Every Vote Counts

Every vote counts. Decisions are made by those who show up. Refusing to vote is not a protest, it’s a surrender. Don’t boo, vote.

When our circle of reality is threatened, common sense aphorisms will be invoked in its defense. Pay attention to these today, of all days. An election is always threatening to the circle of reality because it's a liminal moment, a transition from one narrative arc to another. What we know to be true is called into question behind the veil of the voting booth, so we work extra hard to reaffirm our basic assumptions about the way the world works.

However, an election is also the highest liturgical moment in the circle of reality. Reality requires a “should-be” condition in relation to the present “is.” Sound like anything going on right now? Reality, as we experience it, is part of a meaning-making story told by those who depend on it for power. Those who cannot tell this story are the most vulnerable in our society. They also tend to be our scapegoats. That is, the vulnerable among us, who cannot tell our story, are blamed for impeding the “should-be” from being actualized in the present.

Questioning the value of our political apparatus is met variously with criticism of patriotism or privilege depending on their source on the right or the left. Each "side" strives to meet every threat and re-establish the circle of meaning that maintains reality. This is especially ironic with an eye on the left, because demanding the liturgy of reality be carried out according to plan ensures the vulnerable among us continue to function as a scapegoat—they are structurally necessary. Liberal social justice ultimately cannot address the condition of the vulnerable because social problems are necessary to the continued existence of our circle of reality.

I end up taking an existential view. Can society be a bit more humane for my friends living on the street? Can we show a little more mercy to those who need it? Are the policies we enact in this circle of reality hospitable to everyone? And that's how I vote. But I'm not confused about the limits of human imagination.

The Passenger Thinks Aloud

A couple weeks ago, I flew to Portland from Nashville by way of Chicago. I went for work, and now I’m back. I apologize for the lack of Beard updates, but between my cross-country shenanigans and Logan’s fatherhood which is actually a thing that can legitimately take up your time, we just haven’t been able to make it work. But we’ll get back on schedule somehow, mostly because we’re proud of the site. We’re happy with what we put out there most of the time, and we’re especially happy when it makes someone else happy. Or reflective. Or less stupid. Any impact will do.

I knew the flight would be long, so before leaving I stocked up on several podcast episodes, both backlog eps from my favorites and a few new shows I’d been meaning to try. I’d heard great things about Song Exploder, so I found a few episodes I knew I’d like based on the artist featured and downloaded en masse.

I got through a few before arriving at the Long Winters’ John Roderick talking about the song “The Commander Thinks Aloud.” I rested my head on the stiff cushion and listened to John, which I do regularly on his podcast with Merlin Mann, “Roderick on the Line.” It’s hilarious, and smart, and all the things two people talking to each other should be. Logan and I should take notes.

I listened to John talk about the song, both from a technical perspective and from an emotional one. He described what went into recording the instruments and what philosophy guided the lyrics. The song is about the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster, in which a crew of seven were killed upon reentry as their shuttle disintegrated. In the interview, John reveals that what the commander is thinking aloud is (and I paraphrase) that all he wanted was to bring back a message. A message that says, “I saw the everyday minutia—boys and girls in cars, dogs and birds on lawns—and from up there, up in space, it was simple. It was borderless. Up in space, we humans were doing our best work. We were taking it all in and understanding what matters. And I wanted to tell you that.”

But he didn’t get to. There was a problem. The astronauts knew something was wrong, but not to what extent. That’s because NASA knew to what extent, but wouldn't tell them as they believed the crew couldn’t risk the fix. So they all had to hope for the best. And upon reentry, the ship burned up and splintered apart, killing all aboard. And the message was lost until John sung it to us.

Song Exploder ends the episode by playing the song you just heard about. By this point, I had lifted my head forward to gaze out the airplane window. Stretching for miles I saw an undisturbed, thick blanket of clouds save three giant scars upon its surface. Mounts Hood, St. Helens, and Rainier rose up to remind me of the earth below. They challenged my moment of forgetting where I was, my desire to imagine that I was disconnected from life on the ground. John began to sing in my ear, over and over, “The crew compartment’s breaking up. The crew compartment’s breaking up. The crew compartment’s breaking up.” I realized I was crying steadily, for the joy of the borderless miles, for the death of the crew years ago, for the people down below who I loved or knew or did not know, for the minutia of my own life. I wanted to tell anyone, everyone, how perfect the snowy peaks and blue sky and marshmallow clouds were, way up here. That’s all I wanted to bring home to you.

