Tales of War and Redemption

An insightful article from Phil Klay, author of Redeployment (for which he received the National Book Award in fiction in 2014). The discussions on witnessing violence and suffering were interesting to me, as were those on the stories of saints, which I think Catholics especially will relate to. An excerpt:

"The violence I have seen has left me feeling hollowed out, unable to gild all the agony with some beautiful meaning. As I watch the catastrophe that has befallen Iraq, it now seems absurd to cheaply suggest that it built toward any greater purpose, or paved the way for greater peace and prosperity, or that it is anything more than a net increase in the suffering and horror of a world awash in blood, or that there is even a realistic prospect for any kind of justice, some kind of restitution or payment or balancing out, even in a small way, for what has been erased.

In the modern era, we do not want to hear of death as a sacrifice, as an atonement or a gift. Religious claims are tenuous, and pain is certain. Pain provokes our sympathy, and our outrage, while hope of the resurrection serves as little more than a hypothesis. German writer Ernst Jünger once declared pain the “authentic currency of our age.” Perhaps this is why many consider it something of an embarrassment to speak of God in public, or to speak clearly and forthrightly of our experience of transcendence. We’re much more comfortable talking about trauma. Physical trauma, done to bodies."

Houellebecq's Imagined World

Interesting Paris Review interview with Michel Houellebecq, author of Soumission (Submission), a controversial "political fiction" about France in 2020, under the rule of a Muslim political party. Houellebecq is a professed agnostic (once a professed atheist), so I was surprised by some of his thoughts on religion. The interviewer says, "You could also say that what really interests those people is going to Syria, rather than converting." He responds, "I disagree. I think there is a real need for God and that the return of religion is not a slogan but a reality, and that it is very much on the rise." Further, "I remain in many ways a Comtean, and I don't believe that a society can survive without religion." I suppose that's rational from a sociological perspective, but my experience has been that most atheists and agnostics are hostile to religion and dismiss it outright. I guess I'll have to read some Comte.

Joris-Karl Huysmans, the French novelist, plays a central role in Houellebecq's novel. He says, "Huysmans [is a classic case] of a man who converts for reasons that are purely aesthetic. I almost have trouble imagining such an aesthete. For him, beauty was the proof. The beauty of rhyme, of paintings, of music proved the existence of God." I'll also have to read À Rebours, but from the ideas presented in Soumission -- this one about aesthetic conversion particularly -- I can't say I completely disagree with the views of this "neuralgic misfit" (New Yorker).

Houellebecq's firmly anti-Enlightenment beliefs are completely antithetical to mine, but as someone who is interested in religion as a cultural phenomenon, I enjoyed his book and have spent some time thinking about the imagined world in which a Muslim party rules France and an alliance between Catholics and Muslims is possible. It seems unlikely to me, but we do live at a time when the seemingly impossible -- for better or worse -- becomes reality.

Laïcité et Liberté

In law school I wrote a paper on the concept of laïcité -- enshrined in the French Constitution -- which demands a complete separation of religion and government, such that religious expression must exist completely outside the realm of the state. In 2004, for example, the French government banned the wearing of Islamic headscarves in public schools because allowing overt religious signs in the public sphere was inconsistent with the concept of laïcité. Now, researchers claim that radicalization takes advantage of two central French ideas: laïcité and liberté. "France and Belgium forced secularization on Muslims, but also gave them the freedom to organize against it" (The New Yorker).

I've wondered about the French connection for some time now, and the idea that French political culture may be driving radicalization is fascinating. There's more here from Brookings, and an excerpt from The New Yorker article below. And if you were wondering, my argument in law school was that the American liberal conception of religious freedom is preferable to French laïcité because it supports individual rights and provides a framework for flourishing. The French model merely promises a minimalistic civic religion or fixation with national identity. I haven't changed my mind on that.

"Americans, by contrast, may find a kind of national relief in McCants and Meserole’s hypothesis. Compared to “the fashion police of Paris,” we are comfortable with religious diversity and religious expression, and perhaps this is a source of insulation against ISIS recruitment here. But the real pressure is not on the strength of religious freedom but on the possibility of hyphenated identity—on whether a person feels able to be both Muslim and French, or both Muslim and American. Formal enforcement of secular culture may be the force that works most directly against dual identity, but lower-amplitude advertisements of comfort and hostility, the daily interactions that a person has, matter, too. One common theme in the radicalization stories that foreign fighters told, Meserole said, was feeling ostracized at school for being Muslim."

