Friday, October 17, 2014

Nietzsche's not dead.

I remember many years ago, as a young philosophy student basking in the newness of this internet thing, considering the following text in a signature at the end of my email messages:

God is dead - Nietzsche
Nietzsche is dead - God

I thought this to be somewhat humorous, since the irony of the quote-and-reponse works on multiple levels. As a devout Christian, I was mostly amused by the idea that Nietzsche, a man who declared God to be dead, was literally dead. The thought of placing this couplet on all my outgoing messages seemed, to me, exceedingly clever.

Sometimes thinking you're smarter than everyone else is charming. But usually not.

In the end, I didn't go through with this plan. Many more years have taught me that such an arrogant and confrontational comment would not have served me well.

The true irony is that much later in life it would be the words of Nietzsche that would have a profound effect on my personal philosophy, almost as if the man himself had come back from the dead to speak to my questioning mind. Oddly enough, it was not with the quote above; although I know now that I could not at the time appreciate what Nietzsche was trying to say, there is another passage from his writings that packs a much bigger emotional punch for me.

Oh, no - here we go again...

On a bit of a tangent; the subject of the quote "God is dead" reminds me that  I would like to take care of some unfinished business. I know I have already written too much about that ridiculous movie, God's Not Dead, but I feel that I have one more thing to set straight. After I wrote my comments on the movie based solely on other's reviews, there were some who urged me to watch the movie; so I did. It turned out to be just as much a waste of time as I imagined it would be. I honestly wish someone had just pointed me towards this clip instead. But you asked for it, so here it is (feel free to skip this if you are as sick of it as I am):

For a Christian movie, the production values (photography, sound, lighting, etc.) were exceptional - the best I've seen. Aside from that it was unbearable - the acting was wooden (especially the lead character, Josh), the dialogue was inane, and the "villain", was totally unbelievable. This is despite the herculean efforts of Kevin Sorbo. There is nothing he could do to salvage his performance because the source material was so lousy. Raddison is supposed to be an atheist philosophy professor, but doesn't seem to know anything about atheism, philosophy, or even teaching. And he's just a jerk: if this was a real person someone would have tried to run him over with a car before the movie even started. There is no reasonable motivation for his attitude: God let his mother die? Give me a break! I can accept a movie with a bad guy who is a caricature, but it would have to be an action movie - and there's no action here. The other story threads offer nothing more than an opportunity to shoehorn in cameos from Willie Robertson and the Newsboys, which serves to confirm my accusation of religious cheerleading given priority to artistic endeavor. Formal review? Zero stars. And a number of you have officially lost your privileges to recommend movies to me. As well, a serious thumbs down needs to be given to the quickly scrolling credits containing a list of court cases a the end of the film. These are, for the most part, cases in which Christians are upset that others expect them to not discriminate against or disparage LGBTQ people, as if  this is evidence of some kind of persecution of their beliefs. It seems to me there used to be something in the Bible about bearing false witness being a problem. They must have taken that out without telling me.

With that out of the way, the biggest reason why I even paid attention to that movie is the title's abuse of the Nietzsche quote - the exact same misuse that I had made myself as a young philosopher. Before we can straighten that out, we need to put things in context. Interestingly enough, this context involves a madman.

Madness. I saw this. In Boston. Blew. My. Mind.
You can read a good translation here: The Parable of the Madman

There are two important things to notice in this parable that objectors overlook. First, it is the madman who utters the words. "Whither is God?" he cried; "I will tell you. We have killed him---you and I. All of us are his murderers." This is not a smirking Nietzsche, gleefully pronouncing God to be dead, he has put these words in the mouth of a raving, distraught madman, mourning the murder of God. The second thing to note is the madman's audience is not a group of believers that he is trying to dissuade from their belief in God, but a group of self-assured atheists, mocking the madman for his claim.

It must be understood that Nietzsche, although he did not believe in God, was very caught up in the horror of His absense. By abandoning the idea that God is in control, living in Nietzsche's world became an absurdity. To Nietzsche, God did not die peacefully, He was brutally murdered. Thus, Nietzsche's statement, "God is dead" is not a pronouncement: it is a warning.

Nietzsche's just puttin' up some tape for you. He didn't dig the hole.

