Saturday, January 29, 2011

Can Christian Coitus Continue to Be Chaste and Conservative?

With many popular topics in the news this week focusing more on political intrigue and revolutions in the Middle East, I thought I’d take a topic closer to home. Though I myself was only indirectly exposed to the teaching of many Christian churches on this issue, I think I can still speak on it with an informed perspective, outsider to sexual experience as I am. The issue I speak of is the morality of sex, before and after marriage, and the teaching I refer to is not uncommon today in many sexual education classes; abstinence only. I only learned in some detail about how to use a condom in my senior year of college, though I could’ve learned as early as freshman year, no doubt. There appears to be a trend; in high school you learn to “keep it in your pants”, so to speak, and then college tells you what you can do to prevent unwanted pregnancy and STDS after you’ve probably already taken it out of the pants anyway. It’s counterintuitive and also a pretty large gamble in trusting adolescents to take seriously your advice that they should abstain from sex entirely when they’re at their most hormonal at that age.

As much as one can tell me, “It’s the parents’ job to educate their children about safe sex; the school’s job is to educate about sex in general, not particulars,” I don’t think school should completely avoid confronting the issues of protection against STDs, as opposed to just using a deterrent tactic and tell kids that STDs are dangerous and give them abstract explanations. If someone who actually has syphilis or gonorrhea or herpes actually comes to the class at the very least and tells the kids about their mistakes, maybe they might be a bit more responsible. But most importantly, it behooves any parent and any school as well to bear a responsibility to teach teens about proper use of protection. Even if the children don’t necessarily use that knowledge, reinforcing that education can help in some way to motivate teenagers to behave responsibly. The show “16 and Pregnant” comes to mind as an example to explain to children why pregnancy as a result of unprotected sex can negatively affect your life. Albeit the show doesn’t approach the issue of making the choice of abortion, but the challenges of adoption and raising the child oneself are both exposed to teens that might have otherwise not known about them.

Of course, I’m getting away from the point of the article I reference. The focus of that essay was that many Christians have shifted towards what might be called a Gnostic view of sex; or, at the very least, an excessively pragmatic view. What I mean by Gnostic is the general tendency to regard the body as the source of impurity and other sins as opposed to the soul or mind as generally understood in Christian theology. And what I mean by excessively pragmatic is seeing sex as purely mechanical and only for procreative purposes even within the sacred bonds of matrimony. But many Christians today have shifted significantly from this area of near sexual repression and stifling of what should be regarded as natural passions for one’s spouse. The common Christian teaching seems to be that while sex in marriage is proper, it shouldn’t become something that defines one’s marital commitments. But I don’t think when a so-called “liberal” Christian advocates making passionate sex part of one’s sacramental marriage, that they means sex should be the only reason you love each other. But expressing one’s love and unifying oneself with your spouse in the intimacy of intercourse is not something that’s opposed to the Christian message. If Jesus was fully human and fully God, then a human fully realizing their humanity within limitations on sexual behavior (no adultery or rape for example) is well within the bounds of a Christian’s life still devoted to fulfilling God’s purpose: which, in the case of incarnate humans sharing the quality of embodiment with Jesus himself, means you usually get married and express that love through sex, along with other forms of intimacy. Just because you reduce the amount of sex you have in later years doesn’t mean your love has necessarily reduced for the person you love. But mature marriages should not be without some degree of physical passion for the person you love.

It seems to be more common nowadays for older married couples to completely give up on sex for any number of reasons, most of all the obvious fact of their body’s natural degeneration. We all have that tendency to regard chastity and abstinence as intertwined and even sometimes, mistakenly so, synonymous. But chastity involve a complete rejection of sexual feelings before marriage. As the Belief Blog columnist put it, you can direct those sexual feelings towards something larger; or at the very least wait until the time is right for sex, even if you happen to not be married, but committed to each other nonetheless. I take it that many Christians would have a problem with the idea of masturbation as a solution to the failings of abstinence education, but one can theorize (myself still a virgin) that self pleasure doesn’t give one the same degree of satisfaction as intercourse with another person. And in this way, the Thomistic formulation of sex as both unitive and procreative serves as a way to justify even sterile or post menopausal couples having sex, along with pre marital teenagers, if only to express the love they have for each other on the most intimate of terms, becoming one flesh and knowing each other to use two Biblical metaphors. In pre marital cases, though, the tendency should be rare and responsible.

