Thursday, September 18, 2014

Reflections on After Purgatory: Death in the Reformation Talk

http://www.sfu.ca/content/sfu/history/events/peter-marshall-after-purgatory-death-and-remembrance-in-the-reformation-world/_jcr_content/main_content/image.img.jpg/1409937506500.rendition-medium.jpg Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a talk by the erudite historian Peter Marshall with the intriguing full title After Purgatory: Death and Remembrance in the Reformation World at the SFU Harbour Centre. I was quite impressed with the material as I find history of religion, particularly the divide between Catholics and Prostestants, most intriguing. In addition, the speaker not only showed knowledge and expertise alongside humour and humility, but most importantly, he was able to answer my questions in a clear and elaborate manner.

Since there were -- rather unfortunately -- not too many people attending and I had chosen the third row of seats being solitary in my own aisle, I must have been quite visible. Normally this would not pose a problem, but I have recently started taking notes on my iPhone. I looked around and noticed that others, perhaps more professional-looking people, had chosen the old-fashioned form of the scribbling pen on blank notebooks.

However that kind of note-taking is more cumbersome, less legible, and it does not have the auto-correct option. Although the latter can at times be annoying with its farfetched and illogical suggestions, I find it helps me save time, so I end up typing faster. The downside is the negative stigma attached to iPhones: it might seem that I was texting and not paying attention.

In this case, it was quite the opposite, and, incidentally, my phone was out of service for some odd reason, which made texting or surfing the Internet literally impossible. At one point during the talk, I felt compelled to make that matter clear to all the attendees present, but that would have made me look even weirder in their eyes.

But enough preamble about me and let us get to the meat of this brilliant and informative talk. The starting point and focus was how the Protestant movement got rid of the notion of Purgatory, which brought about a number of religious, social, and political changes regarding the outlook on death, its significance for people's lives as well as funeral practices.

With the abolition of Purgatory, it meant that there could be no change in the afterlife. So if you were damned or saved, it had already been decided by your life previously in this world; there was no in-between in the afterlife. As a result, it would become useless to pray for the departed since it was too late for any kind of changes anyway.

In such a situation, death becomes a more crucial and singular event that terminates life once and for all and for better or for worse. That also puts one's life more into focus; it becomes more important regarding salvation. In existential terms, it means that you have one shot at it, and if you miss the mark, i.e. spiritual salvation, there is absolutely no going back and no reconsideration. No pressure, but it is merely the slight difference between eternal bliss or never-ending pain and suffering.

This sudden disconnect between life and death, and ipso facto, with the living and the dead affected and changed the funeral practices as well. While previous to the Reformation, tombs would be prospective, namely looking forward toward the life that was ahead after death, the Protestant tombs were retrospective and mostly individual, looking back at the life and accomplishments of the deceased in question.

In this way, the tombstones acquire and gain a more biographical and existential tone. You are responsible for your own success or failures and this world is the playing field in which you need to show and prove yourself. No more reliance on goodwill and wishes of others or of saints carrying you towards heaven. You got to do this on your own merits.

All of this also meant that funeral practices changed. Funeral sermons now were less about the dead and the afterlife, but more about teaching a lesson to those who were still living. Funerals were indeed a good way to teach about the doctrine of death, that each of us may be called before the Almighty and that we ought to be ready at all times with a calm mind and a peaceful heart.

One of the interesting differences between the Catholic and the Protestant viewpoints was the representation of Christ; his suffering was highlighted by Catholics, but with Protestants his redeeming aspects tended to be promoted instead.

Another difference was also the simplicity and minimalism – to use an anachronistic word for the sake of it - of the funeral practices when it came to the Protestants. No music should be played and sung, and in fact, prayers for the dead were generally discouraged. Also, even Protestant leaders like Calvin were buried with no pomp or circumstance; according to his own wishes, he found himself in an unmarked grave (more on this a bit later).

Another interesting tidbit was regarding the type and manner of death. Generally speaking, people considered a “good death” as something to be aimed for but also as a way to validate one's life and salvation. For example, if you died painlessly and unawares in your sleep, it may seem that you were blessed. But if you underwent a painful, excruciating death, that meant, according to popular beliefs at the time, that you were probably not going to make it very far even in the afterlife.

