Thursday, December 25, 2008

Happy Birthday Yeshua

A follower of neither Jesus nor Buddha, I feel free to misinterpret them both, together. There's a similarity in their stories: a bit of sacrifice of the divine to save the rest of us benighted creatures. In Jesus' case it involved a one-time event of bloody sacrifice. In Mahayana Buddhism, bodhisattvaa take a vow to renounce nirvana until all sentient beings can likewise be liberated. While the emotions and narrative arc of the stories seem similar, their interpretations are very different. The sacrifice of Jesus is taken to be a literal historical event; the Buddhist version seems abstract, distributed, and continuous. Buddhism has always seemed light-years more sophisticated philosophically than Christianity. The latter's insistence on interpreting spiritual teachings as literal truths gives rise to a lot of nonsense enforced by violence and torture.

BUT, I don't come to give Christianity shit on this day, I'm rather trying to appreciate the shared feelings, longings, motivations, needs, whatever, that are common to both religions and perhaps all religion. The belief in a better way of being; the universal truths that bind all humans together; the thread of compassion that links humans and the divine. The longing for a savior. The role of religion as a focus for these otherwise inchoate feelings.

I'm no good at all at this kind of stuff, but what the hell, it's Xmas. So I'm taking a moment to dwell in these feelings before returning to the usual rounds of sectarian hatred. I'm by nature a negative person, an againstist (like Mr. Rollins who on another day I would be sparring with), I'm with Heraclitus that conflict is the father of all things. But I'm tired of it, I want and need to get more peace love and understanding into my personal mix. Hence this slow, reluctant, erratic, but seemingly inevitable slide into religion. Most of my being resists it, truth to tell. But I have to assume that I'm just as human as the rest of the billions of people that exist now and in the past, and religion is just something humans do, as much a part of the game as eating, shitting, making love and dieing.

----

Well, as is quite often the case when I think I've had an original thought, I find there have been plenty of others there before me. In this case, there is an entire academic journal devoted to Christian-Buddhist studies, and numerous probably crank sites that purport that Christianity was lifted in whole from Buddhist sources. Here's an excellent article from the Boston Globe that describes some of the syncretic interactions between Christianity and Asian religions in the early history of the faith:


By the 12th century, flourishing churches in China and southern India were using the lotus-cross. The lotus is a superbly beautiful flower that grows out of muck and slime. No symbol could better represent the rise of the soul from the material, the victory of enlightenment over ignorance, desire, and attachment. For 2,000 years, Buddhist artists have used the lotus to convey these messages in countless paintings and sculptures. The Christian cross, meanwhile, teaches a comparable lesson, of divine victory over sin and injustice, of the defeat of the world. Somewhere in Asia, Yeshua's forgotten followers made the daring decision to integrate the two emblems, which still today forces us to think about the parallels between the kinds of liberation and redemption offered by each faith.

46 comments:

Michael said...

I suspect the reason Buddhism seems "light-years more sophisticated philosophically than Christianity" to you is that you are relatively unfamiliar with it and perhaps like many westerners tend to romanticise it. If you read the history of the Buddhist theocracy of Tibet, you will find not Shangri-la, but "a lot of nonsense enforced by violence and torture" - even before the Red Chinese brought thither their own refined skills in those arts. See, for example, Peter Hopkirk's "Trespassers on the Roof of the World."

At least one example of Buddhist/Christian cross-fertilization is the story of Barlaam and Josaphat. The life of St. Josaphat exactly parallels that of Gautama Buddha. There is at least one church dedicated to St. Josaphat in Palermo, and who knows how many others of its like?

TGGP said...

Check out Razib on Buddhism. Westerners aren't very exposed to folk Buddhism, which is basically the same as folk religion everywhere.

Anonymous said...

The lotus is a superbly beautiful flower that grows out of muck and slime.

No symbol could better represent the rise of Obama - a beautiful, pure, and perfect individual - from the stinking cesspool of corruption and greed that is Chicago politics!

mtraven said...

Hm, I just learned (from reading a commentary on The Man Who Was Thursday) that the Rosa Mundi, or Rose of the World, is a symbol of Christ (or sometimes Mary), and is obviously related to the symbolism of the lotus.

Anonymous, you sound like you are missing the point. We all have our roots in the muck.

mtraven said...

BTW, I am under no illusions about Buddhism. Any religion with a broad enough reach is capable of turning into an oppressive political regime or a set of un-rigorous folk beliefs. I think Christianity has given rise to more of the former than Buddhism, but that's not really germane to the point I was trying to make here. I have but a glancing familiaritiy with the sophisticated forms of both religions, so am really not that qualified to compare them, but Christian theology always seems to get hung up on crude literalism. Tibetan Buddhists may have instituted serfdom, but I never heard of them persecuting the heterodox for heresy. P

Michael said...

"Crude literalism" seems mostly to be associated with low Protestant denominations. You should try reading more Catholic and Anglican thinkers - let's say, Nicholas of Cusa or Richard Hooker. I am sure they will match any Buddhist for sophistication.

Take this as you may, but it has always seemed to me that the main mistake of low Protestants was that they were Judaizers, and hence took the Old Testament too seriously. For the Christian, its primary value is in foretelling the coming of Christ. Squire Jennens extracted the relevant parts and Handel set them to music. Otherwise, the O.T. is, for the most part, nothing but a record of primitive Jewish tribal supersition, and its understanding of God is as little better than a vengeful, sacrifice-craving tyrant.

There are many examples, but a prime illustration is found at I Samuel 5-6. In c. 5 the Philistines, who have captured the Ark of the Covenant, have desecrated it by placing it in the house of Dagon. In revenge God kills lots of them, and smites the rest with "the emerods: and the cry of the city went up to heaven." I should imagine so! Why didn't Spielberg depict this happening to the latter day captors of the Ark in "Indiana Jones"?

In the following chapter the offending Philistines are charged to return the Ark and to make a trespass offering of "five golden emerods and five golden mice" that thereby they "shall give glory unto the God of Israel." I cannot imagine what a golden haemhorroid looked like, much less that such an object should be thought adequate to propitiate the divine wrath.

My ancestral affiliation being Anglican, I have of course used the Authorized Version here, which, as I compare it with the Vulgate and the LXX, appears indeed to be an accurate translation. I have seen some later versions of the English Bible, of the sort popular amongst low Protestants today, that have bowdlerized the above passages, either because the translators thought them indelicate, or that they would strain the credulity of their readership - I know not which.

Whatever ill may have been done by its misguided votaries in the name of Christianity, a God who would afflict a disobedient people with the piles is absent from the New Testament. Primitive justice and pharasaical legalism are replaced by divine mercy in it. Far more typical of that document is the civilised advice of St. Paul:

"Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, rejoice.
"Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand.
"Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.
"And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.
"Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things." {Phil. iv:4-8]

mtraven said...

"Crude literalism" seems mostly to be associated with low Protestant denominations. You should try reading more Catholic and Anglican thinkers - let's say, Nicholas of Cusa or Richard Hooker. I am sure they will match any Buddhist for sophistication.

Mmm, maybe, I don't doubt you can find some sophisticated thought in the history of Christianity. Nicholas of Cusa was a mathematician, I don't know anything about his theology or Hooker's. The literalism that is bothering me is not the textual literalism of ignorant fundamentalists, which is not even worth attention, but the kind of metaphysical literalism and arrogance that generates orthodoxy, heresy, and the Inquisition. Can't blame that on the Protestants.

Take this as you may, but it has always seemed to me that the main mistake of low Protestants was that they were Judaizers, and hence took the Old Testament too seriously.

Judaizers? Really? I never had an image of Protestantism high or low as having much fondness for Judaism, but what do I know?

the O.T. is, for the most part, nothing but a record of primitive Jewish tribal supersition, and its understanding of God is as little better than a vengeful, sacrifice-craving tyrant.

You sound like Richard Dawkins, much to my surprise.

You can certainly find all that stuff in the OT, and a lot of tedious geneology and inapplicable regulations, but it's also one of the founding documents of Western literature, morality, and culture in general. I thought you liked that sort of stuff. To dismiss it entirely is philistinism, speaking of the Philistines.

Whatever ill may have been done by its misguided votaries in the name of Christianity, a God who would afflict a disobedient people with the piles is absent from the New Testament. Primitive justice and pharasaical legalism are replaced by divine mercy in it.

Hm, you must not be very familiar with Revelations (which seems to be the central part of the NT for today's fundamentalists):

9:5. And to them it was given that they should not kill them, but that they should be tormented five months: and their torment was as the torment of a scorpion, when he striketh a man.

6. And in those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it; and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them.


But I wouldn't judge the whole NT by that, any more than you should judge the whole OT by its more bloodthirsty passages. I have to admit a fondness for Revelations, which was clearly written under the influence of serious drugs.

Anyway, the point of this post was to generate a happy spirit of ecumenicism for the holiday, not arguments about whose god or text is better. But now the season is over, we can get back to arguing.

Michael said...

The distinction between the Apocalypse of St. John and the account in I Samuel is that the former is a prophecy, as yet unfulfilled, and the latter purports to be a true history.

If the low Protestants were not Judaizers, how do you explain the popularity of Old Testament names amongst the Puritans? Their obsessive Sabbath-keeping was clearly in imitation of the Jews - Boston baked beans could be prepared before sundown Saturday, and eaten on Sunday without the necessity for laboring on the day of rest.

Cromwell proposed to re-admit Jews to England because he thought they would be converted once they saw the purified (i.e., Puritan) version of Christianity, stripped of "popish" excrescences, and representing a simple and true messianic Judaism. That project never got off the ground, and it was left to Charles II to invite Jews to return without any conditions and under a declaration of indulgence. See Schuchard, "Restoring the Temple of Vision."

Nicholas of Cusa's principal theological work was "De docta ignorantia," hardly a work of crude literalism. Hooker I recommend on the basis of his tolerant and rational work on ecclesiatical polity, and his recognition amongst the Puritans of what Eric Voegelin has identified as the gnostic strain common to other totalitarian utopians - their desire to "immanentize the apocalypse."

There are many other Christian thinkers who are, in their own ways, at least as sophisticated philosophically as any Buddhist. Jacob Boehme's "Aurora," for example, is as elaborately fantastic as the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

It is certainly true that the Old Testament contains the germ of morality in the Decalogue; but this is intermingled with endless petty legalisms, as a few grains of alluvial gold are in a vast mass of riparian dirt.

From a Christian point of view the relevant analysis is again found in St. Paul:

"What shall we say then? That the Gentiles, which followed not after righteousness, have attaained to righteousness, even the righteousness which is of faith.

"But Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousnerss.

"Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumblingstone:

"As it is written, Behold, I lay in Sion a stumblingstone and rock of offense: and whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed." [Rom. ix:30-33]

The 'stumblingstone,' incidentally, is a reference to Eben-ezer, the scene of the two Jewish defeats, I Sam. iv:1 et seq., and later to a monument set up at that place by Samuel, I Sam. vii:12.

The episode in question is probably best explained as an outbreak of bubonic plague amongst the Philistines, since the "emerods" were associated with what the A.V. refers to as "your mice that mar the land," I Sam. vi:5 - the symptom described was likely buboes manifesting themselves at the lymph nodes of the crotch ("in secretioris partibus natium," Vulg.) rather than either haemhorroids or "tumours" as the R.S.V. and the Scofield Bible (especially popular amongst dispensationalists) bowdlerize King James's translators.

Western civilisation is, as the familiar formulation of bygone college courses had it, our combined inheritance from Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome. There is indeed a great deal I like about it; it seems preferable to me to other civilisations.

What I'd just like to get you to admit is that just about all of the things you dislike about Christianity - especially the fundamentalist kind - are drawn from Jerusalem's part in it, rather than the others. As just one example, you appear sympathetic to the claimed grievances of homosexuals. Yet surely you must admit the Christian antipathy to their behavior is entirely Judaic in its origins. The Greeks and Romans held no such sentiments, as their literature amply testifies.

the ashen man said...

