Archive for May, 2012

Exclusive Company

May 31, 2012


You tell me that I’m angry
It’s really not my fault
The world conspires against me
It’s not about to halt

You tell me that my anger
Won’t do me any good
Tell that to those people
Who aren’t acting like they should

You say I should be thankful
For everything I’ve got
Then I couldn’t complain about
The things that I have not

You say I am not helping
By being pessimistic
But nature gave me eyes
And it made me realistic

You tell me that I shouldn’t
See myself as God
A person needs a mentor
Why’s my choice so odd?

You say, “Get out and mingle
You’re a person, not a stone”
From what I’ve seen of people
I’m better off alone

by Richard W. Bray

Listening to the Whirlwind: Theodicy for Deists

May 26, 2012

We dance round in a ring and suppose,
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows

—Robert Frost

Ever tried to talk to a grasshopper?  Of course not.  Yet the moral, intellectual, and existential divide between God and humanity is obviously greater than the gulf between people and insects.  So why do so many human beings expect to hear from God?

Our Judeo-Christian heritage leads us to assume that God is both creator and creation.  (God is in all things but somehow He is also an omnipotent overseer.)  We assume that God must be perfection.  We assume that God must be infinite in relation to both time and space.  And then we expect this marvelous conglomeration of mystery and paradox to speak to us as we would speak to one another.

Unfortunately, God exists in a realm so many notches above our level of understanding that we utterly lack the necessary equipment to understand Him.  Attempting to contemplate God with a human brain makes as much sense as trying to cut the sun in half with a pair of scissors.

Jon Dryden eloquently expresses the folly:

How can the less the Greater comprehend?
Or finite Reason reach Infinity?
For what cou’d Fathom GOD were more than He.

This simple observation makes me deist. (Although I should hasten to add that Dryden explicitly rejects deism in Religio Laici.)

I don’t know what God is; I will never know what God is, and I’m not going to waste my precious time on earth trying to figure out what God is.

Does this make me a candidate for Winston Niles Rumfoord’s  Church of God the Utterly Indifferent?  My answer is an unequivocal maybe.  (Getting mired in a swamp of paradox is perhaps the greatest peril of groping after God.)  Maybe God cares about humanity; maybe God doesn’t care.

My fellow human beings, however, tend to assume that God cares a great deal about us.  And Christians anthropomorphize God to the point that He can actually feel our pain because a God who cannot suffer is insufferable.

But if God loves us so much, why is our world full of suffering and injustice? Unfortunately, there is no humanly comprehensible answer to this question. But there is an entire branch of theology dedicated to “reconciling God’s traditional characteristics of omnibenevolence, omnipotence and omniscience (all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing, respectively) with the occurrence of evil in the world.”

Humans have been looking for someone to blame for our lot since Gilgamesh. And as long as we insist upon anthropomorphizing God, we are stuck in the cul-de-sac of asking ourselves why the universe is the way it is.

Interestingly, the Old Testament provides an answer for this question which is as profound as it is unsatisfying:

Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding.

Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it?

Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof;

When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

Or who shut up the sea with doors, when it brake forth, as if it had issued out of the womb?….

Hast thou commanded the morning since thy days; and caused the dayspring to know his place….

Hast thou entered into the springs of the sea? or hast thou walked in the search of the depth?

Have the gates of death been opened unto thee? or hast thou seen the doors of the shadow of death?

Hast thou perceived the breadth of the earth? declare if thou knowest it all.

Where is the way where light dwelleth? and as for darkness, where is the place thereof….

Who hath divided a watercourse for the overflowing of waters, or a way for the lightning of thunder;

To cause it to rain on the earth, where no man is; on the wilderness, wherein there is no man;

To satisfy the desolate and waste ground; and to cause the bud of the tender herb to spring forth?

Hath the rain a father? or who hath begotten the drops of dew?  (Job 38)

So God’s answer to it all is: It’s none of your damn business and you wouldn’t be capable of understanding it if I told you anyway.

Or, as the wonderful gospel Midrash (You Can’t Hurry God) He’s Right on Time succinctly notes:

I’m God all by myself/And I don’t need nobody else.”

This vast, spectacular universe is not about us.  But then again, of course it is.  (Another paradox.)

If we read the Book of Job imagining God and Satan sitting in a couple of celestial director’s chairs as they toy with Job for sport, then we must conclude that God is a sick, sad, wicked creep.