This, of course, does not prevent smug believers who can't be bothered to even read Nietzsche's parable from taking offense to the statement. As I have admitted, I did the same. But I needed to make peace with Nietzsche, and once I did I allowed him to speak to me.

As I said above, it is not the "God is dead" quote that really moved me, but instead a passage from Thus Spoke Zarathustra:

It is true we love life; not because we are wont to live, but because we are wont to love.
There is always some madness in love. But there is always, also, some method in madness.
And to me also, who appreciate life, the butterflies, and soap-bubbles, and whatever is like them amongst us, seem most to enjoy happiness.
To see these light, foolish, pretty, lively little sprites flit about—that moveth Zarathustra to tears and songs.
I should only believe in a God that would know how to dance.

I'm pretty sure that's God on the left.

For me, this quote inspired a much more earnest quest for God than what I had participated in before. I had, for many years, thought I knew a lot about God. I had certainly been told all kinds of things about Him. I was obligated to accept a lot of this description of God because it is all that was available to me. But the truth is, I didn't really like this god that I was being told about. I was a believer, but I was uneasy about it.

Is God jealous? The Bible told me that he was. But why should He be? If He is all-powerful, then why does He need my worship? Why would He need my attention? Is there some reason that could He not amuse Himself?

Yet "the Faith" would have you believe that He would drown the earth because we ticked him off. It would have you think that if you do not (in all your ways!) acknowledge Him, or if you do not obey His arcane commandments; that if you cannot accept some intangible and incomprehensible offer of salvation, you will be cast away from Him forever.

If God is more than a cartoon character, I cannot make sense out of how evangelical Christianity presents Him. God should not need me to recite prayers to Him. God would not be required to have me sing His praises to others. God does not even need me to acknowledge that He exists. This codependent god that has been created by the biblical authors and church tradition just does not line up with what any god worthy of worship would look like.

I should only believe in a God that would know how to dance. If God is dancing, then the universe will display his performance for us. If God is a dancer, then He must dance for His own pleasure, not for an unwilling or ignorant audience.

Understanding this idea can allow us to free our minds from chains of religiosity. If we are no longer expecting God to be watching our every move, tentatively hanging on our actions or our thoughts, it becomes easier to be honest about how we should act. We can more clearly observer the world and any god we may find in it. For me, this meant I needed to reject many ideas that previously held value for me. The philosophy that I learned from the Bible needs much correction when I approach the world from this perspective. It is much easier to recognize bad spiritual advice for what it is, no matter what the source.

So can your god dance? I pray that he can, because my god would. And Nietzsche's voice (as cold as his corpse may be) is what revealed this essential truth to me. This is not the only passage from Nietzsche that I absolutely love, but it is the one that has had the single most profound effect on my theology, and I believe I have come out better on the other side because of it.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A turn of fate

It is a peculiar feeling, sliding across the asphalt. The body is not prepared for it; there is a wave of strangeness that sweeps over the skin.

The sun was beaming down through the trees. The chipseal road was dappled with shadow from the light felling through their gaping branches.

Shadows. Chipseal. And sand.

A sunny fall afternoon was perfect for riding, but the sandy turn looked just like any other to me. The pebbly surface of the pavement should have held fast to the tires. They have lots of tread and they are high quality. But there is nothing any French engineer can do to help when the ground moves beneath those Michelins. The road looked sturdy; appearances are not always honest. 

These are the thoughts you have as you are skidding across a roadway on your back. "Where did that come from? Why did I not see that?" Not, "Will I be okay?"

Some of us live to lean a motorbike, and each corner is an opportunity. If you take it too slowly, that's an opportunity squandered. Hundreds, thousands of times, you look at the turn, you pick out a line, you tease the throttle. When you reach the apex, the sweet spot when the accelerator is slacking, the bike is leaning, and it's like a skydive. For a moment, you are in a freefall, massaging the throttle to prolong the moment as best as possible. Then you flex your wrist, and pull out of the fall like a Snowbird exiting a diving stunt, defeating the awaiting earth at the last second.

This time the freefall lasted too long, and now I am on the road. I feel the padding on my back supporting me above the rash-inducing stones as the tarmac moves below me. Something went wrong.