All in all, I can’t say I’ve spoken as one who has known and understood sex on a concrete level, but even with abstract considerations on my end, there are practical applications of those theoretical understandings to consider. If we are physical beings in some sense, even my own Buddhist perspective can admit that sex is something to be enjoyed. As much as Buddhism is misunderstood to be repressive or suppressive of sexual desires, there is a great deal of literature from the Chinese and Japanese schools of Ch’an/Zen of sex being a path towards enlightenment. It gets into racy territory, however, since there is pederasty involved in many cases of monasteries, along with monk Ikkyu visiting the brothels of feudal Japan and writing erotic haikus. But Christianity is not without sexual aspects to its theology, such as the various metaphors in mysticism for the unity with God, particularly Teresa of Avila, not to mention the sexual poetry in Song of Songs. For anyone to start pointing fingers and speak about sex as if it’s something bad usually suggests some insecurity on the part of the pointer about their own experience of sex. If you’re taught about sex in one way, perhaps you may need to shift your thinking about it ever so slightly, to enjoy yourself without losing control. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

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Saturday, January 22, 2011

WWJD: Why Would Jesus Divide?

This week, Alabama brought itself into the faith news world with Governor Robert Bentley making a difficult to swallow statement regarding non Christians in his state. While he was doing this from a church pulpit and thus might be excused on the grounds that he was in a religious context and speaking to constituents that were part of the Christian religion, he quickly apologized afterwards. The Anti Defamation League jumping in quickly after his initial statement and many people in and out of the state, including my own parents, a generation behind me, found it problematic for him to say that. The main issue people have is not that he said it as a personal religious statement within a church environment in a worship or fellowship context. Non Christians wouldn’t have grounds to be offended in that context since it’s really part and parcel of the Christian faith to evangelize and be missionaries of their message to all people. Bentley saying “anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I'm telling you, you're not my brother and you're not my sister, and I want to be your brother [or sister]," was not meant in the ‘insider language’ of Christianity to disparage people as less important than believers in Jesus, but simply being welcoming in wishing people the best as they understand it; being in a relationship with Jesus and such. And btw, here's the two verses he's no doubt referencing indirectly or directly: Matthew 12:46-50: Jesus speaks on his spiritual brothers and sisters (the disciples); Matthew 13:54-57: Jesus having literal brothers and sisters.

The difficulty lies with Bentley’s position as a representative of the state as a whole and not merely Christians, however much Alabama may be a predominately Christian state, especially Southern Baptist. Since he spoke in such a way at his own inauguration, I don’t see how he will persist in overall popularity across the South or America as far as governors go, but if his many followers are any indication, they’re willing to forgive what they regard as a slip of the tongue. Some even take offense that people would take a politician’s words so seriously and pick at them, even though that’s to be expected with any situation where you’re in such an important position of authority. President Obama is in a similar, albeit higher, type of position, with people taking anything he does, from bowing to the Japanese emperor and his wife to more potential sparking controversy in saying the U.S. is not a Christian nation. Anyone thinking the governor of Alabama, speaking in such a harsh fashion to people that don’t believe in his messianic pariah, shouldn’t be criticized on some level, puts their leaders on too high a pedestal I’d say.

Governor Bentley’s quick and, some might say, rushed apology only seems to reinforce the difficulties that exist in the Bible Belt. The persistence of ideas that church and state should have broader boundaries or allow more significant representation or expressions by individuals are what creates these issues about their separation on a practical level. When people don’t think that the Constitution of the United States; the same one they speak so highly of in terms of their rights to: bear arms, free speech, freedom of assembly; provides a clause that any representative person or body of the government or the public should not express favor towards one religious tradition over others, on the basis of impartiality to all faiths by the secularity of a government that provides for all citizens to choose their faith, we already have a problem in the dialogue that should begin.

With those thinking the church, while separate in terms of the eventual future of the world (what with the Rapture and what not), should still be able to be part of people’s lives and allowed expression, there is a fine line between those that think that one’s private convictions about the afterlife and divine metaphysics affect your decisions about policy and those that think that you should determine your policy based on antiquated traditions that existed on the other side of the world when democracy and socialism weren’t even a glimmer in the eye of a single person. I don’t have a problem with people voting for particular laws or regulations based on ethical principles pulled from the Bible over time and history, but when you start stepping into telling people what to believe or how to behave beyond necessity, we’re going to have difficulties.

