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Archive for the ‘Faith’ Category

500px-TeapartyA philosophy professor acquaintance of mine recently wrote an interesting blog post defending the Tea Party’s rationality, and then Salon.com came out with an article, Tea Party Radicalism is Misunderstood, echoing some of those points and differing on others. I appreciated the attempts at de-simplifying people’s views of the Tea Party’s tactics, and I have been doing a lot of thinking the past few days about political beliefs and rationality (being furloughed from my job as a federal employee, I have had plenty of time think).

After my initial shock and anger at being furloughed, during which I was firing off endless tweets to Rep. Boehner and Sen. Ted Cruz about how the Republican party was a bunch of terrorists, I banned myself from social media for a few days to give myself a chance to mourn quietly and calm down and create some rules for myself about how to deal mentally and emotionally and socially with all of this. My situation is a little complicated by the fact that I have a very large extended family and network of old friends who are mostly very politically conservative, and many think the shutdown and proposed default on the national debt are great ideas, and that the Republicans in Congress should keep on going with forward with this strategy until Obamacare is defunded, and even then maybe they still should keep it going.

The shutdown is creating looming financial hardships for me and many other federal workers I know – yes, a bill was passed to give us back pay, but there is no knowing how long many of us will have to live on our savings or borrowed money. The city of DC, where I live, is running out of its cash reserves, and it’s anyone’s guess how long it can keep up basic services. But I think what has been hardest and most frightening for me has been having to emerge from the little apolitical literary bubble in which I’ve been living happily for the past few years, and having to open my eyes to the ugly thing that political discourse has become.

For the past few years I have pretty much ignored politics and the news (except for news about books and publishing) and have just been focused on taking care of my daughter, writing historical novels, and making it through the exhausting nine-to-six-thirty grind. But now it’s hard to ignore. What I observe is that productive communication about politics seems nearly impossible. People simply do not want to engage with those who don’t share their own beliefs. Conservatives will watch Fox News, and liberals will read the New York Times and the Washington Post, and never the twain shall meet. They surround themselves with voices that reinforce what they already believe. But if we aren’t willing to let our beliefs be challenged, how can we ever learn if we’re wrong about something?

In fact, the phenomenon of being stuck in the proverbial echo chamber is understandable, because those brave souls who do attempt to engage with opposing opinions get slammed with incredible vulgarity, hyperbolic insults, mockery, dismissiveness, and unwillingness to listen. It doesn’t take long to get a sense that any attempt at a true exchange of ideas under those conditions is futile. And these words may not be sticks and stones, but they can deeply hurt people who are already going out of their comfort zone in the attempt to talk to people on the other side. So I can hardly blame people for wanting to retreat to the soothing haven of forums where the views they hear are in line with their own. My enraged tweets accusing elected lawmakers of terrorism were sadly typical.

How can real conversation ever take place if we aren’t willing to be polite and respectful to each other?

“But what if the other side doesn’t deserve respect? What if they’re just a bunch of self-serving jerks? What if they’re seriously just lunatics?” On the self-serving jerks question, well, if we only respect people who serve our interests, are we any less self-serving or jerky? Productive discourse is most likely to take place if we begin from a faith that other human beings have intrinsic worth and embrace a default stance of civility toward those we enter into dialogue with.

And on the lunatics question – finally getting to the main point of this post – I think true instances of mass mental illness are fairly rare, at least if we’re talking about delusional psychosis. What I do see a lot of that can look quite a bit like lunacy is listening in bad faith and without charity. The pattern is all too familiar: a politician says something that sounds horrible or ridiculous or self-damning when taken out of context. Or perhaps a public figure is just plain having a bad day, or is exhausted, or genuinely misspeaks, choosing the wrong words or mistaking the facts in the heat of the moment. The statement is then gleefully taken up and spun by journalists and social media. It shouldn’t take too much brain power to see through these seemingly outrageous statements, and yet gaffe-spinning has become a veritable industry, and a form of willful laziness prevails among consumers of journalism and social media so that they simply aren’t willing to exercise even the small amount of brain power it would take to approach such reported statements with the skepticism they deserve.

