Tag Archives: coffee thoughts

Coffee thoughts: a pagan’s faith

“Faith is deliberate confidence in the character of God whose ways you may not understand at the time.” — Oswald Chambers


“Humans…by nature’s deep design  and purpose, are created for one another. They are meant to help those who deserve help and in no way harm one another. He who shrugs off the will of nature sins against the oldest of the Gods. He who tells lies sins against the same God. … Truth is just another name of nature, the first cause of all that is.”  — Marcus Aurelius


Here thousands of years ago, a grumpy pagan emperor (God rest his soul) had confidence in the character of God. He held on to what I sometimes struggle to hold on to: that the true God, the “oldest of the Gods” is all goodness. That he is a God who demands much of us: (1) to do good to one another, and (2) to cling to the truth.

The father behind all fathers. He stands behind every shadow and corner, calling our name.

And he is Holy and Just and True, burning us with his steadfast love.

Coffee Thoughts: Why do undergrads love WWII?

Why, academic historians ask, do undergrads love WWII so much? Aren’t there more interesting classes and more nuanced paper topics?

The answer is simple: moral clarity

Between all the HBO bodice rippers and the cynical histories with their complex grunge antiheroes… the undergrads are craving for a simple story with moral clarity.

You see, young people are willing to put up with hell, to suffer, to live when every day feels like a fight, if there is a point to it all. If there are forces of light and darkness, and the darkness does not prevail.

And they want stories that tell them that. Preferably true stories, that can promise them their life is part of the same.

Yes, the evolutionary psychologists can tell us that we humans just want impose order on chaos, it’s all contrived, our brains forcing patterns where there was none. Apparently we just desire it, to construct from the random facts of reality a “story” with a beginning, a middle, an end. Thus “history” is made.

But if that is all it is, then why do we want it so bad? Like the deep/universal grammar already in the newborn infant’s brain — doesn’t the desire alone indicate something?


Coffee Thoughts: Patriarchy and Extremism

I need something for a word that is commonly called “patriarchal”. However, almost every society is called patriarchal, which renders it rather useless as a classification term. If 99.9% of societies are deemed “patriarchal”, then it isn’t really a useful term for those wanting to make distinctions between one “patriarchal” society where men have harems, beat their wives, and execute rape victims, and another “patriarchal” culture where men are paid 50% more in wages than women. Clearly, neither are gender-equal, but there is a rather large difference between the two.

I think the lumping together of the two systems is part of the increasing polarization of today, where if you believe that women should primarily be homemakers, you are automatically lumped together with people that set girls on fire for not being chaste enough.

Besides, if you are interested in analysis (rather than polemics), you need a more refined vocabulary. “Radical” and “moderate” are helpful, but are still prisoners to the two-dimensional model where there are only two extreme poles and everything falls between them on a continuum.

I think that is entirely unhelpful, as first of all, (1) I feel like most of the time there are about 3 or 4 extremes in these issues, rather than two (think of a square in the “world’s smallest political quiz” here:)

Note that there are 2 continuums in here, making a total of 4 extreme positions (rather than just 1 continuum with two end point extreme positions).

Now take that pic, and make one more continuum (you will now have a cube with 8 faces/extremes rather than 4. I think that is the most helpful).

OK, and the second reason that I think that the “moderate” and “radical” and “extremist” terminology (even if modified with the above cube!) is unhelpful is that there is a place where east becomes west. There is a place where leftist communism becomes fascist Nazism, there is a place where anarchism and statism kiss eachother in their mutual hatred of the established order, there is a place where “holy warriors” gang rape in the name of their sexually pure and holy God. It’s the downfall of the human race. But you can’t just call it “extremism”, because the opposite of all those things (e.g. an unswerving devotion to human rights and human dignity and a good God) can be labelled “extremist” just as much. So…

[To be continued]

Coffee Thoughts: memories, God’s holiness, and bathroom travails

So I have a little brother whose temperament is incredibly similar to mine. Like myself, he had several crises over his salvation as a young child. Once (I think he was around 6 or 7) in an effort to atone for his sins, he promised the Almighty God that he would “never set foot in a room where sin had been committed.”

After giving this some thought, he found himself stuck in Mom&Dad’s bathroom. He guessed it was the only place in the house where he could be sure that sins hadn’t been committed (us siblings’ bathrooms had seen plenty of fights). After remaining their for an hour or so, he began to shout for help. My older brother finally came to his aid, and piggy-backed him around the house for awhile until his conscience wore off enough to start walking again.

