Saturday, September 25, 2010

My Guide to Online Dating Profiles

OK. I was checking out profiles on some online dating website things. I do this about twice a year to make sure I'm not missing out on anything by not making an effort to meet people and date. I'm not. There's no one in a 25 mile radius that I would want to even have a first date with. But the process of looking always manages to get my ire up. There are a few things that tick me off about how men do profiles. This might be how women do things, too. I'm not trying to slam on men particularly, but I don't look at girl profiles, so I don't know about them.

Stupid Sports Stuff

OK, so there are plenty of girls who know sports stuff and like sports stuff. But there are also a lot of girls who don't. So if you're choosing a screen name or an opening line or a list of favorite activities to describe yourself to a potential mate, you might want to make it intelligible to a girl who isn't into sports. Sure, most sensible women will respect your sports insanity. A few might even share it. But most of us don't want to hear about it. If you put that your favorite activities are listed as "watching sports with the guys, playing team sports with the guys, reading sports magazines in the bathroom, and scratching myself," I'm kind of left wondering whether you are actually looking for a girlfriend or just for someone to have sex with when you're not hanging out with your guy friends. If you are that sporty, you should really say "I'm looking for a girl who will share my fabulous sports obsessions with me." And you should really only say this if that's a deal-or-no-deal sort of thing. That is, is this the sort of thing that is so very important that you'd be willing to give up the prospect of having regular sex if you don't find a girl who loves sports?

Spooky "Submission" Stuff

There are a lot of Christian guys who write things like: "I want a Biblical marriage" or "I'm looking for a submissive wife" or "I believe the husband is the spiritual head of the family." -- [deep breath] OK. I was brought up fundamentalist. My mom and sister are way more conservative than I am. All three of us agree on one thing: statements like these are code for "I am an abuser. I intend to hit you and demand sex whenever I want and control our finances and make you my brood mare, keeping you perpetually pregnant until you have birthed my 14 children (which you are almost completely responsible for raising except when I need to take them out to the woodshed and discipline them), and not let you out of the house because you must be there keeping it spotless and making me three fabulous meals a day which you must figure out how to do for our little family of 16 on the grocery allowance of $11.37 which you are allowed per day."

Let me say something in defense of the whole "spiritual headship" thing (which will surprise the heck out of everyone): being the spiritual leader does NOT depend on the submission of your wife. You want to be the spiritual leader, buddy-boy, then start being spiritual. You get yourself holy and humble and faithful; you get responsible and do-or-die integrity driven and passionately intent on submitting yourself to Christ (rather than focusing on how well someone else is submitting to you) and you'll be the sort of person that a woman can trust enough to defer to a good bit of the time. Because -- damn! I'd love to find someone who I could trust would be completely committed to trying to discover and advocate and do the right and faithful thing (and who had half a clue about what it was). I'd probably be so absolutely thrilled that I wouldn't care if he left his clothes all over on the floor and the toilet seat up sometimes. But the guy who is that into discerning and desiring the right thing is way more interested in pursuing God and wisdom than worrying about whether his wife is going to do what he says or not. Any decent Christian is going to be a bit more worried about whether they're actually advocating the right course of action than about whether they're going to be obeyed without question.

And if you know that you've put a lot of thought and prayer into your position on some decision, why is it you don't want to explain or justify it? Either you think your wife is basically spiritually inferior (in which case you should certainly try to educate her -- and why did you want to marry her anyway?) or you don't care if she has seen something you haven't and you'd rather be obeyed than to actually do the right thing if doing the right thing means that she has any part in your decision making. Oh, and you might want to take a hint from Jesus and think about the good of the other people you're planning to be providing "headship" for. And since you, Mr. Spiritual-Head-of-Household, aren't actually God and don't know what's good for them in all circumstances, you might want to ask them. It's kind of crazy, I know. Just a thought.

Better way to spin this in a personal ad: "I want to follow God and I want to seek what God wants me to do to serve Him and to serve those with whom I am in relationship. I will put all of my spiritual energy into being faithful to God's will in every area of my life, including my dating relationships and marriage. I hope to eventually marry a woman who shares these commitments." Look how less abusive that sounds!

Oh, P.S. -- Don't say "I want to find a wife". Christian men say this all the danged time, trying to show how ready they are for commitment. You find a woman. Then you marry her. Then -- and only then -- is she a "wife". Otherwise, it looks like you're looking for someone who is already a wife -- to someone else. And that's a no-no. But it does make me giggle since I know you're trying to look all serious and chaste.

Spooky Chivalry Stuff

This is a bit different than the above. I have no problems with chivalry. I like having the door held open. What worries me are the men who promise the moon and manage to make you sound kind of skanky at the same time. These are guys who say things like, "I want to treat my lady like a queen" or "I want to snuggle and buy you flowers and jewelry and worship the ground you walk on and then rub your feet." It's like the opposite of Stupid Sports Man. And it's just creepy.

For one thing, it makes it sound like you're very... ah... "experienced". How many other ladies have you been treating like queens? Are you a gigolo? Are you unemployed and looking for a sugar-mama? Are you looking for needy women with low self-esteem because there's something really wrong with you? You manage to make it seem like you're hiring yourself out. Basically because you've said nothing about yourself except that you seem to derive every bit of your sense of self-worth from fawning over your "lady". Your hobbies are "taking my lady to the beach, cooking her a gourmet meal, watching romantic comedies, listening to my special lady talk about her day and her feelings...."

We the special ladies are suspicious. What do you do when you aren't in a relationship? Are you ever not in a relationship? Do you measure your relationships in weeks? days? hours? -- Forgive us if we don't quite believe you that you want nothing more on earth than to make us happy. But that's a lot of a burden to put on your "special lady." What if we'd really like you go have another hobby besides us so that we can have another hobby besides you? We are worried that you would cry about this and we would feel really guilty and uncomfortable. Because you know you're a real bitch if you make a guy cry who enjoys rubbing your feet.

Stupid Religion Stuff

Why does someone put down that they're a Christian and then say "I don't go to church, and I don't believe anything in particular about God, and I'm open to all faiths. I think there's some reason for how things happen in the world and that we should all be nice to each other." OK.... So I guess "Christian" now means "white"?

Or what about the guy who puts that he is "Christian" and goes on and on about how "Jesus is #1" in his life. He says that he wants a girl who "believes in Jesus Christ and is trying to be a Godly woman" but then in the requirements bit puts that he's looking for someone who is "Hindu" or "Spiritual, but not religious"? (I'm so not making this up.)

And then there are a bunch of people who put "Christian/Other" (as opposed to /Catholic or /Protestant or /LDS) and then say that they're Baptist. Or Presbyterian. Either they're some "special" non-Protestant version of Presbyterian or they have no idea what "Protestant" means. Neither bodes well....

Stupid Stupid Stuff

The big one that irks me: the education preferences. Guys just don't want to date smart girls. They do want, however, to say that they want to date smart girls so that they don't look superficial. And I should mention that I was specifically looking only at guys who have advanced degrees.

So here is what they do: they ramble about how they find intelligence a turn-on and love witty banter and high culture. They talk about all their degrees. Then in the "About my Date" bit, they put that they're looking for someone with an education of "high school--Bachelor's degree". Yeah. You've got a PhD and you're looking for someone intelligent who maybe just completed high school. Did you actually go to high school? Did you perhaps just repress memories of the general intelligence level of high school students because you were so traumatized from having your head flushed down toilets because you were a huge nerd? Did you go to a special high school just for people with genius IQ's? Or did you just get your PhD online?

No, it's actually because you, Dr. Smarty-pants, want a stupid woman. Why? -- Because you want to feel smart by feeling smarter-than. Despite having earned a doctorate, you are deeply insecure about your intelligence. Maybe you plagiarized your dissertation. I don't know. But it makes me insecure about your intelligence. I'm starting to agree with your evaluation of yourself and I haven't even met you. I couldn't date you because I'd be wondering, "Really?! They gave this guy a PhD?!" So you should date high school grads. They won't know the difference.

The only thing funnier was the guy who had a PhD and said he wanted a woman with "some college." That was the only option he chose. Not high school. Not a B.A. Just some college. -- What's that about? Just enough education so she isn't banal but not so much that the lovely bloom is off the rose of her ignorance?

Also interesting: guys who say they want a really smart woman and that they themselves are really smart when they have only a high school education or community college and are 40-50 and cannot spell, use proper grammar, or words that aren't text-speak in their personal profiles: Rilly, u no wt i meen? i jist wan 4 u 2 b w/ me b/c idk y prolly they're brain but intelliegents girls turns me on alots -- srsly LOL!!!!!

Of course, I have seen a couple of people who had advanced degrees and wrote like this, which is even scarier. I feel glad I didn't have to read their theses. Perhaps they had someone help type up that business. But if they're really serious about finding a date who is an "intelliegents girls" then they should have someone help them type their profile. If you are 45 years old and you are writing this to try to get someone to date/marry/sleep with you, you are either a pedophile or should be ashamed of yourself. Or you have a disorder and you might want to mention that. I have disorders. I'm cool with disorders. However, this disorder seems to be a textually-transmitted disease. That guy and his iPhone/Blackberry/3G-whatever are NEVER getting my number.

