Monday, July 30, 2012

Editorial Illustration for HYP READ from WRC

Essay: Michael Kinnucan

The Empty Subject and the Art of Ethics

Illustration: Wesley Ryan Clapp

On Leaving

What a pleasure it is to cut ties! Quitting a job, ending a relationship, leaving a city—these decisions are frightening, but they’re also exhilarating. Even beyond the practical reliefs they offer—you’ll never have to listen to that boss or have that fight again—they remind you of a simple fact that you forget almost constantly: you canalways leave. Our lives are constrained for the most part not by necessity but by habit and a sense of obligation to whatever’s around us. And, to be sure, mostly we like it that way. But there are moments when we feel capable, suddenly, of flight, when we slough off habits and default on every debt, when we even burn our bridges merely to see them burned. And what a joy this can be! The complexity of our lives as friends and lovers, coworkers and neighbors and daughters, the endless considerations and subtleties of such ties, become suddenly senseless; we can, quite simply, walk away. In the decision to move on one learns just how light one can travel; one becomes emptier and that much more free.
The intoxication of leaving is not hard to understand: after all, social life is a tissue of unchosen but compelling and endlessly ramified obligations, pretty much from the get-go. We’re born into debt. Before we learn to speak, we learn to understand ourselves as obligated: to the mother who nursed us, the father who clothed us, to everyone who has sacrificed so much for us. We owe obedience, care, and even love. And life goes on this way, in the red: obligations to teachers, playmates, lovers, bosses, the society which protects us and the God who died for our sins. The aggrieved teenager’s cry, “I never asked to be born!”, is a desperate protest against the injustice of precisely this situation: how can I be in debt when I never chose to borrow? But it’s undercut by the very grammar of the question. You were born; someone bore you (and ruined her figure, and sat by your sickbed, and wiped your ass, and so forth) and the least you can do is call them every once in a while, the least you can do is a bit of work around the house, the least you can do is adore her… Embodiment is obligation. This strange kind of debt is the origin of morality in the individual psyche: morality is the obligation we undertake by existing. The creditor may be generalized (from parents to society, mankind, God), and the terms of the loan change constantly, but the debt is never forgiven and never repaid.
And yet one can always leave. One can refuse not merely to pay the debt (we’re all always a bit behind on our payments anyway) but even to acknowledge it; one can say, your decision to care about me or depend on me or expect of me was your own, let it be on your head, it means nothing to me. I will not ask and I will not receive; count me out. We do not accumulate obligations through choice, we accumulate them merely by living, by having a body and a name. But for every obligation, at every moment, we do possess a negative choice: we can refuse it.

The Empty Subject of Ethics

Presumably there was never a time when morality did not confront this possibility, but its history as a philosophical problematic can be traced to Cartesian doubt. The Cartesian epoché, doubt taken as far as doubt will go, leads, obviously, to the collapse of the world as a system of relations; whatever continues to appear (shapes swimming before our eyes, the heat of a supposed fire) takes on the uncanny appearance of a projection for our benefit, in itself meaningless and profoundly suspect. As we all know, only the subject survives this collapse: the subject remains stable in his doubt. What I want to draw attention to is that the person who began doubting is not the subject who emerges with new self-assurance: the collapse of the world is the collapse of his identity. Descartes the man was a son and father and friend; Descartes the cogito was none of these things, no longer even a name. He was nothing more than the activity of doubting—nothing more than the process of collapsing the world. The subject of the cogito is a negative subject, one defined by its capacity to destroy the appearances and survive them. When the world collapses, the self collapses too; we are left with the subject, a black hole in the middle of nothing. The Cartesian subject is a hypostatized negation.
To be sure, the negative is only a fleeting moment in Descartes’ argument—on its basis he reconstructs a world which looks more or less as it did before. (It even has a God!) The world flickers but does not disappear. And yet the subject’s relationship to the world is permanently and radically altered. No longer does our belief in the appearances depend on external authority, convenience, or habit; now, for every belief we hold, we possess a ground. The subject of knowledge dies the death of doubt and is reborn as the subject of science.
But what of the subject of ethics? The world, after all, is not merely a series of doubtful appearances but a network of pressing entanglements, of uses and obligations; as the world flickers out, so do they. But the restoration of the world as object of science by no means guarantees its return as object of ethics. The negative subject becomes anonymous, and precisely his anonymity (his freedom from the order of custom and doxa) lends certainty to his knowledge. Science can restore his certainty—but can it restore his name?
The subject of science is and should be impersonal, without prejudice or partiality; the subject of ethics is necessarily particular (someone’s husband or daughter or friend, the citizen of a given country, the creature of a God). Cartesian doubt, in producing the negative subject, produces the problem which has since been clichéd as follows: one cannot reason from an “is” to an “ought.” In fact we reason this way all the time: I am his father, so I ought to care for him. But after Descartes, we say: I may assume the place of his father, I may share his name, but these are contingencies, promises I have made and places I have occupied. Potentially, I am not this man; potentially, I am no one at all.
Descartes recognized the moral consequences of his thought in a telling and ambiguous way. In the Discourse on Method, he acknowledges the ethical risks of doubt and seeks a minimal “provisional morality” until such time as certainty regarding ethical matters may be restored. (Tellingly, there is no analogous “provisional science” to tide us over until the true science makes its appearance; there is no need for it. The scientific subject can live in hope of the gradual but infinite progress he may not live to see; for the ethical subject, demands are always pressing, and judgment approaches with death.)
The four maxims Descartes sets out for himself more or less show how he’s pinned. He decides (1) to obey the customs and believe the religion in which he has happened to be raised; (2) to endeavor in all cases to change himself rather than the world; (3) to act decisively on whatever new beliefs he should acquire through his method, treating them as certain even when they appear doubtful; and finally, (4) to pursue his method, continuing to search for truth. A strange and characteristic list: the quietist conservatism of the first maxim (if one no longer believes in anything, one might as well act as if one did) hard by the dangerous radicalism of the third (the subject decides truth for himself, and to believe a truth is to act on it). Descartes avoids the manifest contradiction here only by indefinitely postponing it in his fourth maxim. Morality cannot wait for science (hence the need for a provisional morality), but neither can it leap ahead of science (scientific doubt having suspended all customary ethics); the lack of certainty becomes a state of sin, and to know becomes a moral obligation.


