Thursday, April 29, 2010

Berry on Freedom

"If freedom is understood as merely the privilege of the unconcerned and uncommitted to muddle about in error, then freedom will certainly destroy itself." - W. Berry

I found this quote posted on Facebook this afternoon. As I consider Berry my adopted grandfather and have a thing for succinct & cogent articulations, my immediate thought was to duplicate the quote. Paste it somewhere, on a tweet, in my own status box, on someone's facebook page. Take that! How do you like me now!

And then I began thinking about what he was saying. Not having any idea where the quote came from, I could only rely on what the original quoter quoted from whatever source, whatever bit of Berry text, they took it from. I suppose in the rest of the paragraph or essay, Berry goes on to describe how freedom should be understood.

As it stands now, out of context, I only know what he thinks it isn't: "the privilege of the unconcerned and uncommitted to muddle about in error." This seemed fairly clear and incisive for the few moments that my ego allowed it to be about everyone else-- the stupid, unthinking masses. Then it hit me that because of my inability to find a philosophical orientation, I often "muddle about in error" myself, and I could easily be grouped amongst the "uncommitted" by anyone else reading the quote; "uncommitted" because to commit is to have perspectival faith. That is, you have to believe that the way the conventions you exist in are allowing you to see the situation provides you with adequate reason to take what seems to you to be a definite course of action.

I'm not "unconcerned", and I don't want to be the brunt of Berry's condemnations. I don't want to muddle about in error, and my kind friends don't want me to either. But, admittedly, I am. So we offer each other conventions to commit to, telling each other that this or that way of seeing the world is right, and that by its light, this course of action is the most manly, the most godly, the most good.

Another Berry quote I've posted before: "Knowing how to live in ignorance is paramount." So, maybe it's the unconcerned muddling that Berry doesn't like. His philosophy is one of joyful and careful acceptance of our own ignorance-- perhaps we could say that he would advise, instead of muddling, "joyfully and concernedly living in error."

We do live in ignorance. If you think otherwise, you may be merely asserting the infallibility of a particular rhetorical convention. Which hardly even makes sense.

Ooh, idea-- I'm going to go post that quote, the "paramount" quote, as a reply to the facebook post. Ooh! How do you like me now!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Mule Got Drunk and Lost in Heaven

by Hafiz

Mind is ever a tourist
Wanting to touch and buy new things
Then toss them into an already
Filled closet.

So I craft my words into those guides
That will offer you something fresh
From the Hidden's Tavern.

Few things are stronger than
The mind's need for diverse

I am glad
Not many men or women can remain
Faithful lovers to the unreal.

There is a kind of adultery
That God encourages:

Your spirit needs to leave the bed
Of fear.

The gross, the subtle, the mental worlds
Become as a worthless husband.

Women need
To utilize their superior intelligence
About love

So that their hour's legacy
Can make us all stronger and more clement.

Sometimes a poem happens like this one:

The mule I sit on while I recite
Starts off in one direction
But then gets drunk

And lost in

Friday, April 23, 2010

Nebulas Delivered Daily

A new photograph taken by Hubble Space Telescope appeared on the internet today, and I viewed it. A hulking contraption hovering in Earth's orbit aimed its lensed-nozzle out toward the infinite deeps of space, snapped a photo, then zapped that photo down to earth via electromagnetic signals of some sort. This photo was enhanced and trimmed and made internet ready, then uploaded. Result: Justin in a coffee shop, sipping a cup of acidic coffee, gaping at the representation of a nebula while a couple nearby talks about their vacation home.

It's worth putting in the new kitchen, I think. Also, this nebula is beautiful. I love the description in the caption(such active language!): "this image taken by the Hubble Space Telescope captures the chaotic activity atop a three-light-year-tall pillar of gas and dust that is being eaten away by the brilliant light from nearby bright stars. The pillar is also being assaulted from within, as infant stars buried inside it fire off jets of gas that can be seen streaming from towering peaks."

