Weekend Update 03-31-2012

Posted: March 31st, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Weekend Update | Comments Off on Weekend Update 03-31-2012

So, Paul Ryan’s plan would make the Bush tax cuts permanent and add additional tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations reducing revenue by an eye-popping 10 trillion dollars over the next decade. The CBO notes that the Ryan “plan” basically envisions eliminating the entire federal government except for Defense, Social Security, health programs, and interest payments by 2050. It provides no funding for anything else at all. Think about that for a minute. That’s not any sort of a “responsible” plan. Either Ryan is insane or, more likely, his plan is a deliberate fraud and he’s nothing but a con man. Revenue loss? Nothing or very little will offset them. Nor will the federal government somehow be virtually eliminated. So basically Ryan wants to steal more of the nation’s wealth for himself and his other buddies, add it to the country’s credit card and skeedaddle into the sunset. Of course, if he actually manages to do it, he and his insanely greedy compatriots will actually manage to destroy this country, which would seem to undermine the basis of the riches they are attempting to purloin. But then, people in bondage to the passions of greed and hubris probably can’t see the outcome of their actions. Oh, and Ryan wants to give poor people less health care too. I guess we know what the GOP vision for health care really is now that they’ve rejected their own long-standing reform plan (the one President Obama managed to actually enact). The rich will get health care and everyone else can die. Aside from the basic immorality of that attitude, it’s not socially sustainable. A good dictator knows you have to provide a certain level of safety and services to the people or they will eventually rebel.

Lauren Weinstein puts it well. If they are truly ready to overturn the ACA, then the Supreme Court is ready to effectively murder millions of people. Hitler and the Third Reich deservedly went down in infamy for slaughtering six million. Arguably our health care system has killed at least that many already with millions more waiting in the wings. This is what our radical far right has been reduced to supporting. Unfortunately, they might just have a 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court. This expresses the moral hazard well. If you don’t have health insurance by choice (a different issue) then you are essentially gambling that our society won’t just let you die. I would not you’re both right and wrong in your assessment. We won’t deny you emergency treatment, but there are a host of potentially life-saving measures we will deny you. Regardless, though, your “gamble” is a form of insurance funded by the rest of us. The only real question is whether or not you should shoulder some of that responsibility or if we should foot the whole bill on your behalf. As far as I can tell, the right wing wants to be leeches on society. Or is there another way of interpreting their position?

Krugman is one of many who has stated it well. Frankly, we’re spoiled by the Supreme Courts that have presided since at least the mid-20th century (and probably somewhat earlier than that). Whether you agreed with a given ruling or not, they cared about the Constitution, the rule of law, and were careful about precedence even when overturning it. The Supreme Court has over that span earned the respect of the American people. What most people don’t recall (or never studied) is that those were hard-won gains. Through a significant portion of our history, the Court was filled with people receiving a cushy lifetime appointment as a political pay-off — and not necessarily even lawyers or judges. That was particular true throughout what we now call the Gilded Age. During that period, the rulings of the court were often awful and followed the political and ideological winds. The Court was hardly respected at all by anyone. The course on which this court is set may very well lose the Supreme Court its hard-won respect from the last century. It will again become simply another tool of whichever party is able to seat a majority on it rather than operating as a truly independent third branch of government. It’s a shame, really. But you know what’s said about those who fail to learn from history.

And yes, Gingrich totally went there. I would say I was shocked. But I’m not.

And does the current Supreme Court deserve any respect whatsoever? Not if you take the former Reagan solicitor general seriously.

I took my daughter to the Anne Rice signing at Book People last Friday. Looks like they caught us on video at the signing and posted it to Anne Rice’s youtube channel. (We’re the first ones in it.) Anne is extremely gracious and took the time to speak briefly to everyone who came to the table as she signed the books. My daughter was on cloud nine! (She’s a huge reader.)


How to Speak of God

Posted: March 30th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on How to Speak of God

In this post, I plan to continue the train of thought I began in Speaking Carefully About God and explore how we then should speak of God. I’m not an expert in any way, so take everything I say with a grain of salt. These are just some of the thoughts and ideas I have developed over the years — many of them the result of things I have heard and read from multiple sources.

I want to begin with perhaps the central Christian truth when it comes to describing God in human language. Nothing we say or think can ever truly describe God. Our God, the only uncreated and the one in whom and through whom all creation subsists, so far transcends us we cannot truly know him. We lack the capacity. That’s the central reason the Word, the only begotten Son, became human — to join God’s nature to our human nature so we would have a means through him to know and commune with God.