In the meantime, the empty subject finds embodiment in two related forms: the manic and the depressive. The manic subject of negation recognizes in himself an immense and unsuspected freedom. To be sure, the doctrine of free will has been central to the culture of the West since the dawn of the Christian era—but in Christianity, only two options are offered to the free subject. One may turn toward God, or one may turn away. The believer is indebted, infinitely indebted, to the God who made him and then died for his sins; he can pay the interest on his debt in gratitude, or flee it and lose himself in the world. The negative subject attains a higher degree of freedom than the Christian soul: he possesses the capacity todetermine what sin is for himself. He need not recognize God’s claim. The Christian soul bears the mark of its maker, as gratitude and as sin; on the empty subject nothing can be written.
Obligation can inhere in a body, and it can inhere in a soul. It cannot inhere in a subject. The knowing subject is not a substance, it has no attributes, not a debt and not even a name. It carries nothing from the past to the future—nothing but the nothing that it is.
This possibility shows itself most fully in the figure of the great atheist, a figure who is perhaps no longer possible today: the atheist who does not deny God but refuseshim. Milton was perhaps the first to imagine this. The great atheist does not busy himself with disproving God. He speaks as follows: “You say that your God died thousands of years ago for my sins, and perhaps he did; but what is this to me? I did not ask for this gift and I will not accept it. I will not confess myself guilty, not even to be absolved. You threaten me with Hell for this—to no avail. I am too proud to pray merely for my safety. I do not cower before the threats of earthly tyrants, and I will not bow before eternal threats. Your Almighty must seek his flatterers elsewhere.”
Milton’s Satan explains, characteristically, that what he could not bear in heaven was the obligation to be grateful. He will not see himself in debt. But once one refuses this debt, the existence of God no longer entails obedience. Perhaps there remains an omnipotent being with the power to punish and reward, but his relation to the subject is now merely external; his punishment is no longer justice. We may obey him out of necessity, as we obey the police; but that is all. And is it not more noble to refuse? The power of such defiance haunts Milton’s work and Shakespeare’s; it came to obsess Dostoevsky. In Melville’s hands, in Captain Ahab, it very nearly makes a man a god. 1
And yet all these figures come to bad ends, and with good reason. The empty subject is negative; in the end it can only refuse. One burns one’s bridges, one burns the world, one rages against the sky—and then what? What is there to do? The brave and the fictional (Ahab, Satan) seek their deaths, heap defiance upon defiance and spend themselves scorning all punishment, daring death. They prove their negative force by negating themselves.
Hence the depressive position. The negative subject is omnipotent because he is empty. Commitments fall away or reveal themselves as vile habit, he can very well defy God and face death—but why should he? In recognizing this, the empty subject enters the depressive position—the flames die out and a burnt-over wasteland remains, within as without. The subject’s freedom is freedom for nothing—he can command himself but knows nothing to obey. In the absence of duty, base desires may come to fill the void; one may drown oneself in fleshy pleasures or live prudently, avoiding danger—but in either case one abandons negativity for the animal in which it resides. Ivan Karamazov’s story is characteristic here: without God to obey, he simply follows his greed.
The quintessential expression of this position is Pascal’s wager: nothing is certain, no truth binds, disbelief is dangerous and offers no reward. Why not believe in God? At least, perhaps, it pays.

