Of Pears and Porn

I’ve come to believe that one of the best tools in fighting sin is to meditate intellectually on how profoundly stupid and ridiculous the sin is.

Ideally, of course, one would leave vices behind simply because one was attracted to the good things of which those vices are a mere parody. But at any given season in their lives, every person is at a different place with respect to each vice.

Today, I might have lost the taste for drunkenness, and grown to so delight in sobriety that I’m hardly tempted to drink excessively, while at the same time I might be an overeater of junk food with no “taste” yet for things that actually taste good and would make me feel good after I’ve eaten in moderation. What I’d need in such a scenario (I speak hypothetically, of course!) is a physically fit foodie in my life, whom I admire, who would have the patience to teach me to savor delicious and nutritious foods until junk food tasted to me like the junk that it is. But, absent such a friend, I’m left with Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma to help me see food for what it is.

funny-stupid-signs-useless-pointless-11-571f374995df4__605.jpgAs Augustine undertakes his famous protracted analysis of his adolescent pear-stealing night with his friends, he engages in precisely this sort of intellectual meditation. Writing as he is in his adulthood, he’s presumably gotten over the particular vice of Theft with Friends. But certainly as a Christian bishop he is now sensing the lure of new and more pernicious vices—perhaps pride and envy in particular, temptations which seem to go hand-in-hand with ministry.

He unpacks the pear-theft ad nauseam. 

He is succinct, however, in describing, what the theft was not:

“Those pears were truly pleasant to the sight, but it was not for them that my miserable soul lusted, for I had an abundance of better pears.”

A married person with a loving spouse has an abundance of better pears. Whatever is going on when one goes after porn, it’s not images of bodies of other people after which the soul lusts. Those bodies may be pleasant to the sight like Augustine’s neighbor’s pears, which he praises because they were carefully and wonderfully made by God their Creator. But when the miserable soul lusts, it’s not for pears or porn per se.

Augustine goes on famously to detail the intricacies of concupiscence—of the deformed workings of a soul that in one respect or another is dead to true delights and delighted with dead things. And it is worthwhile to follow his exposé of such a soul as his (and yours and mine) in the fight against vices.

But the first and proper step is to learn of and meditate upon the sheer stupidity of eating junk food when there’s real food available, of stealing your neighbor’s pears when there’s better pears available in your own orchard, and of stealing glances at mere images of the bodies of anonymous humans when you have infinitely more in a good wife or husband.

Education can’t save the world. Knowledge is not really power. Rational Choice Theory doesn’t explain behavior. Reading proverbs won’t automatically make you wise and reading Aesop’s Fables doesn’t mean you’re going to avoid the folly in the fable. There’s much more going on in the soul of which the mind knows little.

But still, nobody wants to be stupid.

Grasping the stupidity of porn and telling yourself “Self, don’t be stupid. You don’t want to be stupid, do you? C’mon, stupid!” seems to be a worthwhile strategy.

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Don’t be a pornographer

What do you call a person who uses pornography?

I am writing a chapter of my dissertation on pornography. Awkwardly, I kept using the phrase “the user of pornography” to denote, well, the user of pornography. The one who looks at the pictures and videos. The one who reads the smut.

Isn’t there a better term for this person?

The person who shoots the video, who snaps the picture, who writes the smut, they’ve got a name. But the looker and reader: they’re just a user. Right?

Photo: Steve Zeidler

Imagine having the title “pornographer” on your business card or your nameplate.

Here’s the thing: if you use pornography, you are a pornographer.

It is ultimately the user of pornography who summons the pornographic image to appear in all its objectivity in the heat of the faux-erotic moment. Nothing appears to a user of pornography until the user says “appear!” It is the user of pornography who calls out for a human person to be reduced to zeroes and ones, rendered on their screen, and objectified for their private and unilateral pleasure. 

If a pornographer is someone who causes pornography appear, then a user of pornography is just as much (if not more) a pornographer as the one who snaps the photograph, shoots the video, or writes the story. 

Don’t be a pornographer.

How (Not) to Give a Christmas Present

Here in Korea, giving gifts is illegal.

