Norm Subversion in Missouri

Feeling like a bewildered apostle during the uncertain interval between Jesus’s death and resurrection, I’ve left Springfield, Missouri and returned to real life, wondering about the salvific potential of radical theology.  Subverting the Norm 2 convened academics and practitioners, big names and dilettantes at Drury University for a couple of days to engage with, among others, the question of whether “postmodern theology can live in the Churches”.

Phil Snider, one of the organizers, has offered his thoughts on the conference and provided an important defense of deconstruction as a life-affirming approach to theology and faith.  It appears to respond at least in part to Tony Jones who nailed his 13 theses to a keynote by Jack Caputo that addressed the central question of the conference.  Perhaps because he didn’t have Jack’s speech provided to him in advance, Tony’s response seemed like more of a critique of Pete Rollins, process theology, etc.  Katharine Sarah Moody pondered on her blog whether it was Derridean move while Christena Cleveland plans an upcoming response that promises to include some amens, but also some observations about how it clashes with the realities of some faith communities of color.

This robust and ongoing exchange exemplifies how productive this conference has been at least in terms of getting people talking.  Jack advocated for the devil and spoke of spooks and specters.  A couple in particular seemed to haunt these conversations.  The first was the individual correlate to the question of whether postmodern or radical (the latter term being preferred by Caputo) theology can live in the church: ‘how can we apply this in our lives’?  Katharine, for example, talked about “philosophy as an art of living”, something explored by Philip Goodchild in Intensities.  The most striking attempt to put this into practice was a radical liturgy enacted by Jonathan Perrodin and Adam Moore with help from Matthew Lyon and Keegan Osinski.  Perrodin’s post mortem asserts

that one can have an event based on Radical Theology and it not just be depressing death & decay, but that one can draw people together and truly touch & inspire each other without pulling any punches.

He also links to resources in his blog post to help others experiment with radical liturgy but fails to mention that his vulnerability in sharing an intensely personal story was the linchpin in drawing those of us in attendance into our own humanity. For Jonathan and the other radical liturgists, lived philosophy meant learning “how to be human”.

For Bo Eberle and Jeremy Fackenthal, living radical theology means a focus on political theology.  Bo specifically criticized what William Connolly calls the “Evangelical-Capitalist resonance machine“, though he didn’t offer us any concrete steps to take to spark the revolution.

This question of how to apply faith and convictions is something I wrestle with daily.  It’s so easy to think deeply and act shallowly, becoming overwhelmed and paralyzed when faced with taking the risk to live as we believe.  I hope to come back to this when I’ve had some more time to reflect and maybe also more courage to act.

A second haunting question was that of diversity.  Phil and the other organizers took great care to invite speakers from a wide variety of backgrounds, but inevitably the demographics at the conference skewed white, male, and straight.  This was something I’d winced at when I saw a list of “75 reasons to attend the conference” (speakers and featured break-out session participants).  Tirelessly committed, Phil included several keynotes and break-out sessions sponsored by Springfield’s Center for Diversity and Reconciliation. He wanted these to be open to the greater CDR-community, so they ended up being on sort of a separate track from the rest of the conference which was great, but meant that many people there for the conference didn’t take advantage of the CDR offerings.  When Phil talked about the question of diversity again on the second and last day of the conference, I realized that the CDR roundtable and the closing Subverting the Norm roundtable were happening concurrently.  It seemed like this logistical arrangement reinforced a norm that we were trying to subvert.  I was really happy, then, when Phil and a few others of us were able to talk about it and he and the roundtable participants were able to make it so that the two roundtables happened in the same place, one right after the other.  Rather than being wholly separate, they were in conversation with one another.

Namsoon Kang had already won me over with her talk about “Jesus-community” and hospitality that resonated with my interest in (im)migration, but her remarks after being introduced on the Homebrewed Christianity podcast “Is God Dead?” panel also spoke to the question of diversity.  She pointed out that her identity as a Korean woman had been highlighted while Jack Caputo wasn’t designated as a male of European descent.  And later, during the closing roundtables, her voice complemented Christena’s in shining a light on the blindspots that we all have in one form or another.  She warned against tokenism and against defining ourselves or others by any one identity.  “We are many.”  Jes and Jim Kast-Keat together with Krista Dalton touched on all this today on PodKastKeat.

So after my lengthy journalistic account of the conference’s greatest hits, I know you’re dying to know more about what I actually thought.  Can radical theology live in the churches?  Absolutely.  As Phil said, “deconstruction actually has more to do with affirmation than destruction”.  Living lives where we attempt to look at things radically in the best etymological sense of the word – seeing all the way down to the root, understanding the big stuff in its context, allows us to more honestly choose faith.  The question shifts away from the unfalsifiable ‘is there a God’ to, what does it mean to live as if life is truly meaningful – something that Tony got at when he was talking about wanting to engage with radical theologians who “want there to be a God”.  And I don’t mean to throw my lot in with the language Tony uses there or to somehow construe my own understanding of faith as a belief in God, but I do endorse faith in the goodness and rightness of the project of creating meaning by how we live.

And as for diversity, I am heartened that people are trying and open.  I was and continue to be quick to point out the ways I find the craft beer-swilling straight-white-dude demographic that predominates to be missing the mark, but at the same time there needs to be grace.  Above all, everyone I met was willing to learn from one another and ask tough questions not only of others but of themselves.  Through continued dialogue, I truly believe we’ll get closer to where we want to be.  I think Christena’s entreaty to read more widely, to seek out authors we’re less familiar with who can disturb and provoke and help us reframe things is very valuable.  Where I plan to start with this is by reading more from people of color.  For others who attended, it might checking out something coming from a feminist or queer perspective.  And inevitably, focusing on gender, sexual orientation, and race means we’re missing other kinds of diversity too.  No one even brought up disability, for example, in any of the lectures or break-out sessions I attended.

So I’m hoping to live the resurrection of my faith, transfigured.  I have my doubts and reservations, but glimpsing what a community committed to radical theology looks like, a community that overlaps with other communities who may not believe the same way, I am encouraged.

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We’re Everybody Else

I recently finished Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender, an excellent, impeccably reasoned critique of the rush to apply (or misapply as the case may be) the findings of neuroscience to solve questions about innate differences between men and women.  The whole book is well worth a read, but here I wanted to specifically talk about the broader applications of her discussion of “half changed minds”.

Fine is specifically discussing how parents attempting to raise their children in a gender-neutral way are hampered by deeply ingrained gender norms.  She describes implicit association tests and other means of teasing out the differences between how we really feel about a given subject – be it gender, race, or meatloaf – and how we think we feel about it.  What she says (and this is born out elsewhere and taken up by other authors of course, but these things all coalesced for me while reading Fine’s descriptions) is basically that our high-minded conscious selves are just a wee part of our whole selves, the selves that make decisions and react to stimuli.

So our our ingrained habits absorbed from without affect our decision-making.  That’s obvious, right?  I’d think so, but I will readily admit  that I seldom take the time to meditate on the practical implications of this and I think if we all did, we’d be better off as individuals and as a society.

Exposure to advertising, the things those who raised us did and said during our formative years, tropes and archetypes in stories and films and songs, traumatic and pleasurable experiences, etc. etc. influence the complex web of brain activity that leads to even the simplest of decisions and reactions.  When it comes down to it, we are less a single entity in charge of ourselves than a whole little world, constantly interacting with and being informed by the bigger world outside ourselves.  We are not only the aspirational, conscious bit we’d like to see ourselves as, but also a whole lot more.

For example, think of that heated moment, a fight, say, where you’re caught up in a frenzy of emotion and shout out something utterly truthful that you hadn’t expected to say.  You catch yourself, and protest “I didn’t mean that!”, but somehow you did, or at least part of you did.  Dazed and upset by the revelation, you puzzle over where it came from.  Or, let’s take up racism.  I know few people who espouse any naked kind of racism and I’d say a healthy majority of the people I know have an internal narrative about racism that goes something like ‘I know about racism, I know it’s out there, but I am certainly not racist’.  And yet, there’s that moment where a hiring manager peruses a résumé with a typically African-American name on it and that knowledge on some level impacts the hiring manager’s impression of their suitability for the job.  That may not reflect that HR professional’s conscious ideas about black people, but it does reflect what s/he has internalized from living in a society with unhealthy discourses on race.  The same lessons can readily be applied to gender and all kinds of other identities.

If you’re like me, you’re embarrassed by the parts of who you are that don’t square up with who you think you are.  But we need to get over that and, rather than declaring definitive things about who we are – “I’m not racist, I don’t hate gay people, I don’t think women are less capable than men, I don’t value the lives of children in Afghanistan any less than the lives of children in Connecticut” – we need to recognize the breadth of who we are and talk declare who we want to be.  

So yes, racism and intolerance and sexism and a whole lot of other counterproductive internalized products of the world without are swirling around inside me.  So what do I do with that?  I own up to it.  I recognize it.  I do a little consciousness raising.  This is hard, though, when you’re clinging to a notion that you are responsible for everything that comprises your identity.  There’s often a shame attached to the cognitive dissonance of saying you feel or believe one thing and then having these reactions and impulses and inclinations that don’t square with that.  That shame then frequently drives us to further repress those things, perhaps even to the point of obscuring them.  But, when we can’t see them, when we can’t get at them, we can’t actively work against them.

When we let go of that kind of shame, we give ourselves the space to address these unsettling parts of who we are.  Rather than giving us a free pass for our shortcomings, this process removes the impulse to conceal and deny them.  And if we take a more expansive view of who we are and realize that we don’t have to defend the entirety of who we are (since a lot of it is everybody else), there’s a lot more potential for change.  The analogy of a country is fitting here.  Even the most self-avowedly patriotic Americans are happy to say “this is what’s wrong with America and we need to change it”.  Recognizing things they want to change in their country doesn’t make them less American, it doesn’t mean they don’t like America.  It means there’s work to be done to make it a better place.  We’re all little countries.

And before you roll your eyes about my tl;dr platitude here, just think about it.  Think about what powerful drivers shame and the defense of our self-image is and about how useful it is to be able to be able to let down your defenses and admit your faults in a bid to pick up a chisel and refine things.

Yellow Rain and the Power Imbalance of Interviewing

[A friend of mine posted a link on my Facebook timeline to “The Science of Racism“.  The piece is a response by Kao Kalia Yang to the 24 September Radiolab story for which her uncle, Eng Yang, was interviewed.  She served as his translator.  As you’ll see in the introduction to her response, Radiolab was widely criticized for how it handled the Yangs’ story.  The following is a modified version of my reply on Facebook to the link post, so it’s not a proper, well thought-out blog post, but I wanted to share it anyway.]  

When I heard the Radiolab story about Yellow Rain, I was on the train back to Brooklyn.  As the segment where Eng Yang was interviewed grew tense, I almost squirmed in my seat.  It was one of those moments where you look around to see if the other passengers are as disturbed as you are by what you’re hearing until you remember they’re not privy to what’s coming out of your headphones.  

Robert Krulwich, a host of Radiolab, one of my favorite podcasts, was aiming to get to the bottom of a story about whether Soviets had used chemical weapons in Laos or whether it was, as later investigations suggested, the result of a natural phenomenon.  What seems like a straightforward exercise in weighing the facts (the whole episode was about facts and discerning truth) became more complicated when it became clear that the discourses of scientific truth and emotional truth were clashing, and that the goals of the interviewer and the interviewee were at odds.  

As I read Yang’s article and compared it with Robert Krulwich’s response to earlier criticism about the story, I can still see the divergence. In terms of tone and apperance, even, you have on the one hand the Instragrammy photo, the narrative style, and the evocative way Kao Kalia Yang weaves her miscarriage into the story and then on the other hand you have Robert Krulwich’s dopey-looking professional photo and a description of his credentials, bullet points, and brevity.

In terms of substance, Yang’s article addresses power imbalances, racism, and sexism – she uses the emotionally overwhelming metaphor of losing a child in parallel with what she sees as a miscarriage of justice. Krulwich boils down to an apology over tone which he impies is important, but not as important as his search for the Truth.

The whole thing was a collision of different goals and aims. I think Radiolab wanted to address a sciencey story with a compelling emotional element, which is their thing. They wanted to talk about how the facts of the story played out, above all, ‘proving’ that what had been thought to be chemical warfare had really been a natural phenomenon. The Yangs wanted to share an undertold story of suffering. In a way, though this is an imperfect equivalency, this was scientific truth versus emotional truth.

The problem I see goes back to the beginning – Yang says that Radiolab ambushed her and did not explain the details of the story, of what they were trying to do. And while I realize that it would’ve been impractical for them to detail where the story was going since the story probably unfolds as they take in new information, they had every responsibility to be sensitive to the fact that they were asking this man about killings and destruction that befell his family and friends.

I get where Radiolab’s coming from – their project was neat and tidy: “this is the story about alleged chemical warfare, here is the consensus on what happened, here are some new facts, this is what we now think in light of these facts”. They brought in Yang for further illumination, an emotional ‘accent’ if you will to bring gravity to the subject. I think what Krulwich meant about Yang “monopolizing” was that she and her uncle wanted to share the horrors suffered by the Hmong people and that simply didn’t fit in their time schedule or into their simplified truth-finding.

And thinking about all this makes me question the interviewer-interviewee dynamic. The interviewee is a subject to be examined, someone from the interviewer is extracting truth. The interviewer does have the power because it is their discourse alone in this format that is deployed, their goals that are being furthered. I wonder about the ethics of this. I wonder if there’s a more collaborate alternative where the interviewer and the interviewee have a stake in determining what’s important to talk about and what direction they’d like the interview to go in. That sounds really messy of course, but I think that’s missing in our society that’s preoccupied with provable facts and how to extract, sanitize, and elevate them to some kind of currency of the ‘real’.

A Call to Jihad

I know I’m a little late to offer my two cents on the Mona Eltahawy incident that occurred at the end of  September, but it’s all for the best anyway.  Enough people (including Mona herself) create enough Eltahawy buzz as it is, so I’d humbly propose a that we focus here on jihad.

The subway advertisement that provoked Mona’s graffiti protest reads, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”  If we render Pamela Geller‘s ad, couched in unapologetically colonialist language, into some tidy GRE-style analogies, we’ve got civilized man : savage :: Israel : jihad.  Not the neatest equivalency as, on the one side, you have a nation-state and on the other you have, well, what do you have?  What is jihad?

I’m not about to obscure that the word jihad has military connotations.  Jihad does indeed mean, in many cases, a holy war, an armed struggle against unbelievers in Islam.  This is not some novel meaning, not primarily a semantic hijacking by extremists (though they have done their fair share to bloody up the concept).  But neither is the “greater” or “inner jihad” a recent attempt at softening the starkness and violence of that connotation.  The word jihad comes from the triliteral root j-h-d which means “to strive” or “to struggle” and the greater or inner jihad is an internal struggle, a striving to live out one’s faith.

And, to wade into a bit more etymology, jihad has a leg up on the word for ‘holy war’ in my own religious tradition.  Crusade comes from medieval Latin cruciata meaning “crossed, marked with the cross”, signifying the Papal blessing under which European Christians marched to the Holy Land to slaughter and maim on behalf of God.  It is, all these centuries later, still a fraught word, not having much to do with actual good for centuries when it became used figuratively in the late 1700s (per the Oxford English Dictionary) to mean a fight against things like ignorance and evil.  The moral ambiguity and dark history of the word crusade made George Bush’s use of the word vis-à-vis fighting terrorism cringeworthy.  Campus Crusade, in a bid to dissociate itself from the baggage of their name, became simply Cru last year.

I bring up ‘our’ holy wars to give context to ‘their’ holy wars and the discourse surrounding them.  It would do us well to think of two jihads here, akin to our ‘taking up the cross’ and waging war under the sign of the cross.  Jihad’s civilizedness or savageness depends on the mujahid (the person carrying out jihad).  Ms. Geller’s Manichean subway ad foists unhelpful dichotomies on us.  Not only is jihad what you make of it, but so is religion and, for that matter, so is Israel.  What Israel is depends on who Israelis are.  And, of course, who they are is defined by what they do.

Let me end, then, by calling you to jihad.  If you are a non-Muslim, take into account that Islam does not speak with one voice and realize that by having knee-jerk reactions about Islam, Muslims, the Qur’an, jihad – associating them with ‘evildoers’ and terrorism, you are handicapping Muslims trying to define Islam for themselves.  You are silencing important voices, you are shrinking an entire religion down to a violent caricature of itself.  The non-Muslim jihad is to struggle to remain open to the individual Muslim, to strive to find the good in Islam, and, yes, at the same time, to reject violent extremism in all its forms without blindly believing that’s all Islam is.    Let us also heed a version of Ms. Geller’s exhortation, let us stand with those many Israelis who are fighting for peace, for human rights, who manage to fight through existential fears to see the value and the humanness of the Other.

What do I love when I love my enemies?

Reading John Caputo’s On Religion while the media muse over whether this year’s presidential election campaign is the most divisive in American history has me thinking.

In the book, Caputo takes up the Augustinian question “what do I love when I love my God?” (paraphrased from Book X of Confessions) and points to the statement ‘God is love’, appearing twice in 1 John, for illumination. Some simple substitution might hint at an answer to the question: when you love God, you love love.  I think that, semantically, this makes the question a lot more accessible.  It allows for the possibility that this question (and indeed also the Great Commandment) belongs to absolutely everyone regardless of labeling and affiliation.

If you’re getting worried I’m going to wander down some kind of theological rabbit hole, never fear.  Let me just say that the question is unanswerable anyway, at least in any definitive or static way.  Defining and delimiting love (especially if we agree with the author of 1 John that God is love) simply isn’t possible.  So we bear the onerous task of living in love (which is living in God) without being able to define it.  And yet love’s very limitlessness gives us a clue as to how to live in it.

Jesus’s celebrated (but underheeded) exhortation to love our enemies in Matthew challenged a view that debased love by confining it to an in-group.  And this wasn’t a mere call to welcome strangers and to treat them kindly, this was a true unchaining of love, a thrust in the direction of love’s limitlessness.  To me, this is not some incidental quirk of Christianity, but rather lies at the heart of its fundamental value.  It demonstrates how we are to live in love (by constantly seeking to cast off strictures that make it something less than love) and therefore how to live in God.  To love, we must love limitlessly, to love limitlessly, me must love our enemies.  In short, if we do not love our enemies, we do not love our God.

Coming down from the rarefied air of this lofty pronouncement, let’s turn to the social climate I mentioned earlier.  The media are keen on dramatizing and playing up (and even inflaming) divisions along political, ideological, religious, and other lines, but the media aren’t some altogether separate entity, entirely distinct from the rest of society.  They are part of a feedback loop in which the narrative of who we are is created and recreated.

For all kinds of reasons, this story-telling process is like a rock-tumbler, making rough, many-faceted realities sleeker and shinier.  Along the way, we lose nuance because it’s too time-consuming to contend with.  We end up with convenient fictions like the Red State versus Blue State dichotomy.  We then pick sides or perhaps see ourselves as ‘naturally’ belonging to one side or the other and circle the wagons despite the fact that it’s a bit like reading a description of your Chinese Zodiac animal, picking out the bits that fit you and being amazed at what a Tiger you really are even as you possess a fair number of Ratlike or Rabbitlike qualities too.

It is obvious that groups of people cohere around certain constellations of ideas and values, but it is important to recognize at the same time that we are all threads in the social fabric of this country.  In a way that eludes description, we make up America.  We make it up in that we comprise it, but also in the sense that we are actively creating it, together, whether cooperatively or antagonistically.  We as Americans (may my foreign readership excuse my particular focus in this post) are perpetually engaged in the task of creating America and that is the endeavor that unites us.

Any time people with diverse opinions and convictions collaborate, there will be disagreements.  Disagreeing about something, however, even vehemently, should not be confused with enmity.  Disagreement is the recognition of differing interests, emphases, and approaches and that’s it.  It’s what we do with disagreement that’s critical.  It’s clear in the case of our joint American project that something’s gone awry.  There are Americans who deeply hate other Americans because of their beliefs or perceived beliefs.  There are American who see other Americans as their enemies.

Let me put forward that November’s elections are not a reality TV show or a sporting event.  And if we’d like to characterize them as battles and wars, then we’re warring against ourselves, against the interwoven social fabric of this nation.  It’s one thing to hear despicable campaign ads on TV from both parties and from outside groups — deceitful, intentionally misleading memes that worm their way into our heads and fester and affect how we perceive truth, but what is truly alarming is that everyday Americans are becoming willing mercenaries willing to don the same armor and wield the same weapons of untruths, smearing, and vilification.

