Tuesday, 29 May 2007

No guarantor. No reward. No punishment.

For all our lives we are trained to think that every action has a consequence, both natural and moral. Natural consequence is impossible to escape. For example, if I let go of an object while it's in a gravity field, it will move towards the strongest gravity pull (i.e., falling). Moral consequence comes from experiences of growing up. For example, when I was a child and I did something that an authority figure did not like, I would be punished (smacking, taking away toys, etc.).

Moral consequence has its foundations in authority, the Father figure. In society, moral consequence is enacted by the police and judicial system. These functions within society exist to ensure that the society itself continues without abberation. Such abberations are confined to prison because there is no place for them within the arrangement of people, activities and rules that we have constructed.

But who constructed these rules? Who said that red octagons with white squiggles require that we should stop driving? For that matter, who said that permed mullets are not acceptable haircuts in metropolitan Brisbane in 2007? Who is the one who ensures that all these rules are followed?

Such insistence ("Only this way is the true way!") comes from a guarantor of the symbolic order. That is, a source from which all other authority derives its mandate. This is the authority figure that says, "Do it, because I said that you must do it and if you do not do it, I will enact violence upon you."

Sounds like a parent to me. Or a Hebrew deity. Or an American Presidency. This is the kind of moral consequence that we have learnt. It is the consequence that drives us, whether we realise it or not. There is an implicit fear in our actions, because we want to avoid the violence of moral consequence.

Now suppose something different. Suppose that you were living in a world in which there was no moral consequence. No parent to smack you. No police officer to imprison you. No American President to bomb you. What would you do? How would you behave?

This is the opportunity for genuine altruistic love. The kind of action that happens, not because of violent consequence from not doing good things, but which happens even if there are no consequences. This is what puts Christian altruistic love at odds with normal society. The right thing is done because of care and concern about the one to whom it is done. It is not done to avoid the violence of not doing it.

There is no one to guarantee that the symbols (actions, morals, etc.) of altruistic love are maintained. There is only a choice to make them happen. This is the challenge of real love - to do it for no reward.

Thursday, 24 May 2007

No Deviants Allowed

Courtesy of The Guardian comes a story about an evangelical college principle who has allegedly "damned most Britons to hell."

On the one hand, this is a beat-up. There is nothing new about the belief that only those who are loyal followers of Jesus Christ will go to the afterlife known as heaven. All others will go to the afterlife known as hell. This has never been a universalist proposition, so of course when an evangelical states one of the doctrines of his faith, he is going to state this.

It is hardly the case that he beat upon the pulpit and screamed until the blood and sweat from his pores drenched the front row of the audience, "95% of you Britons are going to hell because I say that you are!"

The doctrinal fact is that this is typical evangelical belief. It is also the fact that evangelicals use statistics like these (often without citing their sources) to inspire the faithful to action. It is much the same as a unionist using a megaphone to rally the proletariat to stop work in protest at corporate evil.

It's definitely a beat-up.

However, the part of the story that interests and saddens me the most is this:
Critics within the college have accused the principal of taking it in a much more restrictive and exclusionary direction. At least a third of the academic staff have resigned and its best-known member, the Thought for the Day contributor Elaine Storkey, has been threatened with disciplinary action, allegedly for raising concerns at an internal staff meeting.

These events are typical of the evangelical attitude. From the Moral Majority in the USA to the local pentecostal church in suburban Brisbane, there is no space for dissent. No deviants allowed, so to speak.

Dissent and deviation are not allowed, encouraged or acknowledged. Such people are taken to one side and "counselled" about their lack of faith and lack of unity in the body of Christ. From personal experience as a "Thought for the Day" style writer for such a church, I distinctly remember my submissions being redacted from time to time to suit the prevailing ideology.

Should we be alarmed at this news? Yes, but we should not be surprised. This is typical behaviour for such groups and will continue to be the case for some time to come. Whether it will continue to make progress through the Anglican Communion remains to be seen.

Monday, 21 May 2007

In the Will of God

I was in conversation with someone the other day and after she'd finished telling me about her ideal house (lap pool, verandah, etc.) it went something like this.

Me: Wow. Sounds like a nice house. So, since you're a Bible college student, how are you going to pay for this dream house?

She: God will pay for it.

Me: God will?

