About philosophicalpraxis

Poet, ex-soldier, buddhist, taoist, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Catholic, Thelemite, mystic, ordinary language philosopher, father, husband, son, brother, alive, wrinkled eyes when squinting, several gray hairs, mouth and teeth and lips.

Plato on the Demise of Democracy

Is it, then, in a sense, in the same way in which democracy arises out of oligarchy that tyranny arises from democracy?

The good that they proposed to themselves and that was the cause of the establishment of oligarchy – it was wealth was it not?

Well, then, the insatiate lust for wealth and the neglect of everything else for the sake of money-making were the cause of its undoing.

And is not the avidity of democracy for that which is its definition and criterion for good the thing which dissolves it too?

[Its criterion is] liberty… for you may hear it said that this is best managed in a democratic city, and for this reason that is the only city in which a man of free spirit will care to live…

But those who obey the rulers, I said, it reviles as willing slaves and men of nought, but it commends and honors in public and private rulers who resemble subjects and subjects who are like rulers.  Is it not inevitable that in such a state the spirit of liberty should go to all lengths?

And this anarchic temper, said I, my friend, must penetrate into private homes…

And do you note that the sum total of all these items when footed up is that they render the souls of the citizens so sensitive that they chafe at the slightest suggestion of servitude and will not endure it? For you are aware that they finally pay no heed even to the laws written or unwritten, so that forsooth they may have no master anywhere over them.

This, then, my friend, said I, is the fine and vigorous root from which tyranny grows, in my opinion…

And is it not always the way of a demos to put forward one man as its special champion and protector and cherish and magnify him?

This, then, is plain, said I, that when a tyrant arises he sprouts from a protectorate root and from nothing else…

And is it not true that in like manner a leader of the people who getting control of a docile mob, does not withhold his hand from the shedding of tribal blood, but by the customary unjust accusations brings a citizen into court and assassinates him, blotting out a human life, and with unhallowed tongue and lips that have tasted kindred blood, banishes and slays and hints at the abolition of debts and the partition of lands – is it not the inevitable consequence and a decree of fate that such a one be either slain by his enemies or become a tyrant and be transformed from a man into a wolf?

He it is, I said, who becomes the leader of faction…

(Republic, VIII:562-566)

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Thomas Keating and the Psychology of Centering Prayer

Father Thomas Keating has done wonderful work by making contemplative prayer a form of prayer for the laity.  His books make Centering Prayer simple and clear and systematic.  We do not have to search the often confusing history of mystical Christianity.  With Fr Keating’s work, we are able to enter an ongoing experience of the Incomprehensible One Who is Love immediately… if only we have the desire, which is the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.

There is a great deal to celebrate in Fr Keating’s work.  My attention, though, has been drawn to certain failures of the Centering Prayer movement that threaten access to the contemplative life Fr Keating wants to help us live.  There are two major shortcomings I think we need to note here.  First, Fr Keating tries to modernize Centering Prayer by couching the practice in terms of Freudian psychology.  Secondly, Fr Keating’s work tries to distinguish Christian contemplation from other forms of mysticism such as Buddhist Zen meditation, painting a harmful picture of Christian exclusivism that needs to be grown out of if Christianity is to get beyond its deadly, destructive history.

In principle, there is no problem with using contemporary science to analyze spiritual practice.  Fr Keating, however, seems unaware that Freud’s school of psychology is wholly unscientific, a modern myth rejected by empirically-minded experts and refuted by research and philosophy.  For instance, in his book Open Mind, Open Heart, Fr Keating defines the concept of Unloading the Unconscious as follows: “The spontaneous release of previously unconscious material from early childhood in the form of primitive feelings or a barrage of images or commentaries; it may occur during the time of centering prayer and outside the time of prayer.”  To put it directly, there is no such unconscious material.  The unconscious is a figment of the Freudian imagination.  There are, to be sure, damaging memories and destructive habits, but the unconscious as conceived of by Freud does not exist.  Unconscious energies do not register on any meters.