The Myth of Confrontation

To use Samuel Huntington’s phrase, one is inclined to see a “clash of civilizations” in these and other recent events. That is, a conflict along the fault line between Western and Islamic civilizations. And this may indeed be the reality. I do not wish to make a definitive argument here in favor of or against Huntington’s thesis, but rather present, by way of a book review, a counter argument that puts it into question.

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From The Holy Mountain

In recent years, considerable attention has been paid to the many, multidimensional conflicts in the Middle East, with a particular focus on the influence of radical Islam. Many are inclined to see a conflict along the fault line between Western and Islamic civilizations, a “clash” that divides East from West. Perhaps this is why some do not know and others have forgotten that Christianity is an eastern religion, firmly rooted in the intellectual ferment of the Middle East.

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Radical Inauthenticity

Interesting article on "the Church of self" - an excerpt:

As usual, the Bard of Avon got there first. In “Hamlet,” Shakespeare puts the mantra of authenticity into the mouth of the ever-idiotic windbag Polonius in his advice to his son, Laertes: “To thine own self be true.” This is just before Polonius sends a spy to follow Laertes to Paris and tell any number of lies in order to catch him out.

And who, finally, is more inauthentic than Hamlet? Ask yourself: is Hamlet true to himself, doubting everything, unable to avenge his father’s murder, incapable of uttering the secret that he has learned from the ghost’s lips, and unwilling to declare his love for Ophelia whose father he kills? Hamlet dies wearing the colors of his enemy, Claudius. We dare say that we love “Hamlet” not for its representation of our purportedly sublime authenticity, but as a depiction of the drama of our radical inauthenticity that, in the best of words and worlds, shatters our moral complacency.

Belief Is The Least Part

A very interesting article on why belief is not the most important thing to understand about religion:

"To be clear, I am not arguing that belief is not important to Christians. It is obviously important. But secular Americans often think that the most important thing to understand about religion is why people believe in God, because we think that belief precedes action and explains choice. That’s part of our folk model of the mind: that belief comes first.
And that was not really what I saw after my years spending time in evangelical churches. I saw that people went to church to experience joy and to learn how to have more of it. These days I find that it is more helpful to think about faith as the questions people choose to focus on, rather than the propositions observers think they must hold."

Flying Orthodox Church-in-a-Box

While looking for stories for my "law and religion news roundup" I came across this gem:

The Russian military unveiled an unlikely new weapon in its arsenal this month – an army of parachuting priests . . . While the Russian army insists this is the first ever flying chapel in the world, Orthodox Christianity is not the first to bring mobile worship to the battlefield. The Israeli Defense Force launched a mobile synagogue initiative in 2011 to allow troops to pray more comfortably as they operate the Iron Dome anti-missile system in southern Israel. The UK Friends of the Association for the Wellbeing of Israel's Soldiers (UKAWIS) has provided such mobile synagogues – which contain an ark, reader's platform and washbasin – as "a source of spiritual sustenance [for the soldiers] as they carry the weight of Israel's security on their shoulders."

Also in a box: A Jew in Berlin. Yes, really.

A Long Dinner In Brooklyn

Winters seem never-ending in New York City. There's something about the way the air whips around the buildings and down the avenues, or rushes at you when you ascend from the subway, that makes winter here feel harsher and colder and longer than in other places. Or perhaps it's just that the city is grey and lifeless as people rush around with their heads down, bundled in dark coats and scarves, unwilling to interact, even to say hello. And though I have a fondness for the cold and snow and winter sports, as March nears its end, I look forward to spring and a long dinner in Brooklyn.

For the past two years, I have spent the last week of March pondering the question: what does it mean to be free? The obvious answer for liberal-tarian minded people like me, is that freedom means absence of interference from the state. But the question I really want an answer to is more specific, and more personal.

My eagerness to characterize personal freedom started in Crown Heights around my friend's Seder table. We go there to celebrate Pesach with her family, a Jewish holiday that commemorates the physical deliverance of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. We all read from the Haggadah and drink wine and eat bitter herbs. Her children ask questions about Pharaoh and sing songs about the seven plagues. We break the matza, hide the afikoman, and dip potato into salt water.

