Monday, December 31, 2012


So, I'm an extraordinary breaker of resolutions, as anyone who is familiar with the "addictive mindset" or has "had a conversation with me" might have guessed. I would like to be the kind of person who provides attentive maternal care to a brood of children, possibly adopted and with a variety of special needs, in between shifts as a surgical resident in the hospital where I am preparing for my career with Doctors Without Borders. I believe I should be that person, and yet my biggest accomplishment to date has been developing the ability to care for my single, perfect child, not flunk out of nursing school, and get through the day without bingeing and vomiting in frustration over the chasm between the person I am and the person I wish I were. While it may have made Christianity the pariah in the middle-school lunchroom of contemporary culture, to me, the doctrine of my own essential and absolute inadequacy is  self-evident to the point that I view hypotheses which don't take it for granted the way a fervent atheist might view the apologetics of C.S. Lewis.

Given that, resolutions are a weakness of mine. I indulge in the idea that I can make myself closer to the person I wish I were by reading to my son more regularly, say, or by setting goals and sticking to them.

In my case, though, the goals I set metastasize. I start out with small, measurable goals and end up with goals like: effect meaningful change with respect to global poverty, or, help end obstetric fistula. As a result, my current "working list" of resolutions is actually more of an outline, endowed with a number of tumor-like qualities including a lack of differentiation (am I a wife and mother first, or a Christian, or a saver of impoverished Cambodian children? Are teaching third graders science and promoting breastfeeding in Brooklyn worthwhile goals, or should I jettison them because people are dying of malaria as I type? Is blogging a valuable creative outlet, or a distraction from the many pressing, concrete needs of those around me?)

Having said that, my Big Goal for 2013 has been streamlined into two parts, as I've decided that anything more complex starts to take on the shape of that scary multi-headed Harry Potter dog whose name I would recall if I had allowed myself to truly enjoy the Harry Potter books, rather than racing through them amid a pile of more "legitimate" reading material:

1. Find, do, and document concrete activities to address global poverty, while
2. Not allowing these activities to overshadow my day-to-day life.

To wit (and this is part of the body of resolutions that I have subjugated to the Big Goal and demoted to "outline" status): I'm going to stop myself from looking up aid agencies while my son is playing in front of me and thinking about what I read on GiveWell when my husband is telling me about his workday. I'm going to remember that, while it may be my privilege to play a role in the renewal of all things, that role is not "director".  And that I'm not a visionary, but I can be useful -- to the degree that I resist the often-overwhelming temptation to make my life about me and my vision.

Small things, great love. If there's nothing new under the sun, at least that gives those of us who catch on more slowly the opportunity to catch up.

Thursday, December 27, 2012


So, blogging is hard right now. There are so many things on my mind: the shootings in Connecticut; the fact that, as a friend pointed out, the shootings are different from any number of injustices and atrocities mostly because they happened in the United States; the myriad other horrible injustices and painful realities that are called to mind by that fact; my near-total failure to respond to that list in any meaningful way in 2012.

I did a few things: a donation to The Fistula Project and to ADRA here, a Mad Scientists program and SPROUT program there. But it feels like it's all just drops in this overwhelming ocean of need, and it also feels, sometimes, like I choose these drops at random, based on what I enjoy, what makes me feel good, and not on where I'm needed. 

That same friend once postulated that ultimately, taking mentally handicapped people on field trips or cooking for homeless people is as self-serving as, say, throwing a party or becoming a CEO, because all actions are intrinsically self-motivated. I do these things because I have an idea of the person I want to be and the world I want to live in, and these actions bring me and my world closer to those ideas.

But here's the conclusion at which I arrived, this advent: there are just exceedingly dark things in this world, and I don't actually understand them, or really want to. I just know that they are there, and they are horrible, and if we can get rid of them, we should. If I can get rid of them, I should. If someone is lonely and I can comfort them; if someone is hungry and I can feed them; if someone is asking for money, however suspect their intentions, and I have money. If someone is angry and mean and I can dispense some feeble, human kind of grace.

And when I am doing those things, I am closer to God and His will than when I am not. And His will is the best source of light I'm familiar with. And it doesn't actually matter if I'm enacting it in my own family or the circles of privileged friends in which I operate or the larger world, because all of those places are in need of grace, and He, not I, knows where I can best dispense it at any given moment.

I am not the kind of person who could be counted on not to waste my life on trivial things if I had everything, if I lived in a perfect world. I suspect that I'm not alone in this, and that the extreme pain we experience in this world is, ultimately, part of an act of creation larger and more complex than I can understand. And I can only say that because I believe entirely that the terrible things other people suffer will, eventually, be set right.

But in the meantime, there's not really much of a purpose in life beyond trying to be part of that work. Honestly, all the movies and parties and delicious meals in the world don't mean anything; love is what matters. And it is a horrible truth that often we are most aware of that when the people we love are threatened or taken away -- but it is still a truth. And I suspect that the purpose of this life, ugly and painful as it often is, is to make sure that when we actually encounter light, when everything dark is actually chased away and forgotten, we'll be able to recognize what it is we are looking at, and why it is valuable.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

(maybe) there's a God above. But.

A little bit after posting on Sunday, I dressed my son, strapped him to my chest in a snuggie, and took him to a church that is walking distance from my house.

It was Anglican, and beautiful, and when he started to wriggle around and I got up to go, a deliciously stout, dark-skinned woman shuffled over and insisted we stay, because this was his church.

And when I went up for Communion (again, at her urging), the man giving it out asked if Mac was taking Communion yet. Handed me the wafer as if my participation was not even a question, as if it had nothing to do with him and barely anything to do with me -- it was that foregone a conclusion.

And see: there are people in the world who haven't really experienced much love. I'm not one of them, although the problems I have kept me from accepting a lot of the love people gave me early in my life. But even being me, even having the best parents and best husband in the world, even having awesome friends and a comfortable life, even being recovered from a disease that could have killed me, but didn't, the feeling of being loved in that way, by strangers -- it gave the feeling after you take medication for a pain you've gotten used to, and then the pain is gone, and you're left wondering how you were living with it before.

I can understand how vehemently a person might react to the idea that people are killing or persecuting others because they believe God is calling them to do that, particularly if that person believes that that God -- that any God -- is a fantasy.

I have a harder time understanding why a person would look at this breed of faith --  the breed that says,

welcome, this is your church, this is the body of Christ, broken for you, though you didn't bother to get dressed up like us, though you seem not to have brushed your hair in a week, though that baby needed his nails clipped several days ago -

-- and see a dragon in need of slaying.

Why not be more interested in how else we can get human beings, imperfect and small as we are, to show love to one another? To show this kind of love, which doesn't ask its objects to be useful or sexy, or self-sufficient or charismatic or neat or whole?

I follow an blog on skepticism, atheism and polyamory that is, often, very well-written. (As is often the case, I kind of channel-surf, waiting for the girls to come back onscreen and occasionally caring about what the more loquacious male contributors have to say). A recent post was talking about how terrific it will be when we will have all the amazing art that our society produces, but will have outgrown the religious context in which much of this art was produced.

But I feel like this won't happen. I don't feel smug about that, because I don't feel it proves anything about the truth claims made by Christians about God, or Christ, or their faith. I think it just reflects the very human need for love, for honest love, based not on the pretense of who we would like to be or the promise of what we can offer others now, when we are healthy and able and appear to be whole.

Even if God were not real, even if Christ were not God, part of the human condition is the inevitable recognition of our own limitations, of our own frailty and smallness, and of the absolute irrelevance of our claims to power, to agency, to ability. Some of us recognize this early, and often. Being an addict helps, as does working with others who are disabled or sick, as does the realization that those who are disabled, sick and poor often do with regularity things I could never do.

But either way: eventually you will be old, and you will be unable to care for yourself, and if you are still loved, and cared for, it will be either because there is a source of selfless love in the world, or because you are valuable apart from what you have to offer others, or both. When people show love in this way, unconcerned with their own well-being or with the superficial appeal of the object of their love, and tell me it is because of Christ, I believe that.

It happens that no one I have encountered has shown this love and claimed that they are showing it because Christ is not real. And so I think that, to truly "move beyond" Christianity, people who have a problem with faith would need to find a viable source of the kind of love that motivates people to welcome and care for others indiscriminately. Because for many people, that kind of love is a reality for which no Selfish Gene has convincingly accounted.

Not to put to fine a point on it, there are a lot of Depends to be changed, a lot of broken people to be welcomed and loved, and I think we're unlikely to "dispel" the "myth" of Christianity with rhetoric, however sound, until a critical mass of vocal atheists begins to love those around them with similar abandon, and to articulate as their motivation something comparable to the claim:

Christ valued this person enough to give up His life, and I am called to treat her accordingly.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

election thoughts: a prelude

So, below -- my thoughts immediately following the first, disastrous, debate between Obama and Romney, when my husband and dad were both strongly pro-Romney and I was strongly pro-crawling under my bed and eating graham crackers rather than getting on with life:

I don't feel good about anything political right now. I have enormous trouble dealing with the following ideas: old people tied to their beds in shitty nursing homes, unwashed and covered in pressure ulcers; hungry children; people bankrupt and/or dying because they couldn't manage to budget for $1000/month health insurance premiums and now they have cancer.

