be quite asinine.

The more informed biologists I talk to the more I realize that if we humans are contributing to global warming that there is essentially nothing we can do about it. We are dependent on energy . . . enormous quantities of energy. And lest we forget, the world population is still increasing at a staggering rate. Were every human to significantly decrease their own carbon footprint, the increase in numbers of humans would mean that basically nothing would change. To actually reverse global warming would mean first and foremost reversing the population growth trend, and that doesn't seem very likely at all. Whether the problem is man-made or not seems irrelevant because there is essentially nothing that we can do to change it. Our temperatures will continue to rise along with our ocean levels, and our climate patterns are going to alter.

And there is the real problem. The thing that gets ignored in the debate over whether or not Mother Nature is hitting menopause, is that real people are suffering from the consequences that are happening. Whether what we are experiencing is natural or inflicted doesn't change the fact that for every foot the oceans rise, hundreds of millions of people are displaced, and left with no place to go. The countries that suffer the worst are some of the poorest countries: Bangledesh, Indonesia, Polynesia, Haiti and the Caribbean countries. The second major problem is that as climate patterns change, so do rain patterns.

The simple fact is that when water becomes scarce people die, and nations go to war.

The real challenge to our time is not to halt global warming or slow climate change. Rather we are faced with the brutal situation in which our world's growing population will be increasingly homeless, increasingly cut off from food and water resources, and increasingly hostile to the ridiculous disparity of wealth they witness. This is not a looming evil, it is a present one. It is a process already set in motion, whether by ourselves or nature. The question is not of causes, or solutions, but of action amidst the growing calamity.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Serious sports: formerly known as an oxymoron.

My refuge from the assaults of academia is sports. In doing so, I forfeit all my indie points, and suffer the scorn of intellectuals across the world . . . but hey, we all have to find some way to relax. I am currently watching the Rose Bowl, or rather, the Citi Rose Bowl. Later I plan to watch the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Thanks to Citi and Allstate for imposing their sponsorship upon our consciousness.

I wonder how long I have until I will no longer root for the Texas Longhorns, but rather the AT&T Texas Longhorns . . . that sounds more poetic doesn't it?

Ohio State just caught the kickoff (or I should say, 'Nokia Ohio State just caught the kickoff') and the commentator sets the narrative, "And so the journey begins." How profound. The Citi Rose Bowl = a journey. Were it that we all could travel afar to distant lands, to battle legendary foes, all within the confines of a stadium.

The pre-game show likened it to a rose. Should I say a Citi rose? Yes I should. Next time you are buying some Citi roses for your sweetheart, remember within that bouquet is all the metaphorical significance of a football game. Something about thorns and layers . . . whatever. Draw your own parallels, there are plenty.

Thus I can no longer relax without adding sponsorship to common objects. I now have to add Allstate sugar to my coffee, enjoy my FedEx orange juice, while sitting in America enjoying my Autozone liberty. (Notice: America is up for grabs, who's it going to be?)

Oh! someone just made a Burger King first down. Bank of America Oregon really needs to score a Ford touchdown now. Enough: I return to the profound metonymy and analogical artistry of sportscasters.

If only sports could aspire to unabashed superficiality.
If only corporate America would quit pissing territorially on household items and every form of leisure entertainment.

But, I digress: Happy Verizon New Year everyone! May your Haliburton dreams come true, and your Brinker family be healthy.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Darwinian Myths and Evolutionary Theology

I've only read a small portion of Origin of Species. It was mandatory reading that a professor printed off in mass to educate myself and my fellow students. As I recall I made it through 2-3 pages. The next thing I remember is waking up face down in the article that was then serving as a sponge for a large quantity of saliva. Thus, I failed at becoming a Darwin scholar. It does not seem that this rules me among a minority. My experience is that a great deal of scientists, even geneticists, have fallen short of reading the boring and generally inaccurate prose that made Darwin a legend.

