Friday, September 29, 2006

Religion of Eternal Childhood

In re-reading part of Sandor Goodhart's Sacrificing Commentary tonight, I'm led to wonder how much our individual (and collective) ideas about God, and who God is and what he is capable of, are governed by our own personalities -- our own sets of needs and desires. In other words, to what extent do we, knowingly or not, construct our understanding of God based on what it is we long for, or what we have seen fail in our own lives?

In the chapter "The Holocaust, Witness, and Responsibility," Goodhart juxtaposes two texts (by Emmanuel Levinas and Halpern Leivick) and ultimately concludes that:

"In the wake of an experience like that of the Holocaust, atheism or the death of God might seem the most natural (perhaps even the most reasonable) response. But we make that response only if we have held up until this moment a particularly childlike conception of God -- of one who inflicts injury and awards prizes, a God, that is to say, of eternal children. On the other hand, if we expand our conception of transcendence, if we allow God at least the same sophistication we grant ourselves, alternative possibilities appear. His very absence, for example, may be taken less as a sign of abandonment than as an index of our own responsibility for (and implication in) human behavior" (238).

To give you some context, Leivick (Yiddish poet and playwright) laments that, unlike in the biblical binding of Isaac, when it came to the Holocaust, the angel of God came too late, was tardy. Levinas, however, as you can guess, "offers us a way of distinguishing a religion of adults from a religion of eternal childhood" through the face-to-face encounter. In remarking upon the suffering of innocents, Levinas says:

"Does it not bear witness to a world that is without God, to a land where man alone measures Good and Evil? The simplest and most common response to this question would lead to atheism. This is no doubt also the sanest reaction for all those for whom up until a moment ago a God, conceived a bit primitively, distributed prizes, inflicted sanctions, or pardoned faults, and in His kindness treated human beings as eternal children. "

And, my favorite lines: "But with what narrow-minded demon, with what strange magician did you thus populate your sky, you who now declare it to be deserted? And why under such an empty sky do you continue to seek a world that is meaningful and good?" (237).

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Boxed in By Jesus

My internet service has been down since yesterday evening, and so I have had to seek out "hot spots" in my house where I can "borrow" my neighbors' signals, or wander down to the library or a coffee shop that offers wireless. It's gloomy outside today, and about an hour ago, as I walked from coffee shop to coffee shop, trying to find one that isn't filled with noisy undergraduates or annoying musicians, I was accosted by a man wearing a box around his body that said: "The Lord has made his salvation known to men." As he and his other box-wearing (each with a different verse) friends made one large box of their own and closed in around me, the original one very kindly tried to hand me a tract. He looked at me so sadly, but sweetly, as if I was the most dejected human being on the planet, and asked, "Do you know Jesus?"

"None of us here know Jesus, including you," I responded, to my own surprise, "or we would all be out feeding the poor or volunteering in medical clinics." I'm not sure where this came from, but I think I must believe it on some level. And I was able to squeeze through the little chink I had created in the wall of box-wearers and slide into the next coffee shop. I think I hurt his feelings, though I didn't mean to; he was very sweet and sincere. But street witnessing doesn't work, and at any rate, the box outfit is not a good look for anyone. I wish I had a camera phone.

L'Shana Tova

I'm spending Rosh Hashanah alone this year, for the first time in quite a while, while others celebrate with their "families." I suppose I'm not Jewish enough for some people, and not Christian enough for others. A lonely place, indeed. I feel like a hyphen, a very long and sharply pronounced hyphen.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Reading Nathanael West

From The Day of the Locust:

"It's hard to laugh at the need for beauty and romance, no matter how tasteless, even horrible, the results of that are. But it is easy to sigh. Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous" (24).

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Death of Reading, Deferred

After emailing the writer of the piece I blogged below, I received this email today, and I feel a bit better, though I think that, if it was truly intended to be a satire it could have been done more effectively. But at least I'm one of the people who got "extra points" for asking him whether it was something along the lines of "A Modest Proposal"!

