Text Messages Live from Madison

My fellow Killing the Buddha editor Quince Mountain is, as we blog-speak, in the occupied Capitol building of Madison, Wisconsin. Over the course of yesterday, he and I had an extended text-message exchange, which tells the dramatic story of a rumored crackdown, a victory, celebrations, and preparations for the next crisis. The full account of yesterday appears on Waging Nonviolence and The Huffington Post. Here’s a bit of it:

I got a disconcerting message.

Texting from cop car

I asked, “Why? What happened?” It wasn’t until almost two hours later that he responded.

No no. I was just hanging out talking w a cop in her car outside the Capitol.

She said there have been zero arrests the whole two weeks. And we hung out in her car and a delivery guy tried to give us pizzas “donated from Washington” but she couldn’t accept them.

The cops have been marching with the protesters twice daily. And I just read some of the cop briefing emails. Which strike me.

Wait, I should be clear. There may have been arrests. Madison pd is NOT the Capitol pd or the state troopers.

Plan for tomorrow according to email I saw is that everyone’s requested to leave the Capitol for cleaning by 4pm but that no one will be forcibly removed. Same as is stated publicly.

Yeah. Egyptians have donated food and pizzas and have sent messages.

Tomorrow breakfast w my cop friend and a state assembly staffer and an in-home therapist in danger of losing his job, among others.

It’s really worth reading the whole thing. An amazing day.

I heard from Q again this morning. “Awoke to six state trooper boots ascending stone steps,” he wrote.

Like 30 more trooper boots kist as my eyes fell rest. Overhear “wr have it confirmed that theyre not supposed to be [here?]” Friend in the corner shakes his head after two walk past into a doorway. It’s the aftershave that kills you.

Gene Sharp and the Science of People Power

feature on the backdrop of the revolution in Egypt, and then a profile devoted to him (which as I write is still #1 on the most-emailed list), interest in the work of Gene Sharp, the foremost living strategist of nonviolent action, has been exploding. Today, as well, I had the opportunity to talk with him, for an interview that just appeared at The Immanent Frame.

In preparation for the phone call, I looked back at the Times‘s previous coverage of him, and noticed that, over the years, whenever some big uprising flares up somewhere, the world seems to rediscover all over again the unusual man who works out of his own home to create the blueprints for transforming the world. I asked him if this time—after successful uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia—he feels that something truly different is happening, or if it’s just the same thing he’s seen before all over again. “No,” he said. “Maybe some things are being repeated. But this phenomenon, and the interest in it—what they did, the response, and the interest in that, that’s new. That’s quite new.”

Here’s a bit of the interview:

NS: What was the first thing that crossed your mind when you heard that President Mubarak had fallen from power in Egypt?

GS: That it can be done. In past years, there have been a lot of misconceptions about nonviolent action. People used to think that it was very weak and that only the violence of war could remove extreme dictators. Here was another example that shows this myth isn’t true. If people are disciplined and courageous, they can do it.

NS: Did anything surprise you about how the events unfolded? Did it teach you anything new?

GS: One thing that surprised me were the numbers, and the spread of people participating—that’s just amazing in itself. A second thing was that, in Egypt, people were saying they had lost their fear. That’s a step Gandhi was always calling for, and one that even I thought was a little too hopeful. But that seems to have been what happened in Egypt. When people lose their fear of an oppressor’s regime, the oppressor is in deep trouble. A third thing was how well they maintained nonviolent discipline. We heard reports on television that, when there was an area where things were getting a little difficult and might break out into violence, people were chanting among themselves, “Peaceful, peaceful, peaceful.” That was quite amazing too.

Continue reading at The Immanent Frame.

Oprah-atic Citizenship

I’m really excited to announce that my interview with Kathryn Lofton, one of the most creative and brilliant young scholars of religion around right now, is now up at The Immanent Frame. Katie is a historian by trade, but over the years she has also cultivated a powerful fascination with Oprah, leading to her new book: Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon. It’s a must-read, an ironic yet completely heartfelt encounter with pop culture’s most iconic woman.