I just   -- I believe that, whenever possible, people should not have to be in pain. Even if you have to take someone else's money to help them. You don't "earn" the right to not die of cancer, to not be tied to your bed and left to rot, to not be left alone and frightened and or abused by the people you love, by making good financial decisions. 

I believe that most people would agree with the above, and so I believe I'm not unusual when I say: I will pay more tax to live in a country that does not leave vulnerable populations to suffer in the interests of interpreting more strictly a document written in a time when women routine died in childbirth, children did not live past five, and cancer was just God's vendetta against your unfortunate ass, end of story.

The thing is, we're not going to start letting people die in the streets again, in some sketchy Dickensian way. So we all collectively need to come to terms with the idea that the government is going to be using tax money for some social programs, and focus on how it can do so thoughtfully.

For instance: oh my god, effing tax effing junk food! Candy is a luxory. Soda is a luxury. Beer is a luxury. There is no reason on God's green earth not to tax these things and then spend the revenue on public hospitals and pubic health programs.

People who claim this is targeting the poor: you either represent Nestle or Coca Cola, or you are being obtuse. The injustice is not that we tax "poor people's" beverages of choice and not rich people's. The injustice is that those people who have the most incentive to care for their health (because they have the least resources to get adequate treatment for their diabetes, etc) are also the most likely to buy the exact items that are jeopardizing our health.

People who claim that this is interfering with their civil rights: this is a tax you can avoid by drinking the abundant clean water that you have, and that large portions of the world does not have. Don't like water? Learn to like it. You will likely enjoy having your gangrenous leg amputated even less, and given the choice, I'd rather not pay for it.

Also: people should not be afraid to lose their jobs capriciously. But people who are not doing their jobs should be afraid to lose them. You don't need to gut the educational system, but you do need to stop paying "consultants" and administrators two and three and four times what teachers are paid, and you do need to revamp the public school system so that it is possible to fire shitty teachers. You can do it in city-funded child care programs and city-funded hospitals if you get an able manager, someone who will work to counsel and document when staff are not doing their jobs. 

If you are kvetching about your manager and ignoring your patients' call bells when their abscesses are leaking onto their linens, their diapers are going unchanged, their Dilaudid is overdue or has stopped working, then you should stop being employed as a nurse. 

If Americans could stop looking at politics as an arena for talking about principles and instead consider public policies in terms of the actual effects they have on people and communities, then we could save money. While we're fighting over whether or not people on welfare are layabouts or creating new minimum wage jobs is better than giving everyone health insurance, one group of people is wasting everyone's money on programs that don't do what they say they'll do, and another group is learning that they can get free bottles, but not formula; they can buy cheetos with their EBT, but not tofu; they can get their leg amputated and go on disability, but they can't get the preventative care to keep their leg or their training they need to get a job. 

.... anyway, then I had to go to the hospital, where I felt better, because when someone was in pain, I could hassle the nurse myself, not being hooked up to an IV with no call bell by my bed. When someone's abscess ruptured, I could change their sheets.

I get the frustration: Obama promised a lot and didn't deliver everything he promised. But Romney isn't even promising a lot. He's basically saying: I'll give this guy money, and it will make your life better. So we've got someone who at least says he agrees that poor people should be assisted, and someone who says outright that they shouldn't. Who says: you need housing, education, job training, and health insurance? I'll give this guy back money to start a company that will provide jobs that won't pay for any of those things. I think Romney flat out does not believe that the working poor exist, nor does he understand what constitutes "work" for a lot of Americans.

Working at Family Dollar isn't the same as working for a business that you own. Probably to most people, that statement is so obvious as to be almost meaningless. Unfortunately, our potential next president seems not to have encountered it before, and has constructed a campaign that makes sense only in a universe in which every single job will make your life like his.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

boob interlude (kind of): judgey mcjudgershein

Yesterday, I went to one of the city's breastfeeding meetings, and, as the student who just kind of showed up and started following my supervisor around, I was in the position of explaining myself to a number of different people, one at a time, as they trickled in -- not because they were running late, but because, at 9 am, most of them had already been in the hospital, checking in with new moms about their babies. (I love nurses.)

Thinking about breastfeeding in the context of the kind of health problems I'm studying in Med-Surg, I'm like: do I believe that breastfeeding is literally The Issue, the way that I believed education and college access was The Issue when I was working in charter schools?

Maybe not. The wonderful thing about being a nurse is that you don't actually have to decide The Issue by yourself. You figure it out from your patients, and it changes -- both from one patient to another and, if you are lucky and effective, for the same patient over time.

But breastfeeding is a huge issue to me because 1) it is a big issue for a lot of the moms I saw on OB clinicals: their babies are already at risk for a number of diseases and problems, and breastfeeding seriously reduces that risk; 2) the moms are similarly at risk for a lot of health problems, and breastfeeding reduces those risks, too; 3) I have had such a positive experience with breastfeeding in terms of my relationship to my body, and to my son, and while I understand that this was probably easier for me because my body is written on differently than are the bodies of most of my patients, I still believe this experience can be made accessible to moms of all colors, in all situations.

Mostly, of course, low breastfeeding rates is not an intractable problem. It's a created problem. And it's a simple, if not easy, problem to solve: if we give mom the resources they need to breastfeed, the way Enfamil gives moms what they need to formula feed, then breastfeeding rates go up. We're not touching on problems of big kids going hungry, here -- problems in which someone like Mitt Romney has to give up tax dollars and cry over his $50,000 plate over that one in five American kid who is hungry and thinks he's entitled to food and whose parents will be voting for Obama. The food this baby needs is right there, inside his mom, who, however "shiftless" she is otherwise, is growing food for little babies inside her body (shouldn't that be a Republican symbol of some sort?)

Anyway, the personal-and-feminist parallel that I am seeing in my own life right now is the tendency of everyone in the entire world -- from Paul Ryan to Rachel Maddow to myself -- to capitalize on the national/global pastime of judging women. This is not to say that any of us exclusively judge women, but that passing judgement on women is so much the craze, now and pretty much since always, that you can make an entire Times cover about how an otherwise-ordinary mom is breastfeeding her pre-schooler -- which is the norm and a total necessity in much of the world.

And, in that sense, Pine was totally right: it's ridiculous that her breastfeeding was considered news, and whoever is advising those students should probably address that with them -- not so much because Pine was somehow victimized by the story, but because it's a stupid story, and we need to be moving in the direction of fewer, not more, stupid stories in the media.

Speaking of created problems: instead of reading an entire newspaper to gain an understanding of what's going on In the World, most people direct their browsers to Yahoo and are presented with individual headlines to glance over and then evaluate: what do you think about Obama, now that you've read Romney's secret speech? What do you think about this illegal alien wanting to go to college? The focus is less and less on the actual story and more on what everyone and their Twitter feed thinks about its subject.

One of the amazing things about reading is that it can challenge the reader to imagine how other people live and feel, and, by doing so, it can develop compassion and empathy. But when "new stories" are developed in order to encourage readers to project their own feelings onto their subjects, they play to one of our lowest common denominators as people: the sense of accomplishment and assurance we derive from articulating the failings of those around us.

This judgey-ness has been identified as a divisive factor within feminism and among women, specifically -- but I think it's a larger, and growing, problem in our culture and society as a whole. In fact, I'd trade a fistful of searing commentaries and witty asides for a few more deliberate actions, taken to assist others or to correct the systemic problems that play into the behaviors we're judging.

All this to say that, in my own life, kvetching about how Pine had other options is itself a distraction, and I shouldn't have let it distract me. Either the difficulties of privileged and education single parents in academia are worth addressing or not. It would be very helpful if sick leave policies for professors didn't interfere with parents' getting tenure. It would be great if adolescents were less scandalized by the realities of babies and boobs. The fact that that's not where I choose to focus my energy doesn't really necessitate a critique of those who do. The fact that I felt drawn into one reflects a bigger problem in the way public discourse is functioning now -- and that (like formula feeding!) is a created problem, one that every reader has absolute power to correct, at least for him- or her-self.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

rich boobs, poor boobs

In case you were busy following the crisis in the Middle East, a professor in DC was having some serious (boob-related) First World Problems last week.

Pine's take on the situation is up over at counterpunch, but honestly, I found her essay difficult to read. I prefer Inside Higher Ed's coverage, particularly those reader comments focused on the fairly reasonable point that you shouldn't take your sick infant to work with you, especially when -- unlike a lot of working moms -- you enjoy benefits such as paid sick leave. I had a sanctimonious little rejoinder about that very point, but in deference to a certain Mitt Romney, I'll leave the total failures of imagination regarding others' circumstances to the master.

Anyway, while this was happening, I've been volunteering with the breastfeeding coordinator at a public hospital here in New York, where Bloomberg has made it his business to get poor moms nursing, injecting himself in between hospital postpartum units and Similac executives like a chaperone at a middle school dance.

