Monday, December 28, 2009

Review of _Going Rogue: An American Life_ by Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin immediately engenders strong emotions in most people. Here I offer an assessment of her new book that will be informative to both lovers and haters.

General Layout: The majority of Going Rogue (GR) is a chronological account of Palin’s life from childhood to the present and focuses on the following historical periods: Growing up (from childhood to marriage and children) with an emphasis on Alaska’s unique characteristics (physical, political, historical) and their influence on her development, serving as city council member and mayor of Wasilla, serving as chair of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, serving as Governor of Alaska, running for Vice-President of the United States, and the aftermath of the campaign. Palin then describes her general political orientation.

Significant Sections: I believe that the most interesting and significant sections in GR are: Her descriptions of the complexities of being a governor and dealing with powerful oil companies, her account of the nuts and bolts behind the scenes of a presidential campaign, her account of the brutal realities of being a high-profile politician, and her statement of her political orientation. Other sections in the book help to flesh out her story in great detail and will be of interest to her fans, but will not greatly profit non-fans. Chapters Four, Five, and Six are therefore the most significant.

Personal Observations: I address my observations specifically to two different groups--those who dislike her or are undecided about her, and those who admire her.

Regarding the first group, I would argue that this book should be strong evidence that Sarah Palin is a highly competent executive who has accomplished extraordinary things. She brought down deeply entrenched and corrupt Republicans. She forced the hands of oil companies to fulfill contractual obligations. She rejected and reversed many of the perks of her office. She survived a brutal, sustained political assault. None of this means that the first group needs to like her or agree with her about anything. It is only to say that Sarah Palin is a serious and competent woman. For the libertarians in this group, I respect your suspicion about Palin’s ideology, and while it is true that she is deeply religious and does not believe in macroevolution, I believe that the book will give the impression that Palin’s principal concern is not to enforce morality by means of the state, but rather to reduce the size of the state to leave room for social norms to serve their function. Libertarians, by the way, will find nothing to fault in Palin’s views of economics.

Regarding the second group, I would argue that this book will most certainly give you a deeper confidence in Sarah Palin’s confidence and determination. You are aware of how tough the campaign was, and now you know that, not only did she survive it, but she has come out stronger than ever. Her values are solidly grounded in theory. I was delighted to see that she referenced Thomas Sowell’s _A Conflict of Visions_, which I read in June. She knows the difference between the “constrained” and “unconstrained” visions that Sowell explicates, and falls firmly on the constrained side, as do I. Even though I am not traditionally religious and I do believe in macroevolution, I believe that Sarah Palin’s faith is a positive factor in her life and I am absolutely convinced that she withstood the brutality of the campaign far more ably precisely as a result of her faith. Although not myself a Christian, I believe that Sarah Palin represents many Christian values quite well and I find her faith quite moving.

Final Thoughts: Palin’s book, I think, deserves its popularity. I found it a bit long, but the details of the campaign were absolutely riveting. For anyone interested in American politics, this book is a must-read (at least the chapters I mentioned). Sarah Palin will always appeal very strongly to many Americans on the basis of her folksy background, her traditional values, her resilience, her patriotism, and her fortitude. I believe that any honest person must recognize that we have met and come to know two amazing people during the 2008 campaign: Barack Obama and Sarah Palin. Both the right and the left simply must admit the power and importance of these two people.

I love the political diversity in the country because from its creative tension and destruction beautiful things have arisen. That is why Palin will continue to play an essential role in American politics being, as she is, clearly the most vibrant exponent of one of the essential streams of American political philosophy.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Review of _Universalist Radha-Krishnaism_ by Steve Bohlert

Brief Synopsis:

Universalist Radha-Krishnaism is the first attempt to articulate a “progressive” or “modernist” form of Vaishnava Hinduism. Drawing upon the resources of theological trends in Western scholarship, Steve Bohlert offers a synthesis of Eastern and Western thought that makes the heart of Radha-Krishna devotion fully accessible to Westerners who have no Indian background. This book fills a void and does it well. I anticipate that this book will emerge as a crucial impetus to further developments in this field.

Comprehensive Review:

In this review, I will first summarize the ideas in the text, then I will evaluate them from my own perspective.

Context of the Project: In Hinduism, there is a highly influential and popular devotional orientation that focuses on Krishna and his lover Radha as the supreme form of God. This branch of Hinduism became exceptionally popular in India in the wake of the life of Chaitanya, who flourished around 1500 A.D. This form of Vaishnavism has become fairly well known in the West since the sixties; in fact, George Harrison of the Beatles converted to it. It has been characterized by a fairly uncompromising fundamentalism, by which I mean that it is essentially committed to the literal truth of the often fantastic mythology that is associated with Hinduism. Some examples that confront one early on include the idea that Krishna as a child held a massive hill above his head with his finger to protect people from Indra‘s hailstones, that Krishna lived with 16,000 wives simultaneously, that Krishna was conceived without a sex act, and so on.

