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Saturday, October 29, 2011

Living, Dying and Being Damned

Many remarks by Martin Luther get tossed around, often without great care for their context. Upon closer examination, some of these prove to be spurious -- it seems he never offered to plant a tree just on the eve of the apocalypse. Others prove to be genuine, but still worth a little exploration.

Consider this:
Living, nay dying and being damned, make a theologian, rather than comprehending, reading, or speculating.
The original reads:

Vivendo, immo moriendo et damnando fit theologus, non intelligendo, legendo aut speculando.

The source in a 1520 lecture on Psalm 5:11 ("let all those that put their trust in thee rejoice," etc.), reprinted in the Weimarer Ausgabe, vol. 5, p. 163, lines 29-30. The source is often cited on web pages, although we suspect strongly that many of these sites are copying from each other.

We took a moment to confirm the citation, using the astonishing Internet Archive. More than a moment, actually, since the enormous file slowed our browser to a crawl. Thanks, Uncle Marty, for your legendary logorrhea.

Writers generally use the remark as a prooftext for what may be called the existential side of Luther's theology, the sense of personal struggle against sin, death and Hell. They are surely right to do so, at least within limits. (We stumbled over an LCMS document that seems to use it as a model for seminary education. No comment.)

What we have not seen mentioned is the context. The much-quoted remark follows a passage that says, very roughly, this:
I would want to be warned that it is said, from Italy all the way to Germany, in the Commentary on the Mystical Theologians of Dionysius: that it is merely an annoying display of one's own learning, not to truly be a mystical theologian, but to read, teach and understand this, or to understand and teach what the vision was.
Okay, that's a junk translation, and we apologize. But do you see the point? Both remarks make a distinction between a true theologian and merely learned person -- a useful distinction. But it is by no means original to Luther, who is here restating for his students a remark he has himself found in the writer now generally identified as Ps-Dionysius (or maybe a commentary on Ps-Dionysius).

This matters, at least a little, because so many Protestant theologians have an abiding hatred for the rehashed neoplatonism of Ps-Dionysius, with its ladders of being which extend from heaven straight through the earth, and which were used to reinforce the rigid social and ecclesiastical hierarchy of the Middle Ages. (Indeed, Ps-D. seems to have invented the word hierarchy). We had two different professors at two different seminaries who assigned this guy, merely in order to refute him.

We do not doubt that Luther himself eventually had some harsh words for Pseudo-Dionysius. He had harsh words for everybody, to be frank. But it may be useful to remember that one of Luther's most frequently repeated remarks, and one of lasting value, was intended as a no more than a reflection of something the other guy said first. We expect there's a moral in there, about listening to people we disagree with, and not throwing out the good ideas with the bad ones.

Happy Reformation Day, everybody!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Dept. of No Surprise: Google Buzz Stops Buzzing

Google is cancelling its "Buzz" service.  Color us shocked.  We use a lot of Google products -- Blogger, for one! Google Books!  Google Translate! -- but even we only looked once at Buzz.  Our response, as we recall it, was "Meh."

Still, we give them credit for efficiency.  Think how long it took MySpace to get to the same decision.

Rick Perry is Unimpressive

Or perhaps he is simply made to sound that way by this brief interview posted at the Times.  Editors, of course, have the power to make an interview subject sound foolish simply by leaving in, unedited, his or her "ums" and "ahs."  So it is technically possible that Perry has some worthwhile ideas and expresses them clearly.  That is not, however, the impression he has given in the Republican debates, nor is it the impression one takes away from this interview.

On the contrary, Perry sounds desperate.  He is trying to steal some of Herman Cain's thunder by flogging a flat tax -- or, if you will, a massive tax break for the wealthy.  When goaded by the interviewer, he takes an obligatory swipe at Mitt Romney ("a fat cat" -- seriously, is it 1969 again already?).

But the most ludicrous exchange is certainly this one:

Q: Why did you choose to keep the birther issue alive?.
A: It’s a good issue to keep alive. You know, Donald [Trump] has got to have some fun. It’s fun to poke him a little bit and say “Hey, let’s see your grades and your birth certificate.” I don’t have a clue about where the president — and what this birth certificate says. But it’s also a great distraction. I’m not distracted by it.

Um .... what?  Apparently it's fun to "poke" the President rather than engage in substantive policy discussion; we understand that idea, even if we do not sympathize.  But "it's a good issue" about which he claims to have no clue?  It's "a distraction" by which he claims not to be distracted?  What do those sentences even pretend to mean?

The answer, of course, is nothing, in the sense of grammar and logic.  But, between the lines, they say something very clearly:  "I, Rick Perry, am a desperate man, willing to pander to any possible constituency, no matter how intellectually and morally irresponsible.  Please elect me, please please please."