You express a very naive view of Buddhism here and in your earlier 'heresy' posting. The current Dalai Lama is accused of persecuting the Dorje Shugden sect in Tibet. The Tibetan theocracy in its prime was more total in its power than the Catholic church ever was, which acknowledged at least in theory the separation of temporal and spiritual powers. You may be interested in The Shadow of the Dalai Lama.There are numerous examples of persecution of heresy in Hinduism (e.g. a long-running persecution of aboriginal Shaivism by the Aryan Vaisnavas) and Buddhism (see for a Japanese example Nichiren, one of the most ferociously sectarian figures in the history of religions, or indeed Theravada Buddhism's hostility to native religious practices like shamanism).

Michael is correct in pointing out that literalism in Christianity is a modern aberration, but I suspect that what really bothers you is Christianity's particularism, its grounding in supposedly historical events, a personal god and so on, compared to the apparent universality of concepts like Brahman and nirvana. If you read Christian theology you might be surprised by the sophistication of its defense of these things (a theologian friend of mine uses the phrase 'the scandal of particularity'), but I'm not the one to make that case. I suggest reading Frithjof Schuon for some serious comparative religion.

In any case, all of the world religions became such only by their entanglement with empire, and all that that entails.

On another note, you may want to look into the symbolism of the "rose cross."

the ashen man said...

I see the article is by Philip Jenkins - an excellent journalist of religion. You might want to take a look at his The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice.

One question strikes me though: is the "lotus-cross" really a symbol of harmonious integration? Jenkins describes it as a cross surmounting or growing out of a lotus, which suggests a rather different interpretation to me - and one much more in line with early Christianity's double-edged attitude to much of the 'paganism' it encountered.

mtraven said...

@Michael:
If the low Protestants were not Judaizers, how do you explain the popularity of Old Testament names amongst the Puritans?

Don't ask me, this is way out of my depth. I wouldn't know a low Protestant from a high colonic. I do know, at least, that Protestantism has been infected with antisemitism since its founding, so to describe whatever fondness some sects might have had for the Old Testament as "Judaizing" seems a bit problematic. But for the most part I must plead ignorance.

I think you are making a fundamental mistake in conflating "Judaizing" tendencies in Christendom with actual Judaism. If some English dudes in the 1600s get obsessed with the Old Testament, that doesn't make them Jews and it doesn't make what they believe have anything but a tangential relationship to actual Judaism.

What I'd just like to get you to admit is that just about all of the things you dislike about Christianity - especially the fundamentalist kind - are drawn from Jerusalem's part in it, rather than the others.

Why? Say, hypothetically, that I did admit that -- so what?

But, I don't. I dislike the hierarchical authoritarianism found in Christianity -- that is a Roman contribution. The attempts to achieve doctrinal purity seem to be rooted in mispplication of Greek philosophizing.

More fundamentally, Christianity has been around for long enough to take responsibility for its own doctrines, rather than blaming them on the Jews. Surely a Christian must believe that Christianity is a unique enough thing to be more than a mere sum of its Jewish, Greek, and Roman influences.

As just one example, you appear sympathetic to the claimed grievances of homosexuals. Yet surely you must admit the Christian antipathy to their behavior is entirely Judaic in its origins.

This doesn't really fly. If Christians were basing their antipathy to homsexuals on the Old Testament, presumably they would have an equal antipathy to eating shellfish or mixing linen and wool. The particular obsession with sex, homosexual and otherwise, stems from other sources. All religions attempt to regulate sexuality in various ways; but Christianity is unique in its hatred of it; an attitude which it certainly didn't get from Judaism.

mtraven said...

---
@ashen man:
You express a very naive view of Buddhism here and in your earlier 'heresy' posting.

The earlier post didn't say anything about Buddhism, and all i said here is that Buddhism appears to me to be more philosophically sophisticated. But thanks anyway for your mentions of various sectarian conflicts in the Buddhist world, I wasn't aware of the particulars but I can't say that I'm surprised.

I suspect that what really bothers you is Christianity's particularism, its grounding in supposedly historical events, a personal god and so on, compared to the apparent universality of concepts like Brahman and nirvana.
Something like that.

If you read Christian theology you might be surprised by the sophistication of its defense of these things (a theologian friend of mine uses the phrase 'the scandal of particularity')
Nice phrase...I have no doubt there are theologians capable of turning this flaw into a virtue. Religions thrive on things that are impossible, paradoxical, or senseless. It's a test of faith!

In any case, all of the world religions became such only by their entanglement with empire, and all that that entails.
That is a very insightful observation.

Michael said...

On the subject of homosexuality I should point out that the Jewish novelist Saul Bellow, in "Ravelstein," called it "a gentile vice," and that the late Lord Jacobovits, chief rabbi of Enlgand, was a staunch supporter of anti-sodomy laws.

Christianity is "unique in its hatred of [sex]"? Really? In addition to sodomy, the Old Testament also condemns adultery, fornication, onanism - basically all the sexual misbehaviors that Christianity does. These condemnations are part of Christianity's Judaic heritage. Why other aspects of the Jewish law were not preserved by early Christians is less interesting than that some later Christians, in conseequence of the renewed emphasis on the Old Testament during the Reformation, attemped to revive at least some of them.

Anyway, since you didn't like my earlier example of Judaic influence on the attitudes of western Christendom, let's try another: the witch-craze of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Greek and Roman paganism were quite tolerant of magical practices - indeed, their religious beliefs were inseparably intertwined with them. Persecution for magical beliefs as such was unknown to their societies - though malevolent sorcery, often associated with poisoning, was feared and hated, its supposed practitioners often being the subjects of mob violence.

Early medieval Christendom, contrary to popular understanding, was not obsessed with witchcraft. Indeed, as Hugh Trevor-Roper observes in his essay "The European Witch-Craze":

"...in general, the Church, as the civilizer of nations, disdained these old wives' tales. They were the fragmentary rubbish of paganism which the light of the Gospel had dispelled.

"So, in the eighth century, we find St. Boniface, the English apostle of Germany, declaring roundly that to believe in witches and werewolves is unchristian. In the same century Charlemagne decreed the death penalty for anyone who, in newly converted Saxony, burnt supposed witches. Such burning, he said, was 'a pagan custom.' In the next century St. Agobard, Bishop of Lyon, repudiated the belief that witches could make bad weather, and another unknown Church dignitary declared that night-flying and metamorphosis were hallucinations and that whoever believed in them "is beyond doubt an infidel and a pagan." This statement was accepted into the canon law and became known as the canon Episcopi or capitulum Episcopi. It remained the official doctrine of the Church. In the eleventh century the laws of King Coloman of Hungary declined to notice witches "since they do not exist," and in the twelfth century John of Salisbury dismissed the idea of a witches' sabbat as a fabulous dream. In the succeeding centuries, when the craze was being built up, all this salutary doctrine would have to be reversed."

When was it reversed? The reversal began in the fifteenth century, but it did not really pick up speed until after the Reformation. As Trevor-Roper remarks:

"The Renaissance was a revival not only of pagan letters but of pagan mystery-religion. The Reformation was a return not only to the unforgettable century of the Apostles but also to the unedifying centuries of the Hebrew kings."

And it is to the superstition of those unedifying centuries that the witch-craze which swept both Reformed and Catholic Europe owed its existence - the revival of the Jewish precept of Exodus xxii:18: "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live."

Now of course Judaizing tendencies in Christianity do not make the Christians who adhere to them Jews, but one cannot sever them from the Jewish beliefs and practices those Christians were imitating. This pattern of imitation has been particularly marked amongst low ("fundamentalist," "evangelical") Protestants; it continued into the nineteenth century, as witness the development of Seventh-Day Adventism and the British Israel movement, and continues today.

You cannot say the image one sees in a mirror is ugly without acknowledging the ugliness of the object reflected in it. Your reluctance to do so indicates willful blindness.

the ashen man said...

The naive view I was referring to was the idea that only Western religions had practiced persecution of heresy - you alluded to it here, and, now that I check back, in the comment thread of your 'heresy' posting.

Religions thrive on things that are impossible, paradoxical, or senseless. It's a test of faith!

The paradoxical signifies the numinous, the limits of ordinary logic. But it is no marginal trick of theologians to defend this aspect of Christianity - the religion's central mystery, the Incarnation, refers to the manifestation of the absolute in a particular person, place, time etc.

That is a very insightful observation.

That's the nicest thing you've ever said to me.

All religions attempt to regulate sexuality in various ways; but Christianity is unique in its hatred of it;

This is a common misconception in our fashionably anti-Christian milieu, with its reflexive elevation of the non-Western over the Western.

In Catholic thought, sex is seen in an almost sacramental light. Because of its sanctity, its misuse is a grave sin. It is an act with a particular purpose, or rather two: the procreative and the unitive (the uniting of husband and wife in a bond of love); the use of the sexual faculty exclusive of those purposes is a distortion. As a central aspect of the sacrament of marriage however, an expression of the love of husband and wife open to the occurrence of procreation, it is perfectly holy and commended.

Christianity's view of the sensual is grounded in the Old Testament view that 'God made the world, and saw that it was good,' (actually an extraordinary view in the history of ideas) and its corollary command to 'Go forth and multiply.' Groups like the Gnostics and the Puritans seem to have rejected or forgotten this view, but it is entirely absent in the pessimistic Dharmic religions. You would be hard pushed to find a religion that more thoroughly rejects the sensual life than Buddhism does (although the puritanical distortions of Christianity would be a good place to look).

I do know, at least, that Protestantism has been infected with antisemitism since its founding

I'm not sure what you're referring to here, though Luther's "The Jews and Their Lies" springs to mind. If so, Lutherans are pretty far out of the Protestant mainstream and had little in common with Puritans. Lutheranism's really just an austere, stripped down version of Catholicism.

mtraven said...

@Michael: Christianity is "unique in its hatred of [sex]"? Really?

Catholicism has a celibate priesthood; Paul and Augustine were quite opposed to sexuality in general. You won't find any thought like that in the Old Testament; Augustine might have gotten it from the Neoplatonists. Anti-sex attitutes are probably not unique to Christianity, so maybe that was too strong. Of course, sects that are too anti-sex, like the Shakers, will die out.

You didn't answer my question -- what's your point?

If it's just that there are ugly things in the Old Testament, you have no argument from me. Although I might argue that they are not the most predominant or salient parts of that text.

If it's that some of those ugly things made their way into Christianity, again, no argument. Although I might argue that they are not the only or the worst features of Christianity.

If you are somehow trying to hold me personally responsible for every bad feature of Judaism or bad action described in the Old Testament, then that's just ridiculous.

If you want to prove that Jews are responsible for Puritanism and other forms of Christianity, well, it sounds silly to me, but what do I know? Jews have been held responsible for everything from the Crucifixion to Communism, so why shouldn't they be blamed for Cotton Mather?

If you are displeased with the actual Jewish contributions to Christianity, well, tough luck, that's where your religion came from. Convert to Hinduism or Scientology or something.

So again, what is the point of this conversation?

And by the way, the Jewish Reform and Reconstructionist movements, which have the affiliation of a majority of Jews in the US, myself included, are forthrightly in favor of equal rights and inclusion for homosexuals. See here for example. So while (in your theory) Christians are being dragged back into primitivism by Judaism, actual Jews were busy integrating modernity and the Enlightenment into their religion. Funny!

Michael said...

My "theory," as you call it, is as I originally stated: that low Protestantism took the Old Testament too seriously, and that most of the things you dislike about it originate in its Judaizing - i.e., its attempts to imitate the Judaism of the Old Testament. You do admit that the Old Testament is a Jewish document, don't you?

Of course modern Judaism is not that of the primitive tribes whose record the Old Testament delineates. Judaism today is as much the product of the diaspora as of what went before it. The British author Dennis Wheatley, I think, strikes the right note:

"Briefly, [this] is the history of the Jews. They showed tremendous tenacity and courage, and an independence of spirit which must fill us with admiration. Since their dispersal... the best among them have probably made a greater contribution to culture than any other race; but that cannot be said of them during the centuries they lived in Palestine.