Hundreds, thousands of times I've taken this same curve. Sometimes it was steeper, sometime it was more open. It's been asphalt, or chipseal. It's been wet, it's been dry. It's presented itself many different ways, but it's always the same curve; pick a line, feather off the throttle, lean the bike, flex the wrist and pull it back up. But this time, it did not come back up. Something went wrong.

Sliding across the ground, my thought are about this turn of fate. I do not pray. My only savior at this hour is named Shoei, and Shoei does not care for my prayers. On my back, slipping across the road, there is a satisfying clunk as the back of my helmet strikes the ground; not on my knees but on my spine I confess that my faith is in Shoei and Shoei alone. In a split second,  a few hundred dollars spent on a humble dome became the best investment I have ever made.

The Yamaha will live to see another day. It is twisted, it is scratched. But it will be repaired. And if that were not possible, it would be replaced. The rider also lives to see another day. He can also be repaired, because the damage is minor. A scraped knee, a little rash above the belt line, a couple of sprained fingers. The soreness will be gone a few days or a few beverages later.

I cannot see the Yamaha sliding ahead of me as I coast along behind it. I was sitting on it once, and I was following it next. As the rear tire shook loose of the pavement, there was nothing to do but lie down and wait. It must have pulled the handles out of my hands, as my fingers are sore from the shock. 180° spinning, and then resting in the soft grass in front of me, the bike is stopped. 

It will be repaired and so will the rider. Wear your helmets, kiddies.

Friday, October 10, 2014

On Friendship and the criticism of cherished ideas

I do not have a readership of thousands, hard as that is to believe (HA!). I do not have advertisements on this blog, nor does anyone advertise on my behalf. The extent of my promotion for my writing is to share it on my social media pages, and my only motivations is to discuss my thoughts. In a way, this is a good thing: I know that every person who is reading this is someone that I consider a friend. I am honored that so many of you care enough about my thoughts to spend your time reading them, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Danke schön, Darling, danke schön.

Because of this, for every single page you see on this blog there is a lump in my throat and a trembling hand on the mouse as I click "Publish". I am frequently going out on a limb against ideas that I disagree with, and I sometimes do it with prejudice. Yet I am loathe to hurt or offend people, least of all the people I care about.

In saying that, it wouldn't be fair to make the claim that when people are offended that the offense is wholly unintentional. My words are calculated to get a reaction to my oft contentious opinions. Since my readership has not yet grown to zero, it looks as if I have been correct in relying on  the patience of my readers. Even so, I know that many will have their beliefs challenged when they read my work, and I accept that some people may take these challenges personally.

"Of course you're hurt. But it was not my intent."

So even though injury may be an inevitability, I still think a lot about the most respectful way one should criticize perceptions or suppositions that may be misguided. Obviously, the easiest way is for a person to simply keep his of her mouth shut and bypass critical correction altogether. But that is neither interesting nor productive. So the question remains, how do we tell someone we care about that we disagree with something they strongly believe is true and/or good?

One would hope that the listener can keep in mind that criticism of an idea does not equate to criticism of the person who holds to the idea. To keep these things separate, we would be best served to never say anything that could be viewed as a personal attack. Yet as diligent as we may be in this practice, sometimes these slights can slip past our outgoing filters. In my case, I am both a writer and my own editor; so I'm sure you can see how (despite best intentions) such an error can work its way into a piece. The probability goes skyward when we are talking with someone face to face (although it's easier to get the feedback required to make corrections). It's best to make it clear that insults are never the intent, and always be willing to apologize or otherwise make up for instances when we misspeak.

"You do that, you go to the box, you know. Two minutes, by yourself, you know and you feel shame, you know."

On the other hand, sometimes it is next to impossible to not to be interpreted as insulting. There is a line of thought that goes like this: "My critic says idea x is foolish, but I believe idea x; therefore my critic is saying that I am a fool." To be honest, this is not an irrational line of thought, but it does overlook a couple of important details.

