Friday, March 29, 2013

Secular Liturgy

Last night I attended the Maundy Thursday service at our church.  I admit I'm not a fan of sitting still, of pews in general, or of listening to sermons.  I also haven't got any great love for singing with a small congregation that doesn't really like to sing.

But I've found I need liturgy in my life.  Liturgies help me mark seasons.  More than that, liturgies create seasons.  That's what I really need, because the creation of seasons becomes, for me, a discipline of memory. 

Liturgies help me to count my days, which in turn helps me to make my days count.

I used to chafe at the remembrance of birthdays.  Why should one day count more than any other?  And why should one day seem more a holiday than another?

I'm slowly getting it.  There is nothing special about the day; what is special is the use of the day.  Cheerless debunkers never tire of pointing out to me that western Christmas is celebrated on a Roman holiday, that Easter is *really* some kind of fertility rite because it's celebrated in the springtime, that all my holidays don't mean what I think they mean because someone once celebrated them in another way.  As though the genealogy of the holiday should be its only meaning, as though the celebrations of the past should have magical power over me, as though I had no power to make the days mean something new to me.

And it is true: holidays and liturgies do have power.  As I have said before, what we cherish in our hearts we worship, and what we worship we come to resemble or imitate.  Holidays are always about remembering, and remembering is cherishing.  Of course, we don't all cherish the same things.  Memorial Day is, for some, a remembrance of valor and sacrifice.  For others, it is a good day for a picnic with family.  Both are forms of cherishing, though the thing cherished is quite different.

Much of the difference probably comes from mindfulness and intention, or lack of intention.  Everyone cherishes something, but not all of us think about what we cherish.  Liturgies help me to cherish mindfully.

Which is why every April 4th I read or listen to Dr. King's "I Have A Dream" speech, and weep at his loss.  And why every July 4th I read the Declaration of Independence.  I have set aside days in my year, every year, to read texts like these, texts that have shaped my community. Because these texts aren't done with their shaping.  Texts don't hit us once and do all their work; texts seep into us, their words become our words.

Reading and re-reading and reading aloud in communities - these things are like the pouring of water through leaves or grounds - the reading percolates through the words and picks up the essential oils, the savor, the color and taste of the text, and delivers it to us like tea or hot coffee. We taste the words and then the words enter our guts, our veins, our souls.

I recently read an interview with a woman who said "I don't need to go to church to believe those things," referring to her church's beliefs.  True.  Just as I don't need to go to the gym to get exercise, or to believe that exercise is good for me.  But if I don't make a habit of getting exercise, I find I tend not to get what my body needs.  The urgent matters in life so easily overwhelm the important ones.  Often, when I return from the gym, my wife asks me "How was the gym?"  I always think, "It was hard. Everything I do at the gym is difficult."  But it is worth doing, because it helps me to maintain my health, and to fight my own decline, to fight the slow slipping away of what I want to hold onto as long as I can.  If I do this for my body, why should I not also do it for my heart and mind?
The words percolate through us, and enter our veins.

I'm not writing this to endorse all liturgies.  I'm confident that there are liturgies that celebrate awful things, and that there are participants in liturgies who make poor use of the liturgies they sit through.  As with most of what I write here, I'm trying to sort out what I believe, and why -- as another kind of discipline, one of remembering, and of being mindful of what I believe.

The liturgy of Maundy Thursday is not an easy one, because it reminds me of two things I am capable of: I am capable, like Jesus, of washing others' feet, and of living a life of love; and I am capable, like Jesus' friends, of betraying those people and ideals I most claim to cherish and worship.  If my worship is only worship in words, I find it easy to forget to worship what is best with my body, with my life.  Liturgies - and we all have liturgies - are the ways I remind my whole person to stop and remember what my words claim so easily to believe. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

My Dad Is So Cool

Between 1959 and 1962 my dad worked for NASA.  He was an engineer at IBM, who contracted him out to work on our fledgling space program.  How cool is that?  My dad helped design equipment in the Mercury Control Center at Cape Canaveral.  He wasn't an astronaut; he made astronauts possible.