Striving to have a peaceful and dignified end was also seen as a confirmation that God was with you. One's own serenity towards death was equally an important factor. So even in matters of death, it became important to control oneself and to pray that it would be quick and painless. And those famous last words may ring through eternity for and by other generations to come in this world, so you'd better make them significant and meaningful.

Marshall also mentioned the Protestant belief that death may appear like a sleep in transition towards resurrection when both soul and body would reunite. In this case, the dead were ideally given a proper burial with their feet facing the East, where Jesus would return in Jerusalem, and the face of the deceased looking upward so that the dead would simply arise without any difficulties.

This also made the punishment for suicide, heresies or any other misdeeds that led to ex-communication a more grave matter beyond this life of ours. A person who had committed suicide, for example, would be left on the crossroads, which is supposed to be confusing for the soul and where the devil usually resides. This view of death also led to horrible acts of mutilation of the deceased in a number of wars and conflicts, which were gruesome both in actual and symbolic fashion.

All of this raised interesting questions regarding the manifestation of spirits, which Protestants believed to be not incarnations of the person but rather a plaything of demons to confuse humans. Their reasoning was simple: the dead were either in heaven or hell and either way would not be able to travel back to Earth. 

This was also the main reason why Hamlet was not sure whether he was confronted with the ghost of his own father or whether it was a trick put on by a maleficent demon or goblin. However, in most cases, popular opinion sided on the fact that they were indeed real ghosts of the departed.

Then there was the question period, and I could not resist. My question was two-fold. One was about the fact that Protestant belief with the negation of Purgatory seems to be more pessimistic and fatalistic than the Catholic view. It took away hope for those who might fall in the middle ground and sent them straight either to heaven or hell.

Marshall answered the question by assuring me that Purgatory with all its perks was not necessarily cheery or hopeful as it involved burning and torture for thousands of years. Secondly, Protestants often had the (false?) assurance –- commonly referred to as predestination or divine grace -- that they were already saved and that gave them hope and confidence for the life to come.

My second question was how the soul could find the body in the particular case of Calvin who was buried in an unmarked grave. How would his soul recognize his own body if there was no name attached to it? Here Marshall claimed that Protestants also believed that the soul would already know and recognize the body wherever it might be, even if it were devoured by a cannibal who in turn had been eaten by a lion. Good to know.

So, all in all, I was fascinated by this talk and for the span of an hour and a half had become completely oblivious to my own problem of not having any service or signal during the whole afternoon. This is one of the main downsides of living in a developed world where if you do not have an Internet connection you are as good as dead. And even Purgatory won't save you then!

Friday, August 29, 2014

On the Reproduction of Capitalism Book Review

Book Cover with white letters on black background


In his book On the Reproduction of Capitalism: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, Louis Althusser expounds his ideas on capitalism with its daily operations and functions, while highlighting Marxist theory in its revolutionary purpose to overturn the capitalist way of life.

For the most part (with the exception of occasional philanthropy here and there), virtues like compassion and empathy are incompatible with the notion of capitalism. In a sense, Althusser may be right that capitalism means exploitation of the workers. It must be so because capitalism is about money and profits.

If you have the capital to purchase land or a business, you can hire people (labor) to work for you; in exchange you give them money or compensation for their work and time (a wage). The lower the wages, the higher your gains. There is then no wonder that minimum wages work on bare minimums, meaning people barely make enough to get by.

However, in order to ensure the continuous existence (or reproduction of relations) of capitalism, people need to be imbued with the idea that capitalism despite its glaring greed and injustice is actually fair and beneficial for everyone involved. 

This (false) impression is created in a number of ways, primarily through the ISAs (Ideological State Apparatuses). In fact, according to Louis Althusser, pretty much any ideology one can think of could be summed up under the umbrella domain of one and the same state ideology.

For Althusser, ideology is material and for the most part it serves the state and the continuing exploitation of the dominated classes, i.e. the working class. For example, the church is more often than not in line with the bourgeoisie as this particular economic and political system and relationship benefit the clergy (and their pockets) quite well. 

