Sunday, December 26, 2010

On Fatherhood

I woke this morning without waking. I was submerged, lost in the words of a book, and when I rose, I realized that my family slept beside me, and I was blessed.

The seasons of my life used to be marked by school-time. It was in time to the academic calendar that I lived and breathed, and in time to that calendar that God taught me and grew me. When school was ended I felt rootless - or more accurately, shallow-rooted - for I did not know how the seasons of my life would be marked anymore, or how I would be taught, and it seemed the voice of God grew cold. Now I think perhaps I see. I had previously thought I understood a certain initiation into the lonely world of men. If I try to put my finger on how I know this world exists, I can only point to fragments - a remembered image here, a trope there - but I believe it does. The world of men who every morning leave the things that really matter to spend the best part of their day apart from them, and when they return are too weary to love and drink those things as they should - the world of men who accept this as not only a worldly necessity but their duty - I believe this world exists. And I am part of it. I say men; perhaps I should say providers - but I do not know. I am still exploring these cold, harsh badlands of the soul.

And now ... perhaps a new age of my life begins as well, and with it new lessons to be taught, new parts of me to be coaxed out of dormancy and nurtured. Surely my father realized with a start some mornings that his wife and child slept beside him, and all was well. Surely my mother as well ... is it the same feeling, for women? I do not know. I am inclined to doubt it, though I suppose they must be similar. But I know that I experienced such a moment this morning and felt a kinship with all the men who had experienced it before me, running through my breast like a spike of metal that shot through time, pinning me, anchoring me, to another world of men.

They say that everything changes when you have a child. That is not how I would describe it, although I suppose it is literally true. I have been a father for sixteen days now, and thus far my actual child-rearing duties have consisted largely of soothing my daughter when she is upset and changing her diapers, and both of these feel as natural as breathing (though I will admit to a certain mystification at how my daughter's poop gets some of the places it does. I can understand a projectile rebounding in the confines of a diaper, but I am being forcibly disabused of my naive notion that a human butt can only point in one direction at a time). There is, oddly enough, no sense of change. The evidence is present in the reorganization of my priorities, but the reorganization feels so pervasive that I can already scarcely remember a time when it was not so.

No, it is not my daughter who occasions a sense that everything has changed. The sense of change - for there is a sense of change - is to Thayet's account, not our girl's.

Esther Selene once told me that before I could be a father I would have to learn to be a husband. I expect she meant it prosaically at the time, but I have been reminded of her words often, these past two weeks. You see, it is not when I am changing my daughter's diaper or holding her close to assure her that all is well with the world that I most feel like a father. It is when I can soothe her so that Thayet can sleep - when I feed Thayet because her hands are busy with the baby - when I can interpose myself between my wife and the world's desolation so that she can rally herself for our child.

I do not mean to suggest that taking care of our daughter is "women's work," or yet that Thayet does not interpose herself between me and the world's desolation. Of course her shield shadows me. She is my queen, my wife, my riduur, bal mhi juri kando an a tome. It cannot be otherwise. And yet ... to shelter Thayet in this way, to create space for her to be who she is meant to be ... that is when I feel most like a father. This is not news, of course. My own father told me once that this was how he understood Biblical headship, and I understood it at the time. But I understand it again, and differently. To pour out one's self so that one's beloved can be about it may not be "men's work," but it is certainly - at least - a man's work. As it was, and is, the Lord's work.

It is not a work that I perform all the time, of course, nor yet perfectly. But I think I understand what it is. Like a redowa, the strings of my soul thrum when I get it right. Like a redowa, it leaves me wanting more. Unlike a redowa, it makes my soulstrings sound with joy, not delight.

I have it on good authority that I am besotted with my little girl. This is undoubtedly true, but it describes a whole galaxy of things that are happening in my heart. One of them is the joy of discovering a new person. Another is the joy of discovering my daughter. And another is wonder at the ways of the Lord, for shining enough light that I can better see the structure of my life, and its path more clearly. This is the work I was made for. This undergirds the things I do, and even my profession, like worship undergirds dance. My family sleeps, and all is well.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

On the Constitution

I've been trying to find the time to post some thoughts about Perry v. Schwarzenegger (the Prop. 8 case), but I'm not quite there yet. In the meantime, though, I had a thought today about the constitution and the Founding Fathers.

There is a fashion today current among certain people to revere the opinions of the Founding Fathers that bothers me. It bothers me for two reasons. One is that these people rarely seem to revere the opinions of the Founding Fathers, but rather the opinions of some combination of Madison, Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin. This confuses me. Do we consider Madison to be wiser than Morris? Baldwin? Pinckney? On what basis do we prefer the opinions of Jefferson to those of Hamilton? The whole thing smacks of shoddy thinking.

