He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Fair Questions: How Do You Perceive Homosexuality?

I was asked recently by a friend to explain how I perceive homosexuality.  This is a far better question than is usually asked.

The more common question is, "How do you feel about homosexuality?"  That's not a very good question to ask me because I don't really feel anything about homosexuality.  I don't know what it's like to be attracted to members of the same sex.  I also don't know what it's like to be attracted to My Little Pony characters.  This is why (in both cases) I don't feel anything about it aside from the natural confusion that results when we just don't understand something on an experiential level and we make a futile attempt to do so.  I don't understand and I probably never will, so I tend not to really think about it much.

When one of my friends informed me that he was attracted to members of the same sex, I really didn't feel anything about that aside from mild surprise that it was the case because the evidence hadn't pointed that way so far as I could tell.  I had no visceral reaction that would lead me to want to keep my distance from him or otherwise damage our friendship.  Perhaps this is because I reject the contemporary cultural training that tells us so much of our worth is bound up in our sex lives and sexual proclivities.

The fact that someone is attracted to members of the same sex is about as interesting to me as the fact that someone is attracted to members of the opposite sex; I am aware that people have these proclivities and that I have sexual proclivities as well.  I don't define my life based on my sexual desires, and I also don't define the lives of others based on their sexual desires.  My choices are what define my life; my desires do not define my life.  I tend to think that is true of other people as well, which is why I balk at the contemporary tendency to define everyone that way.

How Do I Perceive Homosexuality?

As you have probably already gathered, I perceive homosexuality as a part of a broad spectrum of sexual proclivities.  Some people are attracted to men, some to women, and others to both men and women.  Some people are attracted to teens, children, middle-aged folks, or elderly folks.  Some people are attracted to people with more melanin in their skin, less melanin in their skin, dark eyes, light eyes, and various hair colors.  Some people are attracted to animals, cartoon characters, superheros, prison inmates, psychotic dictators, etc.  I can't catalogue all the different sexual proclivities there are, but hopefully you get the idea by now.

I see sexuality in general as a complicated result of such interacting factors as genetics, epigenetics, hormonal changes, cultural training, family behavior patterns, and chosen habits.  I don't think that it's clear at all that homosexuality (or any other sexual proclivity) is purely genetic or purely a choice.  This tends to put me at odds with some people who are strongly in favor of same-sex marriage and believe that homosexuality is genetic.  This also tends to put me at odds with some people who are strongly against same-sex marriage and believe that homosexuality is a choice.

I'm accustomed to taking positions that are unpopular with people on both sides of an issue.  Which is in part because I take the view that Christians should not allow same-sex marriages in their Churches and I also take the view that the state should allow secular same-sex marriages (and other kinds of civil partnerships) as a means of spreading the availability of health insurance and providing financial and social stability.

But all of this doesn't really answer the question most people really want to know, and it says a lot of about us and our narcissism as a society that this is the most important question to us: "Do you think it is morally good when two men or two women have sex with each other?"

To be very clear, I don't think homosexual sex acts are morally good.  Incidentally, I also don't think that very many heterosexual sex acts are morally good either (either before marriage or after marriage).  In both the case of heterosexual sex acts and homosexual sex acts, our hedonistic society has reduced sex to a recreational act and a nice bonding experience that's a lot like how we see playing tennis or some other sport.

My view of sex as something sacred and something so profoundly intimate that it should only be shared between two people who are open to new life and are not doing it primarily for their own pleasure is a perspective that will continue to amaze and confuse both my friends who have heterosexual proclivities and my friends who have homosexual proclivities so long as Cyrenaic hedonism continues to be the default moral stance in our culture.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

In Denial: Nietzsche's Asceticism

I really enjoy reading Nietzsche's works, and I find him to be an extremely astute observer of humanity in many areas.  In the Genealogy of Morals, he sets his often delightfully polemical style up against asceticism in general and Christian asceticism in particular, though he has many withering criticisms of others as well.

I would like to address some of his criticisms of asceticism from the "Third Essay" in the Genealogy of Morals, both to affirm some valid insights and to offer a series of counterpoints to various other insights.

The fundamental problem with the ascetic ideal as Nietzsche diagnoses it is that it has lead to a deeply unhealthy nihilism, a profound desire for nothingness, oblivion, a futile emptying of ourselves.