Not to mention the persistence of the ideology that America is a Christian nation and should therefore give favor to Christianity because of where our laws and Constitution come from. But I challenge any reader to point out any law or Constitutional principle that is explicitly derived from the Bible, and also demonstrate that there aren’t any parallel ideas in other traditions across the world. And even if there were somehow principles of our governance derived from a text that even in Jesus’ day, was not exactly looking into political issues to begin with, it doesn’t mean that the government ought to favor Christianity as a religion in any way, because more Christians could emphasize that God’s kingdom is not of this world than those in the Tea Party mentality who say that we need to “get back to God” and other like tropes.

One can imagine that Bentley’s learned to use some discretion in the future and maybe even be a bit more considerate to non Christians in general; not just in the political sphere of encounters with varying types of believers. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Palin Pathetically Pleads Persecution

I can’t say I’m surprised that Sarah Palin has gotten into my blog again after half a year of nothing since Christine O’Donnell took her place for inept female politicians (and there are adept ones, don’t misunderstand me). And now she’s painting herself into a corner with her ignorance on Jewish-Christian issues. In particular, she thinks the term “blood libel” can be separated from the history it has of Christians slaughtering Jews; since many thought that the Israelite descendants kidnapped and killed Christian children and used their blood for various occult rituals. Any appropriate use of the term would have to involve actual persecution of Jews. But Palin says she, a good Christian woman, is the target of a blood libel against her since she can’t admit she might be somewhat guilty in using decidedly gun heavy rhetoric in rallying Tea Party members to fight against big government, by any means necessary, I imagine. And this rhetoric persisted in using what appeared to be target signs on various politicians in Arizona, including Gabrielle Giffords, nearly killed by a shot to the head from Jared Lee Loughner, who killed at least 6 people in his rampage in Tucson. Some claim Palin’s use of the targets may have motivated Loughner to the act against Giffords by association the target with a gun and Palin’s own phrase that she throws around of “Don’t retreat, reload,”

There’s a tragic irony in this, since Giffords herself was a Reform Jew, so it’s like twisting the knife in her parent’s wounds. Saying you’re the victim of a “blood libel” from people accusing you of influencing a maniac to make an assassination attempt on a Jew is like a Christian using the term “witch hunt”, which I imagine might not be uncommon in some areas today even with Wicca becoming more popular (though Wiccans are NOT witches, I must clarify). The Anti Defamation League strongly objected to Palin’s use, along with scholars of religion, such as Stephen Prothero and Mary C. Boys, who concentrates on this area of religious studies. While it has become part of English parlance, not unlike the phrase witch hunt, to use “blood libel” with a meaning separate from its historical context of Christian anti Semitism; which I admit is a minority today, since it is popular in Christian circles now to pray for Israel and such; it seems unfair to Jews in some way to use that term in such a nonchalant fashion, as if the Jews have just forgotten it, like the Holocaust, or just silently accept that people will always indirectly use anti semitic phrases in new unrelated ways. The medieval paranoia that might have just been a cover for anti Semitism under the similar hysteria around vampires; the Jews allegedly used blood in their rituals, therefore in the medieval mindset, they were kin with vampires. Makes as much sense as any other conspiracy theory.

I don’t think anyone is going to outright criticize Palin for her attempt to defend herself against these accusations, which, while plausible on some level, seem no different from scapegoating that has happened throughout times of crisis, creating someone to be the one to take the blame and otherwise become a pariah. Palin’s rhetoric might have only been a slight factor alongside Jared Lee Loughner’s alleged favorite books, including Hitler’s Mein Kampf. He may very well have been unstable from the beginning and the outside environmental influences may have triggered what was already somewhat genetically predisposed. There’s little reason to place the blame completely on any one person for even triggering Loughner’s insanity or his behavior, since he might have been behaving in what he believed to be a rational course of action, even if everyone else around him would have thought otherwise. There’s a justified criticism of sorts by Democrats of Republicans, Tea Party supporters especially, of the ease with which the assassin got a weapon with which to commit his crime, since they’re all for gun rights being increased (right?). The fact that Jared Loughner had no previous mental health evaluations or even any significant crimes on his record eliminated any difficulties that would’ve been clues from the start that he was someone that probably should not have gotten a gun at all. His belief in conspiracy theories was one of many manifestations in recent years that he was unstable, though the reason he was never forcefully taken for evaluations was because his erratic and outright insane behavior was nonetheless regarded as not posing any direct danger to anyone else around him. He was expelled from community college for this behavior, only allowed back in if he got a certified examination demonstrating his sanity. Later on, the military rejected his application on the grounds that he was mentally unfit. I would think at this point the military might’ve suggested that Loughner get evaluated by a psychologist/psychiatrist, but again, by this point, he may’ve been so far gone that it didn’t register.