To aid in all this craziness, I have devised a new system of intelligence indications for dating websites.

Here are the categories for describing oneself:

  • "Average" (because very few people will admit they're dumb) -- I read books sometimes. I can add.
  • "Street-smart" -- I can't add. I might look at a newspaper or the comics. But I can drive a car and I've managed to make it this far without dying or being imprisoned for life.
  • "Sweeter than smart" -- I am mentally challenged, but I have other gifts.
  • "Unique" -- I am artsy or musical or a computer whiz, so I'm not really stupid. I think I have important ideas, but I don't really have much of an education.
  • "Intelligent" -- I've been through college. Maybe a professional degree program. I have read a lot of books. I think I usually have decent ideas. A couple of them actually are decent.
  • "Genius" -- I'm very intelligent and well educated in a wide array of subjects. I read in multiple disciplines and genres regularly. I have advanced degrees. I might have a bit of an ego problem.
  • "Scary-Smart" -- I have multiple advanced degrees, a good breadth of knowledge and a terrifying depth of knowledge about one or more subjects. My mind works very fast and most people think I'm weird.

And then, there can be several options for what you're looking for.

  • Dumber than me -- I want someone who will make me feel smart and special and who will defer to me as smarter.
  • Smarter than me -- I want someone who will let me out of having to be smart and I am willing to make "ooh! ahh!" sounds as appropriate.
  • Let's see who's smarter! -- I want someone about as intelligent as I am, but I am fiercely competitive and/or insecure and/or narcissistic. So I will always be trying to figure out which of us is smarter and trying to convince you that it's me. This will mean lots of fighting and insulting comments.
  • About the same -- I want someone who is about as intelligent as I am so that we can converse on the same level and keep each other sharp.
  • Who cares? -- I am hoping for a purely physical relationship; I don't care if you have a brain as long as you're hot.
  • There are deeper things than intelligence. -- I am either really into something spiritual, have been abused in the past and now just want someone nice, or I am hoping for a purely physical relationship but want you to think that I'm deep.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

ADD, brain wave frequencies, and binaural beats

I've realized that I'll probably never be able to get an ADD/ADHD diagnosis. Partly this is because they tend to look at your grades (especially those in childhood) to determine if you've done poorly enough to qualify for the DSM IV criterion that the condition presents a "serious detriment" to your life. So, basically, a combination of natural ability and sheer tenacity seems to have condemned me to a life of dogged exercise of sheer tenacity. Great.

Of course, even if I could find a doctor who didn't just think I was a grad student trying to score some Adderall, it would mean finding time to schedule an appointment. And make phone calls. And get my medical history together and my insurance information and fill out forms. And I am really bad at these things, because I have ADD. Correction: I am really bad at these things and having to do them makes me want to tear my skin off and stomp and yell.

And in addition to this, I'm concerned about the drugs. ADD meds are mostly stimulant medications. I'm already drinking a rather insane amount of coffee to try to keep my mind calm and focused. The scary thing is that it does work; I can tell that I'm more sedate and "normal" on coffee. Certainly, this fact will terrify anyone who knows me with unthinkable thoughts of how crazy I would be without the coffee.... But I am not really eager to get drugs which have side effects like "stroke" and "heart attack" and "death". Not that the non-stimulant ones are much better; they promise the usual digestive cocktail of nausea, vomitting, diarrhea and constipation. This would be on top of all the regular fibromyalgia tummy upsets.

So I despaired of a solution and told myself I'd just have to try harder. The problem with this is that for ADD people, trying just makes it worse. But then, completely by chance, I discovered the spiffy brain-wave research on ADD/ADHD.

Spiffy New Brain Wave Research

This is actual research, but I don't feel like linking to the medical articles. Also, you all probably don't feel like reading them. They're rather boring (unless you're a neurologist or a medical-type person). So here are the highlights:

Our brains oscillate. The little cells up there vibrate when our brains are doing things (which is all the time unless we're dead). And they vibrate at different frequencies depending on what we're doing. Or, rather, different frequencies of vibration help us to do different sorts of things. Most people's brains self-regulate: if the person decides to relax, their brain wave frequency decreases in response to their intention; if the person decides to concentrate, their brain wave frequency increases as needed.

Waves are classified by little Greek letters (which makes me like this science better). And since I'm sure you would feel unfulfilled if you didn't know this stuff, I will tell you about the different frequencies:
  • delta waves (1-4 Hz) -- these are for deep, dreamless sleep
  • theta waves (5-8 Hz) -- day-dreaming, drowsiness, have been linked to long-term memory, intuition, self-awareness and creativity
  • alpha waves (9-14 Hz) -- these occur during relaxation or meditation and are, to a lesser extent than theta, linked to creativity, visualization and cognition
  • beta waves (15-40 Hz) -- these are the normal alertness brain waves; at the lower end they pertain to focus and concentration on normal tasks and linear, logical thought; frequencies at the upper end of the range are engaged during worry, anxiety and hyper-vigilance and provide for faster reaction to the physical environment
  • gamma waves (40-70 Hz) -- these are the most recently discovered frequency group; they seem to occur in peak-performance situations; scientifically they have been shown to be linked to leaps of insight and higher problem solving -- as well as anxiety, hyperactivity and schizophrenia. Less scientific groups are deciding that gamma is a sort of "Buddha" frequency which characterizes master gurus and transcendental states of consciousness. Which, presumably, would indicate that the Buddha was schizophrenic. [Oh, the things you learn on my blog!] These frequencies are unable to be sustained for long periods of time and will actually cause your brain to hurt.
The neat thing that scientists have discovered is that ADD/ADHD people can be characterized by their brain wave production. Most people spend most of their waking hours in beta states with occasional drops to alpha (during moments of relaxation) or theta (during repetitive tasks). ADD people spend most of their days vibrating at theta frequencies. That is to say, we are as close as you can get to being asleep without actually being asleep (since if your brain is vibrating at delta frequencies you are, by definition, asleep). When ADD/ADHD people try to concentrate, they generally skip the lower beta frequencies and spike into higher beta and lower gamma (the realm of hypervigilance, hyperactivity, stress, and anxiety).

No dark cloud lacks a silver lining. People are trying like crazy to get into gamma and theta states because of the supposed pay-off for intuition and insight and vivid dreaming and all the stuff that sounds really fabulous to New-Agey generic-spirituality buffs. And yet, theta and gamma are basically where I am all the time! So, my lack of ability to focus is supplemented by whatever benefits there actually are from the processing done at those frequencies. Still, I'm not a fan of the high-beta stress and hyperactivity. And sleep-walking through the day is rather difficult, even if it makes me more "creative". So it seems that what I need is a way to make my brain vibrate at lower beta-range frequencies.

The New Treatments

Neurologists have begun to use this new information about brain waves to develop non-medicinal protocols for ADD/ADHD. One of these is neurological biofeedback (or "neurofeedback") in which the patient is hooked up to an EEG and gets to see his/her brainwaves in real time. The idea is that we can actually control our brain's frequency consciously but need to learn to do so by trial and error with instant "feedback" to self-correct. The problem with this (for me) is that you need a diagnosis, it takes a lot of sessions over a year or so to train you to do it on your own, the sessions last 45 min or so and cost about $100 a pop. Try getting an ADD person to be able to schedule all that stuff without going postal.

The other treatment is a bit easier and more accessible, if a little harder to check for efficacy. This is binaural beat therapy (along with isochronic tones, hemispheric synchronization, and all sorts of other scientific sounding stuff). It basically involves listening to some audio.

The way it works is that two frequencies are played, one for each ear (hence, "binaural" -- two ears). So you need stereo headphones. Each ear drum vibrates at a different frequency. The brain's frequency can be influenced by this external stimulus, but the natural frequencies we're aiming at are too low for the human ear to hear. However, the brain detects the difference in frequency between the sounds in the two ears and so the difference between the two is set at the frequency at which you want your brain to vibrate. The differentiation between the two sounds creates a pulse and it's often best to combine this audio with white noise, pink noise, some nice nature sounds or music.

So, you can find binaural beat files in different frequency ranges online. Or you can download software to make your own mixes. Or you can splurge and buy nice CDs or mp3s that have pretty music and special stuff with the isochronic tones (no idea what these do) or hemispheric synchronization effects (which make the two hemispheres of your brain harmonize). Speaking of hemispheric synchronization... another fun fact is that beta frequencies provoke more left-brain action than any other frequency (since it's useful in linear thinking). Basically, my brain very rarely does much positive left-hemispheric cognitive activity. The only time I'm in the beta range with my left-brain "on" is when I'm anxious and hyperactive (which is very tiring). So I'm wondering how much averse association I may have developed toward higher brain frequencies (which would maybe reinforce unconscious selection of theta waves... could be a factor in ADD... who knows?)

My Test Run

I got some of these beta/gamma beat files and had a listen this afternoon. Here's how it went.

