Monday, May 21, 2012

God's Quality Control 8.5: Fasting

Here I continue my thoughts on the message of Jesus.

Administrative stuff first. As always, my numbering system is unpopular and confusing. I'm hoping that among the many hundreds of you following this conversation, there are a few of you who are skilled in the art of explaining anal-retentive stuff to non-anal-retentives. If you're one of these, please send me a PM so we can work out a way to make it easy for everyone to understand. Don't bother imploring me to change the numbering. I'm too old and crusty for that. In the mean time, you'll have to live with my best explanation: it's like an outline.

It seems that there's some confusion around my thoughts on hypocrisy. Rather than getting bogged down in it, let's move on from the hypocrisy issue for now and see if we can find simpler ideas to tackle until I can make the fundamentals a bit clearer to everyone. I expected it to be difficult to get this conversation off the ground, as I've been trying and failing to systematize these ideas for a long time. One of my primary reasons for making this series is to get everyone's help in pounding out some kind of framework. I appreciate you guys hanging in there while we try to get liftoff.

Let's try a case study in invitational ethics. My annoying and confusing series-numbering system might be a good place to start. The way I number my episodes is a symptom of an anal-retentive personality, obviously. Some of you will see this trait of mine in a moral light: for you, it might be associated with righteousness or conscientiousness, or, more likely, with sadism: maybe I remind you of your cruel math teacher or the floss-obsessed dentist. If you understand my episode numbering, you might conclude that all these confused people are lazy whiners who slept through math class. If you don't understand my numbering, you might conclude that I'm a pompous windbag, or I'm trying to make you feel small, or both, or worse. I will argue that all such moral judgments are figments of our imaginations. Fabricated. Insane rationalizations built upon primitive instincts. The grotesque offspring of our Ptolemaic theory of morality, which looks more like a religion the more I look at it.

What would Jesus, mouthpiece for coercive ethics, have to say about these moral judgements? Skip ahead a bit in the Gospel of Matthew to 7:1-5: Don't judge. If you do, it's ass-kicking time, courtesy of Casper the unfriendly ghost, or, if you like, the people around you, in the form of shame, humiliation, maybe even life-threatening ostracism. P.S. Hypocrites suck, in case you didn't hear me the first twelve times I said it. In today's society, this seems to translate into something like Before I criticize anyone publicly, I'd better work out how likely it is that they'll publicly turn my criticism back on me. At times I've also seen it translate into I'd better think about my own faults before I say anything about anyone else's faults, even if those other people's faults are real, horrible faults while mine are just little faults, and I have really good reasons for having every single one of them. I'll just judge them in silence instead. Jesus planted the seeds of all kinds of neuroses.

What does invitational ethics have to say? First, anal-retentiveness is the result of brain chemistry. Is my brain chemistry my responsibility? In some senses, yes: I can practice math and get better at it, so obviously I can take a measure of responsibility for my brain chemistry. What I have no responsibility for is the aspects of my brain chemistry involved in personality and aptitude. Some of us tend to be anal-retentive unconsciously, others are more relaxed. Some people are lucky enough to be born with an aptitude for math. These people find it relatively easy to become proficient mathematicians. Others are so unlucky that no reasonable amount of work will ever make them competent even to manage a bank account. This is all the result of features of brain chemistry over which no one has any control, therefore for which no one has any responsibility. The ability or inability to understand my numbering system has zero ethical weight.

Invitational ethics takes the point a step further: Even someone with the ability but not the inclination to work hard enough to understand my numbering would not be slapped with a label of judgment, such as lazy. There are reasons for our behaviors, reasons that we can't see clearly through the murk of coercive ethics.

Going back to Matthew 6:16-18, Jesus gives us his wisest advice concerning fasting: do it secretly. He believed that fasting is all about your relationship with Casper; wiser humans know that the reasons for fasting are asuperstitious. But I've said that I'll leave Jesus alone about the supernatural, so when he said, "your father who is in heaven," we'll say that he meant something like "your own personal higher self." Still, he obviously doesn't understand the importance of fasting. Fasting is a means of conditioning the mind or inducing various numinous states. The best advice we can get on the topic from the sage among sages is, Don't make a face when you're in public? How about advice on when and how to fast most effectively for different states, or better yet, a simple reminder that fasting is a matter of personal choice and is never to be forced on anyone else?

In Verses 19-34, Jesus encourages the poor, as it was so well paraphrased to me recently, to stay poor and shut up. He seasons this excellent advice with some horoscope-talk about the eye being the lamp of the body. Fans of Jesus may understand this to mean that whatever you set your sights on is what you're likely to get, so be careful not to set your sights on money. In other words, you guessed it: “Fuck your feelings.” Suppress your greed. Not a single word about self-examination, asking yourself where your so-called greed comes from. No allowance at all for the possibility that what appears to be greed is actually a compulsion, brought on by childhood experiences or simply atypical brain chemistry. A morality that doesn't account for human brains can hardly be the best morality for human brains to adopt.

That's 8.5. Thanks for watching.

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