Bloomberg's agenda is a much bigger deal than Pine's, whose situation had resolved itself the next day (in the sense that she now had a baby sitter and her employer wasn't threatening to fire her, as you'd expect of your average Family Dollar manager, for example). The biggest deal of all is probably the laundry list of more effective measures that haven't been taken to get New York moms nursing -- like pushing the nurses and administrators on these units to provide correct information and support to new moms; like insisting that all employers allow working moms time and opportunity to pump*; like raising disability caps so that moms can afford to stay home with their newborns; like getting insurance companies and Medicaid to cover breast pumps and ensuring that moms know how to access these benefits.

But the moms on my unit mostly don't blog. They're more likely to be the workers at the kind of day care center where Pine sends her daughter than they are to be tenure-track faculty at private universities. And so they are less likely to have correct information about how and why to breastfeed and more likely, as far as I can see, to be welcomed into a new and awesomely impossible situation: you're a failure as a mom if you don't breastfeed, but it seems that your (poor/brown/female) body's not working right, so here's your formula.

The thing is, Pine had a lot of options in this situation that the majority of women don't. It's one thing to be afraid that taking a sick day may jeopardize your tenure -- and it's a stressful thing, and a thing women tend to worry about more than men. But it's another thing entirely to worry about taking a sick day because you might lose your job, or because you will not get paid if you don't go to work, which is the case for many, many moms (and dads).

Moreover, Pine chose to make her body (more) visible because it is doing something unexpected (babies don't belong in college classrooms; teachers, regardless of gender, should be focused on their students, not their own children) and then frame the situation, not as an opportunity to work for change, but a chance to complain that the work hasn't already been done.

That's absolutely not to say she shouldn't have made herself visible by breastfeeding; in my mind, it was unprofessional to take her child to school, regardless of how she fed it. It is to acknowledge that white female bodies, professional bodies, in college classrooms of expensive private universities, enjoy more control over how visible they are than do a lot of women's bodies. It seems that, rather than launch a tirade about the particular injustice done to her by acknowledging that what she had done was unusual in the context of her classroom (though not so unusual, of course, in the context of, you know, biology), Pine could have leveraged the fact that her body is largely protected by its whiteness and class to encourage a conversation about breastfeeding, sexuality, and women's bodies. This is a conversation that she is especially well positioned to have, and that is difficult and dangerous for most of the women who really, really need for it to move forward.

Pine's feeling she shouldn't have to have that conversation is understandable, I guess -- though it seems a little disingenuous given that it presumably would have been fairly easy to give her daughter a bottle of breastmilk, since the kid much be taking a bottle in day care, and that Pine, lest we forget, is a gender studies professor of some breed and gets paid to talk about sexuality and gender. It's also disappointing: if Pine publicly breastfeeding her child is not yet the non-issue she wants it to be, she enjoyed much less fallout than would many women, as she acknowledges herself in counterpunch. A conversation about her decision might have made her more visible than she wanted -- but it also might have done a lot to at least make breastfeeding visible.

Pine had a forum to advocate for others; she chose, instead, to focus on the "backlash" she experienced personally -- a backlash that didn't threaten her well-being or that of her child and that was resolved so fast as to be a non-issue (she had a sitter by the next day; her university seems not to have censured her actions beyond releasing a statement reiterating the options it gives faculty members with sick children).

The fact is, breast milk is healthier for children than formula, rich or poor, and parents of all backgrounds are being pressured to breastfeed because of this (like they are being pressured to read to their kids and to immunize their kids, because, like those choices, breastfeeding isn't the choice between two equally beneficial options; it's the choice between giving your child what she needs, and, you know, not doing that). At the same time, all of us experience obstacles: even when breastfeeding is amazing, it's harder to incorporate into the non-parenting aspects of life.

For some, though, these obstacles include things like:

"I'm being told I'm starving my baby because I don't know how to get him to nurse, and I don't speak the same language as the staff at the hospital where I am staying, alone,"  or

"My body feels targeted every moment of my life, and everything about it seems suspect," or

"I have to go back to work in six weeks and there's nowhere for me to pump,"

--  and for others, like Pine, they include "I was able to take my child to work rather than dipping into my paid leave, and when I chose to breastfeed rather than give my year-old child a bottle of pumped breast milk, my college-aged students wrote a newspaper article about me".

So: kind of a breastfeeding fail, I think. It has, however, got me thinking more about how my own awesome experience of breastfeeding is itself a reflection of the privileges I enjoy because I am white, because I delivered in a private hospital with my parents and husband nearby, because I'm raising my baby on the edge of Park Slope rather than the edge of Brownsville. More on that soon.

* This would simply mean working to enforce federal law here in the city, since Obamacare includes a provision that employers have to do this.

Friday, September 14, 2012

boobs! part I

So, I've started volunteering at one of the city's public hospitals with the lactation coordinator, who is trying to get the hospital's breastfeeding numbers up, as per Healthy People 2020. This is both a result and an exacerbation of the large amount of time I spend thinking about boobs. 

I feed my son from my boobs. It is so awesome; it's like I'm the breastfeeding equivalent of all those women on The Business of Being Born who are strumming acoustic guitars over the wonders of their natural vaginal lacerations. I'm that crunchy over breastfeeding.

See, before, I hated my body so much. I hated it for being too fat, so I starved it, and then I hated it for being all weak-toothed and weak-boned and irregularly-ovulating from the starvation, and then I lost my first pregnancy and hated it more. And I had a mental illness, yes, but a large part of the appeal of that mental illness is that it's also a snarky little subversive reiteration of the way everyone else feels about my body, by virtue of it having a vagina and therefore, apparently, being everyone's business.

(Incidentally, if you were wondering, that right there is why a lot of women like me, women who hate the idea that anyone would choose to abort a potential baby, are committed to preserving that choice. Because it is exhausting and obnoxious to have your body be everyone else's business and then be blamed for that unwanted notoriety. Because it is infuriating, this idea that to properly be the person I am, the gender that I am, I am in need of constant correction, from the first instructions to sit with your legs closed, wait your turn to speak, and ignore the boys who are talking over you and feeling you up at the swimming pool, to the last instructions to cover your breasts when you're feeding your child, but don't expect to be able to keep them covered if someone with a penis wants to touch them and he's bigger than you.)

I get this attitude sometimes, this bizarre admiration for breastfeeding, still (!), when my son is already almost nine months old (!) Moms who quit sooner talk about "wanting their bodies back" and give the impression that breastfeeding was a big sacrifice for them. And I feel like a fake because maybe if it were a big sacrifice for me, I wouldn't still be doing it.

But really, it's not. I've never felt like my body was mine: if it were, why did I start being ashamed of it for not being sexy enough when I was seven? I didn't want to have sex with anyone at seven. Why was I fielding helpful blasts about how to "lose the baby weight" from my first trimester? Who am I getting my "pre-baby-body" back for?

My experience, being female, has always been one in which there are an endless supply of consultants ready to help me ameliorate the embarrassing mess of a body that is never good enough -- both because it is not a man's, though they rarely say that, and because it is not Christie Brinkley's/Kate Moss's/Jessica Alba's/Beyonce's. The gold standard changes, but my obligation and subsequent failure to meet it -- even when meeting it would do nothing at all for me, personally -- never does.

In this sense, breastfeeding feels subversive, not because half of the Crown Heights-Bed-Stuy-Fort Greene trifecta has now seen my boobs, but because my boobs have been commandeered by my son. My boobs are no longer up for discussion, because now your critique will inevitably be met with: I walk around generating food to sustain a human life out of this inferior body; please, tell me more about how your belittlement of women and their bodies justifies your space on the planet.

It's possibly the biggest act of self-determination regarding my body that I've made. It's even better than getting married. When I got married, I got to reject everyone else's claims to my body because they were superseded by the claims of a particular man. My body wasn't fully mine; it's just that it wasn't everybody's anymore.

But even my husband -- who I love and also resent for having the "right" to evaluate my worth, by virtue of being male -- can't say shit to me now. Even if my body isn't good enough for him -- itself a much more comfortable standard for me than the one I spent twenty years trying to attain -- my body is good enough for me, because it feeds my child, and while my child isn't literally my entire life, he's much more my life than trying to be sexy ever was.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

st. francis

I was in Park Slope yesterday, walking with a friend, and we crossed a flyer for a Blessing of the Animals. I didn't check the church -- I wish now that I had, since naturally, I can't find it online. Until then, I'd almost forgotten that, in addition to cider spices and oatmeal and new erasers, autumn tastes a little like your absence, now.

You study nursing and you talk about medical futility and you believe -- the way you once believed in Jesus -- in life, in a good death. And when you are believing these things, you don't think that no matter how good the death and how much better you know, you'll have days when the sky is perfectly blue, when, for once, it's not too hot, and when you're reminded that you are living in a world in which people bring their animals to churches to be blessed.

