Subsidizing Original Sin

skeptic

Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect, and it is shameful to surrender it too soon or to the first comer: there is nobility in preserving it coolly and proudly through long youth, until at last, in the ripeness of instinct and discretion, it can be safely exchanged for fidelity and happiness. — George Santayana

There are not many tenets of orthodox Christianity in which I still believe.  But one of the few such – it may well be the only one – to which,at least  in some cognate form, I still subscribe is the doctrine of Original Sin.  Yea and verily!  I even believe that Original Sin is inherited in being passed down from parent to child, very much in the tradition of St. Augustine.  (I do demur from Augustine’s conclusion that the heritability of sin renders sexual intercourse intrinsically immoral.) In fact, so fervent is my agreement that I even meet and embrace Philip Larkin, who wrote, in a poem called “This Be the Verse”, “Man hands on misery to man; / It deepens like an ocean shelf”.  In fact, in some cases the second half of that stanza is also sound advice:  “Get out as early as you can, / And don’t have any kids yourself”.  I will leave to others of more orthodox beliefs the task of unpacking the moral, metaphysical, and theological consequences.  In the more pragmatic spirit of substituting the proverbial ounce of prevention for a pound of cure, I will only suggest some measures that I believe would preveniently mitigate the consequences of sin.  My suggestions are quite the reverse of radical.  In fact, I appeal to the stodgily traditional practice of using the US tax code to encourage and to incentivize certain forms of behavior.

Original Sin by Michel Coxcie
Original Sin by Michel Coxcie

Well … OK … probably not that easy – a corollary of Murphy’s Law says “Everything is harder than you think” — but comparable! Especially when you consider the alternative.

As matters stand right now, the US tax code supports Original Sin by subsidizing parenthood indiscriminately. In 2013, for example, you can claim a $3,900 exemption for each dependent child.  Period.  No qualifications.  End of discussion.  Elvis has left the building.  All the child has to do for you to qualify for the exemption is to meet the criteria in the tax code for being a “dependent”.  (What are those criteria?  Don’t ask me.  I’m not a tax specialist.  As a tax accountant, I’m a great short-order cook!)  But the point is that, as long as your child meets the dependency qualifications in the US tax code, then you may take the exemption, even if your skills as a parent make Gilles de Rais look like the Walton kids’ folks.  At least partially because of one’s incompetent parenting, one’s child can turn out to be as warped as Dracula’s assistant, Renfield, and, especially when grown, can wreak as much havoc on the community as Dracula himself.  No matter.  You still can take the $3,900 tax break, which in such a case will then amount to a subsidy for sociopathy:  “Hand[ing] on misery to man” with a vengeance. Or, as St. Augustine might say, subsidizing Original Sin. Then, if, as we fervently hope, one’s child is apprehended by the police instead of pursuing her / his career as a real-life character out of a Criminal Minds episode, society – meaning you, me, and everyone else – will pay the price, which we hope will only be monetary, for whatever contribution was made to the situation by virtue of incompetent parenting. In extreme cases, a court might even declare the parents to be unfit, and the child might then become a token in the pinball machine known as “Foster Homes”.

May I make a suggestion?  Let’s do things differently!

In the interest of fairness, let’s acknowledge up front that, yes, of course, quality of parenting, while important, is only one factor among many others in the kind of person a kid turns out to be.  Yes, of course:  children make their own choices, and even good parents can have children that go tragically wrong. Yes, of course:  children are human beings, not programmable automatons. Yes, of course:  if you want an iron-clad guarantee, go buy a lawn mower from Sears. That said, however, why not structure the tax code to encourage, not parenting as such, not parenting per se — but good parenting? How could we do this?  Well, we know many of the factors that make for competent parenting.  We don’t know literally everything, of course. We also don’t know literally everything that makes a good professional football player, either. But the NFL draft proceeds apace nonetheless.  Instead of encouraging parenthood promiscuously via the “shotgun” approach of giving $3,900 to everyone whose reproductive plumbing worked as advertised, as the current practice is, we should be as persnickety about encouraging parenting as NBA teams are in selecting athletic talent.  We should subsidize incompetence in neither one.