As for charity, I’m not referring to the Christian concept of brotherly love (though that would not be out of place here), but rather the philosophical or rhetorical principle that your own argument will be more valid and convincing if you have given your opponent’s arguments every benefit of the doubt and considered it with the maximum amount of fairness and generosity. That kind of charity is hard, dog-hard, not nearly as easy as seeing through gaffes. It’s more of an ideal to strive for than something anyone ever one hundred percent masters. But the more all parties involved strive toward that ideal, the more productive arguments can be, not to mention the more emotionally endurable.

So, the conservatives, and the Tea Party — are the people who adhere to their principles and strategies irrational? I would say not in the sense of being “crazy” en masse, though I do see some of this listening in bad faith and without charity in some of them, as I also see it in some people on the left. On the other hand, political beliefs of any stripe often resemble religious beliefs in that they function more like marriage commitments than logical thought processes. People are tied to their political identities, as they are to their romantic partners and to their religious roots, through complex webs of time, emotions, values, memories, experiences, educational histories, family and friends, community roles, hopes, and fears. As such, people can rarely ever be simply talked out of their politics, though they are capable of switching sides, just as they may leave romantic relationships and religions. When they do, it can be a long, slow, painful process.

I don’t see the persistence of political beliefs, even in the face of seemingly contradictory evidence, as irrational or contrary to reason, so much as it may be non-rational. That is, it may not have much at all to do with one’s ability to reason (or one’s intelligence or educational level for that matter), and may have a lot more to do with the “givens” we start out with and have to reason from. (For example, “given” that John enjoys eating pineapples, therefore, it would be rational for John to seek to eat pineapples. His original liking for pineapples is neither rational nor irrational.) On the other hand, arguments based in fact and reasoning can play a role in changing people’s commitments, even if they will not always play a starring role alongside attempts to influence people’s desires in non-rational ways. (For example, if someone tells John that his pineapple has been genetically modified, he will have to consider whether his life-long liking for pineapples outweighs his worries about genetically modified food. But then there is that seductive ad for pineapples, which makes them seem so sweet and ripe and luscious! Plus, the pineapples are on sale. His children love pineapples too — he must think of the children! John has a very tough call to make …)

To be productive and worthwhile, political discourse has to understand and acknowledge these complexities and the non-rational elements that hold people to their political commitments. It’s all too easy to lose sight of them and get frustrated because “people won’t see reason” or “won’t acknowledge the facts,” and then you want to start accusing people of being crazy. As for the Tea Party, in holding firm to their deeply held beliefs, they are being, if not exactly rational, very quintessentially and typically human. I don’t agree with their beliefs or their strategy, but I respect their humanity, and I believe that they have their reasons for believing as they do, even if those reasons aren’t always clear to me, or even to them. (Is my own reasoning about my life choices always clear to me?)

So here are the principles I’ve laid out for myself for participating in conversations about politics:

  1. Be open-minded and willing to consider others’ views.
  2. Always remember it might turn out to be me who’s wrong – time makes fools of us all.
  3. Be civil, respectful, polite, and kind to person I am talking with.
  4. Listen in good faith and give people the benefit of the doubt.
  5. Be charitable in arguing – give my opponent’s arguments the strongest possible construction.
  6. Be patient with people and remember that changing deeply held beliefs can be very difficult.

What are your principles for talking politics?

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Twisted Tree

After my marriage ended about a year ago, I had no real intention of dating, at least not through my own efforts. As it happened, I ended up doing a surprising amount of dating that just sort of happened without my feeling like I’d gone much out of my way to cause it. In this willy-nilly fashion, I ended up getting into a five-month-long relationship, which very recently ended – again, without my meaning it to. The unexpected breakup, as these things do, has me trying to make sense of why I got myself into this in the first place and where I go from here. And so in this post, I wanted to take some time to remind myself what my goals are with relationships and what it’s all about for me.

