Socrates had it wrong; it is not the unexamined life but finally the uncommitted life that is not worth living. Descartes too was mistaken, “Cogito ergo sum – I think therefore I am?” Nonsense, Amo, ergo sum sum – I love therefore I am. Or, with the unconscious eloquence St Paul wrote. “Now abide faith, hope, love, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” I believe that. I believe that it is better not to live than not to love.
Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category
Autocrats at the top of hierarchical organizations—whether governmental, corporate, religious, military or political—have a lot of power when it comes to crushing dissent or doing battle with outside forces.
But when it comes to internal reform, that autocratic power commonly melts away. Autocrats who try to reform the institution they supposedly control run into mysterious resistances and obstacles. An autocrat is only as powerful as the willing obedience of those lower in the hierarchy extends.
That’s why I admire and sympathize with Pope Francis in his struggle to clean house at the Institute for Religious Works, also known as the Vatican Bank. Originally set up to finance the church’s charitable activities, the Vatican Bank operates outside Italian law and financial reporting requirements, and is understood to have been infiltrated by the Italian Mafia for the purposes of money laundering.
I don’t think Pope Francis really is targeted for assassination, as some Italian prosecutors have suggested, but I do think the various Italian Mafias are powerful institutions, and not only in Italy, and they did their utmost to frustrate the Pope’s efforts.
When Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope, I wrote about his ambiguous role in Argentina’s “dirty war” under the dictatorship. I now think that what I wrote was uncharitable and based on incomplete information.
I admire Pope Francis not just for his highly-publicized modeling of the behavior of Jesus toward the poor, sick and outcast, but his willingness to take action against church officials who abuse their power, such as the Bishop of Limberg, Germany, who was suspended for misuse of church funds for his extravagant lifestyle. You don’t have to be a Catholic to wish him success.
Marilynne Robinson is a novelist and essayist who teaches at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I greatly admire her novel, Gilead, which won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize, and her two essay collections, The Death of Adam and When I Was a Child I Read Books. She is a liberal Christian—uncompromisingly liberal and uncompromisingly Christian.
I never thought that anybody could persuade me to have a good opinion of John Calvin, but she did. I could never accept the Calvinist doctrine that some people are predestined to Hell, because if there is an all-powerful, all-loving Heavenly Father, human beings would either have free will or be predestined to Heaven.
But Robinson did clear Calvin and the Puritans of the charge that they were success-worshipers, that they believed that the rich and fortunate were God’s elect. John Calvin and the New England Puritans, like Jesus and the Hebrew prophets, condemned rich people who were indifferent to the poor, and preached loving charity as the most essential Christian virtue. That is why, she wrote, the heirs of the Puritans were in the forefront of the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, humane treatment of the blind, the deaf and the insane or other humanitarian reforms.
The American Conservative magazine recently published an interview with Marilynne Robinson which I like. Here are some highlights.
TAC: You draw deeply upon Christian figures of the past in your work. Are there any figures in contemporary Christendom whom you find particularly inspiring or admirable?
MR: Something I find regrettable in contemporary Christianity is the degree to which it has abandoned its own heritage, in thought and art and literature. It was at the center of learning in the West for centuries—because it deserved to be. Now there seems to be actual hostility on the part of many Christians to what, historically, was called Christian thought, as if the whole point were to get a few things right and then stand pat.
I believe very strongly that this world, these billions of companions on earth that we know are God’s images, are to be loved, not only in their sins, but especially in all that is wonderful about them. And as God is God of the living, that means we ought to be open to the wonderful in all generations. These are my reasons for writing about Christian figures of the past.
At present there is much praying on street corners. There are many loud declarations of personal piety, which my reading of the Gospels forbids me to take at face value. The media are drawn by noise, so it is difficult to get a sense of the actual state of things in American religious culture.
The following passages are from DEBT: the First 5,000 Years by David Graeber.
We owe our existence above all:
- To the universe, cosmic forces, as we would put it now, to Nature. The ground of our existence. To be repaid through ritual: ritual becoming an act of respect and recognition to all that beside we are small.