Here’s a bit of our conversation:

NS: Do you feel some responsibility to confront what Oprah represents, in the form of an active, engaged social critique?

KL: It is incredibly important that we—women, men, believers, heathens, citizens—think, and think critically, about the female complaint, especially as it takes this specific form in the public sphere. Oprah is not just Oprah—she represents what has come to be a naturalized logic for women’s suffering. I would be lying if I didn’t say that writing this book was, for me, an act of feminism. But I would say that it is more important to me that it be understood as an act of criticism connected to the deep tissue of our national political and economic imaginary. So yes, this is an act of social critique. For as much as the solo striving hungry female is the object here, it is the silence of her sociality—all the while making commodity of her social receipt and struggle—that disturbs me. On her message boards, everyone testifies, but they don’t form social communities, social insurrection, or social protest. The social is incredibly absent from Oprah, even as she praises the idea of girlfriends, of groups, of clubs. The social is a rhetorical formulation leaving women exposed in their extremity without any public held accountable.

Read the rest at The Immanent Frame.

I Need My Pain!

There’s nothing like seeing an old friend come up with something awesome. That’s just what I got to do last night, blessedly; at Dixon Place, the experimental performance space on New York’s Lower East Side, I caught a reading of Krista Knight’s new play, Phantom Band. Krista is an amazing young playwright who is now finishing an MFA at UC San Diego, where she occasionally hangs out with my grandfather. Phantom Band is the story of a group of high-school students who dream of creating Santa Cruz, California’s only marching band—and who have to face their deepest pain in the process.

Krista’s going to hate me for this, but the whole second half of the play I couldn’t stop thinking about Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. I did consult our mutual friend Lily, my rare equal in knowledge of Star Trek and also in attendance, and she concurred that I wasn’t totally off-base. The whole intersection is no mere matter of trekkie trivia; it goes straight to the center of the intersection of freedom and suffering and faith and all that.

The relevant character in Phantom Band is Camille, the mysterious blonde from England, with the Queen’s accent, who takes people to the forest and plays them her beautiful siren song while they shout out all the things they don’t want to hear, Primal Scream-style: the junk their parents and the mean football players are always saying to make them feel crappy. Afterward, they feel much better, but they’re also zombie-like; they don’t really hear much of anything and just keep saying, “What?” They’re free. Or are they?

Star Trek V is widely considered the worst of the original-cast Star Trek movies, not least because it was directed by William Shatner himself. Over the years, though, as I’ve dutifully watched it many, many times, I’ve come to like it more and more. Maybe that’s because it’s the “religion” one; the climax of the movie is going to the center of the galaxy to visit “God.” Or maybe because it includes the singing of my favorite song, “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” while Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are eating bourbon and beans over a campfire in Yellowstone.

But none of that’s important here, really. The relevant character in Star Trek V is Sybok, Spock’s long-lost brother. Rather than being a typical emotion-repressing Vulcan, Sybok left his homeworld, embraced his emotions, and became a cult leader. The way he gets cultists is much what Camille does in the woods: he makes people face their pain. Once they do, with his special formula, they become brainwashed and follow his orders. Here’s Sybok showing off his trick on Dr. McCoy:

This is, of course, a familiar feature of religious experience. Buddhism begins with the recognition of suffering in the world and shows it to be illusion. Christianity begins with the repentance of sin and ends with an executed savior. Scientology starts by telling you you’re stressed and ends with—TBA. Psychoanalysis begins on the couch and never ends. Simply confronting these pains at least somewhat more directly than we do in normal, repressive life is so shocking and cleansing that it can change the course of a person’s life for good. It can deliver pure, unshakeable beliefs about how the world works. The price of deliverance is conviction. It’s a simple, but really quite weird fact about human nature, and both Star Trek V and Phantom Band remind us of this.