Relationships (not just romantic ones, but all kinds of relationships between people), like a lot of things, can be said to have a form and a content. The form is the shape it takes: how often you see each other, what kinds of things you do when you meet, the words you use to describe it and each other – “marriage,” “dating,” “boyfriend,” or “friend,” or “the person I’m seeing.” And then there’s the content – who you both are as individuals, what you bring out in each other, the shape your interactions take, the emotions they provoke.

When I was younger, I think I tended to focus more on the form of romantic relationship I wanted than the content. I wanted a fling, or a relationship, or a boyfriend, or a fiance, or a marriage, and it didn’t matter as much who exactly filled the role as long as the role was filled by some acceptable candidate. I think I wasn’t alone in this. I would occasionally go on dating sites or look at personal ads, and they were set up a lot like shopping sites and regular ads. There were so many people to sort through that you almost had to start off with a checklist. You set your criteria for a person in a certain age range, having x religious beliefs and y political beliefs and z non-negotiable interests or aversions. Having decided on your preferred format of personal qualities and the form of relationships you were aiming for (long-term, fling, etc.), you then shopped around for a person who fit into it. It was a lot like having a certain pair of shoes in mind – strappy white sandals with no more than a 2.5-inch heel for no more than $80 – and looking until you found just what you wanted.

That is one way of going about things. And there’s a certain lovely idealism in searching for the grand love affair, the one that includes flowers, nights of passion, stimulating conversation, shared aesthetics and values, and progresses to a tasteful, well-attended wedding and eventually growing happily old together, watching your grandchildren play and sipping lemonade out on the front porch. But in the end, that, too, is just another checklist.

Then there are those who talk of “settling.” Which seems to mean accepting that you might just not get everything on the list checked off, heaving a sigh, and going ahead with it anyway, but never really putting aside your resentment or sense of inadequacy about those boxes on the list that didn’t get a checkmark.

At some point, though, I’d had my fill of looking for the perfect form, and I didn’t want to do it anymore. I had experienced all the main forms, and in the end, a form was just something empty, like a madeleine pan without any madeleines in it, or a jello mold without any jello. In the end, it was the organic shape the relationship took as it grew that made me and the other person either happy or unhappy. And so the goal stopped being a relationship of this or that kind, but authenticity in my interactions with the people around me and generally doing what made me and others happy (with all the caveats of ethics and social and moral responsibility). I decided I would try to just take the people I encountered for what they were and let that content dictate the form of my relationship to them. If I could love someone, I would love them, if I could like them, I would like them. If I enjoyed spending time with someone, I would try to spend more time with them, and so on. I’d worry less about what it was called and what it looked like to other people than about what it did for us.

So with the passing of this last relationship, I wonder what I’m mourning for. Am I more sad to lose the person, or am I just sad not to have a boyfriend anymore? I think even with my healthier philosophy of authenticity, it’s still easy to get caught up in the forms. It was nice being able to say I had a boyfriend, to put “in a relationship” on my Facebook page, to use plural pronouns like “we” and “us.” It was nice having an automatic date to bring to things like weddings and concerts. I will miss all of that.

But I have to remind myself that while the form might have fallen out of shape, the content is still there. We’re still the same people we were before, even if we’re no longer a “we.” The experiences and memories don’t lose their value just because they’re now of things I did with an ex instead of things I did with a boyfriend. And while nothing that comes to me in the future will ever take just the same shape that grew up with this past relationship, there’s an infinity of lovely, twisting and branching new structures that can form as I go on loving whomever I can love and liking whomever I can like, and spending time with people I enjoy being with, as much and as long as I can – or being alone when I need to be.

The pain of losing someone you care about can’t really be reasoned or blogged away, but still, I think it helps to remind myself of all this.

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Hotel AmerikaI have a new essay out, published in the latest issue of a literary magazine called Hotel Amerika, which is run by Columbia College in Chicago. The essay is called “A Surefire Recipe for Unassailable Faith, Involving Four Judgments and a Vegetable Analogy.” In it, I give my own homecooked recipe for getting faith and intellectual integrity to cohere. This one is pretty short and easy reading (relative to the last essay I had published, if you were one of the two people who tried to read through that one). Just four pages of literary-philosophic-culinary musings.

