April 2012

Narrating a Dying Child’s Life

by Kyle Cupp on April 28, 2012

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Avery is the five-month-old daughter of Laura and Mike Canahuati.  She suffers from a rare genetic disorder that will take her life in less than two years.  In response to learning, on Good Friday of all days, that little Avery has Type 1 spinal muscular atrophy, her parents began a blog written from Avery’s perspective narrating her experiences, dreams, and desires.

I totally get this.  In 2009, also during the days leading up to Easter, our daughter Vivian was diagnosed in the womb with a fatal condition called anencephaly.  She was born in late September and lived for a little over 15 hours.  It was important to me during those months of pain and uncertainty to tell Vivian’s story, such as it was.  It was more than that, actually.  It was imperative.  I felt a calling, a desire from my depths to speak, to narrate, to give her life a meaning that it could not reach in reality.

Despite having been a literature major in college, I didn’t truly understand the impulse to tell stories until Vivian awakened in me the urge to narrate her life and ours.  Only by experiencing the sorrow of losing a beloved child and by putting that tragic experience into words did I come to understand and appreciate what it meant to be a father, what it meant to love without the constraints of time, what it meant to live in the face of death.  My heart goes out to Laura, Mike, and Avery; and I pray their stories illuminate their lives and the lives of those who hear them.

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Echoes on the Road

by Kyle Cupp on April 28, 2012

“Every story is a play of at least three persons (author/actor/addressee) whose outcome is never final. That is why narrative is an open-ended invitation to ethical and poetic responsiveness.  Storytelling invites us to become not just agents of our own lives, but narrators and readers as well. It shows us that the untold life is not worth living.”

- Richard Kearney, On Stories

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What Does Invoking God Get You in Ethics?

by Kyle Cupp on April 26, 2012

Not much, says Julian Sanchez, and he’s right.

Over the past decade, I’ve moved away from religious faith as an explanation for why the universe exists, why it is the way it is, and why I ought to act in one way and not in another.  The reason for this change in my religiosity has to do with what Sanchez so ably explains: positing God doesn’t sufficiently answer these questions, and the ethical problems that arise in the “secular” sphere arise also in any theistic framework.  Here’s Sanchez:

At best, God gets you two things: First, a plausible prudential internal motivation to behave “morally” (because God will punish you if you don’t), though of the same formal sort as the motivation you might have to obey a powerful state or a whimsical alien overlord. Second, a potential form of “expert validation” for independent moral truths we lack direct epistemic access to, as when we accept certain propositions on the grounds that mathematicians or scientists have confirmed them, even if most of us are incapable of comprehending the detailed proof.

Sanchez is responding to Ross Douthat, who’s arguing the line that, without God, there is no absolute basis for how to live, no absolute moral truth.  The problem with this line of thought is that it doesn’t achieve what it sets out to achieve.  Even if we assume 1) the existence of God and 2) that God has established a metaphysical and moral order, we still haven’t reached an absolute, first, fully-answered ought.  As Sanchez remarks, appealing to God defers ethical questions rather than answering them.  Ethics still has to make the arduous trek. Telling me what God has done doesn’t tell me why I should care or act according to God’s design and will.

The moralist who invokes the necessity of God will say that the secularist hasn’t reached an absolute ought when arriving at ethical principles, such as the valuing of pleasure over pain or happiness over misery.  This moralist will reply something to the effect that these principles have no firm basis: why should one act in a way that maximizes happiness and minimizes suffering?  Why is this principle obligatory?  Good questions, but here’s the thing: they apply just as surely to principles derived after appealing to God.  Why should I act so as to achieve eternal union with God rather than eternal separation from God?  Why should human beings act in accordance with their God-given nature?  Why obey the divine law?  These questions remain after invoking God.

In my own thinking, I’ve floated toward the position that ethics, useful as it is, practically necessary as it may be, doesn’t give us moral certitude.  Whatever basis ethics gives us, that basis ain’t absolutely solid.  It’s not that I harbor doubts that, say, murder is immoral in all times and in all circumstances; rather, I can go only so far, with or without invoking God, in explaining why murder is absolutely immoral.  Whatever first principles I could possibly come to and posit as the answer would be vulnerable to that question young children love to ask, “But why?”

I’m okay with that.  I can sleep at night having to act without an absolute, first, fully-answered why.

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Excremental Deity

by Kyle Cupp on April 24, 2012

In his diary, Evelyn Waugh reminisced about his friend Randolph Churchill’s response to reading the Bible for the very first time: “My God, what a shit God is!”

Yeah, I say with a sigh.

For a text supposedly inspired by the grand deity himself, the Bible sure presents the Almighty as something other than a decent fellow.  God comes across as an anal-retentive and vindictive gardener, a schizophrenic rule-giver who sets standards no one can live up to, an artist who loathes his first draft and takes vengeance out on it, and an aloof warlord who commands angels to obliterate cities and armies to conquer and do what conquerors do.  And then there’s the whole eternal torment in Hell thing.  “A shit” sure seems to sum it up.

