What AM I?

One of my best buddies, Greg McKinzie, once said that the way I like to talk about religion is akin to something like systematic theology. I think he's right about this. I can talk about what Jesus Christ means to me, and it's mostly an emotive response. It's chiefly about social responsibility, healing broken relationships, learning to forgive myself and walk by grace. I treat religion, however, as a different animal.

Where with Jesus I feel like being careful not to tarnish his image or put words in his mouth, with religion I'm ready to drop 2000+ years of doctrine like a plate on the kitchen floor so that it breaks into a thousand pieces which I then play with like Lego blocks. This post is about religion, not Jesus.

"What do you mean by saying that God is the universe?" Greg asks. Greg has a Masters of Divinity, so when he asks this question, it's a gentle prod to nuance this better, to be prepared to defend such a statement. The problem is that the way I think about religion is also the way I think about a poem, or a piece of music. I say, write, or play things that feel or sound right to me. The Logos of my assertions comes later, when I'm forced to defend them like I'm playing a game of chess. Greg, Nick, whoever else is reading this; will you play with me? I'm moving out my first pawn. The dialogue below is from an imaginary Socratic questioning partner. I'm not trying to put words in anybody's mouth.

God is the I AM. He is the fount of existence. Anything that exists is Him. The blade of grass bent low by the sole of my shoe is God. The sole of my shoe is God. My foot, my leg, my out-of-shape body, the brain floating around in my head like a booger in a bowl of mucus is God.
Like Buddhism?
Yes. A lot like Buddhism. But different.
How so?
Buddhism is a great system to look at for helping to imagine what I have in mind in terms of things being "one." In Buddhism, however, the goal seems to be the emptying of the self and the attainment of a transcendent state of being; to break the cycle of suffering and rebirth. This goal appears to be achieved mostly through refraining. Refraining from asserting yourself as an individual. Refraining from perceiving reality as real. Refraining from behavior destructive to yourself or others. Refraining, I think, is only half of the equation. If God is the universe, and we are His agents, what happens when God refrains? I realize that I'm a Westerner, and evolution is a virtue to me, but what about all the beaten women, the starving children, the broken relationships? Refraining doesn't solve these problems. When we are all one, when we are fragments of the evolving consciousness of God, a beaten woman is at once God and ourselves. We have an urgent responsibility to act.

If we are fragments of the evolving consciousness of God, then the total emptying of self is counterproductive. Our goal is somewhat Nietzschean; we are to reach as high as possible, to be the most we can be as human beings suffused with love, beauty, and intelligence. We are to become Ubermensch, not so that we can be above all laws, but that so we can butt up against our cultural milieu like a fish against its net, pulling ourselves and everyone caught in the same net toward something higher.
Are you saying that God evolves?
Yeah. I think so. This opens up worm-cans and causes huge problems. Maybe you can help iterate some of these?
So, er, what about sin?
Sin is that which destroys: relationships, living things, beauty, consciousness.
The afterlife?
Your actions resonate down throughout all of human history; good or bad. And who knows? Energy cannot be created or destroyed...
So, if collectively speaking the universe is God, how does God intervene in the universe?
Have you ever had inner conflict? Have you ever spoken with yourself? Cognitive dissonance, etc?
I just don't understand what this buys you.
Well, for one, it makes for a pretty awesome theodicy. It also has huge implications for things like free will, tolerance, social action, and makes for a neat eschatological trajectory.
This sounds embarrassingly naive.
Be more specific. Maybe you can educate me.


We like to put ourselves in strange predicaments. For instance, orthodox doctrine insists that God is omniscient, but that He also allows for free agents (us). I used to stay up at night wondering how to resolve this paradox. My best stab at it was the idea that God sees all possible threads in the weaving of reality, but doesn't (or refuses to) know which thread we will actually choose. Though I haven't read it myself, I think this is the premise of the book God of the Possible.

After attempting to describe this idea to my friend Aaron Milstead, he asked me how this is any different than holding a die and not casting it. You know how many sides there are on the die, but you're not sure which side is going to be facing up in the end. For some reason, that deflated the emotional appeal of the "every thread in a carpet" analogy. How is knowing that there are six sides on a die omniscience?