Michael Marshall: Noise

For some background, you may want to read my two previous posts (1 and 2) about Michael Lee Marshal.

Narrative Power

In my post published January 22nd, I wrote that language had failed. Except that isn’t what has happened. Mike is dead and we are left with competing narratives: the injustice of Mike’s arrest, police brutality, what is “necessary,” the worth of black lives, homelessness as a social issue... So it goes.

This is how people make meaning in reaction to events and ultimately how they exert power.

Recently, I have found in myself a skepticism about my own thoughts. I don’t quite trust that my patterns of thought, prejudices, or reactions are really my own. I’m not saying there’s some other personality at work whispering in my mind. But I question whether my opinions about public events (especially events as fraught as Mike’s killing) are generated within me or whether I simply default to whatever narrative happens to have been convincing enough to gain power over me.

Of course, this is also a narrative I tell about myself.

Noise

Working with homeless folks, I’ve sometimes noticed and grown to suspect that speech is a distraction from true presence. In part this is because with people experiencing homelessness, you’ll often find yourself buffeted by a stream of words that frankly don’t make sense. I find myself nodding and smiling and thinking to myself “I don’t know what this guy is talking about.” I’ll look at the volunteers who work with me and we just sort of shrug and shake our heads. “Who knows?”

But other times, when I feel particularly grounded or, more often, when I’m just too tired to put on the stupid play of active listening, I have experienced a deeply spiritual connection with the person who is speaking. In these moments of revelation, speech becomes exactly what it is: noise. I wish I could explain the uncovered fullness of another person I’ve experienced in these moments, like the envelope containing the world has been opened for a moment to something cast just beside us, always there at hand but hidden by our narratives about how the world “really is,” but of course I can’t.

Opportunities for this kind of encounter with Mike are over. His narrative has ended. As a single individual, one must resist the tempting offer to take up the easy narratives offered by competing powers.

The truth is language really has failed. It failed before the sheriffs who killed Mike restrained him so brutally. No dumb narrative will bring him back to life. There is no justice for Mike, only silence. To claim anything else is to attempt to make meaning out of his meaningless death, and to use his story to wield power.

Logan's Failure of Imagination

I have been trying to figure out more to say about Mike who was restrained by Denver Sheriffs and sent to the hospital where he would later die.

What I’ve written so far feels entirely too small. But the situation makes me feel small. The enormity of the mechanism that generates these incidents of injustice is impossible for me to comprehend. My imagination isn't good enough. I'm reduced to doing small things and writing small thoughts.

Words about sin, justice, homelessness, race, responsibility, and reconciliation feel like empty placeholders or feeble attempts at meaning-making. When language fails, what are we left with but to lie down and die or get up and keep going? For too many people, language has utterly failed. All but a very few get up and keep going.

Network Coffeehouse can be hard sometimes, but Mike always made me feel like I was doing good work, and doing it well, and that I could keep going.

Christ & the End of Meaning, Paul Hessert: Chapter Two

This post is a continuation of a previous post on Christ and the End of Meaning by Paul Hessert.

In Chapter one Hessert laid out the basic idea of his book: much of Christianity agrees with the culture's primary task, the search for and maintenance of meaning and power. He also describes the basic structure within which this search for meaning and power functions.

Chapter two assumes this cultural structure and asks how faith exists in relation to it. It is helpful to remember Hessert's definition of faith is not the same as what most of us might think of when we hear or read the word faith. At this point, Hessert hasn't introduced us to this definition directly. Before we get to that and as an introduction to my first post in this series I wrote,

If faith is a deficient way of knowing, a kind of believing that surrenders reason to make-believe, then I am afraid I cannot be a Christian. If, however, faith defines a way of being, a stance toward reality that sees it clearly for what it is, then it is possible that I might strive to be faithful—a "faither" has Paul Hessert puts it. All the better if that faith sees the reality of our human situation more clearly than other ways of being and knowing.

Hessert argues that the unique meaning of "faith" has been conflated with the ambiguous meaning of "to believe" in its translation from New Testament Greek to English.

Signs and Wisdom

Hessert begins chapter two with a passage from the Apostle Paul that, Hessert argues, "distinguishes the Christian Gospel from from two characteristic religious outlooks of [Paul's] age." The quote comes from 1 Corinthians 1:22-35. Hessert explains that coming to terms with this passage is the most important purpose of his book. He argues that the passage "brings into focus the break with the cultural structure" that is a part of what it is to be a follower of Christ (18).