And one last irritant in this whole terrible incident are claims that Loughner’s actions were motivated by his alleged atheism. There are already issues with this, since his reading list varies from theistic to atheistic authors, Plato and Hitler both having theistic tendencies and Ayn Rand and Karl Marx atheists of one stripe or another. The picture showing what appeared to observers to be a shrine with a skull doesn’t seem to show anything of atheism, since an atheist wouldn’t probably feel any need to erect any kind of area of worship, since it would be unnecessary to make pleas to divinities to dole out rewards or punishments. Not to mention that, regardless of whether you believe or disbelieve in the divine, when you’re stark raving mad, I don’t think you’re going to rethink that existential question so quickly when you take a Glock and starting firing wildly into a crowd. It’s pretty clear that the individual is the primary agent of responsibility in committing a crime, but there’s always room for considering a secondary agent as responsible by negligence. If you suspect someone is a danger to others by their behavior and thought patterns as far as they indicate them and you don’t do anything about it, then one can say you are nearly as culpable on some level as the person who takes a box cutter to a stranger’s throat. All in all, the blame game everyone’s playing is a start, but with Palin’s particular term being used outside of actual Jewish persecution, it’s no wonder that she’s spiraling down into mediocrity both politically and culturally to the level of Michael Jackson still being used as the punch line. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Religion: The Good, The Bad and the (Living) Dead

Happy 2011, everyone and, according to my recap, I’ve done 60 blog posts since I started in February of last year. Someone should check against this, since I’ve never been good at counting. So in a little under two months, I’ll be getting to my first year anniversary. I imagine I’m the most excited in this realization. Not even sure anything special will come of that date yet.

Following up on my post a few weeks ago on religion’s connection to a person’s happiness, two professors of religion, David Campbell from Notre Dame and Robert Putnam from Princeton, released a book in October called American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us and the conclusions on religion’s relation to society are intriguing. I’ve reflected on religion’s positive points even with the differences my own family has in Christian denominations, from Baptist to Presbyterian and anything else that exists in Tennessee. I was raised in a relatively diverse church environment, though my general exposure to Christian diversity was pretty small, only about 4-6 different flavors of Christian thought, including Catholic, Episcopalian, Baptist, Cumberland Presbyterian, Methodist and Church of Christ. But from what the study suggests, the deep religious commitments of my extended family might enforce some civility and consideration of others having even more radically differing beliefs.

There were three points they observed in studying years of surveys. The first was that America is by far the most religious country in the world, even with an observed rise in people that say they have no religion, many of which are still well studied on religion; myself included as one who would probably conclusively say I have no single religious community I associate with. The second point is that more Americans are likely to have changed their religion at some point in their life; and we’re not talking denominational gaps, we’re talking radical paradigm shifts from Christianity to Islam or Judaism or in my case, Christianity to Deism to Buddhism. Considering this, people are more likely to have friends and family members of different faiths. I’m probably the only self identified Buddhist (?) in my family, I have three Wiccan friends, as well as a self identified Deist and a Laveyan Satanist. The result over time is that Americans are less and less likely to outright condemn any faith, merely agreeing to disagree. My family members may be concerned with my apathy towards the existence and nonexistence of God, but will understand that I still share many of their ethical tendencies, such as caring for the poor and loving your neighbor and your enemies (Like Jesus said, right?). The last point, which astonishes me the most, is that people are less likely to think that those family members of different faiths are “going to hell”; which makes potential family conversations about faith easier if they even somewhat reflect it.

I don’t think I’m the best example of the “Aunt Susan” archetype they propose: someone who’s kind and generous, charitable and a general paragon of virtue. The “Aunt Susan” type is believed to be so good natured and emulating divine virtues that there’s no way they could go to hell. This might explain why the interfaith dialogue that naturally exists in America is less prone to explosive frustrations, which grants us a civility many other countries lack almost entirely or have devolved from. The only difficulty that exists in a religiously diverse country such as America is the presence of fundamentalism, insisting that people adhere to a strict form of religiosity, almost legalistic in a sense. This strikes me as ironic with many fundamentalists being very critical of what they call “Churchianity”, a Christianity that says that as long as you are a good person and follow particular rules, you’ll go to heaven. But these same people that criticize a Christianity that emphasizes ethics over belief are guilty of an inversion of what they find objectionable; emphasizing correct belief over correct behavior. This orthodoxy/orthopraxy division is probably the biggest wedge in the dialogue of faiths in America.

