grasping at space

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  • Thursday, November 17, 2005

    Late to the movie meme

    Just before I went on hiatus, H.F. tagged me with my very first meme, so here is my long-overdue response.

    Total Number of Films I Own on DVD/Video: 92. I first got seriously interested in cinema while I was in college, and when I get interested in something, I immerse myself in it. I operated a film projector for film studies classes, and for a while I was in charge of coordinating movie nights in my dormitory. Over the first few years after college, I accumulated roughly 350 movies, and then gave most of them to Goodwill after I decided that there wasn’t room in my life for all my books, all my CDs, and all my movies. It’s much easier for me to return to an old book or CD than to an old movie, so parting with all those movies was not very tough. The movies I kept fell into three general categories: (1) Documentaries and sports highlight films, particularly the one from the University of Oregon’s 1994 football season. I never get tired of watching Kenny Wheaton’s interception against the Washington Huskies. (2) Classics. (3) The laughably bad.

    The Last Film I Bought: Jackass. I’m not sure whether to put this in category 2 or 3. Let’s just be euphemistic and say that it transcends genres.

    Five Films I Watch a Lot, or that Mean a Lot to Me:

    (1) Army of Darkness. This one brings back fond college memories. When I heard from my friend Chris that this one was about to hit the theaters, I rented Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2 for dorm movie night. The next weekend Chris and I hit the theater with a couple carloads of our dormmates to finish watching the trilogy.

    (2) The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The film’s merits are obvious to anyone who has seen it. I just want to give it special recognition for being the first Western that I actually liked.

    (3) The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. Another one that dates back to my college years. It’s a perfect movie for a father to watch with his young son. I can’t get those songs out of my head. (Unfortunately, I can say the same about Tommy Rettig’s whining. “It’s gotta work! It’s just gotta!”)

    (4) The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. My daughter recently discovered this one (along with The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger), and within a few days, she was reciting, “From the land beyond beyond, from the world past hope and fear, I bid you Genie, now appear!” Screw CGI. What Hollywood needs now is another Ray Harryhausen.

    (5) Game of Death. The joy, such as it is, that comes from watching this movie is imagining what it could have been if Bruce Lee had lived.

    This meme was probably already well-circulated in the time that I was on hiatus. I’ll give these three the option of picking up this meme, if they choose: Alterdestiny, David W. Boles’ Urban Semiotic, and Drogidy Blogidy.

    Sunday, November 06, 2005

    That's what I get for going on hiatus ...

    ... but at least I can comfort myself by imagining the profit margin ...

    On Average, You Would Sell Out For


    Sunday, October 30, 2005

    About my "new car"

    It was a little over a week ago that I graduated from business school. It was good to attend the ceremonies and be reunited with instructors and classmates whom I hadn’t seen in months and had been trying to keep in touch with by e-mail. I’m proud of my fellow paralegal classmates, and I think they all have bright futures, especially this one, who deserves at least as much praise as she heaped on me. I’m just not so sure about my own future.

    The commencement speaker compared getting a college education to getting a new car, in the sense that we graduates are all now getting accustomed to our new accessories. Yes, it was an awkward analogy, but rather than critique it or mock it, I’m going to extend it. When a person purchases a car, once she has taken into consideration such practical matters as affordability and getting from point A to point B, she makes a purchase that reflects her personality and values. And that’s probably why I feel like I went out to pay cash for a used Corolla and ended up with a 60-month lease on a new H2.

    After a couple good months at my new job, I began to feel uncertain about whether I could make it in this line of work. I began to believe I have the ability, yet doubt I have the personality. I knew I would graduate with honors, but began to wonder whether my grades reflected my aptitude for the work.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that my grades do reflect my aptitude – not for being a paralegal, but for being a writer. And it’s way past time for me to get back to work. To those of you who wished me good luck in my new job, and those of you who have been checking my blog from time to time watching for an update, thanks.

    Thursday, July 14, 2005

    On hiatus

    Taking a break from blogging for a few weeks while I start my new job.

    Thursday, July 07, 2005

    "I wonder if Kirk dwells in some strange, unrevealed paradise or something."