Is facing your pain and getting it zapped away really such a great thing? I suppose it might be. But with Sybok’s zombies in Star Trek V we’re meant to see something familiar—in the kind of heavy-handed allegory so typical of the franchise, only sharpened by Shatner’s signature lack of subtlety. Maybe you’re meant to see the born-again relative who has figured everything out and wants you to figure it out exactly the same way. Or the suicide cults that folks were all so afraid their kids would join in the ’70s. Or maybe it’s something in yourself, I don’t know. But you know what I mean.

At the end of Phantom Band, the kids realize that they’d rather face the hard stuff in real life than keep being zombies. So they zap out of the trance by shouting to themselves all the painful stuff they’d been la-la-ing out with Camille’s angelic music.

In another striking parallel, that’s almost exactly what Captain Kirk lands on in Star Trek V, with the line from the movie that fans end up quoting to each other probably more than any other: “I need my pain!” It comes a bit later in the same scene we saw earlier.

Dammit, Bones, you’re a doctor. You know that pain and guilt can’t be taken away with a magic wand. They’re the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. [If] we lose them we lose ourselves. I don’t want my pain taken away, I need my pain!

That’s good stuff, isn’t it? Those lines have nourished me a lot over the years. There’s a freedom of its own sort in giving up the hope of pain disappearing like zap. It’s inescapably us. And maybe your pain can drive you, too, to being a daring, reckless, but always successful and heroic starship captain like Captain Shatn—I mean Kirk.

The Life of the Immortals

The philosopher Patrick Lee Miller has an intriguing new book out—Becoming God—which I’ve been privileged to follow from the dissertation stage some time ago. It’s a daring philosophical argument wrapped up in a close reading of ancient texts. In the pre-Socratic thinker Heraclitus, he finds an alternative to the most cherished axiom of philosophy, from Plato and Aristotle to the modern analytic school: non-contradiction. Today, at The Immanent Frame, I interview him about the book as well as about some implications it has for thinking about Christian theology.

One theme that runs through Becoming God, though, is the one suggested in the title—that for its Greek practitioners, philosophy was a way of reaching (and not simply, as I say above, “thinking about”) the divine. Here’s a whiff of the interview:

NS: Is Heraclitus reminding us—as some might chastise—that secularity carries in it the arrogant, even dangerous aspiration to become a god?

PLM: If he is reminding us of this, then so too is nearly every other pagan Greek philosopher. Many of them saw philosophy as a quest for divinity. First, though, we have to be clear what we mean by “secularity,” as before, reminding ourselves of the threat of anachronism when we’re using it to discuss ancient Greeks. With that proviso, though, we can ask something like this: Was Reason untethered to traditional religion liable to promote megalomania? There were certainly advocates of traditional Greek piety who said so. Pindar, for example, wrote: “Do not, my soul, strive for the life of the immortals.” His warning came in the midst of the story of Bellerophon, who plummeted to his death after attempting to reach the dwelling of the gods on his winged horse.

The Greek philosophers largely ignored the warnings of the poets. Their arrogance—which we see reflected in modern philosophers such as Nietzsche or Heidegger—makes us nervous, and rightly so. We become still more nervous when we detect it in our political leaders. The French revolutionaries substituted a statue of Reason for the altar in Notre Dame, right around the time that heads started to roll. That said, there was a parallel arrogance in the Divine Right of Kings, which arguably caused as much suffering as has revolutionary zeal, so I’m not so sure the secular version is any worse than its religious counterpart.

The Kabul Scarf

It’s New Year’s Eve, and last night my colleague at Waging Nonviolence, Eric Stoner, returned safely from Afghanistan. He was there as a journalist and activist with an envoy of peacemakers, meeting networks of Afghans and internationals who are working to end the endless war, to which so many young people in that country have never known any alternative.

He brought back a sack full of Afghan scarves, and offered me my pick of them. The one I chose, the yellow one, is what I’m wearing now. What the picture doesn’t show, but which was the first thing I noticed when I put it on, is the smell. One scarf smells strongly; the smell of Eric’s sack of them is tremendous. He didn’t notice it when he was in Kabul, because everything smells this way there. With my scarf on, I’m carrying that city with me today, into the new year. I’m breathing the city that my country has occupied for nearly a decade now.