The second is that I do not see why we should revere the opinions of the Founding Fathers, jointly or severally, at all. Of course, one may choose one's personal heroes as one will, but that is a different matter. The fact that I revere the fictional opinion of Honor Harrington does not mean I am saddened when I perceive that my nation does not follow suit. Yet there are those of my countrymen who revere the opinion of (for instance) Madison, who seem saddened when they perceive that our nation does not follow suit. This seems incredible to me. How can this be?

I wonder if such people can see no reason to revere the Constitution without elevating the opinions of the authors of that document above those of the common man. Perhaps they ask themselves, "Why should we care a whit what this document says? Is it not two centuries old? Did we sign it? Did our ancestors sign it?"

In law, this is known as the Dead Hand Problem - on what basis can a constitution bind subsequent generations, who after all did not sign it and had no opportunity to debate it when it was being drafted? Perhaps these countrymen of mine can think of no answer to the Dead Hand Problem other than to suppose that the authors of the constitution must have been uncommonly wise, and their opinions uncommonly worthy of consideration.

That is not my opinion. I do not even know how to form an opinion on the wisdom of the Founders individually; I do not think we have sufficient evidence for far too many of them. That strikes me as a thoroughly inadequate answer to the Dead Hand Problem. I will tell you my answer, though - it is that neither I, nor any other American, has emigrated.

Plato articulates my answer in the Crito. In it, Socrates is in jail, awaiting the appointed hour of his execution. His wealthy students and foreign admirers have pooled their considerable resources and are prepared to break him out of jail, spirit him away to a foreign nation, and conduct a propaganda campaign in his native Athens to rehabilitate his image and convince those who doubt that his conviction was unjust to begin with. Everything is prepared. But what, Socrates asks, would the laws (nomoi, constitution) of Athens say to such a scheme?

He imagines their answer would go something like this:

“Observe then, Socrates,” perhaps the laws would say, “that if what we say is true, what you are now undertaking to do to us is not right. For we brought you into the world, nurtured you, and gave a share of all the good things we could to you and all the citizens. Yet we proclaim, by having offered the opportunity to any of the Athenians who wishes to avail himself of it, that anyone who is not pleased with us when he has become a man and has seen the administration of the city and us, the laws, may take his goods and go away wherever he likes. And none of us stands in the way or forbids any of you to take his goods and go away wherever he pleases, if we and the state do not please him, whether it be to an Athenian colony or to a foreign country where he will live as an alien. But we say that whoever of you stays here, seeing how we administer justice and how we govern the state in other respects, has thereby entered into an agreement with us to do what we command; and we say that he who does not obey does threefold wrong, because he disobeys us who are his parents, because he disobeys us who nurtured him, and because after agreeing to obey us he neither obeys us nor convinces us that we are wrong, though we give him the opportunity and do not roughly order him to do what we command, but when we allow him a choice of two things, either to convince us of error or to do our bidding, he does neither of these things.”

That's my answer to the Dead Hand Problem. Forget the Founding Fathers.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Bible as Historical Artifact

This post has been bouncing around in my head for a while, and I think it's about time I finally wrote it. I mention this in case this post should seem to be speaking to any particular situation, to make it clear that it isn't. It's just something I've been thinking about. What I've been thinking about is what I believe about the Bible.

Every now and then, one hears somebody proclaim that the Bible was written by men, or otherwise allude to its status as a historical artifact. Sometimes this is done in a manner that indicates the hearer should be surprised or shocked by the assertion. I suppose it probably is shocking to some (more's the pity), but to me, treating the Bible like a historical artifact is where Christianity should start.

For one thing, whatever else the Bible may be (and of course, to the religious mindset - any religious mindset - the question is not whether it was written by men, which it obviously was, but whether it was also written by God), it is manifestly a historical artifact, and it can only be proper to treat it as what it is. Yes, it may be other things, but everybody can agree that it's a historical artifact, which makes an analysis of it as a historical artifact a more reasonable place to start than most.