"They were intolerant, treacherous, even thieves and liars. At least, that is the impression of them given by their own writings in the Old Testament. For that, their god was largely responsible. He shed no ray of light. He had modelled himself, or perhaps one should say they had modelled him upon the dark gods of Babylon. His only distinction from those ferocious deities was that he did not demand human sacrifices. Yet his desires were solely concerned with the aggrandizement of the Jews, however unscrupulous the means employed, and the increase of their seed so that they might the better make war upon other peoples and deprive them of their peace and prosperity. Doubtless the Jews were no worse than other people of their age, but in Palestine before the time of Christ thet made no contribution whatever to the enlightenment of mankind.

"In one way, until the coming of Mahomet, who proclaimed Allah as the one God, Jehovah was unusual. He was one of the few gods who refused to have a family and companions. He never tired of proclaiming 'I am the Lord thy God and a jealous God' and 'Thou shalt have no other gods before me.' And, while jealousy is a very human failing, it is certainly not one to be admired.

".... And, if one takes seriously the existence of a god made by man in his own image, one can imagine how annoyed Jehovah must have been when the Christians adopted him as their God the Father and attributed to him a Son."

The celibate priesthood of Latin rite Roman Catholics is relatively recent (as late as the 12th century AD) and has nothing to do with 'hatred of sex.' It is, rather, the consequence of the development of feudalism in western Europe and the desire of the feudal nobility to prevent the emergence of an hereditary Christian priesthood, the better to keep the Church under its control. Priestly celibacy in the western Church shares its feudal origins with lay rights of presentation to ecclesiastical benefices, whereby a local laird or squire was empowered to choose the parson for the church in his demesne, or a monarch to give 'congé d'élire' to a cathedral chapter mandating his candidate to be installed in a bishopric. Such lay control of the Church would not have been possible had a son been able to succed his father in the sacerdotal condition.

Feudalism on the western European model did not exist in eastern Europe or in the Levant. There one finds, from ancient times forward, a married priesthood amongst Roman Catholics of the Eastern rite, as well as, of course, amongst the Orthodox. St. Paul, indeed, writes [I Tim. iii:2]: "A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife..." There is no biblical demand for a celibate clergy.

Celibate monasticism was earlier established amongst Buddhists - the selfsame ones whose 'sophistication' you admire - than it was amongst Christians. Why then do you not saddle Buddhism with "hatred of sex"? I suspect it is simply because you don't feel the antipathy towards that faith that you do towards Christianity.

And, if you want to know what this conversation is about, I think it is basically that - your antipathy towards Christians. You were unable, after all, even to wish them a happy Christmas without comparing them unflatteringly to Buddhists!

mtraven said...

"...Jehovah was unusual. He was one of the few gods who refused to have a family and companions. He never tired of proclaiming 'I am the Lord thy God and a jealous God' and 'Thou shalt have no other gods before me.' And, while jealousy is a very human failing, it is certainly not one to be admired.

Hm, I guess you haven't read my latest post.

Celibate monasticism was earlier established amongst Buddhists - the selfsame ones whose 'sophistication' you admire - than it was amongst Christians. Why then do you not saddle Buddhism with "hatred of sex"?

While there are parallels between Christian and Buddhist monasticism, Buddhists do not consider sex to be shameful or sinful, as Christianity has under the influence of Augustine and others. It is indeed instructive to compare these two paths. Both acknowledge that sexual desire can be problematic. But Buddhism does not label it a sin, does not have a concept of original sin or God's punishment. There are no commandments in Buddhism, there being no commander. Sexual desire is just another type of desire; the aim of Buddhism is to not let desire lead to suffering. More here. I find this attitude quite a bit more sophisticated than that of Christianity (or Orthodox Judaism), but your spiritual mileage may vary.

And, if you want to know what this conversation is about, I think it is basically that - your antipathy towards Christians. You were unable, after all, even to wish them a happy Christmas without comparing them unflatteringly to Buddhists!
Hey, I have expressed no antipathy towards Christians, just Christianity. And if your response boils down to "Judaism sucks too, so there", well, that's pretty juvenile. Of course many elements of Judaism sucks, and Buddhism too as Ashen Man has been pointing out. So what? I'm not under any sort of obligation to give equal time. Christianity happens to be the dominant religion in the US and impacts my life in numerous ways through its legal and political influence; Judaism and Buddhisn do not. Well, Jews do exert some political influence, but it's not to get pork banned or make driving on Saturday illegal. Christians, on the other hand, are constantly trying to get their moral codes written into law.

And: sorry to have moderated my happy Christmas with some unflattering words, but the Christian thing to do would be to focus on my half-hearted attempts to be nice.

Michael said...

"Original sin [and] God's punishment" were not created from the whole cloth by Christians - they are part of Christianity's Judaic heritage (see Gen. iii), as are other moralistic aspects of Christianity to which you appear to object. It is not 'juvenile' to point this out, but rather a matter of obvious fact.

Your last comment on monastic celibacy appears to have missed the entire point of the preceding discussion, namely, that clerical celibacy (not really the same thing) in the Latin rite of Roman Catholicism, which you earlier alleged to be due to 'hatred of sex,' has in fact quite another historical origin. Your initial claim is refuted by the existence of married clergy in the Eastern rite of that church, of which you were evidently ignorant. Monks (and nuns), on the other hand, whether Buddhist or Christian, do not have spouses because to do so would be a violation of the ascetisicm central to the monastic tradition in both faiths. Marriage and family would be a distraction from a life given over completely to contemplation and prayer.

The 'moral codes' which you object to some Christians trying to write into law would do no more than to restore the status of American law as it existed until the early 'sixties; the estate of matrimony would restrict a person to one spouse of the opposite sex at a time, while abortion, contraception, and pornography would not be legally available, and homosexuals indiscreet enough to cavort in public lavatories could routinely expect to be arrested.

Doubtless you disagree with these proposals, but you must surely admit the chance of any of them ever actually being enacted, and then passing muster with the courts, is on a par with that of the sky falling. Your preoccupation with such forlorn hopes of the religious right has less to do with any real prospect of their succeeding, than it does with your finding the people who cling to them to be aesthetically offensive. Even though they pose no real threat to you, you cannot resist sticking your thumbs in their eyes.

the ashen man said...

The article you link to demonstrates the problem with Western Buddhism: it is easy for Westerners to make this imported religion into whatever they want it to be, shape it to reflect current mores, and then say "Hey, look - this religion has enlightened modern values like ours!" But this new Western Buddhism has about as much in common with traditional Asian forms of Buddhism as Unitarian Universalism has with the Christianity of a fifth-century hermit.

The author's remarks on extramarital sex and homosexuality are hilarious examples of this. Of course! The actual attitudes of actual Buddhists over the last two and a half millennia are just 'cultural'; the true Buddhism which only modern Westerners can see perfectly reflects modern Western morality! What a coincidence. Fascists saw in Buddhism a prefect Aryan warrior religion.

Why is celibate monasticism so central to Buddhism (much more so than to Christianity) if the religion is so 'sex-positive'? It holds that only a celibate monk (but not a nun!) can reach nirvana in this lifetime; the householder's path is inferior, resulting at best in a reincarnation as someone with the opportunity to become a celibate monk! Catholicism does not deem the celibate life any more likely to lead to salvation than the married; they are merely differing vocations.

You haven't responded to my description of Catholic thought on the matter, which showed just how much value it attaches to sexuality; Buddhism attaches either no value or a negative value to sexual acts. Buddhism is fundamentally negative about the whole business of being alive, propagating the species and so on, whereas Christianity is fundamentally positive toward it. Christian sexual morality is based on the healthy and holy propagation of the human race; Buddhism's on its basic antipathy toward human existence as such.

To put this in simple terms: in Buddhism sex is fundamentally bad, a particularly strong form of desire which attaches one more strongly to existence, but for those stuck in a householder's life a little of it is inevitable and acceptable; in Christianity it is fundamentally good, a gift from God, central to the love of husband and wife and their creation of a family, but it must not be used for other purposes. This explains, I think, what you find appealing: Buddhism has less hang-ups about sex because it doesn't attach any value to it; in Christianity, it is something worth getting hung up about. This is a far cry from hating it,though.

The concept of original sin, which you dismiss, I have come to regard as singularly valuable. As Chesterton said, it is the only precept of Christianity which can be proven by looking out your window. It expresses an insight shared, I think, by all of the traditional religions: the 'brokenness' of the world, whether expressed as the omnipresence of sin, the inherence in existence of suffering, or our continual ignorance of ultimate reality. This serves as a very important check on the "totalitarian utopian" impulse to which Michael referred.

Christians, on the other hand, are constantly trying to get their moral codes written into law.

As are you, and as is everyone else. The Judaic proscriptions on pork and work on the Sabbath are poor examples; they are not moral codes, but aspects of the ethnic covenant. Law reflects morality; why do you think that Christians are uniquely unentitled to fight for law which reflects theirs? We all feel impinged upon when someone else's morality is inscribed in law, whether it involves a new restriction upon our actions or a new freedom for others which might impinge upon old freedoms of ours.

By the way, in view of your religious affiliation, aren't you concerned at all that your anti-Christianity might come across as just a bit of ugly sectarianism? Or that that might in fact be its motivation?

mtraven said...

@Michael:
"Original sin [and] God's punishment" were not created from the whole cloth by Christians - they are part of Christianity's Judaic heritage (see Gen. iii), as are other moralistic aspects of Christianity to which you appear to object.

Again: so what?

Doubtless you disagree with these proposals, but you must surely admit the chance of any of them ever actually being enacted, and then passing muster with the courts, is on a par with that of the sky falling.

What are you talking about? Bans on gay marriage and restrictions on abortion are being enacted all over, all the time. These are by no means dead issues. Although at the moment I am optimistic that the Christian right has, for now, been beaten back and the tides of history are against them, they aren't going away any time soon.

Even though they pose no real threat to you, you cannot resist sticking your thumbs in their eyes.

I'd like to live in a country where scientific education and research were not distorted by the idiotic beliefs of yahoos. I'd like my children to be able to exercise reproductive freedom. I'd like the gay couples I know to have the equal protection of the law. All of these things are threatened by the religious right.

mtraven said...

@Ashen Man:
The article you link to demonstrates the problem with Western Buddhism: it is easy for Westerners to make this imported religion into whatever they want it to be, shape it to reflect current mores, and then say "Hey, look - this religion has enlightened modern values like ours!" But this new Western Buddhism has about as much in common with traditional Asian forms of Buddhism as Unitarian Universalism has with the Christianity of a fifth-century hermit.

Maybe so, but so what? If Christianity can evolve into new forms, why can't Buddhism? FWIW, all Buddhist schools in the west can trace their lineage to Asian teachers, so if there is Westernizing going on it is with the full cooperation of native practioners.

Why is celibate monasticism so central to Buddhism (much more so than to Christianity) if the religion is so 'sex-positive'?

Probably for the same reason that one of you gave -- it's difficult to concentrate on spiritual matters with a family underfoot.

It holds that only a celibate monk (but not a nun!) can reach nirvana in this lifetime...
Buddhism is fundamentally negative about the whole business of being alive, propagating the species and so on, whereas Christianity is fundamentally positive toward it.
Buddhism's on its basic antipathy toward human existence as such.
in Buddhism sex is fundamentally bad

I don't know where you are getting your highly distorted and oversimplifief version of Buddhism from, but you are wrong. For one thing, there are many different schools of Buddhism with different positions on sex. More fundamentally, the idea that Buddhism has antipathy to human existence is a gross distortion.

You seem to be promoting the inverse of the image that you think I'm promoting. I don't think Buddhism is all sweetness and light, but neither is it anti-human-existence.

You haven't responded to my description of Catholic thought on the matter, which showed just how much value it attaches to sexuality; . .. Christian sexual morality is based on the healthy and holy propagation of the human race;

Christianity wants to bring the anarchic forces of desire and lust under control. Buddhism's attitude is not so different in that respect, although the nature of "control" is quite different.

The concept of original sin, which you dismiss, I have come to regard as singularly valuable. ...It expresses an insight shared, I think, by all of the traditional religions: the 'brokenness' of the world, whether expressed as the omnipresence of sin, the inherence in existence of suffering, or our continual ignorance of ultimate reality.

