Monday, September 27, 2010

Lost in Translation...or at least partly obscured.

Picking through the religion section at the local library, not with any real agenda, I stumbled onto a copy of St. Augustine's, Confessions. Not far from it was Sam Harris', Letter to a Christian Nation. Having read neither of them, I decided to chance taking them home and seeing if they sparked anything.

It didn't bode well when I fell asleep just a few pages into Confessions. I had a long run earlier that morning, so I chalked it up to physical exhaustion and set myself to restart my attempt the next day....at which point I fell asleep again.

St. Augustine, you're not holding my attention very well. Maybe because he drones on and on in the first several pages:
And how shall I call upon my God--my God and my Lord? For when I call on him I ask him to come into me. And what place is there in me into which my God can come? How could God, the God who made both heaven and earth, come into me? Is there anything in me, O Lord my God, that can contain thee? Do even the heaven and the earth, which thou hast made, and in which thou didst make me, contain thee? Is it possible that, since without thee nothing would be which does exist, thou didst make it so that whatever exists has some capacity to receive thee? Why, then, do I ask thee to come into me, since I also am and could not be if thou wert not in me? For I am not, after all, in hell--and yet thou art there too, for “if I go down into hell, thou art there.”1111 Ps. 139:8. Therefore I would not exist--I would simply not be at all--unless I exist in thee, from whom and by whom and in whom all things are. Even so, Lord; even so. Where do I call thee to, when I am already in thee? Or from whence wouldst thou come into me? Where, beyond heaven and earth, could I go that there my God might come to me--he who hath said, “I fill heaven and earth”
Um....ok.... Augustine...I think that you're over-thinking this. Actually, I think what made the text less accessible for me wasn't Augustine's droning on, but the antiquated, stilted English translation I had picked up:

"which thou hast made"

"which thou didst make me"

"whence wouldst thy come to me"

Curious as to the date of the English translation, I flipped to the copyright page and found a date of 1905, not incredibly recent, but seemingly too close to the 21st century that all those Thees, Thous, and Arts come across as artificial. I'm wondering if a love for the KJV inspired this particular translation.

Normally if I am reading something from a period, like Shakespeare, or Chaucer, any number of English greats, I can wade through the strangeness of the language they use to get at what they are saying. For whatever reason, I just can't do it with this translation of Augustine, maybe because I know that there is no reason for it to be translated into this type of flowery, formal English. In the case of Shakespeare we preserve the hard-to-understand language because we are not only trying to absorb his ideas, but are trying to hear the poetry and cadence of his writing. With a translation from a foreign language, we are mostly trying to have access to the ideas in the text.

So, until I find a modern english version of the text...I'm putting reading St. Augustine off for another day.

One funny thing. I rolled my eyes when Augustine wrote this:
I remember this, and I afterwards observed how I first learned to speak, for my elders did not teach me words in any set method, as they did letters afterwards; but myself, when I was unable to say all I wished and to whomsoever I desired, by means of the whimperings and broken utterances and various motions of my limbs, which I used to enforce my wishes, repeated the sounds in my memory by the mind, O my God, which Thou gavest me. When they called anything by name, and moved the body towards it while they spoke, I saw and gathered that the thing they wished to point out was called by the name they then uttered; and that they did mean this was made plain by the motion of the body, even by the natural language
Most children learn to speak at about two years old and are usually quite fluent by the age of three. Most children also don't have accessible memories until they are about three or four, long past the time that they would be whimpering and motioning in order to learn words to communicate.

Verily I say unto thee, "Methinks thou dost exaggerate Augustine!"

As far as Sam Harris' book, a few pages in I had to yawn and put it aside. Nothing new or earth-shattering within it. I had picked out so many fallacies about what "must be" and had to ignore so many potshots at anything that isn't either militant atheism or rock-hard Christian fundamentalism, that I decided it wasn't worth my time.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Experiencing God and Emotional Identification

I've spent hours each day for the last few years rethinking what I believe about God and why. I usually end up back at my conversion experience at the age of almost 17, a point at which I experienced a deep shift in my thinking and felt the beginnings of a "spiritual" life.
Something I have always known about my conversion experience was that it wasn't based on fear of hell, or deep remorse for my sins, or even belief in the historical resurrection of Jesus and the miracles in the Bible. In the back of my mind I knew about these things. I knew what it meant to feel guilty and sinful. I knew the Bible stories that I had read and learned in my childhood church attendance. I imagined there was such a thing as heaven or hell, though I didn't spend much time thinking about it.