Before the blasphemy police arrive and take me to see the grand inquisitor, let me dig myself in deeper qualify that I don’t really believe that God is comparable to excrement.  Having, as I do, something of a postmodern faith, I approach the historical images of God as, well, historical images.  Images rooted in the human psyche that arise from quirks in human personalities.  Images that fulfill deep desires.   We’re a deep-in-dung species, morally-speaking, so it’s no wonder that our images of God rarely rise above the filth.  Even the most lofty images of God–the heavenly associations we make between God and love, mercy, and compassion–carry the smell of something human.  In a sense, the Bible is a record of attempts to make God out of the sometimes morally ugly images of humanity.  That divine inspiration may function through this imaginative process is an exciting and fascinating idea, but no inspiration takes the human out of the productive process.

As we imagine God, so we imagine the journey of faith toward God.  This too we approach from within the messiness of human life.  Take spiritual warfare, a form of spirituality that emphasizes the spiritual life as a perennial contest between God and the demonic, a battle which, to win, one must erect barriers before temptation and proactively fight against sin.  This approach to the spiritual life obviously has its roots in scripture and religious traditions, but I submit for consideration that it initially grows out of the human being’s proclivity toward violence.  We’re inclined to imagine the way to holiness as a path through a war zone because, at our core, we’re creatures of violence.  War, broadly speaking, is one of our primary modes of being in the world, and so it shapes and colors how we perceive and interpret the world, the “spiritual” world included.

Am I saying that we should abandon the use of military imagery in speaking of the spiritual life?  No.  I wouldn’t say so.  The imagery has its truth.  So too, I believe, do the less than savory images of God depicted in the Bible.  What’s important is to remember that these images are ours, our doing, done sometimes consciously and sometimes not, but always done by us.  No image of God falls from the sky.  Not even the revealed ones.

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A Pause to Listen: Katie Melua

by Kyle Cupp on April 24, 2012

Singing Nine Million Bicycles

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At dinner the other night, the boy, in his very matter-of-fact tone of voice, proclaimed, “You know where I wish my head was attached to my body?  Between my legs.”

He did clarify.  He wanted to be “upside-down man.”  Whatever that means.

But still.

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Revelations of Art

by Kyle Cupp on April 22, 2012

The Kiss by Auguste Rodin

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Echoes on the Road

by Kyle Cupp on April 22, 2012

“The performance of a play, like that of a ritual, cannot simply be detached from the play itself, as if it were something that is not part of its essential being, but is as subjective and fluid as the aesthetic experiences in which it is experienced. Rather, it is in the performance and only in it–as we see most clearly in the case of music–that we encounter the work itself, as the divine is encountered in the religious rite.”

- Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method

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Ah, Henchmen

by Kyle Cupp on April 21, 2012

Be sure to read Tod Kelly’s front page post, “The Henchman’s Diary.”  It’s a fattening, super-delicious bowl of awesomesauce.  And, while we’re on the theme, let me say, if the life and times of henchmen is your thing, you can’t go wrong with Henchmen 21 and 24 of The Venture Bros.  But check out Tod’s post first. It’s even better.  And I’m not just saying that to flatter him so he’ll introduce me to The Boss, E.D.

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Creating the Morality of Christ

by Kyle Cupp on April 20, 2012

While we can point to the Sermon on the Mount as an originary expression of the “morality of Christ,” we cannot fully arrive at the sense of this morality through a textual analysis alone. Gary Gutting explains why:

Read alone, the Sermon on the Mount will either confuse us or merely reinforce the moral prejudices we bring to it. To profit from its wisdom we need to understand it through traditions of thought and practice within or informed by Christianity. This does not require membership in any particular church, but it does require immersion in the culture and history of the Christian world. In this sense, to forget the church is to forget Jesus.

The moral teaching of Jesus can be reached only by passing through the traditions of thought and practice which have, in their own unique ways, erected methodological frameworks for interpreting Jesus’ words and thereby introduced and fused meaning to those words beyond the “original” meaning a mere textual analysis would uncover. In effect, the traditions of Christianity have reconstituted the meaning given initial creative expression by the uttering and recording of the sermon. In this sense, we can say that Christians have created and recreated the morality of Christ.

Perhaps more interesting, though, is the influence of non-Christians on this history of morality. Returning to Gutting:

Much of the history of Christianity consists of trying to develop a viable way of life from Jesus’ puzzling sayings.

These efforts, moreover, have had to go far beyond interpreting Jesus’ words in their own terms. Augustine and Aquinas, for example, used ideas from Plato, Aristotle and other pre-Christian thinkers to help them understand the “law of love.”

Christian morality owns much to the thought of non-Christians. For this reason, Christianity remains true to itself by remaining open to the thought and practices of others. Christians, I dare to say, are being untrue to their religion when they shun the world and the wisdom it has to offer. Christianity may proclaim the “good news,” but this gospel, in both form and content, owes its life not only to the figure of Jesus Christ and to the ever-searching traditions of the church, but also to the pursuits of truth upon which non-Christians have, in their own ways, creatively embarked.

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