In light of this I wanted to open up a conversation on the topic: How do sex and anarchical thought intersect in light of Jesus? How and when does one’s sexual life and practices truly reflect the anarchical teachings of Jesus?
For those of us who clearly recognize that Jesus is a deeply political figure (bringing the reign of God to earth), we have no choice but to face up to this reality: sex is a deeply political act. In fact, if “politics” is nothing more than the dynamic of how we relate and connect to one another as people, then sex may be one the most politically charged acts in this world. You and I owe our very existence to this political act, to the communal interactions of our parents that brought us forth into this world.In my own readings of anarchical thought the only author who has addressed the political implications of Jesus’ teachings on sex was Leo Tolstoy. In his My Religion: What I Believe he wrote,
Jesus declares that debauchery arises from the disposition of men and women to regard one another as instruments of voluptuousness, and, this being so we ought to guard against every idea that excites to sensual desire, and, once united to a woman, never to abandon her on any pretext, for women thus abandoned are sought by other men, and so debauchery is introduced into the world.Tolstoy was a rationalist who clung to the teachings of Jesus with the utmost literal interpretation. Though there are deep holes in his rationalism, there is much to learn from his simplistic adherence to the words of Jesus. In Tolstoy’s eyes Jesus is teaching us that sex is nonviolent and domination-free only when found in lifelong commitments of love, for in every other instance the partners ultimately “regard one another as instruments of voluptuousness.” Is Tolstoy’s analysis right? If so, what does this mean exactly for those of us attempting to conform our lives to the politics of Jesus?
Monthly Archives: September 2011
From The New Buddhism:
It is never possible to be sure if the statements attributed to the Buddha in the Pali Canon and other early scriptures are really his, since they were not set down in writing until centuries after his death. On the matter of sex, however, there is little doubt about his attitude.
…In one of his most famous statements on the subject, the Buddha is said to have told a monk who was seduced by the wife he had left behind when he joined the sangha: “Oh, misguided man, it is better for you to put your penis in the mouth of a hideous poisonous snake than into the body of a woman.”
…The Buddha warned his monks: “The one thing that enslaves a man above all else is a woman. Her form, her voice, her scent, her attractiveness, and her touch all beguile a man’s heart. Stay away from them at all costs.” When a monk asked the Buddha how members of the order should act toward women, he replied, “Do not look at them.” “But what if we must look at them?” the monk asked. The Buddha replied, “Don’t speak to them.” “But what if we must speak to them?” he persisted. “Keep wide awake,” was the Buddha’s final response.
I’m sure that, just as with Christian apologists, there are people who will stubbornly insist that notable quotables like this are either the result of mistranslations, or inaccurate transcriptions of stories that had been passed around orally for hundreds of years, or whatever it takes to preserve the image they need their idol to have. Personally, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that even a wise man living more than two millennia ago harbored some attitudes that we today would find repugnant. But it really doesn’t matter to me one way or the other.
The book is fascinating for the way it sheds light on the way Western concepts of Buddhism are, in many ways, Western concepts of Buddhism. I’ve been aware myself that the sort of writers whose explanations of Buddhist thought have influenced me the most, like Alan Watts, Steve Hagen, Stephen Batchelor, and Sam Hamill are filtering their understanding and valuing of certain aspects of Buddhism through a Western consciousness that values things like individualism, rational scientific thought and political liberty. The thing is, there’s nothing wrong with that. The most valuable thing about Buddhism as a tradition is that it’s an ever-evolving work in progress. It adapts to change, as it should. Take what’s useful to you and leave the rest. The Buddha doesn’t need to be the most perfect human who ever existed for many of his ideas to still have value.
For the third time in the last few weeks, my front yard is absolutely swarming with dragonflies. It’s been going on for the last couple hours. Dozens and dozens of them, swooping and darting this way and that, snapping up insects like mad. I’ve never seen more than one or two in the same place before. Does this have something to do with climate change? More bugs than usual in the area? Jeebus’s imminent return?