No. None of those concepts mattered that much to me. They didn't speak to me or motivate my mind and heart in any discernible way.

What led me to become a Christian was a deep emotional identification with Christ and a love that sacrificed itself for people who didn't even care about it, or have enough of it themselves to appreciate its depth.

At the time, I had made a choice to move with my mother and younger brothers to Florida for the last two years of high school. Just before that move, my mother and I had a terrible, physical fight that had been indirectly instigated by her abusive boyfriend. I had bruises all over my face and arms and was completely distraught. I ran away and stayed with my best friend's family for a week or two until my mother apologized and asked me to come back home.

I did eventually go back home and that physical incident turned out to be an isolated one. It never happened again, even though my mother still had quite a temper.

However, the abusive boyfriend was still in the picture. You see my youngest brother, who was about 2 years old at the time, was the son of the abusive boyfriend. Although he and my mother would periodically break up violently and then reconcile in the typical, cyclical way that dysfunctional abusive relationships do, he would never really be out of the picture because my younger brother tied he and my mother together.

Being a teenager living in that kind of chaos was maddening. It is frustrating to be a child with more sense than the adults in your family. The helplessness of being a minor in a household in which you have no control over what's happening, and no ability to stop the bad choices that are being made is torture. All you can do is lock yourself up in your room and count the days until you turn 18 and graduate from high school so that you can shake the dust off your feet and be free to live a sane life.

The problem was that I didn't want to go to Florida, because the abusive boyfriend was going to be going also and living with us.

I didn't want to go. I knew what would happen in Florida, more of the same in a different location. Yet, I was in a quandary. I had to make a choice. You see, even though my parents divorced when I was two, I always knew that if things got really bad I could ask to move in with my father. The only obstacle preventing me from leaving was the prospect of abandoning my two younger to the chaos that was to come.

I had to choose between a way of escape for myself, or forcing myself to head into a life that I knew would be miserable.

Whenever events in our household went downhill, I was the one to pull it together. If the boyfriend got violent, I called the police...frequently. When he got nasty, I intervened. I truly believed that my presence kept things from being worse because I wasn't afraid of my mother's boyfriend and he knew it. He also knew that, unlike my mother, who would never have the will to press and pursue charges against him, that I would relish the opportunity to see him behind bars if he ever laid a finger on me or on one of my brothers.

I was the boundary around my family that he couldn't cross, even at the young ages of 14, 15, and 16.

During this time I was severely hurt and angry. I blamed my mother for her weakness and for subjecting us to her chaos. Each time she welcomed back the boyfriend I was crushed. She was choosing him over us. She was choosing a few moments of "love" over the safety and well-being of her children.

So...when the time came for this move to Florida, I didn't know what to do. I desperately wanted to escape but I felt a deep obligation to protect my brothers with my presence.

I eventually chose to go to Florida, giving up my way of escape for my mother and family even though the protection I offered was never recognized or understood by my mother. I was performing a thankless service.

A few months after making that decision, I was "witnessed" to by my older brother and his pastor. What broke me and instantly sliced through my heart was one question that the pastor posed to me:

"Do you know that Jesus suffered for you, because he loves you?"

Which he followed up with,"Do you know what it means to sacrifice yourself for people you love, even if they don;t realize it?"

Why, yes! I knew exactly what that was like. I burst into tears, not only because I suddenly believed, but because I identified myself emotionally with all that Jesus represented. I began to follow him because he was like me in some essential way and I was like him in some essential way.

That is what it means to experience God. We experience a moment in which we recognize Him in us and us in Him.

All of our worship, all of our singing, all of our praying...these are all ways that we emotionally identify ourselves with God and experience Him.

Realizing this has made me worry much less about whether I have a unified explanation for my beliefs, or sometimes lack of beliefs.