Incidentally, this shows what a long, long time it takes to get something published. When I wrote this a couple of years ago, I was still a housewife who spent a lot of time in the kitchen. Now I’m a divorced working single mom who, alas, rarely sees the kitchen.

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Jabberwock Review

I have a new print publication out in Jabberwock Review, a literary magazine published by Mississippi State University. It’s a nonfiction essay called “The Economy of Souls.” It’s kind of a long essay, so I will make cookies for anyone who manages to read the whole thing. There will be a quiz afterward. Enjoy!

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Large Polygamist Family

Polygamist Family Photo by Stephanie Sinclair

Back in January, I wrote a bit about the question of whether the Great (Ex)Mormon Novel had been or would be written, and what it might look like. And now just recently, Slate has an article by the poetry editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought that explores some similar questions and reviews a possible candidate for the title, Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist.

The book sounds good, but I find it interesting that many Mormonism-themed books that have been floated as contenders deal with Mormonism’s polygamous past rather than its plain vanilla present. American polygamy clearly has a lot of intrinsic novelistic drama to it, and so is a natural subject for fiction (not to mention nonfiction, like Jon Krakauer’s brilliant Under the Banner of Heaven). And clearly, also, this is the aspect of Mormonism that tends to capture the popular imagination, as witnessed by the continuing popularity of HBO’s Big Love and by yesterday’s Doonesbury cartoon. Books like Virginia Sorenson’s The Evening and the Morning, Levi Peterson’s The Backslider, David Ebershoff’s The 19th Wife, Carol Lynch Williams’s young adult novel The Chosen One, as well as less well known contributions like C.L. Hanson’s Exmormon all deal with polygamy to some degree or another.

The problem with this is that for your average Mormon on the street, especially once you get outside of Utah, polygamy is not a going concern or something you think about very often. At least, it wasn’t for me growing up and during my churchgoing years in Arizona and elsewhere. What I want to know is, where is the “Mormon” novel that isn’t about the freak show that is polygamy? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Well, *modest cough*, come to think of it, I’ve written one. I wonder if anyone will want to read a Mormonism-themed novel in which there is no mention whatever of polygamy …

Anyways, for some interesting discussions of the Slate article on other blogs, see also here and here.

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Illustration from William Blake's "Songs of Experience"

Illustration from William Blake's "Songs of Experience"

(With apologies to William Blake, this is a post I’m writing specifically to submit to this Humanist Symposium thingie for bloggers I just learned about—the next one will be hosted April 4th by Letters from a Broad, a blog whose author is also a novelist.)

Given the phase of music enthusiasm I’ve been going through lately, I thought I’d link to and discuss a few songs I like that deal with the experience of being an unbeliever in a believing world:

First Song: The Virginian, by Neko Case

Lyrics:

When I was young, I knew a girl
Who wouldn’t love God as a test
Or gamble with her happiness
And so led astray
So she did turn
Her father would say,
‘You’re only a guest of the master’
But passion was her Sunday best
And she fell away

She fell away
She fell away
She fell away from the side of the Lord
And she was free to do what she wanted
With clouds of her own
Na na na na

When she grew up, she fell in love
She thought it was all that she wanted
She knew how it felt to be haunted
And he ran away
Picked herself up
And said through her tears
Don’t waste anymore of your time
You’ll spend it all standing in line
They’ll turn you away

(Refrain)

Oh but superstition
And your heart’s permission
‘Cause you’re good enough, good enough, good enough
To make it alone
Then when she died
She didn’t ask God
To take her back into his graces
She’d taken on to many shapes
And too many were strange
And as they lay her in to the ground
Her spirits, they all flew all away
The sun shone so bright on that day
You thought it was spring
(Refrain)

Comments:

One of the many interesting things about this song is the connection it draws between the spiritual and the romantic. It seems to me that in many cases, part of what draws people to religion is a longing for intimacy. The relationship with God is a love-relationship—no one knows you so intimately and loves you so unconditionally as God. Psychologists and occasionally philosophers talk about romantic love as an impulse to submit one’s will to another, to have the self subsumed in another self, to have the borders between self and other fall and merge into one another—it’s a means of transcending one’s solitary, solipsistic existence. At the same time, it’s a flight from freedom and independence, from the necessity of having to choose for yourself and take sole responsibility for your existence.

