The Foundation is No Foundation

Recently, in a discussion on reddit, a group of us were asked “Do you believe in the Resurrection?” Frustrated by how an answer given did not fit into the desired framework(s), it was insisted that “Your beliefs have a theological foundation. We want to see that foundation.” Unhappy with a theological/theopoetic answer, some insisted that we find ways to fit into their boxes. They wanted the foundation, the ultimate truth on which all of our theologies were built.

The only response I could give was “The foundation is no foundation.”

“An empty shell!” The charge rang out. “If there is no foundation, the belief system is an empty shell.”

I know I sounded like I was spouting some sort of koan, and I know that many reading that discussion felt as though I was, along with others, dodging the questions. There was no dodging, and if an empty shell I inhabit, then so be it. But what some see as emptiness, I experience as space made for relationship.

The foundation is no foundation.

For a belief system to be solid, they say, it must have a solid foundation, a reality on which all else is predicated. We have to be practical, they say, and practicality dictates that to build anything that will last, one must build on solid ground. The wise build their houses on solid rock!

But no rock is solid. Looking within, even the most solid of rock is made up of smaller pieces, and those of bits smaller still, between which are vast swaths of nothingness. Emptiness, one might say, like the shell named earlier. Looking downward, the rock sits upon something else, which sits upon something else, which sits upon the flowing, molten core of the planet, which spins and turns in space. More emptiness.

A foundation cannot be an ultimate starting point upon which everything else is built, because what’s called a foundation is always atop something else. There is no ultimate base. Anything named as “the foundation” must have a foundation of its own. It’s simply turtles all the way down. The foundation is no foundation at all. It may be a link or an interface, but any solid rock is ultimately sand and empty space.

Instead of a foundation, my “belief system” has a series of relationships. I do not base my faith on the resurrection, nor on the Exodus, nor on church tradition, nor on any of the solas. Instead I relate to each of them, and they to each other. In this way I relate to the Trinity. As with any relationship, it is ever changing. The faith of no foundation is not a once and for all declaring, but a living, with all its uncertainty. It is a trust in relationship, be it the relationship between beliefs, doctrines, history, experience, tradition, etc. or the relationship between people. No one is greater than the other. They hold each other together, constantly looking to one another for strength.

To flip a hymn on its head:

On Christ’s wind-blown dunes I stand,
All that looks like rock is surely sand.

The foundation is no foundation. It’s something much stronger than that.

Things I’ve been reading

Misusing deconstruction: on belief and the emergent church

Popular use notwithstanding, I do think that emergent church folk are particularly and especially culpable for their use and misuse of the word theoretically and theologically in large part because of their affinity toward postmodern philosophy and their use of key thinkers like Derrida. This makes things complicated and, if dissected closely, I think it shows that the emergent church — or at least some subgroup(s) within it — aren’t all that different from mainstream Christianity and certainly not as subversive as some had initially hoped.

Believing in Johnny Cash: An Open Letter to Atheists
While the focus on the author’s understanding of atheism is unfortunate, this is a wonderful explanation of narrative theology and the idea of Truth as something other than “fact.”

What I propose is that no one lives, or can live, or has ever lived, within the circle of empirical science. I propose that no matter who we are or what our beliefs might be, we have always had to deal with the question of interpretation. And that question is not whether to interpret, but how. No one fails to interpret. Interpreting is what human beings do.

Put another way, we cannot avoid believing in stories. We can only hope to choose the best ones. How to do this? I propose that good stories are stories that tell the truth, and bad ones are ones that do not.

Journeys of a Religious Misfit, Part 2: Accidental Fences

Quakers are pretty much the opposite of Catholics.

Or at least that’s what I thought when I first walked through the meetinghouse door to join the West Knoxville Society of Friends for First Day worship.


O God, make us children of quietness and heirs of peace.
~ St. Clement, from The Doubleday Prayer Collection

I have been wondering lately how the ubiquity of the Internet and the culture of the Internet at this point in time affect the ways we communicate and the ways I communicate. I have been and am thankful for the technology that has allowed for disparate voices to be heard and for connections to be formed despite geography. So many people now have the platform to share their thoughts with countless others, and to do so directly, mediated only by the technology. It has undoubtedly changed my life for the better.

But in some ways the effects have not been so wonderful. In the din of billions of voices I’m desperate to be heard, and I feel that most of the other people I encounter online are as well. We, perhaps, become more and more solidified in our thoughts (and in our hearts) because we are competing for a limited amount of attention from others. If we simply say it louder, strong and without compromise then we’re bound to get a stronger response, a stronger validation, right? Right?

