Friday, July 28, 2006

Little political rant

I'm not really concerned about politics in general; I tend to think both parties are crazy and just leave it at that. I don't usually spend much time watching C-SPAN and such because I feel so insulted by the superficiality and slogan slinging of Congress speeches. But tonight I let myself do just that because I was bored. The House is debating a minimum wage increase bill. The R's want it, and the D's oppose it, which seems slightly counterintuitive. But the bill was constructed by Republicans and has some features which the Dems oppose:
  • Big tax cut for wealthy families.
  • Doesn't rage minimum wage for tip-earning employees, and in certain states actually lowers their minimum wage.
  • Very expensive; burden on the national debt.
I admit I was amused to hear Republicans talking compassionately about the need to help low-income citizens, and on the flip-side Democrats crying about balancing the budget and lowering the national debt. But in fact I was more persuaded by the Democrats in their arguments against the bill. While I don't hate rich people or anything, and could care less whether they have more or less money, the bill would be extremely expensive (the Reps never contradicted the Dems' figures). The tip-earners clause is just wacky; one Rep made the legitimate point that individual states could vote to restore the tip-earner's wage to its original level, or make it higher. But it seems to me the Federal government should presume against forcing states to needlessly reevaluate such issues--and besides, between the time the bill became law, and the restoration of tip-earner's minimum wage, there's a lot of money lost to those people.

I believed one Dem who said that the bill did not even reach the level of an "election year conversion" and was more of an election year deception. Minimum wage simply isn't a Republican concern, unless it's a bargaining chip for a tax cut. Well, the wage increase is incomplete (and in some states a decrease) and barely affordable if that.

But it took the Reps a hell of a long time to even address any of the specific complaints the Dems brought up; and when the Dems weren't immediately persuaded, the Reps and Dems both went back to mindless moral posturing and "Who, me?" responses to criticisms.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Something to think about

  Lo! I show you the last man.
"What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a
star?"- so asketh the last man and blinketh.
The earth hath then become small, and on it there hoppeth the last
man who maketh everything small. His species is ineradicable like that
of the ground-flea; the last man liveth longest.
"We have discovered happiness"- say the last men, and blink thereby.
They have left the regions where it is hard to live; for they need
warmth. One still loveth one's neighbour and rubbeth against him;
for one needeth warmth.
Turning ill and being distrustful, they consider sinful: they walk
warily. He is a fool who still stumbleth over stones or men!
A little poison now and then: that maketh pleasant dreams. And
much poison at last for a pleasant death.
One still worketh, for work is a pastime. But one is careful lest
the pastime should hurt one.
One no longer becometh poor or rich; both are too burdensome. Who
still wanteth to rule? Who still wanteth to obey? Both are too
No shepherd, and one herd! Everyone wanteth the same; everyone is
equal: he who hath other sentiments goeth voluntarily into the
"Formerly all the world was insane,"- say the subtlest of them,
and blink thereby.
They are clever and know all that hath happened: so there is no
end to their raillery. People still fall out, but are soon reconciled-
otherwise it spoileth their stomachs.
They have their little pleasures for the day, and their little
pleasures for the night, but they have a regard for health.
"We have discovered happiness,"- say the last men, and blink
-Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, Chapter 5

Sunday, July 23, 2006


This is a snippet of a message I wrote to another Catholic.

"I think a big chunk of my "melancholy" is acquired. The gap between the idealism inculcated in the seminary, and the cynicism and laxity of parish operations, drives me to distraction. On the one hand, I want to be a priest so that I can show people that the Church and the liturgy and the faith are beautiful, life-giving things (even without our silly "adaptations"). On the other, I don't think I could handle all of the opposition I would get with much grace. This is how curmudgeons are born.

Seems to me Catholics have been force-fed Sesame Street theology and liturgy for fifty years; it's no wonder so many (especially men) choose instead the gritty "real world" offered by secular commercialism. It was only because God saw fit to give me a non-BS Catholic formation that I stayed. That doesn't mean I have a harsh or heartless Catholicism (although sometimes I feel that way when I get all uppity and offended, heh). Just means I don't paper over suffering and sin with euphemisms, superficial gestures, and ego-coddling music. "

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

A Short Parable

A doctor was distressed by news of a rise in skin cancer, so he spent a fortune to offer free sunblock to people visiting the beach. Although many beach goers accepted the offer, still some ignored it. The sun made everyone happy while they were there; but some it tanned, others it burned, and a few got cancer. If there is a “wrath of God,” it is not that God chooses to punish people out of childish need for revenge. Rather, when we sin we ruin our openness to God's love (like damaging the O-Zone layer). Only God can help us to receive his love well, and give it to others. For some he does this mysteriously. But to us Catholics he has given the Sacraments, which allow the love of God to find its rightful place in us, making us free and bringing us together.