And that’s fine with me. A God my mind could compass would be too small a God for me to ever worship. But the fact that God so utterly transcends us means we must be exceedingly cautious in the way we describe him.

And thus Christians have developed a way of speaking apophatically about God. It’s really not that difficult. Every time we find ourselves saying or reading a description of God, we must always keep in mind that as much as that description may help us say something about God, at the same time the description so utterly fails to capture the fullness of our God, that we could also say that God is not like that at all.

For instance, we say that God is love. In fact, it’s a positive statement about God taken straight from the Holy Scriptures. This is not some attribute of God; it’s a statement about his very essence. And it’s important that we understand this truth for when we say that God is love we exclude many false descriptions of God — some of which, unfortunately, seem to be popular today.

Nevertheless, we also must then say that God’s love is not like any love we’ve ever known. It’s utterly pure and unending. God’s love knows no conditions and no bounds. God is love and that transcendent love binds creation together and at the same time is so intimately personal that God is with me, around me, and within me filling every breath I take and every beat of my heart. It’s love without condemnation, but a love so fierce it can also be described as a consuming fire. If the image I have in mind of love is any that I’ve known, then I’m forced to say God is not that sort of love at all. So in that sense, God is not love.

And the same is true of anything else we might say. Jesus gave us a prayer in which we call God Father, but if, when we do that, we have in mind our father or any other father we’ve known, that image will lead us astray. Whatever sort of father we had, good or bad, our fathers are all still human. They still have failings and limitations. God is not like that at all. So we must also say that he is not Father in the way we have known fathers.

If we lose that tension and the caution it brings to the images and words we use to speak and consider God, we will inevitably distort our understanding of God in some way. When I find myself saying something about God, I try to remind myself that my description inevitably falls so short of the reality of God that it’s almost as false as it is true.

In and through Christ, we can however mystically know God. We can receive him. We can commune with God. We have access to the sort of knowledge that transcends language. In that sense, it’s not so very different from knowing another human being. We don’t get to know someone by learning a bunch of facts about them — even if those facts are true and accurate. We get to know others by spending time with them, by talking with them, and through shared experience. And so it is with God. Even though he utterly transcends our knowledge, yet we can still know him.

In my final post on this topic, I’ll discuss the Trinity. For whenever we speak of the Christian God, we must always speak in a triune manner.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 27

Posted: March 29th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 27

57.  The origin of all the passions is self-love; their consummation is pride. Self-love is a mindless love for the body. He who cuts this off cuts off at the same time all the passions that come from it.

It’s an interesting cycle St. Maximos describes. The central creed of Christianity has always been love of God and others — though that has not always been realized in practice. The two are not separate commands, but one. How do you love God? Love others. When you love others, you love God. This is even the basis given for judgment in Matthew. So when we mindlessly love ourselves and focus on our own desires instead, we open the door to the passions. It’s a way of life and a way of death. Life or death received now and enduring — not some future externalized reward or punishment.


Speaking Carefully About God

Posted: March 28th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Speaking Carefully About God

Last week Sarah Moon published an interesting blog post, Our Mother who art in heaven… I read the post and its comments and, as such things tend to do with me, it started percolating in the back of my head. At one point, I started to comment on the post, but then realized the things I had to say would work better as blog posts than as comments.

I want to begin by noting that I agree with the central theme — or at least what I understood to be the central theme — of Sarah’s post. There are far too many strands within Christianity that attempt to turn God not just into an exclusively male figure, but into a very narrow vision of what it means to be male. While some strands, such as that loudly (and often angrily) proclaimed by Mark Driscoll, are openly misogynistic and hateful, many are more subtle, but nonetheless deadly.

When we assign gender to God in any way we must always recognize apophatically that as much as an aspect of our experience of God might be like a certain gender, at the same time it is also not like that at all. For God transcends everything we can possibly say about him, every metaphor we could use, and every analogy we could possibly draw. God is deeply and thoroughly personal, though, not impersonal, so I think it’s even worse to use a neuter pronoun (such as it) instead. But when we use gendered pronouns to refer to God, we must always hold them loosely.