I look at my own desire to be heard and the ways I’ve shaped my ways of thinking to fit into the instant-response culture of the Internet, and I’m not sure I like the ways I’ve been speaking and writing. If I don’t immediately respond to a discussion, it moves along without me. If I take the time to consider my response then by the time it’s ready to be shared it has become irrelevant. Faced with communication possibilities hardly dreamed of when I was younger, I see that slow, measured, considered communication is lost. Again I’ve given circumstances in which loud, strong, uncompromising communication is valued, especially when it’s instant.

In some ways we’re losing ourselves in the flood of humanity we’re exposed to daily. We respond to that by holding ourselves to stronger ideas of self, by having instant responses, by talking louder and faster in the hope that something, anything will be heard in the deluge of voices. We’re so desperate to be heard that we don’t listen. We don’t stop. We don’t allow ourselves to be changed by others. We’re so afraid that our silence means our own death that we refuse to listen each other into existence.

I crave more silence. I crave more listening. I’m afraid of losing myself in that listening, but if I truly believe what I recently wrote, that I only exist in relationship, then in order to live my self I have to allow for the vulnerability of hearing and being heard. That means letting go of the hard hearted core of “self” to which I cling and opening to the question of who I am and who we are. That means silences, both in turn and shared. I’ll never be more myself than when I truly hear and am heard by the Other.

O Jesus, Son of God, who was silent before Pilate, do not let us wag our tongues without thinking of what we are to say and how to say it.
~ Irish Gaelic Prayer, from The Doubleday Prayer Collection

Who dat say dey gonna own dem words?

In January 2010 someone at the National Football League said, “Holy shit! People are paying attention to the Saints!” and proceeded to send cease and desist letters to businesses selling merchandise with the phrase “Who Dat?” on it. The NFL eventually backed off under massive public pressure. Of course the fact that someone else had the phrase trademarked before the NFL claimed exclusive rights helped push them to back off.

At the time I was most struck by the absurdity of anyone claiming to own two words that are so much a part of the culture. It’s ludicrous. And I knew that trademark would eventually come back around to bite us in the ass again. Now Sal and Steve Monistere and their company, in an effort to assert their right to the phrase, are suing local businesses who are selling Who Dat merchandise. Once again there’s going to be an outcry against this, but it’s going to be much more difficult to stop the Monistere’s.

The problem here isn’t greed, it’s intellectual property itself. Somewhere along the way people decided they could own ideas. Anything that had been part of culture could now be privately held. Where once poems could inspire books which could inspire operas that would inspire other operas, now licensing stood in the way.

For nearly all of human history our stories, our songs, our poetry, our language was held in common. Stories would evolve as they were retold, adapting to fit different circumstances. Poems would be recited by anyone who knew them. Songs were sung by anyone with the ability. Now all of that has been taken away. To sing a song publicly, you have to pay a fee. To share a poem, you have to get permission from its owner. To retell a story, you have to pay for the license to do so.

And apparently to print a chant widely used by the population of south Louisiana, you have to pay Sal and Steve Monistere.

I say, along with most folks in this area, that “Who Dat” belongs to everyone. I’m not just saying that because the chant predates the trademark claim. I’m not just saying that because the phrase has grown beyond its use by the Monistere’s and thus transcends their right to ownership.

“Who Dat” belongs to everyone in the same way that Cinderella, Rent, “Howl,” “Stairway to Heaven” and the letter B belong to everyone. Art and language are not private property, but cultural property. No one person can claim any of it. Stories, songs, poems and chants grow out of their cultures and belong to everyone.

Who dat say dey own “Who Dat?” Me. And you. And everyone.

The Importance of Language

The last few posts I’ve written, I’m not religious. I’m spiritual., So Anne Rice isn’t a Christian anymore? and, over on Pornocracy, Mistress Matisse Is Just Plain Wrong (that last one being potentially not safe for work) all have a similar focus. They’re all about the words we use and what they mean.

We’ve reached a point as a culture at which it’s no longer assumed that anything has inherent meaning. This has been building for a long time, and I think now we’re at a point where our culture recognizes that Truth is, largely, relative. It is defined by circumstance. Meaning depends on so many factors that we no longer conceive of anything having inherent meaning.

Because of that, I put huge amounts of importance on language. Living in a meaningless world affords us untold freedom in creating meaning. It also gives us the great responsibility of being aware of the meaning that we create. One of the most basic ways we assign meaning is in our use of language. The way we use words not only gives meaning to the words, but is part of our way of understanding things and assigning value. How we define words has implications for the meanings of not just those words, but words related to them as well. Sloppy use of language creates a whole string of meaning that may not be in line with the core values of the person using it, but will likely play out in their lives nonetheless. On the other hand, the use of language may reveal values that they profess not to have.

