A Troubled Tale of Two Racisms and the Floundering Efforts to Oppose Them

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lThis wasn’t the first time I felt unwelcome at the mutton stand. In fact, it was the second time this server had ignored me while serving other customers. Just like the first instance, I initially assumed it was an accident, or at least that she had some other reasons for avoiding me, but slowly I started to wonder if it was my color. White people were not entirely foreign to these markets, but the vast majority of folks frequenting these stands were certainly Navajo. And it was beginning to look increasingly like this particular woman had no intention of doing business with me at all.

…which really sucked, because these guys made the best roast mutton in Window Rock!

What to do about it? In my younger days, my social tool kit was long on hammers and short on other options. I had enough sense to realize vocal complaints about unfair treatment of a bilagáana might go down poorly, but not enough subtlety to think of alternative ways to address the matter. As it happens, I didn’t need to think of anything to say. The other customers did it for me. A chorus of “He’s next!” greeted the woman’s next efforts to pass me by, some of their voices tinged with a sense of real irritation. I got my roast mutton that day. More than that, I felt a sense of reassurance. Although resentment of whites could be found in many varieties out on the Navajo Nation, so could a certain sense of fairness. On this day that sense of fairness won out and I got my mutton.

***

Let me start by admitting up front that I could have been wrong about the motivations of the woman who didn’t seem to want to serve me. Perhaps I read the whole thing wrong, and maybe my own behavior had somehow triggered her actions. Hell, maybe I really shouldn’t have been eating there in the first place. All this is quite possible, but I am going to ask you, dear reader, to accept for purposes of argument, that this was an instance of a Navajo woman treating me different (a little bit badly) because of my ethnicity. I think it is also an instance in which the members of her own community found this to be unacceptable behavior.

So here is the question, did I experience racism?

No, that’s not the question.

My real question is how do you go about answering that first question?

It seems to me that at least two radically different approaches to answering that question have become rather common these days, and it is getting more and more difficult for people using these different approaches to talk to each other about the matter. One way of going about it, which I will call the conventional approach (perhaps for no better reason than that it is the approach I grew up with) would be to raise questions about the motives and attitude of the woman who didn’t seem to want to serve me. Granting a certain range of answers about what she had in mind, someone taking this approach would say ‘yes’ I had been subject to racism. Another approach (let’s call it the social constructivist approach) is more common these days in academia and left wing politics in general. From this standpoint, it is best to inquire into the social power of the parties involved and then see how they use that power in respect of one another. Those adopting this approach might also want to expand consideration beyond the mutton stand to the larger patterns of history and contemporary politics. In most cases this approach would lead to an answer of ‘no’ to my first question, or even a ‘hell no’, perhaps with an additional lecture on the privilege of living in a world where slow service at a mutton stand is a moral outrage worthy of remembering nearly two decades later.

***

Okay, so let’s do this…

In the conventional approach, racism is a question of personal judgement and motivation. Racism consists in treating someone different on account of their race, and since all manner of people can do this, anyone can clearly be racist. The possibility of ‘reverse racism’ as it is commonly called is obvious enough with the only real questions being about whether or not this or that particular event illustrates some variety of reverse discrimination. Using this approach (and assuming I wasn’t missing something important), it is quite possible to affirm that I was subjected to racism on that day.

On it’s face, the conventional approach seems a perfectly reasonable take on the subject. People often use it to advance a genuine sense of moral obligation regarding how one ought to treat others, and by people here I do mean all kinds of people. Folks from all sorts of different backgrounds can and do frequently advance the notion that one ought not to treat people differently (or at least badly) on account of their race. This does strike me as a good thing, but the question is whether or not this is an adequate response to the problem of racism.

First and I think foremost, the problem with this approach is that it flattens the significance of discriminatory behavior, putting the denial of a mutton sandwich in much the same boat with minstrel shows, segregated schools, legacy contracts, Japanese internment, involuntary sterilization, lynching. and even the Holocaust. Hell, I  felt a little nausea myself putting my mutton-stand story in the same sentence with all those things, but the absurdity of that comparison is precisely my point. Addressing racism as an issue of personal motivation doesn’t do much to help us understand the difference between petty gestures and genuine atrocities. It isn’t that people can’t understand that there is a difference, but this approach to countering racism creates a fashion of speaking about them which tends to put them all on equal footing, at least for a moment. If we then want to talk about the differences between a simple affront and something that genuinely oppresses whole groups of people, then that talk falls somewhere over and above the problem of racism.

