April 28, 2010

Holy Ghost in the Shell

A few weeks ago I noted that the recent CGI animated version of Astro Boy had made it to cable TV and decided to watch it. I did so largely out of nostalgia for the lo-res black and white (at least as far as I was concerned, given my family’s TV at the time) version from my childhood. I was in for a surprise on many counts. For although my childish capacity may have missed them in those early viewings, the recent film had many rewards to offer an adult. The film was both funnier and far more serious than I remember the old animés being, and it is the serious part upon which I would like to reflect.

Among the serious themes were the conflict between fathers and sons, class consciousness and stratification, ecology, good and evil (no surprise there!), the use of power, and above all the question, “What does it mean to be human?” For Astro is a robot, something made not born —by the will of man but not of flesh and blood— taking his stand along with David from A.I. and their mutual progenitor Pinocchio, and their elder cousin Star Trek’s Data. All of them share the desire to be “real” — to be human, and you will pardon me if I say it is far more poignant in a child, even a CGI or animated child, than in an adult, though Data had his share of poignancy and wistful longing in pursuit of that enterprise.

Science fiction lends itself to this kind of speculation, which sometimes goes even farther afield. At a far step removed we have the fleshly efforts at anthropoesis, such as Dr. Frankenstein’s cut-and-paste Job, or his predecessor the Golem, animated to protect the ghetto. Neither of these is particularly childlike, nor successful at gaining, of even perhaps desirous of obtaining full humanity. As Dr. F’s benighted creature observes, "You live. We belong dead"; and it took only the elimination of the initial Aleph to move the Golem from animate emet (truth) to met (dead).

But even further from human likeness, I think of the tachikoma of the Japanese animé Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. These spider-like and ungainly though surprisingly agile tanks would appear to be unlikely candidates for becoming human — so they press the envelope and force the question: can these bones live? They do have the voices of children, however, which begins to suggest their kinship with their brothers Astro, David, and Pinocchio. They also give us a clue that humanity is not necessarily about the form of the body but the content of the heart, and the ability not only to reason, but to love.

For as a subplot of the series, the tachikoma appear to be developing what the author calls “a ghost” — that is, what we might call “a soul.” And in an astounding episode, three of these “machines” choose to sacrifice themselves to save one of their human co-workers (himself a partly mechanical man). The sound of those three childlike voices embodied in dangerous and weapon-wielding tanks shouting out, “We have to save Mr. Batou!” as they rush to their own destruction still brings tears to my eyes. Yeah, I’m an old softy when it comes to this humanity stuff and “greater love hath no tachikoma...” And the same sort of thing happens to Astro, with similar poignancy, in his case as part of his effort to win back his “father’s” love. Bring a hanky.

So what does it mean to be human? We all trace our lives back to that first artificial human — you know, the one God made from clay. We all sense that we are called to be more than we are, and that we are not quite finished, not quite real yet. Perhaps this is more poignant when portrayed in a child because we recognize the connection between growing up to the full stature of humanity and simply growing up. We all have growing up to do.

May we all grow up into our full reality, as children of God.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

April 22, 2010

Reactions and Intolerance

The Global South Bigwigs are hobnobbing in Bermuda, and reflecting on the state of the church and the world. In these reflections they make frequent direct and indirect reference to some of the difficulties plaguing their provinces, which they put down to the election and consecration of Bishop Robinson of New Hampshire, and the election and yet-to-be-accomplished consecration of Mary Glasspool of Los Angeles.

However, since none of these Bigwigs are required to consent to, tolerate, or even recognize either Robinson or Glasspool — and completely within their rights to forbid them the exercise of any ecclesiastical act within their borders whatsoever — one can only observe that any difficulties they experience are a direct result not of the American bishop and bishop-to-be, but of their own opposition to them.

The spring season's resurgence in the pollen count (exacerbated this year by early heavy rains) has put me in mind of an analogy. Pollen simply is. It serves a vital function in the propagation of many beautiful and essential plant species, as well as a few which, because of the inconvenience they cause to human beings, earn the label weeds. Some people are allergic to some of these pollens. The allergy lies entirely with them. They can take measures to avoid the pollen, and there are medications they can use to limit any eye, nose, or throat irritation they experience. They can rail at the pollen for this inconvenience and discomfort — but it is they who have the problem and they also who have the means to address it: which by no means includes ridding the world of pollen, much as they might like to do so.