Here is where I'd like to make a distinction in terms. I think knowing all sides of a die is omniscience. Knowing which side will land facing up every time, however, would be more like omniprescience, or foreknowledge of all things.

To limit omniscience even further, as Kevin West suggested today, perhaps God only knows all that is possible to know. It is impossible, for instance, to have foreknowledge of the actions of a being with free agency.

If God is the universe, as I'm inclined to believe given my monist tendencies, and the universe is indeterminate on the the most fundamental level (see last post), then perhaps the universe does have free will. Perhaps the universe, as a system that encompasses all things, has consciousness.

Leaves in the wind
It would be like the wind blowing through the leaves of a thousand trees: each leaf adds its own whisper to the collective sigh, and the sigh itself means something.

Free Will vs. Indeterminacy

There's been a stir recently in math/philosophy circles due to John Conway's "mathematical proof" that the universe has freedom of will. You can read a good article about it here. As my buddy Kevin West pointed out, however, there is a difference between free will and indeterminacy.

Conway uses the terms interchangeably, but I think Kevin's right: there is an important distinction. Lucretius Carus asks this question:
If the atoms never swerve so as to originate some new movement that will snap the bonds of fate, the everlasting sequence of cause and effect—what is the source of the free will possessed by living things throughout the earth?
The indeterminacy implied by quantum physics certainly problematizes the idea of causality. In fact, it might even throw a big wrench in Aristotle's Prime Mover argument for the existence of God. It does not, however, imply freedom of will, which seems to require consciousness. Random movement is not the same as being free to decide where to go.

Did She Have a Choice?


So here's David, parading about the Desert of Maon with 600+ men, when he decides his men are hungry. He knows of this wealthy guy named Nabal who owns the King Ranch of the Ancient Near East. He dispatches a handful of men who tactfully inform said Nabal that because David didn't attack Nabal's shepherds, Nabal owes them food. What would you say to such a preposterous claim? Nabal is much more tactful than I would be:

Who is this David? Who is this son of Jesse? Many servants are breaking away from their masters these days. Why should I take my bread and water, and the meat I have slaughtered for my shearers, and give it to men coming from who knows where?

David's men shake their heads on the way back to camp. This guy's toast, they must've thought. Sure enough, David gets pissy and marches 400 armed men straight to Nabal's doorstep. Fortunately for Nabal, his wife Abigail gets wind of these happenings, and to save her family's hide, she decides to take a wagon load of food to David before his men whip out their swords. She performs for David a rather winning speech, and because of her (and the wagon load of food), David decides to spare Nabal's family.

But wait! Abigail returns to Nabal and tells him about what she did. He has a stroke and dies. When David finds out, he sends men to Abigail who say "David has sent us to you to take you to become his wife." David likes to take. Did Abigail ever have a choice? Did Bathsheba ever have a choice?

1 Samuel 25

The Curtain

On some nights I sit in my backyard,
my head turned away
from the only window I can see from where I sit.
My head is turned, not because of what the window reveals,
but because the window is draped with red curtains
and I’m afraid that one day
the curtains will be drawn aside.
Maybe there will be a woman undressing,
or something equally
which is the name we’ve given to our fear
that the book of Ecclesiastes is right:
there’s nothing new under our sun;
everything is a quiet repetition of the same;
the starry dynamo in the machinery of night
is a box full of cogs,
and after counting every tooth
we’ll no longer burn for heavenly connection.
What if Moses felt the same way?
What if God offered to show himself to Moses in all of his glory
yet Moses chose to hide himself in the cleft of the rock?
What if all he wanted was a glimpse,
just a hint,
just the backside glory?

The Hopeful Midwife, pt 4

In my last note, I walked through a pattern in the biblical text (Job, the tower collapsing and killing people, the man born blind, Jesus on the cross). I pointed out how, in each of these stories, humanity's knee jerk reaction was to establish a cause-and-effect rationale for these occurrences. In each of these stories, God debunks this rationale, and does not replace it with anything ultimately satisfying. Instead, he provides humanity with a down payment of sorts. He climbs up on a tree and nails himself there. It's a gesture of solidarity, a narratological signal flare fired off which resonates down through history: "There are no answers (yet?), but take heart." It is the green light on Daisy's dock which shines dimly through the fog at the end of The Great Gatsby. There is no adequate answer to the why, but there's a who which manifests itself in all our meta-narratives, whether this who be labeled the Absolute Spirit, Allah, Brahman, the Real, the universe, or Yahweh.

