Today in class at Creighton University we discussed Plato's Phaedo and why Socrates does not fear death. I asked the class what they believed about souls and bodies and whether there is life after death. There were a variety of opinions and given for a variety of reasons.
Here is an essay by Marcelo Gleiser asking "If you could extend your life by another 50 or 100 healthy years, would you?" Gleiser cites scientific success in extending lifespans and the possibility that we could extend them even further. But would we want to?
Do we also have a fear about living longer or being immortal?
Five days ago I read the ruling by the Louisiana federal judge Martin Feldman that supported that state's ban on same-sex marriage. Unlike many who reacted with overwhelmingly negative response, I did not. Based upon my reading, I did not think that the judge was some hate-monger or old school reactionary. At the time I wrote to a friend, "I think it will actually be good to see a ruling like this, which does adhere strictly to the existing precedents. What this will do is compel the higher courts to 1) set the level of scrutiny for cases involving same-gender loving people and 2) decide clearly on our constitutional status as a class of people. Many of the lower courts have ruled on those larger issues, and this judge doesn't think it is his authority to rule on those, so he is abiding strictly by what the higher courts have already determined." This judge basically decided that no existing precedents allowed him to overturn a democratic process enacting the ban.
Then came Judge Posner's ruling in the 7th Circuit. Since at least the mid-90's I've viewed Posner as the best judge in the United States and have lamented that he is not on the Supreme Court. He is generally a conservative (he was appointed by President Reagan) but he is also a Pragmatist and a powerful intellectual.
He lives up to his reputation as America's finest judge in this, the most entertaining and wickedly funny judicial ruling I have ever read. I read it while eating lunch in a restaurant, and I'm sure the other patrons kept looking over when I was laughing out loud wondering what I was looking at on my phone.
One might think that Posner and Feldman were examining completely different topics, as Posner focus on discrimination and whether there is some basis for it in the state's laws and Feldman focuses instead on democratic processes. Yet, Posner evicerates Feldman's way of thinking.
On the issue of democratic processes, Posner dispenses with the argument in a small paragraph:
Wisconsin’s remaining argument is that the ban on same-sex marriage is the outcome of a democratic process—the enactment of a constitutional ban by popular vote. But homosexuals are only a small part of the state’s population—2.8 percent, we said, grouping transgendered and bisexual persons with homosexuals. Minorities trampled on by the democratic process have recourse to the courts; the recourse is called constitutional law.
That final sentence dispenses with almost the entirety of Judge Feldman's ruling.
Posner's ruling is pretty simple, actually. He says it isn't even important to determine issues like level of scrutiny and whether marriage is a fundamental right, as other courts have argued. Instead, he turns the arguments of the defendant states against them and uses their own criteria to determine the case. Here is the simple conclusion:
The states’ concern with the problem of unwanted children is valid and important, but their solution is not “tailored” to the problem, because by denying marital rights to same-sex couples it reduces the incentive of such couples to adopt unwanted children and impairs the welfare of those children who are adopted by such couples. The states’ solution is thus, in the familiar terminology of constitutional discrimination law, “overinclusive.” It is also underinclusive, in allowing infertile heterosexual couples to marry, but not same-sex couples.
He arrives at that conclusion by showing the utter vacuity of every argument offered by the states. At times he is sarcastically mocking at how bad the arguments are ("The challenged laws discriminate against a minority defined by an immutable characteristic, and the only rationale that the states put forth with any conviction—that same-sex couples and their children don’t need marriage because same-sex couples can’t produce children, intended or unintended—is so full of holes that it cannot be taken seriously").
He begins with the empirically clear statement that the laws discriminate against a class of people that he later describes as "among the most stigmatized, misunderstood, and discriminated-against minorities in the history of the world." But do those discriminatory laws have any reason? He finds none. In fact, the supposed reasons that the states of Wisconsin and Indiana offer--focusing on providing stable relationships for parents--argue against the bans. The bans, therefore, exist for no other reason than to continue discriminating against a group of people.