I have noted in the past, as Sarah does in her post, that our Holy Scriptures are clear that mankind is created in God’s image, both male and female. And while yes, we must say that God cannot thus be defined as some sort of super-powerful man, I think sometimes people miss what it says about humanity. Our gender is an inextricable aspect of each of us, but it does not define our humanity or our nature.

Jesus, the God-man, became fully human, taking on all that we are in order to defeat death and evil on our behalf and bind our nature to the divine nature. And while Jesus became a human man, his work was universal in nature. It is a continuing act of cosmic new creation. In and through Jesus the crucified and risen Messiah, mankind — male and female — is now not only in the image of God, but shares through the Resurrection the unending nature of God and is able to participate in the divine energies of God. Jesus did not merely rescue humanity; he took us where we otherwise had no ability to go. So we all have a common nature that goes beyond gender, otherwise as a male, Jesus’ humanity could have only freed and made new the nature of human males, not the universal human nature.

I also believe it’s important that in our struggles with certain almost or even overtly misogynistic strands that we not read that struggle into places where it didn’t or doesn’t exist.  I read another post last week, On letting Junia fly, that makes that point well. It’s true that some Western Protestants attempt to deny that St. Junia was a woman and an apostle. It’s true that they can try to construct systems that cage women.

But St. Junia was never and is not now caged as a result. St. Junia does not need to be released. She does not need us to let her fly. She flew. She worked tirelessly as an apostle and accomplished much for the one she knew and called Lord and for his Church. And she has been venerated as a saint for centuries as a result. St. Junia flew. Nevertheless, as with all the apostles, her flight called her to tireless service of others for her entire life rather than personal glory or power.

So we do need to speak carefully about God in every way. I’ll explore how to speak of God in my next post.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 26

Posted: March 27th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 26

56.  Self-love, as has often been said, is the cause of all impassioned thoughts. For from it are produced the three principal thoughts of desire; those of gluttony, avarice and self-esteem. From gluttony is born the thought of unchastity; from avarice, the thought of greed; from self-esteem, the thought of pride. All the rest – the thoughts of anger, resentment, rancor, listlessness, envy, backbiting and so on – are consequent upon one or other of these three. These passions, then, tie the intellect to material things and drag it down to earth, pressing on it like a massive stone, although by nature it is lighter and swifter than fire.

The spiral starts with self-love which can lead down multiple paths to bondage to the passions. I’ll note, though, that the passions work by reorienting our nous or receptive mind. It is our organ for knowing God, but is easily distracted and bound to other things. I find that description matches my own observations and experience.


Heartland Gourmet Red Velvet Cupcake Mix

Posted: March 26th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Food Reviews | Tags: , | Comments Off on Heartland Gourmet Red Velvet Cupcake Mix

Heartland Gourmet Gluten Free Red Velvet Cupcake MixMy wife was shopping at World Market a while ago when she stumbled across a brand of gluten free mixes she had never seen before. My wife has always been the baker in the family. While I can follow a baking recipe without any problem, I’m much better at other sorts of cooking. My wife, on the other hand, figures out ways to enhance and adapt any baking recipe she tries over time. And she makes some things, like her brownies, without much of a recipe at all. She’s adapted many of the things she bakes to be gluten free now, but the mixes looked interesting and she picked up one to try, the Heartland Gourmet Gluten Free Red Velvet Cupcake Mix.

My wife generally prepares mixes according to the instructions on a mix the first time in order to work out what to add or how to change the preparation of that mix in the future. In her experience, every mix requires some adaptation and adjustment to produce something really good. That’s been particularly true of gluten free mixes.

Not so with this red velvet cupcake mix. The cupcakes were moist with a smooth, rich texture and delicious flavor. They weren’t grainy at all. The cupcakes didn’t crumble. It was hard to believe they were gluten free!

We haven’t tried any of the other mixes yet, but this cupcake mix is truly excellent. If you can find it in your area, give it a try.


Weekend Update 03-24-2012

Posted: March 24th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Weekend Update | Comments Off on Weekend Update 03-24-2012

Employer sponsored health insurance coverage has dropped precipitously throughout the recession, indicating the “system” on which most Americans have relied is coming apart at the seams. The uninsured are up to a fifth of our population with almost as many on Medicaid. Right now, the ACA is all we have to begin to address this problem. If the ACA falls apart, either through judicial or legislative action, we’re in for a world of hurt as a nation. Krugman’s column tries valiantly to drive this point home. He does a good job, but I don’t know if those who need to pay attention are listening.

