Just when we thought …

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Just when those of us schooled in progressive schools of thought had become confident that the old schools of thought were dead, that old doctrine we love to hate — original sin — begs for reconsideration.

Progressives of every stripe view original sin as toxic waste material best left behind in the guarded cemetery of bad ideas. Whether secular humanist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, animist, atheist, agnostic or whatever progressive school of thought, the idea of progress in one form or another has united us against the nay-saying disparagers of basic human goodness.

Then along comes the American election of 2016 and the year that leaves us in shock. January 20, 2017 the nation’s first African-American President handed the Oval Office and the nuclear codes to the primary funder and spokesperson of the Birther-movement determined to erase all things Obama.

Suddenly the reign of sin and death has made a comeback. The sins are ‘original’ both in the old sense of infecting the entire body and freshly creative beyond imagination.

The idea of “sin” itself —  not just “original” sin — had fallen into disrepute, a relic of unenlightened religious orthodoxy until it started to best describe the behaviors of the Oval Office. The arc of the new American administration and Congress looked anything like a rainbow.

“Sin, guilt, neurosis; they are one and the same, the fruit of the tree of knowledge.” Sound like unenlightened orthodoxy paraphrasing the story of the Garden of Eden?

51F+WLhaYmL._SX347_BO1,204,203,200_It was Henry Miller, whose Tropic of Cancer and other books were blacklisted by American publishers as obscene, who looked deeply into himself and the human condition, sounding like the Genesis writer. Or, God forbid, St. Augustine of Hippo or John Calvin.

Neither Augustine nor Calvin meant by original sin or total depravity that life is without an underlying goodness. Like Miller, they pointed to something that is as without explanation as the sudden appearance of the serpent in the Garden of Eden story: our inexplicable proneness to evil and slothfulness in good.

 J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the bomb, lamented, as though peering ahead to 2017-2018 when two little boys in the White House and North Korea would call each other names while playing with nuclear matches:

  • Despite the vision and farseeing wisdom of our wartime heads of state, the physicists have felt the peculiarly intimate responsibility for suggesting, for supporting, and in the end, in large measure, for achieving the realization of atomic weapons. Nor can we forget that these weapons as they were in fact used dramatized so mercilessly the inhumanity and evil of modern war. In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.
    • Physics in the Contemporary World, Arthur D. Little Memorial Lecture at M.I.T. (25 November 1947)

The old biblical serpent is never far away. The vulgarity of sin and death is the story of our time.

Gillray_Shakespeare_Sacrificed_20_June_1789

1909 painting The Worship of Mammon, the New Testament representation and personification of material greed, by Evelyn De Morgan.

Eating from the ONE and only tree of all the trees from which we cannot eat without bringing on our own destruction —  the forbidden Promethean kind of knowledge that divides the world into good (us) and evil (them) — we now wonder how the Seven Deadly Sins not only sit upon the throne of the enlightened democratic republic we thought we knew but infect all who, quite originally, only see evil outside ourselves.

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall….” – Robert Frost, “Mending Wall”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, January 18, 2018

Elijah: “Grandpa, What’s Love?” (Part 2)

Elijah, our conversation about love fell short. It missed the boat.

What boat? Were you playing in my bathtub?

No, it’s an expression. To miss the boat means our discussion fell short.

What’s wrong with that? I’m short. So are you, Grandpa!

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Elijah talking with Grandpa about love.

No. Not that kind of short, Elijah. Lots of people are short. Again, it’s just an expression. It means it didn’t quite get where I should have taken the conversation.

Yeah, I love expressions. Let’s stick with expressions. I’m too little for adult conversation.

Well, that’s what I want to talk about. You’re still little, but your view of yourself and the world is being shaped every day by the adult world, and my answer to your question fell short.

Did you fall again, Grandpa? I heard a noise but I didn’t know you fell! You should be more careful on those stairs. Like Grandma says all the time, you should tie your shoelaces!

Okay. No, Grandpa didn’t fall. I mean we never got to the deeper meanings of love. I slipped by stopping short of introducing you to the deeper philosophical meanings of love. I left you with the impression that love is attraction. We never got to agápē. Our culture suffers from a very shallow concept of love.

Oh, boy! Here we go! You’re going to get all philosophical and stuff. Just like Aunt Bonnie says, sometimes you talk over our heads! She hates philosophy. People don’t like that, Grandpa. Grandma says that’s why you retired from preaching. You were missing the boat of clear communication. Grandma was hoping you’d finally tied those shoelaces when you hung up your boots to retire. You didn’t. That’s why you’re still falling!

Aha! You just made my point, Elijah! That’s because Grandma loves me! She doesn’t just love me romantically. That kind of love is eros. She demonstrates agápē love, the highest form of love. It’s the form of love that is unconditional, like the love of God for us. It doesn’t depend on pleasant circumstances. It takes sacrifices to live with me. Big ones! I’m a lot to put up with, Elijah! Every day Grandma goes the second mile.

