Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The dreadful process of self-deception

I was reading an article in Rolling Stone linked from BoingBoing, called "Jesus Made Me Puke." It's easy to expect just sheer (though deserved) mockery from such an article (in which a reporter infiltrates a fundamentalist Christian weekend retreat and tells all), but he makes a valuable point in a couple of paragraphs:

After two days of nearly constant religious instruction, songs, worship and praise — two days that for me meant an unending regimen of forced and fake responses — a funny thing started to happen to my head. There is a transformational quality in these external demonstrations of faith and belief. The more you shout out praising the Lord, singing along to those awful acoustic tunes, telling people how blessed you feel and so on, the more a sort of mechanical Christian skin starts to grow all over your real self. Even if you're a degenerate Rolling Stone reporter inwardly chuckling and busting on the whole scene — even if you're intellectually enraged by the ignorance and arrogant prejudice flowing from the mouth of a terminal-ambition case like Phil Fortenberry — outwardly you're swaying to the gospel and singing and praising and acting the part, and those outward ministrations assume a kind of sincerity in themselves. And at the same time, that "inner you" begins to get tired of the whole spectacle and sometimes forgets to protest — in my case checking out into baseball reveries and other daydreams while the outer me did the "work" of singing and praising. At any given moment, which one is the real you?
He goes on to say,
For a brief, fleeting moment I could see how under different circumstances it would be easy enough to bury your "sinful" self far under the skin of your outer Christian and to just travel through life this way. So long as you go through all the motions, no one will care who you really are underneath.

What's startling here is the vast capacity of the human person for self-deception, not necessarily even as a deliberate act, but merely as a weary, gradual assent to external pressure -- a pressure which is applied by a vast crowd of those who are going through the process of self-deception themselves. It's easy for us educated, sophisticated, BoingBoing and Rolling Stone - reading types to push these "middle America fundies" to the margins of our perception, but hard to realize that at the very root, there's surprisingly little difference between them and us.

I discovered this most recently when observing how many vocal Hollywood stars and activists in the West reacted to the recent troubles in Tibet. It was very easy for them to shout condemnations, but I didn't see any of them examine the real reasons behind this particular incident, or question why they should support this particular cause. The trouble was not with the expression of personal opinion, but with the lack of intellectual justification for these opinions. Why should Tibet be "free"? Who wants to support (financially and militarily) a "free Tibet" once it exists? What happens if we base national sovereignty on ethnicity? Why should we pay attention to some faraway land in another faraway country's possession when we have our own darker history (and arguably, present) of oppression and marginalization of Native Americans at home?

The Tibet incident was distressing for me, much like the Rolling Stone reporter was distressed to find himself swaying to the "Praise & Worship" band. I had been involved in protests against the (second) Iraq War, and had considered my "side" somewhat more enlightened than the other. Yet, with the recent Tibet issue, I found a lot of people on "my side" doing something perhaps equally ill-conceived and unreflective, and the "thugs and goons" on the other side actually for once not. It was a painful reality check to realize that otherwise educated and fairly intelligent people could close their eyes to any information that opposes their views, just as the other supposedly ignorant and low-born people had done before. (Doesn't the constant mockery of "middle America" sound a lot like bourgeois derision of the peasant class? Recall that the word "boor" shares a root with "Bauer," the German word for "farmer.")

A big part of this process of self-deception must be the "mass effect," which is what the Rolling Stone reporter feels. If he had been alone in an auditorium with the preacher for the whole weekend, he probably wouldn't have been able to carry on with his facade for very long. If I spend all of my time hanging out with pro-Tibet protesters, then it will generate in me a community mentality that makes it hard for opposing information to penetrate. Likewise, if I only hang around with pro-China protesters (there are such people, and large numbers of them!), I'll start to see China as "my team" and will have a hard time accepting opposing news.

The most distressing part (here's where I go a little bit Kierkegaard) is that even if I don't join a group, even if I deliberately spurn groups so as to gain a supposedly more objective and elevated viewpoint, I am still quite capable of self-deception. The very claim of objectivity is itself subjective. It's impossible to avoid influencing the world economy, because even if you strip off all products of civilization and run naked into the forest to forage for nuts and berries, you're _not_ buying some article of clothing sewn by some factory worker in a distant country. If you gather enough followers, that factory worker might have to find a different line of work. Rejecting globalization is itself an act within globalization. Similarly, claiming objectivity by rejecting group membership is itself belonging to a de facto group, whose members often refuse to hear the perhaps legitimate reasons that others have for joining their groups. (The words "evangelical atheist" perhaps come to mind.) Living in a groupless world, these people reinforce each other's scorn of membership through a constant stream of verbal and written chatter.