Many people, often Westerners but not exclusively, have been deeply attracted to the theology that accompanies Vaishnavism. They are attracted to its rituals, aesthetics, mythology, language, music, enthusiasm, and optimism. It “speaks” to them, but they find so much emphasis on fundamentalism that they eventually abandon this path. They also discover that Indian norms and customs are so strongly fastened to the path that they feel culturally disconnected. Bohlert caters to this target audience by foregoing the complicated and often tedious terminology that often attends such literature and instead opts for exclusively English terms at the most comprehensive level of complexity.

Steve Bohlert has been through all of this, and the depth of his experience shows. His credentials in this arena are beyond impressive. This book is a systematic attempt to offer a spiritual/religious system called “Universalist Radha-Krishnaism” (URK) that does the following things, among others: sketches the history of Chaitanya Vaishnavism (CV), interprets Vaishnava mythology in a non-literalist way, asserts and defends the fundamentals of the CV conception of divinity, sketches the relation of divinity to the universe, asserts the necessity of communication between science and religion, and offers practical advice on how to put the theology into daily practice. Bohlert’s approach is grounded in the work and practice of the well-respected theologian Bhaktivinoda Thakur, and of Bhaktivinoda’s son, Lalita Prasad Thakur.

Summary of URK: The basic metaphysical view of divinity of URK is as follows: Bohlert’s view is explicitly “panentheistic”, which means that God exists, is greater than the universe, and completely interpenetrates and includes the universe.

There is a hint of deism here, as when he writes that “[. . .] God-dess does not suspend [natural laws] to perform miracles [. . .]” (25), but he views God as far more personal and accessible than deists typically do, as when he writes “God-dess remains intimately involved with creation and creatures, rather than the distant High God who sets creation in motion and now lets it work according to natural laws with no further involvement” (82). He asserts that God urges us to seek a loving relationship, so connection and contact are always available to creatures. Personally, I think the phrase "deistic intimism" might work here, referring to a non-intervening God who is nevertheless available to us in intimately personal ways.

Along the lines of Plotinus, Bohlert states that the universe itself is an expression of God’s ever-expanding love, which is always seeking to love more and more. The universe is the means by which God satisfies this desire. Bohlert also leans heavily on classical Platonic metaphysics, as when he writes, “The material universe exists as a temporary modification of the spiritual world” (103). His view also has a strong metaphysical idealist orientation (that incidentally reminds me of Berkeley’s idealism): “God-dess’ energy forms everything, and nothing exists separate from God-dess. Therefore, everything is ultimately spiritual” (104).

Bohlert sees God not as lacking any gender so much as being both genders fully, as when he writes, “God-dess exists as male and female counterparts [. . .]” (25). This explains his use of “God-dess”, which emphasizes the two poles of divinity. These poles are personified as Radha the female and Krishna the male. All people participate more or less in one or the other, but we all need both to be complete. God is therefore “God-dess”, the “Divine Couple”, and “Radha-Krishna.” We therefore have a kind of a unity in diversity, which characterizes much of Indian thought. Bohlert prefers “both-and” thinking to either-or and neither-nor.

Bohlert also strongly endorses the classical Chaitanya view that God has three levels of manifestation. Each level is progressively higher and includes the previous. The first is Undifferentiated Oneness (Brahman), the next is Cosmic Consciousness (Paramatma), and the final is the Supreme Lord (the Divine Couple, Radha-Krishna).

Because God-dess doesn’t perform physical miracles, we cannot take scriptural stories and mythologies literally. They are symbols, metaphors, and allegories that point to higher realities. Bohlert believes in “progressive revelation”, which is the idea that God-dess never ceases to prompt new religious visions and imaginings in us as we continue to explore this creation.

Reincarnation is real for Bohlert, but he does not feel the need to speculate about its exact nature. The essential idea is that souls develop through cycles and steps to attain the direct presence of God-dess. The goal of URK, and Vaishnavism in general, is not to become “one” with the whole (as in the case of Advaita schools of Hinduism, or as in the case of Buddhism), but rather to enjoy a kind of individuality in which one experiences the bliss of service to the Divine Couple in their love play, which is ultimately indescribable but which can be approached through mythologies, especially those of the famous Hindu text called the Bhagavata Purana. However, Bohlert feels free to adapt these ancient stories in the light of modernity in order to make them more accessible to different cultures and generations. He does this by re-imagining certain elements of the pastime narratives in ways that remove them from the ossification that is caused by limiting them to certain times, places, and cultures.

URK is “universalist”, which is the idea that all legitimate religions can serve as vehicles for the advancement of the soul. Different people have different needs and so on, and God-dess makes Him/Herself accessible in a variety of different ways.