435px-Form_1040,_2005
IRS Form 1040

First of all, please be assured that I do not — I say again: I do not — propose to limit the number of kids as a matter of law.  So also be assured that you can have as many kids as you want.  However, there will be two salient changes to the tax laws pertaining thereto:

Step 1:  On as nuts-and-bolts-practical a level as possible, develop a curriculum on competent parenting in consultation with the best child psychologists, developmental psychologists, parents themselves, etc., etc. in the relevant fields.

Step 2:  Once this curriculum has been developed and appropriately vetted and implemented, change the tax code so that:

Step 2a:  You may only claim the dependent-child exemption if you can authenticate having successfully completed — just once, not once per child — the curriculum.

Step 2b:  If you do not complete the curriculum, not only may you not claim the dependent-child exemption, but your tax liability will be increased by, say, 1 percent for each dependent child, probably subject to some sliding-scale algorithm that takes into account adjusted gross income.

1280px-Schoolgirls_in_Bamozai
Schoolgirls in Bamozai

Admittedly, this is only abstract training, and as Dostoyevsky’s “Underground Man” said, to know what is right is not to do what is right.  So it would probably be desirable to incorporate some type of parental counseling component into the curriculum. In any case, this scheme has two purposes:  (1) to shift more of the cost of inept parenting from society as a whole to the parents themselves, and (2) to do so preveniently, before the need arises.  Statistically and particular counter-examples notwithstanding, quality of parenting does make a significant difference.  The difference is that, at present, the social costs of incompetent parenting are incurred after the fact and by the community as a whole. I only propose to use the tax code in such a way as to (a) encourage people to be good or better parents by providing some type of training, and (b) to shift to the parents themselves the future costs of poor parenting by making the parents who do not elect such training pay in advance of need instead of the community as a whole after the damage has already been done.

Yes, of course, there are holes in the plan. Yes, of course, there are details to be worked out. This is a brief blog post, not a comprehensive policy white paper for the Brookings Institution or the Institute for Policy Studies or the Guttmacher Institute. I take it as axiomatic that, if parenting by the seat of one’s pants had immediate or short-term and significant pocketbook consequences to people who undertake the responsibility of raising kids, then greater care and thought would go into the decision of whether to have kids, and, if the decision was “Yes”, how to proceed.  To paraphrase Dr. Johnson, “The sight of a 1040 form focuses the mind wonderfully”. And to quote George F. Will verbatim, “You always get more of what you subsidize”. Simple justice — never mind theology — demands that we use the tax code, not to subsidize Original Sin and the dialectic described in the Larkin poem, but to mitigate it. Of course, we’ll never do it.  But we should.

James R. Cowles

1280px-Schoolgirls_in_Bamozai — Public domain (Capt. John Severns, U.S. Air Force – Own work)

435px-Form_1040,_2005 — Public domain (US government tax form)

Original_Sin_Michel_Coxcie — Public domain (artist:  Michiel Coxie [1499–1592], picture courtesy of: www.fineart-china.com, present location: Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

 

Sacred Space in Perfection

perfection memeRecently, I read dragonkatet’s piece on “Perfection and Creation.” This got me to ruminating on the nature of perfection. In the United Methodist Church, clergy wannabe’s are required to answer the question, “Are you going on to perfection in this lifetime?” And the expected answer is “yes!”

I had heard a rumor in seminary by Dr. Jack Olive that perhaps our understanding of perfection is different than the understanding that early theologians and philosophers had. And that John Wesley turned to Eastern Orthodox wisdom in an effort to better understand perfection. That appealed to me because perfection seems so unattainable. What if there is a different way?

Corina got me thinking about all of this again! Is perfection unattainable? Is perfection only attributable to the Divine? What is up with this kind of pressure we put on ourselves? And as with everything, the truth is that our understanding has drastically changed over time. Which leaves us free to define perfection in a way that leads to greater life.

The Greek concept is where it all begins for western cultures. That word was “teleos.” In many cases, this word is understood to be completeness rather than the common understanding of perfection—“without flaw.”

perfectionchocolateAristotle defines three meanings of perfection:

  1. That which is complete.
  2. That which is so good that nothing can be found better.
  3. That which has attained its purpose.

aquinasquoteThomas Aquinas goes on to give perfection a dual-fold meaning: That which is perfect in itself (its substance) and when it perfectly suits its purpose.