This has been done throughout history when the Catholic Church supported worldly leaders, kings and emperors. Although religion still has a stronghold on people today, the functions of the church have been mostly replaced by the educational state apparatus.

Schools are to ensure that both discipline and respect for authority and for the law are instilled and drilled at an early age. These ideas are taken up and propagated by the family institution as well. By having people obey the given rules, it is mainly the capitalist system that reaps benefits as there is little disruption to its functioning.

In case of possible trouble or conflicts, there is always the law. The law, Althusser believes, is a capitalist creation of the bourgeoisie which under the guise of liberty and equality mainly benefits a select few, namely the rich. 

It is the wealthy that have the power and access to circumvent law through loopholes and other means. In the meantime, the rest of the populace take laws to be fair and just and equally accessible to everyone, ideological lies that are served to the masses.

If the law is not followed by the masses, the repressive state apparatus with police, riot force and ultimately the military are called in to ensure that it is followed to the letter. Yet that is the exception not the norm; for the most part, people are taught to respect the law so that it becomes internalized and such disruptions can then be avoided with preventive and preemptive manners.

For example, most people follow the law and believe in its intrinsic value, that it is a moral and right thing to do. In all those instances, the ideological foundations of the person make the use of force both redundant and unnecessary in most of everyday life.

(How often do we take it as a "normal" thing to wake up early, show up at work, take abuse or loads of work and pressure from our bosses only to go home and to have the same occur day in day out. Rarely do we challenge our bosses because that is not what good workers are supposed to do; they need to behave and follow orders from perceived authority figures, the manager, so no need to call the police to settle issues.)

However, at certain times where there is open defiance and revolt, for example the May '68 events that were occurring during the time Althusser was writing this book, the riot police and military need to ensure that the capitalist system is not endangered or injured in the process.

According to Communist ideology a successful revolution ought to ensure that the bourgeois state apparatus is completely destroyed and replaced with a new kind of system (Althusser seems rather vague on what and how this new system should or would look like). This type of overturning the state had occurred only partly during the French Revolution because the bourgeoisie managed to take control over the state. They had successfully disposed of the aristocracy but now the bourgeoisie themselves, the growing merchant class, began to call the shots and to oppress the workers, the proletariat.

There are some fascinating bits in this book. Althusser's discussion of ideology and the state apparatus are interesting, timely, and relevant in a number of ways. It must have had some influence on works by Noam Chomsky, especially his Manufacturing Consent. We can see it today since people are constantly brainwashed by media, sports, and politics, not to mention culture and religion, all of which have parts and components that benefit the ruling class, the capitalists.

I was most impressed with his discussion of individuals and subjects. Althusser claims that we are all subjects and have lost our individual freedom and autonomy contrary to what we may think in the Western world. Subject, in fact, is an ambiguous term, which could alternatively mean either a person who acts freely and of his own accord (as a noun) or its exact opposite, that is, a person who is studied or is following enforced rules and regulations he is subjected to (as a verb).

Althusser claims that we are subjects even before we are born, as we are born into a family that has expectations and preconceived notions about us and our gender. In fact, we are passive from the onset since our names are chosen and given to us by others. Add to that cultural and religious practices and the ensuing years of schooling, and we can see that we are greased cogs in a capitalist machine.

In fact, Althusser gives a brilliant explanation of religion, which is to him an ideology that subjects all of us. Any ideology presupposes that we recognize ourselves in them (otherwise they would be quite useless). So, for example, me, that is my name and all the properties attached to what makes me who I (think I) am, would recognize myself as being a Christian. This is followed by a number of highly ritualized practices, such as baptism, going to church, praying etc all of which makes me - or rather is supposed to make me - a good Christian.

But all of this occurs and is done because it is seen as relevant to me and my life. That means that there is a guarantee that I will personally benefit from this particular ideology I have espoused and the belief or faith that this is indeed true, that, for instance, God actually exists and will reward me (after my death!) for my continuous efforts of being a good Christian.