Of course, the trouble with God as a substitute for human intimacy is that God seems to have intimacy issues. He tends to resemble a guy (or girl) who’s just not that into you. He never calls, doesn’t send a card on your birthday … and when was the last time you had a two-way conversation with Him? If He does appear to communicate, it’s always indirectly, by way of other people, sort of like when one of the Sex and the City girls is dating a rich business mogul who has his secretary send flowers instead of calling.

The girl in the song sees that human passion and intimacy are what she really wants. She’s not going to gamble with her happiness by waiting around for God to call; instead she leaves Him and moves on to fall in love with a real person. But then she realizes human love isn’t dependable either—ultimately she learns not to flee freedom either through God or through romance. The moral of the story for freethinkers is that leaving dogmatism behind may not necessarily open up new doors to happiness. It’s something that ultimately has to be done out of integrity and honesty and love for these things in themselves, rather than with the expectation that greater happiness will result. If a person can manage that, they’ll have no regrets even if they turn out to have been wrong on Judgment Day.

Second Song: One Man’s Shame, by William Elliott Whitmore

Lyrics:

Don’t alter my altar
don’t desecrate my shrine
My church is the water
and my home is underneath the shady pines
Don’t underestimate the spine in a poor man’s back
when it’s against the wall and his future’s black
One man’s story is another man’s shame
I ain’t bound for glory, I’m bound for flames
Take to the woods boy, and cover up your tracks
Go away child and don’t look back
Sad is the lullaby from a mother’s heart and soul
when she knows her child has strayed from the fold
The parish will perish
by death’s cruel hand
and finish the job that fate began
All that static in the attic,
that’s just an old drunk ghost
His chains are rattlin’ but his end is close
Ain’t no hell below and ain’t no heaven above
I came for the drinks but I stayed for the love

Comments:

Here the unbeliever is prepared to defend his own concepts of altar, shrine, church, and home, and warns others not to underestimate his strength—he’ll stand up for himself; he’s a poor man with nothing to lose. He realizes and accepts that what to him is simply his story will be viewed as a shame to others; they’ll see him as someone who’s strayed from the fold and is bound for the flames of hell. But his advice to anyone in doubt is to leave and not look back. (Presumably, to leave dogmatism behind, that is.) Ultimately, the “ghost” of religion rattling in the “attic” (our subconscious? the collective unconscious?) will be fade away … And there’ll still be drinks and love.

I just like the attitude of defiance in this song, the stance of embracing your own story even if it looks like shame to others.

Third Song: Mercy Seat, by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds*

Lyrics:

They are long, so I’ll just put the refrain—you can see all the song’s lyrics here.

And the mercy seat is waiting
And I think my head is burning
And in a way I’m yearning
To be done with all this measuring of truth.
An eye for an eye
A tooth for a tooth
And anyway I told the truth
And I’m not afraid to die.

Comments:

This is a ballad about a man condemned to death. (Incidentally, Johnny Cash does a great cover of it also.) Again we have the attitude of defiance, and to me there’s also something very Socratic about it. The narrator is willing to accept responsibility for his own existence and choices, even if that means death. And whatever he may have done, he’s kept his integrity and told the truth. Like the girl in the first song, he doesn’t fear death or a Day of Judgment; both narrators have made their choices and will stand by them, come what may.