But once we reject the silly notion that God is merely some sort of human being who lives in outer space, the Whirlwind begins to make a hell of a lot of sense.

by Richard W. Bray

Milk and Cream

May 23, 2012

i thought i
could find love
by seeking out
dreams of
peerless angels
clouded my
took years for me
to wake up
and make the right

Things that make you human
Make me love you more
I’m blessed to take your trash out
Or listen to you snore
I put away my fantasies
To realize my dreams
Drinking all the milk
To appreciate the cream

by Richard W. Bray

Natural if not Normal

May 20, 2012

Sex is. There is nothing more to be done about it. Sex builds no roads, writes no novels, and sex certainly gives no meaning in life to anything but itself.

—Gore Vidal, United States: Essays 1952-1992 (37)

Sex.  What’s with the persistent human propensity to study, describe, imagine, define, categorize, restrict, denounce, regulate, prohibit, criminalize and constantly talk, talk, talk about what other people are doing in private with their naughty bits?

Sex is a basic human need, essential to the survival of the species. But this is only part of the answer.  Human beings require shelter, for example, yet the subject of housing barely elicits a fraction of the chatter that the Big Nasty generates amongst human interlocutors.

And as W.H. Auden pondered: Why should so much poetry be written about sexual love and so little about eating—which is just as pleasurable and never lets you down—or about family affection, or about the love of mathematics.

According to Gore Vidal, “the sexual attitudes of a given society are the result of political decisions” (539).  This explains why we see so many professional moralists and politicians “solemnly worshiping at the shrine of The Family” (601).  (Like when our president recently went out on a limb to courageously declare that Motherhood is the toughest job in the world.)

Barack Obama’s other recent bold pronouncement, that he has evolved to the point where the idea of gay marriage no longer gives him the willies, made much bigger headlines.

So why the big fuss?  To borrow a phrase from Thomas Jefferson, regardless of my own prejudices or proclivities, it neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg if Adam wants to marry Steve.  (Yes, I know that Steve could be entitled to partake in Adam’s medical benefits, perhaps raising my health care premiums, but the two fellows will also be paying higher taxes, so I’d be willing to bet that the monetary consequences of their union would probably be a net gain for society at large.)

Gore Vidal contends that our political overseers ghettoize certain types of sexual behavior as a means of maintaining their hegemony over the populace: “In order for the ruling class to rule, there must be arbitrary prohibitions” (442).  Sexual preference is just one of the many divisions, such as  race, class, religion, age, region, gender, etc., which are exploited by los que mandan.  Thus we are informed, particularly from the pulpit, that when it comes to sexual preference, there are only two ways to be: “One team is good, godly, straight; the other is evil, sick, vicious” (442).

Like homosexuality, divorce is also dangerous to the status quo because “A woman who can support herself and her child is a threat to marriage, and marriage is the central institution whereby owners of the world control those who do the work” (540). Vidal notes with his characteristic wit that heterosexual couples are expected “to do their duty by one day getting married in order to bring forth new worker-consumers in obedience with God’s law, which tends to resemble with suspicious niceness the will of society’s owners” (540).  Of course, over the last four decades divorce has become so common that many of the leaders who rail in favor of “family values” are themselves divorced.  This helps explain the fury we hear from some quarters against the damage done to our sacred family unit by homosexuals. At any rate, “it does not suit our rulers to have the proles tomcatting around the way that our rulers do” (606).

The mechanisms which enforce such twisted mores are designed to produce citizens who “serve society as loyal workers and dutiful consumers” (540).  This is not an originally American arrangement; it is merely the machinery of power and profit in action.  And any “activity that might decrease the amount of coal mined, the number of pyramids built, the quantity of junk food confected will be proscribed through laws that, in turn, are based on divine revelations handed down by whatever god or gods happen to be in fashion at the moment” (339-340).

In 1948 Gore Vidal courageously published The City and the Pillar, a coming of age novel about homosexuality.  But Vidal is not celebrated as a hero for gay activists today largely because he rejects the “American passion for categorizing” which endeavors “to create two nonexistent categories—gay and straight” (606).  Vidal therefore scoffs at the notion that such a thing as the “gay community” could ever exist.  (“What in God’s name do Eleanor Roosevelt and Roy Cohn have in common?” he quipped.)