This may all sound terribly secular, but I think religion deserves no special exemption from plain old intellectual honesty. It does not fly in my world to hold religious beliefs simply because. "Faith" is not an answer here; one is entitled to know why one has faith in a particular thing just as much as one is entitled to know why one trusts a particular person (trust and faith being, at least in Christian usage, synonymous). Of course, one may trust someone or have faith in a particular proposition for no good reason, and one is certainly entitled to mentally behave in that manner, but I find that immensely unsatisfying. I want to have a foundation for my religious beliefs that is outside my own head for the same reason I want to have that sort of foundation for my historical beliefs. It would be all well and good for me to believe that this country was founded on Christian principles, for instance, and I might derive much utility from that belief - but honesty would compel me to ask (and, I think, entitles others to ask) why I thought that was true. And if the weight of the historical evidence was against that proposition (which, not that it matters, I think it is), what good would it do me to bleat, "But that's what I believe?"

This is the way I want to treat my religion. One often hears people discuss what Jesus was like, or not like, or hears people saying that Jesus would do this, or believe that, and so on. The obvious question to ask in those sorts of situations - one that gets asked far too infrequently - is, "How do you know?"

"Jesus" is not some kind of cultural ideal to which one can ascribe whatever meaning one wishes. He was a man, like any other man, and we know about him like we know about any other man - through the historical sources that describe him. As it happens, pretty much every historical source of any worth still extant describing this particular man is in the Bible - but we needn't be spooked by that; the Bible is, after all, just a historical artifact. Beliefs about Jesus have to start - and in my opinion, ought to end - with the evidence we have about him. I cannot say, "Jesus is in everybody's heart" any more than I can say, "Jesus' favorite food was salted olives." Both might be true, but the real question is whether the available evidence supports either assertion.

Looking at the available evidence, Jesus strikes me, for the most part, as an unremarkable historical figure. People often say that they admire Jesus. To be perfectly honest, I kind of don't. What records we have of his moral teaching are fairly bland, in my opinion - the sort of thing that more or less anybody could get behind, except for the parts that I find repugnant. Be honest: which do you find the manlier creed, to love one's friends and love one's enemies, or to love one's friends and hate one's enemies? I'll take the second, thank you very much - I distinguish between my enemies and my friends for a reason, after all. When it comes to fights, I really don't like the advice Jesus has to offer. I'll tell you how I think fights should be approached: "It's making up your mind going in that you're not just gonna try to defend yourself. It's deciding right now, ahead of time, that you're gonna kill the motherfucker if that's what it takes" (Honor Among Enemies 291, ch. 22). In my opinion, that's how all fights should be approached, literal and metaphorical both. Especially metaphorical. Fight for what's right. Beat your circumstances. What's reasonable, what's workable, what's realistic - none of that should matter compared to what's good. Honestly, when does Jesus ever preach that?

Let me stop here and make something clear. My point is not that I don't care what Jesus said. As you know, I do care. I care so much that I believe in loving my enemies even though I think it's a stupid basis for a morality. The question I'm driving at is why.

Me, I don't find Jesus' teaching to be that striking. Nor do I find his life particularly exceptional. It's not as if his teaching led to any particularly great success. A fair number of people were attracted to him, to be sure, but so what? Plenty of people in history have been more popular than Jesus was. Now of course, perhaps somebody else would find Jesus' teaching to be especially resonant, or find something especially inspiring in the life of a self-proclaimed rabbi and miracle worker who got caught up in Jewish-Roman politics and was executed because his teaching was twisted and he either couldn't or didn't care to set the record straight. But that's not me, and I wonder how many of the people who say they admire Jesus would say that if he were somebody they'd never heard of and met for the first time when some professor assigned a bunch of extant letters and pamphlet-length "books" as required reading.

But here's the thing - said extant letters and pamphlets aren't much concerned with Jesus' character or his teaching, at least not to my eye. The historical record doesn't present Jesus as presenting himself as a great teacher or moral exemplar. Sure, he appropriated the title of rabbi (which is actually more than a little dodgy - the cultural equivalent of declaring oneself a PhD without having been awarded the title by a properly accredited university upon the acclamation of other PhDs), but he didn't present himself as a particularly exceptional one. He never claimed to be a better rabbi than all the other rabbis (or if he did, we have no record of it). He never claimed to be a better person than other people, or that people should follow his example. And his contemporaries do not seem to have gone on and on about his teaching, or what a great and blameless man he was. What they went on and on about - and what Jesus himself couldn't seem to shut up about, at least so far as our records allow us to know - was his identity as the Son of God, and his death and resurrection. That is what the primary sources are obsessed with.

