Thursday, December 5, 2013

12 + 5 Brief Notes on G-d for Hanukkah’s End (12/5)

1. It’s the final day of HANUKKAH.

2. It’s also the day after BIOHACKERS NYC had me speak at Blueprint Health on a panel about the current controversy over 23andMe offering private genetic testing.  Naturally, I gave the libertarian position.  I also briefly used as props Star Trek: Khan comics, which show that the Abrams version of continuity hews to the view that Khan openly and devastatingly conquered the world in the Eugenics Wars of the 1990s, by the way.

3. It’s THE JEWS’ genes -- and memes -- that were the unexpected hot topic when Reason hosted Paleo Manifesto author John Durant the night before, though: He makes the interesting case that those religions that thrived (or appeared “chosen,” if you will) in the ancient world were simply the ones that happened to have purity rules that matched what we now know to be good hygiene practices (or else were lucky enough to be popular in relatively tidy Rome).

4. The Reason cabal also features two new Fox Business Network show hosts in the form of former VJ Kennedy and Reason editor Matt Welch, who along with Kmele Foster will begin hosting the four-nights-a-week show (skipping Thursday when Stossel airs) THE INDEPENDENTS this Monday, Dec. 9.  Watch it.

5. Margot Lurie points out that many people (not all of them Jews by any means) have claimed to be JESUS.  You might want to consider taking all supernatural claims with a grain of salt.  Just sayin’.

6. That reminds me that I find it much easier to tolerate CHRISTIANS when not actually getting entangled in arguments with them.  Their childlike abuses of philosophy are horrifying, perhaps unmatched by the stupid moves of any other movement, even feminists (though virtually all factions are ultimately wrong).

One particularly annoying and common bad Christian argument: claiming that if Christ said he was God, either it was true or he must have been lying or insane (and they go on, of course, to argue that he didn’t elsewhere sound like a liar or madman).  Why does it not occur to them that he might have been (A) sincere, (B) relatively sane (for an ancient cult leader), and (C) simply mistaken (see again: that list linked in item #5)? 

They might at least want to include that very, very popular option in the list, is all I’m saying.  It bears mulling, anyway.

7. I guess we won’t be seeing the demonic-looking AZAZEL character in next year’s X-Men movie, since (according to the really nice faux-conspiracy-theory site the producers created for viral advertising purposes) Azazel was among the mutants killed (off-camera, I assume) in the human/mutant fighting that followed Magneto and Mystique’s participation in the JFK assassination (magnetized bullet, odd-looking “second Oswald,” etc.).

Let’s compensate for that comic character’s absence with cute pictures of bespectacled former Catwoman Anne Hathaway.

8. I read Chesterton on the history of Man and on Aquinas over THANKSGIVING weekend, but I’m a little worried that the thing that will stick in my mind most from the weekend spent with my parents in Connecticut was the unfortunately-timed split-second of Jackass 3D I saw (on non-subscription cable, mind you) featuring a man explosively evacuating his bowels in slow motion while painted to look like a volcano.  Profane indeed.

9. As if Chesterton and Aquinas weren’t enough to give a Catholic tint to my Thanksgiving, the night before I talked my way into a FedEx store just as it was closing (in order to print something out) and was amazed to realize that the mild-mannered, utterly polite, non-rank-pulling older gentleman ahead of me who accepted the FedEx clerk’s instructions to leave was: RUDOLPH GIULIANI.

I can’t imagine a rushed Bloomberg just politely going away if a clerk told him to -- but then, as Malinda Boothe says, Bloomberg probably doesn’t hand deliver his own FedEx packages.  I told Giuliani I was amused because I’d assumed at first they were shutting the place down in order to do something for him rather than just shutting down for the night.

10. I think we can all agree with the most hardcore of socially-conservative Catholics that one person who is pretty awful is that LYING LESBIAN WAITRESS who claimed to have been insulted on a receipt but pretty plainly concocted the whole thing.  She brings us all together for the holidays regardless of creed or sexual orientation.