Short Shrift on Kant

Kant was the first to state this problem in all its starkness, and the first to propose a solution. For the transcendental subject of knowledge, all motivation (custom, superstition, reward, threat) is heteronomy, unfreedom, rule from without; what, then, could rule from within? What law can bind the empty subject and yet leave him free? 2
Kant’s gambit was to ground the moral law precisely in the subject’s emptiness—what he called its “formality.” If the subject is undetermined by the particulars of his existence, his actions must be equally undetermined. Let us take the example of lying: suppose you want to call in sick to work today in order to go to the beach. Well, do you think that everyone should call in sick whenever he feels like it? Of course you can’t want this, because if everyone did this all the time it wouldn’t work anymore—your boss would stop believing everyone, including you. If everyone lied, language would break. That’s not what you want. What you want is to be an exception—to let everyone else tell the truth in order to prop up the system while you game it in order to lie in the sun. But what, here, is being excepted, what is being obeyed? Not the free subject you are, but the warm body you inhabit; not you, but an animal. To make an exception of yourself is to exchange identification with what is highest in you (the formal subject) for enslavement to your lowest desires, to your body and your ego and your name.
Kant tells us that we may will only what can be legislated universally without contradiction. “Universally” here means “as if you were willing for everyone,” which means “as if you were willing for no one in particular,” which means “as if you were willing as no one.” The empty subject is no one, and this is what makes him free. Kant tells us: you are no one, and you’d better start acting like it.
Has Kant succeeded in his aim, producing a moral subject who can sustain negation? Hardly. If the hero of negation described above goes down in flames, dying to demonstrate his freedom, the Kantian subject does just the same, only more slowly. After all, Kant’s moral law is negative in its every commandment: one does one’s duty only insofar as one resists the temptation to make an exception of oneself. Even right action is not moral if we do it simply because we want to: what is that but a secret heteronomy? The Kantian moral subject stamps out his instincts and desires one by one, until he is at last pure of self, absolutely universal. Is this not impossible, to be a no one? Kant acknowledges that a lifetime is not enough to achieve it. And here he introduces his most terrifying moral innovation: he demands personal immortality, not so that the just may be rewarded, but so that we can have forever to become just. The subject will spend an eternity asymptotically approaching the nothing. An eternity of purgatory and no heaven at the end: the categorical imperative is but a cruel refinement of the negative subject’s drive to death.
The Kantian moral individual is a dyad at war with itself: the subject determined merely as capacity to negate pitted against its “body” in the broadest sense (desires, passions, selfhood more broadly) whose sole ethical potential lies in their own destruction. Neither side of this dyad makes sense without the other: the body’s potential is to be destroyed, the subject’s potential is to destroy it. Hence the war can never end.