Star Wars, morality, and metaphysics

Recently I finished playing through a game called "Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic." In the game, there are lots and lots of discussions about the dark and light sides of the force, and the varying perceptions of each of these. Today, I was so hopped up on caffeine that I decided to write down some thoughts in a forum about Star Wars, morality, and metaphysics. This is the result, plus a response I got from another reader...


I've never been more impressed by a piece of pop-culture's grasp of the issues at stake on ethics. Granted, virtually nobody in the Star Wars universe is a relativist, so controversies surrounding moral relativism don't come up. But what does come up is the whole dispute between Nietzschean nihilism and Christianity.

Elements of Nietzschean thought in the Sith: the will to power; the eternal recurrence of the same; master morality vs. slave morality (i.e., the artificiality of morality); and the abolition of transcendent truth as a value.

Elements of Christian thought in the Jedi: service to the transcendent; the coincidence of morality and true (rather than superficial) freedom; the primacy of reason over the passions,* sanctity of life, equal importance of means and ends in moral evaluations.

* Jolee Bindo corrects the Jedi disapproval "love" as a passion and distinguishes between saving love and corrupting desire--something that has always bothered me about the Jedi ever since Episode II came out.

Now, it seems evident to me that the game-story, even though it lets *you* be Dark Side, is itself not very friendly to "Dark morality." It's Dark defenders lack conviction and sophistication in their arguments, until they are left only with squawking about "Jedi propeganda." Putting thoughtless dismissal into the mouths of the dark sympathizers makes them seem less intelligent than the Jedi. Now granted, for obvious reasons my own sympathies are going to be with "Jedi morality;" but even so, I feel like it's cheating when a story gives the sympathetic portrayal to one side even when they don't necessarily have the slam-bang arguments.

After all, in the Star Wars universe, where the Force can be used equally well by the evil as well as the good, what evidence is there that the Force even has a will or purpose, as the Jedi believe? If there is nothing "higher" than the Force to give it the "purpose" the Jedi are looking for, they don't seem to have a clear reason to serve the Force rather than be served by it. It makes a big difference whether we conceive of the Force as divine or as mere energy. The Sith's best argument is that nature would seem to legitimize their stance. Nature has more "moral content" than the Force, since the patterns of nature are given before anyone imposes their will on it via technology; on the contrary, the Force is subject to individual wills in a way that nature is not. Therefore, if nature is our guide, selfishness and exploitation seem to be the rule.

Of course, there is a hypocrisy in this argument; nobody in this universe alienates themselves from nature more than do the Sith. Nature is a complex reality; the Sith (and by extension, Nietzsche) have merely isolated one element--exploitation--and made it the determining root of their ideal. This causes an alienation from nature, as it does from the Force, because both of these (as well as other human beings) are viewed as mere fodder for exploitation.

And there we have the fundamental Jedi argument. If the Sith are reducing nature to technology and the Force to the will, the Jedi see that nature has an autonomous worth before it is strip-mined into blasters and starships; so also the Force has a complex life of its own before it manifests itself in "mind tricks" and lightning and such. Exploitation is a part of nature, but only a small part; it depends on there being first something to exploit. Nature is not only predatory; it is also (and primarily), alive. So we can argue by analogy that the Force is the same way.

This does not get past the fact that the Force may not actually have any kind of transcendent purpose or will or personality; but the Jedi never claim as much. They only claim that following the "light" leads to "life"--and as we see from the canon movies, the eternal life of the Jedi is a kind of a final harmony with the deepest root of being, yet without destroying the individuality of the deceased. But anyway, there is something Nietzschean about the Jedi in that their ultimate "salvation" hopes are basically selfish--rooted in a desire for eternal life without, necessarily, communion with a personal Other with whom they can share it.

The key empirical ingredient to the Jedi argument is that the harmony with the Force is something which is experienced, in nebulous fashion, before death. Following the way of the light is expansive and freeing in an *interior* sense; following the dark is expansive only in a "conquering" sense, but the conquerers' inner lives are prisons and dungeons, and their thoughts mad and circular (even if clever and treacherous).