You seem to be conflating the Christian notion of original sin with a lot of other religious notions, including the Buddhist idea of suffering. That the world is broken and humans are imperfect could not be argued with; that it is because of an inherently sinful nature inherited from Adam and Eve, that it is grounded specifically in disobedience, is quite another story, and a somehwat noxious one. It tries to tie human suffering to guilt and authoritarianism. That's what I don't like about it.

The Judaic proscriptions on pork and work on the Sabbath are poor examples; they are not moral codes, but aspects of the ethnic covenant.

Try opening up a BBQ restaurant in Jerusalem on Saturday and see how far that argument gets you.

Law reflects morality; why do you think that Christians are uniquely unentitled to fight for law which reflects theirs?

I didn't say they aren't entitled. I said they are more of a pain in the ass to me and others because of their dominance.

In this country, everyone is entitled to fight for their morality, but we also expect a certain degree of tolerance for other faiths and thus other standards of morality. Making this work is difficult and perhaps it doesn't make ultimate sense, but beats religious warfare. You don't like gay marriage? Fine, then don't have one, but let other people live their lives.

By the way, in view of your religious affiliation, aren't you concerned at all that your anti-Christianity might come across as just a bit of ugly sectarianism? Or that that might in fact be its motivation?

No. I've said nothing about Christianity that hasn't been said before, by all sorts of people.

Michael said...

So what? Well, among other things, the point that I have made was thought significant enough by Edward Gibbon that he made the same one in his "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." In chap. 15 of that work, he writes:

"Our curiosity is naturally prompted to inquire by what means the Christian faith obtained so remarkable a victory over the established religions of the earth. To this inquiry an obvious but unsatisfactory answer may be returned; that it was owing to the convincing evidence of the doctrine itself, and to the ruling providence of its great Author. But as truth and reason seldom find so favourable a reception in the world... we may still be permitted, though with becoming submission, to ask, not indeed what were the first, but what were the secondary causes of the rapid growth of the Christian church? It will, perhaps, appear that it was most effectually favoured and assisted by the five following causes: I. The inflexible, and, if we may say, the intolerant zeal of the Christians, derived... from the Jewish religion, but purified from the narrow and unsocial spirit which, instead of inviting, had deterred the Gentiles from embracing the law of Moses..."

It is also in Gibbon that we find an early (if not the earliest) use of the term "Judaising" to describe the observances of some Christian sectaries. If I am to be reproved for pointing out the same historical truths he did, I will happily share your censure with so illustrious a preceptor.

"Bans on gay marriage" simply preserve the institution of marriage as it has existed in western civilisation since the memory of man runneth not to the contrary. They do not alter the status quo. They merely make clear that the law means what any sensible person understood it to mean until very recently, in an effort to safeguard it from the imposition of radical innovation by judicial fiat ("stare decisis" is apparently important to the left only as it applies to Roe v. Wade).

Marriage was historically, and still is, an institution intended to encourage the formation of stable families, providing an orderly circumstance for the upbringing of children, and a settled arrangement for the intergenerational transfer of property. Since homosexual unions are by definition infertile, marriage was never relevant to them. Even societies in which the Judaic intolerance of homosexuality was absent (e.g., ancient Greece and Rome) thus had no occasion to provide for same-sex marriage. Harmodius had no reason to marry Aristogeiton, nor Hadrian to marry Antinous.

As I have pointed out elsewhere, the reason why there is a demand for 'gay marriage' at all is that, again, very recently, marriage has been made an instrument for the distribution of social welfare benefits, such as pensions and health insurance. The remedy for the problem of homosexuals with respect to these benefits is not to alter the institution of marriage, but to sever their delivery from it.

As far as 'restrictions on abortion' are concerned, Roe v. Wade still stands, and given current judicial application of it, very few of them stand any chance of being upheld. Even if Roe v. Wade were to be overturned (as I think it should be, since it is a badly reasoned decision), that would serve only to return the question to the state legislatures, where it was already being sorted out at the time Roe v. Wade was handed down.

Abortion would not be a political issue today if the states had been allowed to finish their work at that time. They in all likelihood would have arrived at legislative compromises not unlike those prevalent in western European countries like France and Germany, where abortions are permitted in the first trimester and restricted later in the pregnancy. I point out to you that there is no "Christian right" in these countries, because their long-ago parliamentary compromises drew the teeth of the abortion issue. The surest way to lay it to rest is to allow the same thing to happen here.

On the point of 'scientific education and research' being 'distorted by the idiotic beliefs of yahoos' - can you identify a single reputable university or research laboratory where such a thing has happened?

The Christian right has never committed such an offense against science as the agents of your beloved Enlightenment, the Jacobins, did when they sent Lavoisier to the guillotine. When a number of distinguished scientists appealed to save his life, they were told "La république n'a pas besoin des sçavans," and off came his head with no further ado. The Christian right has never distorted sicentific research in the way that erstwhile pole-star of American left, the Soviet Union, did when it made Lysenkoism its official doctrine. Nor can any reasonable observer conclude that the Christian right has the intention, much less the ability, to accomplish anything comparable to these atrocities.

mtraven said...

You don't seem to understand plain English. I already granted that OT Judaism had some unpleasant properties, and that some of those made it into Christianity. You don't need to quote Gibbon at me to establish that. The question is, so bloody what? What is your point? Say everything you say is true, what is the larger implication? Do you have one? You haven't given a satisfactory answer yet.

But I seem to see a pattern -- if I criticize Christianity, your strategy is to criticize Judaism; if I criticize the anti-science policies of the contemporary Christian right, your strategy is to come up with some anti-science actions of the left, even if you have to reach back to Soviet Russia or revolutionary France. This strikes me as juvenile whining rather than argument. Worse, it's boring.

There's been an entire book written on the Republican party's war on science and the damage it has caused. Feel free to read it; this discussion has veered off course enough for now, for me.

Michael said...

I suppose the point is that you seem in your own verbiage to represent the 'narrow and unsocial' aspects of your faith of which Gibbon spoke:

"The sullen obstinacy with which they [the Jews] maintained their peculiar rites and unsocial manners seemed to mark them out a distinct species of men, who boldly professed, or who faintly disguised, their implacable hatred to the rest of humankind."

Whether or not you observe any peculiar rites, I have read enough of your writing to discern 'implacable hatred" towards others not like you, or of like mind. Your ugly sectarianism, as pointed out by Ashen Man, has often been evident in your posts, and your responsibility for it cannot be evaded as you did, by saying that other people have expressed themselves similarly. This is not the only aspect of it, either. I recall, for example, your vituperative remarks on the death of Jesse Helms. When Paul Wellstone was killed in a plane crash, as little as I cared for his politics, I didn't gloat over his death, much less do so in a forum that might have been seen by his family. Further, I recall until recently you had on your home page a picture of a guillotine. What were its viewers intended to understand by it? You reproach me for 'reach[ing] back to revolutionary France,' but seem ready enough yourself to celebrate its atrocities here and now.

The book to which you link is a partisan tract. Do you suppose I will take it any more seriously than such a screed deserves? Attempting to cut government funding for various latter-day Academies of Lagado is hardly a crime against humanity like those of the Jacobins you evidently admire. Spending the taxpayers' money in such a fashion is a proper subject for debate on its merits. The proper response to those who criticise such expenditures is not to defame them as yahoos, but to defend whatever may be the epxenditures' merits. Reasonable people should not be expected to accept them unquestioningly - or the Constitutional grounds for making them, which seem quite dubious.

the ashen man said...

Maybe so, but so what? If Christianity can evolve into new forms, why can't Buddhism? FWIW, all Buddhist schools in the west can trace their lineage to Asian teachers, so if there is Westernizing going on it is with the full cooperation of native practioners.

You're changing the subject - I did not object to the evolution or existence of Western neo-Buddhism, merely to its conflation with Buddhism per se. And you are right - the Asian missionaries have been perfectly happy to sell westerners the kind of Buddhism they want, to make a groovy hippy trip of the religion of the Samurai, to strain out all the pessimism and conservatism for western consumption. Nor is it surprising that the Asian monks who ventured to America and took up with a bunch of hippies are not perfectly representative of their native traditions. The Dalai Lama, as an example of this repackaging, acquiesced to his publisher's request to remove remarks hostile to homosexuality from his books.

I don't know where you are getting your highly distorted and oversimplifief version of Buddhism from

I think I made it clear that I was intentionally simplifying in order to address fundamentals. I believe that it is the current perception of Buddhism which is distorted - modern westerners do not want to accept that their fluffy religion of peace and ecology is fundamentally pessimistic and hostile to existence as such. But it is. The practitioner's aim is to get off the wheel of samsara, to stop being reborn. It is as simple as that. However the matter has been complexified in the Mahayana, the philosophical core of the Tripitaka remains. By the way, I don't mean this as criticism; its pessimism and conservatism are for me among its most appealing aspects, perhaps more suited to my temperament than the 'hope' of Christianity. I don't mind at all if someone finds Buddhism preferable to Christianity; I just want the comparative analysis to be accurate.

there are many different schools of Buddhism with different positions on sex.

Such as?

They may differ in details, but they're all quite conservative and negative toward sexual desire as such. If you're looking for some message of sexual liberation in Buddhism, good luck to you.

Christianity wants to bring the anarchic forces of desire and lust under control. Buddhism's attitude is not so different in that respect, although the nature of "control" is quite different.

Oh, I thought Buddhism was light-years ahead of Christianity, which was unique in its hatred of sex. Now they're "not so different in that respect." It's hard to keep up with you; for example, earlier you said "Tibetan Buddhists may have instituted serfdom, but I never heard of them persecuting the heterodox for heresy," and when I gave an example of precisely that, you said you weren't in the least bit surprised. Instead of conceding my points, you're pretending you agreed with them all along.

And what on earth do you mean about the nature of their control of sexuality? Christians just use nasty old repression but Buddhists use their super-Tantra-Kung-Fu-magic, right?

You seem to be conflating...

Not conflating, but pointing out a commonality. Original sin serves as the Christian version of the pessimism about human possibilities, with its warning against political hubris, which is communicated by traditional religions and forgotten at great cost by secular utopians.

As to the root of human imperfection, traditional Christians do not take the fairytales of Genesis literally. If you compare the abstract concepts of Buddhism to the mythology of the Old Testament, of course the former will seem more "sophisticated." But you could as easily compare some Thomist philosophy to a Tibetan folktale, if it were Buddhism at which you wished to sneer rather than Christianity.

It tries to tie human suffering to guilt and authoritarianism. That's what I don't like about it.


So now it's just an aesthetic preference on your part, not a lack of sophistication on the part of Christianity?

Try opening up a BBQ restaurant in Jerusalem on Saturday and see how far that argument gets you.

So now you're saying Jews do write their morality into law? I thought it was only the bothersome Christians who did that.

In any case you are talking about the laws of the Jewish state; it is not surprising that they reflect the tribal covenant. How this demonstrates that Jews regard these proscriptions as universal moral principles is beyond me.

I didn't say they aren't entitled. I said they are more of a pain in the ass to me and others because of their dominance.

Bullshit. You write of the Christian right's attempts to affect the law as if they were absolutely wrong, but when asked to justify that, you switch to the position that they are just subjectively discomfiting to you. Are Christians morally entitled to attempt to shape the law according to their moral principles, or not?

we also expect a certain degree of tolerance for other faiths and thus other standards of morality

This too is a moral sentiment. "Tolerance" may be the core principle of progressive morality (although it apparently does not extend to conservative Christians), but others value other moral goods more highly. Tolerance is not a moral meta-principle above all others, but merely another competing principle whose partisans intend to inscribe it into law. For you of all people to talk about tolerance of other faiths and standards of morality is incredibly rich.

The liberal who says (and I have heard it said) "I can tolerate anyone except the intolerant" is the most intolerant of all, because everyone is intolerant of something. It provides perfect cover for bigotry by defining anyone you don't like as "intolerant." I'm happy to say I can tolerate intolerance just fine; it's hypocrisy that really gets my goat.