In that sense, God would be the Subject that is dominant over all his subjects on this planet. It would mean that God would need humans who are created in his image. This would make him as dependent on us as we are on him. God could not be God without being recognized as God by us humans. In other words, he needs us and he is, in fact, able to put up with our unruly and sinful behaviors because it is better than nothing. (This could be why he saved Noah and his family from the Flood, out of basic necessity not out of compassion or love).

Evidently, there is a touch of Hegel in here, especially regarding his ideas of God (the Father) bridging the gap between the divine and humans by “duplicating” himself as a human, Jesus (the Son), who is both man and God, while the Holy Spirit is the mirror-connection, image or glue between the two. All this is fascinating and makes the open-minded theists scratch their head.

Yet I do have some bones to pick with some of Althusser's ideas. First off, he as well as Communist ideology in general rather seem vague on a number of points, especially when it pertains to what the new state ought to look like. It is like a doctor describing the symptoms quite well without knowing how to cure the disease. 

In fact, it seems that Communist governments have been copying or reproducing the bourgeoisie, particularly in terms of state apparatuses; Communist regimes have come to control and master them rather perfectly as the self-appointed "dictators of the proletariat." So the ISAs may be the same or even worse operating under different names and ideologies.

Secondly, I do not fully share his view on education. I believe I am justifying or representing my own role as an educator here, but I intrinsically believe that education and knowledge open the mind. Of course, education is a broad concept, and there are qualitative differences, but education is overall a means to achieve self-knowledge and freedom because it ideally leads to critical thinking. At least that is my view on what education is or ought to be.

Thirdly, I do not believe that human rights and ethics and even philosophy are all enslaving us to capitalist ideology the same way I do not think that churches necessarily represent true faith. These are, in and of themselves, very worthy and noble ideas and traditions that are unfortunately being used (or rather ab-used) by the authorities to cement their own power and influence. But to claim that ideology per se is an illusion - and hence false - is not something I can accept, which is the main reason I consider myself an idealist not a nihilist.

But I thoroughly enjoyed this book and want to thank Verso Books for publishing such thought-provoking and -inducing works and for also sending it to me for review. This review took me a long time to write (sorry!) because the weighty ideas expressed in them take sufficient time to digest, but this book is definitely worth your time, effort, and yes your money.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Tolstoy's religious manifesto: The Kingdom of God is within you


Russian author Leo Tolstoy in traditional peasant clothing

Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God is within you is both astonishing and enlightening in many ways. Few are the books that can move me to the degree that Tolstoy's book did. I mean it in both senses of the word, that it touched me by unearthing a number of feelings, desires, dreams and nightmares, but it also transported me, inspiring me to take initiatives and actions. One of those inspired actions would be my decision to write about this excellent book.

I first stumbled upon Tolstoy at the tender and tumultuous age of fifteen. An avid reader then, I took on the major project of reading his monumental War and Peace. At that time, questions on life and death were budding in my mind. In fact, I was hoping to live long enough to finish those 1500+ pages in front of me.

Although I fell in love with the characters (and I can still see them in my mind's eye and have an affinity with them even more than a quarter century later), I was often then - and most likely still - exasperated by the various elaborate digressions of its Russian author.

I remember one lengthy passage about bees that drove me mad, but I dared not skip a single line of this master storyteller. In a way, he is the Terrence Malick of literature, or rather, not to be anachronistic, it ought to be the other way around. Anyhow, I was given lectures on biology and history in the frames of a fictional narrative. 

A decade after reading War and Peace, I read - and was very impressed with - Anna Karenina, in which Tolstoy controlled and restrained his tendency to be wordy and wrote a much better and more concise work, though it still spans hundreds of pages.

For years I had the intention of reading his nonfiction book The Kingdom of God is within you, but for one reason or another it remained on the back-burner for years to come. I had heard and read about Tolstoy becoming a type of prophet or mystical figure towards the later years of his life, and I had become aware that this particular piece of writing, especially the notions surrounding non-violent resistance towards violence, had influenced great thinkers, and shakers and movers of history, such as Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

Tolstoy has been described in many terms but few do him and his views full justice. His views are radical, yes, but this word has particular negative connotations regardless of its direction or political spectrum. He is also called an anarchist, a revolutionary, a liberal, a communist etc, but his actual views are much more complex. Most importantly, I think this work is timeless and can and should - for the most part at least - be applied to our modern times.