In all this, I am suggesting that people need to take responsibility for their own negative feelings and reactions (and reactivity), and find positive ways to deal with them. For example, in places where news of these elections and consecrations has brought the local Anglican church into disrepute in the eyes of Muslims or Free-church Protestants, it is completely within the power of the local Anglicans to distance themselves from decisions taken halfway round the world, and of which they have every right to disapprove, and every right to ignore. (Whether this will mollify militant Muslims, or pacify petulant Protestants is another matter.)

But it makes no more sense to continue to blame the Episcopal Church, or especially to raise the spectre of colonialism or imperialism — as if the Episcopal Church were forcing these other provinces to accept its decisions — than it is for a lactose-intolerant person to blame lactose for her own intolerance of it. If it bothers you, don't drink it. No one is forcing you.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

April 21, 2010

Words and Music

The more I read essays from all quarters on the subject of Christian marriage, as various folks attempt (as I have myself attempted) to expound a theology (or at least a Christian anthropology) to account for this almost universal human phenomenon, the more I get the feeling that we are humming a tune for which we have forgotten the words.

While some play with distinctions between covenant and contract, I think we would do well to expend more time with words better suited to the music we sense deep within us: words like holiness and blessing, gift and grace, and above all, Love.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

April 15, 2010

Saving the Papacy

It may be that the only way to save the papacy at this point is for the present pontiff to engage in the moral equivalent of the Gang nach Canossa undertaken in an earlier age towards his predecessor. It is a reversal of roles, but reversal is what repentance is all about.

If you don't know what the papacy needs saving from, check this out. It is more relevant now even than when written.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

April 13, 2010

Quick Evaluation

Whatever good has come of the existence of the Anglican Communion (and I think there is much good to which to point), it has not been because of the so-called Instruments of Communion, but from the bi- and tri- and sometimes quad- and more-lateral relationships of individual provinces and national churches, and in some cases dioceses and parishes — and the Instruments have only been of positive effect when they have aided and supported those processes.

The Instruments exist to serve, not to rule.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

April 6, 2010

Loser Take All

Virginia Theological Seminary has published an article by James Baker. Yes, that James Baker. I'm always wary of people who say, "I'm not an expert in X, but it seems to me..." This articles gives me no reason to lose my wariness. In it, Baker suggests something like a kind of congregational polity for handling differences of opinion in The Episcopal Church, whereby individual parishes could officially vote on things they [mostly] don't like about what the rest of the church has done through General Convention.

Why is it that proposals like this for "local option" always seem to come up when the church is moving in a progressive direction, but are shunned like the dickens when more conservative folks hold sway. Compare the appeal for the Port St. Lucie "Conscience Clause" with the ardent critique of "local option" on same-sex blessings, par example. (I'll note this doesn't seem to happen only in the church: the state provides ample evidence of similar tendencies. Maybe it is just that conservatives -- sacred or secular -- can't bear to be in the minority?)

Baker's proposal seems to me merely to formalize (and set in concrete) more or less what we already have de facto in terms of the prevailing issue, anyway (which is the issue Baker uses to frame the proposal): i.e., no parish is forced to call a gay or lesbian priest, or perform a same-sex blessing. There are many dioceses in which neither will happen for quite some time. Should the day come when parishes are actually required so to do, it will only be because in the course of time opposition has so far dwindled that any "vote" such as Baker proposes would produce the same result. Just how much does a democratic institution have to allow a local veto to joint decisions -- at least in the official and formal way Baker suggests?

In short, I think the system we have now provides for an ample degree of laissez-faire and toleration of moderate dissent without institutionalizing it, setting it in stone, and creating a Balkanized Church. And let's be frank once again: the problem isn't that a portion of Episcopalians don't like gay or lesbian bishops or couples getting blessed and don't want to have to deal with them. The problem is that a portion of Episcopalians don't want there to be any gay or lesbian clergy, far less, bishops, or same-sex marriages. They want what they want, for everyone. So it is not a question of laissez-faire not working, but the desire of a minority to have their way not just for themselves, but for the whole Episcopal Church -- and when they cannot achieve this through the canonical structures of General Convention it is a case of "loser take all."

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
begging pardon for taking off the gloves for a bit...

Thought for 04.06.10

To what extent do the exponents of Natural Law mistakenly "worship the creature rather than the creator" (Rom. 1.25) and "conform themselves to this world?" (Rom. 12.2)

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
suggesting that some should re-read Romans with an eye to Pauline irony