Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Random Righteousness

At the heart of Cooper’s faith and sense of righteousness was his firm belief that Jesus Christ is the singular pathway to salvation. He made reference to a biblical dictum that says that in order to be saved you must declare with your mouth and in your heart that Jesus Christ is your personal Lord and Savior. Baring that declaration, a person is doomed to damnation. Cooper was reluctant to say that outright, but in the end he coyly said, “Yeah. I guess so, if you don’t accept Christ you’re damned.”

In my view this doomsday edict is undermined by the randomness of human circumstance. A person’s particular faith and spiritual orientation is significantly influenced by the family and social circumstances into which they are born. Both of those enormously powerful developmental influences are random. Cooper could no more choose to grow up in a subdivision with super Christian parents than I could choose to grow up with super Christian parents in Brooklyn with a church on every block. The whole process by which we became conscious of ourselves took place under a Christian social order. Our Hindu or Muslim analogs who are born in India or Indonesia have a spiritual orientation that is equally a consequence of the circumstances of their birth – over which they have no control. Is salvation then, dependent on the randomness of birth?

According to Cooper, those people have the opportunity to learn about the opportunity for salvation, shed their spiritual belief system and accept Christ. That is why he spends time spreading the Word, so that they will be informed. I find this argument painfully simple when it comes from people who do not know anything about the other major religions. Quite in keeping with my stereotype of him, Cooper did not. In fact, he was momentarily confused about whether the Torah and the Koran were associated with Judaism and Islam respectively or vice versa. He himself did not make an informed decision to accept Christ. He accepted Christ, in part, because that is all he knew. His options were Christ or no Christ; not, Christ or Allah or Shiva. That constitutes a faith randomly determined. Had he been born Saladeen Amatuallah on the outskirts of Mecca his deep seated spiritual belief system and the anchor of his faith would almost certainly be different. Not only would his spiritual belief system be different, it would be equally strong and likely far more disciplined. The only difference is circumstance, the randomness of birth, yet one is damned and the other saved.

Cooper didn’t really have a response for that. “I don’t know, I guess I just know that Christ is right,” he said. In a classroom when it boils down to, “I don’t know, I just know,” nine teachers out of ten will assume you just guessed. If you have no further explanation than that, the random nature of the selection is apparent.

I would never argue against the power of revelation. As a consequence of that, it is easy for me to accept those that believe that Christ is the path to salvation. I have trouble, however, when that revelation is coupled with ignorance of the possible alternative paths and an adamant declaration that those unknown paths are not righteous. Faith can be the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen. It ought not be the prosecutor of things unknown and the constraint on human variation.


Monday, August 20, 2007

The Girl, The Dragon and the PhD

Legend holds that the Doctoral Degree lies beyond the forest, beyond the mountains and is the sacred possession of the Dissertation Dragon. Tales are spun and spun again about travelers' quests for the degree and the ferocity of the Dragon. The Course is the path leading to the Dragon’s lair. It is strewn with the bodies of noble intellectuals unsuccessful in their bids. The Course for some was too long, for others too steep and for still others, simply too difficult. Before even reaching the Dragon’s lair the traveler must face the attack of the Questions. The Questions attack one’s sense of purpose, of competence, and in extreme attacks, one’s self-worth. The Questions lay in wait, in the darkest sections of the path. It is from there, when the traveler is most weary, most beaten, and most in need of a balm that the Questions launch their attack. They coordinate with the Vicissitudes of Life to maximize the destructive force of their arsenal. The Vicissitudes periodically clamp down and inject life forces to undermine the concentration of the traveler. These forces are the Too-Forces. They inject too much sorrow or too much happiness. Illness and misfortune are legendary foes of concentration and the Vicissitudes bring them both to the siege. They also bring life pleasures of love and lust which are equally dangerous to the focus of the traveler.

In addition to the attacks from the Questions and the Vicissitudes, the traveler's persona is threatened. In the struggle to traverse the Course, the Course itself vies to steal the persona of the traveler. It tries to capture the voice of the traveler. It attempts to replace the traveler’s native tongue with a jargon-laden, hypersyllabic, abstract intellectuo speak. That voice, unnatural to the traveler, is the language of the thief. It is a language that complicates the truth and hides conviction. The process is a slow-moving heist. Once the voice is gone, passion is next. The passions that drove the traveler to challenge the Dragon are somehow dampened. Each of the traveler’s thoughts begins to commence with “it depends” and ends by trailing off into relativism. The absolute stand of conviction that is born of fiery passion is gone, the theft of the persona complete.

The lucky and tenacious traveler will survive these trials. She may well have to step over the fallen bodies of her partners but she persists. She meets the attacks of the Questions with uncertain answers backed by unshakable faith. She remains sufficiently resilient such that the Vicissitudes are reduced to mere impostors like triumph and disaster. She holds onto her voice such that the connection between her words and her meaning remains clear. Most importantly, she is successful in beguiling the Course. She turns its trials against it and uses it as fuel for the fire of her passion. While absolutism may be the property of the extremist, the position and conviction of the traveler is clear and unmistakable. She remains true to herself and an honorable representative of the clan from which she has come.