I'm not sure how to deal with this problem of persistent self-deception. I can only close with a quote from one of Søren Kierkegaard's journals, taken from Charles Williams' "The New Christian Year":

To thee, O God, we turn for peace . . . but grant us too the blessed assurance that nothing shall deprive us of that peace, neither ourselves, nor our foolish, earthly desires, nor my wild longings, nor the anxious cravings of my heart.

Friday, May 9, 2008

The leap of faith begins in the inner room

Ascensiontide sermons often criticize the disciples of Jesus for remaining in the inner room after Jesus' departure, rather than "going out to all the nations, baptizing them." They either make the disciples into cowards, trembling behind locked doors, or assert their incapability of spreading the faith without the particular gifts of Pentecost. One forgets that Jesus had already sent them out two-by-two, to spread the Gospel, heal the sick, and cast out demons. Locking the doors must have been a reasonable security measure, rather than an expression of irrational fear. Once we let go of our premature, possibly hypocritical judgment, we can see what they were doing in the upper room: praying together, with Mary Coredemptrix and Priest, awaiting the promised coming of the Advocate. In this awaiting, they are already executing the leap of faith that Jesus demands of them: to face the paradox of a God whom we actually have perceived, who even has real power over life and death, but who draws himself back from human contact and silently asks us to deal with life and death by ourselves. When one is despair asks, "Where is God?", that one asks not whether God exists, but why God doesn't come down and resolve the situation by force. To relinquish force -- to overcome the gross by the subtle -- is the characteristic of the Christ as Christians know him. This is the leap of faith: to face the paradox in prayer, in the inner room.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Chant workshop announcement

Gregorian chant workshop on 17 May in Oceanside, CA: Here is the flyer.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Sermon: "Viri Galilaei"

Viri Galilaei, quid statis aspicientes in caelum? Hic Jesus, qui assumptus est a vobis in caelum, sic veniet, quemadmodum vidistis eum euntem in caelum. -- Actus Apostolorum 1:11
The "Men of Galilee" passage is one of my favorites -- both for the glorious Gregorian Introit with that text, and for the way in which the angels chide the Apostles: "Why do you stand here looking at the sky?". The image of a dirty, rag-tag bunch of fishermen staring open-mouthed up at the heavens amuses, even as one thinks of how it really must have felt to watch the Savior depart and wonder what to do next. The deeper meaning startles just as much as the angels' words did: We Christians have to learn to act on our own, ultimately without the assurance that God is leading us or even that we are doing the right thing. "The sky" is a place where people look for answers: from gods, aliens, the stars, "orbs," religious or political figures, famous scientists turned evangelical atheists, Hollywood actors, or any other creatures that inhabit a world seemingly far above our own, and dispense tidbits of wisdom on their own inscrutable schedules. Like the Apostles, we go beyond respecting our position in the celestial hierarchy, to ask that our superiors do our jobs for us; we want to absolve ourselves of the risk of making decisions with limited information. The angels' rhetorical question has another meaning: we must expect to hear only silence from God when we pray. God's preferred mode of communication in this age is, in fact, silence. However, silence also communicates -- it tells us how God wishes us to act, namely, to go forth and make decisions and take risks. But I don't like it! I don't like that God speaks to us with void. Sometimes it feels worse than if there had been no God at all -- then at least we could acknowledge living in an arbitrary universe, and try to make the best of things as they are. (Note that I'm not speaking exclusively of theodicy -- though action-in-the-world is a form of communication. Omnipotence is unnecessary.) Dan Simmons in his "Hyperion Cantos" uses the expression "The Void That Binds." In a way, this captures the problem of a silent God: we perceive the existence of a Divine beyond a doubt, and yet it seems to have nothing to say to us -- yet, it persists in making its presence felt. God doesn't hide entirely from us, despite the lack of communication. Indeed, it's this very presence that "binds" us to worship and follow (which is the meaning of the word "religion" -- to "bind back"). One could call this the Advocate, as Jesus seems to do -- though usually one expects a defense attorney to confer with her clients once in a while! How we might wish that she did -- though we are bound to her and she to us. I do not think even the depths of hell could shut her out.