The Rich Are Organized—Why Aren’t You?

At a time when, in the United States, majority opinions—like the need for tax increases, military-spending cuts, clean energy, and campaign finance reform—don’t seem to even be on the table in Washington, when whole neighborhoods and cities seem to have fallen off the political map, one might find oneself wondering: Where did our democracy go?

Today at Religion Dispatches, I interview Princeton philosopher of religion Jeffrey Stout. (This is a guy to look out for. His 2007 talk on “The Folly of Secularism” is probably the only academic lecture that has brought tears to my eyes.) We talked about about his latest book, Blessed Are the Organized, which came out last year—though it has been never been so relevant as now. Blessed Are the Organized is an unusual kind of book in academic philosophy; Stout dwells in stories more than theories, recounting his travels among people doing local grassroots organizing in cities around the United States. Here’s how the interview got started:

Why are the organized “Blessed”?

Well, one definition of “blessed” is fortunate. In a shallow sense, the new elites are as fortunate as anyone has ever been. They practically monopolize society’s blessings. If we ask where the “happiness” of the 400 wealthiest Americans comes from, the answer has a lot to do with power, which is rooted in organizational structures. The CEOs of the mega-corporations acquired their power through some combination of luck and organizational skill. The elites are organized, and politicians are responsive to the organized. The richest among us are calling the tune while the politicians dance. Deregulation, the Bush tax cuts, and Citizens United v. the Federal Elections Commission all make sense when viewed in this context. The transfer of wealth from the poor and the middle class to the rich in recent decades is so enormous as to be hard to fathom. But that transfer—like the wealth itself—is a product of organizational activity.

Unhappy are those who are scattered and isolated. Unhappy are those who are weakly linked. Democratic power is an organizational, relational affair. If there is any hope of creating a balance of power in our society, one that can hold elites accountable to the rest of us, it will have to come from grassroots organizing.

Read the rest at Religion Dispatches.

The Suspicious Revolution

What does it do to people, and to a society, to suddenly become revolutionary?

I recently had the chance to speak with Talal Asad, one of the leading anthropologists alive today, about the experience of being in Cairo earlier this year as the revolution unfolded around him. Our conversation appears this week at The Immanent Frame. What stuck out for him, and which he was still trying to find the words for, was a subtle but utterly pervasive kind of suspicion, one that often ran in direct contradiction to the facts on the ground.

NS: What was it like to be there in the midst of a revolution?

TA: Even before my wife and I went, people kept saying to us, “Are you sure it’s safe?” Our Air France plane was actually cancelled. We were due to go on the 29th of January. We eventually left on the 12th of February, via Paris. We weren’t even able to go directly to Cairo, either. We had to go through Beirut. Then, all sorts of people starting ringing, again asking, “Is it safe? Are you sure you’ll be safe? We’ve heard all sorts of frightening things.” Remember the stories circulating early in the uprising about the prisons that had been opened and the police being withdrawn from the streets? That was what the fear was about. People wouldn’t believe me, but I was there for four months, almost, and I went all over town and never encountered any violence. I didn’t have any friends who could attribute violence to the uprisings—which isn’t to say it didn’t happen. Cairo contains eighteen million people, so it has always had its fair share of criminality. But ordinary life, actually, continued. Cafes were open, and shops, restaurants, and so on. You’d often hear that foreigners were in danger, or that ordinary life was impossible, but that is really not true.

NS: Impossible, that is, without the control of the state and the police?

TA: Exactly. There are elements in Egypt that were quite happy to circulate stories of unrest. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces talked again and again about the fact that we must have stability, which is then linked ominously to questions about the state of the economy. Since the economy suffers from the political instability in the country, they say, we shouldn’t have more demonstrations or strikes. But one of the things that emerged for me there, and which I’m trying to make sense of, was the constant flow of speculation, of suspicion, about who’s saying and who’s doing what. Why are they doing this? Are they really doing it for good reasons? Is it the army? The Muslim Brothers?Is their presence or absence significant? Do they mean what they say?—You know, that sort of thing. I can’t claim to have made good sense of it yet, but, to me, this seems very important.

