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This used to be a blog dedicated to one of my interests, dream interpretation. I have decided to expand it to include thoughts about pretty much Everything.

Monday, December 30, 2013

"Name" has been published

I forgot to announce this on my blog, even though it's quite a big deal for me--I was asked to write a song to be published on a publicly viewed website!  I'm not sure how big the audience was... I didn't get any new "Likes" or donations or followers since the time it was published (maybe because it's not a good song!!)  But still, I've been published!  Woot!

http://imaginingjesus.wordpress.com/2013/12/19/name-an-advent-song/

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Nutcracker--Invitation to Insanity?

I recently heard a broadcast on "All Things Considered" about a polymath in the Romantic era, E.T.A. Hoffman. He was the writer of the original tale, "The Nutcracker," which was, of course, made famous by Tchaikovsky and is now a venerable Christmas tradition.


Nutcracker1892
 By anonymous Russian 19th century photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Hoffman was a staunch proponent of German Romanticism, and the original Nutcracker story was much wilder, scarier, and more rugged than the prettified version we see today.  It was re-written by Alexandre Dumas to be lighter and happier; later Dumas' version was taken up by the Russian ballet company that commissioned Tchaikovsky to write the music.  In the original tale, the young child (originally "Marie," a name with serious religious connotations as well as a very common name, not "Klara," which means "light," as Dumas changed it to) actually leaves this world at the end of the story, and goes to live permanently in the magical world that has come to life before her eyes.  All the other stories have the adventures of the Nutcracker, mice, etc., as being mere daydreams of a darling child, after which she wakes up and joins the delightful Christmas party her family is throwing. But the original story suggests a complete, irreversible giving over of herself to the world of... the world of what? Is is imagination, or is it insanity? (That's the question I ask, anyway.)

This story has made me ponder over the past few days.  During Hoffman's time, the cultural struggle was perceived to be Enlightenment vs. Romanticism, rationality vs. imagination.  It was a war over how to define Beauty.  And it's an important war, because how we define Beauty is largely how we define ourselves.  Is Beauty a set of rules, perfect form, and crisp lines?  Or is it fantastical trains of thought, natural form, and blurry lines?  (I had a professor once tell me that Beauty is a set of scientific formulae, and he had the book that proved it...I can't remember the book, but I was skeptical.)  Is Beauty about the mind controlling nature and shaping it to our will, or is it about letting nature control us?  Is there even a distinction between the two when all is said and done?  (And is it a question of control at all?)

Hoffman, obviously, promoted the Romantic view.  He probably had good reasons to do so. He was living in a specific time, and the cultural landscape he saw was such that he felt prompted to express an artistic ideal that would influence culture away from its imbalance.  I sympathize with him, but I am actually concerned about his ideas.  This battle is one that rages in my psyche, today in the 21st century, even though it was fought long ago in the 19th.

I am terribly afraid of irrationality.

I enjoy dipping my toes into the waters of imagination, and I long to swim, but these waters lead all too easily to the darkness of insanity. I feel its pull whenever I start to go there.  I get lost easily (Pisces Moon) in stories, movies, music, art.  That's why I actually tend to avoid them unless I have a lot of energy, or someone to help, because coming back to reality is difficult for me.  Imagination is bliss, with a bite.

Material grounding and mental rationality save me from that bite.

Most people wouldn't ask this question, as it seems obvious, but I am open and curious enough to ask myself--"What's wrong with going insane?" No really. If it's bliss and pure imagination, why would I want to miss out on that? After some thinking, the thing that feels wrong about it is the undoing of Self, for when I can no longer distinguish between where I stop and the other figures begin, is when there is no more "I" at all.  It's the fear of death, and every creature is programmed to survive.  Well, I actually don't particularly care much anymore about living, (and I mean that in a matter-of-fact way, not a suicidal or depressed way--I'm not afraid of dying, and I have accepted the futility of existence). But I do care about suffering, and I know that without me others will suffer, and that's reason enough to preserve the "I" as long as possible.

By the way, my song "Dancing in Neptune" is partially a joyous celebration of the experience of losing the "I," (it's also a song about "leadership"), but the truth is, it's not a song whose message I really like.  I hate it, actually, but the muses don't always give me a lot of choice in what to write.

I tend to avoid fantasy (I use the word broadly to include anything of imagination, not only to a specific genre of literature), not because I don't understand it, but because I understand it too well. I have strong contempt for people who aren't rational, and you know what they say about strong reactions having roots in one's Shadow.  In my case, it's true.  My strong contempt for irrational people comes from an important figure my Shadow: Imagination.

