Friday, October 27, 2006

Asthmatic Kitty and the Thing about Christianity

Because it's much cheaper than iTunes, more manageable, less annoying, and has heaps of oddities that are hard to find anywhere else (a lot of Harry Partch's own recordings, for example, plus the BIS catalogue, Michael Tilson-Thomas's Mahler, Shahram Nazeri, El Perro del Mar, The Books, etc., etc....) I subscribe to eMusic

Confession: that link pays me if you check them out and get the 25 free trial downloads. What's eMusic?

I recently downloaded a free sampler CD from Asthmatic Kitty Records. I could hardly resist the name, it was a chance to hear a few cuts by Sufjan Stevens, and it was, after all, free. I found it an excellent bargain. The level of craft is high and the songs ingratiating. The various musicians are all worth my attention.

But they are also overtly or obliquely Christian. Not the scary, stereotyped born-again, Bush-loving, panting-for-the-apocalypse type, but the kind of intelligent, open-minded, heart-in-the-right-place Christians you run into at anti-war demonstrations and welfare rights rallies.

So why am I still uneasy? Is it simple prejudice that makes me single out an album suffused with Christianity and not, say, one that's Buddhist to the same degree--like The Books' wonderful Lost and Safe? Aren't "religions" essentially the same? Doesn't "this is the day the Lord hath made" say the same thing that Zen masters convey by saying, "every day is a beautiful day"?

Well, they're not all the same. It's true that both of these sayings remind us that the world isn't set up to meet our standards--they can be boiled down respectively to "Thy will, not mine, be done" and "not my will", which are indeed remarkably close. They point to a profound and difficult truth that secular humanists rarely appreciate.

But the differences are even more important. Buddhism doesn't privilege humanity. The Bodhisattva takes a vow to release all sentient beings, including cockroaches and poisonous snakes--not just people. There's a kind of chill to its rejection of all of humanity's special pleading. It's summed up in John Cage's answer to a woman who asked him if he didn't think there was too much evil in the world. Cage replied that he thought there was exactly the right amount of evil in it.

We surely have the right to recoil from such cold-bloodedness. (No less a Zen character than R.H. Blyth did so.) But the Christian alternative exacts too high a price--not just in its exclusivity and factual absurdity, but in the way it tosses out the baby with the bathwater.

The joke in Christianity is that because God is especially concerned with his human children, he wills for us what we would have willed if only we had our heads on straight. Whatever happens only seems to be contrary to our will. We should accept it and embrace it because it's all been set up for our ultimate benefit.

In other words, Christianity is the ultimate exercise in bad faith. It only appears to put us in our place. As the Gospels say, he who would save his life must lose it, which means that you get to save your life by pretending to want the opposite. That's where the smart money goes.

How does it accomplish this paradox? In part by telling us, correctly, that the appearance of the world doesn't reproduce the real structure of the world--but then, rather than directing us to look attentively and egoloessly at reality, going on to ask us to see it through a particular and very anthropocentric set of glosses. Most of the practices we lump together as "religions" tell us to stop mistaking our ideas of things for the things themselves. The oddity and frightfulness of Christianity is that, more than any other tradition, it places its own set of ideas in front of us and passes them off as the things themselves. In that sleight-of-hand is its real danger.


Blogger Christopher Axtell said...

First of all I must say that you are an excellent writer! I am reading about writing well and (as much as I lack the ability myself) you seem to fit the category of good writers well.

I want to pick up on some things that you said. You seem to enjoy this topic and are very good at observing cultural representations of Christianity, and I think that I will enjoy what you have to say in response to me!

If I were to describe myself with your words, I would be a humanist (in fact a hedonist) though not a secular one. I believe in truth, and in good faith...and bad faith. Where there is "belief" you can count on bad faith, but good faith is a different story.

I think the difference that we have is that you have not allowed good faith within Christianity. Clearly, if I am a Christian (and I am) I do not have much option but to allow the possibility of good faith. By all means that doesn’t negate the need for rationalization.

Perhaps we can start with definitions.

What is good faith? Perhaps you would say, “Good faith doesn’t just appear to put us in our place, it actually does.” I would totally agree with you, but I would take it a step further, and succumb to some exclusivity. Good faith is only found within Christianity.

As someone who has faith in the Christian God, I must be exclusive. Otherwise Christianity is certainly a pretending game, it would be no more true than the things that contradict it. Good faith must be based on truth. If it is true that good faith is only based in truth then we must realize that there is only one good faith (when it comes to religion). Truth, by definition, contains no contradiction. Therefore, truth itself is exclusive. If truth is exclusive then those things that adhere to truth as their foundation must also be exclusive to all things that do not share that same foundation. Christianity does not share any foundation with Buddhism (or any other religion) as you correctly point out.

