On the Resurrection

Whether you believe or reject the claim of the Resurrection of Jesus, there seems to be on either side a single key consideration.  For believers, there is an account of the Resurrection given in the Bible.  For doubters, this is an account of a miracle, and miracles do not occur.  Those are the main competing considerations.  There are others, but these are the most important ones.

It is with no pleasure that I judge the doubters to have the stronger of these considerations.  So, a few thoughts on what makes the biblical account weak.  One is that the Bible cannot be the evidence for its own authority.  However, it isn’t clear what a more valid alternative would be.  It makes sense that the evidence for the Bible’s authority has been incorporated into the Bible itself.  Why would any serious person exclude it?  Another thought is that those who are giving the reports of the Resurrection in the Bible are themselves believers.  Well, here is another case of “well, what do you expect?”  If you had personal testimony to the Resurrection, wouldn’t you be more likely than others to count yourself a believer?  So, that the Bible claims to provide the source evidence for its own authority actually isn’t that unreasonable.  Still, isn’t it possible that the early Christians were all lying, or at least deluded?  Yes of course that is possible.  They themselves do seem to have believed, insofar as many became martyrs for their faith.  So the martyrs at least were not Machiavellian liars — if they lied, they believed their own lies to a certain extent.  Why do martyrs sacrifice their lives on behalf of claims that deep down they might know are not true?  Something becomes muddled deep down between what is true and not true.  There are swarms of maybes swirling around our hearts.  We seek out patterns, dots that we can connect in order to make sense not just of everything we believe to be physically true, but also everything that we feel.  Emotional responses have a truth to themselves.  In intense pleasure we find truth, at least a moral truth.  In happiness we find truth.  In love we find truth.  There is also truth in extreme pain.  The dots we connect reveal how all of these emotional and moral truths relate to the physical, historical and mathematical truths.  We can recall here the second temptation of Jesus in the desert, where the devil tempts Jesus to throw himself down from the top of a temple to see if angels will rescue him.  The temptation is to see your emotional truth as greater than your physical truth, and to set at odds these things rather than harmonize them.  Jesus of course resists the temptation.  The challenge to doubters of the Resurrection, who doubt because miracles are impossible, is the same problem in reverse.  Is it not an affront to truth itself to see one half of truth–physical truth–as boundlessly superior than the other half–emotional truth?  Is there not something more honest in saying as Jesus did from the top of the temple that “It is also written, ‘do not put the Lord your God to the test,'” than to say “certainly if I throw myself down, no one will save me?”

Is faith above ethics?

Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling is a challenging read, but gripping when you’re in the mood for that sort of thing.  The main thesis has something to do with faith being the greatest passion of human beings, that faith reaches beyond rational ethical doctrines, and that modern society is wrong to think that it can go beyond faith.  The faith exemplar is the biblical Abraham, who is asked by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac.  Abraham’s faith leads him to comply with God’s command, except that God stops Abraham from sacrificing Isaac at the last second.

Kierkegaard tries all sorts of psychological tricks to get us on board with his thesis.  He asserts repeatedly that he cannot understand Abraham, because Abraham is superior to him by virtue of his faith.  The implication is that if we think we understand Abraham, we are wrong, because not even Kierkegaard understands Abraham.  He asserts that if faith is not beyond ethics, then faith is nothing.  And if faith is nothing, then the story of Abraham is pointless.  So if we want to believe that faith is something special and that the story of Abraham is something special, then we must follow and agree with Kierkegaard that faith is above ethics.  Resorting to tricks like these raises red flags.  It suggests that the author knows something about the weakness of his thesis when it is presented straight and sober.

Another challenge is we are dealing with an analysis of stories, stories that explicitly defy the parameters of regular experience.  Why should we care about a world where God commands human beings to do unethical things, when we live in a world where God is silent?  Can faith be understood to be beyond ethics without the Abraham story?  If it can’t, and the Abraham story is pure fantasy, then who cares about Kierkegaard’s argument that faith is above and beyond rational ethics?

Nevertheless, I admit that there seems to be something important in this writing.  Is it possible that God might want mankind to go beyond ethics?  The idea itself creates fear and trembling.  Obviously, any attempt to go beyond ethics could very likely amount to falling below ethics.  But isn’t it an attractive idea that the universal rules of ethics are too clunky and cumbersome for the full color and vibrancy of the human spirit to emerge?  Not that we should be allowed to cheat the ethical rules, but that there are available extraordinary purposes in life that demand we hate ourselves, that we hate those we are expected to love, and concentrate our love in something higher?  For Kierkegaard, this seems to be in part what the Abraham story is suggesting (and echoed in Luke 14).  And this higher purpose is that we love only God and serve Him, setting aside our rational ethical obligations to our nation, our family, and ourselves.