And in that moment you'd give a lot of what you have for him to be in the rented hospital bed in your growing-up bedroom, murmuring words you know, but don't actually understand. To be massaging his shoulders through the paper his skin has become; to be dipping lemon swabs along his lips like you're lighting candles. You wouldn't want that very long, but you want it then, fiercely, more than you want him back for real, almost -- because in those moments you almost believe that those last few minutes might not be too much to ask.

And people lose their children, you know. They lose their spouses and their parents, and who I am to grieve over you, when you lived almost a century? When you held great-grandchildren? When this time three years ago, just a few weeks before you died, you were perusing library books and walking your dog around the small town where you spent your last few years?

There's nothing tragic or wrong about my grandfather's death. In fact, his death is the sort of thing that makes me believe in God: after so much pain and loss, he died deeply loved, comfortable, on his terms. It means enough to me that I often think it's why I went into nursing -- to help others die that way.

But I feel like I can't know what I believe about God, now, because I want so badly for you to be with Him. When we're carrying our animals into churches in Brooklyn -- a city you never saw and would have hated -- making a beautiful moment in an inattentive space, I like to think of you. Not so much that you're there: though I miss you deeply, and often, so much that missing you is a part of who I am now, it's okay with me if I never properly see you again. I just don't want you to miss this. At the very least, I like to imagine that you had consulting privileges.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012


So, immediately after I got done worrying about school, I was devastated. I was too busy to think about God for, like, three weeks or something, and He seems to have taken off, or shut up, or something. And all the places in which I could find Him before seem empty now -- or, honestly, they seem full of voices and ideas that make me feel sick and angry.

I believe that at some point, I'll be able to pick up a Bible or walk into a church again and feel something other than frustrated and lost.

But right now, those things don't mean anything to me. I don't know yet how to make sense of God if evolution is a fact; if I might never see my grandfather again, the way I imagined; if God isn't actually a way to impose my own sense of order on a world that is often frightening and incoherent. If God is real and still I have to do all this work to decide what matters and what is right and what to do with my life -- I wasn't prepared for that.

God is real, and we still don't know exactly how the world started, or what happens next.

God is real, and still, I'm going to lose the people I love, and I don't know when, or how, I'll see them again.

God is real, and everyone seems to think different things about God, and some of those things are awful and repellent.

God is real, and the people who talk about God most seem to me to be devoid of love.

God is real, and right now, the book in which I was taught I could find Him in seems incomplete and suspicious.

So where do I find God now? I mean, right now I'm looking






And I'm feeling all right. Like the things I had thought God was are actually much smaller than the things God actually is. Like I have a free pass to not try to force God into something small and comprehensible; like He's got better things for me to do than try so fucking hard all the time.

Monday, August 13, 2012

the new conundrum, same as the old conundrum

The born-again narrative I grew up with was inherently linear:

1. I'm a sinner,
2. bad bad bad stuff,
3. Jesus saves me,
4. hallelujah,

-- often with the epilogue that,

4b. since I was so bad but now am saved through the blood of Jesus Christ, He and I are here to tell you how you are bad and should not get those food stamps/be allowed to get married/avoid prison for your drug-related, non-violent crime.

Okay, but let me stop with the snark and vitriol. For whatever reason, right now I'm really mad at Christianity, mostly, I think, for things it didn't do. At one point when I was more ensconced in Christianity, reading my Bible and etc, I was close enough to it to identify that the Bible itself doesn't endorse pettiness and hypocrisy, and to at least make a half-hearted attempt to understand the people I kind of write off now as petty hypocrites.

I always come back because, for me, God and Christ are bigger than my frustrations with people. For me, the pain in the world challenges my faith, but doesn't ultimately destroy it. I understand why a person might look at the world and conclude that God seems like an unreasonable proposition. I also understand why another person looks at the same world and concludes that only God resolves the world into something coherent. And I feel certain of God in a way that runs deeper than intellect and that I can't ever really talk myself out of.

But when I try to be Christian, I feel I'm asked to adhere to practices and beliefs that seem so wholly unreasonable to me that I can't deal with them. Like, deny myself and pick up my cross? That's a thing to struggle with, but it's something I can accept as worth struggling with. Believe that my son is inherently evil and deserves to die? My mind short circuits.

Tell me to sell my stuff and give it to the poor and I'm like, right there with You -- or, You know, not, but I get that I should be. Tell me that we live in an evil time as evidenced by Obama making health care more expensive for the wealthy and more accessible for the poor, and by gay people getting married, and I'm kinda like, you know, I've got a bridge in my own private heaven I'd like to sell you.

For me it's a cycle: God pulls me closer, I feel like I'm called to love everyone, I try to understand those who claim to represent Him, I feel more alienated.

And I'm told: well, the fact that you don't want to believe this thing just because it is wholly incredible and contradictory is proof that you Lack Faith and are Worldly and Sinful. The fact that you can't tolerate beliefs that violate your moral code is proof that you haven't become obedient, haven't really gotten the message.

It doesn't matter if you find bigotry intolerable, if you can't stomach the idea that God endorses an economic agenda that presumes that Mitt Romney deserves to keep his money more than the least-fortunate 20% of American children "deserve" to eat, if you think a woman shouldn't have to die because her pregnancy is endangering her life. The fact that there is something I can tell you about God that you would need to reject in order to maintain your faith means you're not a good Christian. The fact that you would choose your own principles over what I'm telling you about God, means you're not a good Christian.

I feel like I would rather be a bad Christian than a good bigot. these days, my faith seems to fluctuate as a function of my ability to perceive the possibility that I don't have to be either.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Ten Things About Summer 2012

.... since I haven't posted in two months!

1. I haven't attended church once since my last post.

2. I don't know why.

3. I kind of blame Chic-Fil-Le. (Everyone else is!)

4. But not really. It's just that, well, I just can't. I'm exhausted. I'm exhausted and frustrated because I spend most of my "spiritual" time stressed out about how I'm not close enough to God, not loving enough, don't tithe or pray or go to church enough, say ugly shit about people and sarcass all over the place, never spend enough time with my son, yell at my husband, don't have a job, don't volunteer to help others enogh. So much time all, what about the fistulas? What about kids who are starving? Lou Gherig's Disease? Infertility? Homelessness?

And then I read another person's tweet and they really think the problem with the world today is that not enough people care if gay people get married. And I am so intolerant of that, and that's one more un-Christian thing about me.

But I just don't understand why God's always pointing out to me the things I need to be doing differently, to the point where it often dominates me, but to these people, He just wants to talk shit about The Gays.

5. So, is my salvation so fraught with fear and trembling compared to theirs because they're doing all the God stuff right? When I stop effing up, is my reward to get to be a big meanie who cares more about gay rights and how to suppress them than I do about rape/war/child abuse/starvation/cancer/etc?

6. Cause that makes me kind of.... not know if I even believe in God. Like, I can withstand atheist argumentation both lucid and vitriolic, but I don't know what to say when I turn around and find that everyone who plans to vote for Obama has kind of thrown up their hands about Jesus.And no one who's supporting Romney has a damn thing to say about how he and his running mate seem to be glossing over every single verse relating to the poor, sick, elderly, widows, children and the need to help them.

7. It's just depressing.

8. I feel like I've been stupid for believing in God, and at the same time, deeply lost without Him.

9. But I also feel like the problem isn't with God, Himself/Itself. And that the moments I've felt close to Him are more real than my histrionics about Christianity.

10. So maybe no church right now, or not this church. Maybe God's taking a break, Himself, at the moment.

11. Maybe he's in Africa finally doing something about fistulas?

Thursday, June 7, 2012

(John) 17 is the loneliest number

I'm savoring what I anticipate will be the last few mornings I can spend reading and writing about things not related to nursing or pathophysiology.  

My new summer reading....
Well, maybe not savoring. I believe that my insistence on alternating between The God Delusion and Burge's commentary on John is serving some purpose besides my own self-mortification. But some days, it seems like that belief is exactly the kind of unfounded "faith" that preoccupies/confounds Dawkins.

I don't know if the problem I'm having with Burge has to do with the shift from the first twelve chapters of John -- which describe things that people actually could have seen Jesus do -- to the final eight -- in which Jesus gives lengthy speeches and prayers that seem unlikely to have been recalled and recorded word for word -- or whether Dawkins is getting his way, at least in part, and I'm reading with a more skeptical bent these days, or whether the claims Burge makes in his analysis of these chapters would have been difficult for me to deal with under any circumstances.

I started reading the Gospel of John precisely because it includes that material that is most challenging for me: lots of talk of Jesus being the single way to God. I'm increasingly tempted to read that claim in context: Jesus was the way to God for His listeners in the Ancient Near East, when the alternative paths to God were all dead ends.

It's very, very hard for me to understand Jesus as the single way to God, period, for all time, if by that we mean that you have to intellectually assent to the idea that Jesus is God and died for your sins in order to be saved.

