Things are Becoming Clearer

I think I’ve gotten a clearer image of what’s going on in my marriage.

Here is a man who is wedded to him computer for interaction (being blind) and for his primary contact with the outside world on a daily basis.  He trolls the internet for contact with those he finds interesting and amusing. While married to someone else, he comes across this blog and reads of a housewife, turned student, turned writer who lives a full life. I have a job, three children, a home, cats, and a husband. I get up and go to work every day and I write interesting things during my time off.

Cue eight years later where I give up all that, come live with said man. After things were progressing long distance using Skype and email, we find that being in each other’s presence isn’t quite the same thing as communicating over the internet. Gone are the interesting things for him; my job, my life, my interesting thoughts. Gone are my fantasies that we have anything physical in common due to fetishes I don’t share. We also failed to notice that he is an extrovert entertainer absolutely ADDICTED to being liked and appreciated and to being out in the social scene. I, on the other hand, shun social interaction as much as possible.  I do not like parties. I’m done boozing and bar hopping. Oooo. Bad move on my part.

This man therefore turns to the internet yet again for someone of interest. He finds another woman, university educated AND employed. Her topic? Music of course. Bingo. She also shares some of his fetishes because that’s how they met, on a site catering to that.  Bingo again. They now share morning and evening Skype conversations just as we did. This woman is now filling the role I did all those years ago; interesting life, shared fetish (which I was willing to entertain, but not obsess over), shared interest in music, social butterflies that crave attention.  He fails to see the parallel whereas it’s so obvious to me. I have failed to keep his interest and my one sin; being in the same room with him. Automatically I’m diminished by proximity.

My husband cannot say no to another human being even if it’s to the detriment of his own well-being or his family’s.  I can have no respect for a man who has so little respect for anyone outside his current, immediate circle of interest. I have come to the point of doing my duty without expecting any emotional rewards. That’s what marriage is isn’t it; an exchange of rewards? We exchange emotional rewards and intimacy for doing and sharing the same things? As one author put it, we make deposits in each other’s love bank and hope that enough deposits will overflow into and become the strong marriage we invested in.  What accrues is interest, closeness, shared loyalty, affection, passion, all of which add up to that weird mysterious term we call ‘love’.

By the same metaphor I think that my account is open, but there is very little left in it to draw upon. The smaller and smaller amounts I invest is offering no return (in fact, it’s being diverted) and I’m considering closing it one day. Why keep an account open that works against you? It’s at these times that I need to find a solid figure spiritually to focus on; one I know will always be there for me. I think God provided this in my darkest times before and, whether made up or not, God will once again provide an anchor I need when all human anchors fail.  My Daily Stoic talks about having a ‘mantra’ one can turn to at times like this; to bring one back to the center and stabilize.

Let it be so.

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What Used to Be

Budapest Opera HouseI used to be a woman of faith. After a spiritual experience in 1983, I began going to church and the rest  I’ve written about extensively on this blog. Since then I’ve given up my religiosity and my beliefs in certain dogma.  I no longer go to church per se, although I’ve been going to the Quaker meeting house with my husband for a few years now.

I still cling to some notions about Christianity, but the one thing I don’t believe in any longer is prayer.  By prayer I mean an action the believer takes to attempt to move the Maker into changing the Laws of Nature or the minds of other people to affect an outcome.  Now, I believe in meditation and silence and prayer in the sense that it helps the person praying, but I don’t believe that some Divine Being is listening to our prayers and deciding to rearrange the universe to answer them.

What made me realize this is that in times past, my first inclination when faced with bad news is to pray for the a positive outcome that happened to suit me at all times. Now, faced with my husband’s cancer diagnosis, I realize that no amount of praying will change the news of how large or small this tumor is. It just is. It’s been there unknowingly and will continue to be there no matter what I believe in my mind about it. No amount of prayer will affect that. No one will hear this prayer but me.  I don’t mean to say that prayer is not good, but I believe it’s only good for the one doing the praying. It acts as a meditative tool to calm one’s nerve, bolster one’s resolve, and to give someone the much-needed cool-down time before doing or saying something rash.