I am aware of the semantical pitfalls in this presentation.  If a thing is contrary to what God wants of us, how could it be called ethical in the first place?  Kierkegaard works around this by distinguishing the universal from the absolute.  It seems just as well to say that one can think of a lower ethics and a higher ethics.  The lower ethics involve calculation, and include those rules that were everyone to live by, the world would be harmonious and just.  The higher ethics call on us not only to be compatible with a world that might be just, but to suspend all worldly calculation in service to God.

But there is a final piece to this, in order to account for the emphatic distinction Kierkegaard makes between Abraham, who is described as a knight of faith, and those others who are praised but would be better described as tragic heroes.  It is not faith, but tragic heroism, to sacrifice in order to save a nation.  It is not faith, but tragic heroism, to calculate and act for the sake of the outcome.  So what is faith, and why is it higher?  Faith is a personal, not a public or civic, virtue.  It is faith to believe that regardless of the immediate consequences, and regardless of public opinion, that God keeps His promises to those that trust, love, and serve Him.  Also, that these promises are kept in this world, not exclusively or primarily in the afterlife.  God promised Abraham Isaac in this world, and though God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac in this world, Abraham continues to believe that in obeying God, he will still have Isaac in this world, because this is God’s promise to him for his faith.  Abraham thus lets go of everything as it appears in the world, and in so doing proves his faith.

But does Abraham’s faith put him closer to God by leaving him willing to abandon rational ethics and sacrifice his son?  Are we all called by God to surpass our ethical inclinations?  Is it really not better to be a tragic hero, or even just a regular-old-good-person, than to have (this) faith?

Needing a (Way of) Life

Many of us have a sort of nagging restlessness that we’re frequently in need of escaping.  We need to be fully immersed in something, but nothing seems sufficiently appealing.  There is a deep trepidation that trying to immerse in the wrong thing will only intensify the restlessness, turning it into desperation.

Others of us are lucky enough to already be immersed.  We have a way of getting through the day that fully absorbs our attention and energies to a sufficiently satisfying degree.  We feel invested and are comfortable with the expected returns on that investment.  We don’t understand people that seem to feel so alienated from everything.  Why can’t they just live their life?  How difficult is it?

If we look at the different ways people immerse themselves, some patterns begin to emerge.  Some are very much into some sort of close-knit community, the members of which all have a thick sense of their common identity.  The group is strong, protective, and exclusive — maybe its just family, just friends (as in a fraternity or sorority), or some mixture of the two.  When these communities are big enough, functional, and healthy, they offer so many sources of stimulation and various social sensations that being actively in them can be fully immersing and satisfying.  Desperation only seeps in when too many of the members are too busy to congregate as a group.

An opposite way of experiencing immersion is through competition.  We see this sometimes with people who lose their community and instantly transition from a cooperative and loving posture to a competitive and hateful posture (as in bitter divorcees).  Competition is inherently stimulating, as you have to not only beat your opponents but also do so in a way that is viewed as legitimate.  The hate that is motivating the competition has to be channeled into virtues like focus, determination, perseverance without showing the vices of nastiness, weakness, and foolishness.  Executed correctly, though, hate for a person or group can be as fully immersive as thrivingly fraternal community.

I don’t know why we have this need for immersion, but we can see it everywhere.  Those lacking a community to join or oppose turn to other things.  Religious faith has unique qualities suitable for a deeply immersive experience.  Contemplation of an infinite being, with qualities of perfection exceeding human comprehension, to which we owe gratitude exceeding our capacity, from which we receive endless and unfailing love, can completely overwhelm the mind’s intellect and emotions.  And of course there are the immersive effects of drugs, alcohol, sex, pornography, food, gaming, and all the other addictions we see people all around us completely absorbed in.

Perhaps becoming more aware of the need for immersion can help us understand our attachments and our anxieties.  Less clear is what the best form of immersion is — it certainly can’t be hate and competition.  If the answer is community, then most of us are dependent on others to provide it, and the good fortune that there will be chemistry between ourselves and that community — common tastes, sense of humor, interests, values, etc.  If the answer is faith (which happens to be my answer) and we aren’t faithful already, then the road to be travelled is perhaps just as difficult.  If the answer is addiction, then we have a lot of pain ahead of us, and we have essentially given up on the fullness that life seemed to promise us as children.

Twas the night before..