I can try to describe it, but I’ll never succeed. It’s a bit like the smell of a wood fire, but there’s much more too. There’s also the trace of burning trash, which people use to supplement their insufficient wood and coal, for heat and cooking. There’s smog in it too, from a city where people can’t afford anything but the lowest-grade gasoline in cars, and where the snow-capped mountains all around trap it in. There’s also dust, because the cars are driving over mostly unpaved roads. And there’s the hint of unnamable filth, from the scattered sewers that run along the roads, open to the air. This would be just unsanitary in a city of thousands. But Kabul has swelled to four million, thanks to impoverished refugees pouring in from the war-ravaged countryside, their ancestral land lost and trading good, clean air for what I’m smelling now.

In late 2001, I met a woman who worked at the Pentagon. When she learned I had been protesting the invasion, she argued with me. She said, as we parted, that someday I’d understand that this was right. I’d get over it. Well, I still don’t. I haven’t.

The year to come will only really be new if we make it that way. Let our mere prayers for peace be made acceptable by our actions, by our willingness to shed the pride and importunity that keeps us trying to have our way with drone strikes and night raids. They will fail. There is no victory from making widows and orphans. In a new year made truly new, we will no longer accept the waste and horror of war as the policy of normalcy. We will stop trying to take what isn’t ours. We will starve the bottomless hunger for revenge, and sit down with our enemies, and eat together.

Let God be the first to know, and Congress second: it’s a new year. War, the demon-mother of poverty, is no good in our sight, and we are the ones who can stop it. This year, may the four million human beings in Kabul breathe clean air again. Amen; let this be done.

Gods Must Die to Live

I’ve been meaning to share this for a while; it’s an arresting passage from C. S. Lewis that came to me on a page sent to my by a friend, a Trappist monk, on the subject I’ve been touching on from time to time here (and here), truth and mythology:

The gods—and, of course, I include under this title that whole ‘hemisphere of magic fiction’ which flows indirectly from them—the gods were not to paganism what they are to us. In classical poetry we hear plenty of them as objects of worship, of fear, of hatred; even comic characters. But pure aesthetic contemplation of their eternity, their remoteness, and their peace, for its own sake, is curiously rare. There is, I think, only the one passage in all Homer; and it is echoed only by Lucretius [Odyssey, vi, 41 & Lucretius De Rerum Nat. iii, 18]. But Lucretius was an atheist; and that is precisely why he sees the beauty of the gods. For he himself, in another place, has laid his finger on the secret: it is religio that hides them. No religion, so long as it believed, can have that kind of beauty which we find in the gods of Titian, of Botticelli, or of our own romantic poets. To this day you cannot make poetry of that sort out of the Christian heaven and hell. The gods must be, as it were, disinfected of belief; the last taint of the sacrifice, and of the urgent practical interest, the selfish prayer, must be washed away from them, before that other divinity can come to light in the imagination. For poetry to spread its wings fully, there must be, besides the believed religion, a marvellous that knows itself as myth. For this to come about, the old marvellous, which once was taken as fact, must be stored up somewhere, not wholly dead, but in a winter sleep, waiting its time. If it is not so stored up, if it is allowed to perish, then the imagination is impoverished. Such a sleeping-place was provided for the gods by allegory. Allegory may seem, at first, to have killed them; but it killed only as the sower kills, for gods, like other creatures, must die to live.

The Allegory of Love (Oxford, 1958 [1936]), p. 82.

Doing Theology

At The Immanent Frame today, I interview Charles Villa-Vicencio, a theologian who served as National Research Director for the historic Truth and Reconciliation Commission in his native South Africa. We discuss peacebuilding, forgiveness, and the kind of spirituality that he sees emerging in his country as part of the challenge of building a new nation. But we start with his transition from theology, to the Commission—where, he says, the theology really began.