The reasons I came to this conclusion is by observing the world around me.  Despite a prayer force of billions of people in the world, we still have death, famine, abuse, rape, murder, cancer, wars, and all the evils that man can devise. Despite faith in a Divine Being we still have those idiots who believe that God wants the deaths of everyone who doesn’t believe the way they do. Despite billions of the faithful praying daily we see no discernible difference in the outcomes of cancer deaths or salvation from it by miraculous means. No, I have faith in medicine and science to find the cures for most ills before I have faith in prayer.

Now I know all the arguments for and against such things, but this has come from years of experience and it hasn’t come lightly. I’ve struggled mightily to keep an innocent faith in God, Jesus, and prayer, but at some point I had to face the cruel facts of reality. So, as I face the cruel facts of an uncertain future with a cancer diagnosis, I will face it with prayer like I always do, but I have no expectation that the cancer will disappear. I don’t believe it’s some kind of test or sent by God to make me more faithful. How awful to believe such things! I am of the idea that we will do everything available to us to stop it or at least slow it down. I have every expectation that prayer will make me calmer and able to face it. I suppose that makes me the double-minded man in the book of James, doesn’t it? Ah well, better that than be in denial about the cruelties of nature.

Quakers & Capitalism — The Protestant (Quaker) Ethic & the Capitalist Spirit (via Through the Flaming Sword)

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Here’s the next installment in the book I’ve been writing on Quakers and Capitalism: The Protestant (Quaker) Ethic and the Capitalist Spirit The early, groundbreaking sociologist Max Weber, in his most famous book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904), offers a useful framework for approaching the relationship between the religious culture of early Friends and the social culture necessary (or at least optimal) for the rise of c … Read More

via Through the Flaming Sword

For some reason, this paragraph from the article fascinates me:

When you cannot achieve grace through sacraments, good works or confession, the only proof of grace is a way of life that is unmistakably different from that of others. This requires a certain withdrawal from the world. It requires the individual to supervise her own state of grace in her conduct—that is, it permeates the life with asceticism, forcing the “rationalization of conduct within the world for the sake of the world beyond,” as Weber put it. The requisite “rational” planning of one’s life in accord with God’s will forces you to reengage the world with a plan—or, more accurately, with a discipline (discipleship); that is, a self-conscious deliberateness that includes robust structures and processes for drafting the plan (discerning God’s will) and correcting mistakes through negative feedback (gospel order).

This description of the believers need for discipline describes the usual “Baptist” form of conversion and post-conversion interaction with the world. When we are converted, we are supposedly called to be “not of this world” yet we are simultaneously asked to have an impact upon it. Baptists haven’t given much thought to how this is done as a spiritual discipline. Sure, reading the bible is high on that scale of disciplinary measures, but there is no real advice about how to “supervise” our own states of grace.  This dichotomy leads to Protestant Christianity being seen as a culture so intermingled with the world that we have Christian pop culture as a result, which mimics culture, so that we have an excuse to interact with it. What I find about Quakerism that’s appealing is their discipline of silence. It’s a withdrawal with a view toward “a plan.” I don’t believe Baptists are taught to have a “plan” of interaction with the world. If they are it’s merely to bring as many Baptists into the fold as possible. So insistent is that plan that there isn’t much of a desire to follow up on all those conversions (discipleship).

Isn’t this just like capitalism? It may be a simplistic comparison, but think for a moment. There is a need for a product. People buy the product. Others want it. More product is made until finally the market is saturated. Product still gets made but there is no outlet for surplus and no plan to deal with the surplus. There is no thought of any kind taken of the ramifications of mass production, be it spiritual or material. There is no follow through or discipline, only production.

Hmmm. I had not heard of this article before and I’m glad I found it at QuakerQuaker.org. Good food for thought.

Quote of the Day

The Faith, sculpted in stone from Badajoz in 1...

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From “How Did God Get Started?

But faith is also a mobile citadel, a portable fortress. Having evolved precisely to occupy the territory inaccessible to reason, faith evolved mechanisms to move fluidly with the boundaries of that territory, or, as with apocalypticism, to blithely revise its truth claims about the imminent end of the world as fast as they’re discredited by the world’s contrarian perseverence. Faith’s quicksilver essence can never be rationally pinned down: the harder you press, the faster it squirts out from under your finger. Like the alien monster in countless movies, faith only gets stronger every time you shoot at it.