Imagination wants to make me feel so deeply that I lose my grasp on what little self-determination I actually have; Imagination wants to dissolve my boundaries and bring me into the vast ocean of the universe's oblivion.  Which is all well and good, except the fact that Reality exists, it sucks, and at least two people are depending on me to help it suck a little less. Being undone now would make Reality worse for these two people, and I can't let that happen.  Damn you, Imagination.

This sobering, deep understanding of what the Romantics are calling for makes me wonder if any of them actually fully understood what they were really asking their audience to do. In Consensus Reality, Hoffman lived a successful career  as a lawyer and judge.  Apparently, he didn't have a hard time coming back from the depths, even though he urged his audience not to do so. Maybe his work was an attempt to bring balance to an unbalanced culture, but for me, I'm afraid of being unbalanced the opposite direction.

So give me Dumas' version of "The Nutcracker," where happy and (En)light(enment) "Klara" has a nice little daydream, and then wakes up and has a lovely Christmas with her kind, normal, rational family.  There is plenty there, with masterful writing and lovely imagery, to find beautiful.  I can't afford the trip to Hoffman's real intentions.  (But I'm sure these aren't my last words on the topic, either...)

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Comments on the debate "New Religion vs. New Atheism"

Recently Peter Rollins and Lawrence Krauss debated on the topic "New Religion vs. New Atheism."  Actually, calling it a "debate" was a bit of a stretch.  It was more a conversation, a conversation that ended up getting rather confused as it went along, but worth hearing nonetheless.  And since this is a topic I'm really interested in, I wanted to add my opinion on how it went. First, for those who didn't see/hear it, here's the debate:




The first thing that comes to mind is that I wonder why they chose someone to represent New Atheism who doesn't even seem to think that New Atheism is a thing at all. Krauss kept saying things like "it's just atheism. Atheism isn't a thing." It's certainly an opinion I can sympathize with, but "New Atheism" has been observed as a societal phenomenon, and applying a label to a set of tactics is far from invalid. Krauss kept trying to debate about atheism vs. belief, when the debate (as far as I was able to understand) was actually about how the societal phenomena of New Atheism and New Religion were working in culture at large, and which of the approaches used were more effective in their goals. When one side of the debate refuses to admit that there's even something to debate about, the conversation is doomed from the start.  I was rather disgusted by Krauss, actually, on this point.  When he said "I don't understand what New Atheism is," I rolled my eyes and thought, "Why is he here, then?"  and then I thought, "Aha, who's paying for him to be here?"  (Rollins showed a lot of grace at that point; I would have been quite irritated.)  Krauss kept saying "All we atheists do is ask questions" etc., but I kept shouting at him, No you don't! Even in the context of this very conversation, you've already called religion 'silly,' 'ridiculous,' 'a source of problems,' and so on!  The perspective that New Atheism is violent against religion is accurate!  So there was a disconnect, right from the start.

Because of this disconnect, I think it would have been extremely helpful to define terms and limit the debate from the very beginning. What questions, exactly, should the two be discussing?

For example, while New Atheism has been clearly established as a thing, the only resource I could find on "New Religion" was a site written by a guy named Aman who recently got direct inspiration from angels, archangels, and God Almighty, Himself, to write three books that will lead the world into a new era of peace and righteousness!  Yay!  But still... Pretty sure that Dr. Rollins isn't promoting the Three Books of Aman!  So, what is "New Religion" as it's used in this debate? A term invented by the organizers of the conference? By Rollins?  By historians?  Who is included in this movement?  How would we distinguish it from liberal or progressive factions of Christianity (since Rollins states later on that NR is focused on Christianity)? Or is it just the idiosyncratic approach to rhetoric that only Rollins uses?

Clarity, people.  For dummies like me, we need clarity.

Certainly, some of that disconnect is due to Kraus' laziness, in that he didn't prepare adequately for the debate. However, Rollins didn't help with this as much as he could have, either.  Many of his points were so buried in interesting and funny examples, that (for me, at least) they caused the point to be lost altogether.  (Like, really, what's the deal about the sex scene?  I didn't get that at all, even though it was a funny story.)  He did a good job of expressing why he thinks that New Atheism is not an effective combat to Fundamentalism, but I don't think he adequately explained how and why "New Religion" does it better.  This gave Kraus the opportunity to defend New Atheism's tactics (which he largely failed to do), but did not give him anything positively to critique in return.  Thus, the question from the audience member at the end, about whether Rollins was attempting to shield himself from criticism was a valid one, I think.