At first, I didn't notice much of anything. I was trying to do some reading. I didn't get as grouchy as I usually do when trying to concentrate, but I wasn't particularly focused or retaining information either. After about 10 or 15 minutes, my mind was way more "on". I didn't feel any sort of magical tingling like some people on the ADD forum had described, but what was really amazing is that my mind didn't wander. It was a bit odd, because I'm used to looking for connections when I read -- which is good, because it integrates the new stuff, but bad because I can get totally distracted with the thought of the matrix of ideas and some other project I could do but, darn, I still have to do grad school applications and other reading and it's getting late and what's for dinner? and man, I feel stressed, I must have been working hard and have clearly earned some TV time, and gosh my cat looks cute....

But this time, I didn't get distracted. I noticed I wasn't distracted and tried to let my mind wander. And it didn't. I was into what I was doing -- although it wasn't particularly interesting. And I didn't feel particularly "sharp" or super "on" like I do when I'm having lots of ideas. I was calm, but not falling asleep. So that was sort of nice. But I'm not sure it actually helped my retention of the material I was reading. Further tests will be required. Anyway, the recording lasted half an hour. For about 5 or 10 minutes afterward, I felt the same. And then I started to feel really, really tired. I think what was happening there is that I was coming back down to my normal quasi-somnolent theta-wave state. But I managed to read straight through for 30 minutes without having to take a break or getting distracted and without feeling like climbing up the walls. So that in itself is a pleasant change.

I just need to test to see whether my usual methods work better for knowing material or not. Usually, I manage to work in 5-15 minute stretches of what might be crazy-fast reading with crazy-fast brain-storming of connections, if by sheer luck I'm interested in what I'm reading and feel particularly energized. If I'm not interested or energized, my work time is characterized either by extreme sleepiness or extreme crankiness and inner "boiling" as I try to make my brain concentrate by sheer force of will or serious distractability if I'm less strict about making myself concentrate. And if I'm doing something really long and less "original" and creative that is on a time limit without allowances for breaks (like writing final exam essays or doing footnotes for a paper), I tend to alternate between cranky and drowsy. And when I say "cranky", I really mean "angry at the world and should be kept away from sharp objects, dull objects, or any objects with which I could either end my own misery or take out my rage on anyone who so much as coughs and disturbs my train of thought (which it will take me about 10 minutes of serious effort to regain)." Wow. Whenever I think about this, I have no idea how it is I manage to get through my exams. I have particularly horrid memories of the OT 12 exam last spring. I was bringing every shred of my habituated virtue to bear (and praying ceaselessly for mad grace) in order not to throw a full-scale 2 year old temper tantrum and scream some really dirty things about Eccelsiastes and then hit people in the middle of the Divinity school. My essays were basically illegible. But I passed.

Still, I'm such a nut that I'd rather go through all that angst rather than be able to concentrate painlessly and easily at the expense of the capacity for the sort of cognitive processing, intuitive understanding and relational big-picture meaning-making that I'm accustomed to. Go figure.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Fake Languages Hit-List: Koine

My background is in Classics, so I have a lot of angst with the seminary culture of "Koine Greek".
I'm sure many people think that this is just snobbish of me, that my reservations are some sort of katherevousizing complex, but this is not the case. OK, I just used the word "katherevousizing" which refers to a classical revival in Modern Greek which sought to purify (katharos) the language of more recent additions (including Slavic vocabules), so obviously I'm a bit of a snob. Or at least, a total geek. But the deep antiquarian delight in more ancient forms of a language is not why I hate Koine. If it were, then I'd insist we toss Attic Greek for Mycenaean. In fact, since the alphabet itself is a later Semitic borrowing, I'd insist we go back to the Linear B syllabary. But that's not my problem with Koine.

My problem with Koine is that it is NOT a language!

I keep hearing people talk about "Koine Greek" as if it were a language. Koine is NOT a language. It's a dialect. The language is Greek. Yes, I've taken linguistics courses and yes, I know that the line between language and dialect can get very blurry. But there is a line. I just want there to be a little bit of respect for the line and for the Greek language in general. So here's a little history/historical linguistics lesson (with my running cranky commentary). If you know all about the history of Greek, then you can skip this and go to the proper part of my rant.

History of Greek and "Koine"

Once upon a time, there were some folks hanging out on the Balkan peninsula. This was a long, long time ago. We have no idea what language they spoke or what language family it was in. Then some other guys showed up from the steppes of Asia who had an Indo-European language. They liked things like horses and cows and kings.

Anyway, these Indo-European folks pretty much started dominating. And their language is more or less what can be called "Greek". This language pretty much broke down into three big dialectical groups at a pretty early period: Doric, Attic-Ionic, and Arcado-Cypriot. There is a bunch of debate over when -- whether there was a Dorian invasion, Dorians in the Mycenaean period, etc. etc. -- But this is a short history lesson. So basically around 800 BC we had these three big language groups. All three of them are still Greek.

How are these dialects different? Mostly really little ways. Like, Attic-Ionic likes a long eta (ê) where Doric and Arcado-Cypriot like long alpha. They do different things with dentals -- alternating s and t -- that sort of thing. There's some difference in how labio-velars developed (that's an original kw sound that comes to be a plain old plosive -- t or p or k, depending on dialect and on what kind of vowels are around it). There are variations in aspiration (where you get breath or h sounds) and in really basic words like prepositions and particles (ei, ke, an, etc.)

That's pretty much it. Now, granted, in some of the sub-dialects, things can get pretty freaky. Reading Sappho's Lesbian Greek throws a bit of a curve to someone who's only done Classical Attic Greek. And don't get me started on Boeotian. Boeotian is just *special*. But if you know one dialect really thoroughly, you can learn the others lickedy-split.

So everyone in the city-states is going along, speaking their dialects for a few centuries. They can mutually understand each other (except Boeotians) and laugh at how people from other poleis (plural of polis; there will be a quiz...) talked funny. Life was good.

But then around, oh, 350-300 B.C. things started getting bad. The Peloponnesian war never got resolved and the crankiness between Athens and Sparta meant that everybody got pulled into it and some new major players started emerging. Like the Thebans (who were Boeotian, but that actually doesn't matter). The real problem was the Macedonians.

The Macedonians were up there in Thrace. ("Up" as in "north" and as in "there are some mountains"). They wanted to be cool, but basically they were barbarians, meaning that they didn't quite speak Greek. Thracian was different enough to not count as Greek. They also had blond hair and horses. But they were all like, "Hey, the Greeks are totally not up to being cool anymore, so we can be cool. Let's get cultured and out-Greek the Greeks. And then let's conquer some stuff."

So that's what they did. They brought Aristotle up to their capital at Pella to educate the royal prince Alexander. The cultural education part didn't quite take -- except for homoeroticism and a bit of mythological veneer. But the conquering part worked out well. He had to do it fast, because the Macedonians couldn't keep their act together long enough to sustain a lengthy plan of world conquest. So he conquered most of the known world and a some of the unknown parts. He probably would've made it to Alaska, but it got cold and he got sick and he died.

And so there was suddenly a whole bunch of turf that was nominally Greek, with lots of cities named "Alexandria" (because if you're conquering the world, then, by golly, you want to make sure everyone knows your name!) And the people left in charge of stuff were Alexander's old army-buddies from the washed-up remains of the Greek city-states of yore. So, people had to start speaking Greek.

But they didn't know Greek, except perhaps a very little bit for trade. They had no ties to any of the particular city-states with their particular dialects. So they spoke a pretty watered-down version of Greek. It was mostly Attic with a few Ionic and Doric elements thrown in for size. But they dropped some of the more "precise" bits of the grammar. After all, how often do we really need a future perfect? And we can certainly be a bit lax about what's a job for the subjunctive and what is optative territory, can't we? Sure. And different areas will throw in a bit of their own stuff. Everyone does that. If you go somewhere and they've got some kind of fruit you don't have, you don't say, "Stop! Hold everything! I need to make up a new name for this fruit in my own language!" You just start talking about "papayas" and "mangos". No big deal.

The Pure, Unadulterated Rant

This, my friends, is Koine. It's a homogenized and diluted version of Classical Greek dialects (primarily Attic like they spoke in Athens).

Koine is not, contrary to the opinion held by Biblical scholars (that erudite and over-Germanicized bunch!) until quite recently, "a special wonderful religious language made up by God just for the Gospels!"

Koine is not to be listed as a separate language attainment alongside Classical Greek. That's what Special-Semitic-Languages boy did in one of my classes, boasting that he knew "Greek, Classical and Koine". And I was there debating about taking him down by piping up, "Oh, I should correct myself then. I said I knew Greek -- what I meant was: all the Classical dialects, Koine, Byzantine, Mycenaean, and the Homeric Kunstsprache." But the whole point of graduate school is to teach you not to do undergraduate crap like that.