It seems unfair to me. Clearly, if that's the case, some people are at an extra advantage, growing up in a society that endorses that belief, compared to others who either grow up in a society that believes in a different kind of God, or who grow up in an environment in which God is a non-issue, or whose experience of Jesus and God is mediated by representatives who present both in such a way that neither are convincing. I don't believe in God and Christ as they are represented by a lot of Christians I've encountered.

I'm not saying that those Christians are wrong; I think I just don't understand the God they believe in, that there's some kind of breakdown between what they see when they look at that articulation of God, and what I see.

But: if their representation of God was the only one offered to me, I'd be an atheist too. Not because I am willful (I don't think), or because I don't want correction (though, really, who does?) -- but because I can't force myself to believe in a God who plays favorites and then to call that God good.

At the same time, I'm aware that it is possible that God does play favorites, and that that reality is somehow resolved with His goodness in a way that my mind is unable to understand. I can only trust that, if this is the case, God will forgive me for choosing to believe in His goodness over His willingness to smite those who are different from me.

But I am aware that, to many Christians, even messing around with the idea that Christ's claim to be the way, truth and life not be read as literal and exclusive and universal means that I may not actually be a Christian. And that makes me anxious and sad, because my faith, such as it is, is actually quite important to me.

And in those moments, while I don't find Dawkins convincing, I do understand, deeply, why someone would, or would want to. It would be a relief to stop fearing and trembling over my faith. It does seem like this is all frustrating, difficult, and abstract. And it feels very lonely, because no matter where I go or who I find there, I'm always out of step.

Reading John 17, where Jesus discusses how the church's sense of community, its love for one another, will be held up as evidence of His reality and of the reality of God, I realize that I haven't even experienced, or been part of making, a community like that. And that, when I am completely honest, I haven't actually seen a community like that in any of the churches I've encountered.

It's a problem, one I'm unsure how to go about addressing. But I'm not sure where to start, because I don't know if the problem is just me, and I'm the only one who finds this so hard, or if there is a problem with the church I'm trying to attend, and I either need to try to change it from within or find an entirely new church.

Monday, June 4, 2012

vacation thoughts

So, I haven't posted in the past few days, because I was here:

When I went on my honeymoon (three and a half years ago!), my husband and I got roped into one of those timeshare presentations. Next to the part where Z threatened to black out from hypoglycemic shock if they didn't release us to go get our promised free buffet, my favorite part of the presentation was a video that stressed the importance of vacations in re-establishing relationships with family members and learning more about the people you love.

Evidently, no one takes their five month old along on these timeshare vacations. If I hadn't know it already, I guess I could have learned that my son enjoys waking up at four am, while my husband prefers to sleep until eleven.

But we had a terrific time. I don't ever actually forget that my husband is amazing and funny and smart; we go on vacations rarely enough that it would be a waste to wait til we got to the seashore to remember this about him.

Other things I did while on vacation that will hopefully occupy the next few entries in this blog:

1. panic about my mortality and/or potential spinal cord injury,
2. manage, in a limited, imperfect way, to parent through these anxiety attacks,
3. reflect on the respective roles of prayer and of immediate and concrete actions in managing this anxiety,
4. finish Dynamics of Faith (!),
5. re-consider how to properly view the contents and symbols of my faith, specifically the cross and the Bible, and whether or not this means I can stop thinking Jews and Muslims are wrong,
6. take many walks;
7. pray, such as one can pray in a house full of godparents, in-laws, dogs and babies

I'm probably going to be re-reading Dynamics of Faith, but on my mind right now, and probably next up for this blog, is the idea that faith requires a community of faith -- and how do I find such a community in a cultural moment in which Christianity seems largely to have lost the capacity for self-criticism that Tillich believes is essential to it? Where do I find a Christian community that views the Bible as a way to access God rather than as the content of its faith?

If I can find that community, I may not have to have any more conversations about what the Bible says about being gay, or about whether the Genesis story is or is not compatible with what we know now to be true about the material world.

That would be a relief. My suspicion, thinking about what's occupied my mind and spiritual life lately, is that I may have become less than ultimately concerned with God -- that to some extent, my faith is, and has always been, vaguely idolatrous, and that I may need to reconsider my relationship to the specific elements and symbols of Christianity in order to better access a God who transcends Christianity, who transcends the Bible itself.

Friday, May 25, 2012

God Delusion update: Okay, I think this will get better once Dawkins moves on to biology. It's not that it's bad, exactly -- just that it's frustrating to try and read it with an open mind and to suspect that this openness is being taken advantage of, as I tend to when a writer makes claims but then doesn't support them with reasoning or references.

On the most basic level, unless I'm missing something, on page 42 Dawkins reproduces two quotes from Thomas Jefferson for which he offers no source; he goes on, on 43, to string together a number of very short quotes, none of which is cited, and follows up with another uncited quote by Ghandi on 45.

Of the material he does cite, one John Adams quote is second hand, quoted in the context of an online article in which an Ed Buckner discusses the reception of the quote (which seems to me to deal with religious tolerance of Muslims, rather than with atheism; but of course I can't be positive, since I have no way of establishing its context). The same for many of the other citations: for example, I'm confused because I think that David McCullough's biography of Adams starts out by referencing Adams' faith, and I'd like to be able to try and resolve these contradictory elements of his character. But I can't do that, really, because I don't know where or when Adams and Jefferson said the things Dawkins is saying they said.

Dawkins does a marginally better job of citing Christopher Hitchen's biography of Jefferson and David Mills' Atheist Universe -- no page numbers, but at least he gives titles -- but  his synopsis of Mills' work doesn't really suggest to me that the book is particularly "admirable", as he claims. I'm generally suspicious of writers who rely heavily on dialect, especially in nonfiction, especially in nonfiction that is already transparently advancing a specific point of view. I suppose it isn't beyond the realm of possibility that someone would say the following sentence: "Is you gonna protest fir him or 'gin him?" and that this has nothing to do with the author's feelings about the character in question, or that the feelings followed the event, rather than the event being colored by the narrator's feelings. But I have not heard anyone talk like this, ever, and this passage doesn't do anything to effectively make this kind of speech believable. A better writer would have treated the character in such a way that the situation he's describing, and not the antagonist's speech, is the focus. Overall, the book Dawkins describes doesn't seem like reliable evidence for the point he is trying to make here, or for any point that doesn't relate directly to Mills' feelings about the situations he describes.

Margaret Downey's website,* which chronicles abuses against atheists,may be more reliable -- but I  wonder why Dawkins has to cite that website and not, for example, a police report or news article from a mainstream news source, when he claims a man was murdered for being an atheist. If his idea is that prejudice against atheists is so extreme that mainstream news forums do not carry the story when they are murdered, I think he should probably discuss this. Otherwise it just makes the Freethought Society website seem like a suspicious, fringe source of information.

(While I couldn't actually find the reference he cited -- the link doesn't work any more -- I did find a reference to the story on another atheist web site; it probably bears mentioning that the college student committing the murder seems to be mentally ill, one, and was sentenced to 25 to 45 years, two -- suggesting that to me that this might not be the best example of socially-sanctioned persecution of atheists.)

Probably the biggest failing of documentation is Dawkins' claim that the God of the Old Testament is a "psychotic delinquent" (38). However firmly Dawkins believes this statement, and however central it is to the book's argument, it is not so evident as to require no references or examples to back it up. Even a perfunctory list of episodes that support this conclusion would be helpful.

Dawkins doesn't provide them. I don't know whether he doesn't think it's necessary to support this claim, or whether he understands and doesn't want to deal with the fact that most of Old Testament stories that are read by some as proving God's psychosis or delinquency are also read by others in radically different ways -- or whether he doesn't want to afford the Old Testament the same reasonable treatment you would give to another literary text, especially those written thousands of years ago, in a radically different culture and in a foreign language, such as considering the genre or consulting scholarly work about them.

The second out-and-out silly claim -- one for which I think it would be hard to even establish a case, should Dawkins want to (apparently, he doesn't) -- is that theology "has not moved on in eighteen centuries" (34) . I'm not well read in theology, but I would have liked him to either mention the contemporary theologians who led him to this conclusion (at the very least), or, more to the point, to make an argument for how Marcus Borg, N.T. Wright, Paul Tillich, John Shelby Spong, Richard Neuhaus, or Matthew Fox (to name only a few that I've actually read) are fundamentally the same as St. Gregory the Miracle Worker, the single theologian he actually cites. He may have a case, but he doesn't make it.

This isn't a matter of the supposed "courtier's reply" (a thing I can't find discussed anywhere other than on explicitly "rational"/ secular websites). Dawkins is making a claim comparing contemporary theology to third century theology and offers as evidence a single quote from the one, taken from an encyclopedia article, and nothing at all from the former. I did more research for my third-grade report comparing Henry and Gerald Ford. Which I wrote in a two-room schoolhouse operated by fundamentalist Christians. Who taught me Creationism!

