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Respect and the Hyphenation of God

My father was big on respect. We were taught to say “Yes, sir” and “Yes, ma’am” and much else that cooked down, for the most part, to respect. He understood the culture as it existed in 1960, and I was warned strongly not to speak slurs against people for what they were, especially Jews and blacks. If he had known how hatefully anti-semitic our universities would become by 2010, he would probably have apprenticed me out to a tool and die maker.

We were taught flag etiquette in Boy Scouts. We genuflected before we got into the pews at church. (I once genuflected before going into a row of seats at the Pickwick theater, so thoroughly soaked into my bones had the gesture become.) I was taught that girls were not casual entertainment, but potential friends and colleagues, and ultimately, spouses. Like I said, respect was a very big deal.

So it puzzles me sometimes when people write “G-d” instead of “God,” especially non-Jews. I understand, perhaps imperfectly, the Jewish traditions regarding the name of God, which, when written down, should not be burned or thrown in the trash, but buried in hallowed ground. God’s name is holy and must be respected. I get that.

But…”God” is not the name of God.

When Moses met God on the mountain and asked Him what his name was, God replied with what we today call the Tetragrammaton, approximated by YHWH in English characters, usually spoken as ‘Yahweh” when spoken at all. Given that this translates (roughly) to “I am that I am,” I think what God was telling Moses was, “I exist in and of myself, and that’s all you really need to know.” In the pre-Mosaic animist traditions, to know the true name of an entity was to have a certain amount of control over it, and that’s how shamans and magicians earned their keep, by commanding spirits/angels/demigods/demons to either deliver favors or keep their distance. The Hebrew God was beyond commanding. A great deal of the early part of the Old Testament can be seen as the transition between primordial animism and genuine monotheism. Given that names are how we tell similar things apart, a truly singular and infinite God would not in fact need a name at all. But to the extent that God has given us His name (and “Yahweh” is pretty much it) we need to respect it.

All that said, we need a way to address God, because God is our Creator and immanent, not off behind the clouds somewhere that He can’t hear us. “God” works well in that capacity, because it isn’t a name but a respectful and singular title, as befits a singular God. I think it’s fair to compare the title “God” to the word “Sir” as my sister and I were taught to use it: as a respectful form of address. The respect is built in. So I’m not sure I see how saying “S-r” is any more respectful than “Sir,” given that “Sir” was established specifically as a respectful form of address.

We could argue about that all night and halfway to lunchtime; why not use the word “Lord” or “Father” instead of “God”? Some do. On the other hand, there are many lords and many fathers, but only one God. As I see it, to blot out part of the word pushes the idea of God away from us in the here and now, away from the immanent toward the abstract. Push it far enough in the cause of respect, and the idea of an immanent and transcendant God vanishes over a sort of epistemological horizon, beyond which God ceases to be graspable by His creation. After that, what’s left but human lords and lesser gods?

I don’t want anybody to misunderstand here: This isn’t me chewing out people who choose to use the term “G-d”. I respect their choices, and if it makes sense to them, so be it. It just doesn’t make sense to me.

I have a plaque immediately above my desk, presenting an epigram from Erasmus in bold Roman letters:


Jung had the same epigram, in Latin, over his front door. (I have that plaque too.) It simply means that we don’t have to whistle God up from somewhere else. He’s always here, no matter what. We mean Him no disrespect to recognize that, with a word custom-made for the purpose, standing intact, graspable, and ready for us when we need Him most.