Hegel: Labor and the Technics of Death

The empty subject finds itself at an impasse; Kant’s morality suspends but does not resolve it. Its power to remain, the infinite independence which made it the ground of the world, turns out to be illusory: it exists as the movement of negation, and for this reason it is parasitic on what it negates. This parasitism can be extended to infinity as in Kant, but it cannot be eliminated. Hence its intimate and ambiguous relationship to death. To sacrifice its life is both the highest expression of its power (it is independent even of its own existence) and the only possible relief from the obligations of this power, the only way to have done with negation. The truth of the empty subject is its corpse.
Hegel’s moral thought begins in the Phenomenology of Spirit’s master-slave dialectic as a confrontation with this aporia. The empty subject meets another of his kind, and this other can only be a threat: a power perhaps not subject to negation. A battle ensues, as it must: each subject seeks to demonstrate its independence both by negating (killing) the other and by staking its own life in the process. One dies, and one wanders off to do it again. The process could repeat itself indefinitely but for a circumstance as dialectically obscure as it is humanly comprehensible: one day, one of them blinks. He decides that he does not want to die, and begs for his life.
This event—the advent of fear—transforms both subjects. The one who begs becomes the slave, the one who lets him live becomes his master. It would be imprecise, however, to say that the master takes the slave’s freedom. The slave has recognized that his negative freedom is not absolute: he is subject to death. Survival is the condition of his freedom. He recognizes himself, suddenly, not as the subject but as the object of negation. Fear fills the empty subject, and fills him in: he is now a body. His body is in the gift of his lord, and it obligates him. For the slave, the master is his own death hypostasized.
What does the master do with his slave? He sets him to work. And what is work? It is the formation of matter. “Work… is desire held in check, fleetingness staved off; in other words, work forms and shapes the thing. The negative relation to the object becomes its form and something permanent, because it is precisely for the worker that the object has independence.” For the master, the negativity of the world increases now that he possesses a slave: objects present themselves purely for his enjoyment. His dinner comes prepared, and he eats it. For the slave, on the other hand, the object is not simply negated; it is now transformed. Matter presents itself not as the potential to be negated but as the potential to become.
Here the irony of the dialectic emerges. Apparently, the slave has lost: he lives in fear and in labor. In fact, though, he is the victor. The master is enmeshed in the cycle of negation, parasitic on the world of objects; the slave has found a way out. In a world saturated by the fear of death, he can experience his body as the positivepotential for survival; in a world of objects to be formed, he can express his negative power in a way which does not destroy itself. The constitutive war of the Kantian subject has been overcome. For Kant the body, the world, and the self are only limitations of the empty subject, the potential to be destroyed, and this destruction can never be complete. For Hegel’s slave the world possesses the potential to express the subject; morality can be self-cultivation, Bildung, instead of self-destruction.
Naturally, the slave isn’t there yet: cooking dinner does not express his essential freedom. The rest of the Phenomenology will be concerned with discovering a product adequate to this task. The product will turn out to be a politics. A free society (one which both cultivates and expresses our freedom) is, for Hegel, man’s highest task; the end of history is the end of this project. The “historical turn” in nineteenth-century philosophy, which begins with Hegel, is better understood as a turn to techne; man understood here not as the world’s knower but as its producer.
Hence Hegel’s most famous and controversial view: history has an end. A history imagined as labor is finished when the work is done. Commentators have long found this view disturbing, often for the wrong reasons: the accusation that Hegel’s dialectic justifies an oppressive Prussian monarchy simply does not hold water, and the observation that history has not in fact ended quite yet is superficial. (So what if Hegel got his dates wrong?) The truly revolting aspect of the “end of history” is the one pointed out by one of the boldest Hegelians of this century, Alexandre Kojève: the end of history means that man is essentially a worker and that his essential work is done. Kojève believed that after the end of history (which he associated with global communism) man would return to the status of animal. There would be nothing left to do. The end of history is the end of man. We have nothing left to do but amuse ourselves.
The end of history is a necessary implication of Hegel’s understanding of techne. Production is not open-ended; the worker produces a thing for use, and is finished. Production is a means to an end. Thankfully, though, the concept of techne contains a productive ambiguity. If it is labor, it is also art. Art does not conform to the rule of necessity, but produces new and ever stranger rules; the creation of art, unlike production, is open-ended. It is this second sense of techne that Nietzsche will exploit.