Apocalyptic Pessimists

The news this morning was full of the possibility of the double-dip recession and even used the word "depression" in the context of continued high unemployment rates and the ravaged housing market.

Listening to that stuff always makes my insides curdle. Having just started back at work for a non-profit that has barely made its funding this year, and dealing with a house, my deceased father's, on the East coast that has plummeted in value but currently has a renter, and having a husband who hasn't had a raise in almost three years despite the fact that every year our health benefits increase in cost by about 10%....well...it starts to ratchet up my anxiety.

Almost every negative, economical impact from the last several years has touched our family in some way. When you see the effects in your own neighborhood and family, it seems as if the bad news is perching just outside the door waiting to pounce on you when you're not expecting it.

I had to take a moment today and simply breathe, reminding myself that we have a home to live in, jobs to work at and we are paying our bills on time. The country might go to hell in a handbasket...but it isn't happening today. Rather than worry about what might happen, we need to put aside our fears for the future and deal with what we have today.

As I was thinking about all of this, I wondered where the calm people were in the United States. Where are our inspirational leaders who give us hope instead of escalating our anxiety and fanning the flames of our fears?

I'm not saying that figureheads merely reciting platitudes to soothe the country's unrest are what we need. I am saying that we need people who can motivate our citizenry to take action without being overwhelmed by the sense of doom booming from every newscast.

Recently DH has picked a bunch of post-apocalyptic movies for our viewing pleasure. They usually have the same themes; civilization breaks down because of war or environmental disaster, people descend into cannibalism or thuggery, humanity is doomed to non-existence etc.

After the last movie we watched like this, I wondered whether humanity would really devolve to such levels. It makes a good, scary story....but is it true?

Humans are social animals capable of empathy and forming groups and alliances for the betterment and the survival of the community. When a disaster hits an area, people usually rise to meet the challenge. It isn't always pretty and there may be a lot of suffering because of the disaster, but people tend to band together.

On the other hand, there are places in the world that are like a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Will Darfur ever be pleasant community to live in? Will there ever be peace and justice for everyone in Sudan?

What do you think? Is humanity doomed to destruction at its own hands? Or, is it our very humanity that helps us to adjust and overcome disaster?


Saturday, September 11, 2010

Nine years ago I was a pregnant stay-at home mother with a 15 month old toddler. I had actually just gotten back from a trip to Baltimore with DH a day or two before. I had been talking to him on the phone that morning. I remember that I was irritated with him about something, nothing serious, just normal marital irritation over a trifle that I can't even remember.

After our phone call, I turned on the Today show and was playing on the floor with The Rationalist when everything began to take place on 9/11.

I wish I could say that I was heartbroken. I was shocked and called DH right away to let him know what was going on, but I wasn't heartbroken.

My numbness was caused by a lack of knowledge. When I saw the towers tumbling down that morning, I didn't realize that thousands of people were in and around them. I had no sense for how immense they were, what people did there everyday, or that there was great difficulty in evacuating people after the planes hit.

I simply didn't understand the immensity of what had happened, or the scope of how many people had perished in the space of an hour. It took me quite a while to take it all in, to realize that the far-away visuals I saw couldn't communicate what had happened to all those people.

Retriever linked to a 9/11 post that has some disturbing photos showing what I could never see in my living room in Florida...and it provides that missing focus of grief that I never fully felt that morning because all I could see was steel and smoke and memorials.

I never saw the people. I could never comprehend what they went through.

It's important to see them and to remember.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Geek Romance

DH and I qualify as geeks and when he sent this to me via e-mail, I smiled.

Who needs schmaltzy love ballads!?

Koran Burning

First, a disclaimer...Terry Jones and his church are acting like complete idiots. Their Burn-A-Koran-Day is childish and misguided. The mission of a church is to lead people into relationship with God, not to deliver "messages" to perceived political and spiritual enemies.

Ok...just so we all understand....Burn A Koran Day=Stupidity.

Now, with the understanding that this entire undertaking is merely an excuse for an agenda-driven pastor to get more attention than he ever dreamed of, let me explain why we are reacting to this in the wrong way.