- To those who have created the knowledge and cultural accomplishments that we value most; that give our existence its form, its meaning, but also its shape. Here we would include not only the philosophers and scientists who created our intellectual tradition but everyone from William Shakespeare to that long-since-forgotten woman, somewhere in the Middle East, who created leavened bread. We repay them by becoming learned ourselves and contributing to human knowledge and human culture.
- To our parents, and their parents—our ancestors. We repay them by becoming ancestors.
- To humanity as a whole. We repay them by generosity to strangers, by maintaining that basic communistic ground of sociality that makes human relations, and hence human life, possible.
… … These are nothing like commercial debts. After all, one might repay one’s parents by having children, but one is not generally thought to have repaid one’s creditors if one lends the cash to someone else.
Myself, I wonder: Couldn’t that really be the point? Perhaps what the authors of the Brahamanas were really demonstrating was that, in the final analysis, our relation with the cosmos is ultimately nothing like a commercial transaction, nor could it be. That is because commercial transactions imply both equality and separation. These examples are all about overcoming separation: you are free from your debt to your ancestors when you become an ancestor; you are free from your debt to the sages when you become a sage; you are free from your debt to humanity when you act with humanity.
All the more so if one is speaking of the universe. If you cannot bargain with the gods because the gods already have everything, then you certainly cannot bargain with the universe because the universe already is everything—and that everything necessarily includes yourself.
One could interpret this list as a subtle way of saying that the only way of “freeing oneself” from the debt was not literally repaying debts, but rather showing that these debts do not exist because one is not in fact separate to begin with, and hence the very notion of canceling the debt, and achieving a separate, autonomous existence, was ridiculous from the start.
Solitary pleasures will always exist, but for most human beings, the most pleasurable activities always involve sharing something: music, food, liquor, drugs, gossip, drama, beds. There is a certain communism of the senses at the root of most things we consider fun.
… the Church had been … uncompromising in its attitude toward usury. It was not just a philosophical question; it was a matter of moral rivalry.
Money always has the potential to become a moral imperative unto itself. Allow it to expand, and it can quickly become a morality so imperative that all others seem frivolous in comparison. For the debtor, the world is reduced to a collection of potential dangers, potential tools, and potential merchandise. Even human relations become a matter of cost-benefit calculation.
Overthrowing the Assad regime could create a haven for al Qaeda, larger than the one that Osama bin Laden formerly had in Afghanistan.
The U.S. war on terror evolved in a bizarre way. Back during the Bush administration, Congress authorized military action against al Qaeda and associated forces. Osama bin Laden and his followers were Sunni Muslims. Using that authorization as its legal basis, the U.S. government threatens attacks on governments that are enemies of al Qaeda—the Shiite Muslim government of Iran and the Shiite-friendly government of Syria.
The rebel forces that the U.S. government is supporting in Syria are led by supporters of al Qaeda—the same kinds of people the U.S. is waging drone warfare against in Pakistan and Yemen. We’re told that, on the one hand, al Qaeda is such a threat that we Americans have to accept perpetual war and perpetual martial law, but now we’re being told that, on the other hand, it is okay to support al Qaeda to attain a geopolitical objective.
How U.S. Strikes on Syria Help Al Qaeda by Barak Barfi for The Daily Beast. The ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), the local al Qaeda affiliate, is the leading force among the rebels and will come out on top if Assad is overthrown.
Does Obama know he’s fighting on the same side as Al Qaeda? by Robert Fisk in The Independent.
President John F. Kennedy famously said in 1962: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” His words, if not his actions, were wise and inspiring, and I thought of them in connection with the Arab Spring and the Egyptian coup.
Thousands and thousands of Egyptians conducted peaceful—relatively peaceful—demonstrations in order to replace the dictatorship of President Mubarak with a democratically elected government.
The result has been set aside by the Egyptian military, which receives more than $1 billion a year from the U.S. government to buy military equipment which has been used mainly against Egypt’s own people. In return the U.S. Air Force gets to use Egyptian air space and the Navy gets to use the Suez Canal.
If the U.S. government were genuinely interested in promoting democracy and helping the Egyptian people, and winning their good will, we would spend $1 billion a year to help Egypt pay down its external debt and to import food and the other necessities.