Nietzsche: Art and the Technics of Cruelty

The second essay of The Genealogy of Morality begins with a profoundly ambiguous exploration of memory. Memory is the way the past stays with us, it is therefore a kind of submission to the past: memory accumulates within us, the world writes its many names on our skin. We start smooth and grow wrinkled. If this is so, forgetting is not what we think it is, it is not an unfortunate but natural erosion of our accumulated experience. It is an active force, and one for which we should be thankful; it is the hand which wipes the slate clean so that something new can be written. What, after all, is more pitiful than the man who cannot forget, who hangs on to every petty insult and meaningless debt, who chews and can’t swallow? The past and the future are at war in us, fighting for our attention, for our love; forgetting makes the present possible.
And yet there is another kind of memory, a memory which is not submission to the past but control of the future: there is the promise, the “memory of the will.” We forget how daring, how nearly insane, it is to make a promise. Marriage, for instance: Think of what may happen in ten years, think of the jobs in other cities, the temptations from new loves, think merely of the possibility (remote now, perhaps, but after all not unlikely) of boredom, of falling out of love. And yet we do it! We say, yes, I will still be here in ten years, and in twenty, because I will stillwant to. To be sure, promises like this may degenerate into habit, and they may be broken. But the very idea of such a promise—the idea of daring to place oneself above fate, to legislate one’s future and expect obedience—does it not suggest a man above contingency, and almost above fate? To be able to promise oneself both requires and grants immense power.
Two memories, then: the memory which inflicts us with an unchosen past, and that which offers us a chosen future. Trauma and fidelity, one might say. The question poses itself as follows: how can the freedom to promise emerge from the capacity to be mastered by one’s past? How can an animal whose original freedom is the freedom to let go acquire the opposite freedom—the power to sustain himself?
Nietzsche’s answer, like Hegel’s, returns us to a primal scene of domination. Memory begins literally as a relation of debt. The creditor must create a memory in the debtor—and how did he do so, originally? The beginning of debt, “like the beginning of everything great on earth, was soaked in blood, thoroughly and for a long time.” The creditor very reasonably presumes that “only that which never ceases to hurt is never forgotten”; he produces memory through terrible punishment. The punishment for non-payment of debt (and as Nietzsche notes, ancient law codes demanded the most gruesome punishments for this) has a double significance: it is not only incentive to the debtor but compensation for the creditor. Because, after all, is it not a pleasure to exercise power and cause pain? If the creditor cannot be paid in cash, he may find his advantage in blood. This claim, the terrifying centerpiece of Nietzsche’s psychology, provokes tremendous resistance in modern readers (as Nietzsche well knows)—but we should be wary of blaming him too much. We have seen above how much cruelty drives Kant’s morality; and after all, is not the idea that suffering can pay off debt at the heart of Christianity? The dark logic, rarely noticed, of the crucifixion, is simply this: the debt we owe to God the Father must be paid in the suffering of God the Son.
Is debt, then, the origin of the ability to make promises? No—or at least not directly. The debtor may keep his promise out of terror, but he cannot promise himself; he is ruled from without, not by his conscience. Memory in its higher form originates elsewhere, in another kind of domination: sudden conquest. Hierarchical society originates when one group of men, the famous “blond beasts” without conscience, conquer another group and enslave them. The slaves retain all their animal instincts—and first of all those of cruelty—but they may no longer give these instincts free reign; the terrifying threat of the blond beasts demands self-control. What happens to the cruel will to power in men suddenly deprived of all power over their world? It does not disappear; instead, it is internalized. Men begin to take pleasure in hurting themselves. The endless, baroque complexities of an instinct whose natural outlet has been forever blocked are the beginning of conscience; it is the will to dominate turned against oneself that permits the promise.
Superficially, Nietzsche’s story is strikingly close to Hegel’s: the ethical subject begins as a slave. The “blond beasts” Nietzsche is often accused of loving are without conscience; like Hegel’s master, they have no future. Set to work, he becomes capable of Bildung. But the analogy is misleading: the work is different. Hegel’s slave, like every artisan, performs work as a means to an end; the Nietzschean subject works for the pleasure of domination. Hegel’s slave abandons mastery, while Nietzsche’s discovers scintillating new forms of control. In Nietzsche’s enslaved man, the will to power, deprived of its natural end, becomes endless. Hegel’s technics of labor leads to the end of history; Nietzsche’s joyful cruelty leads to the overman. 
1 Walter Benjamin says of Greek tragedy that in these plays the Greeks proved that they were better than their gods.
2 I should like to take this opportunity to clear up a common misunderstanding concerning the stakes of modern moral philosophy, and I hope my readers will forgive me if I insult their intelligence. It is sometimes suggested that modern moral philosophy must find a way to “justify” everyday moral action now that we no longer believe in God. After all, if there’s no Hell, why not rape, steal and kill? But of course the man in the street will tell you that there are a thousand reasons not to rape, steal and kill, as for example pity for victims, desire for approbation, habit, a prudent view of the police. A moral philosopher who imagined that the fabric of human society depended on his work would be guilty of laughable self-importance and shocking ignorance of the human heart. Rather, moral philosophy since Kant has concerned itself with the analytical coherence and historical possibility of a certain very exacting concept of freedom. (And freedom, as Nietzsche tells us, is the dream of slaves.)

Monday, July 16, 2012


Article: Root Barrett

Would You Like Salvation With That?