Experience has taught Vidal that “it is possible to have a mature sexual relationship with a woman on Monday, and a mature sexual relationship with a man on Tuesday, and perhaps on Wednesday have both together (admittedly you have to be in good condition for this)” (581).

by Richard W. Bray

In Praise of Boring

May 10, 2012

It can’t be overstated
That dull is underrated
And boring is sublime
When you need a project ready
Be thorough, slow, and steady
Work and time will make it shine

Don’t make your schedule hurly-burly
Hit the sack and rise up early
And you’ll save yourself much strife
If you’re staying out till three
You’ll find a heap of misery
Home the place to make a life

Flash and fancy might be funner
But when you need to do it doner
Painstaking effort is the way
Poco a poco is my motto
And until you win the lotto
You should show up every day

by Richard W. Bray

Not Only by Private Fraud but by Public Law: Thomas More’s Utopia and the Imperfectability of Human Nature

May 5, 2012

A perplexing aspect of the second book of Thomas More’s Utopia is the obvious moral superiority of the Utopian pagans in comparison to their ostensibly Christian European counterparts as depicted in Book One.  Why is it, many have asked, that one so pious as More would present such a virtuous community of pagans.  The obvious answer to this riddle is that More intended to offer the Utopians as an ironic foil to the vice-ridden Englishmen of Book One.  Is there a better way for More to demonstrate how unchristian his countrymen are than to compare them unfavorably with heathens?  This reading of the dialogue is best defended by examining its construction:  Thomas More catalogs various forms of European depravity in Book One in order to remedy them in Book Two.  This is a nice, neat thesis.  However, it is inconceivable that More, a man who died in  defense of religious and political principles, would seriously propose that the ideal society was an odd form of pagan totalitarianism.

So what the devil was More up to?  Many critics who have rightly rejected the notion that More was seriously suggesting that Utopia represented an ideal society have proposed that, in addition to satirizing the sorry state of European civilization in Book One, he was also lampooning all efforts to improve society in Book Two.  In this vein Richard Marius suggests that, “More meant his readers to rebuke Raphael rather than praise him.”  Perhaps; however, we should do both.  Raphael should be praised for recognizing that Tudor England was in need of reform but rebuked for proposing solutions which disregard the folly of human perfectibility.

The vigorous nature of the attacks on the rampant injustice in English society which More makes in Book One repudiate anyone who would argue that More’s singular objective in writing Utopia was to lampoon those who would try to create a perfect society.  It is true that the Utopians are in many ways like “a doctor who cures diseases by creating another,” but the extreme nature of the diseases illustrate  the high level of repugnance he feels for the ills which plague his society.  More is offering serious medicine to combat serious ills.  As with Swift’s  A Modest Proposal, the drastic nature of the remedies proffered in Book Two of Utopia is a cogent reminder of how hideously unchristian English society was. By proposing such ridiculously severe solutions, More highlights the prevalence of greed and corruption in sixteenth century England.

Considered as a whole, the two books of Utopia compose a convincing repudiation of Tudor society.  In Book One More paints an unsightly portrait of the manner in which the nation was ruled; in the second book he creates a pagan society which is morally superior to it in many was.  More is not suggesting that paganism is preferable to Christianity; rather, he is asserting that the Europeans are so unchristian that they are put to shame by comparison to a prechristian society.

More’s most strident criticism is directed at the harsh economic disparities in England and the political corruption which fostered a system which was grossly unfair to those at the bottom.  The first evidence of the excessively unjust nature of this system is the debate on public hanging, a practice which “goes beyond justice and beyond the public good.”  As is pointed out later in the discussion, capital punishment for petty crimes is an extreme measure, far more severe than the penalties prescribed for thievery in the Old Testament.

Thomas More’s England was a kingdom with two distinct sets of rules for rich and poor; the latter group was viewed as little more than subhuman chattel by the former.  It was common for kings to pursue policies designed to insure a surplus of paupers who would “devote all their energies to starving” for the contingency that they might be required to defend the realm in wartime:  “[y]ou might well say that for the sake of war we foster thieves.”  The existence of a class of thieving peasants who were kept to be slaughtered protecting the king’s interests in war was the result of  systematic efforts to remove them from their land in order that the wealthy might increase their profits by raising sheep, which would ultimately “devour human beings themselves and devastate and depopulate fields, houses and towns.”  This endemic system of inequality which existed in More’s time is admonished by Raphael in his pithy observation that “to have a single person enjoy a life of pleasure and self-indulgence amid the groans and lamentations of all around us is to be the keeper, not of a kingdom, but of a jail.”