At the time, he was quite embarrassed, and my older brother graciously kept mum.

A few years later, it became public family knowledge. I laughed so hard, having done similar things in similar straits.

My father, hearing the story, sort of smiled and then commented, “Actually….considering how much we all repentantly pray when stuck on the toilet– it probably is the holiest room in the house.”

Very true. My most earnest, heartfelt, and penitent prayers are probably there. I don’t know how kosher it is, but there is nothing like painful constipation to make you cry out to God, and start recalling all your past sins in a very repentant frame of mind.

I have been thinking a lot recently about confession and penance. Yes, Christians throughout history have very different ideas about it. But God allowed us to have very different ideas about it. Is it possible they can all be true…. that its tricky the way Quantum Mechanics is tricky, the way our observation (recursion) affects the very thing we observe? Maybe that is why theology and morality are so complicated, and so gut-wrenchingly simple, at the same time.

OK. That was probably TMI. But I think there is something important in there, that I remembered it now. I hope it isn’t too sacrilegious. But, as my sister tells me, giving birth to a baby (and pushing it out of your body) feels identical to the aforementioned biological process above. And as Christ said, that’s a coded symbol for what the Christian life really is.

Coffee Thoughts: My first religious experience

I spent a couple hours this morning reading the news, which was hard. Both sides are killing, one side by flashing sword and the other by smooth-talking empathetic apathy, faceless mask or compassionate speaker in the suit. And both sides mean well, and the zombie virus takes down both. And there are brave medics running to their aid, but both sides shoot them first, and vials of the only antidote are shattered and spill into the ground. OK, that sounded like jibberish. I’ll explain more later.

My first religious experience happened to me around age 7 or so. It was in this love poem. Mind you, I didn’t get romance when I was 7, so I saw something deeper in it.

The main character, Beren, is the sole survivor of a massive war. The people have all been killed in gruesome ways. The landscape is left barren and desolate. It’s a grey empty world, smoking ashes dead leaves. And then he wanders into an enclave of the elves, where there is life again, and spring.

As Beren looked into her eyes
Within the shadows of her hair,
The trembling starlight of the skies
He saw there mirrored shimmering.
Tinúviel the elven-fair,
Immortal maiden elven-wise,
About him cast her shadowy hair
And arms like silver glimmering.

Long was the way that fate them bore,
O’er stony mountains cold and grey,
Through halls of iron and darkling door,
And woods of nightshade morrowless.
The Sundering Seas between them lay,
And yet at last they met once more,
And long ago they passed away
In the forest singing sorrowless.

If I’d read it now as an adult for the first time, I think I would have written it off as just a love story. But at 7 years old, this poem opened the sky to me. The point is about believing in life, even after so much death. To throw yourself into the irrational wonder at the glory within a person and the stars, despite everything to the contrary.

I was in a little kid depression when I was 7, for reasons I won’t explain here. I couldn’t have said it then, but I really believed, at the back of my quiet seven year old mind, that the devil was bigger than God.  I think most people nowadays still think that. Screaming jihadists and smooth-talking talking heads. But it’s not true. Nothing is defiled beyond redemption.

We are all immortal, and the trembling starlight of the skies is here, all around us, if we could but see it.

Coffee Thoughts: on Social Constructs and culture as a set of coded messages

Culture is a set of constructs, coded messages, layer on layer, for the young to absorb. That is why fairytales are always about sex or character or respecting old taboos. Follow the weird old crone’s directions to the letter, even when it doesn’t make any sense. Kindness to powerless critters like stray cats and pleading bees will always be rewarded, and cruelty to the powerless will always come back to bite you. Beware of magic stuff. Consuming food/pleasure can have dangerous strings attached. Be respectful, be kind, be careful, follow the instructions.

Or dancing–in the Jane Austen Pride-and-Prejudice era (I’m thinking of English Country Dancing in particular, though Square Dance is akin to it), so many dances are about a man and a woman carefully hopping, weaving, bowing to, circling around everyone else. It’s an elaborate and restrained dance involving brains and work and being aware of all the other people on the dance floor who are part of the larger pattern. You and your symbolic ‘spouse’ in the dance are a team in which you both carefully navigate the elaborate norms of society together. Translation: marriage is about restraint, teamwork, and society as a whole.