Unfortunately, there is ample evidence that large numbers of people never get out of that fashion of speaking about racism, that large numbers of people never really get the difference between a lynching and an expression of petty personal bias. Indeed, some folks seem prepared to recognize racism only if it is first prefaced with ‘reverse’. Time and again, advocates of social justice find their concerns drowned out by talk of reverse racism and stories in which the under-privileged prove themselves ironically capable of being the bad guys too.

…and in the ultimate poetic injustice, being discriminated against too, becomes the exclusive cultural capital of the privileged.

Don’t laugh. A few pundits have become filthy rich working that very angle.

It is no wonder that persons of color and their political allies often want to do away with this fashion of speaking about racism altogether. The conventional approach to racism is, as many seem to suggest, a well far too poisoned with all this talk of reverse discrimination to be of any real use for understanding the larger issues of oppression and injustice  in the world today. So, many of those interested in such issues have chosen to define racism as something that requires not merely prejudice but the social capital to put that prejudice into play with real and devastating consequences. Racism is from this point of view an expression of power, not merely an individual act, whatever its motivation. This is what I mean by a Social Constructivist approach. It’s a clunky phrase, and a grad-school cliché, but what the hell!?! It works.

It isn’t that people advocating the social constructivist approach don’t think minorities can be jerks; but they don’t see the myriad stories minority jerkitry as a meaningful part of the story of racism. From this standpoint, my mutton-stand story is simple a non-starter. The problem isn’t just the scale of harm (or the lack thereof); such stories are from this point of view a genuine distraction from the central issues of oppression that should be the focus of concerns about racism. It’s easy enough to get the problem with such stories in this kind of loose narrative; the problem comes in when people start trying to explain why such stories are as a matter of principle unimportant to the issue of racism.

Often folks taking the constructivist approach will say something to the effect that racism is about power and since minorities don’t have the power, they can’t be racist. This has always struck me as a terrible oversimplification, and I could only wish it were a straw man, or that its use were limited to less educated circles. But it isn’t.

To me, the core problem here is that the argument uses an awfully ham-handed sense of social power. We can talk of people having more or less power, but the notion that whites have all the power and minorities absolutely none of it is bordering caricature. For one thing, it doesn’t take a lot of power to hurt someone, and it is one of the perversities of racism that it may from time to time offer those whom it keeps from real opportunity the consolation of petty revenge against some unlucky fellow. Whether it is a personal punch in the mouth, a petty decision by a  boss, or a politician playing to his own base, there are plenty of persons of color quite capable of harming those of another ethnicity. One must also consider the possibilities of scape-goating other minorities, or even minority groups within their own community. And finally, there is no reason to expect that racism must always mean hurting those belonging to the race that someone hates. Often as not resentments directed at whole groups of other people precedes a shot to one’s own foot, so to speak. The kind of social power which makes racism a problem simply doesn’t rest only at one end of the spectrum, even if acknowledging that fact let’s an unwelcome foot in the door. Acknowledging the possibility that someone other than a white person might have the means to hurt people on the basis of race should not be difficult, but in short-hand politics, it seems many are happy to simply discount that possibility.

…which is definitely taking liberties with the facts.

It isn’t that an emphasis on social power means abrogation of minority responsibility to others, and I don’t think many people mean to suggest that; it’s that one of the aims of an emphasis on the social construction of power is to put harm to the underprivileged back in the center-spot of opposition to racism.