Illustration: Wesley Ryan Clapp

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The Agnostic in the Tenor Section

Growing up, I heard plenty about God. I went to church most Sundays. I went to youth group too. At the summer camps I went to, we didn’t just play in the lake and wander around the woods—we also sang worship songs and learned to be better Christians.
Church-going was part of the texture of my suburban existence. So it seemed totally normal that I took communion and sang in the choir, even though I didn’t really care about God. Going to church was like going to school or extended family gatherings: I just did it.
I remember being told at some point that God should be at the center of my life. I wrestled with this, and concluded that I was more worried about pursuing True Love. If God wasn’t all right with that, I would just have to risk it. (Oh, the besotted recklessness of youth!)
I didn’t feel the pull toward God that I felt toward romance. The thought of orienting myself toward God left me cold. I imagined unhappily forcing myself to be good in a world with all the color drained out of it. And then what if God turned out not to exist? Worshiping God had no joy in it for me. True Love, on the other hand, promised endless delight. Like God, its power seemed to come from realms deep and mysterious. Unlike God, it would provide me happiness, relief from loneliness, and continuous sexual satisfaction. True Love would give me everything that I, an overfed suburbanite, felt that I lacked.
How had God come to be so empty for me? Why did I have no reverence, no awe? As a well-educated youth, I was immersed in the secularism of schools and national political life, a lover of scientific explanations—was that what killed my religious spirit? Or, perhaps, did I have no need for God?

Oh Lord, Won’t You Buy Me a Mercedes-Benz?

The ancient Romans, alongside their more fleshed-out deities, had lists and lists of what classicist Michael Lipka refers to as “functional gods.” These are gods whose whole existence seems to have been a name, a function, and an incantation to use when their assistance was required. Vervactor, the god that breaks up the soil. Reparator, the god that restores. Sterquilinus—I shit you not—the god of manure.
Even their names are derived from what they do. Likely having no temples, holidays, priests or myths to themselves, they are stripped-down, bare-bones gods. They have none of the splendor or might of Iuppiter Optimus Maximus, none of the all-forgiving absolution of Ganesh. But there they are in the indigitamenta, the reference lists of Roman deities used by Roman priests. For all his humility, Sterquilinus is a god, and he was called on as one.

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Contemplating the ancient god of feces, I wonder: what if the baseline thing a god must be to be a god is not mighty or awesome or good, but useful? What if our gods are not the ones we serve, but the ones who serve us?
Perhaps to be a god is to be an entity we turn to, an entity beyond us to whom we reach out for help.
This would explain my indifference to the God I grew up with. I never connected God the Father with anything I needed. The discussions around me were over how the Bible should be interpreted, how a Christian should behave, abortion, gayness, whether Hell exists. I went to a liberal church, so the general opinion on all of those could be summed up as “God is love, you can probably afford to relax.” Outside of church, though, the culture wars were blazing, and these were the issues that were treated as defining Christianity.
Clearly, I was interacting with God a little differently than the author of this ancient Roman cursing tablet:
I invoke you by the great names so that you will bind every limb and every sinew of Victoricus–the charioteer of the Blue team, to whom the earth, mother of every living thing, gave birth–and of his horses which he is about to race; under Secundinus (are) Iuvenis and Advocatus and Bubalus; under Victoricus are Pompeianus and Baianus and Victor and Eximius and also Dominator who belongs to Messala; also (bind) any others who may be yoked with them. Bind their legs, their onrush, their bounding, and their running; blind their eyes so that they cannot see and twist their soul and heart so that they cannot breathe. Just as this rooster has been bound by its feet, hands, and head... Now, now, quickly, quickly.
About this tablet, historian Courtenay Raia says, “...notice how specific this prescription is. There’s no importuning god for some sort of moral insight. [The author is] giving him critical, physical facts about how to be effective in this specific way.”
Christianity repudiates this pragmatic attitude. Raia puts it this way: “Instead of many, many gods who are helping you to get ahead in this world, you have one God that’s telling you to pluck out your eye and cut off your hand if these material things that make you bound to this world get in the way of your really big purpose, which is the next life.”
Screw that! Friends, I blame the satanic influence of MTV: as a teen I wanted women, money and cars. I was wholly immersed in a culture that was as consumerist as it was Christian. Idealizing True Love fit nicely with my general outlook: it was happiness brought from the outside. Orienting my life toward True Love didn’t require me to critique or change myself. It only needed me to add something new, to acquire a soul mate. I was always on the lookout for The One.
The God I’d grown up with, unlike the god called upon in that cursing tablet, was not going to intervene in this earthly business of mine. If Sterquilinus is the god you turn to for manure, the Christian God is the god you turn to for moral and metaphysical needs only: entry into heaven. Salvation.
As a lonely, lustful, smug little white child of suburban professionals, I was maybe too self-absorbed to think I needed to be saved. Maybe I was just too materially comfortable. “Who were the people that were first taken by this religion?” Raia asks of Christianity. “Well, its radical egalitarianism clearly is going to be appealing to all those people that Rome left out....there are way too many slaves in Rome, way too many dispossessed people.” To turn to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost may require one to have given up on earthly delights.
Not that the concerns of this world don’t sneak in. God wins football games for Tim Tebow. He is instructed by millions each Sunday to “give us this day our daily bread,” a prayer that to me—like any prayer in the imperative—felt like arrogance. Who’s supposed to be the servant here, anyway? Doesn’t God call all the shots?
But the Lord’s Prayer can also be read as a necessary extension of God’s reach in a Christianity that has to bring practical functionality in through the back door. It is among the humblest prayers one can imagine—just one day’s worth of food, okay, God?—as unassuming as one can get while still giving God some real-world relevance.
I would later learn to understand the power in that humility. But with the aloofness of one who doesn’t really believe, I could insist on a kind of purity. While others brought their material needs to God in the midst of a struggle to turn toward God in all things and earn salvation, I would dwell on the contradictions of mixing the sacred and the profane. I agreed with the believers that God was far, far beyond us. The difference was that I was willing to leave God there.
But where is there?