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

  • The forms are in place. The new roadbase fill has been leveled and compacted, and the rebar laid. Concrete should be here in less than an hour. Damn, we’re ready.
  • Here’s a concise (and hilarious) summary of everything wrong with science journalism, which is (alas) pretty much everything.
  • If the human mind can’t be modeled, it can’t be emulated. Which makes me wonder what sort of non-human intelligence we may be able to create computationlly, and whether we’d recognize it as intelligence if we did.
  • One of my very favorite scientists, the Vatican Observatory’s Dr. Guy Consolmagno, said four years ago that if aliens come to Earth and ask to be baptised, the Church would be happy to do it–but only if they asked. There are theological questions here: Would all aliens be subject to original sin? Would each world have its own Incarnation? James Blish explored this a little (if in a rather 50s way) in A Case of Conscience . Now Pope Francis has apparently reiterated it on the Vatican news site.
  • Students remember lectures better when they take notes in longhand. I’ve noticed this effect myself, and it’s real. The article suggests that writing notes longhand requires you to process information before writing it down, but that’s true of keyboarding as well. I admit I don’t take a lot of longhand notes anymore, but it’s also true that keyboarding and presenting aloud seem to use entirely separate parts of my mind. (I tried to write a story once by dictating into Dragon Naturally Speaking…and it just didn’t work.)
  • In crafting parody, I’ve run afoul of Poe’s Law more than once. Far too many people are so dumb they can’t detect hit-you-with-a-shovel sarcasm when they see it. (Thanks to Jim Mischel for the link.)
  • I just ordered this. Will review when I’ve had a chance to devour and digest it. Fat has certainly been good for me, judging by my weight and blood numbers since I stopped fearing it.
  • Coffee is good for eye health. Isn’t it?
  • Wine is a lot more complicated than you probably thought, and a whole lot less romantic. Nay, it’s industrial, almost…urban.
  • And still more reasons to view so-called studies with extreme caution. If you want to pass off an agenda or some sort of ideological/political/hate campaign, the best way to do it these days is hang a sign on it that says, “Trust me! I’m Science!” (Thanks to Damon Smithwick for the link.)
  • And if you’ve ever used a graph to try to prove something, this may give you pause. (Thanks to Roberta Crownover for the link.)

Odd Lots

Rant: The Real Problem With Clerical Celibacy

Black smoke. I guess we try again tomorrow.

I had intended to post a couple of pertinent entries during Pope Week, as some are calling this, but got involved in a new book proposal I’m working on. I genuinely expected that we’d have a new pope by now. Not so.

Anyway. I haven’t done a rant for years. Here ya go:

I’m reading a lot about clerical sexual abuse being rooted in clerical celibacy, as though it were obvious. This is not a new argument, nor does it have much grounding in reality. Abusers abuse not because they’re celibate but because they’re abusers, and I don’t think the Roman Church has any more of them than any other large organization. We pay the scandals more attention because the Church and its people ought to know better. We’re right to demand higher standards of conduct from church people than we do from politicians or TV reality show stars. Marrying off every priest and bishop in the Roman Catholic Church would not stop sexual abuse. I’m honestly not sure what would, though we need to continue the search with everything we’ve got. No, we need to eliminate mandatory clerical celibacy for a deeper reason: It selects for dualists.

The more I read of Church history and theology, the more I distrust ascetic theology and its real-world implementation, monasticism. Monastics make much about being “in the world, but not of it.” Excuse me? If you’re in the world, you’re damned well of it, because God gave you a meat suit and put you here. You will be of the world until you’re no longer in it, and what happens then is a whole separate discussion. Deal with it.

The deeper meaning of the mantra “in the world but not of it” lies in a theological system that arose in Persia in ancient times. Spiritual reality to the Persians was an unending war between Good and Evil, with the two being a pretty even match–hence the term “dualism.” There was a high, all-good God who had little to do with physical reality, and a grouchy creator God who had brought physical reality into being and trapped immaterial souls in material bodies that suffered and committed evil. Cooked down to essentials, this meant Spirit Good, Matter Bad.

Dualist thought of this sort crossed over from Persian mysticism into Christian theology several times in Christianity’s early centuries. Some of these threads were eventually declared heresies and suppressed, while others (especially the Great Dualist, Augustine of Hippo) became mainstream, to everyone’s sorrow.

I see dualism very clearly in the emergence of monasticism. Monasticism is more than just living off by yourselves somewhere. Nor does it describe a community simply working toward self-discipline in a systematic fashion. (In our dreams!) Early monastics were powerfully driven by the dualist assumption of Spirit Good, Matter Bad. The human body was a bundle of yukkh that not only had to be controlled but also humiliated, starved, and as often as not beaten and tormented through physical pain. Until Vatican II every Jesuit was given a little whip called the disciplina, and part of the Jesuit Rule specified that a Jesuit must beat himself with the disciplina every night. (Former Jesuit seminarian Garry Wills recalls this vividly in Why I Am a Catholic.) Because Spirit is the only godly part of a human being, torture of the body in the service of God was no big deal. Diocesan clergy certainly had a role in the torturing and execution of heretics, but it was monastics (particularly the Dominicans) who systematized it and made it a science. And over the centuries monastic thought seeped into diocesan thought, until clerical marriage was formally forbidden throughout the Western Church in the eleventh century. (It had been forbidden locally in some areas since the time of Leo the Great, circa 450.)

Monasticism isn’t about torture anymore, but its dualist view of the cosmos remains: Matter is of no great consequence, and the human body is simply a temporary vehicle for a fully spiritual soul. All physical desires are at least suspect. The world is a vexing source of temptation that cannot be redeemed and is best ignored. Sex, in particular, is fallen and unnecessary for anyone with a spiritual inclination. This attitude goes back to Paul, who thought the world was about to end and saw marriage as nothing better than a means of avoiding sexual sin until it did.