***

All of this leaves us with one very big problem as I see it. Speaking of racism as something that is by definition an expression of the privileged cuts so far against conventional approaches to the subject that it amounts to quitting the field in a sense, abandoning the larger public discourse. Unless I am underestimating the extent to which social construction has reached the popular consciousness, that approach (with its complete disclaimer of the possibilities of minority racism) is a bit too foreign for most people to comprehend. The reasons for such an approach are well known in academia, and in many circles of left-wing politics, but they aren’t sufficiently well known to guide public perceptions. So while those adopting a social constructivist approach can talk in limited circles as though only the ignorant or malicious would even think of describing racism as something a minority could do, large parts of the public take it for granted that it most certainly is, and that lunacy or at least dishonesty are the only reasons anyone would deny it.

The notion that minorities simply cannot be racist leaves a silence in the space where one would normally raise questions about rude, cruel, or even genuinely harmful actions by minorities. Often, advocates of the social constructivist approach will concede that sundry examples of such behavior are terrible; they might even suggest alternative words to describe them. I hear it time and again, the notion that racism just isn’t the right word for it, but what that word would be isn’t so clear. So, the more reasonable folks taking the social constructivist approach are not really trying to insulate minorities from criticism, but they are working hard to ensure that criticism is divorced from an important source of moral value, opposition to racism. Arguably, what is lost in this approach is simply too valuable, and like it or not, there are legitimate reasons for addressing questions about racially motivated behavior by minorities, reasons that cannot be reduced to the effort to drown pro-minority politics in a deluge of petty complaints by the well privileged.

In the end, denying the possibility of minority racism does not just silence those milking the reverse-racism angle for more than its worth, it also silences people with real concerns and sincere questions about ethnic relations. All too often, the right wing pundits are happy to fill that silence with the suggestion that lefties are just bigots in their on right and that this whole fashion of speaking is just another attack on white people. That may seem a cop-out to many advocates of the constructivist approach, but unfortunately the cop-out is mutual. An awful lot of folks are finding more and more ways to avoid talk to each other about this subject, and even to find ways of speaking really loudly while not really talking to each other about it.

It is extremely important to make a strong case for the significance of social power in the history and politics of racism, but that case poorly served by word games. As certain voices work very hard to ensure the public can’t tell the difference between affirmative action and Jim Crow, a large part of the public is unsure what to make of the issues. The difference must be explained, and yes, perhaps explained again, because those working reverse-racism molehills into great mountains will go right on doing so. They aren’t the  least bit phased to find that lefty scholars have adopted a way of speaking about the issue that side-steps their own gambit.

Far from it.

***

So, was I exposed to racism on that day so many years ago? Meh, …who cares? My real point is that I hear and read people talking about such questions in two very different ways, and more and more I meet people who seem completely incapable of bridging the gap between those ways of speaking.

It’s a problem.

***

Roast Mutton provided by a review of Sacred Hogan.

 

Requiem for Great Movie Villain: Damning Ms. Travers!

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saving-mr-banks-570My family moved to Southern California when I was eight. This meant exposure to new hazards; the high traffic of a city, the threat of earth quakes, and (worst of all) visitors. I used to hate it when people would come to visit us, because that always meant a trip to Disneyland. I used to beg my father to let me stay home, and the answer was usually ‘no’. I would explain to the guests that Knots Berry Farm was way better or that a trip to Universal Studios might be more fun. But no! They always wanted to go to Disneyland. It just went without saying that a trip out our way included a visit to Disneyland.

I hated Disneyland!

I didn’t have the word for it at the time, but what bothered me about Disney was the condescension. Disney wasn’t really made for kids; I understood that much. Disney was an elaborate fantasy for adults, a fantasy in which innocent children could be made happy with an over-abundance of simplicity, cuteness, and a spoon full of sugar. It is a fantasy in which children sit without guile or guilt and lap up harmless happiness without a care in the world. The obvious counterpart to Disney seemed to be Loony-Tunes where I could watch Bugz Bunny drive someone nuts or contemplate the never-ending battle between a coyote and a fast running bird. Knots Berry Farm had rides, real rides, and my comic books had gun-fights and explosions. But Disney? At least in its 1970s version, Disney seemed to think a smiling mouse was all I wanted in the world.

…and it just wasn’t.