Flying out tomorrow to Massachusetts.  Have most of my stuff packed.  Am looking forward to a nice visit with family for Christmas.  It’s always weird “going back.”  There’s all the questions it raises — the question of belonging, as in where do I belong, where would I be happiest.  There’s the question of me — who am I?  Texan or Massachusetts guy?  This open question thing has been there awhile.  Before Texas and the doctorate and teaching and research, it was Iraq and Germany and the Army and deployments.  What is home?  Before that it was switching towns, switching schools, new this, new that.

The answer I settle on is it’s all water flowing in the river.  There is nowhere to “go back” to, because that place is gone.  The longer I live the more I believe that.  And it isn’t just “out there” that is changing, it’s also inside.  I’m not the same, and couldn’t have stayed so if I tried.  Can’t even remember that much, sort of like a comet with pieces flying off the main body and drifting out into empty untraceable space.  Just have a few things that come to mind if I try to remember.

What do I remember?  I guess usually the same few things, with the occasional recent addition.  Sort of a candidacy period with a new memory.  See how it hangs.  Anyway, the standard memories are shameful things for the most part, sort of a moral to-do list, though for most of them there isn’t any obvious thing I can do to fix.   So they linger there.  Some of them will be reinvigorated, more up-close-and-personal, being back in Massachusetts for a bit.  One thing that draws me back more than anything is a hopeful curiosity that something in these visits will change or transform these lingering memories into something different, less dead-end.  Probably won’t even notice for some time if that ever does happen.  Hard to separate it all out.  Lots of moving parts, when a part of your perspective is altered, and something that used to bother you doesn’t as much anymore.

On a brighter note, going back is an in-between-chapters-of-real-life sort of experience.  In that sense, it’s a sort of freedom, similar to Schiller’s idea of play being a sort of freedom.  It’s when everything becomes less determinant, less logical and serious.  The flow of “the river” slows down, and you’re suddenly just floating there, a comet coming to rest.  Disorientated.  Out of place.  But also free in a way.  Real yet still, simply, coming into being.

Loosening the Grip of Anxiety

We are thrown across the ground, and some of us land in good spots, others in bad spots.  We are scattered.  Where we find ourselves is not often where we want to be.  We would rather be somewhere else, somewhere much better.  Failing that, we would like to escape from where we are.  Escape away.  Unplug, unhook, and float away.

You could call this frustration, or anxiety.  The feeling itself can be dull and then spike.  Duration has a multiplying, paralyzing effect.  Each added moment contains a loud, screaming assertion of the unbearable now.

You feel caught, and it is easy to lose faith in a way out.  There usually is one.  But when you’re paralyzed, you need a pivot thought.  Something that creates some space to move.  For me, that thought is that this is how things are (temporarily) supposed to be, that the good I want is blinding me to the good that is available.

Your soul needs pleasure, but pleasure is a delicate mystery, always dancing within us and around us.  Your soul will lead you to it, help you unlock it, access it, if you can muscle out some thought on the opportunity of your situation — this strange spot you landed in when you were thrown across the ground.  If you lose faith in the presence of opportunity, you can fall into the trap of desperation.  Then we get forceful in indulgence, destructive of ourselves, welcoming of a quick escape, a joy pulse, and a subsequent numbed recovery.

We need to worry more about the trap than the relative apparent advantages of where we have fallen to and come to rest.  Embrace the freedom of denial and confusion.  It is just a transition, a uniquely human transition, to a uniquely human moment of insight into this mysterious existence.  There is special pleasure there, and it’s waiting for you.

Protecting your Heart from Itself: A Response to “Let’s Talk?”

There is a real tension between talking and doing.  In the present election cycle, establishment politicians are the talkers, and who are the doers?  Well, Trump and his supporters, who are going to “make America great again.”  But notice that just as politicians have their reputation for not getting anything done, Trump and his supporters have their reputation for being unthoughtful and inarticulate.  You have to be one or the other, you can’t be a talker and a doer.

The Bible says that there is a time to gather stones and a time to scatter them.  There is obviously a time for talking and a time for doing.  Talking implies delayed action.  When action is needed, somebody needs to declare that the conversation is over.  On 9/11, Todd Beamer said to his fellow passengers “Let’s roll” before taking on the highjackers of Flight 93.

When people are in danger or pain, it is hard to argue that the conversation should continue.  Pain demands a response.  Pain demands action.  If my arms are full of groceries, and I suddenly feel an ant biting my ankle, then I’m dropping those groceries, milk and eggs be damned.  If I’m addicted to drugs, and my addiction generates extreme pain when I’m off the drug, then I’m taking the drug.