We also discussed the transition from violent to nonviolent resistance, blasphemy laws, and even the end of the world. Particularly choice, too, is this passage, where he describes a conversation about colonialism with the great literary theorist Edward Said, whose successor Asad arguably has become:

I remember talking once a long time ago with Edward Said about empire and how it might be defeated. We were just sitting and having coffee, and at one point I responded to some of his suggestions by saying, “No, no, this won’t work. You can’t resist these forces.” So he demanded a little irritably: “What should one do? What would you do?” So I said, “Well, all one can do is to try and make them uncomfortable.” Which was really a very feeble reply, but I couldn’t think of anything else.

An Eden Full of Dudes

The end is the beginning is the end (that’s a Smashing Pumpkins line), and all are in Eden. Today at Religion Dispatches, Brook Wilensky-Lanford and I talk about her brand new book, Paradise Lust, out this week. It tells the stories of some bold explorers from the past few centuries who have tried to figure out where Eden actually was, and whether we can get back there again.

As I read the book, I kept coming across lots of parallels with my own work-in-progress about proofs for the existence of God. One thing about both that certainly sticks out: it’s all dudes.

I’m the questioner in bold, Brook is the answerer:

You note that most of the searchers you write about, maybe “not surprisingly,” are men. Why is that not surprising? Not surprisingly, too, I’ve found something similar in my work on the search for proofs of the existence of God, which has turned itself by virtue of the fact into a study of masculinity, at least implicitly. I’ve had to think a lot myself about what thinking about proofs has to do with being male. How about you, though? What does all this thinking about Eden-searchers have to do with being a woman?

The “not surprisingly” is just my little bitter feminist joke. It actually was sort of surprising, or certainly disappointing to me as a woman writer working on this book, not to find any full-fledged Eden-seeking women. I kept running into historical women on the edge of the search, who were always sort of “tsk-tsking” dreamier male Eden-seekers. The feminist Victoria Woodhull gave an entire lecture in 1871 refuting the idea; she said that any “schoolboy over the age of 12” who would read Genesis 2 and think it describes a literal place “ought to be reprimanded for his stupidity.” Others were more diplomatic. Gertrude Bell, who lived in Iraq for much of her adult life, only mentioned Eden once in her diaries: her friend William Willcocks had come to town, to discuss “Eden and other reasonable things.” She called him “dear old thing.”

I feel like this kind of biblical musing was a creative canvas for men, but it brought out a certain practical streak in women. Then of course there’s the stereotypical demonization of Eve—if Eden is the origin of women’s villainy and/or victimization, why would we want to go back there?

Also, keep an eye out for the review of Paradise Lust in the New York Times Book Review this weekend.

You Have Searched Me and Known Me

Over at The Dailymy latest commentary on consumer technology gets theological:

Apple CEO Steve Jobs returned to the stage earlier this month to announce a long-awaited new product: iCloud. “We’re going to demote the PC and the Mac to just be a device,” he said. “We’re going to move your hub, the center of your digital life, into the cloud.” No longer will the data that circumscribe our lives, from our dental records to our unfinished novels, remain confined to the tangible shells that presently contain them. They’ll live elsewhere, up there, in a better place.

Apple may be the latest to try, but no company has puffed out more clouds than Google. All of the Google services so many of us depend on — Gmail, Docs, Calendar, Reader, YouTube, Picasa — lure our electronic selves, bit by bit, out of our computers and up into the cloud. If the cloud is a heaven for our data, a better place up in the sky, then Google is, well, kind of like God. But what kind of God?

Some have actually tried to find out. Their efforts may appear to be mere intellectual exercises. But they raise serious questions about the nature of faith. In 2004, a Universal Life Church minister named Peter Olsen started the Universal Church of Google; last year, the misleadingly named First Church of Google appeared as well. But by far the most developed denomination is the Church of Google, founded by a reclusive young Canadian around 2006. It comes complete with scriptures, ministers, prayers, a holiday and, best of all, nine proofs that Google is “the closest thing to a ‘god’ human beings have ever directly experienced.”

Read the rest: “Google as God.”

What’s at Stake in The Tree of Life?

If you’re into getting worked up about semi-artsy movies, the one you’re supposed to get worked up about lately is Terrence Malick’s new The Tree of Life. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year. And got booed.

You’re especially supposed to get worked up, it seems, if you’re into religion. At Killing the Buddha, I’ve just published an essay about the experience of being faith-based-marketed to at a Tree of Life screening recently.