Compare this to some modern slow couple dances, where the two of you have a close sensual moment while awkwardly bumping into everyone else on the dance floor, who have no part in your dance and are just there to be ignored. The message is clear: marriage (or romance/sexual partnership) is about your feelings for eachother, and the better it is the more you’ll zone out everyone else. It is about the two of you and your feelings–you aren’t so much a working unit navigating society as two individuals wrapped up in eachother’s rapture.

Stuff like ballroom and swing fall somewhere between the two. And I’m sure there are plenty of exceptions. But it is interesting how they are all saying something. Rituals always have a point. Fairy tales always have a point. Things always do.

Culture doesn’t “send” coded messages, it IS coded messages. It tells people who they are. Who they are. What they should become. What Role they must play.

That is why no action is completely insignificant, and everything matters.

Coffee Thoughts: why fiction feels truer than theology

I was thinking, why is it that sometimes fiction can touch much deeper than (attempted) accurate non-fictitious theology?

In the latter case (like what I am doing right now) we have to resort to abstracts, generalization, words like “women” and “courage” which are things that actually don’t exist (unlike the real persons and actions such as, Maria, Jenny, the-time-Elijah-jumped-in-the-rip-current-to-save-his-Dad, the-time-the-woman-stood-in-the-door-and-wouldn’t-let-the-drunk-soldiers-into-the-building-where-the-girls-were-hiding).

Fiction, while discussing made-up characters and made up loves, is actually more real in that respect–it gives a sense of specific-ness, it makes things personal, in a way they are in real life. A simple story can be more “real” in a sense, than all the theoretical accurate stuff. It touches something inside that the other stuff can’t.

There are pros and cons to both–different ways of approximating truth in our finite spacetime (like my favorite analogy of map projections). Another way to put it is the “subjective” personal knowing vs. the “objective” cold hard facts knowing. When we get out of the constraints of the spacetime of this universe (i.e. in eternity), I suspect that it will be possible to have the best of both–to know fully without the crutches of either fiction or generalization–that is, objective truth in all its personal-ness–with no need of generalizations or fictions or archetypes, because we’ll be able to know and feel and understand a million million personal stories truly and fully.

I guess this is the historian in me day-dreaming.

Coffee Thoughts: Return of the gods, Hollywood and tribal morality

I don’t pay as much attention to pop culture (or politics) as I should, but even a pop culture hermit like myself has noticed a recent trend in the entertainment industry towards…well, towards personal violence (as opposed to impersonal ideological violence). The pendulum is swinging back towards tribal morality, and this is … frightening.

In other words, in the grand old modernist twentieth century, people fought and killed and died for ideals, for “the sake of humanity”, for (allegedly) universal principles. You shot and bled for Communism, for Socialism, for Democracy, for the Greater Good.

Personal violence is the opposite: you shoot and bleed not for some fancy-pants rational ideal, but because of my personal feelings. This is what you get for hurting my brother, insulting my grandpa,  or attacking my wife. This is what I’m doing for the sake of my own, my kin, my honor, my brother, my future grandkids. This is all about feelings, my feelings.

The previous nineteenth-century’s heyday in Nationalism & Imperialism was the bridge between the two…an awkward hybrid between moral tribalism and the strident universal ideologies of the twentieth century. Because (old fashioned) Nationalism is based on ethnicity, it boils down to kin-ship (real or imagined), and hence is an outgrowth of that ancient, pre-historic unit–the tribe.

In the tribe, there is “us” and “them”, and you know “us” personally, intimately, familially. You kill “them”. But it is for the sake of “us” who you care about, because they have faces you know and blood you share. It’s a personal bond. Its the world of trusting who you personally know, of “nepotism”, of family loyalty and family honor and family feuds. Government is local, it’s small scale, it’s not an impersonal bureacracy. Morality is personal too–its not some abstract impersonal set of legal technicalities. Of course I’ll let the niece of my neighbor off that speeding ticket, and appoint my second cousin as the new district attorney….because I know them. I know these people. I can trust them. Over here in the (post) Modernist West, we look (both across time and across place) at societies that still function this way, and see “corruption”. What? That professor made his students use the biology textbook his brother wrote? Corruption and nepotism! “No, he was good. He was helping his brother.” To modernist eyes, its all graft & corruption & nepotism. To them, its loyalty and family honor. One’s honorable duty.

But Nationalism bound together millions…you can’t make it that far on personal connections, and familial ties. It’s got to be something bigger–if only just an abstract ideal about your (purported) familial bonds from some aryan tribe wandering in brotherhood to the verdant shores of what would become your country’s capital, in 500 BC. And out of this came ideas of being loyal to something outside the tribe, or above the tribe.