May we all be assaulted from within, by infant stars buried inside of us. May our vacation homes explode into three-light-year-tall pillars of gas and dust.

A poem of Hafiz, translated by Daniel Ladinsky:

Someone Should Start Laughing

I have a thousand brilliant lies
For the question:

How are you?

I have a thousand brilliant lies
For the question:

What is God?

If you think that the Truth can be known
From words,

If you think that the Sun and the Ocean

Can pass through that tiny opening called the mouth,

O someone should start laughing!
Someone should start wildly laughing –-Now!

p.s. here's the photo.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Buying Shampoo

I'm not as indecisive as I used to be. Really, I'm not. But I am apparently capable of standing motionless in a supermarket for a very long time, staring blankly at the colorful rows of consumables, feeling something I'd be at a loss to describe if I were to exclude the word "indecisive." Today the catalyst of my "hesitancy" was shampoo. Same thing happened during my last shampoo trip: just stood there, weighing the options, entranced by the pretty labels, trying to gauge what the heck "laureth sulfate" might be and whether it was worth avoiding for 5 dollars more, trying to step back from the marketing schemes and decide what I would do, what I would do.

Even when ignoring the problem of what "I" means, being an informed and conscientious consumer is like conducting an orchestra with a blindfold on: there is a vague sense that the music wants your directing, that the trumpet section is staring at you expectantly. So you stand there in the aisle holding two bottles, gaping at ingredient labels, wondering what sorts of chemicals leech out of bottle-plastic and whether you could get away with using bar soap and olive oil.

You might say that I'm crazy to care -- and I wouldn't disagree -- or you might be crazy yourself, and eager to do the homework to find out what sorts of criteria we should use to make our supermarket choices. Ah, yes, the homework. I thought about "homework" awhile as I stared at Burt's Bees Moisturizing Shampoo, now with Aloe Vera, and came to this: how the heck am I supposed to do the homework? There are two kinds of information: 1.) the biased information provided by various Multinational Shampoo Conglomerates, or by federal entities, whose advisory boards are primarily composed of former Shampoo Conglomerate CEO's, and 2.) the other more-difficult-to-find, unbiased information... the kind that will all be outdated in five years. And it inevitably will be: in five years they'll tell me that the alternative to laureth sulfate was actually a leading cause of my ear herpes.

Most people choose not to think about it. And yet they walk through life, feeling like they are actively making their own decisions. They feel that not only is it music that the orchestra is producing, but that it is their music. Being one of the unlucky few who can't ever stop thinking about it, I'm skeptical about such empowered views of our role in decision making. To me it seems as though at every turn we submit to convention, that we make "choices" based on what presents itself immediately as an option, because of the community we live in. We "choose" as much as a child chooses when presented with the option of chocolate or vanilla pudding snack-- what about strawberry? What about a cigarette? Or in musical terms: we have about as much role in composing our music as does one who chooses a radio station-- we choose one of 15 stations, and then play along with whatever comes.

And yet I can't escape the feeling that if I'm lucid enough, I can choose better, I can make choices that are the right choices. I had this conversation with a good friend recently-- about what makes "rightness," about what standard I can use to responsibly judge my actions. A religious standard? What God says? I've stopped believing people who claim to know what God says, or claim to have the key to interpreting various inspired texts. That info is like the shampoo info: full of bias, pretense, and misguided surety. Then... what? Do I decide according to what I think is right?

We piece together two-dimensional sense in a four-dimensional world, like kids obsessed with little table-top puzzles. They tell me that wisdom comes when I finally stop thinking about what to do, and just do something. But action, which inevitably occurs, is where the problem lies-- action based on clearly confused and limited information will always lead to a confused and half-perceived destination. Where then is enlightenment? If truth does not reside in language, in convention, then where does it reside?

Where else, but in presence? In those moments of lucidity, when I'm standing in the grocery store, feeling absurd, holding two bottles, laughing a little. If you walk up to me and tell me I'm being indecisive, I'll nod stupidly, and then, once the sense hits, I'll disagree.