NS: I’d like to start with your experience with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. What prepared you for that experience? What kinds of skills did you find yourself using?

CVV: Prior to going to the commission, I taught in a religious studies department at the University of Cape Town. My interest was the impact of religion on secular society and of secular society on religion. I had already worked fairly extensively in the social sciences and political analysis, so the transition was not a very difficult one. It was, in a sense, continuous with what I had done. But it’s interesting that you ask that question. There was a journalist who interviewed me at the conclusion of the commission, and he asked me essentially the same thing. I realized that, though trained as a theologian, I’d hardly used a theological concept for the past three years—but, nevertheless, it may have been the most theological job I’d ever had in my life.

NS: How exactly is that?

CVV: The theology that I was teaching and practicing in the church was always related to building a decent human society, and that’s what we were trying to do in the commission. My feet were deep in liberation theology, contextual theology, and black theology. The jargon of the day was that you don’t write theology or teach theology or read theology—you do theology. The commission’s essentially pragmatic task seemed to me to be also essentially theological.

What Good Are Good Arguments?

Do good arguments end up carrying the day? If not, what else is at play?

Today at The Immanent Frame, I interview Colin Jager, professor of English at Rutgers and an authority on natural theology in British romanticism. He’s the author of, literally, The Book of God. Our conversation touches on many things swirling through my mind in connection with the book I’m working on—design, debate, and the existence of God. Here’s a bit of the exchange with Jager:

NS: The design arguments for God’s existence that you address in The Book of God are typically treated by philosophers and the public as sheer abstractions, or even scientific hypotheses; why treat them instead as literary creations?

CJ: No one discipline owns the design argument and its critiques. Historically, the distinctions that people typically draw today among literature, philosophy, and theology just don’t hold up. Professional literary study, especially, has only been around for a hundred years or so. A thinker like David Hume, who is very important to the story I tell about design, did not think of himself as a philosopher but as man of letters: he wrote history, philosophy, and theology, and he served as a diplomatic secretary. This was a typical “literary” career. I try to restore some of that broad range to the topics I write about—though no diplomats have signed me up yet!

NS: What’s an example of how you, as a scholar of literature, can shed light on a philosophical debate?

CJ: In Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Philo, who is skeptical of design arguments, wins the battle, but Cleanthes, who supports them, wins the war. One thing Hume might be suggesting is that if you’re on Philo’s team, you’d best give up your belief that better arguments can win the day all on their own. Yes, the philosophical or conceptual idea of design seems rather abstract, but, at the same time, those arguments are lived and experienced by real people in real time. This is one thing Hume figured out—and it’s a literary point, if you want to put it that way: the rhetoric, the habits of mind, the practices of sociability that accompany what we could call the culture of design aren’t just window-dressing for some philosophical argument. Those things are the argument. That’s why the culture of design is easier to come at through literature rather than the history of philosophy—through practice rather than theory, if you will. We’ve misunderstood the way secularization works if we think that better arguments drive the discussion.

The God of This World

Isn’t it obvious that God, or at least our idea of God, needs saving as much as we do? He—forgive me if necessary for saying “He”—has been run through the mud by terrorists, televangelists, New Atheists, and grandmothers’ guilt. The rest of us are supposed to have a relationship with this guy? Or even just live in His universe? Ugh.

Here’s philosopher Mark Johnston to the rescue, with Saving God: Religion After Idolatry, a book published last year by Princeton University Press. It has met a warm, unusually wide reception; in The New Yorker James Wood called it “the non-fiction book I most enjoyed this year,” and it’s slated to wrangle an award at the American Academy of Religion meeting this November. In the elegant, one-page preface, Johnston spells out what we have to hope for, which tantalizingly coincides with what so many of us need:

One kind of ideal reader would be an intelligent young person who is religious, but feels that his or her genuine religious impulses are being strangled by what he or she is being asked to believe, on less than convincing authority, about the nature of reality.