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Where is Your God Now?

Part of the distance I felt came from the abstractness and absolute moral perfection of the Christian God. But looking at other gods broadens the picture of what was going on. The Olympians and devas are not always better than humans. They don’t even always have to be more powerful; the sage Gautama Maharishi could cast a curse on Indra, king of the gods, covering him in vaginas. Gods are not all omniscient or good or majestic. They play tricks on each other, they sleep around.
What seems to be essential is that gods are beyond us, on the other side of some kind of boundary. Most ancient Roman temples, for example, had an architectural style that was extremely similar from one temple to another, and profoundly different from any other form of architecture in the city. Their adherence to architectural unity set up a symbolic and physical separation between the godly and the human.
Gods can live on Olympus, in those parts of the world we can’t perceive with the senses, or in the infinite expanse of the universe, but wherever it is, it has to be somehow separate from normal existence. Karen Armstrong notes that “Jews, for example, are forbidden to pronounce the sacred Name of God, and Muslims must not attempt to depict the divine in visual imagery. The discipline is a reminder that the reality that we call ‘God’ exceeds all human expression.”
That beyondness is critical. According to Michael Lipka, the imperial cult destabilized all of Roman religion by blurring the line between humans and gods. As more and more dead emperors got deified, these human gods took up space in other gods’ temples and took over their holidays. By the time Christianity came along, traditional Roman religion was falling apart.
But beyondness raises a problem, the one I brushed up against when I ditched God for True Love. God wasn’t just abstract, but remote from my affairs. It didn’t help to be in a church where we didn’t really talk about Hell, and where God’s love didn’t make itself known in earthly ways. I had the distinct impression that God was not going to meddle in my affairs one way or the other. I didn’t really think I’d be punished or rewarded for my behavior—otherwise I might have spent more Sunday mornings paying attention and fewer thinking about sex.
What was missing was a bridge between me and the beyond. Just giving God the flawed and wonderful personality of a Hermes, I think, wouldn’t have been enough. There were no holes in the boundary between my needs and God’s world.
This is a problem the Catholic saints seem to handle nicely: a whole series of non-gods you can ask for help finding your glasses or giving a speech, whose only technical ability is to turn to God and pass along your request. They’re allowed to be a little more tied to the realm of human affairs. They’re a bit like priests, managing the godly boundary from just over the other side.
Put another way, I think saints help Catholics deal with a contradiction built into godhood. Gods must function. We turn to them because they’ll forgive us or make the grain grow. But it can’t be our need that makes them gods; if it were just that, they’d be powerless. They have to be beyond us. But if they were really beyond us, they wouldn’t be susceptible to our prayers.
Looking at the vast array of gods in the world and the religions around them, I see innumerable ways of setting up boundaries around the ability to meet a need, each boundary with its own special openings to get our wishes across. Perhaps we must go to a temple, or ask a priest, or accept Jesus Christ as our lord and savior. Perhaps the right words must be said. Perhaps all we have to do is pray.
Whatever the specifics, it seems like everywhere we have set up masters who, under special circumstances, will do what we say.