That tension was always there. The tale of the Horatio brothers in Ancient Rome (illustrated by Jacques Louis David’s famous “Oath of Horatii” painting), the brother kills his sister’s lover for the sake of Rome. She cusses and cries, so he kills her too, “thus dies all Roman women who mourn for the enemy”. His daddy tells the Roman people, yup, my son did the right thing, let’s not execute him. He’s let off the hook, the tragic hero. Livy tells the tale in his first book of Roman History. It’s a tragedy all right, but a noble tragedy. Rome matters more than the tribe. Yeah, stabbing your sister is a bit dark, but there has to be sacrifices all the same. Sacrifice your personal feelings and personal connections for the sake of this Higher Good–ROME! So here begins the idea that ran through ideology after ideology, throughout history. Always, as with nineteenth-century Nationalism, there was some (however tenuous) connection to the tribe, if only the idea of it. Ultimately, it boiled down to something…well, something local. Local persons, local earth, local gods.

There is no universal mandate, universal principles. There is no universal human family–there is our family/tribe/clan/nation/empire and their family/tribe/clan/nation empire. Us and them. We all have to be loyal to our bit. (Recall, the ancient roman word for being good and religious was “pius”. It’s about loyalty.) Morality is local. I worship this goddess because she dwells in the tree by my house. She is my neighbor, so she cares for me. Why should I worship the god of the distant mountain? He is for the mountain people. Let us all go about our own business, and hold fast to our own.

Then universal morality burst on the scene. It started with some Semites in the Near East. It kinda had a way of catching on. Eventually most of Eurasia was covered in it, in its 3 main strains: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. There is only One God. One universal God. So there is only One Universal Human Family. That means… we all got to obey the same rules, folks. And I need to convert you, now.

Postmoderns today look wistfully back upon polytheistic societies, with their lack of moral absolutes, with their live and let live….with their thousands of different varying gods, mixed together in eclectic pantheons across the scattered villages. Ah, there was tolerance. There was a time when there was not one “right” and one “wrong”.  No Crusades, no Inquisitions, no Jihad….

Not quite all roses and nonviolence though. The tribe has no claims on universalist dominion–yeah, you don’t fight and kill for the Universal Ideal, but polytheistic tribal morality has plenty of claims on personal violence. True, the local morality of polytheism (this “tribal morality”) is not as ‘intolerant’ as the universal morality of monotheism. But that is a knife that cuts both ways. As an undergrad sitting in an African Studies class at an Ivy League University, I heard my professor explain, “we hear of African tribes massacring old grandmas, and think they are immoral. They aren’t! They would never kill their own grandma, or a grandma in their tribe. They are just as moral as us. It is just that their tribe has a ‘local’ morality, not a ‘universal’ kind.”

The idea that, say, “killing civilians or geriatric female humans is always evil” is…. after all, a very universal, absolute moral claim.

So monotheism/modernism/universal morality slowly eliminates the blood feud…. and replaces it with the world war. And Western Christianity’s bastard baby, Communism (ever a strident universal moral ideology if there was one)  has caused 100-200 million dead. So…. is that where all fancy talk and idealism leads? Is that what modernism, with its earnest desire to save the world, brings?

Post-modernists seem to have their answer. We were burned by communism, we know it now. Its fatal flaw is that…despite its materialism and humanism…it is fundamentally (implicitly) monotheist, fundamentally universal. We can’t have moral absolutes, universal morality. Look where it leads. Now is the time for the return of polytheism, the return of no absolutes, of parallel and equally valid (or invalid?) “moralities”…. there are no hard and fast rules. And for gods’ sakes, lets try to get along. But beware any who insist theirs is the only right way. Then we’ll just get another killer, another bloody century of world wars. The damn arrogance of thinking you are right, are “correct”, and that other people have to listen to your ‘correct’ ideas!

Conservative Americans (myself included) look across the Atlantic and shake our heads, at those liberal, refined Europeans. Wimps, we think. Despairing wimps. Can’t they believe in anything and fight for it, can’t they stand up for something and try to save the world?