Why is it that our culture values faith so highly only if it is separate from truth, while, in areas apart from religion, we demand objective reasoning and reality? If someone signs a contract, by all means, they have not agreed to any contract that they wish, only the one that bears their signature!

Good faith demands exclusivity.

So, what makes a Christian faith good? Well, frankly my first reason is that it is exclusive. Without exclusivity truth cannot be accomplished. Secondly, good Christian faith, if it is real, does put us in our place. Christianity is not about pretending to want something, it is about really truly desiring it. In fact the greatest problem that this great faith addresses are desires and wants that are far too weak.

C.S. Lewis said it best: “If there lurks in modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered to us, like an ignorant child who wants to goon making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far to easily pleased” (The Weight of Glory and other Addresses. Eerdmans, 1965).

A paradox? Maybe (depending on your definition). Anthropocentric? No.

Who will say that a religion that points to a satisfaction and a joy that is found absolutely apart from self is anthropocentric? That religion involves humanity only at the level of humility and worship…yet it is a humanistic religion that utterly and necessarily determines a real and drastic change in the heart. It is a change that honors truth apart from oneself, a change that demands good faith.

What is this faith about? It is about a God who is more valuable than anything on earth. Only is that God actually worth losing a life for.

7:01 PM  
Blogger jwb said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

8:37 PM  
Blogger jwb said...

Actually, only a few of the AK artists are, in fact, Christians. Sufjan is, or claims to be on a routine basis. But most of the other artists are not.

I'm curious though: if you knew that 30% of the employees at Google (who owns were Christian, would you feel as uneasy about using blogger and google?

8:38 PM  
Blogger Michael Steinberg said...

I'll wait on answering Mr Axtell. As for jwb, it's interesting that only a few of the Asthmatic Kitty artists are professed Christians; the lyrics to quite a few of the songs in Ah-Choo seemed quite religious. Perhaps a question of selection for the sampler?

And no, I haven't any diffficulty with Christians--in fact, a very evangelical friend (married to a Presbyterian minister from Hope College, just to tie in AK) considers my wife and me to be people of strong faith, although he also knows that we're atheists--and we fully understand each other and are flattered. We both understand that we're talking in metaphors about something that can't be named.

In fact, it's easier for me to deal with people who have what I think are erroneous ideas about things of real importance than it is to deal with those who don't acknowledge the existence of those things. (I'm thinking of the tiresome science-and-reason-will-save-us people who take out ads in the Nation.) Christianity and Christians are fine; what makes me uneasy is the creep of the Christian framework into secular contexts, where it merges with common sense and essentially vanishes.

I wrote a bit in Fiction of a Thinkable World about the deep influence Christianity has had on the way we experience things, and how it provided a way of dealing with the problems its particular partitioning of experience had created. Today we're stuck in a post-Christian world, quite literally: we are still working within the Christian problematic, and are still faced with the difficulties inherent in that view of things; but except for believers, we're deprived of the tools to mediate or resolve those difficulties, even in a temporary or illusionary fashion.

Mr. Axtell's position has the merit of a kind of consistency. My own preference is to push towards ways of being in the world that lead to new problematics, rather than return to the sources of our own now crisis-ridden world. Any new problematic has its own aporias and difficulties, of course, but such systems generally evolve along with the tools to manage those.

10:12 AM  
Blogger Christopher Axtell said...

I am not trying to be the least bit difficult...but I am unfamiliar with the word "problematic" as a noun. What do you mean by that?

2:04 PM  
Blogger Michael Steinberg said...

"Problematic" means the kinds of questions and answers that a particular system of thought implies. For example, those who believe that the universe is infinite in duration don't have an answer to the question "How was the world created?" This isn't because their thinking is defective, it's because the question doesn't arise. The idea of creation isn't part of their problematic.

3:41 PM  
Blogger John K. Fitzpatrick said...

Since you are intrigued by idiosyncratic, or is it ridiclous, xtian music, you might want to check out this free download of The New Creation. The anti-evolution song "Dig! (The Origin Of Man)" is especially goofy/catchy.

Also, this free site has xtian, and also "Industrial Musical" offerings (music by corporations never meant for the public). Odd stuff.

BTW, I really enjoyed your book. We were going to discuss it, but winter set in, maybe we will in the spring when we regroup.

Happy Darwin Day to you!

- John

10:42 AM  

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