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My Buddhy Buddha

In college, I took up a Buddhist meditation practice. Suddenly, I had something that made a kind of religious sense to me: a path with no need of a god. There was a freedom here. For all my agnosticism (and occasional outright nonbelief), I had still identified with the Christian church. For all my devotion to True Love, I had begun to notice that it wasn’t making me happy. Now I could ditch the ambivalence in both these relationships and focus on developing lovingkindness. This was a down-to-earth path that didn’t ask you to believe in anything, especially not something so unverifiable as God.
...and then I learned about Green Tara. And Kwan Seum Bosal. And Avalokitesvara. Those flavors of Buddhism that don’t have straight-up gods in them do seem to call on quite a few Bodhisattvas. And it’s common across many traditions to begin practice with a statement like this:
I take refuge in the Buddha.
I take refuge in the Dharma.
I take refuge in the Sangha.
We turn for support to the omnipresent Buddha, the teachings of the Buddha, and the community of enlightened beings. Whoops! Armstrong claims that the transcendence the Buddhist seeks is the same thing the monotheists call God. We’re all just looking at the ultimate reality. In shifting to Buddhism, I thought I had risen above the question of God, that I no longer needed to depend on some untestable, faith-requiring Beyond. I thought I had gotten away from being saved. Had I stumbled into the same old God relationship from a different direction?
Concepts of God from certain streams of Greek philosophy and Hinduism also seem to be identified with this ultimate reality: God—sometimes even referred to as an “it”—is not a personality who responds to us, but an absolute to whom we turn for the experience of oneness. Is this the same dynamic, just in response to a different kind of need? It seems like every tradition has some kind of meditation practice tucked away somewhere: a way to empty oneself, drop selfish concerns, and let God in. A prayer I particularly love illustrates this kind of God relationship:
Praised be Thou, Lord, for our prayer fulfilled,
Since this our prayer is its own fulfillment,
Since by addressing Thee together, Lord,
We elevate our will, purify our desire,
And are of one accord.
What more need we ask if that is granted?
What more need we ask, unless that it should last, Eternal God,
All through our days and through our nights?
(From “O God of Truth” by Lanza del Vasto)
Spiritual teacher Eknath Easwaran, in a similar vein, talked of meditation practice as the practice of becoming a good flute for Lord Krishna. Meditation cleared him out so that Krishna could play.
What was my relationship to God now? On the one hand, here I was, doing the exact same thing as the God folks with a slightly different vocabulary. I was caught in setting up yet another beyond to reach for.
On the other hand, something else was going on here. The first koan I was given to work with goes like this:
Coming empty-handed, going empty-handed—that is human.
When you are born, where do you come from?
When you die, where do you go?
Life is like a floating cloud which appears.
Death is like a floating cloud which disappears.
The floating cloud itself originally does not exist.
Life and death, coming and going, are also like that.
But there is one thing which always remains clear.
It is pure and clear, not depending on life and death.
Then what is the one pure and clear thing?
The response which indicated I had penetrated the koan was not “God.” It was not “ultimate reality.” It was not to somehow point beyond, or to point to any concept, any boundary or other structure. It was to raise my palm and SMACK! the floor. That SMACK! didn’t reference a concept, it created a space—a brief moment of being jarred into don’t-know mind, a moment where concepts are dropped. We take refuge in the Buddha, but if you see the Buddha in the road—kill him. Your enlightenment cannot be given from outside. We seek enlightenment—transcendence, ultimate reality—but we are always already enlightened. Enlightenment is right here, right now. We just have to let go of our ideas about it and see it.
For the contemplative God traditions, too, concepts fail—this is the boundary that Armstrong puts God behind. We are here, in our concepts, and God is there, beyond them. But according to Jesus, the Kingdom of God is within you. One might say that God is in us, is everywhere—it’s just that we can’t see God until our concepts drop.
And that’s the new contradiction, the new bit of weirdness at this edge of religious experience for me. Because at the moment the concepts drop, there is no “God.” There is no turning, and there is no beyond. No Buddha. The attainment of enlightenment includes the realization that there’s nothing to attain.
Perhaps the God of ultimate reality is just a convenient guiding idea, not a god at all, but a metaphor meant to poke people in the right direction: Do what you would normally do for a deity, and you’ll eventually catch on.
Or maybe that’s just me trying to explain away exceptions to a definition that I based on the Roman god of shit. I’m sure other exceptions are out there—the worshiped ancestors and spirits of the world seem to meet my definition. Are they all really gods?
Whatever the place of religious practice in relation to gods, I will say this: becoming a practicing Zen Buddhist has cleared away my hesitations about Christianity. A little less locked in concepts, I see prayer and scripture with an eye for the experience being alluded to, for the practice being supported. The Eucharist is no longer a logic problem, the Gospels no longer problematic bits of history. There are a thousand ways to smack the floor; who can sing a hymn with an open heart and not feel a moment of contact with that one pure and clear thing? 

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Monday, July 9, 2012

DEPARTURES preview animatic

(design after parke harrison)