Going beyond the philosophical and scientific critique of Freud’s model of the mind, experience teaches that Fr Keating’s claim that contemplative exercises risk a flood of “primitive feelings or a barrage of images or commentaries” is pretty clearly false.  The gentle practice of meditation and contemplation is healing and lays down a solid and stable foundation for a psychologically and spiritually healthy life.  Letting go of attachments and assumptions clears the mind and allows it to drink in reality without worry or the distorted values we usually assume in daily life.  There are often enough difficult lessons along the way.  We are fallen, after all.  As the mind clears, we see sometimes painful truths.  But there is no risk to anyone who wants to sit and pray.  There is no need for special retreats, a spiritual director or an analyst to help us sort through our unconscious detritus.  The only thing we need to begin is the desire that is poured into our hearts.

Fr Keating’s Christian exclusivism is much more alarming than his reliance on Freudian psychology.  By way of example, look at this passage from Open Mind, Open Heart: “Noticing one’s breathing can also serve as a sacred symbol of one’s consent to God’s presence and action within.  In this case, one does not follow one’s breathing physically as is done in Eastern techniques of meditation, but simply observes it.  In centering prayer the purpose is not simply to let go of all thoughts but to deepen our contact with the Divine Indwelling.  The intentionality of faith is fundamental.”  It is a truly strange set of remarks, perplexing because Fr Keating is, in fact, familiar with Eastern practices.  Observing and following the breath are identical techniques.  Fr Keating is making a distinction without a difference for the sake of preserving what he sees as the “Christian essence” of Centering Prayer.

The attempt to paint Eastern meditation as simply a matter of letting go of thoughts is equally troubling.  In Zen, for instance, all of the eightfold path and the paramitas flow out of the practice of sitting.  Meditation is not a mere relaxation technique.  It is the source of life, exactly as it is for the Christian.  Furthermore, Fr Keating’s remark that the distinguishing characteristic of Christian contemplation is faith and seeking “to deepen our contact with the Divine Indwelling” blindly ignores the need for the difficult work of careful translation between the religious vocabularies of different holy traditions.  Of course a Buddhist will not describe her practice in terms of the Divine Indwelling or as flowing from the theological virtue of faith.  That is because she uses her own language and her own experience and her own tradition to make sense of the spirit… or emptiness, or whatever concept she finds appropriate and useful.  Attending lovingly to our sisters and brothers is the only way to escape the deep and enduring hate of our long history.

Religion is scarred by narrow-minded theologians and the smallness of politics and the ugliness of self-righteousness.  Yet, I believe, it is too precious to leave to rot in sin.  We must be careful not to lapse into the religious hypocrisy Jesus condemned, for the sake of our own health and the well-being of our friends and neighbors.  Contemplation is a gift.  If the Spirit has given you desire, follow the Spirit.

What Does Thick Description Do?

Clifford Geertz’s research tool of Thick Description gets handed around enough in my areas of study, religion and philosophy, so it deserves a deeper look.  Often it is treated as the Middle Way between the cold and blind operational definitions of a hard-nosed approach to social sciences and the conceptually muddled, overly-emotional, uncritically committed essays of so much work in the humanities.  Thick Description is an intriguing notion and is certainly a fruitful research pursuit, but I am afraid that it is uncritically embraced as a means of answering research questions.  We see Thick Description as analogous to natural experiments and quasi-experiments.  No one seems to want to address the question of what it is that Thick Description can, in fact, do.  We take for granted that a research tool is for answering research questions.  That is not the case.

Thick Description is an observational study placed within an appropriately detailed context so that the meaning of the behaviors or phenomena under consideration become meaningful to third-party observers.  It is indispensable for an understanding of human psychology and society, culture and practice.  We are variables in a physical equation.  That reduction, though, destroys the meaningfulness  of human activity.  Closing our minds to the realm of meaning and intentionality is not the same thing as explaining that realm away.  (Asking meaning and intentionality to account for themselves in terms of physics or biology or chemistry is a conceptual confusion.)  Thick Description is necessary for tapping into that mysterious realm.

So the question of what Thick Description is capable of doing is an important and ignored question.  I have no clear answers to the question at hand right now, but I do have a couple suggestions on where we might head.  There are a number of phases to any research project, and we need tools for each phase along the way.  In practice, it seems to me, Thick Description is not a strong enough or precise enough tool to avoid conceptual confusions and the mistaking of a researcher’s opinions and assumptions for factual findings.  It simply does not have the built-in safety valves of mathematics and operationalization needed to help check bias, however imperfect those mechanisms may be.   Thick Description, therefore, cannot be used to answer a research question in the way that experiments are employed.