Koine is also not to be pronounced much differently than Attic Greek. There are three differences. Count them. Three:

1) You can make the aspirates into fricatives. People do this on classical Greek, too. It's annoying, but permissible. This means, that the phi, theta, and chi -- which were originally pronounced as p, t, and k with a little puff of air after them, just kind of breathy (hence "aspirate") can sound like the English fricatives f, th, and German/Scottish ch. These changes actually happened during the period in question when "Koine" was spoken.

2) You are permitted to drop iota subscripts on long alpha, eta, and omega and just say "a", "ê" and "ô". People doing classical Greek do this, too. Which is also bad. They were diphthongized in the classical period and you could hear the "i". But you can do this and I won't get ticked at you, Koine-learners.

3) You can treat the accents as stress accents rather than as pitch accents. This means you can just stress the syllable with an accent on it. Earlier, it indicated the rise or fall of the pitch of hte voice. Again, this is something people do with classical Greek that probably they shouldn't. There is no clear evidence for the switch from pitch to stress until the 4th/5th c. A.D. with Gregory of Nazianzus' poetry and Nonnus' Dionysiaca. [Trust me. I know this stuff.] Still, I'm more tolerant about this because very few people do the pitch accent. We're rarely taught and so it just confuses people. I always do pitch accents with Homer, but the rest of the time I'm pretty lax.

Here are things that people keep doing with the koinê that really really irk me. I am warning you. I'm about to start being the Greek police and giving you citations in the halls. And don't tell me that your happy grad-student Greek teachers are telling you to do this. I will happily give THEM citations, too. I will give professors citations. Because this isn't about some little adiaphora matter-of-opinion stuff. This isn't theology. This isn't happy-sappy me-and-my-Jesus hermeneutics. There's a right and a wrong here. This is Greek.


Here's what you had better quit doing:

1) Stop calling the Div-School class "Hellenistic Greek". Seriously, can you read real Hellenistic Greek after this class? Can you sit down with some Callimachus? Apollonius of Rhodes' Argonautica? I don't think so. Are you reading a bunch of papyri or non-literary Greek? I don't think so. Just suck it up and call it "New Testament Greek" or even "Biblical Greek" (on the assumption that you'll be able to hack the Septuagint and non-canonical works).

2) Quit pronouncing things wrong. Really. I know why you do it, but there's no real excuse. In the textual transmission of the Bible there is ample evidence that some of the vowel levelling that happened to make Modern Greek what it is was going on. You know -- how almost all the vowels started sounding like "ee"? The fancy term for this is itacism. I don't like it. Not only that, but it's a much later phenomenon. We're talking early middle ages. It affects the transmission of Biblical text, yes. But no one was talking like that in Bible times. Upsilon does not sound like eta. Eta does not sound like iota. Upsilon does not sound like iota. Omicron-upsilon sounds different than just plain upsilon. -- But epsilon-iota does sound like eta. That's it. One sound-alike. That's all you get.

2b) And what the heck is your beef with omicron??? Poor little omicron, he is so mightily abused! Everyone seems to want to say the "o" vowel like it's an "a". I think this might be an American problem. We just can't say "o" properly. And the pronunciation guidelines for Greek in books stem from guidelines given in British school-texts. But British kids actually say the vowel in "not", "caught", or "ought" as "o". And so do I. But most Americans seem not to. At the Wells' house, I asked for coffee and Sam said, "Oh, you want coffee then, and not caffee; brilliant." I said, "What is caffee?" He said, "I'm sure I don't know, but a lot of people seem to want it over here."

Basically, "omicron" is a "little o". It's the same "color" vowel as "omega" (which means, literally, "big o"). It has the same place of articulation as the big o, but it doesn't last as long. Either make a short version of omega, or at least say omicron as "awww" with lots of rounding of the lips. As it is, when all you Koine-people read Greek out loud I have no idea if you're saying alpha or omicron. It's really very bad. This one might be worth a double-citation because someone has to stick up for omicron. Poor little guy....

3) Don't be a tool. This goes for people who know start with Classical and people who start with Koine. Think of Classical Greek as... oh, say... Samuel Pepys. And think of Koine as "Dick and Jane". -- OK. That's not quite fair... More like Goodnight, Moon. Obviously, the kids who read Goodnight, Moon are reading the same language as Pepys; there's just a lot less of it -- less vocabulary and only the simpler parts of grammar. But it's not a different language. Still, if you can read Pepys, you can definitely get through Goodnight, Moon without batting an eye. But people trying to read some Patristics or Plato after a year or two (or three, or even four) of Koine are really going to have their work cut out for them!

I'm irked by everyone here (which makes me suspect that certain people will be deeply irked by me -- oh well). I'm annoyed by people who do Koine for a year or two or three and then waltz around feeling very special about their Greek. When I say I studied Greek or know Greek, they say, "Oh, me too!" I feel this way also about doctoral students who do New Testament and feel spiffy about the Greek. I totally respect your Bible-reading skills. But being able to read one book in a foreign language isn't the same thing as knowing the language. Sorry. Once you're reading some things that aren't in Goodnight, Moon language (earlier stuff, literary Hellenistic stuff, later Patristics stuff), then I will give you Greek props.

I'm also ticked off by the people who have done classical Greek and feel vastly superior to the world. Guess what, classics people: you know more than the Koine folks because... they're only learning Koine! You are only special to the extent that everyone else is deprived. It's sort of like saying, "I got creme brulee and that beats the rice krispies bar you got! I am better than you! I win!" Seriously. Don't be a tool.

Especially because my Greek beats yours, classics undergrads. I've read Greek as a large part of my life at a very high level for a good chunk of time. I edit the translations of classics professors. I eat your lexica for breakfast because I don't use them to read but only for research. The strong undergrad-level Greek student's work looks kind of like macaroni art to me. Sorry, but it's true. Please quit bragging to me. It hurts to listen and have to refrain from squashing you.

And also, please tell everyone you know here that I know Greek. Can we just have a little notice on the website that says "Jen is resident student Greek and Latin expert"? It's not to stroke my ego -- it's that I really hate having people offer to help me with my patristics Greek stuff because they're taking or have taken "Koine 101" or some undergrad Greek classes. I know they mean well and that not everyone doing patristics really knows the languages. I know they're trying to be all ministerial with their mad Greek skills. It's very Christian. But it feels like having someone offer to help me use the bathroom. I can do it myself. Really.

Sorry that I got snarky there. The point isn't how special I am. It's how very relative "special" is. If I weren't here, someone else would be "most special at Greek". So what? Why don't we infuse some specialness into the SYSTEM where everyone can enjoy it? How about that?

I wish I had power. I want to stage a coup of the Greek classes. Except that I know the grad students teaching "Hellenistic Greek" need that stipend money to put food in the mouths of their wee, starveling children/dogs. I want Greek to be taught in such a way that: 1) it gets done properly (with people not dissing my buddy omicron), 2) it is easier for people who just want to do Bible, and 3) it makes going further easier for the people who want to do more than just Bible. Classical language pedagogy is very, very fraught. Even the usual trends for correcting it are also fraught. I would love to fix it all, but even with my mad language skills, I'm just one little voice crying in the wilderness -- without a PhD. It's not your fault; it's not your teachers' fault. It's probably not even their teachers' fault. The fraughtness goes way, way back to British schools where boys were seven when they learned Greek and Latin and could be beaten when they bungled a paradigm. Seriously. This is where most of today's methods come from. The "newer" methods just put some liberal Romanticized veneer on top of this in the optimistic belief that a person can just look at Greek or Latin and magically read it as long as there are some pictures. This is how it is. And it's pervasive. We can only do what we can.

...But don't diss the omicron anymore or there will be consequences. You've been warned.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Dr. Strangelove (or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and "Enjoy" Augustine)

I have had a nearly infamous love-hate relationship with Augustine of Hippo: I love hating on him. I will not pass up an opportunity to make a snide comment about Augustine and if his name is mentioned, I cannot help making a sour face. This is because I have a long and injurious history with doctrines of predestination and I think some of his ideas (like the "will" and his Modalist Trinity analogy and his traducian doctrine of Original Sin) are just silly or bad or both. So I like to give Augustine a hard time and make my opinion known, and the rest of this very Occidentally inclined Divinity School like to give me a hard time about not liking Augustine. It's a bit of a meme; it works for me.

But today I was forced to admit that I'm coming to love Augustine. A little bit. With reservations and qualifications. But, yeah... OK. He's kinda cool.

Of course, I couldn't manage to finally be "in" with the Augustine-loving crowd as I was converted to Augustine-fandom; rather, I realized the depths of my feelings for Augustine when the rest of my seminar on Theology and Language united in the first time in DDS history to attack what they judged the most horrific doctrine Augustine has ever advanced. And I -- I who had reviled him so oft -- was now the chivalrous defender of the bishop betrayed by his erstwhile devotees. It got heated. People were making all kinds of personal attacks on poor Augustine in absentia; if he'd been there, they might have tarred and feathered him and run him out of the Div School on a rail. It was a little intense.

You might be wondering what Augustine said that so outraged everyone but which inspired me to defend the theologian I love to hate.

This was it: We should use people rather than enjoying them for their own sakes. (De Doctrina Christiana, book 1)

Everyone hated this. Here is a compilation of the conversation.