Saturday, October 22, 2011

A World Like New York

A few times every day, Father Anonymous passes somebody wearing a Yankees cap. At first, to be honest, he didn't even notice them. He's a New Yorker, so Yankees caps, and sweatshirts and other merchandise, are a customary feature of his visual landscape, no more remarkable than billionaires or crazy people. But after a few months, Fr. A stopped in his tracks and said, "Waitasecond! I live in Eastern Europe."

A quick GPS check confirmed this insight, and the curious little cleric sat down to sip a cappuccino in the piazza and contemplate. Yes, caps with the distinctive Yankees logo are common here; likewise sweatshirts and sweatpants. A quick survey, however, revealed that other popular athletic clubs are represented less well. The raw numbers look like this:





Chicago Bulls




Los Angeles Lakers




Brooklyn Dodgers




Texas Rangers*




Minnesota Vikings**




Even the Mets come up goose eggs.

More remarkable is the paucity of local team logos. Except, perhaps, on game day, CFR and U-Cluj jerseys are invisible; although we have seen Steaua Bucuresti merch in shops, we suspect that nobody actually buys it.

All this struck Fr. A. as curious. One expects to see one's hometown team supported in the hometown, and one is hardly surprised to find a few stray fans in Philadelphia or even Boston. (The latter a bold crew, willing to risk life and limb by wearing their pinstripes in Beantown). But ... why here?

Mother A. simply shrugs and says, "To many people, New York is America." This idea fascinates us, since to so many people, especially Americans, New York is anything but America. (Also Dutch businessmen. We sat up drinking with a few dozen of them the other night, and each time we introduced ourselves as American, Geert or Hans would ask which part of America; and then say, "Ah, so not really America." (We had this conversation so often that we began to wonder about the Dutch educational system, and considered sending a shipment of US maps to our distant cousins in Deventer.)

Comes now the news (courtesy of a sharp-eyed reader, Dr. Dan) that Mohamed el-Bibi, the Libyan freedom fighter said to have discovered the late Col. Qaddafi hiding in a sewer pipe, has been widely photographed wearing a Yankees cap. A blog at the Times meditates on this, and defers to the suggestion of Max Fischer at the Atlantic, that Mr. Bibi's hat should not be taken a sign of team loyalty: "Probably he doesn't even know what the Yankees are."

Probably. But he's still wearing the cap. And why?

Here's our answer: Because New York is America. And a particular vision of America. It's not just that "Yankee" is a catchall term for our compatriots (often followed by "go home"); an eagle or a flag or a big Thanksgiving turkey could represent America qua America better than the elaborately scripted initials NY. Rather, New York -- meaning here the city in particular -- represents the America that people all over the world admire, and dream of: a place of freedom, peace and relative prosperity; a place of almost infinite opportunity; a city that welcomes strangers, of whatever race or faith. A place where the Jewish mayor wouldn't mind a mosque at Ground Zero.

It may not be just as they imagine it, but this is what they imagine, and what they want for themselves, for their own countries, even in countries where is is the dream is almost impossibly unlikely. Perhaps especially in those countries. It isn't that people want to move to New York, so much as that they want the places in which they live to be more like the New York they have heard about.

So while the terrorists plan their next attack -- almost certainly aimed at New York -- it is helpful to remember that they are choosing this particular target because it is the envy of the people they most want to crush. And while Republican presidential candidates fall all over themselves in the effort to credit some other country -- any other country! -- for bringing down a dictator, it is helpful to remember that the guy who actually caught Qaddafi was dreaming of a world more like New York.

* Does this team still exist? We have heard a persistent rumor that Bush Jr. destroyed it, along with everything else his wretched and incompetent hand ever touched.

**Lutherans! Or so we choose to believe.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Soul of Wit

We do not know David Shayer of Palo Alto. But in a letter on p. 24 of the current Economist, he says in few words something we have struggled to say in many more:
Sir -- Why is is called "class warfare" to advocate raising taxes on the rich, but not when it comes to cutting benefits to the poor?
Just so.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Dept. of No Surprise: Mormonism is a "Cult"

"Mormonism is a cult!" Or rather, "Evangelical Pastor Calls Mormonism a Cult." Or, in detail, "Rick Perry Supporter Calls Mormonism a Cult." Those are the variations on a story which is making the rounds this week, and which bears a moment's reflection.

Let's handle them in reverse order.

#3: "Rick Perry Supporter Calls Mormonism a Cult": Per the Times, a Southern Baptist minister named Robert Jeffress introduced Gov. Perry at a shindig called the Values Voter Summit, held in Washington. (The summit -- remember when that word meant Reagan meeting Gorbachev? -- was organized by groups like the Family Research Council, and we gather that its values didn't include, say, the right of labor to organize, or the occupation of Wall Street.)

So, Jeffress introduced Perry as "a genuine follower of Jesus Christ," and then -- in separate statements to the press -- used the "c" word to describe the faith of another Republican candidate. As the Times says, "injected a potentially explosive issue into the presidential campaign," and "raised immediate suspicions that the attack may have been a way for surrogates or supporters of Mr. Perry ... to gain ground by raising religious concerns."