    I suppose I should thank Frank Tassone. First, he’s deemed my writing worthy of attention and critical analysis, even if he can’t restrain himself from some gratuitous ad hominem attacks. Second, he’s given me a good quotation that I can use in a new Blog Explosion banner ad, if I feel inclined to make a new one.

    He has a hang-up with the Ten Commandments. Seems like he sees government deifying itself just because some public buildings display them. Yeah. I'm sure that's it. Wonder if he has the same concern when that Judicial Branch of Government defines the reality of freedom for the nation? I'll bet a pint of guiness [sic] I'll here [sic] crickets if I ask him.

    If you’re hearing the sound of crickets, it’s because I didn’t understand the question. He seems to be asking a very vague question in the hope of receiving a very specific response that he can pounce on in order to score some cheap rhetorical points. Frankly, I’m concerned about all branches of government defining the reality of freedom, but I’m enough of an optimist to believe that no branch of government will have the final say about it. I’m sure that’s not the response Tassone is looking for, so somebody give the man his Guinness. Heck with it, buy him a six-pack.

    Consider all of the fantastic epics of history from every civilization of the ancient world. Where is [sic] lying, cheating, stealing and murder condemned in and of themselves? [emphasis his] In nearly ever [sic] epic, from Gilgamesh to The Odyssey, the hero engages in some type of behavior prohibited by the commandments. Instead of condemnation, his acts contribute to his heroic status.

    The ancients understood as well as any modern Hollywood scriptwriter that a compelling story needs compelling characters, and that compelling characters need flaws. And it’s not necessary to look outside the Bible to find heroic characters with flaws. Moses, God’s mouthpiece himself, is the first to come to mind. Didn’t he (among other sins) kill an Egyptian for mistreating a Hebrew slave? Wasn’t the prophet Jonah upset with God for not unleashing His wrath upon the people of Nineveh after they repented, and didn’t he camp outside the city waiting for God to change His mind? What about Absalom, son of David, who became a renegade after killing his brother Amnon, who raped their sister Tamar? Speaking of King David, didn’t he arrange the death of Uriah the Hittite in order to take Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba? What about Abraham, who deceived Abimelech, King of Gerar, by telling the king that Sarah was his sister, not his wife? Didn’t Jacob acquire his brother Esau’s birthright in exchange for a mess of pottage?

    The Odyssey, of course, is a great yarn about a guy who defies the gods for twenty years in order to be reunited with his wife and child. How this epic could be improved by changing it into a morality play is beyond me. “And so, Odysseus decided to submit to the will of the gods, and never saw Penelope again. The End.” Nope, let’s try again. “And Odysseus’ men, ignoring their instincts to survive, did not kill any of the flock, and starved to death. The End.” No wait, this is even better. “And so, feeling guilty for stealing from the Cyclops’ flock, Odysseus’ men allowed the Cyclops to wreak his revenge upon them. The End.” That kind of story wouldn’t have survived a generation, much less a few millennia. One doesn’t look to literature to find things condemned in and of themselves. One finds that in the law. If the heroes of ancient epics sin, that proves only that moral relativism is as old as morality.

    Besides, all Kirk has to do is pick up a newspaper or even check the headline news on his homepage. Look at how many choose to behave when they have figured out, with divine intervention, what evil acts are. Imagine how much worse they could act if it were completely up to them to figure it out on their own. Kirk clearly denies the reality of sin and it's [sic] consequence on our ability to reason, concupescience [sic], a disordered desire to sin and to avoid virtue.

    That’s unnecessarily insulting. I live in a town of roughly a quarter million people, if you add in all the outlying communities. When I pick up the local paper and see a murder reported on the front page, I know that, leaving aside whether or not divine intervention was necessary, a quarter million people in fact have figured out that murder is evil, because a few of those people chose to publish the news, while the rest of them read the news and talked about how terrible that murder was. The evil (murder and otherwise) we read about in the paper is perpetrated by a very small number of people in proportion to the general population. The evil is in the paper because it is newsworthy. The evil is newsworthy because evil behavior is the exception, not the rule. Understanding this, I choose to be reassured rather than dismayed. That’s the nature of the “strange, unrevealed paradise” that I live in – along with Frank Tassone and everyone else in the world.