When Moses asks to see Yahweh in his full glory, God more or less obliges: "And it shall come to pass, while my glory passes by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock, and will cover you with My hand while I pass by" (Exodus 33:22). Moses is shielded because, as a subjective being, he cannot witness the fullness of God.

For atheists/existentialists, the experience is the same. When standing in front of the Niagara Falls, it is the sense of awe (the Sublime) at experiencing something so much more expansive than our minds can grasp. It is an emotional measuring stick of the distance between the bottom half of the diagram in my first note and the top half. If the Sublime is a testimony that there exists an objective reality independent of our subjective perceptions, aesthetics (beauty) is our compass. Even if all aesthetics can be reduced to evolutionary/ biological drives designed to help us choose a healthy mate, "healthy" is defined as that which endures, that which is sound, that which will increase the probability of healthy progeny, that which makes the midwife's job easier. Beauty helps to reveal the character of the Real. It is a compass, a hint as to where we might try our footing as we attempt to cross the chasm.

Just as Jesus' resurrection provides a down-payment toward managing suffering for Christians, Douglas Porpora points out that secular humanism has received its share of down-payments: "In our postmodern era, any suggestion of progress is suspect. Yet, is it really so outrageous to see some moral progress in our history? Although it may persist in some places, the evilness of slavery is now almost universally taken for granted."

The point of all this is to allay what I perceive to be humanity's greatest fear, perhaps best expressed by Frank Kermode: "[world] and book, it may be, are hopelessly plural, endlessly disappointing; we stand alone before them, aware of their arbitrariness and impenetrability, knowing that they may be narratives only because of our impudent intervention." Yet even Kermode must couch his statement in the "may be," he must leave that last line of escape, that wild Hegelian hope that all of reality is an attempt to realize a magnificent idea, that the unfolding of reality is a creative process.

Even for those like Richard Rorty who would take epistemic relativity to an extreme and claim that there is no "way things really are," hope must substitute "for the sort of knowledge which philosophers have usually tried to attain," hope for a better future, hope "that the future will astonish and exhilarate."

As a midwife, allow me a homiletic moment: Take hope. Take wild hope. Let the Sublime be your evidence. Let progress be your down-payment. Let beauty be your guide as you find your footing across the tight-rope which stretches between Derrida's irreconcilable interpretations of interpretation.

The Hopeful Midwife, pt 3

So what does the book of Job have to do with being a midwife? It is my contention that there is a pattern in the book of Job which repeats itself throughout the biblical text, and that this pattern is one which has important implications for the "hope" aspect of midwivery. If you are not a Christian, please bear with me as I take a look at this pattern. I feel confident there will be a payoff worthy of your time investment.

As Carl Jung has so passionately expressed, the book of Job can be frustrating, and ultimately indicting. If I were writing a theodicy (a defense of God), I would point out that the book has a similar structure to other works around that time period (The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, or Ahiqar to name a couple), thereby rendering the frame tale (where God and Satan make a bet at the beginning, and then where God "replaces" Job’s family and riches) more literary convention than conveyor of theological implications.

I’m more interested, however, in pointing out that the book of Job is a refutation of Deuteronomistic theology, which put in simple terms, means that God punishes you for doing bad things, and rewards you for doing good things. Job’s friends are assuming that Job must have sinned gravely for such tragedy to have befallen him. As readers, we are informed that Job is innocent.

Job says in 31:35, "I sign now my defense—let the Almighty answer me." The Almighty answers, "Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?" (Job 38:4). His answer is unsatisfactory, it is not an answer—only another question whose implications highlight the insignificance of Job, an answer which belittles Job’s suffering. Deuteronomistic theology has been debunked, but nothing has replaced it. Job’s question is left hanging, the problem of evil has been raised by Job and avoided by God.