What’s a mile? If you go there twice, does it make you philosophical?

Yes, it does. Philosophy is wisdom, Elijah. It’s the love of wisdom. All forms of love are important. Philia is important. Eros is important. And agápē is important. They’re all part of who we are as the children of God, grandchildren and grandparents, cousins like you and Calvin, husbands and wives, and neighbors, but, like Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, agápē is the greatest of them all.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love (agapēseis) your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love (agapāte) your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven; for God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you?

— Matthew 5:43-46

Wow, Grandpa!  That’s really hard. That doesn’t miss the boat! That’s really philosophical. So…Grandma already has her reward! I want to be like Grandma. Did Jesus get to retire from preaching, like you?

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Sermon on the Mount — Carl Bloch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grandpa Gordon, Chaska, MN, January 8, 2018.

A Good Kick from a stagnant place

This idea that sometimes we need a good kick in order to advance from a stagnant place is not new and does not always find biblical inspiration. Nietzsche said in 1888 “Aus der Kriegsschule des Lebens – was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich starker”– “From the war school of life – what doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger.” – Peter Luijendijk, Dec. 21, 2016.

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Friedrich Nietzsche

How I got to Peter Luijendijk, the rabbinical student at Leo Baeck College, and the controversial philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), he quotes would take too long to explain. Suffice to say it was a serendipitous event inspired by a 3:30 A.M. awakening. I didn’t know of Peter Luijendijk, until this morning when I rushed off a “friend” request on FaceBook.

Although a good kick is always good for advancing me from my stagnant place on the couch with my best friend, the MacBook Air, it was a search for the source of the Nietzsche quote that introduced me, so to speak, to Peter.  “Aus der Kriegsschule des Lebens – was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich starker” had caught my attention moments before as one of three quotations featured on a college religion professor’s faculty page.

Not many religion professors quote Nietzsche to introduce themselves on a college website. Nietzsche is one of those philosophers pious religious types love to hate, in no small part because of his parable of the prophetic madman — the eccentric town crier who announces to the town that God is dead and “we have killed him!”– in Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Go back now to where this reflection started — the quotation by Peter Luijendijk is part of a Chanukah reflection on the Leo Baeck College (London) online publication. It appeared there as part of a commentary on the Genesis story of Joseph’s survival (Parashat Vayeshev, Genesis 37:1 – 40:23).

Friedrich_Overbeck_002-medium

Overbeck, Johann Friedrich, 1789-1869. Joseph sold into slavery, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=47452 [retrieved August 2, 2017]. Original source: http://www.yorckproject.de.

It turns out that Peter, like Joseph’s painter, Johann Friedrich Overbeck, and Willem Zuurdeeg, the pioneering philosopher of  religion whose work so heavily influences me, is Dutch. Nietzsche’s parable of the madman was pivotal for Zuurdeeg as well. Is there something about being Dutch that leads a Jewish or Christian scholar back to Nietzsche for a good kick in order out of a stagnant place?

This morning the world is making us all Dutch, sending us back to Nietzsche and the town crier who announces that the god of our illusions is dead, leading us to post the quote on a faculty page intro in hopes of a being stronger, more courageous, and perhaps . . . therefore even more biblical.

Peter Luijendijk’s online reflections on the Joseph story concludes with a word of hope in a time of deep darkness like our own:

I guess what I am trying to say is “Kol zeh ya’avor” this all will pass – it will become better. When Rabbi Lionel Blue z’’l talked about the festival of Chanukah in 2013 at the Chanukah reception in Parliament he “commented on a modern miracle – the social change that is leading to widespread acceptance for LGBT people in our society – by saying “Chanukah is a festival of wonder, and tonight is truly a wonder”.*  Chanukah celebrates survival, hope and the promise that the world’s natural AND spiritual light WILL come back. That, my friends, is the hope imbedded in Chanukah and that is the hope imbedded in the story of Joseph and his family.

At 3:30 A.M. this morning, I feel stronger and very, very Dutch.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 2, 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rocking on or off my fanny?

Rocking in a rocking chair or throwing rocks is the question.

The choice is between a quieter reflection and bold resistance to the evils I deplore. Between sitting in the Amish rocker Jacob Miller built to the dimensions of my fanny, rocking in hopes of seeing things more clearly, or getting up off my fanny to throw some rocks.

rock

More years ago than the one when Jacob Miller built his Amish rocker to fit my fanny, a student at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater threw a rock through a store window during a peace demonstration in downtown Whitewater against all pre-march instructions and agreements.

Such moments cause one to sit and rock awhile when the rocks are flying.