“By Their Fruits” and the Public Political Debate

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Hereby begins a long rambling post by someone with too much time on her hands. Having no standing in the political or religious arena, I feel free to think aloud about what’s running through my head lately.

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve settled down to married life without a spouse in the household, which makes it more difficult than I anticipated. My husband of two weeks had to return to the UK and get to work and before we could spend Christmas together. But the future bodes well with my moving there early next spring and transporting most of my worldly goods as well. In the meantime, I need to keep busy at work and keep my mind off missing him.

As I said before, the wedding ceremony was beautiful. We chose a scripture text because a) we were married in a church and b) it seemed a very practical passage. We used Matthew’s passage about salt and light. Salt should keep its flavor and light should not be hid. It probably seems a strange pick for a wedding scripture but it fit with both of our convictions that actions speak louder than words. For both of us, action is more important than all the talk in the world. Action proves one’s intent more than a thousand declarations. My husband is a newly minted Quaker and The Religious Society of Friends values action more than speech. Even the quiet waiting of the Lord in meeting is an action of surrender, far more powerful than a liturgy or mumbling of words in a ritual. Willingness, reception, humility… far more important than stubbornly proclaiming and correcting. I, on the other hand, take the bible with a huge grain of salt (pun intended). 😀

I was reading many blog posts on the internet this morning. It’s Christmas after all and I was looking for inspiration of some kind. Any kind really. I always tell myself I will go to church or do this or that. And I never do it. I think my IDEA of Christianity is a fond nostalgic moment in my mind, but one which never lives up to that nostalgia in practice. My idea of Christianity is just that; ideal. From my readings I sensed a theme though. Some Christians like to use particular passages to prove  what they consider to be wrong in God’s eyes. This provides the basis for most evangelical sermons heard round the world on most Sundays.  I kept coming to articles quoting another section from Matthew; one that some use as a moral compass:

15″Watch out for false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are voracious wolves.  16 You will recognize them by their fruit. Grapes are not gathered from thorns or figs from thistles, are they? 17 In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.  18 A good tree is not able to bear bad fruit, nor a bad tree to bear good fruit.  19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  20 So then, you will recognize them by their fruit. (Mt. 7:15-20)

It’s a great passage because it describes the predicament of men very well.  It’s a wonderful metaphor for a principle that probably precedes any biblical inclusion. Let’s assume for a moment that the bible contains an absolute set of ethics which is prescriptive of our behavior.  How is this passage prescriptive? Well in the churches in which I was a member, I heard from the pulpit that you could pretty easily recognize the wrongness of a thing by what it produced. Romans 1:24-32 was often used as a companion text to illustrate this point. Never mind the fact that sometimes “fruit” is not instant. Sometimes we cannot see the good or evil of an action until many years down the road.

But some Christians would like us to believe that this can be a test of some kind, right now.  They tell us that certain acts will automatically produce a certain consequence.  It is true that one can generally tell the worth of a thing by the fruits produced. The problem comes when Christians use this passage as a prescription to tell others what is “good” or “bad” in particular, according to their interpretation of the scriptures. They also get to decide which consequences are good or evil.  For them sexuality is the chief illustration of a tree and its fruits. AIDS is a consequence of homosexuality therefore it is bad. Abortion is a consequence of  preventable choices therefore it is bad. Depression is a consequence of abortions therefore it is preventable and bad. Failed third marriages are the consequence of divorce therefore divorce is bad. Laziness and freeloading is a consequence of welfare therefore welfare is bad.  Communism is a consequence of basic health care for all therefore not only is communism bad, basic health care for free is bad. For these kinds of folk, B is always a result of A, no matter what.

But, let’s continue the metaphor and take it further. But what if a tree produces good fruit one year and bad fruit the next? What if part of it’s fruit is bad but the rest is good? What happens if the fruit looks really good and healthy but tastes bitter? What if the fruit that ripens and “rots” the most is the juiciest and the best? Isn’t this parable more a generalization rather than a sure fire way of telling what’s good and bad? You’ll know an action is generally unworthy if it generally and consistently produces bad things. Conversely, and more importantly, you’ll know an action is generally worthy if it generally and consistently produces good things.  Generally then, we can look at the bible as another set of ethics that needs to be scrutinized alongside all systems of ethics, using the same criteria: Does it work? Unfortunately some Christians do not ask that question often enough mainly because they don’t care if it works. God said it, that settles it.