Read this post about Trayvon Martin. Then sign this petition. I really don’t know what else to say. The more we discover that the Sanford Police Department either ignored or never even bothered to investigate, the worse the story gets.

As Krugman points out, part of our problem is that one party, the GOP, outright lies constantly and refuses to engage in anything resembling a reasonable debate. The latest howler about the cost estimates of the ACA going up when in fact the referenced report says on the first page that the cost estimates are going down is just one in a continuous series of such lies. Now, I’m well aware that every politician stretches and twists the truth to their advantage, but we keep pretending there’s some sort of equal distribution in the lies told across the political spectrum and that’s simply not true right now. We have one party that lies at will and apparently with impunity while the other party continues to stay as close to the truth as politicians ever get. That state of affairs can’t possibly continue if we wish to govern ourselves in any vaguely rational manner. But the only ones who can reasonably hold their politicians accountable for speaking something at least vaguely like the truth are GOP voters. Krugman seems to think “the media” can somehow do it. But even if we didn’t live in the world of newstainment rather than serious reporting, a wide swath of GOP voters get their “news” solely from right wing propaganda machines like Fox News. Yes, I suppose if the other media empires actually wanted to return to something like serious reporting, they could do more to expose the right wing wheel of never-ending lies to the rest of America, but I don’t see how that would really help anything. Many of the rest of us already see what’s happening, I think, and catch at least some of the stream of constant falsehood and distortion. It’s the half of our country living in an altered state of reality we somehow have to recover. And frankly, I don’t even know where to begin. And in this post, Krugman discusses the issue again. It’s a serious problem. Historically, when a large portion of a population have become mired in an alternate reality of delusion, some really bad things have happened.

Age of Ignorance. “It took years of indifference and stupidity to make us as ignorant as we are today.” Indeed. It’s pretty frustrating.

Central Tendency in Skewed Distributions: A Lesson in Social Justice. Richard Beck does an excellent job explaining the math and its implications in our current skewed income distribution.

Our current radical right-wing Supreme Court has at least three and possibly four members who care nothing about precedent or Constitutional interpretation going back in our history decades or centuries, even back to the opinions of those who wrote the thing. (That’s why I don’t call them ‘conservative.’ A true conservative would be attempting to conserve something that currently or previously existed, not simply ruling in any way that conforms to their ideology.) So I’ve been watching this other argument closely. I agree it’s more worrisome than the part about the mandate. We can hope that Anthony Kennedy, who has more often truly been conservative rather than a radical right-winger, will be the brake on the other four in his wing of the court. If not, we’re in serious trouble as a nation.

What is a soul? I agree with Fr. Stephen. Many people today do seem to take a “ghost in the machine” perspective. I often hear at even Christian funerals that the body is simply a shell the person has left behind. I particularly liked the quote from St. Gregory of Nyssa he references in the post. “The soul is not in the body, but the body in the soul.

Fr. Ernesto points out precisely one of the areas in the latest Roman Catholic Church controversy over contraceptive coverage that many of us have noted. Take a moment to read it. Those of us who are not Catholic can still read and be familiar with Catholic doctrine. And when priests and bishops make public statements on policy or on individual politicians and are inconsistent in their approach, we do see that as well.

What do you do when the lunatic fringe takes over one of our two main political parties?

Republican primary voters embrace government! Or at least the benefits from government they receive ….

The series finale of Anyone But Me was extremely well done. This is one of the better web series out there. If you’ve never watched it, I recommend you take the time. For me it ranks right up there with The Guild and Dr. Horrible in quality (though obviously a different genre).

An older TED talk by Jamie Oliver. Honestly, those who might read my blog have probably already seen it. But still, it doesn’t hurt to post it again.

The Power of Introverts. Boo-yah. This blog represents as much ‘opening my suitcase’ as I’m likely to do with a public audience.


The Wolf Gift

Posted: March 23rd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews | 3 Comments »

The Wolf Gift is Anne Rice’s latest foray into the realm of the supernatural. Within its pages, she makes werewolves human as she has done for vampires, djinn, and even angels. By human, of course, I mean beings with whom we can relate and empathize. She transforms them into vulnerable, three-dimensional beings.

I won’t describe the nature of the beasts or their history other than to say she makes them sympathetic figures. In fact, though brutal in their attacks, we can all sympathize with them as they are driven to remove evil among men. There is a certain purity in the nature and focus of the savagery of her werewolves.