My associate could sense the difference immediately, instinctively, without knowing exactly why at first. An experimental-film critic from Los Angeles, she goes to screenings a lot, and she knew this was not the normal crowd. Afterward, she explained all the subtleties of their misbehavior. They didn’t applaud when you’re supposed to. There was talking and rustling around during the credits—a big no-no, apparently. These people were cliquey, but differently so.

What she could sense, I was able to fill in with a little more data: the room was full of religion people. I know because I am one, I guess. (She is not.) First, I recognized one of my editors at a Catholic magazine. There was also a man with a badge from the American Bible Society. When we sat down, I heard the group of dashing, coupled young professionals in front of us discussing things one doesn’t expect most young professionals to be talking about, like grace and the Seven Deadly Sins and plans to give a sermon.

Next, another dashing young professional raised his voice above the chatter. Tall, blond, and neatly-blazered, he welcomed us, said he hoped we would enjoy the film, and invited us to discuss afterward how we could collaborate and “mobilize” “our communities” around it. That was another difference between this and the usual screening. We weren’t there to criticize, but to mobilize.

Read the rest at KtB.

Lull Me Into Rapture

Today at The Daily, the new tablet-only newspaper-ish publication, I have a short essay on the latest forthcoming apocalypse:

About a decade ago, during a period of late-adolescent, almost apocalyptic urgency, with a sudden conversion to Roman Catholicism only a short time away, I discovered an unusual way to relax. At home, in my basement bedroom, I’d play Quake, a violent computer game. It was fairly typical teenage-boy stuff. But instead of listening to some kind of death metal while I played, I turned to an unlikely soundtrack: the Bible call-in show “Open Forum” — specifically, the soupy baritone of Harold Camping, the octogenarian radio evangelist.

At the time, I had no idea why this combination worked so well. But thinking back on it now, the shoot-’em-up video game actually dramatized the condition of total depravity at the center of Camping’s theology. He kept reminding me that we’re really, really bad — just like the demons (or whatever they were) I was battling on the screen — and only saved by God’s supercharging grace. I could sense that a change was just around the corner, and maybe this odd activity helped free me from my old world and shepherd me into a new one.

Now, Camping is the man behind the predicted Rapture on May 21st—this coming Saturday. For the rest of the essay, I reflect on that, and on what The Daily‘s DEK describes as “what end-timers can teach the rest of us.”

Levitating Alien Mind Gods

<a href=”http://www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2010/11/13/BELIEFS.html”>After months of delays and excuses, I finally got around to doing an interview with Jeffrey Kripal, a religion professor at Rice University. It’s now up at The Immanent Frame. He’s one of the great oddballs in the study of religion today, about whom grad students whisper to each other, “It’s like he actually believes in this stuff!” More or less. And in the course of dismaying colleagues with his conclusions, he picks the kinds of subjects that other scholars of religion today need to be studying, but for one reason or another don’t. (Take a look at Mark Oppenheimer’s recent piece about him in The New York Times.) His most recent books are Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion, a study of the important spiritual retreat center atop Big Sur, and, now, Authors of the Impossible. We spoke about the latter. It’s an account of four under-appreciated masters of the paranormal, men who sought after ways of understanding the unexplainable: psychic powers, UFOs, superhuman powers, and so on.

NS: Should I expect some kind of evasion if I were to ask what you really believe?

JK: I don’t believe anything. And I believe everything. I am not being evasive or cute here. I am being precise. I don’t believe anything, in the sense that I think religious experiences are symbolic or semiotic—speakings across a gap, as it were—and so should not be taken literally, ever. I believe everything, in the sense that I think that extreme religious experiences express, through image, symbol, and myth, some revelation of the real, some very dramatic contact with the sacred, always, of course, filtered and constructed through the body-brain in a particular place and time.

NS: But what, then, counts as real? What are we dealing with here, behind the symbols?