Augustine-Attacker #1: We can all see how obviously bad this argument is. How can we love our neighbor if we're supposed to not love them for themselves? I mean, he just puts this out there without even backing up this argument. Then he starts equating "use" with "love".

Jen: Well, we've got a lot of baggage with the word "use" such that it means "objectify" or "abuse". Latin wasn't like that. The difference is that it implies instrumentality whereas "enjoy" implies that something is ultimately sufficient for enjoyment in itself. Since God's immaterial and self-existent, people get their goodness *from* God. So they are proximate and contingent goods. But God is the ultimate and non-contingent good. See? It's a language thing.

Attacker #1: It's just not loving someone if you're using them -- even if you're using them to get to God somehow or to enjoy God through them.

Jen: No, no! It would be bad if you "enjoyed" people. It's not like "use" is totally devoid of any delight or relishing or what we would call "enjoyment". For Augustine, "enjoy" is where you stop -- what in itself is ultimate and sufficient. People aren't that. Only God is that. People are finite and material and created.

Attacker #2: Nobody can call themselves a Christian if we act like this today. We're supposed to love each other. Augustine even goes so far as to say that we only love the human part of Jesus as a means to an end -- to the immaterial God part! We don't love Jesus for his humanity and his body! I mean, we can all see how bad that idea is. It's just... gnostic!

Jen: No... there's context here... it's sort of given that immaterial and eternal is good and transient and finite is less-good. It's culturally assumed... but maybe, you know, it's also actually faithful and stuff, to the Bible and who God is... right, guys?

Attacker #3: Yeah, we have to remember the historical context. I mean, Augustine wasn't so great in the whole marriage department. He had all those relationship problems and sent his baby-momma away and all that.

Jen: He was trying to be chaste!

Attacker #3: And he never did get married after that, so obviously he had some deficiencies when it came to loving and relating to people. He was nasty to the Donatists, too. So, we probably shouldn't pay too much attention when he talks about love and using people.

Attacker #4: Yeah, like, are you going to tell your wife that you're only loving them as a way of loving God? You enjoy them, but only by themselves, only in some relation to God?

Jen: (is thinking deeply about her own singleness with lots of shame and embarassment). Yes! I mean... even married people, you don't stop and just say, "You're all I need; I'm just going to enjoy you and not keep moving toward God" because that's idolatry!

Attacker #4: No, not idolatry -- it's like, people get married and they can practice enjoying God so that then in the eschaton they know how to enjoy God for real.

Jen: !?!?!?!?!?! (struggling not to have fit of apoplexy)

Geoffrey Wainwright: We'd better take a break and then we can move on to discuss Athanasius.

Seriously: "practice"?! Why? Because we can't start working on enjoying God now? We have to wait God's not available yet?And what is this "enjoying God for real" that we have to practice with spouses? I'm having Cappadocians sexchaton debate flashbacks and lots of uh-oh feelings here...

I need to wear a sign that says, "Before you say, 'Of course, today, we don't believe x,' when we're reading the Fathers, there's something you should know : I'm a Platonist, too." (Will someone make me a sign?)

So Augustine and I have made it up. And I've decided that if I ever get married, I want it written into the vows that we promise only to "use" and not "enjoy" each other. It would totally scandalize just about everyone in attendance, but hey -- you can't please all the people all the time.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Death, Language, Theodicy

Some of you may know that my grandmother died this summer. And my cat has been sick. And yesterday, my cousin died of an inoperable tumor. I don't mean to blog this all up into some confessional, maudlin affair, but I fear I am disconsolate. Not in the sense that I am deeply grief-stricken; I won't pretend to that. I mean the term more etymologically. I am difficult to console.

Somehow it seems that loss just makes me hyper-critical. People (including those whom I respect and whose words I usually hear quite gladly) offer well-intentioned expressions of sympathy and I find myself analyzing and dissecting and evaluating every word and phrase. And it's not a defense mechanism, a deadening of emotion or a suppression of vulnerable feeling beneath the hardened exterior of cold, dry logic. Rather, the experience of loss is so complex and varied, so compellingly present, that I need the truth of it.

I'm in a course called Death, Grief, and Consolation this semester and part of the requirement is that I write a sermon which is to be graded not only on its theological foundations but also on its ability to offer comfort to the bereaved. I'm a bit worried about this; I don't seem to be comforted in the same way that normal people do. At least, not if the usual tropes of condolence are anything to judge by.

How can we make bold claims for the power of proper doctrine (e.g. "People are not comforted by specious fictions, but by truth") and then hedge round our truth with euphemism? How can we say that someone has "passed away" when the incontrovertible truth is that they died? Yes, we believe in the resurrection, but what great miracle is resurrection if the preceding death is not truly death but only some vague "passing away"? But perhaps I should be more kind in my reception of these words. The only way I can redeem them is to remember that we do, indeed, "pass away" like so many shadows.

Grieving What is Lost and What is Left Behind

And part of the problem, again, is that not all grief is quite the same. I do not grieve the loss of the people who have died this summer as much as I have grieved for others. Losing my maternal grandmother 10 years ago was harder than losing my paternal grandmother this summer. I was closer to one than the other; I grieved the loss more specifically. My grief now is more generalized; I grieve for my family and for what it is to be a family. We often say things like "blood is thicker than water", but blood is thin and family is a fragile and tenuous thing, knit together with spider-threads. It is tragic that we ourselves are so fleeting, so easily dissolved and yet what remains is so often injury, the warping of each successive generation as we struggle to give to one other while our self-focused pain and blind ignorance makes us instead rob and maim the hearts and souls of those we wish to love. What survives in families? Brokenness or wholeness, what we give and what we take. And, so often, we do not know which we are leaving behind us.

As for my cousin's death, I grieve for what is being born of it. Ten years ago (the same year my grandmother died -- and my cat; it was a bad year), the cousin's son was killed at college. The death was something in the line of "manslaughter" and the killer was another student at college, on a sports team. He was subject to no legal penalty and was neither expelled from school nor from the college sports team. The family, already bereft, grew bitter. And now, the cousin developed cancer. It was treated, returned, treated, returned, metastasized, became inoperable. Some of the family finds this incredibly "unfair". Why is it that they have suffered so much? His wife is angry, and (one could argue) this reaction is fully justified.

A Share of Sorrow

My sister feels that our cousin's wife should be angry, that it is unfair. I disagree. And I found myself thinking about this when someone, expressing his condolences, told me that my family had received more than its share of sorrow this year. The whole shape of this way of thinking makes no sense to me.

What is an appropriate or "fair" share of sorrow? Is there some justifiable allotment per annum that should not be exceeded? How much should we just expect and how much is de trop?

What would be my "share" of sorrow, for instance? There are others I could lose whom I would miss more personally. And all their deaths are owed on my "account", waiting to be paid at some time or other. If I lost all my dear ones -- family, friends, cat, sister, parents -- it would be no more than my "share". And then there is my own life, the things I possess, what health I have, what hope for my future in this life. If we are to love at all, we have much to lose. Nothing is ours to claim by right; all the things and people we treasure are owed. I am not Job to demand that God answer me if He should take all of them in a single hour, let alone a year.

Ah! but as the Soul Grows Older....

If I begin to think back over my life, I know I hThat ave lost much -- but that is less surprising the older I get. We move through life with holes in our pockets, continually losing all we think is ours -- family members, friends, relationships, opportunities, innocent illusions, misplaced hopes, cherished dreams -- that if we should stop to tally it all up, we would then have to begin again to add in what slipped away while we were counting. How do we face this? Rail and grieve constantly? When we can all think of others who have lost more (or had less to begin with), doesn't that seem simply presumptuous? Don't our vain protests seem at a certain point only to be bombast, sound and fury? Doesn't our indignation signify only that -- despite our fragility, proven by constant and uncontrollable loss -- we still think we should have some imperium, some right to command and have our demands met?

When I think of sinking into grief, I feel only tired -- as if to begin at all would be to grant that it would never end. Instead, I find that close on the heels of every maelstrom of anxiety and every weeping grief over what has been lost, I feel "old". That's the most fitting term for it. I feel something more akin to nostalgia than to true gut-tightening grief: a bittersweet sadness for what has gone or never arrived, a pang of tenderness for human beings, we who let so brief a span as a lifetime demand our rapt attention, our passionate all. It's a tenderness for myself as well; I am no sage. I have been so enveloped by cares this past week, worries for my present, my future, my past catching up with me and catching me out. But what is this immeasurable and ultimate thing that so consumes me? My "momentous" life is but momentary --the blink of an eye, a match igniting and flickering out -- dwarfed by previous generations who were born and died, to be forgotten by the generations who will come after.

I just keep thinking of Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem "To a Young Child, On Spring". As best as I can remember, it goes like this:

Margaret, are you grieving
over Golden-grove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
with your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah, but as the soul grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie.
Yet you will weep and will know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same,
nor mouth had -- no, nor mind expressed
what heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight that man was born for.
It is Margaret you mourn for.