Here, for example, is one of the funniest moments in the ruling:
At oral argument the state‘s lawyer was asked whether “Indiana’s law is about successfully raising children,” and since “you agree same-sex couples can successfully raise children, why shouldn’t the ban be lifted as to them?” The lawyer answered that “the assumption is that with opposite-sex couples there is very little thought given during the sexual act, sometimes, to whether babies may be a conse-quence.” In other words, Indiana’s government thinks that straight couples tend to be sexually irresponsible, producing unwanted children by the carload, and so must be pressured (in the form of governmental encouragement of marriage through a combination of sticks and carrots) to marry, but that gay couples, unable as they are to produce children wanted or unwanted, are model parents—model citizens really—so have no need for marriage. Heterosexuals get drunk and pregnant, producing unwanted children; their reward is to be allowed to marry. Homosexual couples do not produce unwanted children; their reward is to be denied the right to marry. Go figure.
I can imagine Justice Kennedy will write his majority opinion next year using largely the same legal arguments as Judge Posner. He will not have to determine larger issues of legal doctrine, but will simply have to apply common sense reasoning and throw out all the remaining bans.
Rarely am I very interested in video installations at art museum. A few, here and there, have held my attention for a few moments. Usually I think that they are strange.
Saturday afternoon I wandered into the new CAP gallery at the Joslyn Art Museum in downtown Omaha and ended up sitting there for more than an hour.
CAP is short for Contemporary Artists Project Gallery, and you can read about the new gallery's goals in today's Omaha World-Herald. A small space currently set up as a screening room, with Le Corbusier-style black couches. I nestled into the corner of the front couch, the only one open when I arrived in the room, and was quickly mesmerized.
STREET is only 2 minutes and forty seconds of film slowed down to run just over one hour. In 2011 the filmmaker drove along the streets of New York City filming the people. Initially I was enjoying the people watching aspect, when suddenly a face stood out for its emotional tone, and I realized that there were deeper layers of meaning in the art work.
I was struck by how aesthetically satisfying it was. The colors of people's clothes, on food trucks, and in store windows created beautiful image after beautiful image.
And in scene after scene one sees a full range of human emotion--from a child running with glee to a family hugging and crying. One is struck by how many different emotions can exist on one street corner at the same time. I was also reflecting on how none of the people were really seeing each other, and yet we were seeing them together and that together they made a work of art.
I also realized that I can never see New Yorker's looking up again without thinking of September 11, 2001.
Nothing sinister occurs in the film. I kept wondering if we would see someone fall or trip or some crime occur. We don't.
There are also moments of surprising artistry, as when the camera focuses in on a pigeon in slow-motion flight.
I highly recommend this work, which will be at the Joslyn till September 21. Carve out an hour to go sit and watch and reflect upon our common humanity.
Aristotle argued for touch as the dominant source of our knowledge, as opposed to the Platonic emphasis on seeing. But he largely lost out as Western Culture was more influenced by Plato.
In an interesting piece on the Stone blog, Richard Kearney argues that we are losing touch once again as even sexual touch is often mediated through digital images. He uses the term "exarnation" to describe how the flesh becomes image.
My philosophy class at Creighton University is off to a good start. I’m teaching at 8 a.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays, and one thing I’ve figured out is that the students are more lethargic on Mondays. I may start bringing coffee to class.
I am excited that they are, so far, engaging with the material. The actual title of the course is “Philosophical Ideas: Reality, Knowledge, and the Good Life,” which is quite a lot to cover in one semester. I even told them the first day that the ultimate goal of the course is to make them better people, as they develop the skills necessary for leading a good life. So, I’m setting my hopes pretty high.
We’ve started by reading some of Plato’s dialogues in which we are told the story of Socrates leading up to his conviction and death sentence for corrupting the young. Socrates got this reputation because he went around examining the supposedly wise experts in Athens to see what he could learn from them, and, in the process, learned that most people claim to know things that they don’t. Revealing the ignorance and hypocrisies of a city’s leaders won’t endear you to many people.