Where Thick Description promises to deepen our understanding is in the initial stages of research: grappling with a problem for the sake of building an initial understanding of the context and issues as well as generating testable hypotheses.  Depending on the genius and insight of researchers to formulate the foundations of a research project is, well, unscientific.  Developing Thick Descriptions can become a method for setting the stage for a research project so that the questions asked are relevant and interesting.

These are just some initial thoughts.  Real work needs to be done if we are to understand Thick Description… or any other aspect of the research process, for that matter.  Simply because we cook up a methodology does not mean we understand its purpose or power.  Let us take nothing for granted, even if we have to take one step at a time and rebuild this boat midstream.

A Citizen Soldier Stands Against the President

Is it time to take to the bunker yet? I do not think so.  Though, things are getting quite scary.  As a soldier and a citizen and a Christian, the President of the United States of America is an enemy of the people.  Not the press, not the Democrats, and not the Muslims of the world.  The President daily signs death warrants for soldiers he does not care a scrap for nor gives more than an afterthought over dinner.  The President has chosen his own power and prestige over truth and the good of the American people.  And it is our own President who incites violence (in violation of his own claimed faith) at home and around the world against Muslims, compared to the uncountable hundreds of thousands of Muslims who have taken up arms in our defense in Iraq and Afghanistan and around the world… not to mention here at home in the USA.

As someone who risked his life daily for the American people, I resent the fact that the President has portrayed the US institutions of truth, science and the press, as enemies of the people, institutions without virtually any monetary reward and little notoriety who do their virtuous work in silence.  I deplore the fact that the President has deliberately undermined the Department of Justice and the FBI, organizations which have worked for decades and for over a century to work against the current of politics and protect every American’s rights.  And finally, I despise our President for putting his own politics above the integrity of our electoral system.  There is overwhelming evidence that members of his advisory team and cabinet were beholden to the Russians, and President Trump can do nothing but refuse to talk about the matter or lie.  He would rather repeat a lie than dig up the truth, a play fit only for the Mein Kampf.

Maybe I am exaggerating our situation, but I do not think I am.  There is not anywhere left for the Republican regime left to run except to crime.  This is not an evenly divided system between right and left.  The right has clearly gone off the rails.  They have their own networks of black ops that regularly and consistently distort the truth in a demonstrable and refutable manner.  They have constructed legislation behind closed doors without hearings.  If our Constitutional Republic can survive Trump’s assault intact, it will be a miracle.  We can only match this assault with an army of spirit-warriors.  Satyagraha is our weapon.  Only by peace, mercy and the truth will we find a foundation for a true government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

May our Republic survive by the way of love.  Amen.

 

A First Reading of Steven D Paulson’s “Lutheran Theology”

Right now I am working my way through Lutheran Theology (Bloomsbury, 2011) by Steven D Paulson, professor of Systematic Theology at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, MN.  As a new member of the ELCA, I find the work frightening.  (Stay tuned.  I have only just begun my work on Paulson’s book, so there is surely more to come from a project that spans so much of Christian thinking.)  Paulson is at pains to maintain the old, contorted language of a faith that sought to distinguish the value of faith and works.  The context of that distinction is all important.  Indulgences and penitential manuals and politics had corrupted the understanding (and practice) of the order of justification.  In order to restore that order, Luther and the Lutheran reformers took some bold steps to overthrow a legalistic vision of love.  This resulted in some theology that ignored the perfectly acceptable place of Christian love as the crowning theological virtue.  In fact, left on its own, Luther’s theology seemed to run contrary to James on living faith and Paul on the preeminence of love.  The Lutheran claim that faith is primary in the Christian life and that, as Paulson has it, with her restored vision, the theologian of the cross can name evil as it is, is a position that is simply dead.  “You believe God is one; you do well.  Even the demons believe – and shudder.” (James 2:19)  Restored vision is not a product of faith alone, but faith working through hope and love.  The holy life of the Christian is not a product of faith, as James tells us, but of faith working through love.  All of Christian history testifies against the notion that faith alone is justifying or in any way gives rise to the good works that Paulson calls the fruits of faith.  Only by blindly holding to a worn out and discredited theological vocabulary can Paulson maintain his vision of Lutheran theology.