 Anyway, I feel like atheists who have taken a basic college writing course should probably be concerned about this book -- and that Christians who dislike its premise should probably not feel the need to castigate Dawkins for writing it. Maybe they aren't, and do, because while the book hasn't been especially well-reviewed (Terry Eagleton is pretty much negative, The New York Times more measured), a lot of people like it. I'd point out that a lot of people like Fox News and Michael Moore movies; this doesn't legitimize them. It doesn't mean they're bad, either; each has to stand on its own merits. So far, The God Delusion doesn't. Lots of smart people are atheists; presumably there's a stronger case against the existence of God to made than this. Maybe Dawkins just hasn't got around to making it?

* I tried to link to the website he cites,, but it wouldn't link. Then I tried:, since when I googled "Freethought Society Philadelphia", I saw that the URL for their main website has changed. No luck. Here is the link to their new main page: -- and there is why I would be more convinced by arguments drawn primarily from sources that 1. were cited, and 2. were not web sites.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

word that don't mean what we think they mean

I'm actually pretty excited about The God Delusion now. I don't know how to deal with what Dawkins probably would say is his most significant claim -- the objective reality that there is no God -- other than to say that that isn't my reality, that I've experienced a reality that corresponds to what I read in the Bible about God, and that that's true to me in an essential way. I understand that Dawkins hasn't experienced such a reality, but I believe this stems from a worldview that I would see as limited even if I didn't believe in anything supernatural.

The thing is, though, that the God he is articulating and then dismissing, not just as a delusion, but as a pernicious one (31) -- that God does exist as an idea in our culture. It sometimes seems to me that it is our culture's dominant idea of God. It, or He, is not my God; it's a caricature of the God in which I believe, the God I experience. But Dawkins isn't the one who came up with it.

In Chapter 2, Dawkins ridicules the arguments of Christology and the trinity (see his brief "treatment" of the arguments over the nature of the Trinity on pages 32-33). But the arguments he holds up as asinine are not things he made up, and he's not the only one preoccupied with them. And his claim that there's absolutely no way of knowing details about the exact nature of God's relationship to Christ seems fairly legitimate to me; moreover, he could make this point about a lot of discussions within theology. I think it's important for theologians, and more importantly, for the conferences of various denominations and the congregations of individual churches to maintain perspective about where these sort of details fit into the experience of Christianity and our collective expressions of faith.

The thing Dawkins misses (so far), of course, is that most everyday Christians (and probably most people of most faiths) don't live or die by the nuances of their denominations creed and dogma. In reality, most people who claim to be Christian don't know very much about the Bible, let alone the various debates that frame the way we view it. This is another kind of problem, since it often leads to the sort of unexamined faith that takes for granted that the Bible condemns gay marriage and abortion per se and that salvation is about going to Heaven when you die. But to the degree that my faith is at risk of becoming a matter of working out nuanced new dogmas and defining as Christian only those who adhere to them, and as "saved" only those who are Christian, Dawkins' work could be a useful corrective. 

He's really under no obligation to get Christianity right -- though I think he'd make a stronger case if he looked at a wider range of sources when he criticized it. But it should be important to me that I get it right, in the sense that believing a bunch of truth claims about Jesus is not actually the point of Christianity. I don't think Christ's claim that "no man comes unto the Father but by me", for example, can necessarily be taken to mean that thinking the correct thoughts about Jesus determines salvation.

As Borg points out in Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, to make it a condition of salvation that one "believes", in the sense of accepting, specific truth claims about God and Christ, is to make salvation conditional. Borg and Wright both seem to take the position that the redemptive work of the cross is done and is being done all the time, but not by us; so thinking the right things about Jesus doesn't make a person more or less saved.

This understanding of Christianity seems to me to be quite different from the one Dawkins is describing. It also seems to call into question the pretty central claim of most contemporary churches that you have to "believe in Jesus" -- that is, to agree that Jesus was God -- in order to be saved. I'm unconvinced that this is what the Gospel means by believe, and I think the theologies of salvation put forth by Wright and Borg may be more credible.

If nothing else, Dawkin's efforts to attack Christianity on multiple fronts does highlight elements of the "faith" as it is commonly practiced and perceived that may be pretty vulnerable to criticism, even by believers, separating these aspects of religion from those about which I feel more sure, such as the reality of God and the divinity of Christ.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

So I read Chapter 1 of The God Delusion, and: no faith crisis, no mental collapse. It took a lot for me to start reading it, not so much because I'm afraid of Dawkins' irrefutable rationalism, but because, in the first place, I tend to be susceptible to the ideas of others, and, in the second, Dawkins has the upper hand in the sense that he's arguing about things he understands and denying the existence of what he doesn't. That's an easier position to maintain than my own, which is that I affirm the existence of something I claim to experience, but haven't seen or heard or touched, that I can't prove scientifically -- since, by my definition, God is bigger than science.

The first chapter of Dawkins doesn't (yet?) reveal the snide, disingenuous character I'd expected -- the bits of rhetorical underhandedness, like congratulating the heretofore Christian reader whose "native intelligence" will allow him to put down Dawkin's book a new atheist (6), are probably unintentional. He's not trying to sway readers eager to feel smart; he genuinely sees atheism as the only rational, and therefore intelligent, response to his work. He does do that thing were he selects evidence to support a claim as though there wasn't a lot of other, contradictory evidence (see, for example, his unequivocal claim that Einstein was an atheist, of which I'm suspicious, but which I think I should write about after reading Jammer's Einstein and Religion for myself). I believe qualifying your arguments makes them stronger than does simply dismissing or obscuring contradictory evidence. In my discussions with atheists of this type (limited!), I've determined that they tend to see this sort of qualification as a kind of weakness.

If it's hard for me to deal with The God Delusion, it's not so much because Dawkins is so unanswerable in his claims and I lack the moral courage to admit it (his take) or because Dawkins is just a smarmy, propagandizing asshat (the take of most of the reviewers who dislike him). It's more that he has a lot of different issues with religion, and should a person respond to one, he's all ready to jumped onto another. Later in the book, Dawkins cites Jefferson in describing the impossibility of responding to vague ideas; I'd add that this is equally the case whether the ideas you want to deconstruct are poorly defined from the start or whether they constitute a moving target -- ie, I'm responding to the tired and incorrect characterization of the Old Testament God, and Dawkins just announced that that's not the point, anyway. (So why open the chapter with it?)

It would be helpful, for example, if Dawkin's critique that religion is damaging, and that religious beliefs that damage others shouldn't be afforded special treatment under the law, had their own book. In one part of the first chapter, he discusses a court case in which a child's right to wear a shirt claiming that gays were going to hell was defended as a religious freedom, as well as a debacle in which Muslims worldwide were incited to violence over some cartoons published in Denmark.

I think Dawkins is absolutely correct about the role religion played in how these situations were addressed. It's entirely reasonable to indict Christianity for allowing people to infringe on the rights of others, often breaking the law to do so, and then to claim that their faith justifies/ demands it. Everyone should be thinking about this argument, however they feel about Dawkins' promotion of atheism as the solution. (They might also want to research the issues he's talking about, though; I don't think that ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia can ultimately be attributed to religion just because the the various groups had different religious beliefs, any more than you could call it an act of racial violence if I get into a fight with an African-American commuter over a subway seat this morning.)

But it's not going to be possible for Christians to respond to that charge without referring back to the Bible and the various ways in which it has been interpreted -- pointing out, for example, that reading Yahweh as a God of vengeance is one of many readings of the Bible, and that responsible Christians read the passages about war and punishments against passages about everlasting love and compassion, one, and in the formal and historical context in which the texts were produced, two. If Dawkins just responds to these arguments by claiming the Bible is not credible, so actually attending to the text is as unnecessary as consulting an expert on "fairyology" (16), then he's moving on to an entirely different issue. It can't be that the Bible is permissible as evidence when he's making the case that religion is destructive, but irrelevant when Christians want to respond to that claim. Both arguments  -- that the Bible incites violence and justifies bigotry and that the Bible isn't a reliable source of evidence --  are legitimate, but each treats the Bible differently and belongs in a different book (or, at least, in its own chapter, kept from creeping into the other argument to queer its premise and terms).

This distinction is particularly important because I don't think any argument that God exists would be legitimate within Dawkin's worldview; he is candid about the fact that he believes everything fits into, and can be explained by, the natural world and (more significantly) scientific discourse. Religious people (as well as postmodernists) don't think that; both think that the scientific and logical discourse he endorses is a structure within a larger material world that can't be described through science. (A postmodernist would say, I think, that this meaninglessness is the ultimate; I believe that beyond Dawkin's science, and beyond the meaninglessness, is God).

There's not really a point, as far as I can see, in having that kind of discussion with Dawkins -- though I think it's probably helpful to read his ideas and understand where he's coming from. But the claims he makes about the various inanities and contradictions of religious people and culture are something that we can, and should, discuss. While his argument includes some claims and references that I think are poorly constructed, or wrong, it also contains some really valid points that directly bear on both atheists and believers. Rather than just pointing out the flaws in his argument, I think someone should address its main points on this topic with more care.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Bad Faith

I had to return How God Became King , to my disappointment; I would have liked to re-read it. After I finished it, I knocked out Antony Flew's There is a God -- hence the weekend crisis over New Atheism. The book itself kind of got obscured for me by its role in the unsettling public negotiation of Flew's "conversion" to Deism, a side story in which no one came out looking well and I ended up feeling really depressed and hating the word senescence -- although actually, the less-loaded definition at isn't quite as unpalatable as the wikipedia entry.