I find the story of Socrates, particularly as related in the Apology (his defense at his trial) to be inspiring. He famously says there that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” From Socrates we’ve learned to question ourselves and received wisdom. He also taught us that the individual should judge for himself whether something is right or just, even when society and government disagree. And even to risk death rather than corrupt oneself merely to survive.
Socrates doesn’t fear death because he doesn’t know what happens when someone dies. Death could be a great blessing or it could simply be the end. Either way, that fear should not compel us to betray what we hold to be right and just.
For Socrates the beginning of wisdom is acknowledging what we do not know. He teaches us to have a little intellectual humility.
All of these are great lessons for eighteen year olds to learn. And the rest of us too.
The Courage to Hope
Matthew 6:25-33; Psalm 126
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational UCC
24 August 2014
The United Church of Christ does have a Book of Worship that we ministers can use as a reference when designing various worship services. The book contains all the things you would expect—orders for baptism, confirmation, marriage, death, and ordination. There are also services for renewing vows, adopting a child, or saying goodbye to someone who is moving away. You might be surprised that there is an order for making confession, and that I have used it. There is an order for footwashing and many other of the liturgical practices that some of you don't think are very UCC (though they've been in our Book of Worship for decades). There is also a service of divorce.
This to me is the most surprising thing in the Book of Worship, though, if you think about it for even a little bit, it makes sense. When a couple marries, they usually do it in a religious ceremony and then file the papers with the state. Marriage is both a religious and a civil institution. But when couples divorces, they usually dissolve the legal contract in a court of law and never take any steps to dissolve the religious bond. It makes sense, then, that there would be a religious ceremony for ending a marriage.
I have never used this order of worship, and I can't imagine many divorces where the couple is on good enough terms to choose to use this service, but I do think it would be interesting to use sometime. It might, in some circumstances, be helpful.
The introduction to the service explains its purpose: it is for a couple to "acknowledge responsibility for their separation, affirm the good that continues from the previous relationship, and promise in the presence of God, family, and supportive friends to begin a new relationship." The introduction does warn that this service should be done with sensitivity and with advance preparation (Which I think is something of an understatement). The introduction also points out that this service can be particularly helpful if there are children from the marriage, as the couple can commit to their continued care of the children, even as the marriage is being dissolved.
The prayer time in this service, begins with these words:
O God, make us aware of your presence. You have blessed us in all our moments: of joining, of relating, of intending, and of beginning. Be with us in our times of separating and of ending, releasing us from those vows we can no longer keep; we ask in Christ's name. Amen.
That, I think, is a very appropriate and lovely prayer. It reminds us that God is with us in our beginnings and our endings.
Our closest relationships often bring us pain. Broken friendships, harsh treatment by a loved one, fighting within the family—all of these deeply affect us. This summer we've been talking about relationships, and as we draw this series, entitled "The Work of Love," to a close, today I want to focus on what happens when those relationships go through difficulties or even come to an end.
Love hurts. I can think back over my career to so many different people hurting because they love. The lovesick sixteen year olds. The college student trying to figure out if their first relationship is over. The widow in deep grief over the loss of her husband. The newly divorced who wonder what comes next. The senior adult man who is afraid that he is marrying again too soon after the death of his wife. The twenty-something who attempted suicide because of his loneliness. The person coping with being HIV-positive and how that affects his dating life. And so many more.
Loving another person makes us vulnerable. Loving another person is risky. We open ourselves up and allow another person to share a part of who we are. When we lose that person through death or breaking up, the pain cuts deeply.
What, then, are the Christian practices that can help to sustain us when our relationships come to an end?
Back in 2004, my very first relationship with another man came to a painful end. I had risked everything for this relationship—my career, my family, my friendships. In the first few months it was filled with such joy and excitement, and I was newly confident as I was finally exploring my own identity. So, when the relationship suddenly came crashing down, it was more than just a break-up, it felt as if my whole world was falling apart.
Ten years later, I can see much more clearly what I did wrong in the situation, something that I could not understand at the time. At the time, I was deeply depressed, the worst depression I've ever experienced.
