January 26, 2008


For first time visitors, it is the policy of this blog to cover fairly serious human issues during the week. Weekends, however, are reserved for the contributions of various animals in and around Goat Rope Farm.

This weekend, we are pleased to introduce a new commentator who is known only as Paranoid Conspiracy Theory Rooster. He declines to give his real name due to possible retaliation from "the Freemasons, the Rosicrucians and the Bavarian Illuminati."

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed by this or any other talking animal are not necessarily those of Goat Rope management and staff. Rather, it is our hope that (bio) diverse features such as this will promote a greater appreciation of both the humanities and the animalities.


Hey--this has gotta be quick. I want to tell you this before THEY try to stop me. They've got me boxed in here. You know why? It's cause I'm onto them. I figured it out.

There was a crop circle in the garden here last year. That's right,baby--UFOs. And the government's in on it! First they tried to fool us with that bogus Apollo moon landing way back in 1969. That was just to get us to take our eyes of the ball, see?

The UFOs are here as part of the New World Order. That's when the United Nations goons swoop down in their black helicopters and put a microchip in your butt--then it's pretty much over, dude!

That's why they took Elvis out and broke up the Beatles...

Who do you think is behind this recession, anyway? That's right--a certain secret society bent on world domination through the banking system. It all started with zip codes: five digits, five fingers--they thought we wouldn't get it!

Now they've got bar codes...

It was all predicted in Nostradamus--but then he might have been in on it too.


January 25, 2008


Caption: Anyone for a leap of faith?

The theme at Goat Rope lately has been some non-sectarian reflections on the nature of faith, with special attention to the ideas of the late great theologian Paul Tillich. If this is your first visit, please click on earlier entries.

One of the all time classics of the philosophy of religion and the nature of religious experience is Rudolph Otto's 1917 book The Idea of the Holy. I wrote about it a while back here.

According to Otto, people of all times and places have had experiences of the strange, the awesome, the weird and the Totally Other. He called these experiences the mysterium fascinans et tremendum, meaning both fascinating and terrifying, as in something that really rocks the world of those who experience it. This is the source of the idea of the holy.

Tillich says of such experiences that

They can be found in all religions because they are the way in which man always encounters the representations of his ultimate concern...The human heart seeks the infinite because that is where the finite wants to rest. In the infinite it seeks its own fulfillment. This is the reason for the ecstatic attraction and fascination of everything in which ultimacy is manifest.

People are attracted to the infinite, but also often experience their great distance from it as a kind of judgement of any human attempts to reach it:

The feeling of being consumed in the presence of the divine is a profound expression of man's relation to the holy. It is implied in every genuine act of faith, in every state of ultimate concern.

According to Tillich, in many religions, people experience the sacred in two ways, as ontological faith and as moral faith.

Ontological faith can be described as the holiness of what is, the experience of the holy as present. It doesn't really matter by what means the holy is experience as present--it could be nature, a sacred ritual, image or music, etc. It is "the state of being grasped by the holy through a special medium."

Moral faith can be described as the holiness of what ought to be. This can take many forms as well, but in general the holy is experienced as issuing laws or moral precepts and commandments. One of its greatest forms is that experienced by the Hebrew prophets who experienced God as demanding righteousness and justice.

Either form by itself can lead to extremes. Moral faith taken to excess leads to legalism or fanaticism. Ontological faith alone can lead to isolation and self-absorption. Tillich argues for the unity of both types. A vital, living faith is one that integrates the mystical with the rational and ethical...which is easier said than done.

A final word on Tillich's view of faith. He was anything but dogmatic, but he believed that the great truth of Christianity, however expressed in terms of myths and symbols, was that the gap between the human and the ultimate that we cannot overcome has been overcome for us from the other side.

He taught that faith in the Ground of Being, which some people call God--always accompanied by doubt--can enable us to affirm ourselves in the face of everything that threatens to negate us and allow us to accept ourselves even though we are unacceptable because we have been accepted by something greater than ourselves.

STIMULATE THIS. Here's a good item on the state of the economy, the growing economic divides, and approaches to a stimulus by Nomi Prins of Demos. And, as of yesterday, it looks like the US House leadership made a deal with/caved in to President Bush on a stimulus package that leaves out an expansion of unemployment benefits and food stamps and fiscal relief to the states.

The American Friends Service Committee and allies are urging people to call senators and congressional representatives and urge them to include these in the mix. Here's a toll free number: 1-800-965-4298.