It's frustrating that, as helpful as biology is in, say, developing stem cell therapy for people with spinal cord injury or pursuing ways toto treat Alzheimer's, the ideology that has grown out of contemporary evolutionary biology is as ugly and destructive as Social Darwinism. This ugliness is reflected in efforts to connect Flew's change in thinking to some sort of inexorable decline by throwing out a word that simultaneously connotes scientific authority and provokes negative associations about aging -- so that, not even knowing Flew, the reader thinks: well, obviously a man in his eighties might be more vulnerable to the spiritual equivalent of ponzi schemes and infomercials; poor Tony.

Anyway, after finishing Flew and tearing myself away from nasty play-by-plays of Flew's coming out on various secular websites, and Mark Oppenheimer's (probably) more balanced account -- it includes references to Oppenheimer's meeting with Flew but only a spliced-up description of the interview itself, and it relies more heavily on Richard Carrier's perspective than I think is justified, given that the guy had to self-publish his books and seems more like a precocious undergraduate than a historian* -- I retreated to the equally problematic but less anxiety-provoking The New Atheist Crusaders and their Unholy Grail, by Becky Garrison.

Garrison makes interesting points, most of which I already agreed with -- who doesn't like that? But the book is really uneven; I don't know if she's a bad writer or if she just lacks the distance to treat this subject well. She makes a lot of her role as a "religious satirist" -- by which I mean, she mentions it in almost every chapter -- and I feel like announcing yourself as a satirist suggests a certain level of difficulty with the genre.

In point of fact, I don't really think of any of what Garrison's writing as satire: in most of the book, she's directly challenging or mocking New Atheists, then retreating to a plea to "just get along". She seems to think that her dislike of religious dogma gives her common ground with New Atheists like Dawkins, who not only reject the premises of religion but seem to just plain dislike religious people, and that that will make her often lazily articulated criticism of their ideas more palatable. But I think Dawkins would probably be more interested in tearing apart her faith and its sloppy articulation here than in forming an alliance with her against the fundamentalists she dislikes.

Garrison also uses a lot of weird anachronisms that I think are supposed to make her seem hip, but that actually make it seem like she's not really taking her own arguments seriously. Most troubling, she seems to have confused injecting various forms of "come on, REALLY?" or, say, accusing Harris of "putting his fingers in his ears and singing 'Nanny nanny boo boo' " with dealing some kind of death blow to the people she's critiquing. I think she probably is smart -- though probably not as smart as Dawkins -- but her writing in this book makes her seem either dumb, lazy, or both. It's discouraging, since I think actual satire of Dawkins would be really funny, and since the footnotes here suggests that Garrison actually has material with which she could construct a relevent critique of New Atheism.

* I.e., Carrier, who was born in 1969 and got his BA in 1997, only actually finished his PhD in 2008; the two books listed on CV are published through Lulu and Authorhouse, both self-publishing companies; his shorter published pieces are primarily, though not all, either encyclopedia articles or contributions to "secular" magazines and web sites, rather than academic journals; the four conferences he lists include two sponsored by universities and two "special interest" conferences -- no mainstream forums for historical research. This isn't to disparage him -- "historian" seems to be his second career, and good for him, for that. It is to point out that despite his Columbia education, his CV kind of resembles that of a promising and eccentric new post-doc who could have used a better adviser, maybe not someone whose indictments of Flew should be understood as substantive or unbiased. Considering how unsparingly Oppenheimer skewers Varghese, another bizarre player in this strange story, he lets Carrier off pretty easily -- and it's not clear to me that Carrier is any more credible.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Anxiety, Fallout

Just one fabulous aspect of being Amanda is my recurring sense that I'm obligated to seek out exactly those extremes in worldview that provoke me most. Lately, I'm grappling with New Atheism on the one hand and a specific and apparently popular type of Biblical literalism on the other.

I remember now why I went to graduate school, not law school, after college: scholars are trained to frame questions and then look for answers; their arguments (should) derive from what they find. Lawyers are trained to establish what argument they intend to make and then seek out the evidence that best supports it -- or, when faced with a lack of such evidence, to do the best they can to employ the available evidence in the service of their claim.

I think this is why Dawkins' work on evolutionary biology holds up to the staunchest critics -- I don't find anyone, really criticizing his scientific writing (except for his weird pet theory of the meme) -- but his writing on God, while hugely popular, is not as well reviewed.* I say this with the caveat that I haven't yet read The God Delusion, though I plan to. From the reviews and excerpts that I've read, however, I have the impression Dawkins writes like a scholar in the fields in which he is a scholar, and probably more like a lawyer in the fields in which he has a more circumscribed frame of reference.

Dawkins' worldview, as I understand it, is irreconcilable with my own mostly because I see scientific discourse as functioning within history/History, whereas (I think) Dawkins would claim that it's totality -- that there is nothing outside of science. 

This is an impasse, I think. Were I to say that the God I believe in extends beyond science, existing both within and outside of it, and that consequently, I'm not able to produce scientific evidence for Him, Dawkins would likely say that that invalidates the entire belief.
I think he wouldn't call it special pleading because I'm not trying to argue that God can be proved scientifically, logically, or philosophically; I'm stating that I don't believe that those frameworks are all-compassing, and I believe God to be outside them. So any reasoning I have for believing in God will necessarily include "logical fallacies" like relying on my own experience as "evidence".

I get that, and I'm okay with it, but it does make me question whether Christian apologetics are ultimately helpful or not. My sense (and my Bible reading lately is heavily concentrated in the book of John) is that Jesus's vision for how we are to facilitate His reaching those around us is less discursive than apologists imagine. 

At the other end of the spectrum, I'm trying to work out specific texts in the Bible that bother me -- or rather, the various incompatible interpretations of which bother me.

Now, the Old Testament verses addressing homosexuality seem clearly to have been misinterpreted, and I don't know very many people who reference them any more, other than non-Christians who want to use them as a straw man. But while Paul's comments in Romans and Corinthians seem to me to bear on situations within the early church, none of which resemble contemporary homosexual monogamy, I know a lot of other readers do see these remarks as extending to address, and condemn, homosexual behavior generally.

A cursory browsing of commentaries on Romans 1 suggests to me that homosexuality became central to interpretations of Romans 1:26-27 relatively recently; Barth's commentary, for example, focuses on idolatry first, and the subsequent diminishing of those in question to “eroticism”, second. It did not seem to me to be focused on homosexuality specifically, but obviously, he's Karl Barth and I probably need to read the entire text more carefully. At the moment, my impression is that people started using these texts when it was pointed out that Sodom and Gomorrah left those arguing for the immorality of homosexuality on shaky ground. But I could be wrong, I guess, and it bears looking into.

I don't see how my political feelings could change, either way; it's clear to me that it's no more the place of Christianity to mandate heterosexual marriage than it is our place to mandate tithing, giving to the poor, or women submitting to their husbands, or to outlaw remarriage, adultery, or working on Saturdays. But reading actual scholars who feel this way, rather than posters to internet forums who take a Bible mandate against homosexuality for granted, might help me to understand why these people feel this way about being gay. I haven't found convincing evidence for this belief in the Bible; obviously, though some people read it differently. It might enable me to be more loving to those people if I understood better (at all) where they are coming from.

*It's also possible that people just don't like being told that the things they believe in aren't true; but I think if that were the cause, then the books would be well-reviewed by the godless scholarly types I was warned about as a child, and poorly-received by the unthinking masses flocking to religion as a source of consolation.

Friday, May 18, 2012

the kingdom of God is what now? -- Wright Stuff 2

Here's my theological conundrum of the day:

Wright basically identifies the Gospel as simultaneously being the following:

1. the story of Israel, brought to completion after (not) ending with a whimper in Malachi

2. the story of Israel's God, a particular kind of God -- I think this is really important since the Old Testament seems to have become a sort of stumbling block and a lot of time I just don't have the energy to get into it over Leviticus one more time

3. the renewal of God's people (not, Wright is adamant, the launching of a new group of Gods people via the early Christian church), and

4. the clash of God's kingdom with those of the world

If I'm reading it correctly, Wright believes that by recognizing that Jesus died to renew Israel, and by extension, the world -- not to save me specifically, though of course, as part of that world, I'm remade, too -- we also recognize that our individual redemption is inseparable from the advancement of God's kingdom, starting now. (Well, starting then, I guess, but starting, for me specifically, with the moment(s) I enter into my own salvation, (re)encountering Jesus and being remade by Him.)

But what is God's kingdom? What does it look like? I think, in the back of my mind, I pretty much have assumed I know that, and am only now really thinking hard about it, trying to not take it for granted. In that sense, the crisis over gay marriage has been really instructive for me. (How awesome! I love when the oppression of marginalized groups facilitates the personal growth of corresponding privileged groups! Except: oh, wait, actually, that's asinine.)