I couldn’t help noticing that an awful lot of the tall people I knew seemed to think that damned mouse would make me happy, or at least they wanted to think that. And I couldn’t help thinking they expected me to smile when I saw him. the fantasy Disney sells has never been the mouse, the duck, or even the goofy dog. It has always been the smile of children, children who want nothing more than mice, and ducks and cute dogs. But I was never that innocent, and neither were my classmates at school. I didn’t just resent the whole charade, I regarded it as a threat of sorts, an attack on something deep inside me, something I didn’t want to give up. So, a visit to Disneyland wasn’t just boring, it was an assault on every fiber of my being.

I really hated that damned mouse!

So, perhaps you can understand the joy with which I beheld the entrance of P.L. Travers onto the scene in Saving Mr. Banks. She was rude, she was mean, and she was arrogant. Watching the opening scenes of this film was for me a bit like watching Godzilla cut loose in Tokyo and cheering him on the whole time. …or her on, as the case may be.

The premise for this film is well known. It takes its inspiration from Walt Disney’s efforts to persuade P.L. Travers, the author behind Mary Poppins, to grant him the rights to make a movie out of her work. To say that Travers was not so keen to see her darker, edgier character made into Disney pap would be something of an understatement. And of course the clash of creative visions here makes for an interesting story-line, a chance to watch two great artists battle over the shape of a creation yet to come.

Some might consider this movie a comedy. I consider it a tragedy, but for now I am getting ahead of myself. The P.L. Travers of Saving Mr. Banks is a terribly difficult woman. She is rude; she is unreasonable, and she is terribly British. …I know, she’s supposed to be an Aussie, but she seems to have gone full-limey well before the opening scenes of this movie begin to unfold. We will of course come to like her, but only after we have first come to regard her as something of a problem.And she is a problem, of course, because if she wins, then Mary Poppins never makes its way onto the screen. We never get that spoon full of sugar, dance with penguins, or sing supercali-whatever. For those of us who enjoyed Mary Poppins (and yes, I did) the prospect of a win for Ms. Travers is a counter-factual horror-story, a genuine case of a woman whose will deprives us of something we value.

Which makes her the perfect villain!

saving-mr-banks-screenshot-mickey-mouseUnfortunately, this power of great villain is undercut from the beginning. It is her publicist who introduces Ms. Travers to us, and through him we first come to realize just how unreasonable she can be. As we meet her, the woman is broke, and yet she will not do the one thing that can save her from economic misfortune. She will not sell the movie rights of her work to Disney. It’s a condescending twist, enabling us to see in Ms. Banks an irrational woman bent on her own self-destruction. What will follow is of course a story of more reasonable people saving her from herself, and in the process giving the world the joy that we have all come to know as Mary Poppins. And of course this movie takes great pains to help us understand this poor, troubled woman, giving us flashbacks aplenty from her difficult childhood in the hopes that we will understand why she grew up to be such an odd and unreasonable person. It is a terribly sympathetic vision, but is also a disrespectful vision, one which asks us to excuse her eccentricities when we should be celebrating them.

More to the point, the movie never really confronts us with the possibility that P.L. Travers may have been right about her own character, that Mary Poppins may have been more interesting, more challenging, and more enriching without the spoonful of sugar that Disney poured into it. It is Travers’ vision which the movie problematizes, so to speak, and so it is her vision which will break in the end.

Dammit anyhow!

To be sure, Travers is set free for a time in this film, allowed to be herself, and that is the moment when I love her, when she is terrible. Addressed on a first name basis by everyone from her driver to Walt Disney himself, Travers balks at the effrontery, and I can’t help but think she is right. Who the Hell are these people to get so familiar so quickly? I smile as she rejects the table of sweets brought to her on the first day, all bundled in Disney iconography. I cheer as she proclaims that there will be no music and no animation, and for just a moment I could almost hope she will win that battle. I stand with Travers as she hands out a harsh sermon on the difference between Dick Van Dyke and the true acting greats of her era. And I could not be more on Travers’ side when she first enters a hotel room to find it filled with stuffed Disney toys. There is a detail here that I don’t wish to spool, but what she does with that damned mouse is perfect in my opinion, and what she says to him even more so.

It’s fricking perfect!