At the end of June 2004, I went to Birmingham, Alabama for the General Assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. As I did every year, I bought a bunch of books and went back to the hotel room to peruse them. One of the books I bought was Jurgen Moltmann's In the End – The Beginning: The Life of Hope. I had not read any Moltmann before, so I was merely anticipating that this little book would give me a good introduction to his thought. Sitting on my hotel bed I began reading the introduction, and I pretty much didn't put the book down until I had finished it two days later. I didn't attend any workshops or breakout sessions during the conference; I spent almost the entire time reading that book. Its message about resurrection was what I needed in that moment.
The theme of the book is that the central tenet of the Christian faith is that with every end there is a new beginning. Ours is a faith of hope, a faith that looks to the future. Here's an excerpt from the paragraph that first grabbed my attention:
No one is perfect, and few people succeed in achieving an unbroken continuity in their lives. Again and again we come up against limits, and experience the failure of our plans for life, the fragmentary nature of our good beginnings and, not least, the guilt which makes life impossible for us. The essential thing in experiences of life like this is the new beginning. If a child falls over it is no bad thing, because it then learns to get up again. Christian faith is faith in the resurrection, and the resurrection is literally just that: rising up again. It gives us the strength to get up, and the creative freedom to begin something once more in the midst of our on-going history, something fresh. . . . 'Christians are the eternal beginners', . . . that is the best thing that can ever be said about believers, lovers and the hopeful.
The Christian story rallies us to rise up, look to the future, and begin again. For each day is a new beginning, each day is a resurrection.
In today's gospel passage, Jesus warns us not to worry. Instead, we should trust that God will provide for us. When a relationship ends, we can spend much of our time focused backwards, on the loss. One way to interpret Jesus' message in today's gospel is that we shouldn't waste our time and energy worrying over the past. The past cannot be undone and relived. It is settled. To remain focused on the past is to sink through regret into despair. Much like Christian in Pilgrim's Progress, we can sink into the "Slough of Despond" composed of "many fears and doubts, and discouraging apprehensions.
Jesus encourages us not to worry, but instead to strive for the kingdom of God, which is a vision of life filled with abundance provided by God's blessing.
To quit worrying and to quit looking backward, and instead to move forward into a new beginning takes courage.
I am convinced that courage is the most important virtue necessary for living the Christian life. I think it's courage that sustains us on the journey when everything looks difficult. It is courage that overcomes fear, anxiety, and despair. It's courage that nurtures our joy, our faith, and our love.
It's easy to be a cynic in our world. The news, especially in recent weeks, has been filled with foreboding. It's easy for us to see the negative, to focus on the bad, and to become overwhelmed by evil and suffering. For us to live as people of hope takes courage, because the world wants us to be cynical, skeptical, and ironic. With courage we can look beyond the bad things in our own lives and the bad things in the world around us and focus instead on those small signs of hope and joy.
We cannot sustain our love relationships or begin again when they have ended without hope. The task is too difficult. Negativity will destroy God's work and our work of love. Look at today's Psalm. Here is a song written by people whose fortunes have not yet been restored, but they dream of that day, a day when their mouths will be filled with laughter and on their tongues will be shouts of joy. Though that day has not arrived, they are already acting like it has.
How can we be like the people in today's Psalm? How can we quit worrying and looking to the past, but instead rely upon God and look to the future, beginning again? How do we become hopeful in the midst of pain? How do we muster courage when we are sinking into despair?
I believe that the work of love rests upon spiritual practices that both sustain our Christian faith and our relationships. That's one reason this sermon series has focused on some of the skills we must learn as Christians—celebrating with our friends, practicing humility, forgiving one another, giving and receiving in marriage.
When I am hurting, I retreat to the spiritual practices that sustain me—things like prayer and meditation, a morning walk, yoga, deep breathing. Sometimes I lie on the ground and focus my breath and pray the ancient Jesus prayer, "Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me."