Conversation is an activity of the mind, while doing is an expression of the heart.  It is the heart that needs to be convinced by the mind, not vice-versa.  The default mode is to do, and to do immediately.  If the mind can make a compelling case that action should be put off, that more thought needs to be had, then patience can be achieved — for a while.  But if the heart has to wait too long it loses faith in the ability of the mind to deliver on its promises, and the heart will go it alone.  It can be tragic when this happens.

The saying is true that love is blind.  The heart might know what it wants, but it has no idea how to get it or to keep it.  The heart wants love and affection, but without the mind the pursuit of love and affection from another can become creepy.  It’s a turn off for the beloved.  The mind says wait, the heart says go.  The mind says settle down, the heart says reach out, demand, force.  The heart reveals its own desperation, its weakness, its vulnerability, its willingness to give up everything.  The heart is a self-destructive beggar.  The mind of the beloved asks: why give this beggar my heart?  What here is worth wanting?  The world is indifferent, it says, “that’s not how this works.”

All lasting love is led and informed by the mind.  This is why communication is so important in marriage as it is in politics.  In marriage, our hearts want love, but our mind says first be worthy of love, be virtuous.  This is frustrating, and tests the trust between the heart and the mind.  In politics, our hearts want happiness, but our mind says first have a successful marriage, have a great job, have dignity, have respect.  This is frustrating, and generates resentment after resentment as marriages fail, jobs are lost, and with them, dignity and self-respect.  It gives charge to the self-destructive beggars within us, with frustration giving way to recklessness, failure, and a nod towards death.

We need to protect our hearts and ourselves by being patient and open-minded.  There are ways–some clever, others straightforward–to satisfy our hearts and sooth our frustrations, but we can never make the best use of them if we close ourselves off from the wisdom of the world.  This is why talking matters, in marriage and in politics.  It takes us from quick and easy assumptions to a winning strategy that can go the distance.  Isn’t that what we all want?

GUEST BLOG: By Margarita Ramirez, “Let’s Talk? Why Some Traditional Relationship Habits Still Make Sense”

Communication. The art of expressing to others your ideas and thoughts. It seems so easy, yet I bet there are hundreds of books written about improving communication skills, good communication practices. What appears as something completely straight forward as talking, is for me a struggled. Sometimes I feel it is an ability I plainly missed. Maybe it is just a “me” thing, as I do not have blue eyes I do not know how to communicate, yet I believe it is also a way in which we women are programmed in traditional families.

Equality-feminism

I have the hardest time communicating about issues when there is a tension between what the traditional role should be and the modern. i.e.: house keeping, ways to handle our daughter, weekend plans… As a consequence, I have a hard time asking for favors that involve these tasks. Traditionally, it is either “his” role and I am not supposed to get involved, or it is mine. When it is “my” role, I should have all the jurisdiction and say about it. So being brought up in a traditional family, I find it unnatural to communicate. I feel anxious when something arises that I will have to bring up. I would rather not have any new thoughts or information so I do not have to say anything, especially when I feel the issue might have the potential to create a traditional vs. modern clash.

 
I personally find the structure of the traditional family in this sense very handy. Here is why. In a traditional family everyone has their roles. This means that all the members of the household know what are their duties, what to do and when. As a consequence, each member does their own thing, and the house runs smoothly (for the purpose of this exercise lets suppose that all the members do their part without shirking). It’s like a soccer team, the “James” knows that he has to make a goal when he sees the opportunity. When he has the ball, he does not slow down and stop to talk about it with his team members. So why bother talking? Shouldn’t little cues here and there be enough?

 
As I see it, the need to communicate in a modern family structure is too cumbersome. If roles are not clear, of course there is need to speak in order to communicate. But, wouldn’t it make more sense to talk beforehand, set the roles, and from then one save time and potential problems? And this is only with regards to household things. Yet, I also find problematic the need to share every experience or feeling. Sometimes I just want to hold the feelings to myself. I follow that sharing one’s mind creates intimacy. Yet maybe in sharing one’s mind you end up opening up a pandora’s box of contents that now are out on the loose. That is very scary to me. Again, maybe it is just a “me” thing, maybe not. I can remember my mom saying “there is no need to tell your husband all your personal things or all your family matters.” I do not exactly know what is the rationale behind it. I will ask her.

 
Side note: One of the things that surprised me the most from my previous guest post was to see that those that identified with my thoughts were mostly Latin women that had lived outside of Latin America. In addition, while I have such a hard time with the stiffness of the status quo in my mind, and the way I am programmed, there are other women for which the tension between traditional and modern family roles is non-existent. I find this fascinating!