The Blight That Man Was Born For

Or have I grown too resigned? Have I missed something vital? Am I not raging sufficiently against the dying of the light? Is death truly the blight that man was born for?

I think, rather, that death is the blight that man is born to.

Our bodies are frail and fragile; they hang to life precariously. There is nothing there to argue against death. We are not exempt from entropy.

But, of course, I am a Christian. I do not believe that the world simply came to be and will simply pass away; I believe it was created -- from nothing, from the absence that God permitted there to be so that He could make something that was not Himself. I believe that it is because of our origins that we teeter on the edge of death, transience, and non-being. Simply by existing, by not being God, we are susceptible to death and dissolution. But we were not created to die; God did not bring us into being to sit back and watch us dissolve into nothingness again, like a child blowing a myriad bubbles to watch them float and fall and finally pop of out of existence.

Given our origins, death is no surprise; given our Creator, death is a monstrous kindness. It is monstrous, illogical, truly atopos that the One who is Life itself, who brought a universe into being by His will and His Word should allow it all to perish and dissolve! But it is not cruelty but terrible and exquisite kindness that He should place so much of His creation in our power, letting us decide to remain in life by remaining in Him or to choose our own deaths. For this is what we have chosen.

It is tempting to pass the buck back to our primeval parents, to blame Adam and Eve and a smooth-talking snake and some fruit. But we choose death anew each day. We see others wither and die and we cling more fervently to death. We prefer fellow souls perched precariously on flesh to the very Source of their life and ours. We fear our deaths and snatch at goods more ephemeral than even we ourselves. I catch myself in the midst of doing it before I know what I have done. I have found myself recently clinging -- even for the sake of God -- to what is not God. And God, in deference to our folly, allows us to err, to choose our own demise. It is the very love of God that gave us life that also gives us the choice of death. And the abasement of God's self-giving knows no bounds; He not only let us seek what we desired, but joined us Himself in death.

What is Man That Thou Art Mindful of Him?

It becomes easy to consider death as God's judgment and to condemn Him on those grounds as a false lover. But is it not overwhelming that the God of such might would release so much to a creature? That He should allow us to take His gifts of existence, of His very image, and despise them, put them to naught again, undo the very work of His hand? Of course, it would be a sad (if poignant) story if God's ungrudging charity should be, at the end, mere Liebestod. And such a God would seem to outwit His very nature -- His very Love -- by loving His creation.

It is a surprise that we should live, being essentially nothing. It is a surprise that we should die, since God is all-powerful but chose to gieve us both life and the choice to remain in it, in Him, or to turn away. Still more surprising and miraculous is that we should taste death and live again. We by our actions overturned the order of God's creation; the death and dissolution which God did not create in this universe are now, somehow, "natural". And yet, God by His gracious actions in this very world of passing away, has provided for restoration. God has again declared creation good. He has taken for Himself the death we chose instead of Him purely to woo us back to Life. And we, who have no inherent right to life, can boast and vaunt over death as over a vanquished enemy.

Yes; it is right that we grieve. We are to love these others, as flimsy as ourselves. We declare with God that the work of His hand is good, that it is (in some mysterious equation) worth the incarnation and passion and death of the God who is Life. Not to grieve the loss would be to gainsay God's valuation of this world He created. We are pained by the loss of what we love and we are called to love the world. And death must be denounced; for we do not wish to say that God delights in the destruction of the ones whom He has cherished in His mind and brought to birth by Word and Spirit. But neither should we rage against death as if it has not been conquered. Neither should we join in the deaths of those we love by thinking that the loss of them is the loss of our Life. This death, this rip in the faultless fabric of creation, is temporary. And it is the consequence of our contempt for Life and the true Source of Life. So death is indeed our ineluctable inheritance. But the miracle is that Life is also ours to inherit, if we are not so enamored of this little life so hemmed round with death that we neglect Life and rather fawn upon the death we wish to flee.

And so, I am disconsolate, for there is little I feel which needs to be consoled away. My heart has been broken many times and knit back together. And more people will die or leave and my heart shall break and mend again. More than anything in these times of loss, I want to think on what is true, what cannot be lost, the deep and beautiful ways of God that even death and the grave cannot thwart or overcome. Certainly, it is painful and bad, but so much in this life is painful and bad -- this is certainly no worse than the rest of it; the painful bad parts just move closer to us or farther away. So, I will learn to be comforting to others; but to anyone wishing to comfort me, I can say only this: Do not make a sugar-coated confection of death lest I fail to give glory to the One who has overcome death. But do not make loss or death seem the ultimate, terrible, final undoing lest I forget that death has been overcome and begin to think this life more precious than that Life which I must hold to and hope for.

Friday, August 27, 2010


The State of the Epistemological Debate

I want to address my epistemology here directly in response to the ongoing comment debate on my last few blog posts. Those posts weren't meant to be polemical or argumentative. I was talking out my own spiritual situation and proposing a response -- a personal program for my own spiritual growth. My friend Robert, in an effort to help me be rigorous in my thought and to communicate with people sharing a different perspective, was pushing me to clarify on several issues.

But the real issue of the debate in the comments is epistemology. How do we know what we assert? I should say from the outset that I hope to keep this post as impersonal as possible. It will necessarily be personal insofar as I draw on my own experience, but I'm primarily talking about epistemological frameworks. They are held by people -- and people identify very deeply with their epistemologies. But hopefully there's a fundamental way in which people who hold very different views can respect one another, even if they believe the other person to be dead wrong.

Robert has been asking repeatedly that I give a description of the effects of my proposed spiritual program in practical, "real-life" terms. He has asked that I give empirical evidence for my assertion that a spiritual life based on orthodox theology is "life-giving". And he has pressed me to provide a a demonstrable hypothesis and some account of what the things I'm discussing would "look like."

I should apologize because I have, in a way, been evading all these questions. And that's because I can't answer them. And that's not because I'm not intelligent or just a neophyte or because I haven't thought all this through with sufficient rigor. It's because I believe that these are questions which should not be answered.

So I don't intend to answer those questions here, but I do intend to lay out why I think they shouldn't be answered and to give a fundamental overview of my epistemology, in the interest of full disclosure and intellectual honesty. And also because I think that if I come out and clearly state my epistemology, then it might be more possible that I be granted certain courtesies. That is, if I am clear about what I think are the fundamental criteria for truth, then I won't be pressed to give answers to questions founded on criteria for truth that I have rejected.

The Epistemology I Reject

Probably to the same extent that my friend (and anyone else who shares his epistemological framework) believes the exposition of my thought to be vague, thin and untenable, I believe his criterion for judgment and the questions he is asking to be misguided and spiritually questionable. I'm not saying he's stupid or a bad person; I'm saying we're working with entirely different criteria of truth.

As I understand it (and I'm completely willing to be corrected if I'm reading this wrong), my critic's epistemology involves or requires the following:

1) things which have an experiential or tangible nature or consequence (this may be emotional and interior, not necessarily physical, but it will always be mediated through the physical embodiment of the subject)
2) a foreseeable practical effect of any proposed cause, something which happens in the world of the tangible which we can experience and which therefore can be empirically observed to proceed from that cause

3) a full description in experiential/tangible/practical terms of anything proposed prior to acceptance of its reality and existence

4) a position of skepticism towards the reality of anything which does not meet the requirements outlined above and therefore an effective denial of its existence for all practical intents and purposes (e.g. an abstract thing might exist, but cannot be definitively proven or disproven, because it does not effect life in any unmistakably causative and experientially perceptible way, therefore it has no impact on life and can be treated as non-existent without having an impact on life)

My problem with this framework is that I believe it to be utterly inadequate for any consideration of God. Furthermore, it seems to eliminate all possibility of faith. It seems to stand in contradiction to most of the teachings of Christianity (granted, this is "Christianity as I understand it"). And it also seems to reveal a certain (in my opinion) lack of respect toward God and a usurpation or underestimation of God's position vis-à-vis the created order.

Reasons I Reject this Epistemology

Here are the specifics of my objections, in as much detail as I can provide. I have extensive recourse to "unproven assertions" in this section, which I am not attempting to prove. I will more fully lay out my epistemology in the last section of this post.

1) God is utterly sovereign and transcendent. And also God created the universe, which is not transcendent. Therefore, if we attempt to judge God by standards we develop from within the created world which are independent of a confession of God and not rather derived from a confession of God, then we are proposing to elevate the mundane over the transcendent and stand in judgment over God solely on the basis of our own limited existence, which is the sort of thing God doesn't like.

2) If we presume to judge God/dogma/spirituality by our own interests (some practical difference it makes for me, something which will help me make the decisions I need to make), then we are again usurping what I believe is the authority which belongs to God -- that is, the right to will and decide what our interests should be and what we, as created human beings, are supposed to do and care about. Because I believe that God made us for God's own purposes, I think that unless we allow God to shape and transform and direct our interests from the "practical" ones that we can understand and describe from within our own empirical and embodied experience, then we are going to get our purpose wrong.