Philosophy has become a four-letter word in our time and that’s a shame. Not philosophy as fruitless speculation or obtuse abstraction, as in the American anti-intellectual prejudice against it. We mean philosophy as the search for reality, the plumbing of the depths for the deeper currents that flow beneath the thin surface of what we think, believe, and do.

Sit and reflect awhile

Amish Rocking chair

The news of another killing of an unarmed civilian here in the Greater Twin Cities of Minnesota and of moral and spiritual madness in the White House leads me to reach for the rocks. Active resistance is required. But there will be no effective resistance to the madness without rocking on our fannies together to get to the bottom of our collective madness. Otherwise there will be only the rock-throwing. We’ll be off our fannies . . . and off our rockers.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, July 23, 2017

 

 

 

Why do we feel so unhinged?

Vertus_cardinales_par_Germain_Pilon_(Louvre)

Vertus cardinales par Germain Pilon (Louvre)

Yesterday a friend reminded me of the Four Cardinal Virtues:

  1. prudence (wisdom),
  2. justice,
  3. temperance, and
  4. courage.

They are called ‘cardinal’ (Latin cardo; English: ‘hinge’) because they are the ‘hinges’ of the good life and the good society. These are the hinges on which the door to the good life opens.

We don’t think much about ‘virtue’ in the Ayn Rand society. We have learned to recoil at the smugness of those who claim to be virtuous. Even so, one is led to wonder whether we recoil at the imprudent, ill-tempered tweetings and firings in the news because of lingering respect and yearning for the Four Cardinal Virtues, the traditional moral hinges of our cultural heritage.

Prudence/Wisdom. In Greek and Roman philosophy – the works of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero – and in subsequent Christian teaching, all other moral virtues depend on prudence or wisdom (Greek: φρόνησις, phronēsis; Latin: prudent): the ability to judge between appropriate (i.e. virtuous as opposed to vicious) actions in a given time and circumstance.

Temperance (Greek: σωφροσύνη, sōphrosynē; Latin: temperantia) – restraint, self-control, abstention, discretion, and moderation – is the practical exercise of prudence/wisdom.

Justice (Greek: δικαιοσύνη, dikaiosynē; Latin: iustitia) is the moral and economic balance between selfishness and selflessness, between having more and having less than one’s fair share.

Courage (Greek: ἀνδρεία, andreia; Latin: fortitude) means not only fortitude/strength, but forbearance, endurance, and the ability to confront fear, uncertainty, and intimidation.

Could it be that the daily unhinged violation of the Four Cardinal (hinge) Virtues is why we feel so unhinged?

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, the Ides of March, 2017

 

Now (regretfully) I Know

Exhausted by the 2016 election, and knowing that undecided voters are few and are unlikely to be persuaded by anything I might say, I nevertheless decided to speak up one last time here. There’s a knot in my stomach. Silence only makes it worse. Silence – even for a day – would contribute to evils I’ve long deplored.

From the time I became conscious of the world, I have asked how Hitler could rise to power.

Now I know.

A child of World War II, I have learned that the questions are more important than the answers, and that sometimes the answers don’t come. Yet, as I look back on my life story, the question was not about Hitler. It was about the German people who elected him.

It still is. But this year, it’s not about the Germans. It’s about us, the Americans.

I’ve spent a lifetime living in the shadow of Adolf Hitler and the societal madness that elected him, determined from very early in life to oppose the darkness, the terror, the long shadow of Dachau, Buchenwald, and Auschwitz. Of nationalism, militarism, Arian racial superiority, global imperialism, and the startling echoes that still ring out from the gas chambers and gallows of the same society that bequeathed the world with the high culture of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schopenhauer, Hegel, and Thomas Mann. How, I have asked myself forever, could this have happened? I’ve looked inside myself and wondered what I might have felt and done during the rise of the German Third Reich.

Now I know.

The question is no longer hypothetical. No longer abstract. No longer just philosophical, psychological, or sociological. It’s immediate and practical. It’s staring me in the face every day as I watch the crowds clapping for a presidential candidate whose name is on everything he’s ever touched as a businessman and who has made it his business to put his hands where they have not been welcome.

The crowds that support Donald Trump are drawn by an irresistible force to make America great again. In Germany it was the same. It’s a page out of Hitler’s playbook, but the differences between the United States in 2016 and Germany in 1930s are strikingly different. Germany had been defeated in World War I. America was victorious. Its economy was in shambles. Ours is the envy of the world. Germany’s post-war sovereignty was limited.Ours is not. The German people perceived the Weimar Republic as weak, powerless, and ineffective, a refrain echoed in the American far right’s cacophonous contradictions that charge the Obama Administration with too much power in domestic policies, on the one hand, and weakness against international terrorism.

During the 1920s and early ‘30s, the people of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Hegel felt humiliated, their national pride had been assaulted. But. . . assaulted by whom?

Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals became the scapegoats against which the pure Germans could define themselves and make Germany great again. Today in America Muslims, Mexicans, and LGBTQ have become the equivalent scapegoats of the Donald Trump campaign, and a copy of Hitler’s speeches is in the Trump master bedroom.

If the German people were drawn like iron to a magnet by a charismatic personality who gave singular voice to their grief and anger, it was not the last time a nation would go down that road to fascist madness. It begins as a kind of love affair. Looking into the human psyche, Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860) wrote:

The ultimate aim of all love affairs … is more important than all other aims in man’s life; and therefore it is quite worthy of the profound seriousness with which everyone pursues it. What is decided by it is nothing less than the composition of the next generation …. (The World as Will and Representation, Supplements to the Fourth Book).

The next generation and generations to come are at stake in the U.S.A. on November 8, 2016.

As every American president has said, “May God bless the United States of America.” I add, and may God save us all from the worst in ourselves.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, November 5, 2016

The Wisdom of Adalbert Stifter

“Don’t the overwhelming majority believe that mankind is the crowning achievement of Creation, that man is better than everything, even things we haven’t yet investigated? And don’t those people who aren’t able to escape the bonds of their own ego think that the entire Universe, even the countless worlds of outer space, is just a backdrop for this ego? And yet it might be quite different.”
― Adalbert Stifter (1805 – 1868), Indian Summer

Click HERE for more about Adalbert Stifter.

 

 

TED Talk: Want to be Happy? Be Grateful

This morning we introduce readers to the work of David Steindl-Rast, O.B. by means of this TED Talk on the relationship between happiness and gratitude.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN 55318.

America’s Original Sin?

Jim Wallace’s new book America’s Original Sin: Race and White Privilege & the Bridge to New America takes a hard look at the origins of the Euro-transplant nation that supplanted America’s indigenous people. Jim Wallace argues that the United States was born of White Privilege. It is the nation’s original sin: it’s America’s first and enduring sin.

It seems no matter how much things progress, or seem to progress, the original sin is always crouching at our door, as the Genesis story of Cain and Abel puts it. “Sin is crouching at your door, and you must master it”.

But is the issue race? Or is it class? Or something else, a fatal flaw in the human psyche and the social psyche? Are racism and White Privilege what they seem, or are they manifestations of something more basic?

“There is only one sin, said Kosuke Koyama, and it is exceptionalism.” Born in Tokyo in 1929, Koyama saw in the Japanese Empire the myth of exceptionalism. To his great sorrow, he saw the same myth in the United States, the second home where he finished a distinguished career as John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Professor of World Christiankosuke-koyama-2ity at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York.

Beneath White Privilege lies the election doctrine that arrived on these shores with America’s European settlers. Their theology was wrapped around the belief that the true believers, the elect, were exceptional to the rest of humankind. The result was genocide against America’s indigenous peoples followed shortly by the institution of chattel slavery, both the racial sins of White Privilege of which Jim Wallis writes.

In the larger scheme of things in 2016, one can argue convincingly that exceptionalism has been a primary contributor to climate change. The sin of exceptionalism is the illusion that we, the human species, are superior to nature. In  honor of Koyama: Could it be that there is only one sin: exceptionalism?

I wish Jim and Ko could have spent time with each other. It would have been so enlightening to have sat in not their conversations.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, January 25, 2016.

Word for the Day: Semiotics

The word for the day was suggested by a former Kindergarten classmate. Carolyn, a retired university music librarian, brought Semiotics to our attention after reading yesterday’s posts on hermeneutics. She knew the word but had had to look it up at least seven times, but could no longer remember what it meant.

The request took us online to the Encyclopaedia Britannica entry on Semiotics.

Semiotics, also called Semiology, the study of signs and sign-using behaviour. It was defined by one of its founders, the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, as the study of “the life of signs within society.” Although the word was used in this sense in the 17th century by the English philosopher John Locke, the idea of semiotics as an interdisciplinary mode for examining phenomena in different fields emerged only in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the independent work of Saussure and of the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce.

Click HERE for the Encyclopaedia Britannica‘s one page entry, ending with references and links to the influence of Semiotics in the fields of aesthetics, anthropology, psychoanalysis, communications, and semantics. The Britannica doesn’t mention hermeneutics, although the relation between them is that of kissing cousins. Both understand us humans as meaning-makers who create meaning by means of signs and language.

Most students of hermeneutics and semiotics disagree with religious fundamentalism’s view that meaning already exists and that the human task is to find it, as in the statement often made at times of death that “God has a better plan.” The role of the divine, if one supposes it, is as creative Spirit beneath the human spirit, always creating, never finished, never pre-determined. Scholars in theology, philosophy, anthropology, and linguistics can no longer do their work honestly without going through the Semiotics door of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Tampa, FL, January 22, 2016