Other philosophers and theologians have defined perfection to be:

  • Endless
  • The greatest
  • Existence

Plato and Parmenides thought that the world was perfect. That it had perfect shape and motion (spherical/circular). The world is perfect, God is not. Attributing perfection, an intellectual concept of humanity, to the Divine, was a heresy.

However, later came the pantheist Stoics who attributed perfection to the Divine. Why? Because the Divine was equivalent with the world. Here, we are just one short step away from the modern idea that only the Divine is perfect and that we all suffer from an inability to be complete in our own bodies and to find and fulfill our purpose. Eventually, Aristotle’s First Cause and Christianity’s Creator became comingled in theology. Although perfection was still not attributed to the Divine as perfection was believed to be finite.

In the 9th century, philosopher Paschasius Radbertus said that “Everything is the more perfect, the more it resembles God.” But still, God was not perfect because of the finiteness ascribed to the concept of perfection. It is Rene Descartes who introduces perfection as applied to the Divine as he introduces the “perfections of God.” However, Descartes also states that “existence itself is perfection.” They may just have been going through a confusion of perfections!

The concept of perfection has undergone great changes throughout human history. “Nothing in the world is perfect”, to “Everything is perfect”; and from “Perfection is not an attribute of God”, to “Perfection is an attribute of God.” (Tatarkiewicz, “Ontological and Theological Perfection,” Dialetics and Humanism, vol. VIII, no. 1 (winter 1981), p. 192.)

perfectionPerhaps it is time to render a definition of perfection that lifts us up and allows us to achieve completeness and fulfill our purpose. In Christianity, we often go back to “The Greatest Commandment.” That is “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” We then focus on the loving God part and then sometimes the loving your neighbor part but totally neglect the implied love yourself part. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” When we love ourselves, we can achieve completeness, find and fulfill a purpose! Artists gotta art. Preachers gotta preach. Poets gotta poem. Architects gotta design. Caretakers gotta care. And so on. Of course, within all of this is the tension between what we want and what we have. There are limits and sometimes part of loving is setting aside the dream and doing the chore. But that is still part of purpose. And it is still part of perfection.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, totally subscribes to the “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself” approach to perfection. He writes,

O grant that nothing in my soul
May dwell, but thy pure love alone!
O may thy love possess me whole,
My joy, my treasure, and my crown !
Strange fires far from my heart remove;
My every act, word, thought, be love!

I never heard that any one objected to this. And indeed who can object? Is not this the language, not only of every believer, but of every one that is truly awakened? But what have I wrote, to this day, which is either stronger or plainer?
John Wesley, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection

easypeasy2Perfection is living life in such a way that “every act, word, thought, be love!” Easy peasy.

Perhaps living a life where everything is derived from love is not so easy. But it is something that I can ascribe to, and with practice, grow into. So perhaps perfection is the process that leads to a complete life fulfilled in acts of love–love that leads to justice, mercy, and humility.

So mote it be!

Shalom,

Terri

Simultaneously published at www.BeguineAgain.com

terrisignoffblog

 

 

Sacred Space in our Bodies

I am going to resurrect and modify a presentation I did a few years ago with Terra Morgan, Bjorn Peterson, and Denise Ritthaler. In this presentation, we develop the case for a theology of Liberation of the Body. Although we use references, occasionally, from Christianity, the topics transcend that particularity. And unfortunately, this dialogue has framed much of western culture’s understanding of our bodies.

This will be a four part series looking at:

  1. The case for a Liberation of the Body & Liberation of our sexual being
  2. Liberation of women and particularly body image
  3. Liberation of elder bodies
  4. Liberation of men

(Note: This already is too gendered and separated! But it is the beginning of our thoughts on the topic).

And we just barely touch the iceberg!

Why do I consider this sacred space? I consider that we are in relationship with three things:

  1. us and bodies
  2. us and the world
  3. us and the divine

If we are not at peace with our bodies, our own selves, our angst and anger will spill into our treatment of the world and into our understanding of the divine. If we believe the Divine is within, and within us we hurt ourselves, then the Divine is also hurt. If we believe the Divine is outside of us, and has caused this, the Divine becomes capable of vengeance and capricious pain. Either way, it seems a difficult place to hold. Throw in the world and how we use it, and we are done for. So in an effort to move into peacefulness within ourselves and then in relationship with the world, let us consider our bodies as sacred space worth liberating.