Louis C.K. is a comedian with balding, red hair. He has a television show that I’ve seen a few times and I enjoyed. I don’t know what his initials stand for or why his show is called Louie and not Louis. My guess is this is a typo that no one noticed until it was too late, and then they were embarrassed to change.
I finally finished that excellent book by Peter Watson last night. One last section that I thought deserved to be excerpted:
But there is another – quite different – reason why, in the West at least, the soul is important, and arguably more important and more fertile than the idea of God. To put it plainly, the idea of the soul has outlived the idea of God; one might even say it has evolved beyond God, beyond religion, in that even people without faith – perhaps especially people without faith – are concerned with the inner life.…Plato has misled us, and Whitehead was wrong: the great success stories in the history of ideas have been in the main the fulfillment of Aristotle’s legacy, not Plato’s. This is confirmed above all by the latest developments in historiography – which underline that the early modern period, as it is now called, has replaced the Renaissance as the most significant transition in history. As R.W.S. Southern has said, the period between 1050 and 1250, the rediscovery of Aristotle, was the greatest and most important transformation in human life, leading to modernity, and not the (Platonic) Renaissance of two centuries later.For many years – for hundreds of years – man had little doubt that he had a soul, that whether or not there was some ‘soul substance’ deep inside the body, this soul represented the essence of man, an essence that was immortal, indestructible. Ideas about the soul changed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and, as the loss of belief in God started to gather pace, other notions were conceived. Beginning with Hobbes and then Vico talk about the self and the mind began to replace talk about the soul and this view triumphed in the nineteenth century, especially in Germany with its development of romanticism, of the human or social sciences, Innerlichkeit and the unconscious. The growth of mass society, of the new vast metropolises, played a part here too, provoking as sense of the loss of self.…Here, therefore, and arising from this book, is one last idea for the scientists to build on. Given the Aristotelian successes of both the remote and immediate past, is it not time to face the possibility – even the probability – that the essential Platonic notion of the ‘inner self’ is misconceived? There is no inner self. Looking ‘in’, we have found nothing – nothing stable, anyway, nothing enduring, nothing we can all agree upon, nothing conclusive – because there is nothing to find. We human beings are part of nature and therefore we are more likely to find out about our ‘inner’ nature, to understand ourselves, by looking outside ourselves, at our role and place as animals. In John Gray’ s words, ‘A zoo is a better window from which to look out of the human world than a monastery.’ This is not paradoxical, and without some such realignment of approach, the modern incoherence will continue.
I’m jealous of synesthetes, damn it. I wish I could see colors along with music, but I’ve always visualized music as shapes. Not like circles and squares, though — more like waves, ripples, snaking lines and expanding dots. In fact, it’s kind of like a mix between sheet music and those psychedelic screens in Windows Media Player that pulse and shift in time to whatever music you’re listening to. Except without color.
There must be a lot of people who, like this blogger, read more than one book at once. Perhaps there is one in the bathroom, one on the bedside table, one for the daily commute. There are books that are left unfinished but sit there as guilty reminders of failed endeavours; in my case a history of the Thirty Years War, which was so plodding and detailed that I gave up somewhere around the arrival of Gustavus Adolphus. There are difficult, stylised novels that one knows one should read but can only manage a few pages at a time; hardbacks that are interesting but too heavy to lug on the train; thrillers that are good page-turners but are saved for long plane trips.The pleasure of a Kindle is that many fat books can be contained within one slim device. But in this blogger’s case, it has made many things worse. The ease of ordering books on my e-reader means that I am tempted to buy more. Yet I am even less likely to complete any of them, given how easy the device makes it to switch from one book to another. When “Mao’s Great Famine” becomes too depressing, I’ve found it all too enticing to switch to George R.R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones” saga; when Mr Martin’s books get silly (all those dynasties and monsters), it is time to educate myself with Ian Morris’s magisterial “Why the West Rules—for Now” (reviewed by The Economist here). And my reluctance to carry a £110 device on the tube, where it might be dropped or stolen, means I use my Kindle mainly at home or on plane flights.So whereas in the old days I might have been tackling two or three books at a time, it is now six or seven. And the feeling of guilt only builds; will I ever finish any of them?