The inhumanity of the policies which wring additional profits for the wealthy by destroying the peasantry is articulately characterized by Raphael’s assertion that England’s better days are behind her: “The unscrupulous greed of the few is ruining the very thing by which your island was once counted on as fortunate in the extreme.”   When Raphael laments how this vicious cycle of peasant extirpation will ultimately feed the gallows, it is obvious that More’s Catholicism cannot be reconciled with a set of social arrangements whereby “alongside this wretched need and poverty you find wanton luxury.”

Although Book Two of Utopia is clearly no “model for reform” it has two functions:  It simultaneously mocks those who would insult God in their attempts to create a heaven on Earth while it emphasizes the religious hypocrisy of More’s age.  If More’s solutions would often throw out the baby with the bathwater, they nevertheless emphasize how putrid that water has become.  Of course it is silly to make golden chamber pots.  But this silliness emphasizes how the love of gold caused wealthy Englishmen to replace peasants with sheep.  Many of the solutions to England’s ills proffered in Book Two are absurd, and it is this very absurdity which accents what a corrupt society More’s England was.  Such is the power of satire.

Because Thomas More proposes perfectly reasonable political reforms alongside such ridiculous occurrences as golden chamber pots, we must concede that he had more than one objective in mind when writing Utopia.  Many of the policies pursued by the Utopians are common sense practices which might have benefited More’s England.  For example, it would have been good public policy to simplify the legal code in England because “it is most unfair that any group of men should be bound by laws which are either too numerous to be read through or too obscure to be understood by anyone.”  Like the Utopian “custom of debating nothing on the same day on which it is first proposed,” it is a practical suggestion submitted in the interests of good government.

Portions of Utopia represent perfectly reasonable models of reform, yet they are the products of a society of happy heathens who instantly accept Christianity when given the chance.  Thus the reader should pause and ponder what it is that More is trying to tell us about how society can and should be ordered.  A clue to More’s feelings in this regard can be deduced from the ironic observation in Book One that “well and wisely trained citizens are not everywhere to be found.”  It is simply inconceivable that a devout Christian like More would seriously propose that postlapsarian humanity was capable of creating Utopia on in this realm.  As gratifying as it might be to imagine Utopia, a place where “nowhere is there any license to waste time, nowhere any pretext to evade work–no wine shop, no alehouse, no brothel anywhere, no opportunity for corruption,” it is inimical to More’s Catholic cosmology to suggest that such a society is a serious earthly possibility.

The temptation of political corruption is endemic to human nature.  The spectacle of monied interests attempting to circumvent the legitimate workings of government should not surprise anyone living in the United States of America today.  As More demonstrates, these were also serious concerns in sixteenth century England.  In Utopia, Raphael repeats the recommendations of a councilor who suggests that all ministers should debate their affairs only in the king’s presence to dissuade those who might attempt “to curry favor, [or] find some loophole whereby the law can be perverted.”   Thomas More was disgusted by the manner in which the wealthy used their political clout to rob and abuse the neediest members of society.  Indeed, Raphael denounces royal complicity in this scheme whereby “the rich every day exhort a part of their daily allowance from the poor not only by private fraud but by public law.”

Thanks to Thomas More, the word Utopian has come signify anyone who would propose impractical visionary schemes.  But this does not permit us to forget the fact that Utopia is a serious book which demonstrates not only the ubiquity of vice in any human community but also the impossibility that mere mortals could ever create a perfect world.  However, this does not mean that it is futile to attempt to improve society.  More was a thoughtful statesmen who worked to improve his country when he wasn’t busy burning Protestants.  And hidden within the satire of Utopia are some serious proposals regarding how to build a better–though not ideal–world.

by Richard W. Bray

Murder Machine

May 2, 2012

Murder Machine

Feeds on resentment, hatred and fear
Murder Machine got a million gears
Profits mount—bodies stack high
Politicians—so easy to buy
Blood money drips to the greedy few
Till we’re all in hock to the thieves who rule
Spits out orphans, widows and pain
Murder Machine leaves a wicked stain

by Richard W. Bray