But of course, this will ultimately, become a sad tale of seduction, and the monstrous Travers who threatens all our childhood happiness will be tamed in good time. We all know that Mary Poppins was made into a movie, and we all know that Dick van Dyke appeared in it. We also know that it contained some very catchy songs, and that it even had some clever animation. We know the movie was just the sort of bright-smiling Disney production that Travers spends her opening scenes railing against.

Some of us even know that P.L. Travers was never quite happy with the final product, but of course that is not the story that Saving Ms. Banks chooses to tell us. In this film, she is slowly convinced by Disney, and I want to cry. From the very first sign of weakness, a tapping toe, to the frightening moment when Travers comes to love her stuffed Mouse, I am horrified. This is supposed to be a heart-warming story in which a cranky eccentric is shown her own human side, and we are supposed to lover for it. But for me, this is a terrible tale of an artist broken on a wheel of insipid sweetness. Trust me, Walt tells Travers, and we are supposed to hope that she does. I could almost pray that she doesn’t.

The real P.L. Travers did cry at the premier of Mary Poppins, but not because she found the film so moving. Watching her vanquished once again in this new film, I can’t help but feel that same sense of nausea that Disney used to bring me as a child. That damned mouse took something important from the real P.L. Travers, and in this story, he is taking it from her again.

…and now he wants her to smile about it.

I know Why the Scaped Goat Bleats

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god-not-allowed-in-schoolsWhat’s the best part about using a graduation to preach the word of God? I imagine you are thinking that the best part about talking about God might be spreading the good word, right? Well you’d be wrong about that. Very wrong. The best part about talking about God on a public occasion is hope that it will piss off the atheists.

Just ask Joe the Plumber!

…and dozens of people taking advantage of the occasion to tweet about how this speech pissed off atheists over the last day or so. The anger of atheists plays a prominent role in most of these narratives. It isn’t the blessings of God or even those of a theocracy-Friendly SCOTUS that these people want to talk about; it’s the anger of atheists. Which is kind of flattering if you think about it. The most important part of addressing God is, for some believers anyway, what it will mean to us non-believers.

It’s almost as though the real point of the exercise has less to do with the Old Man Himself than it does with us lowly nay-sayers.

…in much the same way that the best part of prayer is not the talking to god part. Frequently, it’s the irritation inflicted on unbelievers when you say to them; “I will pray for you.” I mean prayer is hit or miss anyway, or just miss, but what the Hell, that look on the other guy’s face when you dismiss him with that special condescending note, it’s just pure gold. The good guy in the sky may or may not bring you a puppy, but if you address him on the right occasion (or at least threaten to), you can sure count on getting under someone’s skin.

Am I right?

Could it be that the best part of waving a flag is the hope that it will make some lefty uncomfortable?

Maybe the best part of printing God on your money is the hope that it will give someone conflicted emotions about his pocketbook?

Do you ever get the impression the best part of a really cool thing is the part where it pisses someone else off? And do you ever wonder if maybe that really cool thing might not be so cool after all, if it didn’t piss off that other guy? Cause maybe it’s really pissing that other guy off that’s the really cool part of the cool thing after all, and if we take that away, maybe the cool thing just becomes too damned dull to bother with.

…which is how God in the schools used to be, at least until someone made him a rebel.

Do you guys know that all the troubles in America began when God was chased out of the schools? Seriously, I’ve been hearing this one since I was a kid, so I’m guessing you heard it too. Now, a smart person might wonder how a god could be kicked out of the schools, but a smarter person would just peel a potato for Jesus and plop it in the stew. I mean, why ruin a good story? The bad guys chased Jesus out of homeroom, and then guns and drugs and teen pregnancy came in to take his place. Hell if only the Prince of Peace were still allowed in math class, no-one would shoot anyone there anymore.

Nope!