Now of course, one needn't be obsessed with what one's sources are obsessed with. When it comes to historical artifacts, any and all angles are fair game. It simply happens to be that in this particular case I find Jesus' life, character, and teachings to be uninteresting in themselves. But I do find it interesting that the sources themselves are comparatively uninterested in these things, and quite obsessed with something else. And I start to find Jesus' life, character, and teachings to be quite interesting if the claims about his identity and the death and resurrection are true. It is at that point, and that point only, that I start to care what Jesus thought - at that point, and that point only, that I feel I have reason to choose what Jesus thought when it conflicts with what I thought. If Jesus is not the only begotten son of the Father, I really don't care what he thought or what he was like or even what he did. I'll take Alanna the Lioness, Keladry of Mindelan, Cimorene, and Honor Harrington over Jesus the Mere Historical Figure any day of the week, thank you kindly. Heck, I'll take Xenophon over Jesus the Mere Historical Figure. I'll take Athena the Steel-Eyed Goddess over Jesus the Mere Historical Figure. The list goes on.

So I come to the question of whether I think the sources' claims about Jesus are true. How am I to decide? I could decide that there is no way to know, except that I really don't think that's true. I could wave the "faith" flag and say that I just believe it, and ask people not to judge my beliefs, because I'm entitled to believe whatever I want, and my beliefs are just as valid as anybody else's. But that would feel like an act of huge intellectual dishonesty. I could turn to the scientific method, except that I wouldn't, because I happen to know the first thing about the scientific method and I would no more choose science to answer this question than I would choose science to answer the question of where I was born. I could choose philosophy, which feels like a less ridiculous approach than the previous two, except that I am not well trained in philosophy (and - perhaps because of my lack of education in the subject - philosophy does not really feel like the best tool in this case). History, though, is a discipline I do feel reasonably expert at (and - perhaps because of my education in the subject - this feels like an essentially historical question). And historically speaking, I feel like it is at least more likely than not that what the sources are so obsessed about really happened. From there, I start to care about what Jesus said, did, and believed. From there, my entire religion is constructed.

So ... yes, I think that the Bible is a historical artifact, written by men. I probably wouldn't care about it if I thought otherwise.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Easter and the Winnable Life

I went to church today for the first time in over a year, and found out when I got there it was Palm Sunday. Now, since I knew that next Sunday was Easter, you might think it would be obvious that today is Palm Sunday. But I've never had much of a head for calendars, let alone liturgical ones, and ... well, really, it's been a long time. But since we're here, and since God hasn't stopped speaking just because I've been away from church for a long time, I thought it might be an opportune time to post about what Easter means to me.

Once upon a time I was joyful pretty much all the time, and happy most of the time, and delighted frequently. None of those three statements has been presently true of my life for a long time. Well, that's not true - I might be happy at least 51% of the time. I'm not sure. But the point is, the emotional tenor of my life has been comparatively gloomy for a while. There is no time for games, because I barely have enough time for art. There is no time for art, because I barely have enough time for friends. There is no time for friends, because I barely have enough time for family. There is no time for family, because I barely have enough time for Thayet (who is family, of course, but you know what I mean). There is no time for Thayet, because I have to work or I'll get fired and I can't get fired because we need to pay off my loans and this is the only way I know how to do that and I try so hard to provide for my family but it doesn't matter because there's always work work work and it never goes away no matter how hard I work or how much sleep I give up and it's never going to get any better and I'm stuck here so I might as well give up but I can't give up because I have a wife and I want to be a dad but there's always work work work and it never goes away no matter what I do.

Or that's what it feels like, anyway. That's what I spend every day telling to shut up shut up shut up that's not true.

Oh yeah, and where's Jesus in that litany of things I don't have time for? Well, he isn't really anywhere, which of course is the point, which brings me to Easter.

Okay, I lied. First, a digression. This - the emotional tenor of my life - is not anybody's fault. There is no action, or failure to act, that is responsible for this. I have a wife and friends and family who love me, actively love me. This is not about me not being loved. This is about facts. Which actually brings me to Easter.

I believe in religions of facts. My religion is a series of descriptive statements that purport to describe facts that are true about the world (I'm about 90% certain that that's what a religion is, but that's a post for another day). The sense in which "belief" enters into my religion is only the sense in which facts must be believed to be of use. Something may be a fact, but if somebody does not believe it to be a fact, it will do them no good.

To give a quick example, it is a fact that Xenophon the Athenian led a small assault force of Greeks in a successful race to secure an obscure hill before a small assault force of Achaemenid soldiers could do the same. You probably didn't know that anybody claimed this as a factual statement. Assuming you didn't know that anybody claimed it, you surely had no beliefs one way or the other about its veracity. If you had no beliefs about its veracity, then I think it is safe to assume that this fact did not benefit you in any way, despite the fact that it is true. I did know that people claimed it as a factual statement, I am of the belief that it is a true factual statement (it is, if you will, what is commonly called a "fact"), and I derive great encouragement from it.