In the passage Paul distinguishes the proclamation of the crucified Christ from two religious outlooks, one "of the Jews" and the other "of the Greeks." To modern ears this sounds discriminatory or even offensive. To those concerned with supersessionism and antisemitism it may be particularly concerning. However, Paul is not interested in setting cultural groups against each other, nor with replacing one group with another. Instead, as Hessert will argue, he aims to challenge the cultural structure through which these two religious outlooks—outlooks that still function today—understand reality.

For the sake of clarity and in an effort to respect the Apostle Paul and Paul Hessert, while also avoiding the possible supersessionist and/or racist connotations of "Jews/Greeks", I will replace "of the Jews" with Outlook X(Jews) and "of the Greeks" with Outlook Y(Greek). Here I attempting to maintain the author's meaning while also retaining his words. Outlook X corresponds to what Paul calls the demand for signs. Outlook Y corresponds to the search for wisdom.

So:

  • Outlook X(Jews) = Signs
  • Outlook Y(Greek) = Wisdom

Outlook X(Jews) – Demanding Signs

As I have already touched on, those who demand signs of divine favor, labeled by Paul as "the Jews," are not confined to the people of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, and certainly not modern Rabbinic Jews. Indeed, Hessert points out that this outlook is perhaps most dominantly held "among certain contemporary Christians" (19). The particular people is not important, however. The outlook is the thing.

A sign, in this sense, is simply an event that is interpreted as a manifestation of divine power in favor of the search for meaning of a certain group that otherwise does not have the power to manifest such meaning in time. A perfect contemporary example of this kind of thinking is the reaction to Hurricane Katrina among various groups in the United States and worldwide." The linked article includes views from the mayor of New Orleans, an ultra-Orthodox Israeli rabbi, terrorist organization Al-Qaeda, Christian minister Louis Farrakhan, a Roman Catholic auxiliary bishop, and Evangelical Christian Pat Robertson. The outlook clearly is not limited to one group or ethnicity, but stems from anyone seeking divine confirmation of their particular reading of meaning in the world.

Paul argues, for all these groups the preaching of "Christ crucified" is a stumbling block. Hessert explains that the crucifixion of Christ cannot be a sign in the positive sense. It is not a "self-manifesting act of God confirming our values" but "can only be an unfortunate event." To be a positive sign for those seeking God's approval, Jesus would have had to have been delivered from condemnation and death at the hands of Roman authorities. "Christ crucified" may be a negative sign, a confirmation of God's curse: Jesus, who was crucified, was not the Christ. To preach that Jesus was crucified but remains Christ is counter to the circle of reality that searches for meaning in signs. As Hessert writes, "Preaching 'Christ crucified' is not saying merely that bad things happen to good people but that God's approach to us belies our expectations—in fact, is manifest in the very contradiction of our experiences" (20-21).

Hessert also points out that there is a difference between explaining the historical event of Jesus' crucifixion and the preaching of "Christ crucified." That Jesus was crucified at the hands of Roman authorities, that he was a good man, a friend to the poor, an enemy of injustice, and that he was misunderstood and killed may move one to sadness or the determination to be with the poor and oppressed as Jesus was. But to hear the preaching of "Christ crucified" and to react to it with faith is to take part in contradiction—even paradox. "Christ crucified" does not invite one to respond with preconceived understandings provided for us by our society and its search for meaning. To these preconceptions "Christ crucified" is offensive, an obstacle, a stumbling block, because it condemns the search for meaning through signs. "For faith, however, Jesus' crucifixion manifests Christ crucified, and Christ crucified become a judgement on our circle of reality" (21).

Outlook Y(Greek) – Searching for Wisdom

Outlook Y(Greek), is simply the search for "the overall rational pattern in which everything can 'make sense' for us" (21). This is the quest for meaning not contained within any discrete event, but for ultimate meaning—the meaning that provides a key to everything else (22).

This meaning is understood by the intellect and is held to be unapproachable by anything except the perfection of the rational mind. With outlook, God is seen as most perfect Mind and the source of all rational order. An event itself as it relates to the future is less important than the act of bringing our intellect to events, which gives us a perspective on them. Every event, everything that exists is an extension of the mind of God and is reconcilable as part of the ordained order of things. That is, if one has the wisdom to see it as such.