3) Therefore, the "goal" of our living a Christian life is to let God shape us, shape our epistemology, our goals, our character, our understanding, and everything. And because those goals are those of a transcendent God and we are not transcendent, we cannot know them going in. We can't know exactly what it will look like because it is totally other. If we could describe an "end goal" in practical, tangible, and human terms, it would not be a divine end.

4) We have, in fact, seen perfect human life. Perfect human life will look like Jesus, but we cannot look at Jesus as a "how-to" guide and describe discrete, practically applicable Jesus principles. We cannot apply "principles" lived out by Jesus from within our own limited and creaturely understanding. Because what makes Jesus the example of perfect human life is his full and perfect divinity. Jesus is not living out discrete principles that can be abstracted from the ineffable and transcendent "personality" and being of God. The incarnation does not "reveal God" in the sense of showing God doing human-ness properly and then just say, "OK. Now just do that." The incarnation reveals within the context of a fully human life that God is Other and that humanity needs the right sort of relationship with the living and transcendent God to have life and to live human life well. And that relationship is not purely or even primarily about what we do "practically" (although it has "practical" results). The focus and purpose of that relationship is God -- our purpose is to satisfy our desire for God, to attain fellowship with God, to be renewed in God's image. Because in the end, that is what it means to "do human life well". It will result in better decision making and some nice practical results. But those are the natural by-product of being in harmony with God's will by being in thrall to the transcendent God.

5) I can't describe these practical things or how my decision-making will be helped, exactly, by this relationship with God. I don't know. I don't really care. The thing that makes faith count as "faith" is that it is not knowledge. It has no objective or empirical predictive power. You don't go through all the proofs and make a 5-year projection and develop a criteria for judging your progress and then decide to submit to God, if it seems like a good deal with some practical benefits that appear beneficial to your "before-submitting-to-God" perspective. You simply submit to God.

6) Faith is the core of Christianity, faith as a set of assertions about who God is and who Jesus was/is and how the universe stands in relationship to God and how God revealed God's self to the universe. (CT 32 preview: this is fides quae creditur -- the faith which is believed). But faith is also at the same time the activity of casting onself in full surrender by the grace of God upon the mercy of that mysterious and ultimately incomprehensible God, faith as an existential leap into those assertions, expecting there to be something real behind them to catch you (fides qua creditur -- the faith by which one believes).

7) Therefore, nothing about Christianity is provable, demonstrable or adequatedly described in terms that are tangible, practical, or accessible to human beings outside of faith in the God of Christianity -- which includes faith that the God who exists is really who Christianity says God is. [Note: God is much more than is or can be described, but Biblical and orthodox statements about God are still really who God is, even if they are incomplete and do not fully express the transcendent identity of God.]

8) And finally, if any claim about God made by Christianity were provable, demonstrable and fully knowable by any old person whatever, then Christianity would be logically self-contradictory (insofar as it claims belief in a transcendent and infinite God).

What I Believe and Why

I believe that God is transcendent and the creator of the world and that God is Triune and that the three persons of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) aren't just a way of saying "God likes being in relationship" but are three distinct hypostases of the same "substance (which isn't material) which are united in their operation. I believe that the Son was begotten by the Father eternally and not created and that the Spirit proceeds from the Father eternally (and maybe from the Son, but I'm not sure about that). I believe that this Triune God is the One who revealed Himself to Moses and the Prophets. I believe that the second person of the Trinity was incarnated as a man, Jesus of Nazareth -- the God-man, theanthropos, not losing His full Divinity nor taking on less than full humanity, not acting as a conjunction of two separate subjects but as a single subject to whom can be attributed all of Jesus' actions (and passions, although His Divinity remained ontologically immutable), neither mingling these natures into a new hybrid being nor possessing a single will, but with His human will freely acting in service and deference to His Divine will. I believe he was the Messiah whom the Jews had been promised. I believe he was killed and truly died and that he rose from death, bodily and fully, and appeared to his disciples. I believe that he ascended into heaven and dwells with the Godhead in its fullness and that he will come again to judge the living and the dead and that all those who trust in Him (that is, in Him Himself and in the transcendent God whom He revealed when He was incarnate, not in some ethic or idea that He represented by His life) will be resurrected bodily to an incorruptible and everlasting life.

I believe in a lot of other stuff the Church says. And in things the Bible says. I have gone through this in detail because I'm attempting to be as precise as possible, although certainly much of it will sound "abstract".

But the question really is "why?" -- So I have come up with what I imagine are the questions which would be posed by the experiential/empirical epistemology and how I would answer them. I include this here in the form of a Platonic dialogue. Once a classicist, always a classicist.

How do I know to trust the Church and its dogma? -- Because I trust the God who shows up in the Church and in orthodox dogma.
How do I know they aren't wrong? -- I don't. I believe that they aren't wrong.
But couldn't I be wrong about that? -- I can't prove I'm not wrong, but I am sure that I'm not.
So what makes me sure that I'm not? -- Because God has shown up in my life within those very doctrines of the faith.
How do I know it's God? What's the epistemological criterion? -- Because the beauty of the God that showed up in the creeds brought me to my knees and enslaved my heart and because I long for him with greater passion than I have ever known.
Beauty? That's the epistemological criterion? -- Not quite: Truth. That's the criterion. It just so happens that Truth is soul-compellingly beautiful.
So how does one know if one has found soul-compelling beauty? -- Easy: one's soul is compelled.
So any time anyone feels some soul-compelling beauty, are they right? Have they found Truth? -- Not necessarily. I don't know if anyone else has actually experienced the soul-compelling beauty of truth just because they claim to have experienced it. But if they claim to have experienced this and proclaim what the Church proclaims, then I believe they are right.
But then we're right back to the Church again! -- Seems so, doesn't it?
So let's say my soul feels compelled. What does the soul-compelling beauty of God look like as opposed to some counterfeit soul-compelling beauty? -- It looks like the Triune God that the Church proclaims.
But what does that look like? -- Like nothing else. What does chocolate taste like? It just tastes like chocolate, doesn't it? No one who has tasted chocolate ever asks a question like that.
But where's the perceptible difference that it makes in a person's life to know this abstract dogma-God? How does it affect, say, decision making? -- One now tries to make decisions out of an ardent and awestruck devotion to the utter beauty of the Goodness of God's being.
And what do these decisions look like? -- Why do you want to know? To judge whether the effects are to your liking? On what basis do you judge the effects to be good or bad? If it's on the basis of your passionate relationship with the God proclaimed by the Church, then why ask the question? And if there's another basis you're operating from, how do you know it is true? Or do you want a laundry list of things to do, principles to follow to avoid the whole business of submission and surrender to a God who wants to transform you in relationship? You want to make sure it's really God first? You can't. You want to make sure that the Church is right before you trust them? You can't.

I tried to do this for years. I was hip with post-modern epistemology. I went to college and got all my critical analysis skills trained up really well. I started looking at people like Gandhi and the "Buddha" and thought they were doing it right. And I wanted to believe God was universally accessible to anyone and everyone because that seemed to me to be the right thing for God to do. As a Quaker, my eschatology was basically a world without violence where everyone lived in harmony with one another and with the environment and just incarnated principles of love and honesty and simplicity and non-objectification of one another. That was something worth hoping for, dying for, praying for, living for and into.

Except that eventually, the utopia got really stale. It was like vitamin-water eschatology -- presumably good for you but practically flavorless. It was an anemic, insipid, lifeless and unlivable eschatology. I couldn't figure out what was wrong. Everything was great. Who's going to argue with universal love among human beings? What was I finding wrong? -- There was no God there. Sure, there was "that of God in everyone" and there was the Spirit moving in the special Spirit way (which in my experience felt a lot like a hybrid of Marianne Williamson, Jiminy Cricket, and a glass of brandy that gave people things to share with the meeting like "When you love other people, that's heaven; but when you're trapped in yourself and armed against other people, that's hell" or "I don't know what God is -- but God is like electricity: I flip the switch, and God is there" or "Love means never having to say you're sorry" which the Spirit evidently also inspired when Erich Segal penned Love Story)

What makes the difference between what I expect now and what I expected then? -- A transcendent God. Sure, I think the eschaton will include lots of harmony between people and creation. Sure, I think we'll all love each other. And yes, it's good to be nonviolent now and to work for those who are poor, outcast, hungry and oppressed. But the key is: while that is good, it's not of primary importance. God is what is matters; it's only through God that the rest of it matters to the extent that it does. And God's not a laundry-list of pragmatic concerns. God has a unified and ultimately ineffable nature which we can only hint at through abstract language. God's being is the source of God's will. And while we follow what we know to be God's will through the Church and the Scripture, we still need to do the "work" of showing up for grace -- of yearning to be transformed into the likeness of God, of contemplating and adoring that God. As that happens, we become more likely to make the sort of decisions that are in accord with God's will because we have internalized God's word and because God (not us) has transformed our hearts and minds.