Aristotle knew it: part of human excellence is pursuing knowledge of the world around us - of the cosmos we inhabit.  My father isn't a formally trained philosopher, but he was one of the first people to teach me philosophy.  Often, on Wednesdays after work, he'd take me out for pizza and cover napkins with chemical formulas, bits of logic, linguistic information he'd learned from reading Chomsky or from studying Russian and French, the history of circuit design, lessons in physics.  And I ate it up as readily as I ate up the pizza.  He was - and still is, thanks be to God - a man full of wisdom, and that wisdom is evinced by his desire to know more about the world around him.

If that doesn't convince you that my dad is one of the world's coolest dads, consider this: after pizza, he'd always take me to the local arcade and give me half a roll of quarters so I could play video games.  The other half of the roll of quarters?  He used it to play alongside me. 

Thanks, Dad. 

Is Philosophy Useful?

What can you do with a philosophy major?  William James quipped that philosophy "bakes no bread."  That is, it is not a discipline one studies in order to learn how to practice a particular craft or trade.  Philosophy tries to think about and understand everything, which makes it a discipline that does the opposite of specialization.
What does it mean to be human?
This leads some people to assume that philosophy is useless.  But that is only partly--and largely irrelevantly--true.   As Rémi Brague has said, the study of the history of philosophy is freedom.  As he puts it, "Dodging history makes us fall prey to doxa."  To put it in other terms, if we don't study the history of philosophy, we forget who we are, and believe what we believe without reasons.  To be human is to ask who we are; and asking who we are is philosophical.

Let me put this in simpler terms: if you don't ask philosophical questions - and seek their answers - someone else will do it for you.  Here's the thing: asking those questions and seeking those answers might be the thing that makes us most human, and most free.

So the answer to my initial question is another question: without philosophy, how will you remain free?

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Pastoral And The Personal In Theodicy

Theodicies, like some virtue ethics and certain ontological arguments, are easy targets for refutation, but much depends on the way they are used.

A theodicy is an attempt to reconcile the apparent evil in the world with the alleged goodness of God, often by showing that the very goodness of God makes some evil necessary; or by arguing that the goodness of God is amplified by a certain amount of evil.  In other words, the evil we experience and witness is, in the end, made to serve goodness.

Roman tombs in southern Crete.
When theodicies are spoken publicly and authoritatively, there is a real danger that they will be used to justify further evil.  If evil serves good, and evil is easier to accomplish directly than goodness, why not practice evil?

There's also the very real danger that theodicies will isolate us from one another.  Sometimes some perversity in us makes us inclined to tell someone who is experiencing fresh grief that "it's all for the good," or "it will all work out well in the end," or "your loved one is now in a better place." I would guess we do this because we do not know what else to say, and because we want the discomfort of grief banished from our presence.  In which case we speak those words like an incantation, using magic to make the unpleasantness disappear.  But the grief is not detachable from the griever, so to will the banishment of the mourning is to will the death of the mourner.  In simpler terms, when we invoke thoughtless theodicies, sometimes we are committing human sacrifice - throwing out the mourner - in order to comfort ourselves.

In spite of this, I think there is still a place for theodicies - just as there is a place for ontological arguments - provided they originate with the believer and are not forced upon her.  The mourner who chooses to believe that the dearly departed have gone to well-earned rest may believe that.  That belief may be the germination of the seeds of honor and love, or the expression of grief combined with commitment to the flourishing of the memory of the beloved - it may be the fruit of the idea that the cosmos has no right to bring this love to an end.  You may destroy the body, but the soul you shall not take from me.

My great aunt and great uncle.  Here lie their bodies.  
Of course, the mourner's grief should not turn into fixed doctrine for the rest of us, either.  Some things we simply don't know.  Death is a horizon we pass only once, a boundary that few - if any - signs are allowed to pass over.  But precisely because we do not know what comes after - because we do not even know ourselves much of the time - we may allow others what they need to endure their losses, neither forcing our justifications of evil upon them, nor denying them the explanations that may give them the comfort their hearts need.