Let us start off with Tolstoy's religious views. Ironically, some intellectuals may be turned off by its title as it sounds as if it were a Christian propaganda piece. It is and it is not, but for the most part it attacks religions, in particular Christian institutions, with a venom that will make any traditional pastor's or priest's head spin. 

Religious people, or rather those who claim they embrace religion, will be bitterly disappointed, whereas those with a spiritual bone or two in them might find their calling here, that is if they get past the first barrier of actually picking up and reading this book despite its Christian title.

Finally, I found somebody who shares my view on religion and Christianity and explains it with much more skill than I ever could. The focus remains on Jesus Christ who was not only an exceptional being but who put the seeds of love and change in our hearts. Unfortunately, the authorities, i.e. the (not so holy) church took his teachings and turned them upside down and inside out to suit their own quest for power.

What the religious authorities wanted was to use the “convenient” parts of Christ's teachings. So far, Tolstoy may be even on par with Nietzsche's own view of Christianity. The church assumed control over the salvation of souls and became self-proclaimed ambassadors of God. They created a hierarchy and hence a gaping distance between themselves and the common people.

Historically, this could be done as only few in the elite were literate. So most people would get the watered down, revised, edited and censured version of Christianity. Various inconvenient or unconducive passages were conveniently glossed over or overlooked. Did not Christ say that the kingdom of god is within you? Does that not make the whole charade surrounding the church superfluous?

Tolstoy also remarks that if the church ought to play such a large role in Christianity, why did Jesus not give specific instructions regarding its set-up and functions. We mainly have a vague insinuation to his disciple about a rock. And did Jesus not attack those who claimed to know the truth, i.e. the very same priests and did he not say that those buildings shall be destroyed? It seems that Jesus was against not only empty rituals but the whole foundation of a church operating in the name of God, a church that, even in his own times, was more interested in money-lending and profiteering than spiritual growth and enlightenment.

And last, but most importantly, does Jesus not tell us to turn the other cheek? Does he not condemn any type of violence and replace it with love and forgiveness? Does he not forbid us to hurt others? Then how can the church defend its recorded history of bloody torture and slaughter of millions and millions under the banner of Crusades, religious wars, witch hunts and heresies?

In fact, killing a fellow being is as unchristian as can be. And yet, it is continuously done in the name of God, and many believers turn a blind eye towards it, or worse, defend it. Tolstoy claims that the church definitely turned away from the teachings of Jesus when it allied itself with the emperors to gain wealth and power.

Throughout history, the ruling men were seen as chosen by God. Evidently, the church played a major role in this perception by endorsing their chosen candidate. In return, the governing elite ensured the propagation of the religious views and protection of the religious institutions. This was hundreds of years of brainwashing in the making.

By not choosing to live like Christ, but merely by inventing stories and effectively lies on things hardly even mentioned in the Bible itself, such as Original Sin, the Immaculate Conception, or the Holy Trinity, and by insisting on a number of carefully selected rituals, the church not only took over control over people's lives, but diminished their capabilities and powers.

In fact, the most important rituals of life were being ordained by the church: birth through baptism, marriage, the birth of one's own children, and death. There was – and is – no repose from the grasps of the church. Our life is controlled, managed and overseen by the religious authorities.

Indeed, they have found out our innermost secrets through confessions. This is where you share your intimate thoughts and desires with a complete stranger who with a few words of reassurance sends us back into the world again, a free but psychologically binding and limiting form of psychotherapy. Since the priest is the intermediary of Christ, we have done our duty by merely exposing ourselves, and now we are all forgiven through his magical incantations; he is putting in a good word with God on our behalf.

The protestants rebelled against the power of the priests, but they replaced it with an even more submissive and counterproductive ordeal. The issue of faith now made it easier for the individual to communicate with God, while the religious institutions were stripped of their pompousness and magnificence.