Some modern writers (including Garry Wills, whom I otherwise admire) think that clerical celibacy is a good thing because it focuses clergy on matters spiritual. My experience with married priests and bishops in the Anglican Communion (most but not all of them American Episcopalians) and many in the Old Catholic Church points in an entirely different direction: Finding peace and balance with the physical world is not surrender or even accomodation. It is part of our task as Christians. If God created the Universe, the Universe is sacred and cannot be dismissed as unimportant or (worse) evil. Married clergy have a sense of groundedness about them that is not impossible for the celibate, but harder work to achieve and tougher to maintain. (Those who succeed are spectacular clergy indeed, however rare.) This may not be due to marriage itself, but perhaps to an attitude that the married, to succeed in marriage, must maintain: The Other matters as much as the Self. Life is not just me and God hanging out in a private garden. It’s me and God and everyone else sharing a God-given world that must be consciously shepherded for the use of all.

Obviously, not all celibates are dualists, nor are all dualists celibate. That said, celibacy, especially when pre-emptively imposed on all clergy, tilts the graph toward dualism because dualism considers sex unnecessary and the physical world as less important than the spiritual. Those who are willing and able to embrace celibacy are more likely to lean in a dualist direction, with a preverbal if not fully perceived impression that the physical is sundered from the spiritual and the two parts set against one another.

No. Give me a priest who dances with his (or her) spouse, who will raise a glass to the health and success of all present, and who understands the rocky road on which Carol and I walk because he (or she) has walked that road too, with a loved one close at hand. Give me a priest who faces the east at dawn and shouts, like Patrick, “I arise today by the power of Heaven!

I want a priest who celebrates the unity of all creation because all creation is of God, and all men and women are of this, His singular, glorious and undivided creation.

Odd Lots

Victoria Duntemann and Lady Julian

VictoriaDrumMajoretteCropped1940.pngToday is Mother’s Day, and I celebrate it in eternal memory of Victoria Albina Pryes Duntemann 1924-2000. But today is also something else: May 8, the feast day of Lady Julian of Norwich, denied sainthood by the Roman Catholic Church for daring to suggest that God would triumph over Hell. Lady Julian is my personal patron saint, and I have declared her the Patron Saint of Gonzo Optimism: All manner of thing will be well. All. No exceptions. It don’t get much more gonzo than that.

Lady Julian was very careful of what she said, and had to be, lest she be burnt at the stake by her mass-murdering psychopath of a bishop, Henry Despenser, who ordered the Lollard Pits to be dug near Norwich and then gleefully filled them. The message of Lady Julian’s visions, which she hid well and could barely believe herself, was as simple as it was audacious: God will not settle for anything less than the salvation of everyone and everything.

It’s one of those painful ironies that I heard of Lady Julian only a couple of years before my mother’s death. Victoria Duntemann’s religion was an insane Polish peasant amplification of the fringes of Triumphal Catholicism, and basically consisted of Hell plus debris. That said, she took it only a little farther than the grim priests of my childhood parish, who gripped Hell to their hearts like an infernal teddy bear. Whether they understood it that way or not (and I think some did) they defined Catholicism as what you had to do to stay out of Hell, which ultimately cooked down to obeying them without question and having as little to do with sex as possible. My mother and countless other goodhearted and sensitive people swallowed this blasphemy whole, and in far too many cases (my mother’s included) it crushed all hope from them.

Hell haunted my mother her entire life. I was at her bedside when she died, and I am convinced that she died of despair, fearing that sins either wholly imagined or minor and long forgiven would land her in unending torment. (Right: She who was a nurse all her life, comforting countless people and tending to both of her parents and later her husband in their final years, and giving ceaselessly of her time and money to the church that had taken such pains to terrify her–Hell-fodder, of course.) Managing my consequent anger has become one of the great challenges of my life.

Hell has got to go. It no longer frightens the evil, and causes only suffering among the good. It is an emblem of either a sadistic or a defeated God. Do we have the guts to imagine a better God, one who will out-stubborn the worst of us and bring the whole shebang back into divine wholeness before the curtain falls?

LadyJulianCat.pngAlready done: “And so our good Lord answered to all the questions and doubts which I could raise, saying most comfortingly: I may make all things well, and I can make all things well, and I shall make all things well, and I will make all things well; and you will see yourself that every kind of thing will be well.” Julian of Norwich, Showings, Chapter XXXI.