At least certain kinds of gifts are illegal. Specifically, illegal are those gift-giving instances in which the recipient has some influence or authority over the giver. It’s called the Kim Young Ran Law, and it’s designed to curtail corruption, or “graft”—the giving of gifts in order to secure some sort of gain from the recipient.

As a result, I, a foreigner and private school teacher in an American-style school, am considered a “public official” in Korea. It’s an odd classification, one which effectively prohibits me from accepting a bottle of Scotch, a fountain pen, or even a cup of coffee from a student or parent who is currently, or may at some point be, my student. This would put me in a position in which I might be inclined to show favoritism to a student, giving them a grade they haven’t earned.

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Kim Young-Ran herself! Photo: Yonhap News/Korea Herald

Curiously, I may give my students Scotch (?), fountain pens, and coffee, because they can’t pay me back in any shady way.

The law is an overcorrection aiming to fix a real problem. And here at Christmas time, it’s heartbreaking to imagine all the Scotch, fountain pens, and coffee that I’m not getting. All that generosity, nullified! Bah humbug!

The problem, of course, is that bribery strips the gift of its very status as a gift. When a gift is given with a wink, the gift disappears. The gift fails to reach the outer space of gratuity and is sucked back into the orbit of an economy where goods, services, and cash are exchanged within a transactional rationality.

Is there such thing as a pure gift?

But wait, you might say: is it even possible to give gifts that don’t collapse under the gravity of pure economics? When I give my kids presents at Christmas, isn’t it because they didn’t shout, cry, or pout, and thus, Santa Claus was contractually obligated to show up? When I buy my wife a bouquet of flowers, aren’t I really attempting to buy another few months of cooking and cleaning from a low-maintenance partner in home-economics?

Jean-Luc Marion comes along to rescue us from our deconstruction of gifts. Along the way, he shows us some ways we can give in purity. A philosopher saves Christmas!

How do you give a real gift, then?

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Photo: LE BRAS

1. Eliminate the giver!

Marion says that when an inheritance is given, the giver has been stolen away by death, and cannot be thanked or reciprocated. I had never heard of my Icelandic uncle Skuli from North Dakota until he died and left me some cash. So I never felt “indebted” to him for the Martin D-28 dreadnaught acoustic guitar I bought with his money. I was able to simply enjoy it.

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Thanks, Uncle Skuli! (Me out in front of King’s Cross Church in Charlotte, NC, 2012, with my Martin D-28, now almost 20 years old.)

But he wasn’t able to enjoy me enjoying it, except proleptically. I wouldn’t suggest giving all your Christmas gifts at once, when you die, simply in order to eliminate the possibility of the gift falling back into the realm of quid pro quo.

But isn’t Santa Claus a way of eliminating the giver? Sure, Santa can be conscripted as an all-seeing eye crossing naughty kids off his list. But one argument for keeping Santa around is that he gives parents a chance to watch their kids open and enjoy Christmas presents without their kids feeling any shred of indebtedness to them. The parents (spoiler alert!) are the real gift-givers, and they’ve been hidden by the person of Saint Nick. And Saint Nick is long gone.

Grown-ups can receive gifts from Santa, too. Why not give a completely anonymous gift, ascribed to Santa, this Christmas?

2. Eliminate the recipient!

This is not as sinister as it sounds. “Sorry, son. I could gift you, but then I’d have to kill you.”

Marion has in mind here a humanitarian gift. The giver remains, but the recipient is unknown to us. We can give a pure gift that can never re-enter the transactional economy if we don’t even know whether it is helping pay a child’s tuition in Timbuktu or keeping the lights on at a Boys and Girls Club in Kalamazoo.

But here’s an idea: Give a big fat Christmas present to your local church! These are the leaders you know and trust. These are the ministries with which you are most intimately familiar. These are the anonymous recipients who, though they cannot repay you, live among you.

I frequently tell people that giving to their local church takes faith and releases them from control. If choose the charity which, or the individual who, will be the recipient of my gift, then I give and I withhold according to my own private calculus of who is worthy, and of how much help. In contrast, if I give to my church, I abandon my gift completely to the wisdom of my church’s leadership—people who I know and whom I have elected to be ministers of mercy and stewards of modest kingdom resources here in my own community. And best of all, I’m not in control. This is a way of technically eliminating the recipient, but more fundamentally eliminating me—at least the me who would otherwise be picking, choosing, and managing the “gift”.

