The Greatest Known Unknown

Sep 21 2014 @ 8:01pm

In the midst of an interview discussing how we argue about God, Keith DeRose asserts that “neither theists nor atheists know whether God exists”:

It was about God, wasn’t it, that Kant famously wrote “I had to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith”? Whatever it does or doesn’t do for faith, my denial of knowledge here makes room for reasonable views on both sides of the question of whether God exists.

I don’t think the arguments for either theism or atheism lead to knowledge of their conclusions. But there are arguments on both sides from premises that someone might reasonably judge to be plausible. If you find it quite probable that God does not exist, I think it’s perfectly possible that you are reasonable to think as you do. But this doesn’t mean that someone who thinks it is likely that God does exist can’t likewise be reasonable in holding that position.

To know that God does (or doesn’t) exist, you have to show that there are no arguments for atheism (or for theism) that a reasonable person could find plausible. But to support that claim you would have to have better critiques of all those arguments than I’ve ever seen. In my view, it’s more likely those who claim to know whether God exists — whether theists or atheists — are just blowing smoke.

Who Are Your Favorite Heretics?

Sep 21 2014 @ 7:18pm

Richard J. Mouw suggests that believers should all have a few because “it can be healthy for Christians who love ideas to be challenged regularly by perspectives that we can disagree with in productive ways.” One of his? The famed British philosopher Bertrand Russell, author of Why I Am Not a Christian:

For a while, especially when I was first learning the ropes in Anglo-American analytic philosophy, Bertrand Russell was one of my special favorite heretics. In his technical philosophical work in epistemology and logic, he changed his mind a lot, and showed no embarrassment about doing so. I admired that in him. But what I enjoyed even more were his popular writings, especially about religious matters.

Russell was boldly anti-religious. He saw no room for any substantive religious ideas in formulating an ethical perspective, or in investing oneself in social-political causes. But there were moments in his writings when he expressed a sense that to abandon religion is to lose something important—even if he was not clear exactly about what the loss amounted to. One of my favorite Russell passages in this regard occurs in the context of some autobiographical reflections. As a gift for him on his twelfth birthday, he recounted, his grandmother gave him a Bible, which he still possessed. In the flyleaf she had written a couple of her favorite biblical texts: “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil,” and “Be strong, and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be Thou dismayed. For the Lord Thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.” Then Russell makes this remarkable confession: “These texts have profoundly influenced my life, and still seemed to retain some meaning after I had ceased to believe in God.”

I find something admirable in that confession. It expresses a sense of loss, along with a corresponding sense of moral loneliness. Being one’s own autonomous moral legislator can be a lonely experience.

A Poem For Sunday

Sep 21 2014 @ 6:31pm

“The Day Lady Died” by Frank O’Hara:

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille Day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfield Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the John door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

– 1959

(From Lunch Poems, Expanded 50th Anniversary Edition © 1964, 2014 by Maureen Granville-Smith, Administratrix of the Estate of Frank O’Hara. Used by permission of City Lights Books, San Francisco)

That’s how Joshua Rothman pegs U2 in an essay exploring the faith behind their music:

In some ways, this seems obvious: a song on one recent album was called “Yahweh,” and where else would the streets have no name? But even critics and fans who say that they know about U2’s Christianity often underestimate how important it is to the band’s music, and to the U2 phenomenon. The result has been a divide that’s unusual in pop culture. While secular listeners tend to think of U2’s religiosity as preachy window dressing, religious listeners see faith as central to the band’s identity. To some people, Bono’s lyrics are treacly platitudes, verging on nonsense; to others, they’re thoughtful, searching, and profound meditations on faith.

Christianity Today regularly covers U2, not just as another Christian rock band but as one of special significance. In 2004, the magazine ran an article about Bono’s “thin ecclesiology”—his unwillingness to affiliate himself with a church—that sparked a debate about the health of organized religion. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, addressed the issue of Bono’s belief in a fascinating 2008 lecture about the place of organized faith in secular society. “Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalog” is one of several books exploring the theological ideas in Bono’s lyrics. Churches around the world have held “U2charists”—full services at which traditional church music is replaced with songs by U2. A few years ago, an Episcopal priest I know helped organize one at a church in New Jersey; the service, which featured a huge sound system, stage lighting, cocktails, and a bonfire, raised around forty thousand dollars for an orphanage in Cameroon.

Meanwhile, Nathan Hart looks at religion’s place in their just-released Songs of Innocence:

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Faces Of The Day

Sep 21 2014 @ 5:04pm

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For his book The Invisibles: Vintage Portraits of Love and Pride, Sébastien Lifshitz collected portraits of gay relationships he found at yard sales and flea markets:

Lifshitz, who also made a documentary film on this subject, raises an important point when he reminds us that all of these photos are pre-digital era: “Because to obtain these images, they had to have gone to a small neighborhood photo lab to develop the film and then go back to pick up the prints. They, therefore, had to run the risk of exposing themselves socially. The need to keep a memory of their love was certainly stronger than the disapproval of some business or any concerns about what others might say.”