I've said nothing about Christianity that hasn't been said before, by all sorts of people.

I don't see how unoriginality proves your good intentions.

mtraven said...

@Michael: You seem to be pushing yourself further and further into the territory of frank anti-semitism. Why don't you go all the way, so I can ignore you in good conscience?

It feels demeaning to defend myself against your ridiculous charges, so I won't. I will note that you demonstrate the common conservative trope of projection. I have expressed no "implacable hatred" or intolerance of any group (unless you consider "yahoos" to be a group). You, on the other hand, seem perfectly comfortable with engaging in anti-semitic slurs, or repeating those of others. So, you project your own vices onto me.

That being said, you have given me an occasion to reflect on my own behavior. No doubt I could stand to be a nicer person, as could we all. This post was, in fact, an attempt at goodwill that obviously failed. I don't think this blog spends that much time insulting political enemies, compared to hundreds of others in the blogosphere. Most of them are better at it than I am; the only really inspired piece of mine that I can recall was the comparision of the Pope to the Joker. That others do it is not a justification of course, but it provides some context. I find that I am on the rather more tolerant end of the spectrum. Most progressives do not bother to engage in debate with rightwingers, and in fact everyone I know reproaches me for wasting my time on it. I'm starting to agree with them, but still put some value on argumentation as a tool for helping clarify and sharpen my views.

To address some of your specific concerns about my character:

The guillotine was a commentary on the current financial crisis and the lack of popular uprising against the financial classes that have swindled the wealth of this country out of the hands of the productive segments. And it was to get your goat. But I decided it was in bad taste so took it down.

As for peeing on poor Jesse Helms' grave, no apologies. There is a difference between "political enemies", which are people who I might have profound disagreements with but nevertheless respect, and just plain enemies -- bad people, haters bigots who make the world a profoundly worse place than it would be without them. Helms was of the latter class, and proud of it.

You asked for instances of where science was distorted by Republican/christian right yahooism. The book I cited contains dozens of such instances. You may not agree with the books conclusions or stance, but you have not refuted any of its factual content.

mtraven said...

@ashen man:
You're changing the subject - I did not object to the evolution or existence of Western neo-Buddhism, merely to its conflation with Buddhism per se.
You miss the point. There is no Buddhism per se. There are only variant strains. The same is true of Christianity, but in that case you have an institution dedicated to defining and preserving the one true variant. Buddhism of course has insititutional mechanisms for preserving and propagating its belief system as well, but the Catholic Church is really the paradigm for that sort of thing.

But you may have a valid point in there -- I may be cherry-picking the parts of Christianity that I don't like and comparing them to the parts of Buddhism that I do like. That's not very fair. On the other hand, I never set out to do a fair and comprehensive comparision of the two religions, which is somwhat beyond the scope of a blog post.

I believe that it is the current perception of Buddhism which is distorted - modern westerners do not want to accept that their fluffy religion of peace and ecology is fundamentally pessimistic and hostile to existence as such.

Maybe so. I would not claim to know enough to say one way or the other. But why should I believe you over the dozens of Buddhist teachers who say otherwise?

Of course, it is not clear what "hostility to existence as such" even means. Do Buddhists make a habit of trying to make war on existence? Do they blow people up? Do they hope and long for an apocalyptic destruction? Other than a few splinter sects such as Aum Shinrikyo, I don't see it. That kind of sentiment is much more common in Christianity.

I am reminded that the story of the blind men and the elephant has its origins in Buddhist scriptures. Consider that your picture of Buddhism seems radically simplistic as the picture you seem to believe I have of it, just biased in the opposite direction.

me: there are many different schools of Buddhism with different positions on sex.

Such as?
Vajrayana.

And what on earth do you mean about the nature of their control of sexuality? Christians just use nasty old repression but Buddhists use their super-Tantra-Kung-Fu-magic, right?

Something like that.

It tries to tie human suffering to guilt and authoritarianism. That's what I don't like about it.

So now it's just an aesthetic preference on your part, not a lack of sophistication on the part of Christianity?

It's both.

me: Try opening up a BBQ restaurant in Jerusalem on Saturday and see how far that argument gets you.

So now you're saying Jews do write their morality into law? I thought it was only the bothersome Christians who did that.

I don't believe I ever said that. I said it's Christians who do it here.

me: I didn't say they aren't entitled. I said they are more of a pain in the ass to me and others because of their dominance.

Bullshit. You write of the Christian right's attempts to affect the law as if they were absolutely wrong, but when asked to justify that, you switch to the position that they are just subjectively discomfiting to you. Are Christians morally entitled to attempt to shape the law according to their moral principles, or not?

I don't know what "morally entitled" means. They will no doubt go on attempting to write their religion into the law, and I will no doubt go on criticizing them and trying to stop them.

me: we also expect a certain degree of tolerance for other faiths and thus other standards of morality

This too is a moral sentiment...Tolerance is not a moral meta-principle above all others, but merely another competing principle whose partisans intend to inscribe it into law.

It is, in fact, a meta-principle, in that it is a principle that describes the attitude one should take towards other principles. But I agree with what I think you are saying, it does not have any inherent metaphysical priority over other moral priniciples. But, neither does anything else. And it happens to be a core principle of the American polity. The alternative to tolerance is a political or physical battle to establish which religion gets to write the rules, something which the founders quite wisely wished to avoid.

The liberal who says (and I have heard it said) "I can tolerate anyone except the intolerant" is the most intolerant of all, because everyone is intolerant of something. It provides perfect cover for bigotry by defining anyone you don't like as "intolerant."

I'm sorry, that's got to be one of the dumbest attempts to be clever I've ever heard. Intolerance is a behavior, not a class of people. It has a specific meaning, so it can't be used as you suggest.

Michael said...

Another quotation from Gibbon moves me closer to "frank anti-semitism"? How readily you protest the slightest whiff of criticism of your own religion, how readily you pronounce aspersions against those who profess another! All I have attempted to do is to show that the principal features of Christianity to which you object are rooted in Judaism. You, on the other hand, have often demonstrated yourself to be an anti-Christian bigot.

The man was right who said that American Christianity is like the Mississippi river, broad but shallow. The United States of America are still, nevertheless, a Christian nation, from the standpoint that a substantial majority of their citizens profess some variation of that faith. It is quite natural that such a people should reflect their moral values in their civil law. Indeed, the English common law, which is the foundation upon which American statutory law is erected, implicitly reflects Christian morality. Laws prohibiting murder or theft reflect it as much as do the extant laws of marriage. The incorporation into law of moral principles (as opposed to that of creedal or confessional observance) does not constitute an establishment of religion as prohibited by the First Amendment. You'll just have to live with it.

And you might recognize as well that the Christian influence on American law cannot be pigeonholed as 'right' or 'left.' We see this in microcosm in the life of the late Fr. Richard Neuhaus, who just died this past January 8. At the beginning of his career he was an active participant in the civil rights movement and protested American involvement in the Vietnam war. Later he moved to the right as he became disillusioned with the anti-Christian positions of some of his former colleagues on the left.

Christian religious participation was instrumental in the abolition of slavery and in the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s. For most of the past fifty years the predominant religious influence on American politics was from the left, its exponents being people like the Revs. Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy, Jesse Jackson, and William Sloane Coffin; Frs. Berrigan, Groppi, and Drinan.

You appear to wish for the selective exclusion of Christian sentiment from American politics. When Christians agree with you, you are happy to accept the legislative or juridical imposition of their principles; when they disagree with yours, you cry foul.

As for 'yahoos,' you are, after all, an advocate of universal suffrage. Unfortunately, that entitles the people you call yahoos to vote. It would easily be possible to exclude the fundamentalist lower-middle class by adopting property-, tax- or literacy-qualifications. I'm sure, for example, that restricting the franchise to those who could show a household gross adjusted income exceeding $100,000 would cut your yahoos from the voter rolls almost entirely. However, it would also cut the welfare-dependent lumpenproles that liberals like you count on as part of your constituency. There appears to be no good way of eliminating the participation of the one group from American politics without eliminating that of the other. Again, you'll just have to suffer along with it.

"Intolerance is a behavior, not a class of people." Think your reasoning through. It is equally possible to say that "buggery is a behavior, not a class of people." At least what constitutes buggery is less subjective than what constitutes intolerance.

the ashen man said...

You miss the point. There is no Buddhism per se. There are only variant strains.

No, you miss the point. Western neo-Buddhism is not Buddhism as a whole, but represents only a few decades in a 2500-year-old religion, and furthermore there are obvious reasons why it reflects modern Western attitudes. The mistake you seem to have made is to think that these attitudes are generally present in Buddhism rather than just in the modern, Western version of it.

That's not very fair.

That seem like rather a large concession in the context of this discussion. No one expects comprehensiveness in a blog post, but surely basic fairness is never
too much to ask.

why should I believe you over the dozens of Buddhist teachers who say otherwise?

Because I am not a missionary and have nothing to sell. If I were trying to promote Buddhism in the West, I would certainly not go around telling everyone about this great new pessimistic philosophy I've got.

Secondly, because both you and I are native speakers of English and familiar with the philosophical connotations of English words. In the terms of Western religion and philosophy, Buddhism is pessimistic. Its appeal to the gloomy outliers of our tradition, like Schopenhauer and E.M. Cioran, is not accidental.

You may think this is the wrong way to approach a foreign philosophy, but it's all we've got. We can approach it by relating it to our high culture, or else we will understand it in terms of our pop culture - which seems to be the more common occurrence.

Consider that your picture of Buddhism seems radically simplistic

Yes yes yes, I was oversimplifying, generalizing and even hyperbolizing - in order to emphasize the kernel of the issue, to accentuate the contrast between two worldviews, one based on "Existence is suffering" and the other on "God made the world and it was good."

Of course, it is not clear what "hostility to existence as such" even means. Do Buddhists make a habit of trying to make war on existence? Do they blow people up? Do they hope and long for an apocalyptic destruction? Other than a few splinter sects such as Aum Shinrikyo, I don't see it. That kind of sentiment is much more common in Christianity.

Those Christians, always blowing shit up. Why, most of Texas is continually ablaze.

You must be thinking of another religion... but for some reason you don't seem to get a kick out of trashing the one really regressive religion that really does cause incredible suffering in the world today.

But yes, "hostility" was a bad choice. "Negativity" might be better. Surely a religion whose primary principle is "Existence is suffering" can be described as being negative toward existence?

Vajrayana.

The fact that some advanced initiates of Vajrayana practice a sexual yoga tells us almost nothing about the religion's sexual morality - except that it allows advanced inititiates to practice sexual yoga.

In that practice, to experience sexual desire or pleasure is to fail. Like the rest of Buddhism, it promises liberation from sexuality, not of it.

I don't know what "morally entitled" means.

I suspect you do, but are dodging the question. It's plain English. It means "having the right" to do something, in a moral rather than a legal sense. If someone has the moral right to do something, you have no grounds on which to condemn them for it.

It is, in fact, a meta-principle, in that it is a principle that describes the attitude one should take towards other principles.

Are there or are there not moral principles which take precedence over that of tolerance? For example, the protection of children over tolerance for Islamic marriage practices, or African witchcraft beliefs. Claiming "tolerance" as a universal moral solvent is just a bit of hand-waving to try and make moral conflicts go away; in practice that kind of relativism is useless. Everyone has moral principles more important to them than tolerance for other people's.

I'm sorry, that's got to be one of the dumbest attempts to be clever I've ever heard. Intolerance is a behavior, not a class of people.

Well then tell me, when you talk about "tolerance" do you mean tolerance of people or of behaviors?

It has a specific meaning, so it can't be used as you suggest.

What is that meaning? Politeness, courtesy and an open mind toward others, regardless of color or creed? Very commendable. Or does it mean tolerance of any behavior whose perpetrator himself regards it as moral?

mtraven said...

@ashen man:
That seem like rather a large concession in the context of this discussion. No one expects comprehensiveness in a blog post, but surely basic fairness is never too much to ask.
Yes, the blogosphere is known for being fair and balanced.

As for concession -- I know that's supposed to be against the rules, we are just supposed to bash each other over the head at each other without anybody changing their mind about anything. Sorry to disappoint you.