I did find it interesting that those who receive the wolf gift call the transforming element in the saliva “Chrism.” Within Christianity, that’s the oil with which the newly baptized (in ancient times and still in Orthodoxy) are sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit. The wolf gift does transform the recipient, if it doesn’t kill them, down to the cellular level. They are also sealed by it in their new state.

Christian baptism and chrismation is supposed to similarly, though perhaps over a longer period of time, work its way throughout our bodies — our being — transforming and sealing us as truly human. The Spirit, though, will not overpower our will as the Wolf Gift often does in the book. And that, I believe, is a key difference. We have to attune and submit our wills over and over and over again in order to see lasting change. Nor do we have any special gift for sensing evil — even the evil we commit ourselves.

As with every Anne Rice book, it’s interesting and entertaining. And the book will make you think. I highly recommend it.

My daughter recently read the first three volumes of Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles and she’s hooked. She’s now reading The Wolf Gift. When I told her Anne Rice would be in Austin for a book signing, she squealed. So I pre-ordered her a copy from Book People and we’ll be standing in line at the signing this evening. Should be fun, even if it’s not the sort of thing I would normally do myself.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 25

Posted: March 22nd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 25

55.  He who busies himself with the sins of others, or judges his brother on suspicion, has not yet even begun to repent or to examine himself so as to discover his own sins, which are truly heavier than a great lump of lead; nor does he know why a man becomes heavy-hearted when he loves vanity and chases after falsehood (cf. Ps. 4:1). That is why, like a fool who walks in darkness, he no longer attends to his own sins but lets his imagination dwell on the sins of others, whether these sins are real or merely the products of his own suspicious mind.

Note that the damage we do to ourselves when we dwell on the sins of others remains the same whether we accurately perceive those sins or merely imagine them. The problem then lies in the act of focusing our attention and our mind on the sins of the other. It doesn’t even matter if we’re right. We’re still wrong.

In a strange way, as I considered the above, I was reminded of the Beatles song, “Fixing a Hole“. Perhaps because although the publican was wrong, he was right where he belonged. And he went home that day justified.


Moral Blindness

Posted: March 21st, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Moral Blindness

This past weekend I was reading a column in a publication. I thought about naming the publication and the author and perhaps looking for an online version of the column to link, but I decided that would not be helpful. I don’t know anything about the author and don’t wish my thoughts to be taken as personally directed at him. I think the thoughts I’ll explore in this post could sometimes apply to all of us, myself included. And by not naming the source, I’ll also avoid the sort of preconceived gut reaction many people have to various organizations and institutions.

With that said, it was a column discussing how people can reach a point of moral blindness. The first step on that path, according to the author, was a perspective of false moral equivalence, where we perceive acts of differing moral failures as qualitatively equal. And it was in that portion of his column that something caught my eye. His illustration of a false moral equivalence was treating flying planes into buildings as equally evil as, and I quote, the “humiliating treatment of Moslem prisoners by American soldiers.”

Excuse me? Isn’t that a euphemism for torture?

That one statement cast the entire column in a surreal light. Basically the author was lecturing his readers about moral blindness while exposing one of his own massive areas of moral blindness.  (Or more realistically, he was writing to an audience of mostly like minds about the moral blindness of those ‘others‘.) It was such a perfect illustration of the speck and log problem Jesus described I was blown away. Yes, I’m sure I have many such areas in my own life. I believe we all do. But we truly can’t see our logs blinding us even as we point out the specks in the eyes of others.

For the record, I personally find the institutional (or even individual, for that matter) use of torture morally equivalent to terrorist acts of destruction and murder. They are both evil. Moreover, when Christians employ or defend either, we betray the one we supposedly call Lord. Yes, there are greater and lesser evils and sometimes the only option left open to our will is which evil we will choose. But evil is still evil. And neither torture nor initiating acts of violence are ever necessary. They can never, thus, be the lesser evil.

Sadly, I’m probably one of the few who read that column who didn’t nod along in agreement and outrage as I read. I’m almost certainly one of the few jarred by the phrase I quoted above. And I have no prescription for a remedy to the situation. We need to pray. We need to focus on our sins and weep for them. And we need to love.

But that’s what we’ve always needed to do. The problem, as I see it, is that most of the time we don’t.