She: Yes, it's a desire of my heart.

Me: So God automatically gives you the desires of your heart (thinks: sounds like a bad use of a proof-text to me).

She: Yeah. Well, as long as you're in the will of God, that is.

Me: So, if I'm in the will of God and I have a desire of my heart then God will make it happen?

She: Yep.

At this point, I think I began to feel a blind rage well up from deep inside of me. I didn't act on it and held my tongue. This is what I think was wrong with her logic.

If condition A is true (A = I'm in the will of God) and condition B is true (B = I have a desire of my heart) then action C will occur (C = God will provide the substance of the desire).

Suppose that I'm a sincerely believing Christian in suburban Brisbane, I can see how this might apply. I'm sincere. My desires and dreams are mostly centred around security for my loved ones. The chances are high that a house (etc.) will be mine before my death. Ergo, A is true, B is true and C has happened.

Now suppose that I'm a sincerely believing Christian in southern Sudan. I'm sincere. my desires and dreams are centred around security for my loved ones. However, the chances are high that one day I'll come home to find the violated and slaughtered carcasses of my family left out the front of the charred remains of my house. C has not happened. Which of A or B was not true? Was I not sincere enough in my belief? Was there some secret sin in my life? Did I not really desire safety and security for my family? What did I do wrong?

These two examples expose the prosperity gospel mentality for what it is: a myth which has been placed over the top of reality. The reality is that the wealth of the world continues to flow to the wealthy, including people who live in suburban Brisbane. These people have no problems getting food, clothing and shelter. The wealth has to come from somewhere, and all too often it comes from places like Sudan or Cambodia, at the expense of the poor.

I left the pentecostal movement for various reasons and this is one of them. It is little more than a modern-day fertility cult. Devotion to the cult will always be rewarded with fertility or prosperity. Any evidence of lack (including speech about lack) is apparently evidence of a lack of faith or the smallness of one's vision. I cannot believe in a God that would operate that way. I cannot believe in a God whose will it is (assuming that the Brisbane Christian and the Sudanese Christian are both in the will of God) that Sudanese people should suffer at the same time that Brisbane Christians get all their desires satisfied.


Sunday, 20 May 2007

Munchkin

NOTE: Gaming topics have been moved to Tabletop Manifesto.

I recently acquired a copy of Munchkin and I feel compelled to say just how good it is.

It's good. It's a lot of good.

Even my wife, who isn't into gaming at all, likes playing it. It's a fast game (unless everyone plays dirty) and generally fun. A lot of that results from the silly names of the cards and items (The Kneepads of Allure, The Boots of Butt Kicking), and the rest comes from the rise and fall of fortunes. Just when success seems immanent any number of things can go horribly against you.

If you're looking for a game that only takes a few people to play and can be wrapped up in less than an hour then give it a go.

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

The Necessary Arrogance of Ideology

Neil Clark’s column in the Guardian does raise a good point. That is, if foreign political commentary on the domestic politics of the US or the UK (or Australia, to put words in his mouth) can raise ire in those countries, then it should raise the same ire when the Anglo-sphere makes comment on the domestic political situation in other countries.

He posits an example with the shoe on the other foot. Suppose the Serbian foreign minister said that his country would not “accept any US administration that "did not include members of the ultra-nationalist Republican party"” and that “George Bush, who launched an illegal war against Iraq in 2003, is a "war criminal".

Are we meant to immediately turn our ire against our own governments on the basis of this parallel? Yes, apparently we are. We are meant to respond to Clark’s observation by demanding that our governments act as they expect other governments to act (e.g., by not financing organizations in Australia who have the intent to destablise the Australian government).

But we must ask, then, about the limits of such non-intervention. What is an acceptable intervention and what is unacceptable neglect? How can we allow a nation to determine its own government in one instance (e.g., USA, Palestine, Germany, Japan) and not intervene in other cases (e.g., Zimbabwe, Uzbekistan)? When is it appropriate for a country to intervene in the domestic affairs of another country?

At the heart of criticism by one government about another is an ideological struggle. A government does not rise to power without surfing on the wave of doxa or ideology and we should not be surprised when that government continues to preach the doctrine in each circumstance that it encounters – particularly those circumstances that are in the national interest (whatever that means). If anything, making political statements on the domestic affairs of another (ideologically opposing) country should be expected. It's necessary for the ideologue to continue their promotion of the doctrine, otherwise they are exposed as charlatans.