The preaching of "Christ crucified," more than a simple description of an event, carries a contradiction. The search for wisdom would reconcile this contradiction as a part of God's plan. To preach "Christ crucified," however, focuses on on this contradiction as the object of faith and as a denial of the idea that "the manifestation of God fulfills the quest for rationality and order" (22).

Faith

Outlook X(Jews) seeks to confirm the presence of god through the seeing of signs. These signs are possessed by the seer as a sign of God's special favor on them or their group (24-25). Outook Y(Greek) seeks knowledge of God by decoding hidden meaning in the physical world. The ideal is abstracted away from the physical world (the "is," or "existence") into the abstract ideal (the "ought-to-be" or "essence"). To gain this special knowledge is to know the mind of God, the Ultimate Mind that binds the whole world together in meaning. For Outlook Y, God is not present through signs, but known by them. This is typified by the gnostic (Greek: gnostikos, "learned" / Arabic: gnōsis, knowledge) outlook the early church fought hard against, and which is so popular now amongst popular religious commenters such as Elaine Pagels (25-26).

But Christ crucified denies both of these outlooks. As Hessert says, "'Christ crucified' is the absence of that divine confirmation of human values which seeing seeks and the absence of that rational coherence which knowing seeks." Christ crucified is not seen or known, but faithed (26).

The Uniqueness of "Faith"

Hessert argues that the Greek word πιστις (pi'stis), often translated into English as "believe" is crucial to understanding Christianity as a whole. He writes,

"In New Testament Greek, "faith" is both a noun and a verb. English lacks a special verb to translate 'faith' and so uses 'believe' instead. But the English 'believe' carries a very different nuance of meaning. Of the many things that conceivably could be known, some we definitely know, some we definitely do not know, and of others we are not certain. Uncertainty is not the same as not knowing, however, for although we may not know, we may have very good reason to 'believe' that something is or is not the case, and here 'knowing' and 'believing' function the same: I turn down the road I know goes to Franklin Forks or that I believe goes to Franklin Forks. We often speak of this latter situation as 'taking it on faith.'" (27)

The conflation of "faith" and this popular usage of "believe" leads to a misunderstanding of the "faith" referred to by Paul specifically and the New Testament generally." The "faith" Paul speaks of is not to be understood as a way of knowing, but as a specific relationship (or posture toward) "Christ crucified." In this case, "faith" ought to be approached through the verb form, what Hessert coins in English as "to faith" (27).

"To faith." The verb transforms our entire idea of what it means to be a Christian. Hessert goes so far as to argue that to qualify faith with the adjective "Christian" is redundancy, because the verb form of "faith" implies a unique relationship communicated by Christianity and the Gospel. Indeed, whether one is Christian, Buddhist, or Muslim in the cultural sense is beside the point. Rather, the existential stance of faith, in relationship to the divine, the world, and the other is the content of "faith." Faith does not claim signs, or propound a certain secret knowledge, but instead faiths a relationship with "Christ crucified" (28).

Hessert explains the content of faith like this: "'Faithing' is a willingness to live without the control and understanding (the 'power' and 'meaning') that the relationships of seeing and knowing provide." God is manifest in "Christ crucified" but is unable to be seen or known, only faithed. To live this way is to live without the reassurances that power and wisdom provide. "Christ crucified" contradicts the expectation that we will be granted a sign or come to understand a hidden, unifying wisdom (28).

Hessert admits that conceivably the repudiation of power and meaning could be expressed in other ways than "Christ crucified"[^1] but argues that the Christian tradition does not provide other expressions. However it is expressed, it is important that it tells us "that God must be found in the absence of power and in the absence of meaning" (29).

Criteria of Faith

Hessert concludes his second chapter discussing the criteria of faith. What checks are available to us to measure faith, not as belief, but as a new posture toward Christ crucified? Hessert provides two positive checks, one objective and one subjective, and two negative reactions to Christ crucified, unbelief/unfaith and make-believe.

Objective Faith

To be confirmed objectively, Hessert argues, faith must have made a break with striving after signs or seeking knowledge. Genuine faith lives without power over the future granted by the structure of meaning offered up by culture. And this objective reality is confirmed experientially by the individual in what one's faith responds to and what it affirms (30-31).