I like the ritual and the prayers, and I don't even mind that dinner starts at 8 in the evening and ends at 2 in the morning, and that for the majority of that time we are not actually eating. But the real reason I go to Brooklyn every Passover is because of something my friend said after dinner one year: "I'm so glad you came to celebrate with us because it's not just about Jews and freedom from slavery in Egypt. It's also a reminder to free ourselves from whatever holds us in bondage." Passover reminds me to be a better person and to keep on striving. Of course, that's easier said than done, but I like that the end of winter and the beginning of spring is tied to a long dinner in Brooklyn, and to a reckoning about what it means to be free.

From Voltaire

I found this prayer from Voltaire's Traite sur la Tolerance last night while doing some research for a paper on religious tolerance:

Make us help each other bear the burden of our difficult and transient lives. May the small differences between the clothes that cover our weak bodies, between all our inadequate languages, all our petty customs, all our imperfect laws, all our foolish opinions, between all of the circumstances that seem so enormous in our eyes but so equal in Thine - may all these small nuances that distinguish the atoms we call men not serve as a basis for hatred and persecution. May those who light candles at noon to celebrate Thee also sustain those who are fully satisfied with the light of Thy sun. May those who show their love for Thee by wearing white cloth not detest those who express their love for Thee by wearing black wool.

Habemus Papum

I was a young girl when I first visited the Vatican. The occasion was the Great Jubilee, and my most vivid memory is standing with an enormous crowd in St. Peter's Square, chanting "Juan Pablo Segundo! Te quiere todo el Mundo!" (John Paul II, the whole world loves you) I may have been too young at the time to really understand things like the Jubilee Indulgence or the significance of the opening of the Holy Door of St. Peter's Basilica, but the feeling of solidarity with other Catholics was strong. I imagine it was much the same last week when thousands of believers awaited the end of the papal conclave and the announcement of their new leader with the words "Habemus Papam" - we have a pope.

I have struggled with religion, particularly Catholicism, for a very long time. As a person who seems wired to reject authority, additional life rules mandated by an organized religion were never palatable. But more importantly, I've always felt that my questions about Roman Catholicism have gone unanswered, or haven't been answered adequately. There are the structural questions about the patriarchy and the institution of the church, but also deeper theological issues that I either cannot accept or cannot truly understand. Perhaps some people understand through faith and others never will?

But despite this, I respect religion - especially Roman Catholicism - as an institution, and people's freedom to believe and practice their faith is a fundamental requirement for a free society. I can't help but think that people who scoff at religion, who dismiss it as folly, who deride the "faithful," know only a part of religion. While it can be "violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children. . . " (Hitchens), my hope is that in a free society, the competition of ideas will eventually eradicate the evil to make way for the good.

Just yesterday I asked a professor if he was pleased with the selection of Cardinal Bergoglio as the new pope. His response was simply, "Man proposes God disposes." That is an answer steeped in faith. Cardinals propose a candidate for the papacy, but God exercises control over and determines the selection -- there is nothing to be pleased or displeased about. The selection of the new pope brings back memories of the Jubilee in Rome, and while I often feel righteous in my faithless rationality, I do miss the feeling of solidarity and wonder if I'll ever have the ability to believe.

Tithing & Chapter 7

Some of you may tithe, most of you will probably never be in Chapter 7 bankruptcy, and few of you will find this interesting, but I thought I'd link to my article on the American Bankruptcy Institute case blog just in case you wanted to read it. The title is: Questions of Fact and Faith - Tithing, Undue Hardship, and Student Loan Discharge, and the issue is whether a debtor should be able to tithe when there are existing financial obligations - like student loan debt - that they claim should be discharged. You can read it here. Yet another interesting topic within the law and religion field!

I Disapprove Of Your Dress

Banning the burqa is a bad idea. It took me awhile to come to that conclusion for a number of reasons, one of the most important being that the burqa is perceived to be, and in some cases is, a tool of oppression directed at women. The burqa also serves as a visual representation of gender inequality in the Muslim world. Countries like Belgium moved to enforce a ban on burqa-wearing, and more recently, the French Parliament approved a resolution against full-face cover"

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