One of the greatest myths resulting from Darwin is the idea of survival of the fittest. Before I proceed I'll make it clear that I fully believe in evolution. Obviously, if you've read much of anything I've ever written, I don't hold much room for Creationism. Still, I agree with many contemporary thinkers that for all its claims of objectivity, science is just as guilty of mythic, indeed religiously dogmatic, thought as any other culture. Survival of the fittest is perhaps one of the best examples I can point out. The big problem is with the concept of fitness. Darwin was certainly on to something in noting that it is survivors that pass on their genes, and determine the make-up of their progeny. But, the problem is that these survivors are not always more fit than all the others.

There is an enormous variety of "fitness" levels in nature. When we think of fitness we tend to assume this means the big and the strong. But that's not always true. In fact nature tends to select against "the big". In the grand scope of things, it is quite rare for bigness to be an advantage. More often than not it works against one's favor. Nor is strength as it's typically depicted really give one an advantage. Large muscles and stature simply burn more calories, and demand more consumption and make one a bigger target for 'nature' to take down.

Anyone who has spent much time around horses can tell you that they are some of the sickliest animals in all of creation. The vet bills for owning a horse are staggering. We should keep this in mind when we depict professional athletes as the inheritors of the earth: it only takes one bout of flu to make them as vulnerable as everyone else. In our society athletes are paid ridiculous wages because the perpetuate the delusion that they are the fittest specimens which we should all aspire to be. But, nature does not fit into (scientific) dogmas. Nature does select, but rarely does it do so based on who is bigger, faster and stronger.

A lot of the time, natural selection proceeds by blind luck. Were the citizens of Pompeii less fit than those of Rome? If a lion is struck by lightning is it sensible to assume it was less fit than meerkat hiding below the ground? If the meerkat's burrow collapses on top of it because a rhino tramples on top of it should we assume nature voted against him? These are ridiculous questions. These are circumstances that have minuscule relationships to the idea of "fitness".

My biology professor used to put it this way, "Nature does not select the fittest, only the fit enough. Nature shows no preference for those making an A+, it only expects that you make a D."

Statistically speaking it is the D's and C's that actually fair the best in nature. This is simply because there are more of them. Nature will, more often than not, respect the bell curve. There are far more numbers in the middle, and these numbers tend to like reproducing every bit as much as those pulling an A+. Often, they like reproducing even more. The cataclysmic situations where nature raises the bar, such that only the top of the class makes it on, are sparse. Meanwhile, she continues killing off the top of the class with the rest of it at a flat rate.

I mentioned my fascination with bacteria/viruses before. This is another tie in. It would seem that one of the biggest driving forces for evolution is adaptation to adverse microorganisms. Thus, nature cares much less about muscle mass than the functionality of one's immune system. This should serve as food for thought for those who don't think the poor should be provided with adequate health care. Dr. Paul Farmer has pointed out that we rich Westerners are culturing our own demise by leaving the masses living in favellas and barrios around the world where new diseases will specifically evolve to kill humans. The poor will be the first to die of it, and the first to be born immune to it. The privileged will be the ones whose numbers are less favorable. Statistically speaking we won't stand a chance. Thus, we might ought to add a beatitude, "Blessed are the poor for they will inherit the earth." This should be taken literally, and not spiritualized. Sow economic inequality, reap pandemic.

"Survival of the fittest" is a perversion of Darwin's ideas. It is a myth that speaks more of capitalism than of reality. It is what we want to believe, so we don't have to change. We want to believe that we have what we have, because we deserve it; because we are the fit ones. We want to believe that we are the strong who have survived, that our genes are the superior ones. We want Darwin to confirm our greediness, and we've forced axioms from his mouth. In fact, his ideas have told us the opposite. The mediocre survive with the fit. The mediocre are often more fit than the strong.

A Wendel Berry quote I love goes like this, "Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand, it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy." Only in light of evolutionary insights, I would replace "privilege" with "imperative".