I also enjoy reading poetry, listening to my favourite music, and eating chocolate. Michael learned soon after he first moved in with me, that if he came home and found me curled in a chair reading Wendell Berry, while R. E. M. was blasting on the stereo, and a few different bars of dark chocolate were on the end table beside me, then I had clearly had a very stressful day.
Friends are also important. Colleagues, mentors, church members, all those people who form my spiritual community. All those people who provide comfort, encouragement, and wisdom when I need it. Cultivating those relationships is essential, because sometimes you need to draw upon them for any new beginning.
After that first relationship with another guy ended, and I was in my depression, a tight social circle formed around me of other people in my church. They had me over for lunch and dinner, took me out drinking, invited me to pool parties, and were willing to sit and listen to my long, sad, and I now must admit sometimes pathetic, ramblings. Those friends prodded me back to life.
In my life it was the combination of friends, spiritual practices, and the hopeful message of the Christian faith which gave me the courage to begin again.
When you experience loss, I encourage you to spend time with the spiritual practices that bring you peace and rest. And with the people who nurture you. These activities will draw you into the presence and the power of God. I believe that from my own experience.
Jesus says "Do not worry." The Psalm looks forward with joy to when our fortunes will be restored. Christians are the eternal beginners. May your faith give you the courage to hope.
Of course the morning of the day at which I'm going to attend a rock festival, I read an essay by Chuck Klosterman on how rock and pop and hip-hop are really about teenagers and their tastes. There can be great music that adults listen to, but whatever is relevant at any given time is what the kids are listening to. Ouch. Thanks for the reminder that I'm forty.
It had been nine years since I'd attended a festival. That was the last time I attended the Austin City Limits Music Festival (when I saw this band I'd never heard of before called, at that time The Arcade Fire). Attending ACL involves preparation. For one thing, it is three days long. Second, it is (or at least was when I attended) roasting hot. So on Saturday morning, I kept having to remind myself that I was planning for a reasonably nice afternoon and evening Omaha, not an unpleasant (weather-wise) three days in Zilker Park.
That said, my ACL training came in handy. For one thing, I was surprised by how few Omahans wore hats. Anyone without a hat at ACL would be pepto bismol pink by the end of the first day and peeling layers of skin halfway through the next. Note: I did not wear my straw, beachcomber cowboy hat that I purchased in Galveston and generally wear to something like this. That seemed to "Texan." I was also wearing a longsleeve linen shirt. Some guy in a sweat-soaked cotten t-shirt said, "That shirt looks too hot. Is it?" I looked incredulously at him, "It's linen and does much better in the heat than your cotton shirt." Also essential--a bandana to protect the back of the neck from sunburn (bonus: it prevents the sweat from running down your neck). And I had the umbrella that has been in my chair bag since I vowed after ACL 2004 never to attend one of these things again without that protection. I did comment to more than one person that this Omaha crowd didn't seem adequately dressed or prepared for sitting outside all day.
And we missed the intense early heat. I had a church gig and didn't arrive till around 4.
Lack of preparation was made up for in overall politeness. Nothing like the obnoxiousness of ACL 2005, about which I blogged here in my rules on Festival Etiquette (which, I must say, is one of the best blog posts I've written. Glad to get a chance to highlight it again).
Besides the polite people, the Maha Festival impressed with its bathrooms. They were the nicest and cleanest port-o-potties I've ever experienced. #NebraskaNice
I enjoyed the music too. Here's who we saw: The Both (great to see Aimee Mann), The Envy Corps, Local Natives, Icky Blossoms, The Head and the Heart, and Death Cab for Cutie (which reading my ACL blogs, I'm reminded that I saw them in 2005). I enjoyed at least a little bit from each of these performances. The Envy Corps I was unfamiliar with; I want to explore their music a little further. The Icky Blossoms set was a lot of fun. I enjoyed singing along to The Head and the Heart songs I knew.
This festival was filled with friends and acquaintances, so everytime I went for food or to the NebraskaNice port-o-potties, I ran into someone to chat with.
One more thing. I do like that the beer guys walked around with backpacks serving beer. That was new from a decade ago. We are evolving as a species.
For walks down memory lane: