Saturday, July 29, 2006

Spinoza and Doubt

Today Rebecca Goldstein has an interesting op-ed essay ("Reasonable Doubt") in the New York Times. It is partially in commemoration of the "350th anniversary of the excommunication of the philosopher Baruch Spinoza from the Portuguese Jewish community of Amsterdam in which he had been raised." The essay brings Spinoza's life and thought into the context of today's (this past week's) international events. It's a good essay.

But it also occurs to me that nothing, or at least very little, is "true" beyond "reasonable doubt." My ideas about God and religion, as unwaveringly right as they might feel to me, are still susceptible to the voice of reason. I'm not sure whether this is a scary or liberating concept.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Not Christian, Jew, or Muslim

This video clip from Al-Jazeera is stunning, though I fear that this woman is going to need some serious protection from the world of Islamic fundamentalism. After watching this video the prospect of secularism as opposed to monotheism is inviting.

You must watch this video.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Temptation of Violence

I've come to realize that what concerns me most -- and inevitably hovers over my dissertation and all other academic scholarship -- are theological questions. Like most people, I want answers. But unlike many people, I've grown more content with the knowledge that often the "answer" is merely one more explosion of unanswerable questions and unsolvable conundrums. And yet, driven by an intellectual era dominated by postsecular concerns, I still work, study, read, and write in a "find the answer" mode. Perhaps this is one reason I am so drawn to Judaism (perhaps instead I should say Jewish thought, or even Jewish ethical monotheism) -- the insistence that the experience of working toward or looking for "answers" is more significant than what we actually hope to find as a result of our inquisitive endeavors. It is a dynamic ethical system, capable of continually and subtly evolving past what others conceive of as an outdated, monolithic set of rules and guidelines.

Tonight in particular I was thinking about the ways that some people use biblical principles and scriptures to indirectly insult, and essentially assault, others. The bible has become a weapon of sorts -- a sword brandished high above the heads of those who fear that their own theological foundations are too shaky to allow for the inclusion of those who don't believe exactly as they do. Ironically, however, when I was young I remember sitting in Sunday school (I was raised in a very conservative Christian home and community), and being told that I should put on the full armor of God, and that the bible was my sword (this metaphorical rendering comes from Paul's letter to the Ephesians). We even engaged in little contests that were called Sword Drills, in which we would race to see who could look up a scripture verse first. Is it any wonder that so many people are conditioned to utilize the bible and its contents and interpretations as if it is indeed a deadly weapon? But despite the seeming rhetoric of violence, the New Testament writers (one in particular) admonish people to live peaceably with one another.

I am not in any way saying that there are not truths to be found in the Christian New Testament --- quite the contrary. The world would be a wonderful place if all Christians were Christ-like. I just find the violent imagery and metaphors fascinating, especially in the wake of such a hideous historical misuse of the bible.

One of my younger brothers was especially shrewd when it came to strategically using the bible as a "weapon." When he was in fifth or sixth grade, he perused the New Testament for any verses that could be construed to be anti-women or mysogynist (there are quite a few, to be sure, particularly in the Pauline epistles), and then he wrote them all down on tiny scraps of paper, which he kept in the pockets of his Levi's jeans. There was another little girl from our church who apparently annoyed him, and so when she pushed him too far, he would whip out the scraps of paper and unleash a slew of biblically charged insults. A hilarious family anecdote, to be sure, but it's somewhat disturbing.

Likewise, it was not uncommon among people in the Christian college community in which I lived during my undergraduate years to hurl scriptures at people in disagreements as a way to hurt or somehow incriminate the other person. These were also more often than not the most vicious and hypocritical people.

And now, tonight, I'm again looking at Emmanuel Levinas's "The Temptation of Temptation," in which he recalls the Talmudic story (Tractate Shabbath) of a Sadducee who came upon Raba, who was so buried in Torah study, that as he sat absentmindedly rubbing his heel, blood began to spurt from it. This story is the starting point for my dissertation, and I never cease to be fascinated by its implications, primarily that Torah study (or bible or any other text, I would argue) is always accompanied by a necessary violence -- that the violence is necessary in order to wrest from the text the meaning that is concealed. I also can't help but think of Rene Girard's Violence and the Sacred here.

There's no way out of violence, it seems, and this imperative becomes even more profound in the context of spiritual and theological inquiry.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

I Could Be A Physician By Now, Right?

I just had a great big laugh. Yesterday I emailed an old girlfriend from college. Although we haven't spoken for years (a falling out of sorts), we used to be quite good friends, and so I thought it would be nice to send her a brief note to say hello. In my letter, I wrote that I was still in Indiana, but almost finished with my PhD. I remarked on the cold winters here. Then I wished her well, and told her I would love to hear what's going on in her life.

Her surprising reply (in part) reads as follows:

"Oh my gosh, Mon! You're in Indiana? And still in school?? I can't even begin to comprehend how much time you've spent in classes - you realize you could be a physician by now, right? You're probably either crazy or highly intelligent (likely the latter) . . . oh, and we live right by South Coast Plaza [Orange County, California] which I can report has absolutely lovely winters. And summers, and springs, so try to get hired on the west coast if at all possible. Hey... I'll bet Victorville Community College is hiring! Yes, it's perfect."

Now, first of all, why is it that some people still conceive of an MD as the most prestigious degree? Why should it matter that I could have been a physician by now? Wouldn't I have done that if I had been so inclined? It is as if she is saying, "What a shame you won't have anything better to show for all these years of classes other than a silly little PhD!" And, while I am indeed both "crazy" and presumably "highly intelligent," it's clear that she wants me to know that she believes the former alone is true. And, Victorville Community College is a notoriously bad community college near my home town of Apple Valley, California (though I did take a phenomenal history class there one summer).

So, my question is, then, when did getting a PhD in English become such a waste of time?

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Home is Where the Struggles Are

Today I'm finishing a review of Janet Burstein's Telling the Little Secrets: American Jewish Writing Since the 1980s. Burstein is a really great writer, particularly for an "academic": the writing is never purposely dense or convoluted, and though it is critical writing, it is always brilliantly imaginative. Her discussion of Aryeh Lev Stollman's The Far Euphrates is especially interesting. The novel is the story of a young Jewish/Canadian boy named Alexander, who tries to recapture the ambiguous and painful memories of his childhood. The distance, loss, and separation that he associates with "home" subtly evoke the consequences of inhabiting a post-Holocaust world, particularly for a Jewish family.

But I am intrigued by Burstein's suggestion that "from the womb onward, home may be the site of our most desperate struggles -- a struggle first to receive nurture and care, then to achieve independence, and finally to assume responsibility" (108). It gives new meaning to the phrase "dysfunctional family." Dysfunction is perhaps only a symptom of home.

Now I'm going to read a bit into that quotation. In my family, as in my own life, it seems like there is always some kind of drama. Whether it's me getting into two car accidents in one month, my dad walking outside and being bitten by a deadly snake, my brothers being literally jumped by a Samoan gang, or an overly heated family debate over politics in the kitchen, there always seems to be a struggle or conflict of some sort. I've often asked myself why this is -- why our household is more action-packed than most. I have typically perceived of it as a negative (though perhaps beyond our control) phenomenon, but now I'm not so sure. I wonder if it is the existence of struggle or conflict that brings us together, makes us strong. I like Burstein's idea of home as the "site of our most desperate struggles" because it allows me to conceive of my family's predicament from a different, and more promising, perspective: my own personal family life may be full of struggles, but perhaps it's just that we know what it means to be "home," and we're comfortable being there in what it is.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

I am an American

This is it -- proof that I forced myself to emerge from my dungeon today, long enough to wear a patriotic color, go to a bbq, watch people drink beer, discuss flag-burning, pretend to be happy, and eat apple pie. Today I am an American, of sorts, apparently. But now I'm back in my lair, hiding out while everyone else watches fireworks. There was only so much celebration that I could take.

Monday, July 03, 2006

A Warning Against Sun-tanning

I'm just about finished with Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin. It's taken me forever since I keep stopping to read other things. But I came across something very useful today.

The main character notices that her doctor is beginning to age: "...the shoe of aging is beginning to pinch," she says to herself, "Soon you'll regret all that sun-tanning. Your face will look like a testicle."

One of my loved ones is constantly imploring me to use sunscreen. I never, or rarely, listen. Perhaps if I had been told that my face would one day look like a testicle, I would have put on sunscreen. Everyday. Even in the winter. It's not a good look -- for anyone.