11. POPE FRANCIS, by contrast, is a no-good Peronist/socialist commie.  I don’t care overmuch about that one man, but it’s a reminder (much needed by most conservatives) that religion is a highly unreliable ally.  Skip it and learn free-market economics.

12. The actual ST. FRANCIS was something of an animals-and-poverty-loving hippie himself, of course.  Chesterton was keen, though, in his century-ago book St. Francis of Assisi (part of the three-book anthology Dawn Eden gave me), to show that St. Francis wasn’t just a proto-vegan ahead of his time, as some liked to see him even back in Chesterton’s day.  He was ascetic about certain material things that didn’t matter only because he was gung-ho about intense religiosity and other elements of life that continually reminded him of God -- and virtually all of it did, so it’s reductionist to call him a “nature-lover.”

Chesterton also makes the interesting claim that if Francis had succeeded in converting the Muslims through friendly dialogue (as a conscious alternative
to the violent Crusades of the day), perhaps “three quarters of the wars of modern history would never have taken place.”  Chesterton is more interesting when making a case like that than when enthusiastically endorsing, for instance, magical stigmata claims. 

13. Everyone likes St. Francis’s love of animals, but too much love of animals is not something religion smiles upon, as we are reminded by this brutal passage from the diary of Plymouth colony governor WILLIAM BRADFORD, from the days when Americans made the Taliban look mild (h/t Jennifer Lowe).

14. Chesterton is at his most embarrassing when instead of opposing his charm and humor to modern charmlessness and humorlessness, he actually tries to oppose it to things like scientific evidence.  There’s a lot of that, alas, in his Everlasting Man (1925), in which he tries to make the case that since HUMANS have long had (for example) art, they cannot have developed gradually from lesser animals (“the dog did not paint better in his best period than in his early bad manner as a jackal”) but instead represent a historic break as profound as, well, Jesus arriving in the ancient world (his standard for completely altering the universe, of course, though I’d call both changes subtle in the grand scheme of things). 

He’s still so damn amusing even when being wrong, though, as in this passage: “An entertaining fantasia might be made in which elephants built in elephantine architecture, with towers and turrets like tusks and trunks, cities beyond the scale of any colossus.  A pleasant fable might be conceived in which a cow had developed a costume, and put on four boots and two pairs of trousers.  We could imagine a Supermonkey more marvellous than any Superman...”  (Sidenote: In truth, of course, neither Supermonkey nor Superman was Marvel, but we’ll let that slide.)

Chesterton deserves credit, though, for noting that moderns, liberals, and Progressives can be as quick to leap to conclusions (about the true meaning of ancient cave paintings or a purported teleology to evolution) as religious folk (and to condemn anyone who doubts them as idiots even as they radically revise their own prior claims).  He also deserves credit for writing this imagined sentence from a modern sex-themed novel: “Red sparks danced within Dagmar Doubledick’s brain; he felt the spirit of the cave-man rising within him.”

Profound a difference as Chesterton thinks Christianity has made in history (in large part by ending the reign of geographically-local gods, or even UN-like pantheons of once-local gods), he argues in a very compassionate way here that we can easily recognize in the art and rituals of the ancients the same human mind we now possess at work with many of the same questions, hopes, and fears -- and likely even a similar sense of irony about whether any of our myths should be taken over-literally.  Allow for some irony and art, and it even becomes easier to understand how those savages might have enjoyed the violent and scary parts without being total psychos.  The ugly is part of the beautiful, he says, and tidy modernists sometimes have a harder time understanding that than the ancients did. 

15. Chesterton’s St. Thomas Aquinas is the most philosophically interesting of the three volumes discussed here.  AQUINAS, in the context of his times, was not only quite the rationalist but, as Objectivist Jesse Forgione of all people told me I’d find, quite the empiricist. 