    Only hardened atheists or their gullible dupes will find this "theocratic entity" business convincing. I don't know which of these Kirk is and I don't care in the context of this post.

    Well, that’s a relief, because I also neither know nor care which I am. I’m leaning a bit toward “gullible dupe,” because that phrase comes closer to describing the human condition than “hardened atheists.” But Tassone isn’t using these two phrases in reference to humanity in general. He’s talking specifically about those who believe in “Biblical scholarship,” which I’m choosing to equate, fairly or not, with the notion that the books of the Bible should be subjected to the same critical analysis to which one would subject any other text. I see nothing wrong with that, and perhaps neither does Tassone. But let’s get to the heart of the matter.

    He's certainly right that no government made by man--including the constitutional republic of the United States--deserves more respect and obedience than God. However, his conclusion that the public display of the commandments implicitly elevates government to God is absurd. Or perhaps I misread him here. Indeed!

    Indeed, indeed! I did not conclude that the display of the commandments deifies government. I concluded that government endorsement of the display of the commandments deifies government. Here is the sentence Tassone is referring to: “When a modern government endorses the public display of the Ten Commandments, it is implicitly demanding a degree of respect that no government ever can deserve.” It’s perfectly possible for the government to display the Ten Commandments (or another religious document or icon) without such a display appearing to be an endorsement of the content thereof. The test typically applied by the courts is outlined in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971). The rule in Lemon is that when the state sponsors the display of a religious symbol, the state action must (1) have a secular purpose, (2) not have the primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion, and (3) not foster excessive entanglement with religion. The Supreme Court has also stated, in Lynch v. Donnelly, that the display of a religious symbol in “a typical museum setting … negates any message of endorsement of that content.” 465 U.S. 668, 692 (1984). [Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, and the preceding should not be interpreted as legal advice.] And my purpose in pointing out that no court opinion, to my knowledge, has yet stated that the endorsement of the display of a religious symbol deifies government was to draw attention to the fact that, by making such a statement, the court would (finally) give a sufficient explanation as to why the government should not endorse such displays – particularly when the display in question is the Ten Commandments.

    Let me wrap up this long post. Many a critic has attempted to damn someone with faint praise. The title of Tassone’s post, “grasping at space grasps at straws,” is the first example I have yet seen of praising someone with faint damnation. Last time I checked, straws are more substantial than space. Maybe I should check again.

    Wednesday, June 29, 2005

    Mistaking symbol for reality and government for God

    So once again, Congress is considering a Constitutional amendment to protect the flag, while the US Supreme Court reviews decisions regarding the appropriateness of public displays of the Ten Commandments.

    Alan Watts had the last word on flag burning in 1968:

    “Not long ago Congress voted, with much patriotic rhetoric, for the imposition of severe penalties upon anyone presuming to burn the flag of the United States. Yet the very Congressmen who passed this law are responsible, by acts of commission or omission, for burning, polluting, and plundering the territory that the flag is supposed to represent. Therein, they exemplified the peculiar and perhaps fatal fallacy of civilization: the confusion of symbol with reality.”

    That passage is from the essay “Wealth versus Money,” anthologized in Watts’ book, Does It Matter?

    As for the Decalogue, its Commandments fall into two categories. The first four relate to the individual’s relationship to God, and the final six relate to the individual’s relationship to society.

    Regarding those final six, there are some modern zealots who believe that humanity is so debased and morally stupid that it could never have figured out, without divine intervention, that lying, cheating, stealing and murdering were generally bad ideas. But that is the subject of another blog entry. The first four Commandments are the ones that interest me here.

    When any commandments such as the first four issue forth from a theocratic entity (as the Commandments originally did), the explicit message is that one should be unwaveringly dedicated to one’s God, while the implicit message is that the government is God. When a modern government endorses the public display of the Ten Commandments, it is implicitly demanding a degree of respect that no government ever can deserve.

    To the best of my knowledge, there is no statement to that effect in the dicta of any court decision.