I like a lot of this interview with Vanessa Veselka:
This identity obsession is a really strange modern thing, where we get our identities reflected back and marketed to us in such a particular way that there’s such a sort of ka-ching moment for taking on an identify. Taking on an identity feels like an arrival, and it feels like a solution in certain ways.
We see things now like: “I am a vegan.” I’m a really bad vegetarian. Sometimes I’m such a bad vegetarian, I’m not a vegetarian. I constantly move on this spectrum. But this idea of “I am a vegetarian,” is much different than “I usually don’t eat meat.” There’s so much weight that comes with it.
Rumpus: It’s black and white.
Veselka: It’s black and white. It’s a line you never cross. I see this as cultural signaling. It’s cultural signaling to try to find who you are in the world and who matches you. It’s just another courting ritual, like the blue feathers and the funny shiny rings that the birds bring around. It’s not that different. But part of that becomes alienation, and separation, and intolerance, which is nothing to strive for.
…The dark side of identity politics circles is that you use these kind of totems, expressions, and billboards of who you are to avoid talking about anything—rather than to get closer. It’s actually to say, Don’t ask me anything because you can see what I am by what I’m wearing. You can see what I am by the totems I carry.
There’s very little communication in that form. In some ways it seems like it’s meant to alienate people within a culture of a certain similarity rather than bind them together.
Rumpus: What about Buddhism? Is being a Buddhist an identity for you? Is that something you fully embrace?
Veselka: I haven’t taken refuge vows. I’ve come close at different times. For me, it’s not an identity and I think that’s exactly why I haven’t taken refuge. I can’t say I’m a Buddhist for the same reason I can’t say I’m a vegetarian.
Rumpus: Because it builds up more walls?
Veselka: I think it builds up walls, and I also think I just can’t do it and have integrity because I’m not 100% anything. There’s no way for me to say that and feel like I’m speaking honestly. I would feel like an imposter. That is a bit of my own nerdy puritanism, or something like that, that 70% is not there. The truth is that there are days I am 100% Buddhist, there are days I am 10%.
You could, of course, say that there’s nothing at all wrong with striving for some consistency between one’s principles and actions. But I know what she means about the limiting effects of strong identification with a group, a cause, an ideology. I’m vegetarian for principled reasons, but I don’t strongly identify with it, at least not in the sense that I feel myself to be morally superior to carnivores or that I honestly believe that we’re slowly but surely progressing toward a glorious future when animals are all treated humanely and the environmental impact of using so many resources to produce meat for wealthy nations is negated. I call myself an atheist because I do think it’s as clear as can be that nothing worthy of the name “God” as a distinct entity exists, and because I think it’s an extremely hard-won cultural freedom to be allowed to openly disbelieve, one worth asserting and protecting; yet I don’t think that religious/mystical belief will ever die out, and I’m deeply pessimistic about the brave new rational world many hardcore atheists look forward to. And I’ve said many times here that I could never fully identify as a Buddhist, no matter how much Buddhist ideas have influenced me.
Perhaps it would be helpful to think of identity as being more chameleon-like — we adjust our sense of self depending on our circumstances and the company we keep. Most people would probably have an instinctive reaction to call that shallow and superficial, but is that just another lingering inheritance of the Socratic/Platonic notion that we all have a unique essence to which we must be true for integrity’s sake?
It would take a big man, a great-souled man, to not chortle in delight over this sort of news. Fortunately, I am not big or great-souled!