Of course, every good story needs a villain. Every rebel needs a tyrant, and every free spirit needs a stuffy old codger to make her inner beatnik shine. Even God, it would seem, needs a brutal oppressor, and that’s why the Devil gave us teachers, and atheists. They come together in the schools, or at least in evangelical stories about the schools, and the wonderful thing is that we can all identify with God on this one. We’ve all got that image in our minds somewhere, the horrible ruler-wielding fiend who made it his job to fill misery with a whole company of children from his own classrooms. Well now that guy is torturing God too, just like he did in our own eighth-grade science class, and all we have to do is pray to god to piss him off and all the people like him. And thus prayer becomes a supreme act of rebellion, a grand middle finger held high at the demons of our own childhood and those of human history too, or at least the evangelical version of it.

It’s a good story, or at least a compelling one, this Bible-wielding rebel theme.

The problem of course is that some of these rebels aren’t rebels. Some of them have authority, and some of them are celebrating the use and abuse of authority. They just don’t want the responsibility that goes with it. But what the Hell! WWJT?

Who would Jesus troll?

A Post-Profanity Bookstore?

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146Okay, I have to confess I’m all out of Foucault-based cleverness this morning. So, I guess I’ll just have to let this bookstore speak to itself. Unfortunately, the place was closed when I wandered by, cause I’d have enjoyed picking up a book here.

Mother Foucault’s

523 SE Morrison, Portland, OR 97214

(503) 236- 2665

Southitude, Thy Name is Portland!

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295I’ve been walking about a bit. I’m tired and I’m sweating. Whether it’s measured in miles or degrees of humidity, Portland is a long way from Barrow. Southitude brings with it many wonderful things, but I always find the transition just a little jarring.

I enter a wine bar and sit down. I soon have a number of glasses in front of me, each filled with a taste of a different red wine. The owner begins to tell me about the first one.

…and quickly loses me.

The features of each sample are quite lost on me, though the friendliness of the people here isn’t. I eventually settle on a glass of something red. I don’t know which it is and I can hardly tell it from the others, but I like it. “It’s good.” That would be the extent of my tasting note. My tongue is a bull in this china shop. This is a good place, but perhaps it’s a bit better for a different kind of customer. Luckily, I think there is one more mural somewhere down the block, something to look forward to after enjoying my glass of something red.

Oh look, Street Art!

(Click to embiggen)

 

 

An Uncommon Icon

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146What is this?

It is conspicuous placement, to be sure, but what does it mean? What does it signify? What is its author trying to tell us?

Personally, I think it is a bicycle seat of scorn, placed here in condemnation of all the vehicles that pass through the underpass. Its message is clear. It is saying to the city of Anchorage; “I see your motor vehicles, and your drivers too. I see the lot of you, and I do judge. I do!”

Course, then again, I am prone to flights of fancy.

God is Not an Apologist! (Except Maybe on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 8:30 to 9:45am)

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006

Yes, the Holy Bible comes in an Arctic Edition

Somewhere in the movie, God is Not Dead, the main character proclaims that the burden both theists and atheists must face is the question of how the universe was created. In this moment, I think it’s fair to suggest Wheaton speaks for the movie makers themselves; his voice is the one we are meant to believe, and in this respect I think he is also voicing the views of many Christian apologists. From this standpoint, the debate over the existence of God is essentially a debate over alternative explanations of the universe. And fair enough, I suppose, one can certainly approach the subject in this manner, but I wonder sometimes if people realize just how much baggage this leaves unpacked?

We could start with the use of deictic markers to reference one of the key points of that debate. The word ‘God’ isn’t a descriptive term, much less a scientific one. It is a label which points at someone without doing much to tell us anything about Him, thus bringing God (along with His presumed attributes) into the debate by way of presupposition rather than demonstration. Raising questions about the existence of god in this way has the effect of setting a lot of interesting questions about His nature aside. The typical manner in which we have become accustomed to talk about God thus grants a strong presupposition in his favor and in favor of a number of assumptions about who He is and what role He plays in the universe. By ‘we’ here I mean pretty much any of us who talk about the subject, including non-believers like me. We Godless bastards doubt the existence of the Lord, and yet in doing so we happily fall into a manner of speech that practically puts him in the room.

That’s a bad habit.

