Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Raven

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
`'Tis some visitor,' I muttered, `tapping at my chamber door -
Only this, and nothing more.'

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; - vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow - sorrow for the lost Lenore -
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels named Lenore -
Nameless here for evermore.

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me - filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
`'Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door -
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door; -
This it is, and nothing more,'

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
`Sir,' said I, `or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you' - here I opened wide the door; -
Darkness there, and nothing more.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the darkness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, `Lenore!'
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, `Lenore!'
Merely this and nothing more.

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
`Surely,' said I, `surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore -
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore; -
'Tis the wind and nothing more!'

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore.
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door -
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door -
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
`Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,' I said, `art sure no craven.
Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the nightly shore -
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore!'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning - little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door -
Bird or beast above the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as `Nevermore.'

But the raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only,
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing further then he uttered - not a feather then he fluttered -
Till I scarcely more than muttered `Other friends have flown before -
On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before.'
Then the bird said, `Nevermore.'

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
`Doubtless,' said I, `what it utters is its only stock and store,
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore -
Till the dirges of his hope that melancholy burden bore
Of "Never-nevermore."'

But the raven still beguiling all my sad soul into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore -
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking `Nevermore.'

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom's core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion's velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o'er,
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o'er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
`Wretch,' I cried, `thy God hath lent thee - by these angels he has sent thee
Respite - respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore!
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe, and forget this lost Lenore!'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

`Prophet!' said I, `thing of evil! - prophet still, if bird or devil! -
Whether tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted -
On this home by horror haunted - tell me truly, I implore -
Is there - is there balm in Gilead? - tell me - tell me, I implore!'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

`Prophet!' said I, `thing of evil! - prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us - by that God we both adore -
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels named Lenore -
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden, whom the angels named Lenore?'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

`Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!' I shrieked upstarting -
`Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken! - quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted - nevermore!

Friday, October 29, 2010

THE CLASH OF CIVILIZATIONS AND THE REMAKING OF WORLD ORDER: Samuel Huntington Chapter 1 The New Era in World Politics

Sam Huntington opens his Clash of Civilizations in chapter 1 on the heels of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain that had separated Communist East with Capitalist West for over a generation. The old Cold War dichotomy was dead, and it looked like the “free world” had won the final battle and we were headed toward an era of peace and prosperity, that if not quite the millennium, was seen by many Western academics as the “end of History” (Francis Fukuyama).
            Huntington though, ever the realist, saw things differently. He recognized (I agree with him here) that the era of ideological divide was over; the era of intra-Western debate about forms of government or what economic model to follow, but that this wasn’t going to usher in some secular eschaton. In fact, what this collapse/victory did was open up the field to long suppressed senses of identity that had been smothered but never extinguished by the 20th century’s ideological divide.
            This dormant but not dead sense of identity regained prominence almost immediately in places like Yugoslavia, Chechnya, Rwanda, the Sudan, etc. where civil wars broke out often along tribal and religious affiliations. Now certainly there were these kinds of conflicts of “culture” during the Cold War era as well, and many thousands were killed and displaced because of them. But because these conflicts didn’t involve potentially world ending weapons of mass destruction, and the Cold War antagonists did, these “lesser” conflicts were relegated to back burner status.
            Once this “new era” in world affairs occurred after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, there were several ways of viewing the world that Huntington describes next.
Two Worlds: Us and Them. This other dichotomy replaced the Cold War us/them dichotomy along similar lines and has a simple elegance to it that’s very appealing; the modern democratic West versus the rest of the world. And yet its simplicity is also its downfall. The non-West is just not unified in the way the modern West is and so there’s no neat and simple contrast to posit.

184 States, more or less. This reflects the realist perspective that “States” are the main actors in world affairs and history. And while that is still largely true, it ends up being a less than satisfactory explanation for the complexity of world affairs, since we are faced with not just non-state actors, such as al Qaeda, Muslim Brotherhood, and the power of multinational corporations, and more traditional supra-national entities like NATO and the UN, not to mention civilizational identifying.
Shear Chaos. The end of the Cold War leaves a world in a state of geopolitical anarchy. This view, like the states view is close to reality, but also suffers from being too simplistic. It’s accurate in describing a world filled with violence and various states and other entities trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction. But it isn’t just a chaotic world, but one still reined in by competing impulses that restrict the most outlandish behaviors among world actors. Not always of course, but often enough that the world doesn’t descend into some Dante’ like inferno.
Finally in chapter 1, Huntington explains that while each of the paradigms described above have their strengths and weaknesses, his civilizational model better serves not only to describe the current post Cold War reality, but also can serve as a predictive tool in seeing how our near future may go. He follows that up with a list of events just from 1993 to illustrate his point of how the world is reorienting itself along civilizational lines. I was struck at how some of these conflicts described from 1993 were so similar to what we see today, both in Europe and here in the US.