"We can no longer conceal from ourselves what is expressed by all that willing which has taken its direction from the ascetic ideal: this hatred of the human, and even more of the animal, and more still of the material, this horror of the senses, of reason itself, this fear of happiness and beauty, this longing to get away from all appearance, change, becoming, death, wishing, from longing itself--all this means--let us dare to grasp it--a will to nothingness, an aversion to life, a rebellion against the most fundamental presuppositions of life; but it is and remains a will! . . . And to repeat in conclusion what I said at the beginning: man would rather will nothingness than not will."

I tend to agree with Nietzsche's conclusion that a man would rather will nothingness than refrain from willing.   I tend to disagree with his belief that asceticism leads to an aversion to life.  In my own life, ascetical practices are precisely what allowed me to embrace life fully by tearing down the addictions that kept me wrapped up in a prison of my own whims, unable to even see the beautiful life around me.

Specifically, I find his association of the hatred of the human and material with Christian asceticism to be quite interesting.  It's certainly true that there have been Christians who held views of the material world as evil, but they were declared heretics by the Catholic Church (the largest Christian church), both the Gnostics and other groups throughout Christian history such as Arius and his followers.  It's certainly difficult to pin a hatred of the human and material on Christianity as a whole in light of the historical facts.

But Nietzsche doesn't stop with Christianity; he references the Buddha as well.  And I think the criticism of asceticism as an aversion to life is a bit stronger with Buddhism, given that the explicit goal of the Buddha's teaching was to help people leave the cycle of death and rebirth we know as life, thereby ending suffering.  That said, the Buddha chose to come back to the world and teach others, a selfless embrace of life.  Also, the Buddha had studied under some of the most serious ascetics of his day and ended up engaging in some extreme self-denial in his quest for enlightenment.  In the Pali canon we see that after his moment of enlightenment, he founded his practice as the Middle Way, an approach that rejected the extreme and unhealthy self-denial recommended by his former teachers in favor of a more balanced and life-affirming asceticism.  While Buddhist praxis may be a search for the end of life, it is also a search for a selfless embrace of life while we are living.

Nietzsche also seems to deeply misunderstand Buddhism as a sort of nihilistic atheism, as we can see below.

"Unconditional honest atheism (and its is the only air we breathe, we more spiritual men of this age!) is therefore not the antithesis of that ideal, as it appears to be; it is rather only one of the latest phases of its evolution, one of its terminal forms and inner consequences--it is the awe-inspiring catastrophe of two thousand years of training in truthfulness that finally forbids itself the lie involved in belief in God. (The same evolutionary course in India, completely independent of ours, should prove something: the same ideal leads to the same conclusion; the decisive point is reached five centuries before the beginning of the European calendar, with Buddha; more exactly, with the Sankhya philosophy, subsequently popularized by Buddha and made into a religion.)"

The association of Buddhism with atheism is a common mistake, and Nietzsche is not an exception to this trend as he is an exception to so many others.  While there was an atheistic and materialistic school of philosophy in India (the Carvaka school), the Buddhists were not it, and we can't really look to a common end for European and Indian asceticism in atheism because it just isn't there.

Should we look at the source of asceticism instead?  The source of asceticism as Nietzsche described it was our sense of the meaninglessness of our existence in general and in particular the meaninglessness of our suffering.

'Apart from the ascetic ideal, man, the human animal, had no meaning so far.  His existence on earth contained no goal; "why man at all?" -- was a question without an answer; the will for man and earth was lacking; behind every great human destiny there sounded as a refrain a yet greater "in vain!" This is precisely what the ascetic ideal means: that something was lacking, that man was surrounded by a fearful void--he did not know how to justify, to account for, to affirm himself; he suffered from the problem of his meaning.  He also suffered otherwise, he was in the main a sickly animal: but his problem was not suffering itself, but that there was no answer to the crying question, "why do I suffer?"

This is an eloquent and moving explication of Nietzsche's view on what asceticism was meant to accomplish in the human psyche.  Though I don't agree with him that asceticism is an attempt to resolve the problem of suffering by providing a meaning for it (theodicy is often used for that purpose), I do think that he is correct that human beings desperately want their suffering to mean something, for it to be purposeful.

To the extent that ascetical practices can help us build virtue, we might recognize that it is helping us to live more virtuous lives and find a meaning in our sufferings of sorts.  But that meaning isn't usually enough for a human being; we so often long for a grander and more cosmic purpose with which to console ourselves, and asceticism doesn't provide that.  Self-discipline and self-control as a route to the truest sort of human freedom are not very appealing as a purpose around which to build a life, particularly compared to being a child of God or attaining eternal life.