An example here is, I think, Deborah Anapol’s writings on polyamory. She wrote one of the earliest books on polyamory, Polyamory: The New Love Without Limits. In it she mixed language of New Age spirituality, Neotantra and polyamory in a way that presented polyamory as a more enlightened way of structuring relationships. Though she hasn’t been as active in a poly world since, she’s recently returned with a new book and a blog on Psychology Today’s website.

In Anapol’s inaugural post she attempts to describe what polyamory is. She starts off by saying:

My position on polyamory has always been pro-choice rather than anti-monogamy, but after thirty years as a participant-observer in this strange new world it’s more the case than ever that I really have no position on whether people should be monogamous or not.

To Deborah Anapol, monogamy is one choice among several, and it’s really none of her business what you do, and she’s not qualified to tell you what you should do. That’s pretty fantastic. I’d applaud a sentiment like that.

She then goes on to say:

While many people define polyamory as the practice of having more than one intimate relationship at a time with everyone’s full knowledge and consent, I see it differently. To me polyamory is a philosophy of loving that asks us to surrender to love. Polyamory leads us to ask, “What is the most loving and authentic way I can be present with these people and with myself at this time?”

If polyamory is to be a useful word at all, it needs to refer to “the practice of having more than one intimate relationship at a time with everyone’s full knowledge and consent.” That’s the point of calling a particular relationship style polyamory. What Anapol does here is to define polyamory as the way of relating to others that is the most authentic and most loving. So in contrast, then, monogamy is inauthentic and less loving? One cannot determine that the most authentic and loving way to be present with people is to engage in only one romantic partnership? That looks like what she’s saying.

I fully agree with Anapol that the thing to be valued is asking, “What is the most loving and authentic way I can be present with these people and with myself at this time?” Polyamory? Monogamy? To me they are valueless on their own. Engaging in relationships that feed all involved and reflect a commitment to love and the self is more important than valuing one style of relating over another. But by defining polyamory as answering that particular question, Anapol is saying the answer to the question is “not monogamy.”

Her language creates value.

In a post I linked to above I described how Matisse’s language defined monogamy as something other than having a single romantic relationship, and the values that came from that definition. In the Rice and spiritual/religious posts we see more examples of someone (re)defining something as “all the stuff I don’t like.” This use of language creates or reflects values that, in most cases, I don’t think the people using them want to have.

There’s an assumption among many that things like this should be be allowed to slide, that “you know what they really mean, you’re just playing at semantics.” If language creates and reflects meaning, then no, I can’t let things slide. In a world where nothing can be assumed, and in sub- and counter-cultures (anti-racist, sex-positive, feminist) in which making assumptions is seen as damaging (that’s what euro-centrism, hetero-centrism, etc. are all about), it’s doubly important. The assumptions in our language shape our world, and if we want to shape that world deliberately, we have to be aware of the language we use.

Take a look at the insults we use. The last howevermany years have seen an explosion in people using “gay” as a pejorative. When I’ve called people on it they’ve said it’s just a synonym for stupid. I find that hard to imagine. “Gay” as an insult comes from devaluing homosexuality. Calling something gay is saying it’s as bad as being homosexual.

In the same way I’ve tried to move away from using body parts as insults. Calling someone a dick or an asshole is devaluing those body parts. Sorry, but I’m pretty fond of my dick and my asshole.

I’ve certainly called women “stunning” and “striking” before. A recent Sociological Images post on young Christian men’s view of modesty uses several different discussions on how men view women to show how this language ties into our culture’s view of women’s bodies and women’s sexualities.

This language — suggesting that women’s bodies “scream” at him, attempt to control him, and “forcefully” tempt him — is reminiscent of Tim Beneke’s interviews with men about sexual violence in Men on Rape. Michael Kimmel (summarizing Beneke in Guyland) discusses how lots of the terms used to describe a beautiful, sexy woman are metaphors for danger and violence: “ravishing,” “stunning,” bombshell,” “knockout,” “dressed to kill,” and “femme fatale.” “Women’s beauty,” Kimmel surmises, “is perceived as violence to men” (p. 229).

While seeing overwhelming beauty, in a person or a sunset or a work of art, might make me feel like the wind has been knocked out of me, how do these expressions play into violence against women?

What we say matters. How we say it matters. It both reflects and shapes the world around us. If we don’t take care with what we say, we create values and meaning that may have consequences far greater than “well you know what I meant!”

Or, as Uncle Wilson used to say, “Say what you mean and mean what you say, Dorothy.”