I may. I can. I shall. I will. What does He have to do, hit us over the head with a #7 frying pan?

I’m convinced. Given a few more years, I might have persuaded my mother. She understood me poorly, but she listened to me, and she took me seriously, as all good mothers must of the children they bring into the world. I built telescopes on her front lawn, and she was always willing to give me a dollar for one more damned pipe fitting to twist into the declination axis. She read and approved of “Our Lady of the Endless Sky,” which was my first published story, written in some respects for her. She didn’t read the pile of my computer books that she kept in a corner of the livingroom, but I think they got the message across that her only son was neither crazy nor stupid. Perhaps more significant than any of that, I think she saw something of herself in me, and recognized the ache for God that she herself felt and had tried to instill in her children. She was ready to hear me out long before I knew enough to begin speaking, but I didn’t begin speaking until she could no longer listen.

I managed to avoid the trap she fell into, and maybe that’s triumph enough. Mothers want the best for their children, and what I got was what she should have had: a religion that celebrates the fundamental goodness of all creation, and the inescapable love of God. She knows the truth now. Could Lady Julian have told her? (Better late than never!)

If not, then what are patron saints for?

A Very Bright Line

Today’s Big Question cooks down to this: Is Bin Laden more valuable to Al Qaeda as a live leader or a dead martyr?

Hint: Name one Islamic martyr.

Here in the mostly unchurched West it’s easy to forget that Islam is an expression of radical monotheism. Islamic culture brooks no competitors to Allah, and takes the Old Testament proscription of “graven images” farther than any other major religion. It’s not about the images themselves, as we sometimes misunderstand, but about the underlying psychology of worship.

Catholicism’s great genius lay in absorbing the pagan cultures it converted rather than destroying them, and in consequence we revere saints and sometimes inanimate objects that are images of saints, are associated with saints (relics) or express sacred symbols. These are Christianized echoes of ancient polytheism, and looking at the myths of early Christianity, it’s easy to see the saints in the stories as small-g gods: They are larger-than-life because, well, they are larger than life, and have ascended into a graduated pantheon that from ancient times expressed the connectedness of humanity to the divine. A single, all-powerful God is a relatively recent addition to religious psychology, but Christianity simply placed God at the top of the pyramid, with all the saints below, revered but not worshipped. (I grant that drawing that line has always been a challenge.)

Here and now we’re comfortable with that, but a close reading of Eastern history shows the sometimes bloody tension between monotheism and these ancient echoes of polytheism. I just finished John Julius Norwich’s A Short History of Byzantium, which went into considerable detail about iconoclasm, a religious conflict that tore through the Byzantine Empire circa 750. People were killing one another over questions of what should be revered, and how. (I think it’s no coincidence that Islam itself appeared barely a century earlier.) Byzantium basically anathematized representational sculpture in the eighth century, and afterward confined religious artwork to painted (not graven; i.e., shaped or sculpted) images. This was a compromise. Many in the iconoclast faction at the time wanted no representational art at all.

Islam goes farther still. It reveres the ancient prophets (up to and including Mohammed, considered the greatest and the last) but demands that worship be directed to God and God only, and is constantly on guard against the temptation to idolatry. Living leaders provide inspiration and are given obedience, but once leaders die, they move into God’s territory, and some very strict rules begin to apply to those still on Earth. Revering a deceased leader too much begins to resemble idolatry, and Muslims have a very deep caution about idolatry.

We in the West don’t call it “hero worship” for nothing.

My thought is that Bin Laden’s death will be an inspiration to his followers, but not too much and not for long. He was a very bright guy, skillful and extremely lucky, and Al Qaeda will miss him sorely as a leader. His power as a martyr and a symbol will be limited, however, in a religion where history and hagiography are separated by a very bright line.