Subjective Faith

The subjective criteria of faith also lies in a break with the status quo. Human individuals are normally oriented toward self-interest both as individuals and as individuals with a self-interest in maintenance of culture. Faith, says Hessert, changes this orientation away from self-interest and orients an individual toward a relationship with God. This form of this relationship, according to Hessert, is contained by son-ship and daughter-ship, while a relationship toward meaning is contained by an illusion to slavery. In other words, as a son or daughter and not as a simple child, one stands with a posture toward God characterized by maturity, confidence that God loves oneself as God loved Christ, and by trust. Importantly, this relationship does not strive or seek for power, but remains open to receiving the gifts of the Spirit (32-33).

Unbelief/Unfaith and Make-believe

Finally unfaith and make-belive. Unfaith, interestingly, also rejects signs and wisdom, but rather than faithing, instead chooses the despair of death as giving ultimate meaning to life. Socially, the outcome here is a philosophical and practical nihilism that justifies every action by the lack of any sign from above, and the meaninglessness of any human action in a universe without order. Make-believe, on the other hand, abandons reality entirely and collapses into positivism, superstition, and feel-good platitudes based on nothing (34-35).

Faith, meanwhile, does not seek signs, strive after wisdom, nihilistically embrace death, nor does it rush past pain into make-believe. Like a ballerina moving on point[^2], faith remains suspended, existing with a strange confidence in the new identity given to the faither (35).

  • [^1]: Hessert suggests "Holocaust" in the Jewish tradition.
  • [^2]: A Kierkegaardian metaphor

Pancakes

When I was small, my dad would occasionally wake me up on Saturday mornings and ask if I wanted pancakes. It was a wonderful question, though an unnecessary one, because what kid turns down pancakes for breakfast? “That’s alright, Father. Just my regular toast points and cottage cheese with a side of honeydew. Fresh squeezed grapefruit juice if you’re so inclined to earn my love this day.” (I hate everything in that meal except toast, by the way. Toast is boss.) So, I would respond like a child who knows maple syrup is manna from heaven/Canada, hurriedly dress, and wait impatiently at the dining room table. He would bring out the utensils first, then the butter, and finally the syrup. This was key, because while he brought out the other accouterments as he was cooking, the syrup came out only moments before the pancakes themselves. He would carry a plate holding a steaming tower out of the kitchen and set it on my place mat. It sat there for a moment, fogging up my glasses as I inched my face closer and closer to take in the aroma, and then my dad would start cutting. Taking a fork and knife, he sectioned off the stack into neat, orderly rows and columns, leaving a stack of perfectly square pieces. It was beautiful. Carefully poured syrup would slide so neatly between the cuts, touching each piece on its way to the surface of the plate below. Each individual bite was as good as another, and I savored them all one by one.

I still cut my pancakes this way, and I’m convinced they taste better when the ritual is followed. Logan visited me in Nashville recently, and he became noticeably excited when I suggested we get breakfast out one morning because “I get to see you cut pancakes.” It’s a running joke for those around me, and I’m okay with that. It is a bit ridiculous, but it’s my ritual. And that’s what makes the difference here, the ritual. It’s a tiny one, but one that still represents so much. I don’t think about its meaning each time I sit down to a short stack, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. My father, unwittingly I’m sure, instilled love and care into a simple meal and its even simpler preparation on random weekend mornings so long ago. I know he did it to make it easier for me to eat, which is why parents cut up any number of foods for their kids. But I still do it; not for convenience, but because it’s a ritual that holds meaning. And really, any ritual worth its salt is inherently about meaning-making. I started thinking about this after hearing a delightful interview with Jerry Seinfeld on Morning Edition last week as I drove to work. I found myself nodding and smiling the entire time he spoke about his relationship with coffee as something that has an elegant way of positively shaping one’s time socially and personally.

Coffee has become that for me in adulthood as well. Seinfeld’s right to note how we use rituals like sharing a coffee and a conversation with someone to set these wonderful spaces apart from the rest of the day. If you let it, the ritual carves out a niche where you can simultaneously hide from the world and be more fully part of it. You’re in it; you’re giving definition to your time and the act at hand. Rituals, especially the little ones that we connect to things and people we love, are constantly pushing us to shape how we navigate the myriad of choices and options open to us as modern, busy people. So, even though cutting pancakes into crisp, exact lines or letting the slow wafts of steam envelop your face before taking that first sip of bold, black brew are tiny exercises in making meaning, they are fraught with meaning nonetheless. And honestly, that’s about as holy and pure as anything else I can think of.