So here's an outline of how I wish the conversation would have gone:

I.  Rollins makes his three critiques of New Atheism:
  1. By creating new tribal identities, it creates an antithesis to Fundamentalism that only ends up being a shadow of the very thing it tries to attack.  
  2. By engaging with Fundamentalism, New Atheism only ends up legitimizing and strengthening it.  
  3. New Atheism doesn't have the resources needed to decenter people.
II.  Rollins explains what New Religion is and why it's a better approach than New Atheism.  The closest he came to this was saying that it exists to "create spaces" to allow people to come to realize that they actually already know that they don't really believe what they say they believe.  (Myself having read other things by Rollins, and having heard John Caputo speak, and several others who might be associated with Dr. Rollins, I think I have a better idea than Dr. Krauss did about what he's getting at. But I'm not sure, and would like more clarity, myself.)

III. Kraus responds to each of the three criticisms.  For example (I'm not him, so I don't know if he would agree with these things, but the best I can come up with is as follows):
  1. Why is it a bad thing to have a tribal identity around being smart instead of around being stupid? Forming tribes is a very human thing, and people need community and solidarity, so what's the big deal?  Also, New Atheism doesn't only attack Fundamentalism; it attacks any form of religion, liberal groups as well as fundamentalists.
  2. (He actually did respond to this one) Everyone knows that engaging with hard core Fundamentalists is useless, but they do it for the sake of those who are less hard-core, for the audience, who might be persuaded by reason and evidence, and come to realize that their respected leaders might be more ridiculous than they had thought.  Plus, ridiculing something can, actually, be a very effective method of persuasion.
  3. What does "decentered" mean?  (Seriously, I don't know what decentering someone means, and why that's a desired thing.)
IV.  Kraus critiques New Religion.  What he would say would depend on how NR ends up being defined, of course, but based on what Rollins said in this debate, he could make points something like these:
  1. Since New Religion would not exist without a Fundamentalism to try to pull people out of, is it not also a shadow of Fundamentalism?
  2. Since New Religion uses religious symbols to subvert people's beliefs instead of supporting them, could it not also be seen as inherently violent?  At least New Atheism is direct in its aggression.  New Religion's tactics (if I understand them right) seem passive-aggressive.  
  3. On the other hand, for those who won't be fooled by the subversive techniques, couldn't it also be argued that by using Fundamentalism's own religious imagery, New Religion is also legitimizing and strengthening Fundamentalism?
  4. (He actually did say this, and it was a good point that could have been expounded.) Why would you replace a religion that isn't "working" with a worldview based on angst? You say NR is focused on "how" more than "what," but isn't the very assumption that one ought to focus on the "how" a fundamental "what" as well? (It seems one can't escape positivism, no matter how hard one tries.)
V. Rollins responds, etc.

Doesn't that seem better?  I can go to bed now. :)

Well, actually, I can't finish this post without a bit more grief for Dr. Krauss, unfortunately.  I actually agree with him on most of his points (irrelevant though many of them were to how Dr. Rollins tried to frame the discussion), and I admire his work. However, on religion, he is wrong about several things.

For example, one of his earlier points was that religion doesn't change to fit the times, and this couldn't be further from the truth.  There is no religious sect, denomination, or group that doesn't have a cultural identity strongly influenced by the times in which it finds itself. Christianity today looks vastly different from Christianity 4 centuries ago.  This is true for every religion.  However, some groups are more pliable than others, of course.

He also said, "That 'God is dead' is not a loss; it's a gain...  Loss of faith is not a loss of anything; it's a gain."  From his perspective, this may be true, but it can't be denied that those who experience the change of their belief system, especially when that system includes God, do feel a strong sense of loss.  Whether or not God really exists, if someone grows up thinking he does, and bases all their important life decisions around that assumption, finds comfort in that assumption, and finds solidarity with other people who hold the same assumption, then the wrenching away from that fundamental assumption can be quite traumatic.  Someone telling this person, "don't worry, he was never real anyway," feels bittersweet, at best.  The choices you could have made differently, the people you can't talk with anymore, the daily comfort you must find a replacement for-- these things are real, even if God isn't.  Sure, perhaps it's a necessary pain, in order to get to a more rational way of thinking (according to Krauss' perspective), but denying the profound grief of so many people is callous.

There are a lot more nits to pick, as well as some really great points to praise, in this discussion, but that's enough for now.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Three lessons about sex

There are some lessons that, it seems, one has to learn for oneself.  In general, I tend to be a cautious person, and I am sensitive to the voices of others, especially those I consider older and wiser than myself.  Even if I disagree with these voices, whether they be individual people sharing their personal lessons learned, or oral tradition within a culture, I try to honor the wisdom and struggle behind them.

And yet, the past few years, I have been in a season of needing to live out some lessons myself. Some lessons in particular that I have needed to explore were related to sex.  Growing up, I bought the conservative Christian message about sex, hook, line, and sinker.  And after being betrayed by that message, it seems I had to learn for myself what was going on. 