But it turned out that faith was something that you either possess or you do not, or you are given it by the Holy Ghost or not, and hence if He does not visit you, you might just not be chosen to enter this selective membership club. Also, your sins will all be forgiven, if only you believe. So you may serve in the army and kill others, but as long as you have faith, you will be cleansed of the blood staining your hands.

This lack of accountability has led people to ignore not only their own hideous actions, but also those of others. Official authorities simply must know better because they have strong faith, which we as commoners lack. But also, there is no particular need to improve the self or the world since faith, not love, is all you need.

But Christ – alongside Tolstoy - asks much more from his true believers. First of all, we must have only one master. You cannot swear allegiance both to God and the state, for example. Second, you shall not, under any circumstance resort to violence. That is, you shall refuse to serve in the military.

Tolstoy claims, and this is before two World Wars and atomic bombs, that the states are buffing up their army and weapons to gain control over others. They do so claiming that they want to protect us from other nations. But it is a vicious cycle. The more armies they build, the more other nations need to to keep up and be on par. This can only have dangerous consequences.

So, as a result, one should not add fuel to the fire and refrain from any type of service, military or otherwise, that supports this kind of harmful action. This is indeed what certain Christian groups have taken to heart, such as the Quakers, the Mennonites, and the Amish. They will not use weapons not even for protection or self-defense.

Tolstoy also stresses the fact that our taxes are going towards building weapons of destruction, and we ought to stop paying them. In fact, he goes even further and points out that the rich owe their wealth to the exploitation of the poor, and hence this money comes tainted with sweat, blood, and suffering, apart from reeking of injustice.

In the meantime, the rich are supported by the state and clergy, of course. So if the poor decide to go on a strike, they shall be first warned by the police and then beaten into submission, arrested or even killed by the military. Any person with good conscience should stay away from these official positions that use not only violence but do so to support the status quo of the already powerful and abusive rich.

In fact, people enlist in the army because they either think they have no other option, or they have been hypnotized by their surroundings, such as schools, institutions, and others, what Louis Althusser would later call the Ideological State Apparatus. One of the most prevalent lies, apart from religion of course, is that of patriotism. People are drilled to think that the random piece of land that they inhabit is worth killing and dying for. They are dressed like “clowns” in uniforms and believe that the stripes and medals they will be given for killing their fellow beings has intrinsic value and honor attached to them. Others are told that they could become martyrs in heaven because they are upholding true values of their motherland or religion.

We can see how Tolstoy is in fact against ideas like communism. He says that any type of revolution is not only violent and bloody but it replaces one tyrant with a worse one. The problem is that the state thinks it can enforce beliefs in its people without changing their lifestyle and way of thinking. As if there is a magic formula that can make people good, or worse, as if you can use force alongside its dark brothers, repression and oppression to change people for the better.

But the good news is that we are all moving forward. Tolstoy's view of the truth is that it cannot be achieved all at once, as it happened to the Buddha, for example; it is a long and continuous process in history. Our views have changed and we have come to accept human rights more and more. It was not without its struggles, but there have been major accomplishments in those regards.

Yet we need to continue to accept these values, which are reflected in a true understanding of Christianity or the teachings of Jesus. We need to follow in his steps and refuse violence in our daily lives. In fact, public opinion is changing around the world, and people have a stronger and more robust conscience regarding what is right and wrong.

We have the answers already planted deep within. Now we must act upon them, while this wave of public opinion has forced the governments to become more accountable or transparent in their dealings. In some cases, they had to become more secretive, namely to hide their atrocious behaviors from the public's eyes. It shows a certain fear of public regard so at the very least they have to constantly fear being exposed in their lies and violence.

The ideal would be to live without states and governments. Tolstoy says it is possible. However, most of us, may either disagree or be afraid of the consequences of such a lifestyle. How is it even possible? Who is going to protect us from the bad guys? Will it not turn to complete anarchy and destruction?

Not if we embrace Christianity in its truest sense and if we follow the path lightened by Jesus himself. As a good Christian, we need to share our wealth and must find peace both within and without, in our souls and our surroundings. We must look the truth squarely in the eye and accept our failings and our blessings in equal measure. But perhaps most of all, we should follow the divine voice within us since the kingdom of God is already - and has always been - within us!