I'll tell you that I'm being present, and that although I'm about to knowingly plunge headlong into folly, I'll be damned if it isn't thoughtful folly.

We can take the station-skipper approach, flipping to a new station, a new convention, every time something comes along that we've learned to dislike, or we can take the station-faithful approach, where we whole-heartedly submit to a single convention or dogma, letting it be the rule by which we judge the confines and articles of our decisions. I think I'm somewhere in between the two, right about now. One bottle in one hand, one in the other. Under fluorescent lights. I'd like to think that it's not irony that turns upward the corners of my supermarket smile, but instead, that it's some sort of gentle affection for the strange, misguided little creature that I am.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Time & God & Stuff

Yesterday, a student in my Bible-school English class did a presentation on "Open Theism," and the ideas reminded me of The Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut. Open Theism, which is not a novel by Vonnegut, apparently argues for a special & potentially heretical way of viewing God's relationship to time. The classic conception, the one that Open Theism wants to reject, was displayed for us in a powerpoint picture: a two-dimensional line representing our experience of the past, present, and future, and then around it, beyond it, all-encirclingly: the all-knowing God. Despite having been taught this picture of the universe my whole life, seeing it actually graphed out made me laugh, and made me think of Vonnegut's novel -- Billy Pilgrim coming unloosed in time, and the extra-dimensional extraterrestrials who greet him. "I am a Tralfamadorian," says one to Billy, "seeing all time as you might see a stretch of the Rocky Mountains. All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is."

The Open Theists disagree. They don't suppose God to be very Tralfamadorian-like, though they don't deny God his omniscience. He does know everything that there is to know, everything that exists or has existed, but he doesn't know what doesn't exist yet-- i.e. the future. Which isn't to say he doesn't have an effect on what happens. He's big and powerful enough to make sure that what he wants to have happen will happen, kind of like when LeBron James says the Cavs will win the NBA championship this year. If King James says they're gonna win, you can be pretty darned sure they will. The dude's a monster. He can make it happen.

A few minutes ago, I ordered an iced americano, and by golly, I got it; but this isn't evidence supporting my own theological beliefs about time. A moment ago I wasn't drinking an iced americano, and now I am. I made it happen-- by the power of cash and suction, I made a way. But really, how did it happen, and why? I have no idea how to talk about it in a satisfactory way. Flesh and convention, language and motion, blah, blah.

The future doesn't seem to exist yet, but Einstein said some stuff once that countered that fact, and sounded pretty convincing, right? Or someone did. We are strange little creatures. We make assertions. We flail against the unknown. We tell each other what God says. We gather in little coffee shops and drink americanos, and watch the attractive lady who is standing in line, laughing annoyingly.

Another essai, another attempt, to voice alongside all of those who are voicing themselves and their assertions, something about existence. Something about the universe. My will is smaller than God's and LeBron's. My vision less keen than a tralfamadorian's. The only way I know to leap out of my own presence is to join the other humans in their little boats of meaning.

Here's a joke I heard once: God, Billy Pilgrim, and another guy take a boat ride into space. They ride the star-water waves, they tune their radio to pick up the song of Jupiter. They rock to it, they rock the boat. They make things happen. God says to Billy Pilgrim, "We making things happen." Billy smiles, and puts his arm around the other guy's shoulder, and says, "Let's keep this up forever, guys." Jupiter hums, deep space yawns spectacularly, and the other guy-- who is I, who is me-- quotes a passage from The Slaughterhouse Five, saying, "If what Billy Pilgrim learned from the Tralfamadorians is true, that we will all live forever, no matter how dead we may sometimes seem to be, I am not overjoyed. Still--if I am going to spend eternity visiting this moment and that, I'm grateful that so many of those moments are nice." Which makes God smile. Which, of course, makes new galaxies bloom brightly all around us, like fields of brilliant tulips.