WHO'S COUNTING? Yesterday's post mentioned a study that showed Bush administration officials made many misleading statements leading up to the war in Iraq. Official count: at least 935.

THIS WILL SURPRISE NO WOMEN. A British researcher suggests that men are not as smart as they think they are.

FATHER OF THE NEOCONS? Here's an interesting article from Harper's about Leo Strauss, considered to be the a founder of the neo-conservative movement which has brought us so much...whatever.

WV COURT TO REHEAR MASSEY CASE. The court voted 5-0 to reconsider a case that previously favored Massey Energy. This was due to the discovery that Chief Justice Spike Maynard spent time with Massey CEO Don Blankenship on vacation in Monaco after the court agreed to hear the case.

WORKER FREEDOM BILL INTRODUCED. A bill that would prohibit employers, with appropriate exemptions, from requiring workers to attend meetings in which management discusses its views politics, religion and unions has been introduced in the WV Senate.


January 24, 2008


The theme of this week's Goat Rope is the nature of faith, which is an interesting subject whether you have any at the moment or not. If this is your first visit, please click on earlier posts.

Yesterday's post was about symbols, which are always a part of faith. A friend emailed me to point out that the most recognized symbol in the world today is McDonald's golden arches. Holy fetishism of commodities, Batman! That point goes to Marx...

According to the influential 20th century Protestant theologian Paul Tillich, faith is about whatever concerns us ultimately and is always symbolic. This is true of traditional religion as well as of things like nationalism or the goal of "success":

everything which is a matter of unconditional concern is made into a god. If the nation is some one's ultimate concern, the name of the nation becomes a sacred name and the nation receives divine qualities which far surpass the reality of the being and functioning of the nation. The nation then stands for and symbolizes the true ultimate, but in an idolatrous way.

Success as ultimate concern is not the natural desire of actualizing potentialities, but is readiness to sacrifice all other values of life for the sake of a position of power and social predominance. The anxiety about not being a success is an idolatrous form of the anxiety about divine condemnation. Success is grace; lack of success, ultimate judgment. In this way concepts designating ordinary realities become idolatrous symbols of ultimate concern.

Symbols are united with myths. Unfortunately, the term myth is sadly abused in current speech, where it means something that just isn't true. Myths are stories often of God or the gods that convey meaning to human life. We can't do without them:

Myths are always present in every act of faith, because the language of faith is the symbol.

Most great religious traditions eventually criticize their mythic elements, such as stories that depict God or the gods acting like humans. Most religions eventually recognize that many of their sacred stories have meanings that are true but metaphorical rather than factual and literal. Tillich calls a myth that is recognized as such a "broken myth." Still you can't get rid of them:

All the mythological elements in the Bible, and doctrine and liturgy should be recognized as mythological, but they should be maintained in their symbolic form and not be replaced by scientific substitutes. For there is no substitute for the use of symbols and myths: they are the language of faith...

Symbols of faith cannot be replaced by other symbols, such as artistic ones, and they cannot be removed by scientific criticism. They have a genuine standing in the human mind, just as science and art have. Their symbolic character is their truth and their power. Nothing less than symbols and myths can express our ultimate concerns.

LIES AND LIES. A study by two nonprofit investigative groups found that the road to the Iraq war was paved by hundreds of "false statements."

DEBT CRISIS. Here's Chalmers Johnson on how excessive war spending and national debt is damaging the country and economy.

REBUILD USA. Here's an op-ed from the Huntington WV Herald Dispatch by Tim Millne about the wealth squandered in Iraq and the need to reinvest in our own infrastructure.

RECESSION. Here's Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz on how we should respond to a slowing economy.

OLD BEN. Here's a fun New Yorker article about Benjamin Franklin and his famous almanac.

JAH LIVE. Here's one about a new Smithsonian exhibit on Rastafarianism.

CURIOUSER AND CURIOUSER. WV Supreme Court Justice Larry Starcher is calling for an investigation of recent conduct there in the wake of the case involving Massey Energy and CEO Don Blankenship. Here's his memo and here are more links from WV Uberblog Lincoln Walks at Midnight..


January 23, 2008


Lately El Cabrero has been thinking about the nature of faith, which is an aspect of life for anyone even if one doesn't profess any religion. If this is your first visit, please click on earlier posts.

As mentioned before, the great 20th century Protestant theologian Paul Tillich has some interesting things to say about it in his 1957 book The Dynamics of Faith. To recap, here are some things he says faith is not: dogmas subscribed to, intellectual assent, an act of will, something that happens when emotions are manipulated.