I was the ripe old age of 25 years when I had sex for the first time. (Almost in danger of becoming an old maid!!)  Due to my partner being somewhat less than skilled or compassionate, let's just say I didn't have the best experience. For years I didn't have a good experience.  It became a chore during marriage, a source of resentment, irritation, shame, and self-doubt.  I was told I was "frigid," which I never quite believed, but I didn't know what to think, and didn't know how to ask for help.  After the divorce, my mind freshly liberated from the shackles of legalism, and my body and heart freshly liberated from the shackles of an abusive marriage, I set out to learn what the rules of sex were.  OK, well, I didn't actually consciously choose that goal, as I was mostly worried about raw survival, my children, and figuring out what the next step should be. But it was an important tangent that kind of happened along the way.

I definitely wouldn't say I'm a professional sexologist, by any means.  The topic is still a somewhat sensitive point in my psyche.  But here are some life lessons I have picked up so far.

1) It flat out isn't true that all men are sex-maniacs with a one-track mind, as I'd been taught.  I may have verbally acknowledged this before, but I often tended to operate from the ingrained assumption anyway.  But now, after some important experiences, I am beginning really to know it more deeply.  Men are just as complex as women are.  In several of my dating relationships, I was the one who initiated sex.  In the past few years, there have been a few men I wanted and tried to seduce with my body, but they weren't interested and--shockingly-- didn't respond.  (And they didn't act like martyrs either--they weren't religious, even, for me to be able to blame it on that. They were, clearly, just not "clicking" with me at the personal level, and not willing to get involved physically in something that they weren't involved emotionally with.)  And I'm currently dating a guy who is more than willing to wait, while I sort out all my health issues, before we start having sex, because he just straight up likes who I am.  These guys are all aware of me as a person who is more than the sum of just a few of my body parts.  The interaction with these guys, who want a real relationship with a real person, has touched my heart.  I realize I'm lucky, and some women (and men) have had some pretty terrible experiences, but I don't think the one-track-minded male is as common as some would make it out to be.

2) "Virginity" isn't a thing.  I was taught growing up that one's virginity is a precious gift, and it should be saved for the one you'll spend the rest of your life with.  But now, this sounds completely ridiculous.  I understand the cultural history of this kind of language, but now that we are in the 21st century, this is really language we should toss in the trash!  Virginity isn't a "thing" at all, so you can't lose it.  It's just a label that we use to indicate someone who hasn't done a particular thing.  It just means "zero experience."  You can't "give away" zero-experience in sex, any more than you can "give away" zero-experience with using a computer or swimming.  In no other realm of life do we give zero-experience with something a judgemental label and treat it as a commodity.  In what other realm of life is zero-experience with something even considered a good thing? (OK, unless we're talking about, say, crime... fair enough.)  You wouldn't go looking for a mechanic who's "virgin" in the field of car repair. Yet so many people (especially in the religious world) are still saying that they insist on marrying only a virgin.  What retards.  I'll be plain.  Sex with someone who doesn't know what they're doing is kind of annoying.  Well, unless that's your thing, for whatever reason. But if you like to get lost in the pleasure, then a newbie (or someone who's only experienced at being awkward, selfish, and unknowledgeable) is a real kill-joy. 

3) "Sexuality" isn't a thing.  This might sound rather weird, but it's a conclusion I've come to.  People use terms like "exploring your sexuality," and "what you do with your sexuality," and to me, these terms don't make sense.  You can do things with your sex organs, or you can explore why certain people or kinds of people tend to excite or attract you, but what, exactly, is "sexuality," as a personal thing, anyway?  Maybe I'm being a bit pedantic here, but in my book, it's important to distinguish between what we often mean by the term "sexuality" and the specific acts, feelings, thoughts, desires, and attitudes related to sex.  And I don't believe that "sexuality" is really even a useful term.  Many would disagree with me, but I feel it's terribly imprecise, and usually somewhat prescriptive. Using the term also has the effect sometimes of inventing a causal agent in an individual's life, kind of like the devil, "hormones," or anything else people like to blame things on.  People talk about desires they have or choices they make as if they were affected by, springing from, their sexuality, rather than the other way around--their "sexuality" (if it exists, which I think it doesn't) should be defined by the desires they have or the choices they've made.  I don't think "sexuality" exists, because there's no single wellspring from which all sexual desires, choices, impulses, attitudes, and anything else, spring. There's no section of our brain dedicated to "sexuality," as there is for, say vision or emotions.  All of the things that affect sex can be impacted by all kinds of factors, from biological, to psychological, to situational.  I suppose I don't mind occasionally using the word "sexuality" as a label to tie together all these things in a loose, descriptive way, but I typically hear the word being used prescriptively, and it bugs me. 

More lessons to come, someday! :)