To draw a rough analogy, Job’s friends represent the desire to seek truth and origin, Job is the first postmodernist (the first one to raise a red flag and wave it wildly), and God is the unapproachable Real, the territory that can't be mapped. There is a pattern here of man asking why of God, and of God seemingly avoiding the question.

This pattern is repeated in the New Testament. Consider Luke 13:1-5:

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! ... Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no!"

Here again we find pointless suffering: murder and accidental death. The tendency to rationalize is met with an emphatic no: for Christ there is no Deuteronomistic theology, no cosmic balance sheet maintaining a karmic economy.

In John, the pattern is repeated:

As [Christ] went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" "Neither this man nor his parents sinned," said Jesus (9:1-3).

Christ’s disciples are trying to make sense of this man’s suffering by applying Deuteronomistic theology. Christ debunks their theology, but does not seem to replace it.

One last repetition of the pattern occurs at the climax of the Christian narrative. After having been betrayed, arrested, beaten, brutally whipped, and forced to carry his own cross before being affixed to it with nails, Christ calls out: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46). Here is the same Christ who so emphatically denied that suffering had any connection with the sufferer, screaming with his last breath the same why muttered by Job. At first blush, it appears again that no answer is given.

Christ, however, is constantly invoking the texts that have come before him. After his resurrection, Christ tells his disciples that "[this] is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms" (Luke 44). It is not without warrant, then, that we reconsider Christ’s words on the cross, and not surprising that we find them to be a direct quotation of Psalm 22: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (1). What message does this psalm convey that it should be invoked during Christ’s darkest hour? The psalm continues:

O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer… [They] have pierced my hands and my feet… They divide my garments among them / and cast lots for my clothing… But you, O LORD, be not far off…praise him! … For he has not despised or disdained / the suffering of the afflicted one; / he has not hidden his face from him / but has listened to his cry for help. (2-24)

Given the lack of answer from God, the piercing of feet and hands, and the divvying up of garments, Christ’s crucifixion clearly enters into a conversation with Psalm 22. The psalmist insists that even though God refuses to answer, God has not hidden his face. In re-reading the crucifixion, one notes that "darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour, for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two" (Luke 23:44-45). While no explicit answer was given to Christ, a theophany (where God appears) occurred—God blocked out the sun and tore the temple curtain, the curtain that had effectively become a partition separating God from man. Where Christ asks why, God answers who.

In fact, upon re-reading Job, the same mysterious exchange occurs: Job asks why, God answers, "Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?" (Job 38:4). The implicit statement in God’s response is God is the one who created the earth. God has answered with who. The encounter with the man born blind in John can be read similarly. Christ’s disciples ask why and Christ answers: "[This] happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life" (9:3). Christ answers, more or less, with who.

Anyone want to take a stab at why this might be relevant to midwivery?

The Hopeful Midwife, pt 2

In the first note of this series, I tried my best to describe two ways of interpreting the world. While through the comments of that note many of us have more or less "tipped our hand" as to which side we feel more comfortable with, the fact of the matter is that in terms of hard, irrefutable evidence, none of us can camp out on either side of the fence with any authority. The existence of God and the Flying Spaghetti Monster are equally proven/disproven.

Of all the stories I have encountered, none is more relevant to being a midwife than the story of the blind men and an elephant. From Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blind_Men_and_an_Elephant):

"In various versions of the tale, a group of blind men (or men in the dark) touch an elephant to learn what it is like. Each one touches a different part, but only one part, such as the side or the tusk. They then compare notes on what they felt, and learn they are in complete disagreement. The story is used to indicate that reality may be viewed differently depending upon one's perspective, suggesting that what seems an absolute truth may be relative due to the deceptive nature of half-truths."

As a Westerner, I read that story looking for a "moral," for a "take-home message." For me, the message is that the blind men in that room have one of two choices. They can ignore, hate, or commit violence; or they can do their best to express what they've encountered, and listen to the others in the room with empathy and openness. Only the second avenue leads to full(er) knowledge of the elephant.

Further complicating the matter, however, is that in our situation, several of the men in the room feel as though the elephant has reached its trunk around and spoken directly (and exclusively) into their ears, granting them special revelation. For them, every odor, every sound the elephant makes fits neatly into their revelation, vindicating their belief. They do not take this privilege lightly, and through self-denial and love, they express their revelation in the best way they know how.