Firstly, it does not take a fool to believe foolish things. I know this, because I am pretty sure that I am not a fool, yet I learn new things all the time. If I am learning something new, this means that I was formerly ignorant and therefore my position was possibly way out of line. Every one of us holds opinions that are based on incorrect data, and each of us believes things that are simply not rational: and we are often simply not aware that this is the case. None of us are immune, but we should all be trying to keep an open mind so that we can be brought to the side of reason.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was no fool. But he honestly believed this this was a legitimate picture of fairies. 

Of course, that may be little comfort to someone who's opinions have been insulted. To quote Tyler Durden, "You wanna make an omelet, you gotta break some eggs." Toes get stepped on, egos get bruised. This can be unsettling for us sensitive types, because we always want to set things right. But no one wants to hear a faux apology, so we should not apologize for simply having a difference of opinion and the bravery to express it. It is unfortunate that people are sometimes wounded in this way, but it's not reasonable to change one's mind for the sake of hurt feelings.

I have to think that this should only happen when there are true irreconcilable viewpoints. The onus here needs to be on the person offering the criticism to be both informed on the subject, and open to changing his or her mind if presented with a reasonable rebuttal. I have noticed that I have a weak area in my writing in these instances: not that I fail to be informed, but that I attempt to "sell" my reader on my knowledge, as in "you should listen to me because I know what I am talking about, I've read a lot on this subject, yada yada." Reading these back, it seems I am trying to deflect reader refutations by offering up myself as an authority. Bad form, Joey! It is better if our knowledge in a subject area is evident in our communication; if not, maybe we shouldn't be speaking at all. Citing external sources is a acceptable method to improve an argument without having to pretend to know everything. I usually provide sources, but rather than trusting my readers to follow the links I have provided I frequently pull rank. For my part, I will try to improve on this, because I want to be a better writer.

Another thing I have to confess: at times I will actually overstate my objection to an idea intentionally. Call it a literary device if you will; it can be easier to make one's point stick by applying a "shock" to the reader. In my experience, a person may refuse to look closely at their precious viewpoint until they are actually told that it is garbage. Even if they do not come to reject their conclusion in the end, the practice of mentally defending it will help them understand why they have chosen to put their eggs in that particular basket in the first place.

In general, though, when using strong language to make a controversial point: the objection should not actually be as controversial as it may seem. In other words, I may have eaten your sacred cow; but in my defense, I found it for $4.99 a pound at the Sobeys, somewhere between the chicken breasts and the Italian sausage. We don't want to be the one responsibly for killing a sacred cow, but must not shy away from its carcass. This is not to be dismissive of deeply-held beliefs, but is simply to point out that the we often put things on a much higher pedestal than they deserve. When an objection is radical, the evidence for that objection should not be radical. Despite my use of this "shock therapy" to jumpstart critical thinking, overall the practice of inducing cognitive dissonance is not a great way to make oneself understood. It is essential to be confident that the data behind an assertion is accurate and accessible, even if disagreeable.

"D'ooooh, this sacred cow is missing the onions and mushrooms!"

It is a precarious and intriguing situation that I find myself in. Whereas most of us develop a set of ideas and values as we approach adulthood and maintain them for the rest of their lives, I re-examined a lot of my beliefs at a much later stage in my life. At the same time, I have had a lot of years to cultivate friends who believe the way I used to about things. With that kind of audience, it is hard not to rub a few people the wrong way. However, I see this as a huge opportunity for growth: both for those who get to be challenged by my new ideas, and for me to play out my thought experiments on live test subjects. Win-win, amirite?

I am usually hardest on thoughts and opinions that I used to find the most compelling. I want to reassure people that when they feel targeted by anything I say, I am also aiming at myself. If I say a thing is absurd, it pretty likely that I used to believe it was perfectly reasonable, and I am trying to come to grips with my new perspective. It's helpful for the reader to know this, since they will accept that I can see things from their point of view.

Of course, we can't add disclaimers to the end of every sentence we write or speak. There has to be a level of trust in the audience. I am certain that some people hear things that they dislike and they quietly slip away without a fuss. Yet I am delighted that many of my friends know me, and have the patience to bear exposure to my thoughts even when that may be uncomfortable for them. I am blessed that they keep coming back for more of this. As Plato records Socrates saying, "The unexamined life is not worth living"; it's a comfort to know that I have so many platonic friends.