It starts with taking aim at a candidate and before long, even our neighbors, friends, and family are collateral damage.  The mildest among us are busy typing up diatribe-like statues about how we’re unfriending anyone who expresses this or that opinion about a given issue.  The more vociferous are saying things too ugly to repeat here and even perpetrating physical and emotional violence.  We’re picking sides, growing thirsty for a fight and all the while forgetting we’re a deeply interconnected network of hundreds of millions of people creating America through our actions and our words.

And by ‘we’, I do mean we.  I feel very visceral apprehensions about the implications of these upcoming elections, of the choices we’re making and the actions we’re taking in America today.  My knee-jerk reaction is to jump right in there, to dismiss as crazy or as ignorant the people who have views that differ from my own.  I feel relief when I hear about a ‘victory’ for ‘our side’ and get angry and frustrated when I hear about setbacks in causes I believe in.  But at the same time, I hear that still, small voice calling me to love love and to love my enemies.  I also hear voice of reason (and I would strongly suggest that the two are the same) reminding me that I am threaded into this grand collaboration and that clawing madly at it, trying to destroy a portion of it, is causing the whole thing to unravel.

I’m not calling anyone to milquetoast moderation when it comes to the passion s/he feels about what is truly the best direction for society.  You don’t have to set aside your values to see the humanity in the other people who have a stake in this country, the people you disagree with, the people you may even think you hate.  But you do need to question your hatred which is thinly-veiled fear.  You need to question how that hatred got there and who’s fueling it (and even with what money, especially this election cycle).  You need to look in the mirror, in the texts that inform your beliefs, into your conscience, and ask if how you’re handling your legitimate concerns about your future in a counterproductive way that’s not only hurting others, but hurting you too.

So let’s make sure when we’re sharing and retweeting, repeating and rephrasing, that we are conscious about facts and about rhetoric.  As someone who believes in the exhortation of Christ to love love, something that requires me to love my enemies or my perceived enemies, I feel compelled to take a little extra time to try and understand why people who believe so differently from me do believe what they do and, as importantly, what they fear.  I have to ask also what they fear from me and what I can do to dispel misplaced fears.  When I truly don’t understand, which happens more than I’d like, I still have to retain that this person, this fellow human is of value.  My ideal self wants the best for them and wishes them no ill, but ideals mean nothing if they’re not lived out.

Beyond the suggestions that can ultimately be summed up as ‘stop and think before you act and speak’, I can’t answer for you how you should love your enemies, American and otherwise, this tumultuous election cycle.  What I can tell you is that what you love when you love your enemies is love itself and so you absolutely must rise to the occasion, no matter how difficult or impossible it seems.

The Network

I write.  A lot.  You’ve probably seen my writing, well, next to nowhere (unless you were one of the four and a half people who followed the blog I kept up while serving as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar in Egypt or stumbled across my master’s thesis online).  That’s because most of the thousands and thousands of words I’ve typed or written are between the leathern covers of a journal or in the dark e-recesses of a password-protected Word document stored in the Cloud.  As interesting is that all is for me and any unfortunate descendants I may one day have, I’ve decided to channel my narcissistic energies into something with a (slightly) wider audience.

So what do I plan to write about that’s more interesting than what I had for dinner or what precise level my existential angst was at on a given Wednesday?  People.  I love people.  Before you let that give you the warm fuzzies, I should say that I mean that in a sort of intellectual sense.  My interest is in people as objects of analysis both individually and collectively.  I’m fascinated by people communicating and connecting — I’m mesmerized by the exchange of information and exercise of influence that takes place within relationships and networks.

So much of how we see ourselves has to do with our place in these networks.  Implied in titles like ‘mother’, ‘killer’, ‘president’, ‘hermit’, ‘fifth cousin twice-removed’, and ‘patriot’ are ways of relating, active or passive, with other people.  Fundamental to the way I see the world is an understanding of myself as a node in the network, a point at which various relationships and connections intersect.  I plan to explore nodehood without boring you too much.  I want to ask questions about meaning and responsibility — you know, the big questions.  Another word for the way power flows through a network is, after all, politics.

To get back to people-love and to give you your warm fuzzies back, I really do love people (despite a heaping helping of misanthropic tendencies) and to that end, I want to ask some ethical and religious questions about networks too.