In response to this initial analysis from Huntington concerning the post-Cold War reality, I find myself largely agreeing with him contra Fukuyama and other more idealistic thinkers. I wish I didn’t! I’d love to believe in a world where knowledge trumps passion. Where we see more of what unites us versus what divides us. But like the example he gave from the novel Dead Lagoon, we still live in a world governed to a large degree by sensing our identity by what we’re not as much as by what we are.
In a similar vein, I’ve recently been reading a book by Cass Sunstein called Going to Extremes, which argues along similar lines that extremism is driven by that same us/them dichotomy, a dichotomy which needs an enemy to be better able to define who our friends are and who we are. As Christians, can we surpass this basic human impulse more effectively in the face of international tensions, ethnic tensions, and yes, even religious tensions? As a Christian, I’m forced in a way to be both a hard-nosed realist, but also an eschatological optimist. And as a Reformed leaning Christian, my eschatology doesn’t have to wait for Jesus to come back for things to get better. But we can begin the new creation work now, even if we know it won’t its ultimate fulfillment until the eschaton.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Theological Indeterminacy and the Ultimate

Is there an end to which we are determined? Is there a teleological purpose to our existence? Can we deduce where we came from and where we are headed based on empirical evidence? Can we get "oughts" from all of the "is's" before our eyes? I don't believe we can. So then, from what basis can we determine the ultimate purpose of existence? I accept Christianity as a true statement of reality, both historical and spiritual. And yet I know that the basis of my belief is not provable in a modern sense.

I'm grateful for the scientific revolution. I'm alive because of it. As someone born with several "defects" at birth I know that antibiotics and modern surgical techniques gave me a chance at life that others before me never had. And yet I also know that the same scientific revolution is driven by a sense that the world makes sense, and that sense was driven by a Christian sense of the coherence of God.

My options are:

anti theism



theisms of various types (Judaism, Islam, Unitarianism, etc)




Why do I choose Christianity over all of these others? I will admit that several of these other options are appealing. I accept that atheism and agnosticism are both legitimate options intellectually. And as an avowed theist, both because of personal experience and philosophical reasons, I believe that the gamut of human experience has made clear that humanity has experienced realities beyond the normally explicable. And I also considered quite seriously Judaism as a teenager, primarily because of the ethical impulse.

I've not been attracted by anti-theism or by pantheism or polytheism since in each of them I'm struck by their lack of ethical centers. In each of them I find a poly-ethical reality that ultimately leaves everyone doing what's right in their own eyes. Maybe that's a bias that's shaped my perspective. I'm sure it has. But I suspect that this spiritual/religious perspective has allowed me to see various ethical systems as competing beliefs vying for a place at the public table.

Acknowledging the good points of philosophical atheists and agnostics moderates my theism quite a bit. I recognize that my convictions are held in light of equally held convictions by those who differ deeply from me. Yet I believe that the Christian message is a better one in the end.


I didn't grow up going to church. But I did watch the Billy Graham Crusades on TV whenever they were on. That's how I learned the Gospel. I also watched the various specials about the poor, starving children on TV, whether Christian or otherwise. I would cry and break open my piggy bank when watching them. Thankfully I was steeped in compassion by my parents and siblings, even though they were all very deeply broken. That brokenness itself served as a means of healing for me. I saw through them our common brokenness and the grace that could seep through.

When I later read through the New Testament I saw the same broken grace. It was in reading that that God made sense. The cross as God's way of speaking, self emptying love, tears down walls. That makes sense.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

What motivates conspiratorial thinking?

Atheists say it's the religious.

The right says it's the left.

The left says it's the right.

The religious say it's the atheists.

So what is it that motivates conspiratorial thinking and the (sometimes violent) actions that result? It seems that conspiratorial thinking has been a part of our human culture throughout history. We see it in ancient tomes all the way to modern texts that espouse an essentially equal viewpoint. "They" are behind what's happening. "They" whoever (or whatever) "they" may be, move and shape history to their nefarious ends. One commonality in every conspiracy theory is that the offended group is always innocent and the enemy is always evil. In this I see a common psychological defense against anxiety and fear. Whether it's the John Birch Society or radical Marxists, or nutters of any sort, they each betray a Manichean mindset that simply won't allow for anything in between their starkly black and white world. Complexity of reality is verboten to this mindset and like the Athenians in war with the Spartans, simply won't be allowed.

I understand the impulse. When a scenario ensues that threatens comforts and even basic necessities, it's very easy to give into arguments that posit some external enemy as the cause of all our problems. However, the sad truth is, I know myself a little too well. And if you're honest too, you'll admit it too. We're the enemy. We always have been. So if we admit this, what should we do? One thing is to say that we see things in a limited way.

One aspect of conspiratorial thinking that constantly confronts me is how "certain" it is. That alone tells me that it's a gnostic impulse that should be rejected by both the Christian community and any intellectual skeptics. If even the apostle  Paul says we (including himself) see through a glass glass darkly, and post modern philosophers say the same in spades, how can we dare say that we have the "inside key" to how history turns?

So whether you're a skeptic or a Christian, I ask you to put your thinking cap on and consider each moment in history critically, with a mind to our own intellectual and moral limitations.