That is a trivial example. Let me give a more significant one, which touches on why I have not been joyful for some time. I used to believe that what I was supposed to be doing (that is, what God had told me I was supposed to be doing) was fully compatible with living a fulfilling human life. Another way of stating that belief would be that I believed it was possible to succeed simultaneously in everything that God had told me to do at any given time. I say believe, but do not get hung up on that word just because we are now talking about spiritual beliefs. I believed it as a fact about the world. I believed it for the same sorts of reasons, and in the same sort of way, that I believe Xenophon led those Greeks up that forgotten hill.

Which means I was aware of evidence to the contrary. And that not everybody who was aware of the so-called "fact" believed it to be a fact. And that some people had never thought one way or another about whether it was a fact at all. And still, bending all of my will and intellect and education to bear on the question, believed it to be a fact. And this was of enormous, life-changing comfort to me. If I can put it this way without trivializing it, it made life a game in the very best sense. One doesn't give up in a game because no matter how hard things get, and no matter how grand or impossible or epic one's task, one has a fundamental faith that success is possible. Games can be won - not because they're games, but because they are designed to be winnable by people who knew what they were doing when they made the [game] world. If you have never believed this to be a fact about the real world, I assure you, it is profoundly liberating.

And then ... well, things changed. I became unsure that this was really a true fact about the world. If you have never thought it a fact that the world is "winnable," then perhaps this will not strike you as any great thing. But facts have consequences. Some consequences are emotional. As you might imagine (or maybe you can't; I don't know), the emotional contrast between a world which is definitely winnable and a world which is not is ... immense.

Some consequences are implications - facts don't exist in a vacuum, after all. You might call an unwinnable world my version of the problem of evil. If I can't succeed at the tasks God has put before me, why should I even try? So that I can fail less spectacularly than if I had not tried? There's something to that, but it's not the sort of thing that motivates a man. One begins to ask of command, "Why am I even here? Why did you put me here to die with no way out? What is wrong with you? I thought you loved me!" Except that command is also one's greatly beloved, and one can't bear to ask those questions. So one just stops talking. And that kills one from the inside just as surely as an unwinnable world kills one from the outside. This is what the death of faith looks like.

What does Easter have to do with all of this? Easter - the not-permanent voluntary sacrificial death of one of the persons of God - is the point at which God stepped into an unwinnable world and made it winnable. (( Side note the first: perhaps in another post I can share some thoughts as to why I think it means that; for now, suffice it to say that I think that it does. )) Remember that I am speaking of facts about the world. Though it may seem strange to you, I believe (and I think this is a true statement of Christian belief, though I'm sure not all of my coreligionists would put it this way) that once upon a time it really was true about the universe that there were really only two choices - to fail at the life God had made for one, or for God not to make a life at all. (( Side note the second: do I believe that the mercy of God extended even to that sort of situation? Yes - but that, too, is a post for another time. ))

Easter is the point at which God bulldozed a third option into the fabric of existence: for God to make a life for one that one could live. A life that was winnable.

Easter means that life is winnable. Easter means that I can have art. Easter means that I can have games. Easter means that I can have friends, and family, and be a good husband, and be a good father, and be a good lawyer, all at the same time, because that is the life that God has made for me. (( Side note the third: this is not to say that I can have whatever life I want; that's silly. It is to say that the life God has made for me can be lived to the full. Depending on what one thinks of that life, this may or may not be a comforting thought. For me, it is comforting. ))

How? Well, I confess, I don't know. But Easter means that it can be done, that the answer is out there even if I don't know what it looks like, that life is winnable. From this it follows that if Easter is a fact - if there really was a not-permanent voluntary sacrificial death of one of the persons of God - then it cannot be true that life is unwinnable.

So here is the question for me: do I believe that Easter is a fact? Here is the answer: yes, I do. Nothing that has transpired in the last six years has caused me to doubt the veracity of the central fact of Easter.

Facts are true or not true whether or not we believe them. But believing them does have consequences. I'm a gamer. I know what to do with problems that are definitely winnable, even if they're really hard and I fail at them over and over and over again. I remember the words of Xenophon the Athenian:

"Now for it, boys, and remember that this race is for home! Now or never, to see your children again, to see your wives - one small effort, and the rest of the march we shall pursue in peace, with never a blow to strike; now for it!"