It would be nice if we could put this habit down to twitter-apologetics or something, but as I recall the approach was already strong in the work of Thomas Aquinas, and with him, in philosophy seminars throughout the world. But seriously, how often do we talk about alternative explanations for anything using personal pronouns for key terms? We don’t explain falling Objects with reference to Mr. Gravity. Meteorologists don’t tell us about storms by warning us that Mother Earth is in a bad mood today. And we certainly don’t expect our doctors to enter into dialogue with the causes of our aches and pains. “…the cause of your sore throat is a guy named Fred. I’ve asked him to leave, and he said he would if only you would gift him these blue pills twice a day for the next two weeks.” Anyway, the point is that this is one respect in which the very vocabulary of God-talk is damned tricky. In using it, we may start with interesting questions, but we end up discussing it in personal terms.

…literally.

The point here is that folks rarely examine the implications of that transition. But they should. Some of us may have qualms about using such sloppy rhetoric to try and explain anything, much less the entire universe (which is itself an odd almost-notion that could bear a little reflection), but you have to wonder about the proprieties of the matter? It isn’t really all that nice to talk about someone as though they aren’t in the room. It has to be a little rude to sit there and tell people about God making this and god making that when folks assure us he hears the whole conversation. We non-believers can at least plead ignorance if we turn out wrong, but I have to wonder about the theists among us. What’s your excuse?

Okay, tongue in cheek remarks aside, my point is that this whole fashion of reference to God throws every explanation sideways and it makes every theoretical explanation using God just a little conky-wobble, more than a little actually. The sheer awkwardness of that transition, seemingly naturalized by countless centuries of habitus touches on an interesting question about the history of this God. When did he become an explanation? It might have been the same time that he dispensed with all his companions and decided to become the only deity in town.

Most of your deities in classic polytheism just don’t play the same kind of role in the intellectual life of their believers. Sure they create (often by accident, …ahem, Coyote!), but they do not create out of nothing. More importantly, it isn’t clear that they are really there to serve as explanations for anything. A god of lightning may seem a poor explanation for lightning in this day and age, but one shouldn’t be too quick to assume he is really there to explain lightning. It is at least as plausible that those speaking of such gods may simply want us to think of them whenever we see lightning, in effect making the physical world (or at least its storms) a reminder of the stories told about them. This isn’t the logic of scientific (or even unscientific) explanation; it is a narrative style of its own. And the God of Abraham has his early days in those conventions. One searches in vain for anything like the rigor of Thomas Aquinas in the Book of Genesis, or even the rest of the Bible.

The God of Abraham was a god of war long before he was a First Cause. He was a god of agriculture long before he was a being than which nothing greater can be conceived. And he was a god of shepherds long before he was the supreme watch-maker. He was a god of many other things too, one of the being creation, but the conventions of that creation are not those of philosophical explanation. The account of creation we find in the Old Testament is the sort of loose-ended story-telling that one finds in the Iliad, the Mahabharata, or even the stories of elders in various native communities. The moral lessons of such stories and the ethos they facilitate are simply not those of the great philosophical arguments. We may use the same name to reference Him in each of these instances, but there is little reason to believe he is really the same person.

Truth be told, I suspect this is true of much of Christianity. The God who appears in the great philosophical arguments has little to do with the God spoken of in churches every Sunday. Small wonder that it is often the believers in the room who don’t really want to discuss the arguments for God’s existence. At least that was my experience when I taught Introduction to Philosophy. Each time I seemed to find myself, the only atheist in the room, trying to convince my students that the cosmological argument was worth thinking about, that the Ontological Argument wasn’t entirely insane, and that even Pascal’s Wager had its merits. Time and again, my students would simply proclaim that you couldn’t prove that God exists, all the while clearly insisting that he does. For me at least, the exchange was always fascinating and frustrating at the same time. I can’t help but think that my students were right about one thing though, that sort of intellectual exchange had little to do with their own approach to the subject. The God of the First Cause argument wasn’t really the God of their prayers, and it bothered them to speak of Him as though He was.

It isn’t really all that clear to me that anyone has to figure out where it all came from, so to speak, and it certainly isn’t clear that we must accept Christian accounts in the absence of an alternative. More to the point of this post, it isn’t clear that belief in God or gods has always been about answering such questions.

…or even that it is so today.

 

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