JK: I suspect that we are. But who is this “we”?  That is the deepest question we can ask, I think. If there is anything I believe, it is that we are not who we think we are. “Mind” or “consciousness” is not some neurological froth or emergent property of the computer brain, much less some ethnic or religious ego. Rather, it is a non-spatial, non-temporal presence of proportions so vast and so fantastic that there is really no way to exaggerate it, and there is certainly no way to “explain” it with either the absolute contextualist and relativist epistemologies of the humanities or the objectivist epistemologies and naïve realisms of the sciences. Basically, I am suggesting that the human form is a hidden presence of truly mythological proportions. A recent dissertation, by Jason Kelly at the University of Ottawa, has attempted to capture my thought under my own early rubric of “mystical humanism.” I accept that. Everything religious can indeed be reduced to the human, but it turns out that the human is not at all what we thought. That is very close to “what I believe.”

The real marvel of Kripal’s book, and what makes it the rare scholarly monograph that you really can’t put down, is the way in which it is above all a meditation on, and an experiment with, fantastic writing. There’s going to be a movie version too.

How to Instigate a God Debate

Courtesy of Religion Dispatches.

Last week I had the chance to catch what was probably the biggest God debate of the year, in this genre of blockbuster, YouTubed, college-campus bouts. The topic was “Is Good from God?”—is religion necessary for objective morality? The debaters were William Lane Craig, the evangelical philosopher, and Sam Harris, who launched the New Atheism movement. My report appears today at Religion Dispatches. Instead of focusing on the arguments per se—for them, see a play-by-play at Common Sense Atheism—I spent my time hanging out with the debaters and the student organizers before and after the event. Here’s a bit of it:

Controversy was the intent all along. “The main reason we did it was for the discussion in the dorms,” says Malcolm Phelan, a junior, who helped put the debate together and gave the opening speech. He’s tall, a bit lanky, steady with his eye-contact, and erring on the side of clean-cut. Around here, he’s someone who can get things done and get money out of the administration. Even professors talk about him with a shade of awe. As a freshman he was class president, but then he quit student government for greater things. He also has a visionary streak, and a knack for stringing winged words together into crescendos. Busy Notre Dame students need this, he says. They live in an “upper-class Catholic Disneyland” and need to be shaken up. “I wouldn’t necessarily call myself an instigator, but—” he says, trailing off. His word, not mine.

Phelan’s co-conspirator behind the scenes was Arnav Dutt. Someone introduced him to me as The Thinker. While he talks, he looks down and pauses mid-sentence if it isn’t coming out exactly right, his eyes covered behind glasses and a Justin Beiber-type mop-top. He’s the child of a Catholic and a Hindu, both non-practicing. Like Phelan, Dutt considers himself an atheist, though his education has been mostly in Catholic environments. “This issue”—that of the debate—“has thrust itself on me my whole life.” He takes it seriously and wonders whether some of the critics are right; maybe a big debate is the wrong approach. When I ask what he thinks it will do for people, he turns pensive again. “There’s a big difference between what I think they’re getting and what I hope they’re getting,” he says.

While I was at Notre Dame, I had the pleasure of a long afternoon’s conversation with John O’Callaghan, a philosophy professor there who specializes in Thomist thought, and who runs the Jacques Maritain Center. Before the debate even happened—I guess the same afternoon we met—he put together a very different kind of essay from mine, a reminder that the debate’s apparent choice between religion and science isn’t one we have to make.

The greatest among our Christian forebears certainly didn’t think we had to. Even if one remains unconvinced by the logic of Aquinas’ Five Ways, the attitude expressed in them is not one of natural explanations in competition with God. His natural science was almost unimaginably false with regard to what we now know or claim to know. But the reality of natural causes that allows for scientific understanding was for him the best and “most manifest” argument for the existence of a god, a god Who does not compete with His creatures but, rather, enables them.

The upshot of all this should be obvious enough: if you’re looking for the subtle truth, maybe a big staged debate like this isn’t the place to find it.

I remember an instance of good, anyway, with or without God, when Arnav Dutt and I were leaving the debate. A woman dropped her pocketbook as she started walking out into the rain. A handful of others around noticed, and called out—“Miss! Miss!”—and handed it to her. “That’s nice to see, after this,” I heard Dutt mutter. I think I also heard some irony.