A decision in Fort Worth, Texas brings the legal difficulties of religious advertisement in America to light. Their transit system has enacted a new policy that bans all ads with religious material. This was in response to a slew of negative response (in Texas, a large Christian center of America, not too distant from the Bible Belt) to an ad not unlike the one I blogged on about the celebration of reason in relation to the Christmas myth. A bus ad saying “Millions of Americans are good without God” required a great deal of time directed to confronting people’s bad reactions. The basic message the department is trying to send is that they are not being hostile to any nonreligious group because of the ad funded by the Dallas-Fort Worth Coalition of Reason; nor are they being antagonistic to religion and the importance it has to society. It’s a decision of prudence regarding the publically funded organization’s goal of aiding people in transportation needs instead of having anything to do with religious issues, even through privately funded advertisements. This might seem extreme to many people that are used to seeing religious symbols and messages on the road, such as in my native Tennessee, where I always remember seeing crosses on the roadside as well as billboards from churches reminding me of an almost unspoken rule of thumb in the Bible Belt: non Christians can be tolerated, but only if they keep their faith to themselves and don’t try to practice it publicly.

This decision strikes me as objectionable on the level of the country as a whole being what some have termed a “free market of religions”; that is, the management of faiths and the government are distinct and separate so that there isn’t any feeling of pressure towards choosing one religion that is sponsored by the state over others. In this way, religion in America has grown more and more diverse and, more importantly, liberated from excessive control over its practice. With this policy in place, it seems like a large leap from a basic censorship that naturally exists between church and state within American secularism to a prohibition against the use of any ads with any religious content. This might wound the sense of freedom of religious practice and speech that is granted on some level to a church to fund their own ads, and instead, completely silences them from using the medium of transportation to even temporarily advertise something regarding such an important area of life as religion and faith, along with irreligious groups. Texas just keeps making bad decisions it seems, though luckily not on anything of a monthly basis, but it’s been at least twice a year. Let’s hope 2011 is Texas story free for once.

The final story is more bizarre, concerning a recent rise in television and movies of the zombie film genre popularized as early as the original Night of the Living Dead in 1968. The general consensus among philosophy and religion scholars is that zombies are at their core, a representation of our deepest fears including death, decay and desecration as the article puts it. Zombies are, in a shorthand definition, corpses that are reanimated with a simple instinct in mind, eat human flesh, or more particularly, human brains. Perhaps it extends to any other living thing’s flesh/brains, but for simplicity’s sake, zombies are only interested in humans. There have been other similar popular features alongside zombies, the vampire coming to mind. On an interesting side note, a webcomic I follow called Last Blood actually connects these two undead creatures in an unexpected fashion; zombies in this comic are blood starved vampires. The two are, therefore, interconnected and yet startlingly different in that vampires possess something in common with humans, judgment and reason. Zombies, for the most part, excluding the First Zombie, a schaemiac (whatever that is) which has consciousness and judgment even when passing on the zombie virus, are mindless puppets.

Over time in films there has been a division of types of zombies by fans. There is the slow walking form, what I might call sloth zombies, and there are those that are almost like berserkers, not reacting to any damage to them except serious trauma to the head, commonly called rage zombies. In both cases, we have the manifestation of the dangerous tendencies of humans, either becoming little more than hollow shells following animal instincts or losing our humanity by a similar “sin” of wrath and becoming maniacal engines that will not stop unless they are torn limb from limb. With this in mind, “zombie theology” and such has a dark side in our considering our worst fears and imperfections, but also considers that there are times when we must make difficult decisions, though shooting a rotting corpse might be a bit different than shooting someone who has simply gone into a rage. Either way, I suppose the religious aspect is something to consider, since with vampires, as a parallel to zombies, there was hysteria surrounding them in the Middle Ages that led to many superstitions and folklore that still persist today such as the use of crucifixes and other apotropaics (vampire wards), derived from a religious culture of Christianity in Europe.

The relevance of all these religious aspects, from the social and communal aspects; to jurisprudence and law; and even more fantastical and psychological considerations of the life of faith and its connections to the “profane” world we live in, cannot be denied or completely shut out of life. But we should take these topics in a spirit of moderation, neither seeking to completely eliminate them or make them the sole force in our lives. Religion has its place, but it’s neither at the bottom or the top of the proverbial pyramid and we shouldn’t treat it as either. Until next time, Namaste, aloha and Happy Gregorian New Year.