Bohlert advocates some traditional Vaishnava practices so that people can keep God-dess in mind at all times. These include chanting and visualization techniques. In Chapter Nine, he briefly summarizes the daily activities of Radha and Krishna so that the devotee can play a role in the Divine Play. Bohlert explicitly rejects the asceticism that often characterizes Radha-Krishna devotion. The world is good--it should be enjoyed without craving and attachment, while giving due consideration to those around us. He writes, “God-dess [. . .] may ask us, at the time of death, why we did not enjoy life more” (25).

Personal Reflections: I have studied the world’s religions with a great deal of seriousness, and have experimented with many of them to one extent or other. I have a very deep history with atheism, and then was deeply affected by Christianity, Vaishnavist Hinduism, and the ancient European heathen religions now known as Asatru. There is no wonder that these systems of thought have persevered for so long and have meant so much to so many people--they all say powerful things and speak to powerful needs.

I have come to see a relationship with Divinity as essential in my life, and have found the narratives of the pastimes between Radha and Krishna to be the most powerful metaphor for the Divine love that is available in the world‘s religious literature. I understand that others may disagree and may find other metaphors more powerful, and that’s totally cool with me.

Steve Bohlert’s systematic theology is a much-needed attempt to fill a deep void in religious thought. I know that it will speak powerfully to many people who find this view of God to be compelling, but who, under the influence of modernity, cannot view mythology as literal descriptions of physical reality. His URK system also has the benefit of focus--too many progressively religious people (“spiritual--not religious”) follow what I would call the “smorgasbord” approach, which has the devotee tasting from every dish but lacking the focus to eat an entire plate. This approach then becomes an ill-defined sense of “feeling good about the universe”, but lacks many of the gifts that focused religion can bring. Bohlert’s system has a focus and specific rituals that have a pedigree in the world’s oldest religion.

Bohlert’s theology is a novel revisioning of venerable theistic traditions. Although he uses terminology, like “God-dess”, that might distract some, his theology is based in all kinds of classical theological and philosophical works. Most of his notions of the Divine are perfectly plausible to almost any religious tradition.

More controversial is his universalism, which is absent in most orthodox Christian and Islamic theology. The idea the God works through a variety of religions can be accepted in only a most attenuated form by a Christian or a Muslim, both of which will tend to believe that everlasting punishment attends those who willingly refuse the correct path. That’s fine with me, as long as everyone understands that some differences in religious thinking are essential and cannot be reconciled. He writes, “[. . .] no one with a particular spiritual belief should go to other countries and preach that what their teachers taught is superior to all other teachings” (115). Generally, Christians and Muslims will see things differently, and, in all fairness to Steve Bohlert, I think that his beliefs are certainly superior to a fairly wide range of dangerous religious beliefs in the world that I‘ve come across. Bohlert’s modesty is nevertheless admirable.

Bohlert, in a perfectly legitimate manner that is common with many other universalists, expects and hopes that a commitment to a progressive theology will bear fruit in a progressive political orientation. Oddly for me, I am as conservative politically as I am progressive theologically (which is why my brief flirtation with the Unitarian Universalist church didn‘t last long). In any case, for the overwhelming majority of those who would seek this book, this will not be a problem at all. Exhibiting love of God in one’s life should be a goal of anybody who takes God seriously, and I sincerely admire the author for his passion. I hope God will respect our noble intentions, even if we end up wrong!

This book is, within the context of devotees of Radha and Krishna, no mere curiosity. It is, in fact, a groundbreaking book. Many already in the movement will be attracted to this approach, and perhaps many who feel the tension between fundamentalism and modernity will find this book to be nothing short of a God-dess-send. I find that one of the greatest strengths of his approach is to elevate the truly religious and spiritual above the superstitious.

Bohlert offers a comprehensive theology in his book that combines classical Indian theology with modern philosophical developments. It will be interesting to see how his thought will progress from here. I eagerly anticipate those developments! This book is simply essential reading for anyone in its target audience.

There is a great deal in Bohlert’s book that I have not mentioned, so if you are interested in this project, you will benefit greatly from reading the entire thing.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Palin Signing

I recently attended a Sarah Palin book signing. Palin has a powerful presence and possesses that X factor that cannot be denied.

I'm not necessarily Mister "Palin 2012" guy, but I have tremendous respect for her. Her most important role is that of a life, a meaning, a symbol. She represents and embodies powerful ideas. She is a powerful, independent woman who rose from humble circumstances to achieve greatness. She lives her values and honors tradition. She is a warrior, she could live off of the land during the Zombie Apocalypse, and she embodies the spirit of those who went West in search of adventure.

After the signing, she walked right past me with Trig in her arms. She chose against abortion to give birth to this child, and seeing Trig in that safe place was an inspiring affirmation of life and the sacredness of children.

So many people hate this woman with so much passion that one must suspect that she is doing something very right.

May God bless you, your family, and your children. We conservatives have high expectations for you, Sarah Palin!