3. Give to an enemy!

Marion says that “my enemy appears as my gift’s best friend.” Weird. How so?

He says that when I give a gift to an enemy, they (1) will not give me a gift in return, they (2) will resent me all the more, and they (3) would rather kill me before they acknowledge that I’ve put them in my debt.

Voilá! The gift is purely given, and I can’t and won’t be compensated for it.

To kill an enemy with kindness, to heap burning coals upon their head—it seems like a weird way to channel one’s resources at Christmas. But the guy who Christmas is named after says to do it, so …

4. Eliminate the gift!

Finally, Marion describes a man who gives a woman an expensive piece of jewelry. There are two possible things going on in such an instance.

Either the man is giving the jewelry in place of time, love, and tenderness, or the man is not really giving jewelry at all, but is instead giving himself. He is either saying “I love you,” but lying; or he is saying nothing, but saying everything. The necklace or bracelet is where the gift begins and ends, or it’s simply a stand-in that signifies the un-monetizable gift of self, the provision of one’s soul.

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Michael Bolton, who is hiding in the margins of this post, and can be found if you look closely. (Photo: buzzfeed.)

It gets cooler. Marion says that the placeholder gift can be given all at once. But when I give myself with the gift, “I can only give symbolically, since it will require the entire duration of my lifetime to truly accomplish it.”

Spare the gift, spoil the child

If we lavish our kids with stuff, there is always the chance that our kids will receive it not as grace, but as karma. They could develop a karma disposition to the world. The mountain of gifts we give them would then disappear by its perversion; they would rot by ceasing to be gifts at all.

But if we can figure out a way to give our kids ourselves in, with, and under their Christmas presents, they have a chance of experiencing real gratuity, real grace. The mountain of gifts will still disappear. They’ll be wasted—symbolically, sure, but also they’ll literally end up in a landfill somewhere. But their disappearance will allow the only gift that really matters to emerge: the gift of self. Isn’t this the whole idea of love, anyway?

Marion says we cannot live without love, or at least we cannot live without the hope that we will some day be genuinely loved. That is to say, we can live without a pile of toys or a box full of jewelry. But we can’t live without someone giving themselves to us in complete generous abandon—another claim that makes us recall the historical origins of Christmas.

This Christmas has me thinking of how I can give myself via the placeholder of a few gifts. But it also has me thinking of how a Christmas present, to be a real gift, requires me to be present to those I love all year long — long after the “gifts” have been discarded.

The death of “the death of God”

Tim Keller has very helpfully and pithily said:

Describe the God you don’t believe in. Maybe I don’t believe in that God either.

This is an apologetical approach that, it seems to me, is aimed at the morally- and socially-conscious postmodern skeptic. It appeals to the unbeliever who doesn’t want a God who supports patriarchal oppression, who prefers the rich to the poor, who champions the strong over the weak, or who privileges whites over people of color. Keller invites the skeptical to name the characteristics of the God they reject. Usually Keller doesn’t believe in that God either.

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But, whether Keller has this in mind or not, his quip is also useful in a Christian’s collaboration with atheists in smashing the idols of the conceptual god(s) of philosophy.

When the Western quest for reality in the mode of metaphysics reached its end in Nietzsche, Nietzsche sought to take God down with it. Nietzsche declared “the death of God.” Next came the collapse of truth in favor of values which, he said, are asserted by the will to power. God must decrease that man may increase. Etc., etc.

This story really messed with me when I first heard about it in college. I began to muster arguments for the non-death of God using traditional apologetics. Then I found out that Nietzsche went crazy, which seemed to help me discredit his philosophical atheism. A bumper sticker I saw finally sealed the deal:

Nietzsche: “God is dead.”

God: “Nietzsche is dead.”

Case closed! I could now ignore Nietzsche.

It wasn’t until seminary, when Michael Horton upheld Nietzsche as a potential ally, that the German philosopher of nihilism with the enviable mustache was raised from the dead for me. Horton explained how Nietzsche helps Christianity dismantle modernism and its human attempts to climb, with the ladder of pure reason, from the mind up to the heavens and beyond. Now Nietzsche was cool and alive while the modernism he destroyed was passé and dead.