Reply from "DustyPhantom"

i've studied nothing in the line of philosophy or nietzchean nihilism, but after reading your posts i can extrapolate, and i see the connection of force to the premise of each religion. a more obviously transparent similarity between the light side and christianity (which you may not have mentioned sheerly because of it's blatancy) is the existence of a saviour that has been prophesied, which only appears in the movies, in the form of skywalker (take that to mean luke as the real saviour or annikan as the fatherless child fated to shift the balance).

the points brought up about the game, such as the shallowness of the darksided arguements , were a point of relativity. The darkside philosophy is, as you said, one of exploitation, but the sith that only chant of "jedi propaganda" were the weak ones, at least as far as my memory of the game goes, though as dark revan the dialougue selections are admittedly shallow, in the second game when guided by kreia, your decisions are given a logic as opposed to pointless slaughter and hatred. on the first planet (memory a bit short, can't remember name) the killing of a receptionist in the corporate headquarters is scorned by kreia, and the more you try to follow her way of thinking, the more you see a deeper meaning to the exploitation, greed, and deception of the true sith. not that there is something morally sound behind it, but that killing an innocent out of boredom is perverse, while killing an innocent and taking their belongings because you need or desire them, and that person is too weak to hold on to them, is a solid practice. the darkside wanderer has the choice to be superficially sith, and kill anything and everything that gets in his way without the ability to defend itself properly(reminiscent of the social darwinist movement), or be a true sith, only killing when something can be gained from it, and not needlessly extending aggression.

hope i've brought up a few points you hadn't thought of, i know i only concentrated on one issue, perhaps with more time i'll tackle some of the others.

My reply

Indeed, it's true that the Sith ideal is governed by an interior logic. When Darth Bandon asks you whether victory is desired at any cost, the correct answer is, rather surprisingly, "no." In fact, the game demonstrates two general ways to be a "false" or "superficial" Sith: (1) animal irrationality, or (2) slavish obedience to the Sith code. The first is exemplified by Juhani's little jaunt to the Dark Side, when she retreated to a hideout and attacked anything that moved. The second is exemplified by Bastila in her rote recitation of tired Sith arguments and lack of real conviction.

My favorite Sith in the game is Darth Bandon; he has that whole "honorable villain" thing going on that Malak does not. He admits that the Jedi "act with skill" which shows a bit more sophistication in his thinking. Though believing and teaching that Sith strength comes through exploitation, he demonstrates none of the snivelling power-lust of his subordinates (and one might argue, of his superior, Malak). The most dangerous Sith would be one who appropriated the Jedi virtues of calm and rationality and turned them toward their nefarious ends. As C.S. Lewis wrote in "The Great Divorce," the higher the virtue, the more deadly it becomes when corrupted (his example: sexual addiction is merely a low-grade vice; but motherly love corrupted into controlling codependency can destroy souls much more efficiently).

Re: savior stuff. You're right; I deliberately avoid looking for "Christ figures" in pop culture because I find them cliche; and most of them that *do* occur are more often misleading than otherwise. For example, I could say that Bastila is the real "Christ figure" in the game because the Bible says that "For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin," (2 Cor 5:21). But when Bastila reconverts to the Light (in the good ending), she fails to bring other Dark Jedi with her, which is what a real "Christ figure" would do.

But anyway, back to the topic of Sith rationality, while it is true that there are "true Sith" and "superficial Sith," nevertheless the Jedi critique of the Sith exploitation still holds. The Sith were never accused of being simply irrational. Rather one might say that they are, sort of, "narrow minded," because all existence for them is filtered through the narrow purpose of self-magnification. They are blind to any existence the Force might have beyond it's usefulness as a tool; and naturally speaking, they exclude from their environs all non-technologized remnants of nature. Seriously, did you ever see a potted plant growing in an Empirial Star Destroyer? So it might be truer to say that the Sith are alienated from the Force in the same way they are alienated from nature.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Pay, Pray, and Obey

This post is largely a placeholder for an extended exploration I would like to write on the expression, "Pay, Pray, and Obey." My views on the expression itself are mostly critical--if used out of simple cynicism, it is trying to say something which it has no authority or position to say. That notwithstanding, the critical use of the phrase does point to some serious issues that cannot be ignored. More later.


OK, let's get on with this. Now, in order to look at the intended use "Pay, Pray, and Obey," I will have to indulge in some guesswork. Examining hypothetical intentions always runs the risk of unfairness. That's why I'm going to start off in a sympathetic way.