Its appeal to the gloomy outliers of our tradition, like Schopenhauer and E.M. Cioran, is not accidental.

Why are those two allowed to bend Buddhism to their personal agendas, but Alan Ginsberg and Robert Thurman are not?

...one based on "Existence is suffering" and the other on "God made the world and it was good."

"Existence is suffering" is a poor translation of the First Noble Truth, especially the way you are deploying it. The meaning of dukkha is closer to what you described earlier as "the 'brokenness' of the world", or more commonly "pervasive unsatisfactoriness". Of course, I could be wrong, having gotten my interpretations from questionable sources, unlike you who no doubt received a transmission directly from Buddha himself.

Those Christians, always blowing shit up. Why, most of Texas is continually ablaze.

Well...it's true, Christians have not (in recent years) committed much actual violence, other than isolated incidents (murders of abortion providers, the Murraugh Building, small stuff like that). However, their literature is filled with apocalyptic imagery and eschatological obsessions. Also they have spawned right-wing militia movements that have not so far amounted to much, but who knows what will happen under prolonged economic stress?

you don't seem to get a kick out of trashing the one really regressive religion that really does cause incredible suffering in the world today.

I assume you are referring to Islam...which is plenty violent but as far as I know does not have an obsession with universal destruction. Islamic fundamentalist terrorists are interested in bringing about the Caliphate, not the Apocalypse.

me: I don't know what "morally entitled" means.

I suspect you do, but are dodging the question. It's plain English. It means "having the right" to do something, in a moral rather than a legal sense.

A right is a legal term, not a moral term. The connection between morality and legality is what is in question here, so attempting to fudge the issue with grammar won't wash. You asked "Are Christians morally entitled to attempt to shape the law according to their moral principles, or not?" A meaningless question. Laws are shaped by those with the power to shape the laws. The Christian right has been building their political power, and thus have been shaping the laws, and I mean to oppose them. Among the weapons used to oppose them is the ideas of tolerance and the separation of church and state that are part of our political/legal system.

Claiming "tolerance" as a universal moral solvent is just a bit of hand-waving to try and make moral conflicts go away

You obviously didn't read or didn't understand my last posting on this subtopic. Read it again, since I went through the trouble of writing it.

Michael said...

Re "the Murraugh [sic] building, small stuff like that" - is there any evidence that Timothy McVeigh was peculiarly motivated by Christian belief? The Wikipedia entry on McVeigh states that although brought up Roman Catholic,

"...McVeigh professed his belief in 'a God,' although he said he had 'sort of lost touch with' Catholicism and 'never really picked it back up.' The Guardian reported that McVeigh wrote a letter claiming to be an agnostic. McVeigh at one time said that he believed that the universe was guided by narural law, energized by some higher power... He had also said, 'Science is my religion'."

Although the section concludes by noting that he received the last sacraments of the Church of Rome before his execution, the overall impression conveyed is that he was confused in his beliefs and they were in any event rather shallow. His motivations for bombing the Alfred P. Murrah building appear to have had to do with his grievances about the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and 'what the U.S. government did at Waco and Ruby Ridge' rather than with any religious beliefs. McVeigh was a fan of "The Turner Diaries," pseudonymously written by William Pierce of the neo-Nazi National Alliance. Pierce professed a confused pantheism he called "Cosmotheism" while professing agnosticism or atheism regarding a personal god. This, rather than Christianity, appears to be what is expressed in McVeigh's remarks as quoted in Wikipedia.

Your attempt to blame McVeigh's crime on Christian beliefs that in his own words he had 'lost touch with and never really picked... back up" is yet another illustration of your anti-Christian bigotry. If someone were to blame, say, the actions of Genrikh Yagoda or the Rosenbergs on Judaism, you would be the first to scream this was 'anti-semitic.'

the ashen man said...

As for concession -- I know that's supposed to be against the rules...

What I meant was: having conceded the central point - that your comparison of the two religions was poorly done - why continue to argue it?

Why are those two allowed to bend Buddhism to their personal agendas, but Alan Ginsberg and Robert Thurman are not?

Well, anyone's allowed do whatever they want, and I'm allowed to decide whom I should take seriously as an intellectual.

The meaning of dukkha...

You're quite right, 'suffering' is only a convenient shorthand for a foreign concept. 'Existence is unsatisfactoriness,' then.

... their literature...

Whose? Christians'? The majority of them? The majority of Christian literature? Still cherry-picking.

they have spawned right-wing militia movements that have not so far amounted to much, but who knows what will happen under prolonged economic stress?

Classic. Sounds like you're the one with feverish apocalyptic fantasies.

And again, who is they? Three nut-jobs in Idaho are your chosen image of Christianity? No, not bigoted at all.

By your logic, what have Jews 'spawned'? How about Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, leftists? What horrors have they spawned, and why do you continue to single out Christians, with their pathetic paramilitary fringe, for opprobrium?

I assume you are referring to Islam...which is plenty violent but as far as I know does not have an obsession with universal destruction. Islamic fundamentalist terrorists are interested in bringing about the Caliphate, not the Apocalypse.

You are wrong, of course. Only Sunnis are interested in the Caliphate. Shiites are awaiting the Twelfth Imam whose return will be heralded by violence and chaos, which some of them are eager to expedite:

"Shi’ite orthodoxy has it that humans are powerless to encourage the Twelfth Imam to return. However, in Iran a group called the Hojjatieh believe that humans can stir up chaos to encourage him to return. Ayatollah Khomeini banned the group in the early 1980s because they rejected one of the primary commitments of the Iranian revolution: the concept of Vilayat-i Faqih (Guardianship of the Jurist). In other words, they opposed the notion of an Islamic republic because it would hinder the Twelfth Imam’s return on account of it being too just and peaceful. Today, in addition to the possibility of Ahmadinejad himself being a member (or a former member), the group has connections to Qom ultraconservative cleric Mesbah Yazdi whom Iranians frequently refer to as the "crazed one" and the "crocodile." Four of the twenty-one new cabinet ministers are purportedly Hojjatieh members. Some reports state that cabinet ministers must sign a formal pledge of support for the Twelfth Imam."

Ultimately, I don't know what to say to people who look around the world and think that Christian fundamentalists are a big problem. There is obviously some kind of mental block, some transference of emotion from the gruesome figures whom you should fear, but find it vulgar to, to a set of rather harmless and silly figures. I am reminded of the time that Christopher Hitchens completely demolished Chris Hedges:

"You pick that kind of relativism, you'll also find you're dealing with a very surreptitious form of absolutism, which is only capable of describing as fascistic relatively comical forces (who I've denounced up- and downhill all my life in the United States), but cannot use the word totalitarianism about the religion that actually conducts jihad, actually organizes totalitarianism, actually inflicts misery, pain, unemployment, and despair upon millions of people, and then claims what it has done as the license for suicide and murder. A perfect picture [gesturing towards Chris Hedges] has been given to you of the cretinous relationship between sloppy moral relativism, half-baked religious absolutism, and the journalism that lies in between."

A right is a legal term, not a moral term.

Again, you don't know what you're talking about. Wikipedia expresses the common understanding: Rights are legal or moral entitlements or permissions.

Among the weapons used to oppose them is the ideas of tolerance

Quite. Not a lofty, universal principle, but merely a well-crafted weapon with which to ridicule and marginalise the proles.

You obviously didn't read or didn't understand...

Didn't understand, because you refuse to define your terms. You said: "It has a specific meaning, so it can't be used as you suggest," but you will not tell me that meaning. It is by means of semantic vagueness, and the conflation of several meanings, that the concept of tolerance is used precisely as I suggest.

mtraven said...

McVeigh had tenuous but definite links to the Christian Identity movement. Which is not to say he was typical of Christians, or even a Christian at all, but he became what he was thanks to a rich environment of fevered paranoia generated by the fundamentalist far right. This is a large and dangerous movement; your blithe apologia of it as "three nut-jobs in Idaho" is disingenuous at best.

It should go without saying, but probably won't so I'll say it, that the existence of dangerously violent Christian sects does not mean that all Christians are dangerously violent, or are responsible for those who are.

Shiites are awaiting the Twelfth Imam whose return will be heralded by violence and chaos, which some of them are eager to expedite:
Hm, yes, I was wrong about that, and am not really surprised to learn that there are apocalyptic tendencies in Islam.

However, that doesn't mitigate the fact that Christianity has them too, and has made them a fetish and a cliche, and spawned a whole genre of sub-literature.

Ultimately, I don't know what to say to people who look around the world and think that Christian fundamentalists are a big problem.

I'd say it is beyond dispute that Christian fundamentalists have done far more damage to this country than Islamic fundamentalists. The 9/11 terrorists killed 3000 people, the Christian fundamentalists enabled Bush who has killed more Americans and done far more fiscal and strategic damage than the Osama bin Laden could have dreamed of.

Despite the best efforts of the Republicans to destroy the country, we still are important to the world. Having the world's largest army and a good chunk of the world's economy run by whackjobs is extremeley dangerous for the world.

The Muslims make a few rare spectacular attacks, Christian fundamentalists eat away at the foundations of society on a daily basis. See here for more.

I am reminded of the time that Christopher Hitchens completely demolished Chris Hedges

You don't often find Hitchens deployed in an argument defending fundamentalism. That report you linked to was pretty retarded. The left has not always been anti-religion, Hedges is in no way typical of the left and his book on religion stunk, and what the fuck does any of this have to do with what we are talking about?

I see you still don't understand what I was saying about meta-principles, which is too bad, because it's the only vaguely interesting thought from anyone that in this thread as far.

What I said was, tolerance is a meta-principle in the sense that it is a principle about what attitude to take towards other principles. Stare decisis is another meta-principle, in the legal rathar than moral realm. But that doesn't mean it automatically overrides other principles.

I'm curious -- since you don't like tolerance, what do you want in its place? Theocracy?

Michael said...

My internet browser crashes when I click on your link about McVeigh's alleged tenuous connections to the Christian Identity movement, so I don't know what they supposedly were. However, I'm sure they were much more tenuous than - say- the connection of Meir Kahane and Baruch Goldstein to Judaism.

Isolated incidents of violence by people with tenuous connections to some extreme branch of a religion are not the same as a 'large and dangerous movement.' The vast majority of Christians, even the fundamentalists you hate and fear, neither actively endorsed nor tacitly approved the behavior of Timothy McVeigh. Nor, for that matter, do I believe that the very many Jews either actively or passively supported the Kach party.

Muslims make a few 'rare spectacular attacks'? How few is few? We have had three major ones here on the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and Flight 93. There have been others, killing fewer people but equally appalling, such as that of the Muslim man who shot up an El Al airlines counter in Los Angeles. In Europe there have been bombings in Madrid and London. Bombings have taken place in Indonesia, India, at U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, at hotels in Aden and most recently in Bombay. The USS Cole was bombed. There have been numerous al-Qaida attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The silence of so-called 'moderate' Muslims regarding these atrocities has been deafening. There is no parallel to this amongst members of any other religious sect in the world.

"Bush who has killed more Americans..." No - he may have sent them into harm's way, but this country's enemies killed them. And those enemies were Muslims.

If you want an example of a theocracy, look at Saudi Arabia or Iran. There is no such thing as a Christian theocracy left in the world. Although the Vatican is regarded as a sovereign state it is really just an organizational headquarters. Britain, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries give some tax support to their churches, but you can't really call that theocracy even though any comparable program here would run into First Amendment problems. All the "Christian right' really can agree on - it is a bunch of theologically disparate groups - is some restoration of the sexual morality and public respect for religion that prevailed in the Eisenhower years. You are welcome to raise the alarm about this but I suspect only your fellow fanatics will take notice.

the ashen man said...

I think Michael has answered most of the points in your most recent post, so I'll move on the question of tolerance as "meta-principle," which I agree is an interesting idea. However it is very difficult to discuss this if you will not tell me what you mean by the word.

If by tolerance you mean that nobody be harassed or persecuted on account of their race, religion or private sexual practices, I wholeheartedly support it.