Odd Lots

  • Good Friday — bad weather, at least where I am. When I was in second grade, Good Friday included a whomping thunderstorm that rolled over the Northwest Side about 3PM. It got very dark and scary looking, and (after several days of intensive Holy Week preparation in school, especially about Christ’s death on the cross) it was natural for me to think that Good Friday was always dark and stormy, a reflection of what happened in our Bible stories. Alas, the next year Good Friday happened on a beautiful warm spring day. Lesson: Characterization matters more than setting. Don’t get distracted by the special effects.
  • Besides, Friday is, well, Friday. How bad could it get? (Jesus could have died on a Monday.)
  • Finally, if you haven’t seen this, do take a look. (2.4 MB PDF but well worth it.) You may miss some of the humor if you don’t know theology-geek things like who Bart Ehrman is, but overall it’s hilarious, and in a weird way rather touching. “Roman Soldier is considering early retirement.” I’ll bet.
  • Carl Elkin has given the Jewish Haggadah the Facebook treatment as well. I’m sure I miss most of the humor by simply not being Jewish, but I do like God’s comments.
  • This is an old article (2003) but allowing a little for inflation it looks to me like an accurate systematic treatment of the costs inherent in mass-market print book publishing. The takeaway is that print publishers were suffering even eight years ago (they’ve been suffering since midlate 2000, in fact) and that it’s miserable trying to turn a profit on an $8 mass-market paperback.
  • The author of the above piece doesn’t talk much about per-book author earnings, but some quick envelope math indicates that (with some variance by contract terms) MM paperback authors get about 35c – 40c per book sold. (Note that I have never sold a MM paperback myself, nor did my company publish them.) This may explain why indie authors are willing to sell ebook novels for 99c: Authors get about the same amount per sale on a dollar ebook as they do on an $8 print book.
  • Here is a slightly scary but as best I can tell accurate description of the problems confronting print publishers. From the same author come unsettling hints that traditional publishers are botching the ebook business, and botching it badly. Misfeasance or malfeasance? What’s going on here is unclear, but the situation bears watching. (Thanks to Amy Ranger for putting me on to it.)
  • Pointers to this article by Gary Taubes have been coming in from all sides, but Dave Lloyd was the first to send it to me. The question of whether or not sugar should be called “toxic” is far less important than the question of whether sugar makes you fat–and whether some types of sugar (i.e., that ol’ devil fructose) make you fatter faster than others. Sure looks like it from here.
  • I don’t know how well this works, but it’s a brilliant concept: Put a pico projector in an unused laptop optical drive bay. Not cheap. Not now, at least.
  • How well things work? Wow: I haven’t seen a hardware review this negative in a long, long time. A tablet that won’t do anything useful unless it’s tethered to your Blackberry? WTF?
  • Hey guys! Long integers!

Odd Lots

  • Maxwell’s Demon as Web comic. (Thanks to GMcDavid for the pointer.)
  • Here’s a tutorial on adding a MicroSDHC card to the Nook ebook reader. Looks like a mechanically touchy business (be careful!) and nothing substantive is said about sideloading content on the inserted card. Sideloading of content is something I’m less and less willing to compromise on, as I do not want a censor between my slate and material that I want to read.
  • I’m due-ing diligence on the very impressive, Android-powered Nook Color, but the frontrunner in the Great Jeff Slate Project continues to be the Galaxy Tab, especially since Samsung is offering this keyboard dock. That said, Nook Color is the right idea for ebook freaks: Approach a general-purpose slate from the ebook side, starting with a killer ebook store and working toward everything else. (Supposedly, V2.2 and access to the Android app store is coming soon.) My view: Dedicated e-readers like Sony’s and even Kindle will eventually give way to more general-purpose slates of similar size, though slates may “lean” toward one enthusiasm (like ebooks) or another.
  • Back in 1983 and 1984, I did about 10,000 words on a since-abandoned novel that included a species of road surface that charged your car’s batteries as the car moves over the road. A pickup called the “board” (after surfboard) was suspended beneath a vehicle and hovered over the road surface via maglev to generate current like a linear alternator. I was pleased to see that Wired posted a news item on some guys in New Zealand who are developing almost precisely that. Not sure how well the math works out (especially with respect to infrastructure costs) but it’s a cool idea. I added another small touch: Ohmic losses in the “voltway” surface kept it snow-free in winter.
  • Pope John Paul II was an idealist. Pope Benedict XVI is a pragmatist. My SF prediction: As he grows older and sees the problems besetting the Church getting no better and possibly worse, he will begin considering other reforms that his uncompromising predecessor would have considered impossible. Hey, Bennie! How ’bout Vatican 3!
  • People who have lots of moles have longer telomeres. Or at least look younger than they are. Carol and I are both so blessed, mole-wise, but I think it worked better on her than on me.
  • If you spend a lot of time in the car but off the Interstates, take a spin through RoadsideAmerica, a bemused compendium of eccentric stuff you can see on road trips. I liked the entry on smiley-faced water towers, since we pass one in Adair, Iowa every time we blast back and forth to Chicago. And Adair is far from the only one.
  • From the above site: When we left Arizona seven years ago, some people nodded and said, Cool! Colorado isn’t as crazy as Arizona. Well…I’m not sure that’s true.