This brings me to philosophy as it relates to the public debate about politics and whose politics are “better,” (as most of what I read always does). Setting aside biblical philosophy, I am always interested in John Stuart Mill and his theory of utilitarianism, which seems important right now in the public debate over whose politics are true, especially in this country. Utilitarianism posits that the “moral worth of an action is determined by its outcome.”  This seems to be exactly what Matthew is saying.  You cannot really judge anything as an idea. Ideas have no worth in and of themselves. An idea of a perfect society has no worth if its not enacted in the culture and proven in the public arena. Politics is merely one group arguing for their idea of a society over another group’s idea. Each tries to prevent the other from enacting the principles behind their idea.

Political utilitarianism in general terms is the idea that the most good to the most number of people is helpful to society as a whole. To work for the good of society is a morally worthy goal. The problem is when groups of individuals disagree about what’s good for society.  But that jumps the gun. Mill wrote that

To do the right thing…we do not need to be constantly motivated by concern for the general happiness. The large majority of actions intend the good of individuals (including ourselves) rather than the good of the world. Yet the world’s good is made up of the good of the individuals that constitute it and unless we are in the position of, say, a legislator, we act properly by looking to private rather than to public good. Our attention to the public well-being usually needs to extend only so far as is required to know that we aren’t violating the rights of others.

How this dovetails with scripture depends on how one views scripture. For me, having once taken it so literally, I can say that the bible exists for me now only as a record of other peoples’ experiences of their ideas about God. There is nothing systematic about it. There is no consistent ethic. It provides no absolute foundation for anything. It is literature of the past that contains myth. Like most myth, it it meant to explain after the fact rather than be a presentation of fact. Myth is written by men for other men to try and explain how the world works for them (see my Master’s thesis introduction). The fact that no woman wrote scripture, or if she did, no woman was allowed a presence in its collection, convinces me that the bible is not meant for a woman’s consumption and indeed probably has nothing of any value to say to modern women. There are some worthy statements in the bible, just as there are in another philosphers’ writings, but to stand the test of time a philosophy has to be workable and representative of most people; women included! If it does not stand that test, then it can be discarded as an idea; a pretty idea perhaps, but not workable in any real sense.

All this is a long treatise on the simple idea of mine that we will never get anywhere in political debate until we are allowed to test the theories posited. This is what makes the United States unique in that there are individual states making legislation amid the larger idea of a cohesive Federal government. The states are little microcosms whereby the people can enact what they believe are good ideas and see if they work. If they do work then legislators and the public should try to convince other states and eventually the Federal government to enact them. But progress is extremely slow and we have to realize that. We cannot assume that something doesn’t work even after many years. But we can assume that something works if it’s proven to have worked. Who will say that Brown vs. the Board of Education didn’t accomplish much? Yet it was vociferously protested at the time. We’ve already seen how theocracy works in part by looking at history (the Crusades, Salem Witch trials, etc.) and by looking at how individual churches run themselves. We know that we trample on individual rights when we keep out all the undesirable people these churches cannot stand. No one wants a government that exhibits such exclusivity and punishment espoused by such doctrines. A society based on such exclusivity does not work. We have seen that slavery doesn’t work by watching our Southern states and realizing the devastating path that racism takes. Our western states have shown us in the past that women’s rights were successful long before the Eastern part of the country got wind of it or realized that women were intelligent beings.

I guess all of this is my way of realizing that action and the consequences of it is the only proof of a good idea. People and mere existence comes first, not institutions or foundations. We aren’t born into rules. Rules are born from us and the good of society as a whole is a direct result of the happiness and freedom of individuals IN COOPERATION with the happiness and freedom of our neighbor. There are some “trees” that deserve to be cut down. Al Qaida is a bad tree. Theocracy is a bad tree. Slavery is a bad tree. The subjugation of women is a bad tree. Unregulated capitalism is a bad tree. War that is not just is a bad tree. People dying because they cannot afford health care is a bad tree. Sexual stereotyping is a bad tree. What else is a bad tree? You get the picture.