If anything, the criticism that should be levelled as a consequence of Clark's article is that foreign governments do not criticise our governments enough. Not only should we be unsuprised about them doing it, we should be encouraging it. The perspective from another way of life is unlike anything that we, who live and breathe and work inside our own cultures, can offer. This ideological arrogance is necessary.

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Real Love

“Because love is just a lazy generalisation
that we use for 100 different feelings” – Darren Hanlon
Well put, Hanlon. But if this is the case, then let me unpack what this means for us in daily life. Exactly what is this lazy generalisation? Look at how someone might say, "I love ice-cream." What is the feeling that they express here. It's not love, it is pleasure. "Ice-cream gives me great pleasure," would be more accurate, but a lot harder to say because it has more syllables and sounds pretentious.

The direction of the emotion gives away a clue as to the folly of using "love" as a lazy generalisation. The "I" relates to the "ice-cream" in only one direction, towards the "I" alone. There is nothing directed towards the ice-cream, the object that brings the pleasure. So, if the person says "I love ice-cream" they really are saying that they only value the ice-cream for the effect it has on the "I".

Is this really love? For many, this is the centre of their love for each other; yes, even for other humans. "I love you," means "I value you only for the effect that you have on how I feel." It creates a correlation between value and feelings within the self. Ascribing such value is a reactionary approach. It waits for the other to first engender particular feelings within the self so that the self can make a decision about the other. Is this love?

Suppose that we take a more serious approach to love. I put it that love does not relate to feelings in any way. Love, instead, is a choice. It is an adjectival verb that describes the nature of an action. Therefore to say, "I love you" really means "I choose to do things for your benefit, no matter how you make me feel." In this way, it is possible to stop loving someone by simply choosing to stop.

But it also means that we can no longer simply wait for the feelings to be right in order to love someone. Love is not the result of feelings, it is the choice that goes beyond the hurt that necessarily comes with human relationships. A spouse can make a mistake but can still be loved through the hurt because of the choice of their spouse to love them over against the pain.

Herein lies the divinity of love. No matter the situation, love acts first. No matter how the subject feels, love acts first. It is more precious and more valuable than so-called "love" that is little more than self-satisfying pleasure in disguise. It is worth living for.

Monday, 14 May 2007

For you or for me?

I saw a friend in the city the other day and we both remarked that we hadn't seen each other for a while and that it was because we'd both left the church where we'd met. I think I said, "Too much shit from the pulpit." He said they'd left for similar reasons, "Too much talk about 'The House.'"

In the end, I'm left wondering what the point of that entire movement is. Ostensibly Christian, and yet the purpose of the community and the meetings is for those who attend, not for those who don't. Programmes are designed around asserting Pente-culturalism and hoping that visitors will be moved by the experience so much that it results in a conversion.

Or at least membership. Or some regular financial contribution.

Occassionally one would hear of a beautiful redemption - a drug user made clean; a lonely person comforted - but these are rare. More likely one will hear stories of how giving money resulted in getting money; how sacrificing everything for The House resulted in all bills being paid. (It's interesting to note that the structure of the services will engender a jubilant emotional response from the audience, whereas the litany of selfish sermons I'm now thinking about is only engendering rage within me.)

The very idea that the church exists only for the benefit of its members is anathema. And, as every parent knows, it is not the words that you say which will be left in the mind and personality of the child, it is the action that you take. Likewise, it is not enough to merely say that a church exists for those who are not yet there - the programmes must be geared around it as well. And this particular church found it sorely lacking.

Enough of my rage. For now.

Thursday, 10 May 2007

What do I want from my role-playing experience?

NOTE: Gaming topics have been moved to Tabletop Manifesto.

Lately I’ve been indulging myself by listening to a lot of podcasts about gaming. 2d6 feet in a random direction and Have Games Will Travel just to name two. After all that immersion in the culture and conversation, it is apparent to me that I want more from my gaming experience. My role-playing history has mostly been a reactive style of campaign. That is to say, the players create characters that are little more than tableau of numbers and the GM creates storylines that are about the GM and not about the characters.