Instead, faith is about the things that ultimately concern a person, whatever that may be. It can be positive or destructive. When things like money, power, nation, creed, ideology, etc. are ultimate concerns, the results are idolatrous and demonic.

Even a good religion or worldview can become idolatrous and destructive when it is regarded as the ultimate itself rather than as pointing to the ultimate. Another way of putting that would be to say that when we treat a symbol of a thing as the thing itself, there are problems.

For Tillich, faith is mediated by symbols:

Man's ultimate concern must be expressed symbolically, because symbolic language alone is able to express the ultimate.

Symbols are like and unlike signs. Both point beyond themselves to some kind of meaning. Signs can include anything from traffic lights to letters and numbers which have a conventional meaning. Symbols have several unique characteristics according to Tillich:

*A symbol participates in that to which it points. He uses the example of a nation's flag, which is more than cloth for people who honor it.

*Symbols open up "levels of reality which otherwise are closed for us." For example, pictures or poetry can reveal more about a given subject than any amount of statistics.

*Symbols can open up elements of ourselves that we wouldn't otherwise realize. If we really encounter Dante's Divine Comedy or Hamlet, it can open up aspects of ourselves:

There are within us dimensions of which we cannot become aware except through symbols, as melodies and rhythms in music.

*Symbols can't be manufactured to order. They have to grow out of the conscious and unconscious depths of our being.

*Symbols grow and sometimes die:

They grow when the situation is ripe for them, and they die when the situation changes. The symbol of the "king" grew in a special period of history,and it died in most parts of the world in our period. Symbols do not grow because people are longing for them, and they do not die because of scientific or practical criticism. They die because they can no longer produce response in the group where they originally found expression.

Next time: religious symbols and myths.

A NEW SHORT COST OF WAR VIDEO from AFSC is now at YouTube. Check it out and pass it on.

HEALTH CARE. Here's an interesting item about what's being left out of the health care debate.

IT'S ABOUT JOBS. Here's an interesting item on the need for a job creation policy by historian Frank Stricker, author of Why America Lost the War on Poverty and How to Win It.

MORE ON SOCIAL CAPITAL from Bowling Alone author Robert Putnam is here.

IN LIEU OF SOCIAL CAPITAL, is your pet smart or are you just lonely? According to Nicholas Epley, Assistant Professor of Behavioral Science at the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business

When people lack a sense of connection with other people, they are more likely to see their pets, gadgets or gods as human-like.



January 22, 2008


Caption: Cats have little need for faith. They're already there.

El Cabrero is musing on the (nonsectarian) nature of faith this week. If this is your first visit, please click on yesterday's post.

Faith is something I have trouble with, although I'm a fairly religious person by temperament. I'm kind of like a car with an old AM radio driving on a curvy mountain road. Sometimes I pick up a signal and sometimes I don't.

Faith is a pretty complicated ball of twine to unwind. Philosophers such as William James (an official Goat Rope patron saint) pointed out that faith can create facts, at least in the sense that believing something is possible can make it so. Psychologists like Erik Erikson have argued that attitudes toward faith are shaped in early infancy, when a baby does or does not learn to develop as sense of "basic trust" in the world around him or her. Faith is even a part of non theistic teachings such as Buddhism, although here it means something like trusting in those who have gone down the path before.

One of the most interesting and compelling non-sectarian treatments of faith I've come across were developed by the great theologian Paul Tillich in his little 1957 book, The Dynamics of Faith.

For Tillich, faith is a state of being "ultimately concerned." We all have relative concerns, like food, human relationships, work, etc. But the deepest concern that abides when all others have been met or foregone is the ultimate concern.

Another way of putting it might be to say that regardless of the things one professes to believe or not believe, one's real faith is the core value around which one's life is built. As Jesus is quoted as saying in Matthew and Luke, "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

Faith for Tillich is the centered act of the whole person. It's not a purely intellectual thing such as subscribing to the truth of the tenets of some creed, Nicene or otherwise. Nor is just an act of will or an emotional state, although it gets confused with those quite a bit these days too. It can't be coerced by external or unconscious forces. If either of those is the case, the result is despotism or obsession/compulsion, not faith:

For faith is a matter of freedom. Freedom is nothing more than the possibility of personally centered acts.

Faith also implies risk and even doubt. It is always possible that the foundation on which one builds a life is a false one. When something of relative importance is elevated to an absolute status--such as one's own sect, race, a political creed, nation, money, or anything else--faith is idolatrous or, in Tillich's own term, demonic. By "demonic," he didn't mean little supernatural bad critters with horns but rather what happens anytime something relative is treated as an absolute.