Instead we have empowered General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the leader of the Egyptian military, to make peaceful revolution impossible and violent revolution inevitable.
Reason has its martyrs, just as faith does.
Dr. Narendra Dabholkar, a brave rationalist who devoted his life to exposing fake faith healers and miracle workers in India, was murdered Tuesday.
His organization, the Maharashtra Blind Faith Eradication Association, offered a prize of 500,000 rupees to any diviner who could prove he or she could summon spirits.
At the time of his death, he was pushing for a law in Maharashtra state outlawing the practice of black magic. My own belief is that rationalists should restrict themselves to the rational method, and not try to enforce their beliefs through government power. There is a subtle but important difference between outlawing fraud and outlawing beliefs and practices which can be a mask for fraud.
Dabholkar didn’t see it that way. He said his proposed law never mentioned God or religion, and did not touch the doctrines of Hinduism or any other religion. Whatever the merits of that argument, it can be said that he never went outside the law or threatened his opponents with death.
And it also is true that religious believers in India have used the law to suppress rationalist criticism. Sanal Edamaruku, the president of the Indian Rationalist Association, fled India to escape arrest for blasphemy because he investigated a weeping statue of Jesus in a Catholic church in Mumbai and concluded it was the result of a plumbing problem.
Dabholkar’s proposed anti-magic law, which was opposed by conservative Hindus, was in fact enacted a few days after his death, but needs approval of Parliament before it can become law.
Back during the Arab Spring protests, I was heartened by the mass protests in Egypt and the protesters’ apparent success in achieving a more democratic government. Now an elected government has been overthrown by the military, and protesters are being massacred.
Egypt, like many majority Muslim countries, is torn between its military, which wants a secular, nationalist state, and popular movements which want a religious state. As an American who believes in both religious toleration and democratic elections, I can’t really root for either side. But my government, by providing more than $1 billion a year to the Egyptian military, is taking sides.
Here are links to articles that helped me to better understand what is going on in Egypt.
Egypt’s Army Has More People Than Miami and Answers to Noone by Olga Khazan in The Atlantic.
Egypt’s army has ruled the country since 1952, when it staged a coup against King Farouk, a monarch installed by the British years before. Since then there have been more coups, but the military has remained in control. Egypt’s top military officers are a wealthy elite. The armed forces control private businesses that account for 10 to 30 percent of the Egyptian economy.
The U.S. gives Egypt $1.5 billion a year in aid. Here’s what it does by Brad Plumer in the Washington Post.
Why the U.S. should cut off aid to Egypt: An interview with Marc Lynch in the Washington Post.
The United States gives more foreign aid to Egypt than to any other foreign country except Israel. Only $250 million goes to education, public health and economic development. All the rest goes to the military to buy tanks, fighter planes and other equipment. While I would have thought this gives the U.S. government some influence over Egypt’s military, apparently it doesn’t. Egypt’s military would rather lose U.S. aid than lose their power, especially when Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states might make up the shortfall.
‘Horrible’: Christian churches across Egypt stormed, torched by Sarah Sirgany and Laura Smith-Spark of CNN.
When a regime or a political movement has no real political program, it incites followers against scapegoats. The Muslim Brotherhood has incited its followers against Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority, which is about 10 percent of the population. Before the coming of Islam, Egypt was a Christian nation, so it is not as if the Copts are interlopers.
It is important to notice that not all of Egypt’s Muslims take part in these pogroms and some courageously stand by their Christian neighbors.
Hi, I’m Your New Axis of Evil by Pepe Escobar in Asia Times.
Pepe Escobar noted that a public opinion poll indicated that 69 percent of the Egyptian people oppose the coup, which is more than that 52 percent of voters who supported President Morsi in the Egyptian election. He said President Morsi never got control of the Egyptian military, which he said has been plotting against him since he took office.
There is no good outcome on the horizon for the Egyptian people, Escobar wrote. The country is descending into economic chaos, and neither the military nor the Muslim Brotherhood has a solution. Escobar neither faction is hostile to the United States or to Egypt’s wealthy elite, but that the governments of Israel and Saudi Arabia, for different reasons, saw the Brotherhood as a potential threat.