For my money there seems to be something missing from this. People are rarely random in their lives. For the most part, people have wishes, ambitions and goals that they wish to accomplish – even if they aren’t motivated enough to achieve them, they still idly think about what they would like to do or have that is larger than the current situation. Even if the goal of a modern, middle-class character is little more than to live in a house he owns with a wife and family to keep him company… this is still a goal. It is still something towards which that person drives.

And this is the heart of that person’s story. Any story that involves them as the main character must take this into account. The character wants something. It might be simple: Gorzan wants to amass a large amount of gold. It might be noble: Otto wants to expose the activities of the corporation that is polluting the local water supply. It might be dark: Count Esteban wants vengeance on the man who raped and killed his sister. All of these things are goals that give the players something to work towards, give the GM some good story ideas, and make the story about the characters.

If role-playing is a story-telling exercise about the characters brought forward by the players, then this is critical to the creation of plots, episodes and adventures. And this is what I want from my role-playing experience. When I’m a player, I want the story to interweave with the goals of my character. When I’m a GM, I want my players to have crafted goals and ambitions for their characters so that I can craft a story around those ideas. I may not want a game that is without a GM, or that uses a shared GM style, but I certainly want the story to be about this progression.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

The God-shaped Hole is not God-shaped

Augustine tells us that built into the human soul is a God-Shaped Hole. This is apparently the cause for all human longing and the drive for all activities. It is as though we are trying to fill this space but that we will never fill it because the only thing that can is the divine.

Lacan tells us that as soon as we enter into language, into the symbolic order, we are immediately left with a problem of what we have left behind. We want to return to it and will create all manner of substitutions that represent the thing left behind. However, we cannot describe it because we left it in order to enter the symbolic order.

Now, are they talking about the same thing? Not really. As far as Lacan is concerned, Augustine has entered into the symbolic order of Christianity and is attempting to use the language of that order to describe the thing he has left behind. In other words, when Augustine speaks of the God-shaped hole he is using only what he has available to describe it, but in the end, merely calling it the God-shaped hole is just a substitution for the thing he has left behind. The God-shaped hole, and the God that is used to fill it, are both merely fraudulent idols (objects with a false meaning) that we rely upon in order to help us cope with the separation from the thing.

So the thing that drives us, Augustine’s God-shaped hole, it not God-shaped and it is merely an attempt to find satisfaction of our desires. And this is not the Christian message.

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

Now we see the violence inherent in the system

It has been said (often by me) that one of the critical moral flaws of capitalism is that it results in the creation of money for the sake of money. Capital allows us to store up the surplus labour from one enterprise and then use it on another. This is a good feature of capital and one that is not to be underestimated. Such a general equivalent means that we can combine the efforts of a group for some shared goal.

However, when there is no shared goal, the system is then turned back on itself so that money is used to make money, and not to benefit the people who helped make it in the first place. Rather than using the billions of dollars in profit earned around the world to fund schools, hospitals or research into clean energy, it is used to make more money. This loop of money only to make more money is the evil side of capitalism and it has some nasty side effects.

Take, for example, the recent “ambush fashion parade” in Sydney.
As Australian Fashion Week continued in Sydney today, security guards stepped in to physically stop a so-called ambush fashion parade outside the fashion week headquarters.

The fashion parade exists to promote the designer so that people will buy from that designer, not because the clothes are good, but because the designer is famous. However, it is not enough that this designer is promoted by the merit of the quality of clothes that have been designed. The competing designers must be removed from public awareness. In this case, private security guards were employed to ensure that the competition was silenced.

In what manner is this different from someone setting fire to a competitor’s shop? Violence, physical force, has been used to ensure that one fashion designer may continue to advertise in their sanctioned space whereas another is removed from the adjacent space. This is the result of capitalism without direction. The pursuit of money for the sake of money has resulted in violence that has been legitimised by that pursuit of money.

It must also be said that the competing designer also employed a kind of violence. It was an interruption to a planned event. The ambush was launched with the specific intent to create a break in the normal operation of the space. Again, for the sake of promoting the business, a physical act, a kind of violence has been employed.

Money for the sake of money. It’s not about art, it’s about money. Now do you see the violence inherent in the system?

Of course, Zizek would probably have said that the violence took place because they wanted to destroy what contained an even greater beauty in order to possess that beauty, but I'll leave that to him.