What follows, true to his promise, speaks to the best features of the late-adolescent imagination, the mind of that crucial time when many people end up forming their lifelong religious commitments, hardly ever with the care and prudence such commitments might seem to call for. Somewhere between an academic monograph and a manifesto, Saving God alternates from epic, not-quite-substantiated pronouncements to obsessively-precise tangents. Either it’ll change your life or (to use Johnston’s words, not mine) waste your time.

The gist is this: most of what goes by the name of religion is really idolatry—especially the appeal to supernaturalism. The only kind of God that satisfies the ancient claim of being the “Highest One” is a God of this world, offering no selfish fantasy of paradise in the next. This God is perfectly in tune with the immanent, Carl Sagan-ite account of science, yet one can also find information about Him in scriptures and religious traditions, selectively read. It’s a God that calls to mind, for instance, Spinoza’s “God or Nature”; J. N. Findlay’s 1948 paper claiming that the object of the ontological argument for God’s existence must be something higher than the God of religion; and sociologist Philip Rieff’s critique of the gods we invent to serve our own desires—religious, clinical, and otherwise. The second half of Saving God features a series of technical moves that, as best I can gather, is an attempt to squeeze some kind of Heideggerian phenomenology into the back door of analytic philosophy, which in turn makes room for introducing a close-to Hegelian view of God as Being’s self-disclosure to beings in history—yada, yada, yada.

All this is to say (and here I am imitating Johnston’s alternating rhetoric referred to above) that God is here and now, not beyond. Inscribed in all the fluff and error of religion—even in the story of the Christian Passion—there are basic truths about the universe and the Mind that pervades it which philosophy, fortunately, has the means to extract.

I noted recently the use of this strategy of “truth-ing mythology” by Aristotle in the Metaphyiscs, the use of popular religious tradition as a bearer of hidden truth. Aristotle takes the belief that the planets and stars represent the eternal gods of myth to be the relic of a truer, ancient knowledge that the stars are actually eternal godlike orbs—not capricious Zeus and Hera, but geometric and impersonal. It’s a plausible conclusion for the fourth century BCE, though one rendered utterly false by modern astronomy; the stars are old, we now know, but they’re not eternal. Close, Aristotle, but no cigar.

It raises a troubling question for any such attempt: how can we be sure where mythology ends and true philosophy begins?

I’d like to carry this point forward with Johnston’s book further than I did before (distracted as I was by a reverie on the mythology of war). This same move of Aristotle’s is deeply-seated in the history and habits of how liberal-minded scholars study and think about religion today; Saving God is only the latest example. I previously mentioned the Eranos set: Eliade, Jung, and Campbell. But then there’s also Thomas Jefferson clipping away at his Bible, Ludwig Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity, and Paul Tillich’s God as Ultimate Concern. Each took religious tradition as a thing which now needs to be translated and, most of all, extracted from. Each, in retrospect, can look rather silly and shortsighted—if not quite with the flat wrongness of Aristotle’s astronomy, at least as a mythology in its own right. If Jesus were just Jefferson’s moral teacher, everything else he said would’ve made him a lunatic. Feuerbach’s ideas took hold nowhere more than in the doctrines of Marxism. And Tillich’s eloquence aggravated and empowered the populist anti-modernists he meant to supplant.

One can see the appeal of going with Aristotle, with Johnston, with a reinterpretation by philosophy. I’ve done so myself sometimes. It offers both freedom of mind and the resources of tradition. It holds out the possibility of a necessary about-face, a brilliant and startling move that can change everything, saving God enough that God might be able to save us. But it’s not as easy as it looks. A few generations can pass and you’ll find yourself in error like Aristotle, or spouting mythology in your own right like Jung. Plus, philosophy is nearly always the occupation of but a few, who run the risk of losing track of what religion really is and means for most people in the rest of society.

If one is to take these risks, though, it’s hard to find an attempt that better satisfies the pressing need to reconcile science, human responsibility, and our debt to religious heritage than the brand of transcendence Johnston outlines here: “this world properly received.”

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