Judith Butler on the Blurry Line of Violence

A year since my first interview with her appeared in Guernica, The Immanent Frame asked me to have another exchange with the feminist philosopher Judith Butler. Once again, we talked about violence, nonviolent resistance, power, and the problem of Israel-Palestine. This time, though, the backdrop was different: the Arab Spring, or the Middle East uprisings, or whatever we’re to call it (or them). On the one hand, there was the successful, largely-nonviolent movement in Egypt that ousted Hosni Mubarak from power after weeks of patient protests. On the other, there’s Libya, where the US and its coalition have joined a so-far intransigent firefight against Muammar el-Qaddafi.

In this interview, Butler stressed a theme that is actually the starting point for the discussion of nonviolence in her recent book Frames of War: the co-implication of violence and nonviolence, where neither can quite escape the other. I pushed back a bit, and so did she.

NS: Do these popular uprisings affect how we should think about power and sovereignty, as armed dictators are being coerced by nonviolent movements?

JB: I understand the desire to come up with theoretical generalizations. I spend a good deal of my time doing precisely that. But even though nonviolent practices have been important in some of these uprisings, we are also seeing new ways of interpreting nonviolence, and new ways of justifying violence when protestors are under attack from the military. The events in Libya are clearly violent, and so I think we are probably left with new quandaries about whether the line between violent and nonviolent resistance ever can be absolutely clear.

NS: Where in particular do you see that line blurring?

JB: We have to be careful to distinguish between nonviolence as a moral position that applies to all individuals and groups, and nonviolence as a political option that articulates a certain refusal to be intimidated or coerced. These are very different discourses, since most of the moral positions tend to eliminate all reference to power, and the political ones tend to affirm nonviolence as a mode of resistance but leave open the possibility that it might have to be exchanged for a more overtly aggressive one. I am not sure we can ever evacuate the political frame. Moreover, it is important to think about how one understands violence. If one puts one’s body on the line, in the way of a truck or a tank, is one not entering into a violent encounter? This is different from waging a unilateral attack or even starting a violent series, but I am not sure that it is outside the orbit of violence altogether.

NS: President Obama sometimes seems to be policing that distinction in his rhetoric about these uprisings: demanding that protesters and regimes both remain nonviolent, and then bringing U.S. military force to bear in Libya when the state turns to military force. But I would think the difference between how the movements in Egypt and Libya have progressed actually reaffirms that the line between violence and nonviolence is a useful one.

JB: Well, it is interesting that the U.S. affirms that the anti-government forces in Libya are resistance fighters and seeks to provide aerial bombing support to their forces on the ground. So it seems that even liberal public discourse makes room for justified armed resistance. What is most interesting is to figure out when certain forms of violence are considered part of an admirable struggle for freedom, and when, on the contrary, violence is understood as the terrorist activities of non-state actors. Do you have an answer to that?

NS: I certainly can’t think of a consistent rule that would apply to all cases, and probably for good reason. The case of Israel-Palestine comes to mind.

JB: Indeed, it does.

Read the rest at The Immanent Frame.

Martyrdom Makeover

New from me at Religion Dispatches:

The idea of martyrdom hasn’t been in very good shape lately. One common usage of it—“I’ll not be made a martyr!”—refers to the prospect of somewhat tragic but mostly useless suffering, perhaps in the service of a delusional cause, religious or otherwise. Another appears regularly in the news with reference to Islamist terrorists, especially suicide bombers. Still, despite these entrenched negative associations, the idea may be on the mend.

The reason I’ve got in mind is a recent French film that just arrived on US shores, Of Gods and Men. It tells the story of the seven French Trappist monks who were killed in the Algerian civil war in 1996. Not much of a title, but a great movie. I also happened to watch it in an especially fitting place.

As I write, I’m completing a two-week stay at Holy Cross Abbey, a Trappist monastery along the Shenandoah River in Virginia. We’re told that the film did well at Cannes and in European box offices, and that it’s now even drawing crowds in US cities. The excitement is palpable, if subtle.

A burned DVD copy is discreetly circulating and being watched on little screens with headphones, and reviews cut out from newspapers appear on the bulletin board, surrounded by exclamation points. Some of the monks here met Father Christian. One has a picture of him on his desk. Most of them remember praying for him and the others after their disappearance. I leafed through an overflowing file of news clippings and communiques between the order’s abbots from that time, full of updates, helplessness, reverence. There’s sorrow in martyrdom, but there’s also, actually, redemption.

Read the review if you like, but see the movie if at all you can.

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