The religious believer is ideologically equipped to deal with death—she has comforting concepts like an afterlife and the promise of seeing loved ones again in the hereafter. To some, giving up these consolations and accepting the reality and finality of death may be one of the most difficult aspects of leaving religion behind. And even for the determined unbeliever, there’s a lingering uncertainty about what really happens at death. (Consider the strange story of atheist philosopher A.J. Ayer’s near-death experience.) In The Apology, Socrates says death is likely one of two things: either a state of unconsciousness comparable to a pleasant sleep, or a chance to continue doing exactly what he’s done all his life:

Above all, I shall be able to continue my search into true and false knowledge; as in this world, so also in that; I shall find out who is wise, and who pretends to be wise, and is not. What would not a man give, O judges, to be able to examine the leader of the great Trojan expedition; or Odysseus or Sisyphus, or numberless others, men and women too! What infinite delight would there be in conversing with them and asking them questions! For in that world they do not put a man to death for this; certainly not.

I think of this as meaning that if my consciousness goes on, I’ll still be myself, with all my curiosity and wonder about people and things around me. I’ll continue to regard my actions and decisions as I do now: as those of a fallible person who tried to be decent, live a good life, and not hurt others. Yes, a God might emerge out of the clouds in a burst of bright light and condemn me to eternal punishment, but there’s no guarantee that couldn’t happen to me here in this life, too, five minutes from now. Such a judgmental, dictatorial, punitive God would be no less a bully there than here, and I’d be no more inclined to obey Him and follow His orders.

So while I won’t exactly say bring on the Mercy Seat and the hemlock, or that death isn’t scary, fear of divine judgment is not one of the things that makes it scary and potentially painful, and that’s one of the lessons of these songs.

I’d love to hear what others’ favorite songs are.

*Thanks to my friend Denise for making me think of this song last week in commenting on the other Nick Cave song in my last post.

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Persuasion

Tent Revival

Tent Revival, from Rawge's Collection of Crosses, Art, and Photographs at TheCrossWeb.com

I had a religious upbringing. The religion I was raised in, Mormonism, was an evangelical kind, which means we were interested in converting other people to it.

In my mid-twenties I had an intellectual falling-out with my church and left.

Thanks to Facebook, I’m now in touch with a lot of old friends from my churchgoing years. Last week, I got a package in the mail from one of them. Included among the sweet, thoughtful gifts in the box was … a copy of the Book of Mormon signed and accompanied with handwritten evangelizing notes from her and several of our other friends.

Being the object of this small proselytizing effort was an interesting experience. Much as I love my friends, I felt annoyed, embarrassed, and even a bit insulted. At the same time, I understood the motivations behind it, because back when I too was religious, I used to do the exact same thing. I remember in college sending copies of the Book of Mormon to a couple of my agnostic friends from high school (I believe the author of The Post-Pessimist Association was one of the lucky recipients). I had underlined and highlighted key passages in a number of different colors, and penned earnest, heartfelt notes in them. I did this out of a sincere desire to share with them something that at the time I thought was gold, hoping it would make them as happy as it made me.

Now I have a pretty good idea of what it must have been like on their end: annoying, embarrassing, and slightly insulting. Why insulting? It sends the message that who you are is not okay, and you need to change in order to meet with others’ approval. Also, part of being treated like a grownup is the assumption on your interlocutor’s part that you’ve thought through your worldview options and know your own mind. These proselytizing efforts imply the opposite, that you’ve got it all wrong and need to be schooled.

It’s tricky though, obviously. Sometimes in life we do have it all wrong and do need to be schooled.

And of course, religious folks are not the only ones who go around trying to persuade others to see things their way. Atheists do it. Environmentalists do it. Political partisans of all stripes do it. And the subtext remains the same: You may have thought this through, but not enough. Your views are wrong and you need to change them. The status quo of who you are, as defined by what you think and the choices you make based on your opinions, is unacceptable.

So today’s question for the world at large is, when are these persuasive efforts okay and when do they cross the line? When are they unforgivable, and when are they imperative? When do we embrace humility and decide to just live and let live, and when do we set off on a crusade?

And now, to accompany all our deep thoughts on this subject, A Number of Religion-Themed Songs, With Varying Degrees of Irony and With Apologies to My Non-Secular Friends To Whom I Hope These Are Not Too Offensive

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