After having warred with Shaka-style ferocity, the traveler has simply survived the Course. The degree still rest in the bowels of the lair guarded by the Dissertation Dragon. Despite apprehension, the traveler opens the comprehensive gate and in so doing alerts the dragon of her presence. Everything that the traveler has learned, everything that she has endured is designed to prepare her for this last battle. The dragon they call Dissertation, however, is a dragon indeed. Its lips drip with the complexities of interposition and operationalization. Its skin is an elusive problem that render it difficult to see and more difficult still to characterize. In addition, it is singularly armed with all of the weaponry of the Course – the Questions, the Vicissitudes and the Heist. It is also armed with the psychological weapon of boundlessness. The Course had a visible end. The traveler was spurred on when, from the mountaintop, she could see the end. The dragon at first sight is boundless. On top of the awesome sight of the dragon are the terms of engagement. The traveler must first devise a cogent plan by which she intends to slay the dragon. This plan, devised under the pressure of the looming dragon, must survive the attack of the Guardians of the Degree. The Guardians are themselves dragon slayers. They are the sages of the journey. In attacking the traveler’s plan, they push until the brink of capitulation to ensure the readiness of the traveler for the battle at hand. Out from the clamoring of swords and the posturing for power comes a potion of guidance and encouragement. Armed with this potion, a symbol of the blessings of the Guardians, the traveler attempts to slay the dragon. Legend has it that the potion renders the traveler unconquerable but not uninjurable. There are those, however, that have gone in to fight the dragon and have neither been seen nor heard from since.

There is a traveler poised to absorb the attack from the Guardians and hopefully earn a sip of the potion of potency. She hasn’t done it yet so we’ll see if there is any truth to all this legend shit.


Tuesday, August 7, 2007

If Jesus Lived in a Subdivision

On the flight back from New Orleans I happened to sit next to a white guy named Cooper. When he told me his name I laughed to myself. He fit the image of a Cooper that must be in the American book of stereotypes. He had long curly dirty blond hair. Every minute or two he took off his cap and brushed his hair back and then put the cap back on. It was a nasty University of Georgia baseball cap. The brim was bent and frayed at the tip and there was a sweat stain all around the bottom. He had on those big cargo shorts that they sell at Target and Old Navy that are a favorite of white boys just like him. He was also wearing flip flops and a close fitting t-shirt that said, “Property of Abercrombie and Fitch.” He couldn’t have fit the stereotype any better.

I learned that he was on his way back from New Orleans having completed a church mission to help rebuild damaged homes. He said that he had spent the earlier part of the summer in Guatemala doing missionary work with people in some small village. I asked if the work he was doing in New Orleans was missionary work too. He said yes, that while they were helping to rebuild people’s homes, “we were spreading the Word too.” Indeed, the airport had been full of these church groups going and coming from all over the place. There were whole gangs of white kids with matching t-shirts emblazoned with an old rugged cross on the front and some bible verse or another on the back wearing Livestrong and What Would Jesus Do? bracelets.

Religion is not a chitchat topic for a plane conversation, but you don’t learn much from chitchat topics. I asked what personal philosophy drove his missionary work. He immediately responded that he wanted to help share the keys to Christ and salvation with people. He followed that by saying, “that life with Christ is like such a beautiful thing and like it is based in so much love that like it only seems right to share that with people, and like give them a chance to experience it.”

I always assume that white boys that look like Cooper are super privileged and equally sheltered. Their worldliness, which is sometimes extensive, appears to be undone by the sense of superiority that they exude. They might go into Guatemala, for example, look at the people and say “By the Grace of God, I have the opportunity to make a difference in these people’s lives.” They do not say, “There, but for the Grace of God go I.” Nothing in their experience can help them relate to the circumstances of poverty and exclusion that they are so fond of visiting to spread the Good News. Based on that assumption, my reaction to him was that poor people in Guatemala and New Orleans and wherever else he had been do not need his faith, they need his privilege. They need the comfort and safety of his subdivision and the luxury of not being preoccupied with surviving. In New Orleans they need the sense that they as individuals and their communities matter, that if they are hurt someone will care. In Guatemala, those devout Catholics do not need faith, they need peace. In my view, the appreciation of faith born in privilege always seems weaker than the appreciation of privilege born in faith.

In my mind I was careful not to dismiss the fundamental goodness of what Cooper spent his summer doing – helping. It was obvious to me and he said as much, that his ability to do all this Christian good work was based on his parents’ ability to pay for him to travel all around the globe to do it. Despite that, what he chose to do with the resources available to him was significant. It bothered me though, that he was so steadfast in his belief that his experience of the righteousness of Christ was something that he felt compelled to share with poor people. In spiritual terms, what did he really have to offer? If these poor people accept Christ the way he had, that they would experience the righteousness of Christ the way he does? I wondered if it is possible for him to decouple the component of his identity that is privilege from the component that is faith? His faith was born in subdivision safety where all his needs were met and the righteousness of Christ’s love, if not its bounty, may have been fairly easy to focus on. Pastors are quick to say that Christ’s faith was not born while lounging by the side of a pool, but while nailed to a cross between two thieves.

I found the confluence of class and faith confusing. I also realized that not only was I bothered by Cooper’s professed evangelical righteousness, it made me angry. That triggered the need for me to reflect on the relationship between faith and privilege in me. Cooper left me with that personal challenge. He also left me wondering if Jesus’ word would be the Word if he had grown up in a subdivision?