"In it, suffering was interpreted; the tremendous void seemed to have been filled; the door was closed to any kind of suicidal nihilism.  This interpretation--there is no doubt of it--brought fresh suffering with it, deeper, more inward, more poisonous, more life-destructive suffering: it placed all suffering under the perspective of guilt.

But all this notwithstanding-- man was saved thereby; he possessed a meaning, he was henceforth no longer like a leaf in the wind, a plaything of nonsense--the 'sense-less'--he could now will something; no matter at first to what end, why, with what he willed: the will itself was saved."
I agree with Nietzsche that the will itself is what is saved through ascetical practices.  The ascetic gradually rescues the will from the clutches of transient desires and whims, from that most terrible slavery of a constant submission to the ego.

The guilt to which he refers is not a product of asceticism; it is a product of a relationship, either with oneself or with others, which is more successful and healthy when asceticism moves the ego out of the way so that the relationship can flower.  Guilt is simply a recognition that one has failed to value the relationship in the way that one ought to do so.

The notion of guilt as a source of life-destructive suffering only makes sense if one has all the maturity of a petulant child, the mewling pride of one who believes that their whims always have priority over the needs of others and relationships with others.  This notion is a morality-destroying notion in human social groups.

"As the will to truth thus gains self-consciousness--there can be no doubt of that--morality will gradually perish now: this is the great spectacle in a hundred acts reserved for the next two centuries in Europe--the most terrible, most questionable, and perhaps also the most hopeful of spectacles."

This is of course precisely what Nietzsche predicts, the destruction of morality itself.  Morality in general and altruistic behavior in particular are what have allowed human social groups to survive and thrive.  While he asserts that the ascetic has an aversion to life, the truth of the matter is that Nietzsche is quite averse to the very ideal which allows us to live and thrive in harmony with one another.  The end of the ascetic ideal would not liberate us from life-denying nihilism; it will "liberate" us from the very thing which made our survival possible.

Nietzsche is in serious denial about what makes human life beautiful and life worth living.  Ironically in light of his accusations against the ascetic, he is the one in rebellion against the fundamental presuppositions of life.

Note:  The above image is part of the cover of my copy of Nietzsche's collected works.  See my Sources page for more information about which translation I used.

Fair Questions: How Could the Old Testament be the Word of God?

Recently on one of the blogs I follow, the author asked a very serious question related to how Christians view the Old Testament (or the Tanakh for Jews) as part of the Word of God.  He points out that the consensus of historians and theologians is that they don't know who wrote the Old Testament.  This would seem to be a problem for the view that the Old Testament is the Word of God.  After all, if we have no evidence that it was written by a deity (how would one even go about demonstrating that proposition?) and don't have enough evidence to assign a human author or transcriber to it, how could we call it the Word of God?

It seems to me that part of the difficulty here is a gap between how people in contemporary post-industrial societies communicate accounts of events and how people in the ancient world communicated accounts of events.  Because people in the ancient world did not have easy access to writing utensils and often weren't taught to read or write, much of what was communicated was conveyed via oral tradition.  And while oral tradition is certainly not a perfect mode of communication, our ancestors were pretty good at it because it's what they had to use...and they used it a lot.  Far more than we do today.  We are much less skilled on average at remembering the content of conversations these days because we simply don't need to bother being very skilled at it given the ease of communication with contemporary methods.

The Old Testament (or the Tanakh in Judaism) is a collection of various kinds of oral traditions that were written down eventually.  So it can't be that God wrote it in the way that I might write my autobiography, because it wasn't really written and when it was recorded, it was recorded by those who received the oral traditions.  But it might be the word of God in the sense that it described the encounters of the Jewish people with God as they understood them, and in much the same way as my biographer might rightly call my biography the word of me. 

While I didn't write the biography, the content of the book came from me and specifically from my stories, from my behaviors, from my relationships with others.  That biography wouldn't be perfectly accurate, of course.  The biographer would not know everything and might not have time to tell everything.  The biographer might misunderstand some things.  The biographer might have to rely on the faulty memories of others.  But despite its imperfections, I would be willing to grant that the biography was an authentic picture of what I had communicated to the world, that it was the word of me because I had inspired it.  In the same way, I would be willing to grant that the recorded oral tradition of the Jews was inspired by God and is indeed the Word of God.

Ultimately, I don't think that we can claim that God put ink to scrolls and actually wrote the Old Testament.  I don't think that we can claim that the oral traditions that were the source material for the Old Testament were perfectly accurate as a reflection of who God is.  That said, those oral traditions are probably much more reliable than our modern telephone game would be.  And we would do well to remember that when we evaluate texts which are records of oral tradition.