CNN quoted President Obama on the subject:

"You could have serious violence in places like Pakistan or Afghanistan" as a result of the proposal by the Gainesville, Florida-based Dove World Outreach Center, Obama said on ABC's "Good Morning America." "This could increase the recruitment of individuals who'd be willing to blow themselves up in American cities, or European cities."
He echoes General Petraeus' concerns about reprisals towards American soldiers.

These are very real concerns for our troops. However, as much as Jones' actions are repugnant, we must remember that he is only burning books. Those books might be revered by millions of people, but we must temper our reactions to reflect the silliness of Jones' actions.

The best response to Jones would be ignoring him into oblivion, because ultimately that is all that Jones' tactics deserve.

He is a bully trying to tease and insult the kid he doesn't like...and that's all that he is and all that he is doing.

The problem is that most grown, adult people, even those in leadership, have not learned the simple art of ignoring an insult.

Will there be violence if Jones goes forward with his grand idea?

I don't know. If there is, then Jones will get what he wants most of all; a weird, self-fulfilling assurance that Islam is violent.

Our freedom of speech permits Jones to do what he wants to in this regard. It also does one more important thing. It gives our society permission to ignore inflammatory speech and actions. In places where no such freedom exists, unhinged people and movements must be kept under control by force. This type of speech is illegal and requires citizens to report and enforce the laws against blasphemy, insurrection, revolution, or insult to the powers that be.

There is such a thing as caring too much. Societies which are highly invested in preserving honor and conforming everyone to strict social and political norms can become so outraged at an offense that they lose their ability to evaluate a situation in a reasonable way.

When everything matters, nothing can be ignored, nothing can go unaddressed, no sin can go unpunished, and the word compromise ceases to exist.

Pakistan and Afghanistan, or, more accurately, people in those countries, could easily fit the description of the overly invested society I portrayed.

Yet...so can we. Think NYC and a certain mosque near ground zero.

It is as important to let Jones go forward with his Koran Burning as it is to let private American citizens to purchase property and build whatever they are legally permitted to build, regardless of whether or not other people think their actions are offensive or insulting.

One of the great, unwritten rights in our country is the right to be offended and, while offended, not be compelled into responding violently or illegally.

It's a case in which apathy has a positive reward. Not having to care about crazy people and their ranting, not having to protect our honor from perceived insult, not having to make sure that everyone is put in their "place", not having to grant seriousness to rhetoric.....these are all granted to us by freedom of speech and an almost patriotic apathy.

Who said being apathetic is a character flaw?

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

The Heroes In Our Own Stories

I was listening to the new partner that I'm working with this year when I realized how many stories she tells about herself. She's a young, twenty-something college graduate who is working part-time while studying for her M-CAT. She was telling story after story about herself and her accomplishments and her self-assured attitude....not in an overly obnoxious way, though I may feel differently once an entire year of listening to her stories has gone by.

It made me remember that the first partner I had in this job was the same way. She would frequently go on about her police background and work for Homeland Security and any other thing that seemed noteworthy. Whether all of her stories were true, I could never really tell. I never put it past people to have a self-aggrandized view of themselves.

I wondered why people tend do this. Is it for others, or for themselves? Are they reassuring the people around them that they are competent, smart adults, or are they reassuring themselves that they are not completely ignorant failures?

I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!

I asked myself if I was guilty of this particular habit...and I think that I am, albeit in a slightly different way. I moderate my self-aggrandizement with a tad of self-effacement. Throwing a little bit of humility in the mix gives me more freedom to wax eloquent about my many virtues!

Self-aggrandizement. Now, with more subtlety!

Maybe it's a natural urge to make ourselves the heroes in our own stories. The alternative is that we make ourselves the villain in our stories.

Then again, maybe that's why we have to be heroes in our boring, ordinary lives...to fight off the sneaking suspicion that we sometimes are villains.

Friday, September 03, 2010

I've been crazy busy for the last 2 weeks.

I'm back at work and driving all over creation while also managing anything and everything in the house while DH continues working on his Master's degree and while I continue trying to fit in training for the 5k I'm doing in October and also making sure that all homework is done, checked and reinstalled in folders in backpacks for the next morning....well...it's kept me occupied!

I'm hoping to blog more in the next few weeks once things settle into more of a routine.