"Tolerance" as ideology is another matter. The word is used as a cover for "sloppy moral relativism" and the idea that any fashionable group which demands special rights should be given them, and anyone who opposes branded "intolerant."

This is compounded by another meaning of the word: to tolerate a particular behaviour. Nobody believes, I am sure, that all behaviours should be tolerated, but again the ideology is used to favour fashionable behaviours and malign those who disapprove of them.

The conflation of the virtue and the ideology is what makes this concept such a useful political weapon for the left. If you can show me that the concept has a more substantial content than this, I will perhaps finally "understand" what you mean, whereas I am currently convinced that what you are saying is meaningless, the politically convenient application of an empty signifier.

As to which legal meta-principle I prefer to "tolerance", well, stare decisis is a good example, rather than "theocracy."

mtraven said...

@Michael: The link you are having trouble with was to the Google Books version of Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (Amazon), an actual serious, cross-cultural study of religious violence, Buddhism and Judaism included as well as the more obviously violent sects.

The vast majority of Christians, even the fundamentalists you hate and fear, neither actively endorsed nor tacitly approved the behavior of Timothy McVeigh
I don't believe I ever implied otherwise.

However, it is certainly the case that the extreme rhetoric of fundamentalism makes it possible for the violent sects to thrive. Jerry Falwell, for instance, I assume did not explictly advocate or condone violence. But he's perfectly willing to endorse God's violence against New Orleans for its sins and sodomy. That makes it that much easier for actual violence to occur, since after all, they are just doing God's will.

@ashen man:
"Tolerance" is not that difficult to define: it means trying, all else being equal, to accomodate the beliefs, practices, and presence of people that are different than yourself. The alternative is to make war on them or try to convert them to your own belief system, which is why the alternative to tolerance seems to me to be theocracy. The concept has its roots in religious conflcit but more often these days is applied to lifestyles. San Francisco, for instance, with its Folsom Street Fair and robust drug culture, is more tolerant than Colorado Springs or Tuscaloosa, and everyone knows it, so I can't see how it is an "empty signifier".

Tolerance is a basic pillar of liberal secular society. Unlike traditional societies, there is no central religious or moral authority. Some people can't deal with this, and indeed the jury is still out on how well this can work over the long term.

Tolerance is never absolute, of course. Presumably we can tolerate different dietary practives of our Islamic, Jewish, or Hindu neighbors more easily than we can tolerate polygamy or ritual female genital circumcision. What gets tolerated and what doesn't gets worked out in practice. Intolerance is often not tolerated, perhaps to excess. The ACLU, of which I am a member, spends a good deal of its energy defending the speech rights of the intolerant.

I do not understand the distinction you are trying to make about "tolerance as ideology", so maybe you need to give an example.

Michael said...

I think it was Pat Robertson rather than Jerry Falwell that blamed the moral decadence of New Orleans for the pouring-out of God's displeasure on it in the form of Hurricane Katrina. You will hear no argument from me that either Robertson or Falwell has said many foolish things. They are, of course, only the most recent in a long line of Judeo-Christian religious figures to point to past disasters, or to prophesy future ones, as the consequences of divine wrath at human misbehavior.

Religious people are not the only ones to attribute past catastrophes to or predict future apocalyptic scenarios as the result of human conduct. Secular apocalypticism abounds, and is certainly more fashionable than the Christian variety . The prophets of secular apocalypse, from Paul Ehrlich to Al Gore, are celebrated amongst the bien-pensant. The message of these people is the same as that of religious millennialists, except that God is absent from their narrative, and it is not so richly allegorical as the Apocalypse of St. John. The world is coming to an end, they say, because of the bad behavior of the human race - not its fornications and buggeries, but its driving of SUVs and generation of electricity by coal-fired power plants.

Have you ever heard of the Earth Liberation Front? It specializes in burning down houses and destroying automobiles. Its votaries have done tens of millions of dollars of damage, and though its apologists point out that these actions have so far killed no one, the FBI observes that this is mostly a matter of luck.

There is a far more direct connection between the environmental alarmism of someone like Al Gore and the crimes of the ELF than there was between anything any evangelical preacher ever said and the crime of Timothy McVeigh. Only a few changes in your previous post are necessary:

"It is certainly the case that the extreme rhetoric of environmentalism makes it possible for the ELF to thrive. Al Gore, for instance, I assume does not explicitly advocate or condone violence. But he's perfectly willing to endorse Nature's future violence against the world for man's use of fossil fuels. That makes it that much easier for actual violence to occur, since after all, the ELF is just doing what Nature will sooner or later do."

Guilt by association is so wonderfully adaptable, isn't it?

the ashen man said...

Ah, San Francisco. Tolerance. Here we go. As someone once said to me, "Yeah, I'm a conservative Christian in San Francisco - now I know what it must be like to be gay in Texas."

So SF has a "robust drug culture"? What does that mean, and what does it have to do with tolerance? Are inner city ghettoes also models of tolerance for their robust drug cultures? Somehow I don't think you were thinking of crackhouses though, nor of the countless lives of homosexuals destroyed by crystal meth, nor of the city's continued indulgence of drug addiction, insanity and homelessness as some kind of alternative lifestyle. I suspect you were thinking of upper middle-class kids experimenting with hallucinogens for a few years before settling down to a life of yoga and organic food. They tolerate themselves. They tolerate their own lifestyles. They tolerate the things they like. How uniquely moral of them.

Folsom Street Fair? Now we're getting somewhere. Displays of sadomasochistic sex on public streets, in view of children - is someone who opposes this considered "intolerant"?

It's all a question of what you find tolerable, and what you find intolerable. I fail to see why one group of people who draw that line in a particular place should have a particular claim on the word "tolerance" or on the right to castigate others as intolerant. San Francisco turns a blind eye to public sex, drug use, tries to institute gay marriage - and is considered a paragon of tolerance. What of the parts of the country which unofficially tolerate polygamy, or are more laid back about intrafamilial relations, or tolerant of gun culture - why on earth are they not similarly lauded? This is not the Platonic virtue of tolerance which you imagine - it is plain old cultural chauvinism, sneering down at the unsophisticated proles from your organic, psychedelic heights.

I just couldn't end this without a quote from Jim Goad, which seems so apropos:

"Almost down to the very last shaved anus, San Franciscans are a xenophobic breed. If you don't speak, look, and act like a San Franciscan, their policy is one of Zero Tolerance... They're a buncha urban supremacists. Unyielding. Humorless. Stuffed to the gills with an unwarranted sense of their own cultural/moral superiority. I call them 'Bay Aryans'...

The Bay Aryans prove that they aren't truly compassionate by consistently showing a flagrant hatred for America's white rural lumpenproletariat. Though San Franciscans may mince through the streets in protest of hate speech, they sure as shootin' despise dem trailer trash...

You should thank Goddess that there are a few Nazis in Idaho and a smattering of Klansmen in Kentucky, because what else would you talk about at the weekly gatherings of the collective? Never mind that you all live in a much more AFFLUENT place than Idahoans or Kentuckians do...

Modern American Leftoidism, a Volk religion epitomized in places such as the evil SF/Berkeley vortex, is almost exclusively the purview of upper-middle-class white kids who've never breathed a fleeting gasp of true oppression in their lives. This must be why the Bay Aryans don't seem nearly as concerned with America's widening class disparities as they are with its fashion mistakes and verbal boorishness. Though the Bay Aryans fancy themselves as revolutionaries, they're actually little more than a left-wristed inversion of Miss Manners. An area that prides itself on the Free Speech Movement is now gung-ho in favor of legal restrictions on terminology which it doesn't deem proper or sensitive. The Bay area teems with tattletales and stool pigeons and hall monitors and snitches. Since they don't have any REAL problems in their lives, these mushy bananas worry about getting their feelings bruised.

Perhaps it hasn't occurred to you, but human history is not entirely summarized by the bold struggle for the "right" to poke your veiny ding-dong through disco-bathroom glory holes. Not every act is political. Some are just silly and ugly and stinky."

And finally, I feel compelled to wonder how you feel about blatant displays of anti-Semitic irrationalism in ever-tolerant San Francisco? What a beautiful union of ideologies, joined by a shared resentment of the successful. What I don't understand is why American Jews feel so safe around these people, and are so terrified of Christian fundamentalists, the most Judeophilic people in the world.

mtraven said...

@Michael:
You are right, but Falwell said equally inane and hateful things after 9/11.

The message of these people is the same as that of religious millennialists, except that God is absent from their narrative...
God is absent, and in his place there is quantifiable physical reality. That's a fairly significant difference.

The analogy between religious violence and ecological sabotage is flawed along several other dimensions. Ecotage does not aim at taking human life and is in no way terrorism, whatever the FBI chooses to call it. The environment is real, God is a fiction. Ecotage aims at interfering with actual acts; religious terror is best understood as performance ritual. The taking of life has been part of religious ritual for a very long time; the modern-day terrorists have just invented new forms for it.

That being said, there are of course a variety of quasi-religous elements that can be found in the environmental movement and probably they get stronger at the extreme ends. Perhaps someday ELF will decide that humans are an intolerable burden to the Earth and start killing them off en masse. But -- that hasn't happened yet.

Michael said...

Global warming is taking place on Mars, where the polar ice caps have been observed to shrink. Are people driving SUVs or burning coal there?

The only possible explanation of Martian global warming is increased solar irradiance. If that is a sufficient explanation on Mars, parsimony suggests it must also be so on other planets such as this one. The notion that global warming is entirely or even primarily man-made is of a piece with the notion that God will vent his wrath on the earth because of men's sins.

As Chesterton is supposed to have observed, when men cease to believe in God, they don't believe in nothing - they believe in anything. Secular apocalyptic scenarios are a big part of the credultiy of the godless. Yesterday it was 'nuclear winter,' today it is catastrophic global warming. Tomorrow it will be something else. Aren't scientists supposed to be sceptical?

mtraven said...

@Michael: More right-wing talking points, readily debunked with a few moments of the Google.

And of course, even if there is a solar component to global warming that is no reason to curtail efforts to reduce greenhouse gases. Quite the contrary.

Nuclear winter has not been debunked; we very fortunately got through the cold war without having to put it to a test.

I think you have things backwards. You think people are obsessed with the apocalyptic because they get it from the Bible, but I believe rather the Bible contains such imagery because people in antiquity were very aware of the collapsed earlier civilizations that lay beneath their feet. See here for instance. A high likelihood of catastrophic societal failure was the norm in human history and it's only recently that we've built out so much comfort for ourselves that we think we are immune.

Michael said...

No, I don't think people believe in apocalyptic scenarios because they got them from the Bible. Rather, they believe in them for the reason that they hold any other religious or quasi-religious belief. There is a profound and perhaps innate human desire to believe such things. The historic rôle of Christianity has been to control and contain such extravagant supersition rather than to encourage it. This is perhaps one of its least appreciated aspects.

Anthropogenic global warming appears to me to be a theory made to fit pre-existing prejudices. The bien-pensant derision for suburbanization and "America's love affair with the automobile" long antedated the development of the theory of AGW. How conveniently it suited those prejudices! In just the same way, Lysenkoism suited the quasi-theology of Soviet communism.

The "hockey-stick" progression of warming is widely acknowledged to be a dishonest representation and one that deliberately disregarded the medieval warm period. There are plenty of scientists who question AGW and even those who believe in it differ as to its extent. It is telling that those who do question it are answered with ad-hominem attacks, suggestions that they have been suborned by oil companies, etc. I recall some pundit saying that disagreement with the existence of AGW should be regarded in the same light as holocaust revisionism. This sounds more like Bellarmine than Galileo to me. Real science would never be afraid to answer data with data, and dispassionately to sort out questions of interpretation in detail. Instead any questioning is treated by the partisans of AGW as if it were a blasphemy of holy writ.

Even if there is something to AGW, it amazes me how it has heen seized upon as a pretext for massive social engineering, which will - again, quite conveniently - permit the delivery of political and economic advantage to favored constituencies.