And the other key difference between the robust and theologically driven eschatology I have now and the one I was promised by Quakers and the generically "spiritual" and by non-orthodox liberal Protestants and "social justice Christians" is that God's not boring. If the end-goal were simply us incarnating perfectly this whole Jesus principle of love and equality in God and "power through humility" or "victory through loss" or whatever and petting animals and eating lots of fruit and nut roasts, it would just be stale. It's barely a step up from playing harps on clouds with halos. (Or a step down -- I rather like the harp). Why I really care about a transcendent God who is beyond human comprehension is that the endeavor to know such a God is a source of infinite delight.

That's the reason that I have named my blog "epectasy". And my life has been like that: God is heart-rendingly, breath-takingly beautiful. The Trinity is beautiful -- not the mere "idea" of Trinity, but the God who comes and inhabits the idea when you contemplate it. It leaves me with my heart trying to burst from my chest and tears in my eyes and a desperate longing for more -- to know more fully, to look longer. And yet, it's not a cranky desperate longing, like an addict who needs a fix. It's a desire born of lack that stands in the midst of utter bliss.

I'm not pretending to be perfectly transformed and oh-so-spiritually mature now. I grew up very much in the church and have considered myself a Christian since I was 5 years old. There was a only short period of about 3 years where I wasn't actively involved in seeking God. I was never complacent and uncritical within my faith; I did a lot of theological thinking from the time I was 4. Still, I'm a total neophyte. My time wasn't totally wasted before, but I haven't been squarely on the right path until now (it was a graced path, but it had some potholes). And there is an eternity stretched out ahead of me in which I will never come to the end of knowing God, never come to the end of the process of being perfected. So, given all this, is there any reason that anyone can give me that would be compelling enough for me to hold off on seeking the face of God until I can come up with some "empirical evidence" that pertains to the "practical world" of decision making and -- I don't know -- dirt and machines and flow charts and whatever else is presumably inhabting this strange world that is so much more "practical" than mine?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Prolegomena to a Spiritual Practice of Orthodoxy

I've had some input and book recommendations from friends, for which I am grateful. I haven't gotten my hands on the books yet, but I don't see any reason why I can't start out by thinking it out on my own and see what I am able to come up with provisionally. This is rather in the nature of reasoning out loud -- it won't be too polished, but I'll try not to ramble. To curtail my natural verbosity, I might skip over some rather basic stuff with a vague reference. Sorry about that. If anyone is actually reading or interested, ask and I'll explain. Obviously my theological method is sort of personalized; not everyone will think like I do because we're all so special and unique. Nevertheless, if there are professional theologian types who want to give me pointers on how to think things through, I'll be happy to take a note.

Spirituality -- Definition and Purpose

I always think that the key to figuring something out is to figure out the right questions. Answering questions is usually either easy or impossible, but getting the question right is the challenge. So here's some question brainstorming:

Why do we need some kind of practice in the first place? If we have a good orthodox theology, why is it then necessary to do something? What is it we're still lacking? What do we still need to achieve? For that matter, what are we trying to even get to in the first place? What is the goal of the Christian life?

Meaning of Life:

That has to do with theological anthropology, the point of a human life insofar as God made us and made us for a purpose. Therefore, the human telos is to do and be what God wanted it to do and be in the first place. I like Nyssa's approach of looking at creation, eschaton and the fallen present. So if we compare where we are now to the paradisal bit (edenic and eschatological) then we get a sense of the "distance" that needs to be crossed.

What are the elements or characteristics of human life in Eden and the eschaton?

Eden: made in the image of God, given life by breath of God, living on God's generosity and abundance ("garden"), talking with God "face-to-face", no sin yet, no death, etc.

Eschaton: "one in Christ", adoption of humanity through/in Christ, God is "all in all", seeing "not through a glass darkly but face-to-face", presumably no sin there either -- life different than here (no marriage, no death, etc.)

Common themes: 1) God as source of life and sustenance, 2) face-to-face knowledge and close relationship with God, 3) tension between our similarity to and difference from God, 4) formal similarity and/or inclusion in Christ key to relationship with God (using "similarity" here in a mathematical sense -- as opposed to "congruency", "identity" or "dissimilarity"), 5) stability of goodness (i.e. nothing bad going on -- no death, no decay, no fear, concord rather than conflict, unity in paradoxical coexistence with diversity, cosmos as ordered and eternally maintained whole).

So, the point of human life is to live out things 1-5 above. Why God made us to do this is another matter, one that would be fun to speculate about. Later. For now, we'll play parent and say, "Just because God likes it that way." But still. We've got five points summarizing the meaning of life. There you go. Surprisingly simple.

Upsetting the Apple Cart

Versus the good stuff that was/will be/ought to be, right now we've got sin. Not going to go through all the individual arguments here, but just take my word that we still have (1), (3), and (4) of the above. These are all fundamental principles of creation and of the nature of human beings; as they're inherent to the fundamental existence of creation and of people qua people, they don't get tossed out when sin comes in. God's still the source of everything, even if the situation is a bit more complicated than "take fruit, put feet up, be sustained."

The question of just how much similarity to God we have left is more vexed.... But similarity is key and will always be in tension with difference. And there's more difference given that the sin of the Fall consisted in turning away from God as the source of existence toward the privation of God which is evil (with the "fruit" understood as an experiential binary-knowledge which requires privation of good in order to name good as "good" vis-à-vis its opposite "evil" -- rather than the general Western understanding of the fruit as an object in an arbitrarily populated matrix of obedience-testing wherein the "commandment" is a complete cipher characterized only by the penalty of death for disobeying it).

[Yeah, that part about the Fall was condensed a bit. OK: it was condensed a lot. If anyone wants my whole theological interpretation of Genesis 3... oh, I'm just kidding myself here. Moving on.]

So it would seem that we've got to just get back to living points 1-5. Except that now there's sin. And the effects of sin. Which is to make us forget that 1-5 are what it's all about. So, we turn from the creator to creature. And even if we posit a creator and call it God, we do not actually know God. And that's a problem. And we've still got bad sin habits. And death. Disease. And leisure suits. Lots of bad things came from the Fall. I'm fairly sure that mosquitoes had a post-lapsarian evolution.

How do we fix this? Basically, we don't fix it. We cannot. Because even if we deduce from natural revelation that there is a God, even if we can figure out that God is good, we still basically don't know God from a hole in the ground. No one has seen the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son reveals the Father. Had God not elected the people of Israel to enter into relationship with him and had God not opened up membership in Israel to us goyim through the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection of his pre-existent and consubstantial Son, then we'd be S.O.L. as far as God goes. We could, at best, be virtuous pagans -- a far cry from knowing and being in a face-to-face relationship with God.

So God provided a "fix" through the spiritual economy. We have Jesus and the Biblical witness and the orthodox formulations that explain what happened. So why isn't everything wonderful? Since God's the one who does all this, why do we have to do anything?

The Point of Spirituality

I'm not an "irresistible grace" Augustinian/Reformed type, but I want to underscore the importance of grace and God's activity and initiative here (not "initiative" the way Calvinists mean it - where God decides whose drink he's going to spike with roofies so he can drag their inert forms off to salvation and in so doing decides whose drink NOT to spike so that they can go on merrily to perdition where they belong -- *shudders*).

Basically, what goes on in spiritual practice is that we're showing up in a certain way and hoping God acts. Since I assume in the case of Christian spirituality that the practioner is already a Christian, there's a sense in which our practice will be like dancing with God: grace leads, but we're not rag-dolls getting dragged around the floor -- we know some steps, have a sense of rhythm and can follow God's lead. A big part of what our practice will accomplish is making us available to grace: we have to show up at the dance and get out on the floor. Oh -- and God's the music, too. And the dance. (Metaphors with God are always like this, haven't you noticed?)

So the point of our spiritual practice is to step into what God has already done and is doing. Basically, having the Logos take on human nature and die and get resurrected and heal people and feed people and cast out demons and preach doesn't actually do much good UNLESS you somehow get that important eschatological bit of being adopted "in Christ ." Jesus said he is the way, the truth and the life and no one gets to the Father except through him.

We're back to why orthodox theology and the tradition are so key here. Let me be incontrovertibly clear on this point: spirituality is NOT about being Christ-like by trying to do some stuff that Jesus did. It's NOT about mechanically following Jesus' example or taking Jesus' "advice" as if the Gospels were a self-help book called "Getting Along with the World the Jesus Way" (I'm sure if a book with such a title were written all about how to be friends with everyone with some little quotes from Jesus it would sell like hotcakes and lead millions to an anemic and insipid imitation of Christian life and faith). An unmitigatedly Christian and orthodox spiritual practice is about us doing what we can to be included in Christ and to turn/allow ourselves to be turned to God (and thus be transformed into greater Christlikeness). It is a practice that is unapologetically "impractical" -- at least, in the way most people define "practical" -- and yet, vitally important for every aspect of life, including all the practical ones).

In Conclusion

I think I've given myself a decent sense of what this spiritual discipline is attempting to do/cooperate in doing. And I'm beginning to see what sort of actual practices might play into this.
I have about three or four really more focused statements which could be sort of "defining characteristics" of my new spiritual discipline, but I think that I'll save them for the next post where I start outlining the program itself.