I imagine that the root of the situation which might justify the critique of P.P.O. lies in legalism. A quick survey of the Catechism and the Code will reveal that all of the things that the laity are required to do by the law of the Church themselves follow the pattern of P.P.O. For example, let's look at the Catechism's version of the precepts of the Church:
  1. You shall attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation and rest from servile labor.
  2. You shall confess your sins at least once a year.
  3. You shall receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at least during the Easter season.
  4. You shall observe the the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church.
  5. You shall help provide for the needs of the Church.
  6. (The 1908 Catholic Encyclopedia adds...) not to marry within a certain degree of kindred nor to solemnize marriage at the forbidden times (i.e., Advent or Lent).
Indeed, nobody expects to find anywhere in Canon Law or the Catechism a precept such as, "You shall do service in a parish soup kitchen at least twice a month" or "You shall assist your pastor in making wise decisions for the good of the parish." Someone who did not know any better and learned the Catholic faith simply by reading its laws, would indeed believe that the charism of the laity is exclusively to P.P.O.

One should keep in mind that when I call this "legalism" I do not mean the belief that all of the Church's laws should be followed (this is not legalism; it is faithfulness). Rather, by "legalism" I mean that one's concept of Christian life is determined exclusively by laws. Another word for it is "minimalism;" it presumes that one who rigorously obeys the written precepts has a claim on God's and salvation without the necessity of charity. When it is overt, it can be deeply idolatrous.

This legalism has a double negative impact: first, it feeds into the moral laziness of the clergy and the laity. A lay legalist may believe that once he or she has a hang of the Ten Commandments and the six/seven precepts, he or she has salvation "in the bag" (even if that person lacks charity). Clerics have a substantially greater number of laws they must follow; hence legalism is more tempting for the clergyman because its inherent laziness is not so obvious (heck, even as a seminarian I struggle to do even most of them; if I could do everything required of me, I imagine I would be very proud of myself).

Second, this legalism can feed into the temptation of the clergy and the laity to have contempt for one-another. On the part of the clergy, there is the bittersweet myth that the life of the laity is easier because it has fewer ecclesiastical restrictions. The legalistic clergyman 'naturally' assumes that his laity don't do anything beyond Church law (indeed, if they follow Church law at all), and so inflates his ego with the gas that is his own rigorous obedience. Moreover, and ironically, the clerical legalist becomes exceedingly uncomfortable when the laity do actively go beyond the P.P.O. model. The active Christian life becomes a kind of personal territory of his that he will not cede to the rabble and the mob. Thus--in the guise of rightfully reminding his flock not to abandon the precepts of the Church--the cleric may in fact be insisting that they also not go beyond them.

The converse temptation exists for the laity--that they could imagine that the priest is exactly just as described, when in fact he may not be. This is where the cynical application of "Pay, Pray, and Obey" comes from. It is an anti-clericism which supposes--rightly or wrongly--that the cleric has a kind of contempt for, and patronization of the laity. The critique invokes an image of a church which does not view its lay members as living active Christians and children of God, but rather has the human fodder for the perpetuation of power structures. In its extremes, it may serve as a justification to ignore the precepts of the Church altogether--an anti-legalism, as it were.

I submit that this anti-legalism, in cases where it is rash and inaccurate, can itself be a breed of legalism, for two reasons. First, both legalism and anti-legalism share the assumption that the external obedience (or disobedience) of laws is the true theatre of the rise and fall of values; neither has sufficient regard for the interior dispositions of the other party. In other words, the legalist priest misinterprets lay activism for lawlessness (even if they broke no laws); and the anti-legalist laity misinterprets the priest's discipline for heartlessness (even if he were a man of great kindness).

Second, both legalism and anti-legalism indulge in minimalism; one seeks obedience as a substitute for justice; the other seeks justice as a substitute for obedience. Neither has a strong care for the emphasis of both or the recognition of complementary roles in the Church.

The #1 reason why I have a deep animosity toward the cynical application of the "Pay, Pray, and Obey" critique is that it seems to harbor a thinly veiled, ideologically anti-legalistic contempt for these three actions. It is less a call to the renewal of active Christian life and more an indictment of all humble submission to the visible continuation of Christ's authority on earth. By this, I do not imply that there are no priests who really are legalists and who do have an unfair disdain of the laity. Nor do I imply that the lay vocation is confined to P.P.O.--it must not be. But I have the feeling that people are indulging in Enlightenment fantasies of Christianity without humble prayer, generous tithing, and willing obedience (which itself is as much a clerical virtue as it is a lay virtue, of course).