For the record, when Perry himself was asked, he said that he does not consider Mormonism a cult. Still, since he (like Michelle Bachmann) makes much of his faith on the campaign trail, it is likely that a bit of religious furor will help him. In that sense, the papers are justified in making a fuss about this, and even is suspecting a bit of campaign opportunism. (Here's Sarah Posner's take on "anti-Mormonism" at the VVS).

But let's consider #2: Evangelical Pastor Calls Mormonism a Cult. Well, duh. This version of the story is dog-bites-man, as they say, meaning utterly unremarkable. Somewhere in America, some evangelical pastor probably does this every few minutes.

The mistake that the Times makes, and which we suspect some other news organs will as well, is to restrict the story to "Evangelicals," in the American news-media sense of that word. The fact is that no Christian community, so far as we are aware, recognizes in the Latter-Day Saints as sharing a faith compatible with its own. In other words, none of us consider them Christian. (Think about that: Southern Baptists, Roman Catholics, and the Metropolitan Community Church can see in one another the same essential faith, and yet none of them can see it in the LDS).

The Mormons are understandably peeved by this. By their own lights, "followers of Jesus" is precisely what they are; they simply have access to more information about him than the rest of us.

But the Jeffress story has an added complication, since he didn't merely make a distinction between Mormons and Christians-as-conventionally-defined. This brings us to variation #1: Mormonism is a Cult! In the current cultural climate, these are fighting words. No wonder, since to be called a "cult" is to be lumped in with Jim Jones and David Koresh, with Jack Hickman and the Raelians. It is to be classified as a brain-washing, child-abusing, apocalypse-mongering collector of guns, concubines and federal warrants. And few people familiar with Mormonism would seriously mean to do that.

Of course, the word "cult" is tricky. It can be used sociologically, to describe manipulative and authoritarian patterns of leadership and behavior, but its earliest use was religious. Some modern Christian apologists use it to describe heretical movements -- not just within Christianity, but within other religions. This is the standard by which most Christians unhesitatingly identify the LDS as a cult. Like Elijah Muhammad's renegade creator scientist Yakub, Joseph Smith's visit of Jesus to the New World is a critical bit of mythological history unacceptable (and a bit comical) to more conventional believers.

But underneath even this use lies an older non-pejorative use of the word "cult": to mean a particular religious movement, especially when regarded as a system of worship. This is the sense of the Latin cultus, which at its root is about agriculture, whence nurture and reverence, whence finally worship. When Peter Brown writes (brilliantly) about "the cult of the saints" in Latin Christianity, he offers no judgment, either theological or sociological. And in that sense, we're all cultists. (Ooops.)

What, then, should we make of the Jeffress story, and of Gov. Perry's putative involvement?

On one hand, we at the Egg can affirm that Mormonism is indeed a cult, in both less and more pejorative senses of that word: it is a system of divine worship, and from any Christian perspective an heretical one. Yet we have to reject the most pejorative sense; Mormons may be odd ducks, but they are not, as a group, the brain-washed Kool-Aid drinking automata that many people associate with the word. Quite the contrary.

So when, in the midst of a heated (and in Perry's case, floundering) contest, one candidate's supporters start declaring that another candidate is a cult-member, we do indeed think it is a cheap shot, intended to stir the coals of religious bigotry. Needless to say, that sort of thing has no place in a secular democracy, not to mention no place among civilized people. Or, to put it more bluntly: Hey, Jeffress -- leave it for the ayatollahs, okay?

Thursday, October 06, 2011

I Eat Because It Is Absurd

Apparently, there's a Manhattan restaurant called Tertulia, reviewed here by the Times. Sounds lovely. The name is supposedly a Spanish word for a literary or intellectual gathering -- like salon, maybe.

But we know better, don't we?

Fr. A. wishes he were in the Big Apple, just so he could mosey into Tertulia, order some tapas, and then casually ask the waiter what Athens has to do with Jerusalem. Or whether the morcilla is made with actual seed-of-the-church. And then, when that romantic couple at the back table begins to indulge in some PDA, he might mutter to a friend, "See how they love one another!"

Dept. of No Surprise: Sewage is Icky

Per Science Daily, scientists have found a "surprising number of viruses in sewage." More astonishing yet, some of these viruses "could relate to human health." We know -- astonishing, right?

As it happens, the climax to our very favorite movie occurs in a sewer. Orson Welles is the villain, his veneer of charm torn away to reveal the vicious, treacherous s.o.b. underneath. He is chased through the bowels of Vienna by the police and even by his childhood friend Joseph Cotton. Wounded, he tries to escape, crawling up a staircase and reaching his fingers up through the grating. He doesn't make it. It is a dramatic moment, and one which is not without theological weight. (Screenplay by Graham Greene, remember).

But here's the thing, and it's something old Fr. A. thinks about every time he watches the picture. If the bullet hadn't killed old Orson, do you think the viruses would have?