But what to do with Nietzsche’s atheism?

Marion on “God is dead”

Jean-Luc Marion has underscored that “the death of God” says nothing about the actual status of a real God. Rather, it denotes the death of a concept of God generated and upheld by philosophy.

Marion goes on to argue that the a-theism of “the death of God” is from the outset self-annulling. Right from the get-go, “the death of God” spells also “the death of the death of God.”

How?

First, to speak of “the death of God,” one “must necessarily assume a particular concept of his essence.”

It might go something like this:

“God is dead.”

“Which God?”

“The Prime Mover.”

“Okay.”

For the Prime Mover one might instead identify “the First Cause,” “the Moral God,” “the Supreme Being,” or “Self-Caused Cause,” each in turn.

The next move Marion makes is profound:

It thus disqualifies in each case only that which corresponds to this sole concept, leaving all the others still to be reviewed and critiqued. In other words, every conceptual atheism remains regional, and thus provisional: it progresses at the slow pace of justice, which investigates, examines, and challenges the ever-repeated concepts that claim, always just as illegitimately, the mastery of the essence of “God.” … But each refutation refutes itself, since it only ever refutes one definition that is by definition inadequate of the essence of “God,” opening at the same time the path for every new possible definition.

He concludes:

Atheism refutes itself by having to repeat itself, following the rhythm of the concepts that it assumes and then challenges. … Atheism is always delayed with regard to itself, or rather it prolongs itself only by retrospectively eliminating each of its provisional assurances. … Atheism … must renounce the proud title of a definitive and universal dogma in order to accept the more modest, but coherent, name of a trial that is never ended and always limited to specific petitions. … From the “death of God” there follows immediately the “death of the death of God.”

Atheism can only eliminate one concept of “God” at a time. And each time that it does so, successfully, there remains a potentially infinite number of concepts of God that will still need to be weighed and killed off.

Christians can cheer this sort of atheism on insofar as it is a-theism; insofar as it seems that it will do a masterful job, eventually, of smashing any and every idolatrous conceptual “theism” women and men might conjure up.

But Marion seems right to suggest that atheism is jumping the gun in its comprehensive verdict. It mistakes a regional evaluation for a universal one. It can say, correctly, “this God is dead” any number of times. But one must keep repeating this slogan after carefully investigating each conceptual “God,” one at a time, as Nietzsche did with his specific philosophical concept of “God.”

Pre-empting Nietzsche

Meanwhile,—and this is especially important—Christians will need to stop waiting for neo-Nietzscheans to smash their idols, and begin to do some smashing themselves. Better yet, Christians ought to learn that their own idol-fashioning itself is pretty dumb.

Our concepts of God, built from the ground up through our pre-understandings of what God should, or could, or must be like—these will all have to go. The God who is worthy of our worship cannot be conceptualized adequately by, inscribed within the bounds of, or reached and grasped through the powers of, human reason.

This is nothing other than the doctrine of divine incomprehensibility. Any and every “God” we could conceptualize and comprehend is an idol.

By contrast, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ—even in all the revelation through which this God has been revealed to us—remains un-conceptualizable and thus un-death-of-God-able.

Every “God” atheism does not believe in, Christians also do not believe in. The true God is not available for conceptual examination by the Nietzschean court. If atheists and Christians were both honest with themselves, they would agree.

[Marion quotes are from Negative Certainties, 54-5]

Mastered by Divinity

JL MARION

I’ve long thought that is what the M.Div. degree ought to signify. Listen to Jean-Luc Marion describe what theological work does to us:

Theology always writes starting from another than itself. It diverts the author from himself; it causes him to write outside of himself, even against himself, since he must write not of what he is, on what he knows, in view of what he wants, but in, for, and by that which he receives and in no case masters.

Theological discourse offers its strange jubilation only to the strict extent that permits and, dangerously, demands of its workman that he speak beyond his means, precisely because he does not speak of himself. … One must obtain forgiveness for every essay in theology. In all senses.

(God Without Being, 1991)