On another point, I'm astonished at the way you rationalize and excuse 'ecotage.' Is it a credible defense of arson that it is at least not murder? What would you say if someone burnt down your house or torched your car? Even the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is hardly a 'right-wing' organization, considers these acts to be domestic terrorism, while the Anti-Defamation League, again hardly a 'right-wing' group, has deplored the "widespread campaign of intimidation and violence by animal-rights extremists against Univeristy of California scientists and researchers [which] has been marked by numerous acts of harassment, vandalism, and a series of fire bombings and attempted fire bombings deliberately targeting individuals."

You so rigidly adhere to the dogma of 'pas d'ennemi à gauche' that I wonder if there is any enormity you will not excuse as long as it takes place at the expense of people you hate.

mtraven said...

@ashen:

Yeah, about half the time I find the smugness of San Francisco hard to take. I prefer the Dead Kennedy's version of this critique to Goad's though.

But that is really a pretty superficial aspect of the city. The trendy froth is unimportant; what matters is real life and real culture, of which San Franciso has always been a good incubator. The diversity of SF is found not among its hipsters but in its communities and long-time residents.

Folsom Street Fair? Now we're getting somewhere. Displays of sadomasochistic sex on public streets, in view of children - is someone who opposes this considered "intolerant"?

You seem to miss the point. Tolerance means putting up with stuff that you might find personally distasteful. Somehow San Francisco manages to contain both children and the Folsom Street Fair, through the magic of tolerance. Neither parents nor leather-daddies seem to have a need for everyone else in the city to share exactly the same values that they do.

The main obstacle to raising children in San Francisco is not the exotic lifestyles on display but the cost of living, which reflects the fact that a great many people want to live there.

And finally, I feel compelled to wonder how you feel about blatant displays of anti-Semitic irrationalism in ever-tolerant San Francisco?

See above. I already mentioned that I was a member of the ACLU, which defends the free-speech rights of Nazis and other unpleasant people. The rally described doesn't have much about it that is peculiar to San Francisco, as the second sentence explicitly attests.

I haven't written much about Gaza. I started to a few times, but in the end did not want to wade into that morass. But the page you pointed to seems to exemplify the sort of bad conscience that makes the problem intractable. Neither side seems willing to acknowlede that the other side is made up of human beings with legitmate interests, and so there is no hope of settlement.

mtraven said...

The historic rôle of Christianity has been to control and contain such extravagant supersition rather than to encourage it. This is perhaps one of its least appreciated aspects.

That strikes me as very odd, to say the least. Christianity is an extravagant superstition, and while the churches certanly attempt to control it I don't see that a controlled superstition is any better than an uncontrolled one. Seems worse to me if anything.

From this remark and others in the past I seem to detect that you view Christianity, or some forms of it, as a sort of anti-religion, a sort of vaccine whose function is to supress actual religious feeling. Like I said, this seems odd.

The "hockey-stick" progression of warming is widely acknowledged to be a dishonest representation and one that deliberately disregarded the medieval warm period.

Uh, no. The fact that some scientists have attacked it does not make it false, it makes it debatable. I doubt you are competent to evaluate the statistical methods employed in this research, so your cherry-picking the results that fit your political biases is no better than anyone else doing it.

Anthropogenic global warming appears to me to be a theory made to fit pre-existing prejudices. ...In just the same way, Lysenkoism suited the quasi-theology of Soviet communism.

This is a classic form of ad hominem. Whether the theory fits or does not fit various peoples prejudice has no bearing on its truth, although it can make you change your evaluation of the reliability of various sources. Unfortunately for you the support for AGW seems pretty overwhelming. Moldbug has a long screed attempting to show that it's all a conspiracy of funding-hungry scientists. You can believe that if you want, but it sounds implausible to me.

There are plenty of scientists who question AGW and even those who believe in it differ as to its extent.
Why should it be surprising that "those who believe" differ as to its extent? It's a theory, and a theory of a complex phenomenon that can only be modelled very approximately. Of course scientists differ in their estimations and predications of the future. Duh!

Real science would never be afraid to answer data with data, and dispassionately to sort out questions of interpretation in detail. Instead any questioning is treated by the partisans of AGW as if it were a blasphemy of holy writ.

If all you read the popular press, which I imagine is what you do, you will see a great deal of argument about motivation and personal attacks (seems pretty symmetrical with respect to what side you take). If you read science journals, you can see the on-going data-based debate.

On another point, I'm astonished at the way you rationalize and excuse 'ecotage.'

Well, learn to read and you will be less astonished. All I said was that it was not terrorism, which does not in any way "rationalize or excuse" it. Although if you want to be astonished, I suppose I could come up with something.

FWIW, the entire notion of ecological sabotage was pretty much invented by Edward Abbey, who gets an appreciation in this very conservative journal.

You so rigidly adhere to the dogma of 'pas d'ennemi à gauche' that I wonder if there is any enormity you will not excuse as long as it takes place at the expense of people you hate.

You seem to have a habit of using fancy canned phrases, preferably in a foreign language, in place of actual thinking and understanding. Or to put it another way: you don't know what the fuck you are talking about.

Michael said...

I'll give you several examples of how Christianity has contained superstition.

When the Spanish conquistadors came to Mexico they discovered a society in which the prevalent supersition held that nature's order could only be upheld by the frequent presentation to the pagan Mexican gods of human hearts, torn still beating from the breasts of sacrificial victims. The Spaniards suppressed this extravagant supersition and imposed Catholicism on the Mexicans. While Catholicism is not innocent of taking human life itself, it did so on a much more restrained scale than did the Aztecs. This was an advance.

When the British colonized India they discovered religious cults that thought it appropriate to burn widows alive on the pyres of their deceased husbands (suttee), and that waylaid and strangled travellers as an act of worship to the goddess Kali (thuggee). The British suppressed these extravagant superstitions out of Christian revulsion, even though - unlike the Spaniards - they did not impose Christianity on their new colonial subjects. This too was an advance.

When the British explorer Burton went to the "slave coast' of west Africa, he discovered that the Africans sold into slavery by the local king were the fortunate ones - those who were not sold were gruesomely killed in a great festival of human sacrifice called the Annual Custom. In the year of the death of a monarch the sacrifices were even more numerous, and the festival was called the Grand Custom (see "A Mission to Gelele, king of Dahomé [1864]). Later British colonization, in the full flowering of Victorian Protestantism, suppressed these pagan rituals. Again, this was an advance.

We may find similar examples of the ways in which Christianity restrained supersition at just about every instance in which it replaced a previous pagan belief. If the Christianity that was substituted for these former superstitions was itself a superstition, it was in general a less obnoxious one.

To the extent Christianity is superstitious itself, it is so to generally good ends. You might try to urge a thick-skulled lumpenprole from the slums to renounce his life of larceny and mayhem by trying to explain Kant's categorical imperative to him, but I doubt you would succeed, or perhaps even survive the effort. It would likely make a more profound impression if you convinced him that persisting in his ways would lead to an eternity of torment at the hands of demons equipped with red-hot muckforks and buckets of molten tar. The Christian Hell has in this fashion been for most of history a very wholesome supersition, which tended to encourage a peaceful and orderly society.

The apocalyptic beliefs of modern dispensationalists are historically atypical of Christianity, and - as I observed earlier - are derived from a too literal reading of the Old Testament by its unsophisticated votaries. The Apocalypse of St. John may or may not have involved the ingestion of 'serious drugs' but its author was certainly steeped in Jewish mysticism, the techniques of which have been described by one authority as "mechanical techniques of meditation, which included conentration on the Hebrew scriptures and Gematria, as well as breath-control, chanted hymns, and certain body movements." It draws on a long tradition, both biblical and intertestamentary, of Jewish apocalyptic prophecy, and is rich in symbolism that I am sure escapes the likes of Pat Robertson or Jack van Impe.

A more representative Christian understanding of all this is that of the sensible Bishop Wilkins:

"And if you will believe the Jews, the Holy Spirit hath purposedly involved in the Words of Scripture, every Secret that belongs to any Art or Science, under such Cabalisms as these... But tho' such Conjectures may be allowable in some particulars, yet to make all Scriptures capable of like Secrets, does give such latitude to Men's raving and corrupt fancies, as must needs occasion many wild and strange absurdities."

The history of Christianity as a whole is one of advancing common sense and decent behavior. The 'raving and corrupt fancies... wild and strange absurdities' of marginal splinter groups are far outweighed by the sensibility of its main stream.

Of course, that some scientists have attacked the theory of global warming makes it debatable rather than false. My point is that while it is under debate is it really appropriate for it to be made the basis of government policy? A cautious attitude would be to wait and let the debate sort itself out before undertaking massive social engineering that would have wrenching economic effects and would possibly lead to a great reduction in the American standard of living. Simply giving up an abundant and relatively cheap domestic ource of energy as coal, preventing the exploitation of known oil deposits and exploration for new ones would predictably have that effect.

The presence of scientific 'consensus' is not the same as proof. Scientists are as capable as lesser mortals of herd mentality. The scientific consensus when Ignaz Semmelweiss urged doctors to wash their hands before delivering babies was that he was deluded. He was driven from his medical practice in Vienna and eventually confined in a lunatic asylum for continuing to assert his beliefs. The scientific consensus until the 1980s was that stomach ulcers were caused by the eating of unsutable foods and psychological stress. When Warren and Marshall in 1982 asserted that they were caused by the microorganism Helicobacter pylori, they met numerous attacks from colleagues whose intellectual capital was invested in the older theories. Unlike Semmelweiss the correctness of their position was recognized in their lifetimes, by the award of the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2005.

My scientific education, such as it is, was a long time ago, and in physics and chemistry. They are 'exact' sciences in a sense that most of biology (apart from that at a molecular level, and genetics, which has become about the same thing) are not. We can, for example, predict accurately and repeatably the focal length of a lens given its curvature, thickness, and the refractive index of the glass from which it is made. We can in the same way predict the resistance of a given length and diameter of wire made from a given alloy, or the yield of a chemical reaction product from given masses of reactants. The theories that enable those predictions are subject to experimental test, and have repeatedly survived such tests.

No comparable testing can be done with the theories of climatology, ecology, and other such disciplines. Computer modelling is not the same as a real experiment, since the model will reflect only the assumptions that went into it. The real world does not have a chance to surprise us with a result, the way it might in a reaction vessel or an electrical circuit. The lack of ability to test theories by experiment should raise the level of caution about accepting their purported implications.

If systematic criminal destruction of property as an expression of political ideology does not constitute terrorism, then what does?

If some right-wing publication praises Edward Abbey and he was in favor of such attacks, then I disagree with it and with him.

"Pas d'ennemi à gauche" refers to the attitude that there is nothing on the left wing with which its possessor disagrees. From my observation, that is your attitude. When I first encountered your posts over at MM's blog, you were arguing that slum criminals who murdered people did not meaningfully differ morally from Gen. Petraeus's actions on the battlefield, and that their thefts, extortions, and dope deals did not so differ from the business transactions of Warren Buffett. You 'empathized' with them. Now you deny that people who torch others' houses and cars in the service of their political ideology have anything ito do with terrorism. You must 'empathize' with them as well.

Do you ever empathize with a person who has been murdered, stolen from, or had his property destroyed by someone who agrees with, or is favored by, your ideology? To date, I haven't observed you to do so.

Anders Branderud said...

Quote: “A follower of neither Jesus nor Buddha, I feel free to misinterpret them both, together.”

(le-havdil), The birthday of the historical Ribi Yehoshua was translated into the calendar that is used in the western world, 0529.

This is a very important distinction to make: No one can follow two polar-opposite masters — the authentic, historical, PRO-Torah 1st-century Ribi from Nazareth and the 4th-century (post-135 C.E.), arch-antithesis ANTI-Torah apostasy developed by the Hellenists (namely the Sadducees and Roman pagans who conspired to kill Ribi Yәhoshua [ha-Mashiakh (the Messiah)], displaced his original followers and redacted the NT). [quote the website www.netzarim.co.il; and one addition of mine]

Jesus and le-havdil Ribi Yehoshua ha-Mashiakh are not the same. The logical implications of the earliest extant source documents (see research here in the above website) implies that Ribi Yehoshua and his followers kept and taught Torah all their lives.