Vick’s concussion, caused when an Atlanta Falcon knocked the quarterback backward into his beefy Eagles offensive lineman Todd Herremans, reveals the limitations of this exercise. For the NFL, this was the worst kind of head injury—one it’s impossible to spin as a consequence of rule-breaking.
Oh, I don’t know about that– I’d think that, say, swinging him by his heels to bash his skull into jelly on the concrete might be just a smidgen worse by any objective reckoning, but nonetheless, I’ll take it. Thanks for listening, Jeebus, Odin, Zeus, Quetzalcoatl, or whichever minor deity finally answered my pleas!
But wait — how are they sure it’s a concussion? I mean, they’re certainly aware that he displayed sluggish, slow-witted mental activity and slurred, incoherent speech before this, right?
And in any case, religion for James was more a matter of subconscious experience than explicit doctrine. “Feeling is the deeper source of religion,” he wrote, and “philosophic and theological formulas are secondary products, like translations of a text into another tongue.” Philosophical theologians who tried to “construct religious objects out of the resources of logical reason” were missing the point, and chest-thumping atheists who tried to refute these intellectual constructions only compounded the error. James liked to define religion by contrast: it was the opposite, he suggested, of the smug facetiousness and cackling je m’en fichisme cultivated by 18th-century philosophes like Voltaire, who treated any display of tenderness or solemnity as a sign of weakness or folly. But most of us have a capacity for respectful attentiveness, and we can, on occasion, “close our mouths and be as nothing.” Anyone with the courage to say “hush” to “vain chatter and smart wit” – anyone who could prefer “gravity” to “pertness” – was, James thought, ready for religious experience. Becoming religious was like falling in love, he said: not a process of intellectual persuasion, but not a delusion either, and it lent new aspects to the world, “an enchantment which is not logically deducible from anything else.”
Sigh. Okay, let’s try a different approach. What if we agree to think of religion as a poetic experience? For example, and perhaps surprisingly to you, one of my most favorite books of all time is Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Book of Hours: Love Poems to God. Here’s a passage I love:
But when I lean over the chasm of myself—it seemsmy God is darkand like a web: a hundred rootssilently drinking.This is the ferment I grow out of.More I don’t know, because my branchesrest in deep silence, stirred only by the wind.
I love you, gentlest of Ways,who ripened us as we wrestled with you.You, the great homesickness we could never shakeoff,you, the forest that always surrounded us,you, the song we sang in every silence,you dark net threading through us,on the day you made us you created yourself,and we grew sturdy in your sunlight….Let your hand rest on the rim of Heaven nowand mutely bear the darkness we bring over you.
You are the future,the red sky before sunriseover the fields of time.You are the cock’s crow when night is done,you are the dew and the bells of matins,maiden, stranger, mother, death.You create yourself in ever-changing shapesthat rise from the stuff of our days—unsung, unmourned, undescribed,like a forest we never knew.You are the deep innerness of all things,the last word that can never be spoken.To each of us you reveal yourself differently:to the ship as a coastline, to the shore as a ship.
If this is all people mean when they speak of God – a surging sense of joy, a desire for a feeling of balance and harmony in one’s life, an ability to still be impressed by the odd twists and turns our lives take, despite our attempts to plan them out in detail – then even obstreperous atheists like me can smile and nod along. But that’s just the thing, isn’t it? To the ship as a coastline, to the shore as a ship — as much as the William Jameses of the world might wish it to be otherwise, for many people, religion, especially the monotheistic varieties, is very much about truth claims upon the world, not feelings about it. Even many of the more liberal kinds of believers who would agree that a poetic sensibility is an integral part of the religious experience would still likely find my suggestion demeaning that religion could be “reduced” to poetry.
An inexpressible experience of beauty and harmony isn’t threatened or nullified by scientific knowledge or rational thought. People who have a problem with vocal atheists should take the time to consider why they seem to think otherwise. I have an idea why that might be, but I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.