The act of expressing special revelation is mission work. I myself was a member of a fledgling mission team (that has now finally made it to the field), and though I am no longer a field worker, my sympathies and beliefs lie with them. In other words, by describing and promoting midwivery, I'm not trying to discount or disparage mission work. The two, however, are very distinct enterprises.

For the sake of dialogue, midwivery entails setting aside the implications of direct revelation. Among midwives, there are no privileged perspectives. The purpose (and hope) of this dialogue is to learn more about the elephant through the senses of other blind men.

In my next note I'll be looking at the Biblical book of Job. To load your gun a little, I wanted to share bits of Carl Jung's reading of this text:

"I shall not give a cool and carefully considered exegesis that tries to be fair to every detail, but a purely subjective reaction. In this way I hope to act as a voice for many who feel the same way as I do, and to give expression to the shattering emotion which the unvarnished spectacle of divine savagery and ruthlessness produces in us... [I am referring to the ] double-faced behaviour of which [God] had already given proof in the Garden of Eden, when he pointed out the tree to the First Parents and at the same time forbade them to eat of it… Without further ado Job is robbed of his herds, his servants are slaughtered, his sons and daughters are killed by a whirlwind, and he himself is smitten with sickness and brought to the brink of the grave… His justified complaint finds no hearing with the judge who is so much praised for his justice… Instead, he comes riding along on the tempest of his almightiness and thunders reproaches at the half-crushed human worm (Job 38:2): Who is this that darkens counsel / by his words without insight? In view of the subsequent words of Yahweh, one must really ask oneself: Who is darkening what counsel? The only dark thing here is how Yahweh ever came to make a bet with Satan."

Have you read the book of Job? What did you think?

The Hopeful Midwife, pt 1

For those of us who think words are important, Jacques Derrida delivered what is arguably the most important lecture of the 20th century entitled "Structure, Sign, and Play" in 1966. At the end of his lecture, Derrida noted that there are two ways in which we can approach the written word: "[The] one seeks to decipher…a truth or an origin," "the other…affirms freeplay and tries to pass beyond…the reassuring foundation." I have tried to create a diagram to help explain what I think he means. The top half is the first "way," the bottom half is the second:

How is this relevant to you? If you're an academic in the field of literature, it's the question of whether or not there are ever objectively better interpretations of a given work. If you're in philosophy, it's the question of whether or not the Real can ever be understood or represented in any universal fashion. If you have religious beliefs centered around a sacred text, it's the question of whether or not you can discern what the author's intended meaning was for you in your religious life.

If you answered "yes we can" to any of the questions in the above paragraph, you probably feel more comfortable with the top half of my diagram. If you answered "no we can't," you prefer the bottom. Unfortunately, Derrida claims that we can't camp out on either half. If you prefer the top half, there will always be inconsistencies, there will always be exceptions to the universal. If you prefer the bottom, you'll always be haunted by nostalgia for transcendent meaning. Unless, of course, you prefer to be blind. There are Christian fanatics who refuse to wrestle with the implications of the fact that God commanded the nation of Israel to commit genocide in Deuteronomy, or that the high priest Jesus mentions in Mark 2:26 (Abiathar) is not the same as the one mentioned in 1 Samuel 21 (Ahimelech). There are atheists who adamantly insist that all religious experiences are mass delusions, despite the fact that over 90% of the world's population adheres to one religion or another. If I may make an evaluative statement, I think this kind of blindness on both sides of the fence is naive and the source of many of the world's ills.

Derrida states that "[we] must first try to conceive of the common ground [between these two perspectives], and the difference of this irreducible difference." In describing the work of finding the common ground, Derrida does so "with a glance toward the business of childbearing." In a sense, Derrida is asking us to become champions of the middle, to become expert midwives. A good midwife knows that only the mother is capable of giving birth, that being a midwife is about setting things up, making straight the path, and waiting with hope.

This is the project I am most interested in at present. The next few notes will map out my explorations of this middle ground. I hope you'll join me in discussing whether Derrida's dichotomy is sound, whether I'm extending it appropriately, and whether or not you think people must fit in one category or the other.