Sounding like yet another of history’s great Asperger’s cases, Aquinas would stick rigidly to his deductions -- and drift off into musings about them at socially inappropriate times -- even if it put him at odds with the Pope himself.  And what he was keen to protect was common sense and reliance on everyday observed evidence about the world, in opposition to more-mystical tendencies of the day, both heretical and traditional, that would instead depict the world as an inscrutable mystery understood only by God, with the human mind suited solely for contemplating the unseen and holy realms. 

Aquinas thought there was truth and falsehood (and, more formally speaking, a principle of non-contradiction) and that these things largely accorded with everyday language and logic.  As Chesterton puts it, Aquinas, much more clearly than Hegel, thought eggs were eggs -- and he is more pragmatic about the solidity of physical reality than are the so-called Pragmatists.  This also put him at odds with some of the more despairing rationality-is-futile movements farther East.  We’re probably much better off for him having triumphed over some of his intellectual rivals within the Church 800 years ago.  There were weirder things in the world than the Dominicans back then, including Islam.  Yet Aquinas was seen by some as the moral equivalent of a dangerous Eastern influence just for wanting to bring Aristotle -- Aristotle! -- back into prominence (in part because the Muslims did as well). 

Conservatives in the vein of Leo Strauss sometimes say with gratitude that the West inherits both Athens and Jerusalem, but ironically without a few people like Aquinas, it could have ended up much heavier on the Jerusalem, to our likely detriment.  Aquinas did not want a conflict between science and religion and even prided himself at key points on making arguments “not based on documents of faith, but on the reasons and statements of the philosophers themselves.”  Much as I’ve mocked his infamous “proofs” of God in the past, Aquinas undeniably had his good points. 

Partly biographical, Chesterton’s overview is amusing in revealing that tensions within families were much the same back then as well, with two of Aquinas’s aristocratic brothers so appalled that Aquinas wanted to become a geeky friar/scholar instead of living like an aristocrat that they kidnapped him and imprisoned him for a time until his sister helped him escape.  He may sound traditional and fuddy-duddy to some of us secular moderns, but his family thought he was a radical and a pain in the ass. 

It is said, notes Chesterton, that Aquinas’s writings were publicly burned by Martin Luther.  That, if nothing else, should evoke some sympathy from secular moderns.  Like so many nerds, Aquinas caused annoyance at times by being very combative without (as Chesterton put it) ever sneering.  He just wanted to get it right, and he wasn’t going to stop.

16. A pity he didn’t understand econ, though -- and religion is certainly no reliable help in that department, as noted above.  Now the POPE, the PRESIDENT, and the MAYOR of New York are all socialists -- and two of them Catholics, you’ll notice, which helps us not at all.  These are frightening times.

Factional, tribal, and traditional loyalties aside, I just want a world that uses the scientific method and doesn’t steal other people’s stuff.  Is it really so much to ask?  Get me that for Christmas, maybe.


Anonymous said...

Just a quick thought on your attack on the"aut deus aut malus homo" argument for Christ, which never did much for me: I would lump this in with Pascal's wager as the kind of argument that's designed more to make you look at Christianity from an unusual angle rather than make a plausible case for it. (interestingly, this is the ONLY one of C.S. Lewis's arguments that Hitchens addresses in his book.) At any rate, your objections to it (and his) are problematic. If Our Lord sincerely thought he was God and wasn't, that would still make him insane. So there goes your A (and by extension your C, which seems merely to be a restatement of A). B is vaguely worded. What do you mean by "relatively sane"? Your formulation of this possibility leaves enough room for a believer to accept it if he defines "relatively sane" as "as sane as most people" which is to say "sane."

It's actually very hard to get away from the "God, bad or mad." alternatives. There are two more I can think of. One is that Jesus never existed. The other is that he meant that he was God in a new-agey pantheistic sense. But no non-asshole really believes the former, and the latter is VERY hard to square with the tone and tenor and literal sense of everything Jesus says and does.

Anonymous said...

Quick follow up. If Jesus was not who He claimed, not only would his sincerity make him insane, it is PRECISELY THAT which would make him insane. If he wasn't sincere he'd be a liar (the other possibility).