Lifshitz spoke about the collection in an interview earlier this year:

Who are the individuals featured in these photos?

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The Buddhist As Novelist

Sep 21 2014 @ 4:57pm

Discussing her new novel, A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki connects her Buddhism to her writing, noting in particular the way her “sense of self is a more shifting (shifty?) and pluralistic entity” than is typical:

A Tale for the Time Being plays very overtly with this notion of self or selves, which in Buddhism is called no-self, or anatman. Buddhism teaches that because everything is impermanent, there is no fixed self that remains unchanged in time. And Buddhism also teaches that there is not an independent self, that can exist separate from others. Thich Nhat Hanh calls this interbeing. So what we experience as the self is more like a collection of fluid, interpenetrating, interdependencies that change and flow through time. The title, time being, refers to just this, and the novel, with its two narrators Ruth and Nao, is a kind of overt performance of these Buddhist propositions of interbeing and time being.

I think in my previous work, too, the choice of narrative voice, or voices, is related to my pluralistic sense of self. This was true even before I knew much about Buddhism. I’ve never been able to write from a single point of view, or even stick to a single grammatical person. All my novels contain multiple narrators, some of whom speak directly, using the first-person pronoun “I,” and others less directly, using third- and sometimes even second-person pronouns. The use of these pronominal shifts and multiple POVs destabilizes the sense of there being a singular “author” running the show, in charge of the fictional world, and I like that ambiguity. In the past, I’ve tried to write in an omniscient voice, but the characters refuse to cooperate.

Mental Health Break

Sep 21 2014 @ 4:20pm

The magic of acrobats:

CJ Werleman fisks Sam Harris over his recent post emphasizing the connection between Islamic doctrine and jihadist violence, noting that “maturing counter-terrorism analysis has brought new information to light.” He uses the example of Anwar al-Awlaki to show the limits of Harris’ approach:

Harris’ contention that terrorists are motivated more by the writings of the Koran, rather than by economic, political, social, and military oppression, is based on feeling rather than fact. Harris is unable to explain the transformation of U.S.-born terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki’s views in the decades before his death, because there is no evidence to suggest that a religious awakening led to his adoption of a radically different theology. When the 9/11 attacks occurred, al-Awlaki told journalists: “There is no way that the people who did this could be Muslim, and if they claim to be Muslim, then they have perverted their religion.” Explaining the concept of Jihad, he said, “If there is an invading force from outside, then we would, too, struggle to defend ourselves, and that is where armed combat occurs. So actually, fighting is only part of a jihad, and it’s considered to be a defensive force in order to protect the religion.”

The U.S. government had determined al-Awlaki to be a moderate, and he even spoke at a lunch event at the Pentagon. By 2010, however, he had become increasingly disillusioned with U.S. foreign policy…. Al-Awlaki’s radicalization is consistent with the historical pattern of political activists adopting a belief in terrorism when political action fails to bring about change. “From the French anarchists who began bombing campaigns after the defeat of the Paris Commune, to the Algerian FLN struggling to end French colonialism, to the Weather Underground’s declaration of a state of war following state representation of student campaigns against the Vietnam war,” terrorism is nearly always rooted in political and economic oppression says NYU adjunct professor Arun Kundani.

Christopher Massie, however, points to others who think more like Harris:

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The Things They Carried

Sep 21 2014 @ 2:27pm

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Thom Atkinson photographed the battle kits of British soldiers over the course of 1,000 years:

The series, appropriately titled Soldiers’ Inventories, starts with the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and chronicles the gear soldiers carried into 12 other battles, from the battle of Waterloo to the war in Afghanistan. “Britain spends a lot of its time fighting people,” says Atkinson.

Each photograph is like a wartime version of Things Organised Neatly. Of course, the kits include things designed to kill people in ever more efficient ways. But they provide a glimpse into what the boredom and monotony of war, with things like playing cards, checkerboards, and iPads. To gather the objects, Atkinson visited living history communities, whose members collect such things for for reenactments. He would spend hours organizing the gear just so, beginning with bigger pieces like a musket or a jacket and filling in the holes with smaller objects. “It’s a lot like Tetris,” he says.

The above kit was fit for a knight during the siege of Jerusalem in 1244. See more of Atkinson’s work here.

Faith That Aches

Sep 21 2014 @ 1:25pm

This month saw the publication a new volume of poetry from Christian Wiman, Once in the West. Paul Otembra notices “the spiritual ache” coursing through the book:

The poems are continually looking for ways to make something of the frustrations and doubt. This is not the same as trying to make sense of them, and it is uncertain whether these poems believe that is even possible, let alone advisable. Instead, Wiman suggests “to make of the ache of inwardness— // something, / music maybe.” Everything here hinges on that qualifying “maybe.” It is not a shrug of surrender. It is recognition that the singing, while perhaps helpful, is not abundant compensation for suffering. All these poems can claim is to “sing a little nonce // curse / for the curse // of consciousness.” The songs are not plaintive. There is too much edge to the voice for that.

Putting these latest poems in the context of Wiman’s previous writing, Joe Winkler observes the way violence is a preoccupation of his theology:

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