    Thursday, June 23, 2005

    Simplicity, complexity, and Utopia

    The usefulness of a definition depends on the concept being defined. The more complex a concept, the more complex its definition must be. A circle is a simple thing. “The set of coplanar points equidistant from a given point” (if I remember my high school geometry class correctly) is its simple definition.

    Athana says, “The definition of western religion is pain & suffering.” Well, I would have thought there was more to it than that. There is a lot of pain and suffering in life – I dare say, a lot more than can be accounted for by Western religion.

    (I should mention that I recently commented on a posting on Athana’s blog: “The problem is giving God a gender in the first damned place.” That also, I must admit, is defining a complex problem in terms that are too simple. The question I should have asked, which unfortunately took me two days to formulate, is, “Which is greater: Deity’s need for a gender, or humanity’s need to give Deity a gender?”)

    One of my early exposures to Utopian thinking, though I didn’t realize it when I was immersed in it, was Christian fundamentalism, or specifically the notion that once the willing have been converted and the unwilling have been eliminated, the world will be a better place. There are other Utopians, of course. There are certain atheists who insist that the world will be a better place when all religion of whatever stripe has been wiped out. There are certain Goddess worshippers who insist that if we forsook male gods for female gods, most of our problems would go away.

    There are many different Utopian ideas floating around out there, in religion and in other categories of thought, and all of the ideas tend to boil down to the same notion: “When everyone thinks like me, the world will be perfect.” The world is such that everyone possesses a small kernel of the truth (or, if you prefer, Truth). When I mistake that kernel for the whole truth, I delude myself and demean everyone else.

    Friday, June 10, 2005

    On strait gates, narrow ways, ordinary people, and why this refugee is moving on

    I think I may have to stop calling myself a UU. I’m only a unitarian in the sense that I’m not a trinitarian and don’t believe in the divinity of Jesus. To the extent that there is some general agreement about what he said and did, I’m more comfortable calling Jesus a Buddha than a Christ. And while I like the idea of universalism, my belief in it is actually fairly lukewarm, although it is a notion I have an easier time accepting than the fundamentalists’ insistence that a decent person with a vice or two is going to hell right along with Adolf Hitler and Pol Pot. But in reference to my own beliefs and my religious affiliation, I’m no longer comfortable capitalizing those U’s.

    Recently I learned about the wrestling match of ideas going on in Phillip Lund’s head. In one corner, the notion that UUism is “a faith worth working for and sacrificing for”; in the other corner, the notion that UUism is “a liberal religious panacea … that lets us be comforted and rest assured in our worldliness.” A few months ago, it would have been easy for me to dismiss this as a false dilemma, since these two notions really are not mutually exclusive. But I’ve come to the realization that Lund isn’t talking to people like me. He’s talking primarily to lifelong UUs, and I am merely a refugee from another religion.

    In any given church on any Sunday morning, I’m sure that quite a few of the attendees – perhaps not a majority, but certainly a significant proportion – don’t really know why they are there, don’t really know (or care) what their fellows or the church authorities believe, attend more out of habit than conviction, attend because it seems like the thing to do. The UUA is no exception to this, though some UUs might want it to be. But when you open your doors to everyone indiscriminately, you shouldn’t be surprised who walks in.

    I’ve never read Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but I understand the implication of not wanting grace to be cheap. “Strait is the gate and narrow is the way.” That’s a perfectly sensible statement when taken to mean that sainthood isn’t easy. But when taken to mean that religion shouldn’t be easy, it loses a lot of sense. That’s a step toward shoving ordinary people out the door, toward making them feel like there’s something shameful about being ordinary, toward making them feel like they should be associated with Adolf Hitler and Pol Pot. (And I do understand that Lund doesn’t intend to say these things.)

    Here’s a recent remark by Chutney at My Irony:

    I’m pretty sure we can identify the good people and the evil people. MLK is good; Tim McVeigh is evil. The problem is that most of us don’t fit into either category [emphasis mine]. Somebody once said, show someone with no vices and I’ll show you someone with no virtues. Being good and being evil both require a lot of practice. Few of us put in the sweat equity.