Quote of the Day

Ludwig Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity...

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God, I have said, is the fulfiller, or the reality, of the human desires for happiness, perfection, and immortality. From this it may be inferred that to deprive man of God is to tear the heart out of his breast. But I contest the premises from which religion and theology deduce the necessity and existence of God, or of immortality, which is the same thing. I maintain that desires which are fulfilled only in the imagination, or from which the existence of an imaginary being is deduced, are imaginary desires, and not the real desires of the human heart; I maintain that the limitations which the religious imagination annuls in the idea of God or immortality, are necessary determinations of the human essence, which cannot be dissociated from it, and therefore no limitations at all, except precisely in man’s imagination….

Man has many wishes that he does not really wish to fulfil, and it would be a misunderstanding to suppose the contrary. He wants them to remain wishes, they have value only in his imagination; their fulfilment would be a bitter disappointment to him. Such a desire is the desire for eternal life. If it were fulfilled, man would become thoroughly sick of living eternally, and yearn for death. In reality man wishes merely to avoid a premature, violent or gruesome death. Everything has its measure, says a pagan philosopher; in the end we weary of everything, even of life; a time comes when man desires death.

Ludwig Feuerbach, Lectures on the Essence of Religion

“We the People”

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And right after writing about individualism in religion, I come across this assessment of the “Restoring Honor” rally at Religion Dispatch:

Individually, most Tea Partiers probably are nice people, trying to do what’s right, motivated by good intentions that extend from their faith in God and in their understanding of what this nation stands for. And individualism is exactly what the rhetoric of the rally was all about; from the website: “throughout history America has seen many great leaders and noteworthy citizens change her course. It is through their personal virtues and by their example that we are able to live as a free people. Our freedom is possible only if we remain virtuous.” Mirroring their Christology, salvation for themselves and for the country is an individual act.The convenience of individualism is that others cannot be held accountable for personal failures, nor can an individual be held responsible for the actions of another. The problem with individualism is that it fails to connect the dots between a movement or ideology and how one person might interpret that ideology, thereby taking a course of action perhaps incongruous with the party’s original intent.

Individualism is beneficial for leaders to peg success or failure of a movement on each person’s virtue rather than the power of the collective to effect change. Individualism is focused on personal attainment, personal happiness, and personal livelihood, and fails to see how each relies on a system that empowers, privileges, or dispossess either the individual or others in the process. As I discovered at the rally, to shift the conversation from “I” to “we” in speaking of a collective liberation was quickly flagged as anti-American and dismissed.

Since when did “we the people” become synonymous with Socialism? How can we convince people that “loving their neighbor” means more than just praying for them, that it means supporting a system that raises each of us up through access to education, health care, jobs, and a livable life? How can we encourage people to stop thinking of themselves as living in subdivisions and start living in neighborhoods? How can we shift from the Jesus of the comfortable to the “sell all your possessions” Jesus?

I don’t think we change the nature of the conversation by berating those with whom we disagree, further sowing the seeds of resentment and faction. We change the nature of the conversation by connecting our own work to the values or faith by which it is motivated. The Christianity I practice requires that I love my neighbor even when it isn’t easy, that I work for “the least of these” even when I want to quit, that I give my two coins even if they are the last two I have, and that Jesus died not only for my sins but also those of the tax collector, the Samaritan woman, and the Pharisee.

Alex McNeill is absolutely right about what makes the rugged individualists of America so opposed to anything they see as threatening by labeling it “socialist.” Forgetting that Jesus was a “socialist” in the purest sense, it’s easy for us to ignore the bigger picture and concentrate only on ourselves. I should take a lesson from my sister and mother, who are as viciously anti-socialist as anybody I know. It is convenient to be able to just pray for people rather than actual help them, and that’s the biggest critique I have of Christianity as a movement. I’m guilty of this individualism myself probably because I see the futility of engaging in debate with entrenched ideologues, my own family among them. But what do we do when those on opposing sides refuse to do anything but berate, deride, marginalize, and curse? When do you realize you can’t have a conversation with rabid ideologues and move along? That’s my question. No one seems to be able to answer it.