Additionally, since nobody has really written “Let’s liberate our bodies!” what you will experience may be music, images, factual stuff, poetry…it’s all fair game!

Do you want the geeky stuff? Here it is!

The Theological Problem: Liberation of the Body

by Terri Stewart, Denise Ritthaler, Terra Morgan, and Bjorn Peterson

We are talking about liberating the body in a variety of forms. It is a theological problem that has developed from Platonism which brings us the realm of forms and particulars. In forms we have transcendence, the soul, and reason. This is the optimal way of being in the world. In the particulars, we have our senses, opinions, and our body. This is not the preferred way of being in the world. Separating ourselves into dualistic (tri-istic?) bits ignores that we are one integrated body and only one way to experience our senses.

Platonism impacts Christianity through an interpretation of Jesus’ ascetic personal practices. Then Paul, who was Greek and had a greater influence from Platonic sources, brought a more extreme sexual ethic into his writings.

Then, through the source of tradition, we then have Augustine who tells us that the body is sinful and that the soul and reason are to be preferred. This places God as “out there.” Away from the body because clearly, God is not sinful, therefore, even though the Divine is incarnational, the Divine has nothing to do with the body.

Maya Rivera, theologian, says, “This privileges “sameness over difference, of the One over the multiplicity, of the universal over the particular…in such systems there is no place for real otherness. Totalities reduce persons to categories.” (Rivera, 57)

However, Neale Donald Walsh reminds us of the inseparability.

“Your mind holds the past,
your body holds the present,
your soul holds the future.
Put another way,
the mind analyzes and remembers, Slide5
the body experiences and feels,
the soul observes and knows.”

So who are we really?

We are the body of the Divine participating in one diverse reality that would cast us all as other.

And who is the Divine?

Slide6God is love in the recognition that we and all of creation exist together and yet the Divine is so much more. The source, the center, the spring of existence. The Divine is other, existence is other, and we are other to ourselves. And yet, we are all each an incarnational part of Love’s cosmic creation.

This approach to liberation of the body is through a demonstration of what it means for humans as sexual beings, humans as women and their body image, humans as the elder body, and humans as men. (Note: I would also consider that this is entirely too gendered, but it is a starting point.)

Liberation of the Sexual Body

We are all sexual beings. Whether or not we have sex, we are sexual beings. In Western culture (and many others around the world), our sexuality is frowned upon. The appreciation for eros is limited. In ancient Greek, we have three words for love – agapos, philos, and eros. Each one describing a different aspect of love. Eros is believed to be that type of love that is the seat of creativity. In sexuality, we see this as the drive to have children – create! Some scholars believe that eros is the seat of all our creative desires. But our religious authorities rarely express this. This is because of a theological battle endured 1600+ years ago between Augustine and Pelagius.

Slide9If we had only chosen Pelagius! But the foundation is there to have a theology based in free-will and the idea that we are indeed born in a state of being good rather than in a state of being a worm. And it was good! Very, very good!

created by Terri Stewart
graphic created by Terri Stewart

The Unity Church developed a philosophy of “The 12 Powers.” Spiritual abilities that we are perfectly able to express and that are present in every person. These powers hold that the body is good, very very good! This connects very nicely to the Chakras as described in so many ways and visualized to the right.

But through it all, from the beginning to now, the body, mind, and spirit has been connected to our bodies. Pelagius knew that and we can see it. And our creative, generative bodies can also experience being liberated through the concept of liberating our own bodies to give and receive love. We are created, we create. That is the Divine circle of our eros bodies.

One way to experience a liberated body grounded in eros-creativity is through music and movement. I encourage you to listen to the below, simple music and to move your body however you will–without shame or reservation. Reach an arm to the sky! Roll your head from side-to-side! Sway! Thou shalt do what thou shalt do! And this is the end of part 1, laying the groundwork for a Liberation of the Body and using cultural items to show that we are already liberated! Let’s claim our sexual, eros selves as liberated beings.

How would you write your eros liberation?

Pour Yourself In Me ~Rickie Byers Beckwith

A Unity Church Artist

Shalom and Amen!

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