Our historical memory is a bit too short. Behind their cynical shrug and the sigh are blood soaked battlefields, hundreds of millions dead. Heroes all, dead for Causes, ideological causes, universal moral causes. First, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they fought them for Religion, as Protestants and Catholics hacked eachother to pieces and burned and hanged eachother, for the sake of their universal God. Then they dropped religion, when all that heroic violence sickened the stomaches of the grandchildren. But they didn’t give up on universal morality, on absolute claims, on proselytizing and saving the world, just yet. We won’t kill for the sake of the universal God, but we’ll fight and struggle and kill for the sake of the universal Good, for the sake of humanity. Enter, the enlightenment, the French Revolution, Progress and Humanity, Napoleon… Finally Nazism and Communism, with millions upon millions of bright-eyed idealists transformed into killers, rapists, and corpses through the world wars.

Oh, Europe tried, tried perhaps harder than ever America did. They’ve been there, done that.

We are still younger, not quite as disillusioned yet. Or are we?

Even America, that uber-ideological nation of the principled misfits and foolhardy castoffs from Europe, appears to be coming around to this liberal, European, post-modern view.

I’m beginning to think the writing was on the wall from 2008. Something very seismic happened with the American people’s rejection of the Bush Administration and all that it stood for.

George W. Bush’s “Global War on Terror” was really a crusade for spreading Democracy about the world, with the same universalist, proselytizing fervour of the old twentieth century communists (and anti-communists).

By and large, we’ve rejected that. Let sleeping dogs lie. Don’t interfere in a quarrel that has nothing to do with you. Let those foreigners kill eachother off, it is none of our business. Not that we don’t care about them, but…what could we do anyway. Besides, we’d be arrogant imperialists if we insisted on an absolute moral code, on One Right Way, that they ‘had’ to do. Let them do their own thing, dictatorship or mayhem, it is sad the way it is, but whatever.

So we are chill postmoderns now, huh?

But is this new polytheism, this Post-Modernism… truly a rejection of war and violence? Is this going to be different from the old polytheistic morality? Can we somehow, with this new polytheism, escape the old tribal morality of blood feuds and vengeance?

I’m afraid we aren’t.  Especially in the past few decades, it is disturbing to see how many movies and videogames and books…have been pushing violence, celebrating violence. Celebrating it far more than our old World War veterans ever did.

Tribal morality is coming back, subtly now, but increasingly made obvious in recent pop culture trends. And when the gods return, it is not only the gods of the field and fertility and the crops that return. There were other ancient gods… gods of sacrifice, the gods of bloodshed, and the gods of war.

To be continued in the next post.

Coffee Thoughts: Conversion by the Sword

Forced conversion is to evangelization what rape is to creating a family.

Rape isn’t horrendous because sex is “dirty” – rape is horrendous because sex is sacred.

It is precisely in that intimate unity of persons,  in that sacredness, that it becomes horrendous when it is forced by violence against the will. Precisely because religious union (the cleaving of a soul to God) matters so much, is what makes it a twisted blasphemy to force it by the sword, stake, or rack.

If sex isn’t a big deal, then rape isn’t a big deal. But if sex is a big deal, then rape is evil. And if religion matters to you at all, you should realize how ghastly forced faith is.

Coffee Thoughts: what is screwed up with modern sex

I have never seen my parents hot kiss. They just peck.

But the moment of love, is always that moment before. When my mom laughs at something my dad says (generally a very stupid joke), then she says something along the lines of “I can’t believe I married you” or “my husband is silly,” and then their eyes meet, smiling. Then she leans over and pecks him. It’s not the love in the movies or the novels. It’s in that grinning, familiar look they give eachother, a look of knowing through many years.

All this garbage with breathy music and alcohol and libido medications and perfumes and scented mood candles and naughty nighties is…scratching the surface. It’s pathetic. They only get the first 5% of sexual love, and then play it over and over like a scratched CD. And apparently the passion ain’t enough…you need all the perks & tricks & help you can get because even animal sensuality runs out after a spell. Apparently their sex is dulling…like an old bent needle, used again and again for that same old drug trip.

But it is wrong, because people aren’t old bent needles, to be thrown away some day (carefully, of course, in medically-certified sharps boxes).

These bodies were meant to be ancient temples. Altars. Where the Holy Spirit of the Most High God dwells.

It is true we are animals, but we are sacred animals. Profane, humdrum, ordinary things can’t be blasphemed. (It’s impossible to blaspheme a can opener, a telephone pole, or a slug.) But we aren’t ordinary things. Our bodies aren’t ordinary things. We are sacred. Every part of our body is sacred.

And so…because we ourselves are sacred, we can blaspheme ourselves.

The stakes are very, very high. That is why “it” all matters.