Dear Practical Futurist reader,

I prefer to correspond with my readers more personally, but I received so much email on the “Worth of Reading” column that I must resort to a group mailing.

As a writer, I deeply appreciate how many of you came to the defense of reading—even if it involved some fairly harsh words aimed at me. But I need to point out that the dateline on the article was December 25, 2025.

In other words, the entire piece was written as a commentary from the future, so the story is fictional, depicting an outcome and attitude that as a writer I dearly hope doesn't transpire (but sometimes fear we may be heading toward).

I've received more than 500 emails on this column, about 80% horrified by "my" attitude. The other 20% of the readers recognized that the piece was hypothetical and satirical, set in 2025 (and they got extra points if they mentioned a conceptual similarity to Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.”) Distressingly, those were also the readers who agreed that if American literacy, especially among the young, continues on its current course, the dreadful outcome I imagined might not be far from the truth.

Let’s hope not! Here’s to many more decades of happy and fluent readers yet to come—

Michael R.

Michael Rogers

Monday, September 18, 2006

The Worth of Words

I just read one of the most disturbing things ever -- a case against the significance of reading, and in support of reading literacy going by the wayside over the next two decades. Please, someone, tell me whether this is satire -- something along the lines of Swift's "A Modest Proposal," though not nearly as well done -- or whether this is real.

Strangely, I'm much more comfortable contemplating my own eventual physical death than I am pondering the possibility of the twin deaths of literature and reading.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Rabbis Ordained in Germany

Today, in Germany, the first rabbi was ordained since 1942.

"After the Holocaust, many people could never have imagined that Jewish life in Germany could blossom again," said German President Horst Koehler before the event. "That is why the first ordination of rabbis in Germany is a very special event indeed."

Read about it in the Washington Post.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

For All Eyes Only

In the New York Times this morning you can read some of Susan Sontag's journal entries, and though it felt a bit weird to be reading what someone has presumably written to herself, Sontag herself claims that journals are written "precisely to be read furtively by other people." I'm not sure I agree with that, but it made me feel better as I read on.

A couple things I liked or found interesting:

"The fear of becoming old is born of the recognition that one is not living now the life that one wishes. It is equivalent to a sense of abusing the present." Now that rings true -- how else can I explain what I experience as my impending doom (turning 30 next year)?

"It’s corrupting to write with the intent to moralize, to elevate people’s moral standards." Not entirely sure I agree with this, but it's interesting to consider.

"A freshly typed manuscript, the moment it’s completed, begins to stink. It’s a dead body — it must be buried — embalmed, in print."

Monday, September 04, 2006

Broken World

"Holiness is not a competition, but a call to everyone to transcend self-absorption and participate in the healing of our broken world."

I read this line this morning in a letter from a Catholic nun to the New York Times. Sounds a lot like tikkun olam. How nice it would be if this concept, which is in theory at the heart of both Judaism and Christianity (Protestantism and Catholocism), was all we needed.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

The Devil Made Me Do It

As a fervent lover of the Hebrew bible, and speaking from a long history of exposure to Christianity, I have always had an ambivalent relationship with the New Testament's Paul. But in some instances, I have to admit that he gets at the complexity of being human:

"For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I" (Rom. 7:15).

Considering how frustrated I am with myself from time to time, I thought of this verse this morning and searched for it. I can relate with this verse. But then it gets a bit out of the realm of what I consider acceptable:

"Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing: for to willis present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not . . . Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me" (Rom 7:17-18, 20).

I know what Paul is getting at, but my fear is that it opens up a space in which people can too easily place blame on somebody, or something, else -- to say, metaphorically speaking, "the devil made me do it." Though I would love to blame "the devil" for many of my actions, I fear that I am always already responsible for them.

I suppose, though, that this is a valiant effort on Paul's part to explore the complexity of being human, and the potential for conflicting emotions and desires.