I take for granted that Gods kingdom looks like love being valued, especially when that love is something that has to be fought for, something that transcends not just categories like race, class or gender but the institutions that make those categories an issue. I mean that, not in the sense that I haven't struggled with claims that race and gender do matter to God, but in the sense that I did evaluate those claims, read the Bible, prayed, resolved the issue to my own satisfaction, and no longer wonder whether God has a problem with homosexuality or not.

But what do you do when people who seem equally committed to God and His word have a vision of the kingdom so unlike, and incompatible with, your own? I mean, I imagine God's kingdom as a place where justice is being done, where hate and prejudice are marginalized to make room for the very people who the haters and prejudice are seeking to marginalize. Where the infinite value that God attributes to each individual is affirmed by the people who represent Him.

I'm only really starting to try and make sense of the fact that that is not what God's kingdom looks like to others -- so when I'm like, sign my gay marriage petition this and come to my FGM conference that and sleep at a homeless shelter what-have-you, they're not interested, not because the kingdom doesn't matter to them, but because they are trying to bring into being an entirely different kingdom.

That maybe sounds like I'm thinking my idea is right and just looking for a way to work that in. I'm not. Obviously, I do think my vision of the kingdom is right, is Biblical; otherwise I'd have a different vision. But I'm legitimately confused about how they can have one that is so different from my own. I mean, honestly, it seems like a lot of contemporary Christians are going to their Bibles, reading them as scrupulously as I try to read mine, and finding in them a totally different God.

That's deeply unsettling to me for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that it does seem to affirm the claims of non-believers that we just make our God in our own image, that He isn't real.

I don't have any way to resolve that. It's pretty high up, I guess, on lists of things to pray over today.

To Anne Lamott's two greatest prayers (Thank you, thank you, thank you and Help me, help me, help me), may I suggest adding: Wtf, wtf, wtf?

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Good teachers change lives

So, the new crop of Teaching Fellows transcripts showed up in my mailbox yesterday morning, and I reviewed them and ate free bagels (which, maybe I should stop my bitching about the million meetings faculty are always having at Hunter, because, yum) and then went home, crabby and depressed, and tutored one of my students.

And felt better, because who wouldn't? Teaching is the best thing in the world.

The best thing except my husband, my son, and my parents, which is, of course, why I'm becoming a nurse.

But the fact that I'm not willing to make the sacrifices required to be a full-time teacher makes it more important for me to point out that all of my desire to teach (in or out of the classroom), and most of the other choices I have made, have been directly or indirectly influenced by a particular teacher I had in high school, Ms. Bryant.

I was lucky to have a lot of pretty terrific teachers once I went to high school -- smart people who generally treated me with respect even though I was different. (I'll point out that my brother, probably no more different than I was, but less desperate to be liked, did not have this experience, and should have; but then, we had very few of the same teachers.)

Ms. Bryant was the best, though. She was so good that she managed to get through to me even though, for much of the year I spent in her class, I was 1. seriously ill and 2. barely attending. She was the perfect teacher for me, from her summer reading assignments to her unwillingness to pull punches (her notes on my incoherent written response to "The Hunger Artist" precipitated my pulling it together enough to graduate high school and go on to college; she was also the person who got me to reconsider my excessive reliance on hyphens in analytical writing).

It's frustrating to be a creative person when you're in high school; a lot of people think they are "English people," when actually they are just inexact, people for whom precision is difficult or irrelevant and who, subsequently, can't get through science or math courses. My biggest criticism of the current education system is that its system for identifying academic progress does nothing to separate these people from people who actually use language well, or who can attend to it responsibly in a text or a poem or a journal article.

This, I think, is the root of a lot of the current political problems we're facing: people can decode, but they can't read. This is why people pull a single verse from the Bible or from the Constitution, ignore history, context, syntax, and every other tool designed for use in interpreting a text, and hold it up as a marker for their pet belief.

My experience is that often, contemporary readers honestly do not know how to differentiate between a close reading and a cursory reading of a text. Moreover, they're suspicious of critical reading; they claim that texts like the Bible and the Constitution should be self-evident. (Because texts inspired by the Infinite and translated across multiple languages, centuries, and cultures generally are transparent, right? Because readers who thought the Bible and the Constitution legitimized slavery were misguided, but we can't possibly be, correct?)

Whatever Sam Harris wants to tell you, for a long time, religious faith was a motivating factor for some pretty remarkable intellectual and creative work. People founded churches, produced treatises, and led revolutions in their efforts to seek out God. The current climate -- in which reactionary politics and unexamined faith join hands -- is what happens when the difference between decoding and reading is regarded as somehow indulgent, a "higher order concern", when you point out that the bar we've set for our students is so low that it's basically irrelevant and are met by claims that you're letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

I'm not the smartest person in the world; I don't think I was even the smartest person in her class, if such a distinction means anything. But I was educated well while I was in it, and I left it better able to make sense of the world. Particularly since I had grown up in a fundamentalist religious environment, that education has been critical; it's allowed me to re-approach my God and my faith without having to try to force myself into beliefs that are not just contradictory, but incoherent.

This isn't to say I have all the answers, either; obviously I don't. But I do have a sense of what questions to ask when I'm approaching a public policy, a historical event, a Biblical passage.

Good teaching matters. I don't want this to turn into a diatribe about how our educational system is careening off course, how the kids who need teachers like Ms. Bryant "most" won't get them. I was a white kid in a rural school; I needed her badly enough. Policy trends being what they are, and those currently in control of them being who they are, I guess I should be happy if anyone gets a teacher like her at all.

I do want to thank her, to acknowledge how much of my life, of myself, I owe to her, and how to the degree that our current generation includes people willing to negotiate the limits of both modern "rationality" and pre-modern literalism in a post-modern world, it's because of teachers like her. Whatever I do with the remainder of my life, I hope I'm able to impact any one person -- student, patient, tutee, my own son -- as positively as she impacted me.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Atonement Theology, also not all about me: Wright Stuff 1

OK, How God Became King. We're down to the wire here: the book's overdue and on reserve and my next library trip (happy day!) is this evening. So: here are my thoughts, around 200 pages in.

This article at Internet Monk is really helpful before, during, and after reading. While Wright's sentences are all very clear individually, the distinction he constructs between how the Gospel is perceived now and how it was intended by the evangelists is hard to grasp. This may be because I don't have a background in liturgy: I've heard the creeds he starts with, but the church in which I grew up didn't use them. So essentially, Wright is arguing against an interpretation of Christ couched in terms that don't actually seem ubiquitous to me.

What is recognizable in Wright's description of contemporary Christianity is its focus on being saved so you can go to Heaven. None of the "four speakers" that Wright envisions blaring the Gospel as it culminates at the cross touch on this; none of them are about how now Amanda gets to go to Heaven if she's good, and her dad won't be sick and her unborn babies will be there.

Honestly, the idea that Jesus's death is not fundamentally about my personal Get out of Mortality Free card is overwhelming. I don't want to die. I'm not really afraid of it; my worst fears about death involve there just not being a God or Heaven to "go to", which is sad, not scary.

If instead of walking down to the public library, my Grandpa is with his Creator, well, I'm not really sad about that at all, then. If my baby won't know me because he went directly to Christ, I'm pretty okay. If they're just gone, if what they get now is a big "nothing" -- well, that hurts.

It hurts more to think of all the people whose primary experiences of grief don't only involve people they loved who lived into their eighties and babies they never met. I want this to be resolved so badly that I have to fight back anxiety as I grapple with the idea that God is allowing this now, whatever the plan is for then.

It will be resolved. I think that's central to the Gospel -- Christ's claims that He will make all things new, that He is the way, that those who believe in Him, though they die, will live.

I just wonder if that really means the things we tell ourselves it means, or if -- as Wright seems to suggest -- I've become so caught up in attaching Christ's work to my hopes for my individual future that I am missing the actual nature of that work, its immediacy. I wonder if, in clinging to that idea that salvation guarantees my individual assurance of Heaven, I have kind of missed the point -- which ultimately is what God did, what He is, not what I might get out of it.

I'm not trying to say that Wright denies the existence of Heaven in this book. I do think it's fair to say that Wright makes an only apparently subtle shift from the evangelical claim that "Christ died for you" to "Christ died for us" -- for Israel, and, by extension, for the world. I think it's that us, that acknowledgement that His death was less to save me individually than it was to rework the entire terms under which we all live, that  undoes the division between cross (Wright's signifier for atonement theology) and kingdom.

Really -- and this is at the heart of the call to love one another, at the heart of the charge for us, broken, frail, and impermanent, to advance His kingdom -- there is no Christ dying for me. My salvation, stemming, as it does, from Someone entirely outside myself, can't be untangled from that of anyone else. In accepting it, I'm not just claiming my space in the afterlife; I'm committing myself to an ongoing transformation that starts now and extends indefinitely -- regardless of how my role in that kingdom and my experience of it may change when my body dies.