Even the highest religious traditions and the most exalted human ideas can become demonic and idolatrous when they are regarded as absolute rather than limited and conditioned. To use an expression from the Buddhist tradition, all teachings are a finger pointed at the moon, not the moon itself.

Alas, there's an awful lot of finger worship in human history...

SPEAKING OF IDOLATRY, as Paul Krugman noted yesterday, the Reagan-as-God hypothesis is weighed in the balance and found wanting. (GR trivia question: to what book of the Bible does that allusion refer?)

IN KEEPING WITH YESTERDAY'S observation of Martin Luther King Jr. Day observations, here's his famous Riverside address. The more things change, the more they stay the same...

FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS. It tolls for thee and for tens of thousands of Iraqis.

WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN. Here's an item on what could have been done with the wealth squandered on the unnecessary war in Iraq.

TO SLEEP, PERCHANCE TO DREAM. Here's something from Science on the functions of sleep.

ZOON POLITIKON. Check out this item on animal politics. Hint: some of them may be better at it than we are.

TWO COOL WEBSITES that will show up here in the future are bookforum.com and History News Network.


January 21, 2008


Caption: Venus is a goat of little faith.

One of El Cabrero's favorite Lou Reed songs is from the album New York. The point of this very dark song is that there's not a whole lot to depend on in this life and that "you need a busload of faith to get by." Here is is by way of YouTube.

Assuming that to be true, what is faith anyway?

There is a classic definition by Mark Twain:

faith is believing what you know ain't so.

The unknown author of the New Testament Epistle to the Hebrews famously said that

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

On the other hand, as Nietzsche observed:

A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything.

The great Jewish philosopher and theologian Martin Buber in his book Two Types of Faith distinguished between faith as trust, expressed by the Hebrew word emunah, which he believed was the approach of the Hebrew prophets and Jesus, and faith as belief in the truth of certain propositions, as expressed in the Greek word pistis, which he argued was the approach of Paul and dogmatic forms of Christianity.

One of the most interesting approaches to faith was that of the great 20th century Protestant theologian Paul Tillich, who laid it out in a powerful little book The Dynamics of Faith. He had a way of looking at theological concepts in a way that could speak to anyone regardless of religious background or lack thereof.

About which more tomorrow.

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. DAY is observed today, almost a week after his real birthday. It took a busload of faith for he and the millions of others who struggled for civil rights to get as far as they did. So here, again by way of YouTube, is his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

All kinds of events are going on today across the country to observe this occasion. El Cabrero will be attending the third annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Breakfast with amigos. Three years ago, we used it as the occasion to kick off a successful effort to raise the minimum wage in West Virginia. The focus still is on economic justice, with a special focus on keeping working families healthy and a campaign for paid sick days for workers. As Dr. King said,

There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American [worker] whether he is a hospital worker, laundry worker, maid or day laborer.

BUSHWHACKED. Here's a good critique of Bushonomics by Larry Beinhart.

TARGET IRAN? One would hope not, but I wouldn't put it past our current clique.

LABOR ON STIMULATING THE ECONOMY. The AFLCIO recommends an economic stimulus package that includes the following:

*Extension of unemployment benefits.

*Increased food stamp benefits.

*Tax rebates targeted to middle-income and lower-income taxpayers.

*Fiscal relief for state and local governments to avoid the economically depressing effect of tax increases and budget cuts.

*Acceleration of ready-to-go public investment in school renovations and bridge repair.

SPEAKING OF BRIDGES, here's the AP on America's hugely neglected infrastructure.

FUN WITH SCIENCE (IF YOU'RE NOT AN ANT). Nature is one clever Mother. According to this Wired Science item,

a newly discovered parasite makes its ant hosts turn red and swollen, like berries. Berry-loving birds then eat the ants, and spread the parasite in their droppings.

The ants were unavailable for comment. However, a parasite spokesperson issued the following statement: "Na na na boo boo! Take that, ants!"

WV IN THE NEWS. The fallout from the WV Supreme Court/Masseygate story along with a major fine for Massey Energy has drawn a good bit of national media attention the last few days. Here is one from the NY Times about the fine and one about the Court from the same source. Here's the Washington Post on the fine. On a related note, here's Ken Ward from the Charleston Gazette on how the state has dropped the ball on environmental enforcement.