    Not being Francis of Assisi does not make you Hitler by default. When I discovered UUism, I knew I had found a religion that understood this principle. But UUs who worry about the alleged cheapness of their grace don’t seem to value that principle, and don’t seem to want to be the religion of ordinary people.

    Like many UUs, I have a supplemental faith or creed. Mine is Western Reform Taoism. What I lack is fellow WRTs to associate with. The UUs were a more than adequate substitute, but if my presence in their church is going to give them an identity crisis, then it’s probably time for me to go.

    Monday, June 06, 2005

    Summarizing the questions Mark raises

    Mark’s “That Old Time Religion” raises a lot of important questions – there’s material there for a few hundred good blog entries, but for now I’m going to satisfy myself with restating those questions and addressing them in depth later. (I suppose I should also thank him for giving my blog a reason to exist. When I can afford my favorite whiskey again, I’ll drink a toast to him.)

    The questions:

    1. Is it possible to hold a religious belief on a reasonable basis?
    2. Can a leap of faith be reasonable?
    3. Must one choose between science and religion, or is there room for a combination of both?
    4. Can one who draws a sharp line between the “proofs” of science and the “faith” of religion truly claim that his or her basis for belief does not include leaps of faith?
    5. To what extent is it appropriate to base one’s beliefs on direct experience?
    6. To what extent is it appropriate to base one’s beliefs on the authority of science?
    7. (Mark states, “I cast off both religious authorities AND scientific authorities insofar as either would claim that my direct, personal, repeatable, and personally verifiable experiences are non-scientific or anecdotal, or non-scriptural or Satanic, or any other label that strives to dismiss me and my experience by conveniently labeling it.” So, I find it appropriate to add another question here, related to 5 and 6 above: To what extent is it appropriate to base one’s beliefs on the authority of religion?)

    Thursday, June 02, 2005

    Human nature is nothing new

    From Mark at WitNit, on that old time religion:

    [Many scientists] look at history and point to the ignorance of religion, its superstitions, its justifications for oppression and slaughter. And these same scientists forget that the same finger can be pointed to science. That natural selection has given thousands of power brokers justification for financial, legal, and military control, manipulation and slaughter, all in the name of "survival of the fittest." That Einstein's greatest scientific discovery led to atomic weapons.

    That Science AS PROOF [emphasis his] of no external moral intelligence or design has led to thousands and millions of people who see no reason to take responsibility for being decent and good, who see no good reason not to be out for themselves at the expense of others.

    I want to focus on the second of those paragraphs.

    It is true of some people that they will use the lack of an “external moral intelligence or design” as a justification for an evil act. It’s also true that a perhaps roughly equal number of people have used the existence of such an intelligence or design to justify an evil act. And there are undoubtedly several other possible justifications for an evil act that have nothing at all to do with whether or not there is an external moral intelligence or design. Now, reread this paragraph, replacing the phrase “an evil act” with “the indulgence in a benign vice.” Now, reread this paragraph again, replacing that phrase with “a good act.”

    If the statement of the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes – that there is nothing new under the sun – is true of anything, it is certainly true of human nature. Human nature did not change upon publication of Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Systems of the World, or Darwin’s Origin of Species, or Einstein’s General and Special Theories of Relativity. A person will do what she wants, not because of the existence or non-existence of an external moral intelligence or design, but simply because it is what she wants to do. Other people’s ideas may influence her, but in the end, unless she truly acted under duress, her motives are her own and no one else’s. If you turn on the typical episode of Cops, you will see a lot of selfish people, but no clear line of causation from a scientific theory to a criminal act.

    Important note to readers: I’m focusing on the second quoted paragraph above because when I first read it, I heard faint echoes of the old Christian fundamentalist complaint that ever since Darwin, the world has allegedly gone down the tubes. I want to emphasize that the paragraph I’m focusing on certainly does not represent Mark’s main point. The article as a whole deals with (1) whether scientists are just as guilty of making leaps of faith about the non-existence of God as believers are of making leaps of faith about God’s existence, and (2) the validity of personal experience in deciding what is true. Read the excellent article (and the comments) for yourself.