Luther’s stand was a necessary move for reform.  Paulson’s position is a retreat from reform into an impoverished dogmatism.  Paulson fails to grasp the points of the reformers stances and places his own idea of how a system of Lutheran theology ought to hang together above demanding a new clarity and hewing to a commitment to real love.  The ecumenical movement can save us from this horror.  Agreements between Catholics and Lutherans ought to free us from this sort of dogmatic contortionism that bastardizes language and ignores history.

The understanding that is coming out of our ecumenical work is permission enough to adopt new language… as if we needed permission.  We are Lutherans!  Founders of the Reformation!  As Christians, we Lutherans believe that God is love.  Love is fundamental to reality, not faith, truth or being.  Theology has had the pyramid of faith, hope and love on its head for too long.  (Catholic theology did it too; it just added more elements to the articles of faith.)  Faith alone is dead faith.  Understanding that we are in an era that demands a revision of our theological language to take seriously the tragedy of the cross that scars the world, that is a mission for a true Church of the Reformation.

The Self-Emptying of Death

In the midst of the process of my mother’s death, I am at a loss for what to do.  Every action I take seems hollow… except to sit with her and be near her.  Inaction is the method of The Way.  The wisdom of that insight sits well with me right now.  I don’t want to move.  I don’t want to disturb anything.  I just want to let this process finish.  When it is done, I do not know what my brother and I will become.  It seems we will remain as we are but more scarred.  We will be emptied.  That kenosis does not require my consent.  But what takes place after the emptying? More life.

Beyond the Threat of a Faithful Democracy

The idea that the United States is a nation of faith can at last be given up as a lie.  Trump represents neither faith nor works.  He has disproven any attempts to depict him as faithful to the truth.  There really can be only one non-ironic interpretation of Trump.  A power-monger plain and simple, he is willing to sell the American presidency to Vladimir Putin for pennies on the dollar, so long as Trump receives the position.

Given that it has been scientifically demonstrated that democracy tends toward suboptimal decision making, we have been begging for an end-time reckoning for some time.  American democratic politics have dragged us into a number of wars and military conflicts for which neither sound moral nor economic reasoning can be laid down.  In fact, a vast number of Americans apparently think medieval mercantilism and free market capitalism are interchangeable.  The medieval mercantilist strategy may prove beneficial for a businessman, but is clearly an inefficient, immoral and unscientific means of lifting the economy and distributing goods and services.

So how are we to confront democracy and mercantilist economics? Off the cuff, I would recommend saddling mercantilists with fines and punishments appropriate to the political system they are trying to undermine: where there is capital punishment, let them be executed; where there is leniency, let us be lenient.  (Why adopt such a rule? Because where the politics grow more harsh and conservative, the more dangerous grows the military, economic, and political weight.  The less dangerous the hold on power, the more likely power is to yield beneficial consequences.)  But these things should not be decided off the cuff.

What is clearly needed is deep, intellectual reflection on the structures of power and economics.  (Ann Coulter and Glenn Beck, if they recognized their inadequacy for such a task, would elect to sit out the debate.  Given the Dunning-Kruger effect, we will always have them with us.)  Despite a lot of crying, much of it from the more extreme left wing of literary theory and their ilk, there really is a great deal of factual knowledge on how to organize an economic system so as to benefit a great majority of the people.  And it starts with a good intellectual grounding in free market economics.  Nobel prize winners in economics such as Paul Krugman have shown us the way, to both reveal the obscene and pursue the praiseworthy.

The structures of power are more difficult to discern, as, in large part, political science is not altogether scientific.  (Nor, for that matter, is Business anything more than bad psychology.  The two disciplines go hand-in-hand.)  There is good work being done on optimizing decision making in groups that can show us the way.  And, of course, there is a solid foundation of material from economics.  How to fuse the optimization of group decision making with our economic needs as a people (that is, as a race or a nation rather than a political caste or party) may be murky, but it is not beyond imagining.

To move forward, though, requires breaking the hold of powerbrokers, and that, I am afraid, means breaking some arms.

Throw over the tables of the money changers…

Or remain cowards in your corners.